Denis Villeneuve interview: Blade Runner 2049, marketing and design

We chat to director Denis Villeneuve about the home release of Blade Runner 2049, how it was made, and much more...

It was among our absolute favourite films of 2017, and finally, it’s due for release on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD in the UK next week. Blade Runner 2049 was a rare example of a sci-fi sequel that built on the themes and ideas of its predecessor rather than simply aping its best moments. With new protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) investigating the buried remains of a dead replicant – and the disappearance of a mysterious child – the film connects to the 1982 original in all kinds of smart and unexpected ways.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the spectacular run of form from director Denis Villeneuve, who previously brought us the intense and superbly-made Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival. Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins and writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original) and Michael Green, he’s crafted a sci-fi thriller that draws on the beautifully desolate visuals of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but also gives it a distinct, chilly look of its own.

Ahead of Blade Runner 2049‘s home release, we caught up with Mr Villenueve to talk about the ways the screenplay evolved on its journey to the screen, the ambiguous nature of its characters, and the difficulty in marketing a film that favours atmosphere and suspense over action…

It’s great to speak to you again, because last time I’d only seen ten minutes of the film.

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It’s true, it’s true. I’m sorry about that. It was such a painful process. When the movie was released, it was “At last!”

What did you think of the critical reaction to it? That was pretty ecstatic, for the most part.

I felt I was blessed by the gods of cinema! [Laughs] I felt a massive relief. Not for my own ego – seriously – more that the whole enterprise, people understood the intentions. That they felt it was respectful of the first movie, that I deeply loved. 

Do you find that when you’ve worked on something for so long, it’s difficult to get a perspective on it? Almost as if, by the time it comes out, you don’t even know if it’s good or not.

Totally, totally. The way it works is, as a director, I’m working on the project because I’ve fallen in love with the screenplay or something at the beginning. You know it’s there. There’s something there that’s worth giving two years, three years of your life to the work. You need that – you need that dream at the beginning. Then, as I’m shooting, I try to catch the fire with the camera – you feel it on the set on the day, I know when I’ve nailed a scene. I know when I’ve got it. Still, when I go in the editing room there’s always one moment where I watch the movie and I feel the emotion that I was looking for. After that, it dissipates, you know? I have to wait a period of time for fate, hoping that it’s there. You don’t know if other people will feel the same, whether they’ll understand the same ideas.

Cinema’s like poetry, you know? It’s a proposition. So it was a big relief to see it from another perspective. Sorry, I’m so jet lagged right now. I have no distance, that’s the thing. I finished the movie, and the next day the movie was out, so I had no distance. It’s a long process: there are joys, there are angers. You see your wins and your failures. A movie’s never perfect – you know where you did good and where you should have done better. I’m in the process of making peace, of digesting the whole experience right now. But I’m relieved about the way the movie was received, yes. 

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I remember you saying that as part of the process of visualising the film, you spent quite a long time in a hotel room with Roger Deakins, storyboarding the whole thing. But at the time I couldn’t ask you to what extent storyboarding changed the script. Did it change much as you visualise it?

Yeah, yeah. Not the story – one thing I’d say is that I had all the freedom in the world, but in telling a specific story. So I didn’t say, suddenly, “Oh, Deckard and K are starting to hunt elephants”, you know? [Laughs] I stayed in a very specific playground. So I didn’t change the nature of the story, but inside the scenes themselves, the storyboarding is a process. It’s a very beautiful process of rewriting the scenes, because you approach it as transforming the words into images. So it’s a transformative process. Sometimes, you have an idea and it’ll erase two pages of script, because it says the same thing [without resorting to words]. 

The way it works is that, I work on the screenplay with Michael, and then I work on the storyboard with Roger, and then from those storyboards we work on the screenplay again. Then everybody knows where we would go. It’s a thing I was saying on Arrival to my film crew: follow the storyboard, don’t follow the script. That’s the process I did on Blade Runner: we did the storyboards and then transformed the screenplay again. 

One of the scenes that sticks in my mind, now I’ve seen it twice, is the baseline test. It’s one of those things where it’s almost impossible to put into words why it’s so disturbing. The repetitions…

That’s one of my favourite scenes. And it’s a scene that [sums up] why I love cinema. The original screenplay had the idea of a test – I think the movie started with the test right at the beginning. I decided the test should be [later] – I wanted to open the movie on a landscape, not in a confined environment. I didn’t want to start microscopic, in [K’s] brain – I wanted to open the movie on a landscape, I thought that was very important. 

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Then I wanted the test to be the opposite of before – not something they do before going into action, but afterwards. They do the test once they’ve been in through a traumatic event. Originally, the test was supposed to be someone nearby, and [K] on a bed with a machine scanning. I thought, no. That’s a scene that came through the storyboarding process; Roger Deakins and I thought it would be much more interesting if it was a very claustrophobic little booth, with a strange scanner in front of him, and we will never see the cop who’s asking the questions. It’ll be much more brutal, much more impersonal, much more inhuman – almost like he’s an animal in a laboratory. I thought that would be much more violent, and that it would say more about K’s place in society. How he’s just an object to them. And that replicants are so strong, the door out of the booth has to be very well locked, you know? [Laughs] In case something goes wrong, they’re safe. He’s an animal in a cage. How vulnerable he is in that environment. 

The scanner was designed by our storyboard artist, Sam Hudecki. So it’s really a scene that came from strong ideas that were from Michael Green, that I transformed with Deakins and Sam as we worked. 

Then I was talking about the scene with Ryan Gosling, and at the beginning, Michael had this beautiful idea, which was that the replicants who are working for the police have to go through a baseline test where they have to say a poem. The way the words are creating an emotion inside them, it would be like a way to gauge whether they’re still on track or not. If they’re still aligned from an emotional point of view, if they’re still reliable. 

