Ridley Scott interview: Blade Runner 2049, Alien and more

We talk to director Ridley Scott about Blade Runner 2049, the lasting influence of the 1982 original, ancient aliens, flutes, and more...

It’s mid-September, and a rug-thick layer of secrecy lies over Blade Runner 2049, the belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic. Before our interview with Scott, who executive produces, we’re shown approximately half an hour of footage: Ryan Gosling trudging moodily through futuristic landscapes as a new Replicant hunter, K; glimpses of Jared Leto as a new creator of artificial life, named Niander Wallace.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), Blade Runner 2049 looks spectacular, with the same measured, ethereal pace that made the original film such a masterpiece. Exactly what K’s mission is – and how it ties in with Harrison Ford’s returning Rick Deckard – is currently a mystery, and everyone we speak to, from producer Andrew Kosove to Ridley Scott to Denis Villeneuve, is evidently at pains to keep it that way.

With this being the case, we opted to talk to Ridley Scott about the themes and impact of Blade Runner some 35 years after its release; how it shook off its disappointing reviews and low ticket sales, and eventually became known as one of the most important sci-fi films ever made. But our conversation rapidly blasted off on other trajectories, bouncing around from Scott’s memories of the Blitz in World War II, to the films of Stanley Kubrick, to the flutes in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and then on to the subject of ancient aliens.

Buckle up for a wild – and fascinating – ride…

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I love what I’ve seen so far. I’ve only seen half an hour, but it looks incredible. I wonder, though, whether you have mixed feelings about returning to this world, because one of the things about Blade Runner is that it’s stood on its own until now.

Umm, yeah. You change over time. At that point I had no interest in ever doing a sequel, that’s why I never did a sequel to Alien for another 20 years, and then I thought “Do you know what, I’d better go back to this.” Because I’d done two science fiction [films], Alien and Blade Runner, and I felt that that was it. That’s enough science fiction for a career. And of course, I never realised that the awakening of the science fiction universe, over many, many films, would get so large. You can’t thank Star Wars for that, you can thank, God bless them, Star Trek. You’ve got all that. It’s evolved and made another form of entertainment.

We try not to repeat ourselves, and that’s why I always felt that I didn’t want to do a sequel. But returning to this now, I was asked by Alcon, because they were the ones who bought the title, thereby buying the franchise, they said there wasn’t a story. I said, well, actually there’s a very clear and present and straightforward story, which opens up into a more complex universe, with all its outcomes and characters. Because the very first film is a very clear indication of what the second will be. And I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I’ll give the whole thing away. And not only that, but it’ll sound too simple – but it’s not simple, it gets quite complicated.

It’s fundamentally about AIs, though. The idea that I always on insisted from day one, because I directed the fucking movie, is that Harrison Ford, Deckard, is a Replicant. He had to be. So for this story to function today, he has to be a Replicant, otherwise there’s no story.

That leads me to something I was going to ask you, which is that, one of the things I see in your science fiction films is how relatable and interesting the artificial human characters are. Including Alien, because Ash gets some of the best lines in the film.

Yes. Yes. You know, the monster was the monster, and I was lucky – because I figured there’d be no film without Giger. That was the unique beast. But they [the studio] didn’t want to use it, and there was a bit of a fight, insisting that I not use it, on the basis that they thought it was obscene. I said, obscene’s good! Scary’s good!

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But the trick in the script, that I thought was really the thing that took another turn, and a step up in terms of the bar, when you suddenly have Ash, who’s a computer, aboard the ship. Which is not new – you’ve got to thank Stanley Kubrick for that [in 2001: A Space Odyssey], with HAL, except Ash was the first replication of a human, who’s AI. HAL was an eye in a wall, and a brain.

I thought that step by step process was logical, and that’s what’s great about Stanley’s film – the logic of having a computer on board an incredibly valuable piece of equipment, to mind the business of the company or whoever’s paying for it. Apart from, the human beings are always fragile, both physically and psychologically. So if you’ve got a ship that’s going off into deep space for many, many years – actually five years, ten year turn-around – the crew on Alien will come back very, very wealthy, therefore it’s worth a ten year turn-around. But in so doing, you’ve got to have a protector of the investment. So that, I think, was a stroke of genius, Ash. 

There’s a very ambiguous relationship between the humans and Ash. Like, the way he behaves towards Ripley’s quite interesting. There’s a sexual tension going on there.

Totally. Well, that was invented on the morning.

Really?

