Denis Villeneuve: Blade Runner 2049, practical effects, Arrival

Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve tells us why making the sci-fi sequel was the most difficult thing he’s ever done...

Denis Villeneuve looks like a filmmaker with the weight of the world on his shoulders, or at least the weight of one of this year’s most anticipated movies.

Blade Runner 2049 is still a couple of weeks away from release when we meet Villenueve in a London hotel, and he seems more than a  little apprehensive about his latest creation. He speaks slowly and softly in his French-Canadian accent, addressing the larger portion of his responses to a glass of water on the small table by his foot.

When we ask whether making Blade Runner 2049 was difficult, Villeneuve seems almost relieved, as though we’ve finally addressed the gigantic elephant huffing and snorting just over his shoulder. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says, his eyes suddenly wide. We’re briefly tempted to offer Villeneuve a hug.

There’s certainly a lot riding on Blade Runner 2049. It is, of course, a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, an ambient sci-fi thriller that shook off the dust of its difficult production and critical scorn to become a cult classic – a seminal moment in genre cinema that has informed the look of futuristic movies ever since. It’s taken years to get the sequel off the ground, and while Scott’s still on board as an executive producer, Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuve’s baby, aided by screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green and eminent cinematographer Roger Deakins.

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That Villeneuve is the director of such acclaimed films as Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario and last year’s rapturous sci-fi drama Arrival is reason enough to hope, but all the same, there are all kinds of pitfalls waiting for a movie of this scale. Would it turn what was once a one-off work of flawed genius into just another multiplex-pleasing action franchise? Would it be glossy-looking yet somehow empty, like Ghost In The Shell, released in early 2017?

Blade Runner 2049’s studio was so protective over the sequel’s plot details that, unusually, they didn’t even let us see the full movie before conducting our interview. It was only a week later, after we’d already talked about Blade Runner’s longstanding legacy, Villeneuve’s insistence on using practical effects, and the evidently terrifying process of “working in someone else’s dream” that we finally got to see his dystopian thriller.

Villeneuve can rest easy: Blade Runner 2049 is a triumph, and cements his status as one of the most interesting and talented directors currently working. Perhaps it’s only right that such a soulful, bleakly poetic film should come from such a quiet, modest and introspective filmmaker.

I haven’t seen the full thing, obviously, but what I have seen looks incredible.

Thank you, thank you. The thing is, I wish you had seen the movie. It would have been easier to do this interview, and we could have a proper conversation. Unfortunately, it’s not possible because the story involves a lot of plot points that are… interesting, and the studio wants to make sure that it stays secret. They had a bad experience in the past, so now they want to seal it [away].

What it made me think is, normally if you’re making a sequel to a 30-year-old film, the question would be, ‘Can you find the modern relevance’. But the original Blade Runner is still relevant isn’t it?

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Totally. And it’s still relevant from its [thematic] point of view, and also from a technical point of view. I’m going to see an IMAX print tonight, and I can’t wait. Because it’s really striking what Douglas Trumbull had achieved in that movie. It’s quite remarkable. 

Absolutely, yeah. I know Ridley Scott found the process of making Blade Runner really difficult. But I get the impression that he gave you a lot of space to make this your own.

It was the only way to do it. And I’m very grateful to Ridley, because he gave me 100 percent freedom. He said right at the start, it’s going to be your movie. You’re going to be responsible for it, for better or worse. I’m going to give you, in French, it’s carte blanche – you know what that means?

Uh-huh.

He said if you need me, you can call me. You can email me any time, which I did, for advice about casting, and even about editing. But he was really, let’s say, a godfather to the project, but he let me alone. Which was the only way to work. I would not have been able to work with Ridley on my back, it’s not possible. He’s someone who’s a reference for me, he’s a master. I have deep respect for him – in fact, too much! So it wouldn’t have been possible to work with him. I would not have taken the chance if he had been there.

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Did you almost have to forget about the original film to a certain degree?