In the original [script] it was just a mantra he was repeating. But I felt that wasn’t intrusive, wasn’t aggressive enough, and Ryan came up with this idea when we were brainstorming. He came up with this process that actors use to learn Shakespeare, where you say a word, then they repeat the word, and then someone would ask a question about that word. It’s to induce specific memories linked with a word, so they remember the word forever. I transformed that process to make it intrusive, where instead of having someone repeating a long, long sentence, they will be more aggressive – they’re asking questions about specific words. 

We did both versions, and the new version was so strong – everybody loved it – so that new baseline test became the one you see in the movie. It was about three days into shooting, and I said to Ryan Gosling, “That’s exactly the kind of movie I want to make. That’s the exact kind of tension, brutality, aggression I want.”

It reminds me of the movies I loved from the 70s, the science fiction that is very aggressive and brutal.

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It reminds me a bit of THX-1138.

Yeah! Exactly. Yeah. And I said I deeply love that, and the studio totally loved it, too. 

I like what you say about tension. Because there’s so much ambiguity in the film – so much goes unsaid that you’re constantly reading cues from the characters. One of the things I’ve been talking to my friends about is Joi – how artificial is she? How much inner life does she have?

The thing is, she’s a hologram coming out of a program designed to fulfill desire. Everything you want to see, everything you want to hear. You buy a Joi, and if you want to use her for dancing, she will be a great dancer. If you want her to read books, she’ll be good at reading. K wants to be human, so she will want to be emancipated. She will be more emotional, more vulnerable. She’s like his subconscious – like Jimminy Cricket. K’s Pinocchio, you know? He wants to be a real boy, and he has that cricket around him that is whispering in his ear. It’s a beautiful character, and she has the film noir quality of a femme fatale. The beautiful woman who turns out at the end to be all wrong – it was all a lie. I like that character a lot. The challenge was, she has to be artificial but I always want the audience to feel like she’s real. 

And I wanted the hologram to feel analogue, strangely. Like she’s some photographic, strange new technology. 

That leads into the great scene where K looks up at the advert for Joi. Again, he doesn’t say anything; you have to read the scene through his expression.

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That’s why I needed Ryan Gosling, an actor who can convey a lot with his eyes. Not doing a lot, just being in front of the camera. A very strong actor. I love those scenes, where you feel the presence of the character. Otherwise it’s just television!

Yeah, definitely. What do you think cinema can do in the face of television, as more and more people watch films at home? Actually getting people to go out to see a movie seems to be getting more and more difficult.

Um, I think… you know in the 70s, there were movies that got people in theatres, and those movies were designed to be massive, collective experiences, like Jaws. Star Wars. We are in another time where we have to do the same – we have to design movies that are immersive and powerful, that provide an experience you can’t have on an iPhone. Cinema movies have to be strong. That’s what I’ll say for now; we have to push in the other direction – we have to go IMAX, we have to go Atmos sound. I think the theatrical experience will stay; it will diminish, but there’s nothing like that collective experience. I still remember vividly seeing Pulp Fiction with a thousand people – you can’t beat that, you know? Or recently, when I saw Dunkirk on a big screen. You can’t see Dunkirk on your TV – it’s not the same thing. 

That’s the thing about Blade Runner is that it’s big and widescreen, but also intimate. Do you think that was difficult to get across in a trailer?

It was a nightmare, the marketing of this movie. I agreed with the studio to protect the script as much as possible, to make sure the plot points would not be revealed. Then the audience will have nice surprises. I think it was great that they tried to protect it. Personally, I would have shared the movie with film critics earlier; I was an advocate for that. How can I say – I stand by the film and I wanted to share it. But it was a difficult movie to market, and it was difficult to know how much people knew about the Blade Runner world – how much people knew, and how many saw the first movie, but a long time ago. It was tough to gauge that. In a way, the marketing had to educate people and bring back memories of this universe. But I don’t want to be critical; it’s easier to talk after the fact, you know? 

I wonder if the thing with modern trailers is the way they tend to be edited. People expect to see lots of fast cuts in a trailer, and Blade Runner isn’t like that.

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It’s true, it’s true. It’s difficult when the trailer doesn’t reflect the object. The way it’s done now is that the marketing’s done as you’re making the movie, and as a director I can’t do both. But I think about that – how to market a movie!

You once said you learn something new on every film you make and take that onto the next. What do you think you’ve learned from making Blade Runner?

I’ve learned a lot of things. When you make a movie you have a dream at the beginning, and you have to communicate the dream to so many people in order to make a movie like Blade Runner. It’s not just a few people, it’s a few thousand – I’m not exaggerating. So the way you communicate, the way you express… I’ve learned a lot. A lot of things about how to communicate your vision. 

It’s a little war, and I’m ready to do it – I know how to do it now. Before I was a bit naive. [Laugh]

See, James Cameron said filmmaking’s war, but you don’t seem like a hard, taskmaster kind of filmmaker to me. Certainly not aggressive.

I’m not aggressive, but… I’m firm, solid I think. I’m not an angry director! [Laughs]

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Do you know what you’re making next? Is it definitely Dune?

I’d love to [make Dune]. The truth about filmmaking is that you know you’re making a movie once it’s six in the morning and you’re behind the camera and you have your crew and you say, “Action!” Before that, anything can happen, you know? I’m writing a screenplay right now, and having a great time. Will the studio like what I’m doing right now? I’ve no idea. Will we find the right actors? Will we find the money? Maybe I’ll see you in six months and I’ll be unemployed! [Laughs]

That’ll never happen. I’ll give you some money and you can make films for me. Denis Villeneuve, thank you very much.

Blade Runner 2049 is out on Blu-ray on the 5th February. You can find out more right here.