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That’s what I do for a living. Yeah. None of that shit’s in the script. She [Sigourney Weaver] was like, “What are you trying to do to me with the magazine?” I said, “I’ll tell you afterwards.” [Laughs]

But Ash was asexual, except for some reason or another, the violence provoked a sexual urge. It’s a bit like, at what moment when you feed into a computer enough data and information, do you cross the line of emotion? Is it a combination of elements that would include confusion, anger – that’s emotion. So when you’ve got so much data and the computer’s on overload, the box is already getting stressed. That’s emotion. Right there, that box can start to hate you for putting too much information into it. Once that’s happened, you’re in trouble. Human beings are in trouble.

Facebook recently had designed – I read this on the internet, so I don’t know how truthful it is, because what’s on the internet can be a total pile of horseshit – but I’ve got a funny feeling it’s real. They designed two boxes that are AIs, and within a short space of time, the two AIs, on their own and unprompted, invented a language. They closed them down. Here’s the rub: by the time they realised and closed them down, these fuckers had already assumed that would happen, and are already into the skirting board – into the system. So maybe they’re out there somewhere. I think if it ever happens, that’s how it’ll happen – by accident.

Same as giving nations H-bombs: you do not do that. What we’re going through now is insane – it’s Stanley Kubrick again, in [Dr] Strangelove. You’ve got the head of the United States, and you’ve got the head of North Korea, and right there you have two guys you should not put together in an alleyway. [Laughs]

It’s quite terrifying isn’t it.

It is scary. Because right there you could have escalation by accident. Provocation. Because when you get staff – I employ a lot of people – the staff who are closest to you, they’re the ones who’ll tell you you’re wrong. If you don’t, you’re in a position of autonomy, which makes you weak. You need somebody there, always to say, “I wouldn’t do that if I was you.” There’s nobody who’ll say that to Don, and there’s nobody to say that to the guy in North Korea. That’s what makes it volatile. I’m hoping that this general in the US will say, “You can’t do that. Forget it. You can’t do that. Give me the key.” Because if you don’t, there’ll be trouble. 

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It’s interesting you mention Dr Strangelove, because that’s a film where technology plays a part in it as well – the Doomsday device, which is essentially autonomous.

Not only that, Stanley was visited by the CIA. “How do you know this?” “How do I know what?” “How do you know that we switch a plane into a commitment [protocol], where there’s no turning back?” He said, “It’s kind of logical isn’t it?” “Yeah, but how do you know about all the check lists?” “Well, that’s logical too.” It’s true! He’d invented a very good reason. Because if the Russians know whoever the bomber is, is approaching Moscow to drop a load in an hour, they’ll somehow invade his frequency, and somehow mimic a version of his family, his wife, pleading with him to drop the bomb. But by that moment it’s too late – he can’t turn it off. There can be no last minute change of mind. Because you’re into commitment, it’s the end of the world.

The thing about the bomb, what Hiroshima and Nagasaki did for us was, they became a deterrent for the next 60, 70 years. It’s been a very efficient deterrent, but a very tenuous thing, having a giant bomb sitting in a cupboard somewhere. It’s insane. Particularly with [Kim Jong-un]. What’s his problem? I can’t quite understand what he’s complaining about. Other than being a bloody nuisance so that we say, “Okay, we won’t trade with you.” So he gets angry and starts to get aggressive at this level. You could pop him off with one [bomb]. But we never want to think about that.

I’m a blitz baby. I used to sit under the stairs in the blitz and hear houses shake and bombs scream. The Doodlebugs sound like a motorbike, which would then cut out. The bomb was driven by a jet, without a pilot. I’d see them: they’d cut out and just drop or glide. It was kind of random.

Was that the same as the V-2?

No, the V-2 was much worse. The guy who came up with the V-2 was [Wernher] von Braun, who also came up with the Doodlebug. The V-2 would go up vertically, probably hit the stratosphere and come straight down on London and take out, probably, ten blocks. A Doodlebug would take out half a street. A V-2 would take out a whole area – half a square mile. If he’d got that sooner, psychologically, he probably would’ve destroyed us. But ironically, post-War, the first person the Americans hired was Von Braun.

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Operation Paperclip.

That’s it, yeah.

So with Blade Runner – and you probably get asked this a lot – but how has it been over the last 35 years to see so many things in that film that feel more familiar now than they did back then.

Well, when I did Blade Runner, I’d already been successful since I was about 27. I started my company at 27, and it’s 50 years old this year. We’ve been successful in both London and the US – in fact, the US is the bigger operation. The company still has about 60 directors. So by the time I was… let’s see, I was 40 when I did The Duellists, I was 42 when I did Alien, nearly 44 on Blade Runner. I’m really a good businessman. I’m not having any wool pulled over my eyes. I knew exactly what I was walking into.