Yes and no, strangely. I was – what’s the word in English – habite? I was thinking about the first movie a lot. All the time. All my decisions were driven by the reference. It doesn’t mean that I was trying to copy – what it means is, I was trying to be in a relationship with the first one, the spirit of the first one. I was trying to stay in contract with its poetry and its strength. I’m a very different director than Ridley Scott, you know? I don’t have the same sensibility. So for me to make sure that I stayed in the car, I had to stay in contact with him. I’ve never done that before, but I looked at the first movie a few times as I was doing [Blade Runner 2049]. I stayed in a relationship with it, yeah. It reassured me. It was like the Bible for me.

Obviously you’re a different director from Ridley Scott, but what struck me from the scenes that I saw was that you have that measured rhythm. That you have to slow down as an audience member, and go with the film’s rhythm.

It’s a thing that Ridley told me when he saw [Blade Runner 2049], which for me was by far the scariest things. To know that he was looking at the movie – I was anxious about it. But he told me that he loved the film, and one of the things that he felt that I’d done was stay in the same rhythm patterns. That kind of melancholic, contemplative [atmosphere] – the impression that you’re floating over the city. It’s a rhythm that we worked hard as I was directing with the actors, and in the editing room, too – to find the proper rhythm that will be in a relationship with the first movie, but at the same time would be dynamic and keep the attention alive. That’s what I would say.

So did you watch it with [Ridley Scott]?

No. I would not be there to do that. That would have been a painful experience! I would have died in the process. I didn’t want to know when he was looking at the movie. I just know that at one point he came out and said, “That’s great” – and that was enough for me! It meant everything in the world. I watched the movie with Harrison Ford. A work in progress, with Harrison. He insisted. So that was, [chuckles] an experience I’ll remember. And again, he was very generous with me in the end.

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It’s interesting, going back to the rhythm and the pace of it. When critics and audiences first saw Blade Runner in 1982, it was as though they weren’t prepared for it. I don’t know if they were expecting something else because it was Harrison Ford…

Everyone wanted to see Han Solo or Indiana Jones again. And then they saw a character who was an anti-hero, that was melancholic, a loner. I think it was one of the things that attracted Harrison Ford to do the movie at first, was to get rid of this image that he was about to construct with those superheroes, if you like. To go to the dark side of his art. Yeah, I think that the new movie is still in a relationship with that melancholia. For the best, I think. 

Yeah, especially for Rutger Hauer’s character, Batty – it’s an existential journey. Is that continued into this one, do you think?

Yeah, definitely. Why I’m here today is because I fell in love with the screenplay. I felt it was the same family as the first movie, which means that it’s a noir, detective story – existential film noir detective story. It deals with the limits of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. Are we going towards machines, and are machines going towards humanity? The boundaries between that and the anger we have towards our human condition. It’s like all those strong themes are part of the second movie as well. But it’s a totally different story, that I can’t talk about too much, but I thought it was very clever, from Hampton Fancher, Ridley Scott and Michael Green to create that story.

Philip K Dick, he did a talk once that I read. He said that the difference between humans and machines is empathy. And empathy goes back to the Voight-Kampff test in the original.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

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I wondered what you thought about that boundary, especially today when we’re surrounded by technology. We can become anonymous and we can lose empathy for one another online.

It’s strange, our technology today. Because the purpose of technology is to make our lives better at one point. It’s strange how there’s something that attacks our very own presence towards each other. Communication technology is sometimes bringing us more into our individual bubbles. It’s not a good thing for humanity. I think we realise we’re in a period of transition right now, and hopefully that technology will be more in the background rather than the foreground, as it is now.

That’s what rings true for me now, watching Blade Runner this year. The sense that everyone in Blade Runner seems very alone – separated by technology rather than united.

Technology’s evolved, but humanity’s not better. It doesn’t feel that way. Technology’s for rich people. I’m talking about the western world – the other half of the world is just trying to eat. But that’s another topic.

There’s a shot in the footage I saw of what is essentially a drone strike. That was an interesting illustration of where we’re at – we have the technology to kill people from a chair a thousand miles away.

In the movie… I will say it’s an equilibrium between taking the heritage of the first movie… we created an alternate universe, so the 2049 of Blade Runner is obviously not a 2049 where Steve Jobs existed. It’s 2049 based on the first Blade Runner, where there’s a 30 year gap that didn’t exist. We had to fill that 30 years – so in a strange way it felt like we were doing a period movie, where we were more in a relationship with the 80s than what has happened since. But still, there are some elements that link with the technology that is developed today, like a projection of the future, and that was quite exciting to do.

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Was it quite a difficult process, making this film?

The most difficult thing I’ve ever done, honestly.

Because it meant to be in someone else’s dream, you know? To take somebody else’s dream and make it my own. I did adaptations of books or plays, where I knew I was going through the violence of taking apart something to make it cinema. When you do a book, I don’t believe in direct adaptation. I think that it’s a violent process where you transform – it’s like alchemy. Words cannot be images, and you need to transform things to make a film out of it. But this time I was taking a movie and a cinematic dream. It was very difficult to first allow myself to do that, and also, I gave myself the permission – and I got Ridley’s blessing – to find my way into it. It took me two years, from the first drawings to the final movie – it was a struggle to find my voice in it.

I quickly realised that everybody around me, a lot of the artists, were fans. I mean, everybody who wanted to work on this movie was a fan of the first. There were images that came that, every so often, I felt were just, how can I say, kind of cut-and-paste, or too close to the first movie. I wanted to create something that would have my own sensibility, and my own, very specific qualities to it. Still being a Blade Runner movie, but a different one – for the best or worst. I needed to make it my own, and for that it was a long process, to bring everybody on board and direct everybody. I was used to smaller crews.

Was there a specific moment, a eureka moment, where you thought you’d found your way of telling this?

The thing is, I had a deep chance right from the start to have long sessions of work with Roger Deakins, the cinematographer. At the time I was doing Arrival, and I knew from the calendar that the dreaming process for [Blade Runner 2049] would be quite short for a film of that scale. For the task, I said I need to find a way to provoke myself and go into the aesthetic discussions quite quickly. I needed an ally. And Roger came on board right from the start – he came to Montreal and spent several weeks in a hotel room with me, and a storyboard artist, and we drew the whole movie.

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When you draw, you’re reorganising, changing, modifying, creating a visual world that is sometimes quite far away from the screenplay, or sometimes close, but you’re rewriting the movie according to your own desires. And that was where the movie was born, I’d say. With Roger. There’s such a beautiful and powerful freedom, when you just have a pencil and a piece of paper, and where you’re allowed… it’s where the movie was born, was there. We found there, through those long discussions, the main qualities that would be our guideline. Until the end, those were our boundaries that defined the world we were about to create.

Until the end, those were our references. 

A film like this requires building a whole world on sound stages or with CGI and things like that. But at the same time I noticed a sequence where the pot’s boiling on the stove, and you can hear the floor boards creaking. So how important it is to keep a film like this grounded, with those mundane details? Almost documentary-style?

There’s two things here. The first I should mention – very hardcore fans will know, but Blade Runner 2049 starts the way the original Blade Runner was supposed to start. Which is, by having the Blade Runner go to meet someone on a farm. And it’s like, that’s the original screenplay – it started like that. And one of the ideas that triggered Hampton Fancher [screenwriter], that sparked a lot of ideas, was of having a boiling pot of soup. I met him, and I read interviews about that, and when I saw that the screenplay [for 2049] was starting the same way, I thought it was brilliant. To give a homage… I loved that.

That’s a thing I thought was interesting to mention. But again, from the start, I decided I’d build everything. Which means, instead of using green screen to create the environments, we will construct all the rooms, all the sets. Even in quite an extensive way, sometimes. We were constructing an apartment, and we constructed the buildings on the other side of the street. We constructed the city landscape with models. Fantastic light patterns that would imitate the lights of buildings in the fog.

So when you were actually on set, you were looking out the window with real rain, with fog, with snow. It was like, the environment was almost 100 percent recreated for the actors. That was very important for me, because what excited me the most as a director, with actors, is when an idea sparks in an actor’s mind on set, as we’re working on a scene. When there’s something unpredictable that is happening – the chaos of life. It sometimes brings out the best moments in the movie, because they are genuine, they’re original, they’re fresh.

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And when you’re talking about the documentaries, what interested me when I was making documentaries was, when I was shooting and something happened in front of my camera, there was something unpredictable that created strong cinematic moments. That joy, that excitement, I’m trying to find that with actors. So I’m trying to create an environment, as much as I can, where they have space to improvise, or to have ideas.

Even if you prepare – the movie was very well storyboarded, everything is planned – I wanted to still have space for the actors. Because I love the idea that the movie is dreamed by actors first. Not all the actors, but some of them. Ryan Gosling became my muse, because he had so many strong ideas – tonnes of ideas. The movie’s beautiful, for me, because of those ideas, you know? Also, for Roger Deakins and I, we love to prep, to draw everything, and then we’re on set, we love to tear everything apart the storyboards and start from scratch, because we have a better idea on the day.

You can’t trigger that in a green room, where it’s just virtual – you’re bound to technical specs… do you understand what I mean? Sorry, I give long answers!

I love long answers.

It was very important. And you know what? Every single actor that came on the project, their first question, with apprehension, was “Will it be shot on green screen, or will there be real sets?” Because for them, it’s a huge difference. They can focus on the interiority of their character. They can focus on what matters, instead of trying to figure out what’s around them. So I’d say we built all the sets. Everything was built.

I can count on one hand how often I saw a green screen on set. Because the way we worked, we tried to enhance the images with CGI, and trying to use as little as possible the green screens. They’re there, sometimes, but not a lot. It’s really what’s in the background, far away, that is computer generated most of the time. There are shots with prominent CGI, but I tried to avoid that as much as possible – even the aerial shots, I tried to have real elements, real landscapes. I’m not the only one to do that, by the way.

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It feels like it’s coming back, that approach.

I love CGI. It’s a very strong tool, but it’s not the main answer. I’m trying to find an equilibrium, you know?

A film like this, a Blade Runner film, it’s about how the environment weighs heavily on the characters. It feeds into what you were saying about the actors.

Totally. It has an impact on them – the atmospheres, the gloominess, the claustrophobia. Yeah. Totally.

One of my favourite films of yours is Enemy.

You saw it! Thank you.

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… I wonder if, in a way, that film was a bit of a dry run for this, because it has that sense of a dystopian city. It’s frightening, even though the city’s a mundane, recognisable one.

You know, Enemy – the way Ridley Scott transformed Los Angeles and created a character out of it, of course a film like Enemy’s influenced by Blade Runner. It’s not the same way, but yes, to create a character out of a cityscape is an idea that came from Blade Runner. I forget how many times I did shots where the cinematographer and I looked at each other and said, “Whoops, we are in Blade Runner territory right now!” It was a movie that had such an influence on us filmmakers, yeah. 

How important is it to you to have moments like the one in Sicario – this sticks in my head – is near the beginning, you have Emily Blunt in the house, and it just cuts to a window and you catch the dust playing in the light. I love that in the context of a thriller you slow everything down and go, “Oh!” You point the audience at something small.

For me, those are my favourite moments, too. Because I’m trying my best, and I don’t succeed all the time, but the idea is to try to bring poetry, to create images that will give a perspective, or a comment, or keys to the inner journey of the character through cinema. Through images. Images in cinema are poetic suggestion, you know? That means something else. The quest, when you make movies like that, is to try to protect those moments, and that’s where the fun is, for me.

Something like Arrival exposes your craft a little bit, to slow things down and make something as minimal as that. Pace and action can be hiding places for a director. But with Arrival, it’s a tiny number of characters in an enclosed space.

It’s scary but deeply exciting. To find the right length of the shot to keep the tension alive. Through time, there’s something happening. At the end of the day, you try to create images that will strike people’s mind, and will create poetry, that will impress them from a dramatic point of view. The shot length is very important. Some shots need to be fast, others need to be there for a specific time in order to have their maximum strength, their maximum potential. To create immersive moments.

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It must have felt gratifying to see, when you made Sicario and then Arrival, and they were so well received, that the kind of cinema you describe was embraced by people.

Listen, when I make a film, it’s in my heart. I love cinema deeply. I try to make films with my limitations and my weakness and my strengths. That the movies have been welcomed is a joy. I have no control over that at all – I have no idea how people will react to 2049. I have no idea how they’ll receive it. But I know the movie has a soul. That’s what I will say.

Denis Villeneuve, thank you very much.