Because I was a new person on the block – I’d never made a film in Hollywood before. And so what I walked into was not pleasant and was very controlling, and very unionised. And because of that, I was not allowed to work how I’d normally work, because I was a [camera] operator, on 2,500 commercials, on The Duellists, on Alien, I operate. And I couldn’t operate on Blade Runner, so that to me was tricky. I spent a lot of time finding the very best person that would pretty well… I’m blessed with a great eye. I’ve always had a great eye.

And so finding a cameraman who’s terrific, who at the time was very ill, from which he would pass away. But he was the best around, Jordan Cronenweth. He had a disease they’d misdiagnosed, so by the time I got to him he was walking with a walking stick and very, very shaky. He had a crew around him who loved him. But my investors said, “Why the fuck did you hire this cameraman?” I said, “Because he’s the best in the business.”

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So between he and I, we put together the way it should look. But then Syd Mead and Lawrence Paull [production designer] and I can draw. Because I was at art school, I can really draw and really paint and really envision. I knew the world I wanted to create, which was a combination of Hong Kong prior to any skyscrapers. I’d shot in Hong Kong before the first bank of Hong Kong went up. Hong Kong was an eastern medieval town – it was incredible. I always fitted that into New York, because in New York I spent a lot of time going in and out for advertising jaunts. New York at that point was smelly and dirty – I didn’t like it. It wasn’t until [Mayor, Michael] Bloomberg came in and really made it what it is. New York right now is fantastic  – bore no relationship to New York in the 60s. But I thought New York meets Hong Kong was it. I had to make a decision as to whether the prevalent nationality would be Mexican, Hispanic, or Chinese. I went Chinese. I think it’s gonna be Mexican. 

Where did the Noir element come in, because that’s what really adds the spice to the sci-fi.

You’ve got to remember, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep was an endless book. An endless amount of story. My show is Man In The High Castle. That’s my show. So Dick’s novel… we fell out, because I carelessly said, “I couldn’t get through it.” And he was really pissed off. Now I know the family and the daughters and everything, so I think it’s all mended. But nevertheless, what I got from the book – I read about 20 pages.

What had happened was, Hampton had buried himself alive in that kind of book, and discovered it was incredibly complex. 19 stories in the first 50 pages. He’d gone for the backbone of the story, which is fundamentally, the quarry falls in love with the hunter. It was all taking place in an apartment – internalised storytelling, as [Philip K] Dick would have. And I was doing Alien, I was mixing Alien, and Michael Deeley came over to me and said, “Read this play that Hampton’s written. What do you think?” I said, “I love the writing. I love the writer.” I thought about it for almost eight months, because I didn’t want to go back and do another science fiction.

Eight months later, I found myself doing Dune, and then I thought, “What am I doing Dune for?” I think Blade Runner, that was a great thing. I went to Hollywood, to cut a long story short, and spent the next five months every day, with probably the best time I’ve had ever working with a writer. My opening premise with Hampton was, “Right, you’ve got a story that purports a humanoid, or a robot, that looks so human that you can’t tell the difference. And this person falls in love with him. I want to see what it looks like outside. I want to see what the world [looks like], and who’s doing this.”

From that moment, once we opened the door onto that whole thing, it evolved into this pretty epic universe. And through it, aware or not, I don’t think whether I’m doing film noir or any of that shit. I just make movies, and if at the end someone calls it film noir, then so be it. God bless you. Because you never breathe a word of that in Hollywood. They go, “Film noir? I’m out of here, thank you very much. It’s too intellectual.”

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But film noir it was, on a very grand level  – Philip Marlowe, really. That’s why I’d always diddled around with the idea of voice-over, because Francis had just done a brilliant film called Apocalypse Now, where I think the voice-over was really the third dimension of the film. Because Martin [Sheen] was fundamentally a silent, savage witness through the whole process – and protagonist – but didn’t really speak other than to say, “I told you we shouldn’t have stopped”, having killed the children and the dog. I thought his voice-over was terrific.

So I had that on the side, as a style but not as a necessity. As a style, should we play around with that? Because the film, when it was finished, was so obscure to most people, they were more distracted by the environment – watching the pictures. The story’s pretty straightforward. But it’s when you’re trying to take everything in that you’re going, “What? Why is it dark? Why is it always raining?” Etc. And so that was where we employed the idea of voice-over, which to me became even more confusing – it wasn’t a good thing to do. Then later, the history was, it was discovered by accident as a print without the voice-over at a film festival.

One thing I’d learned by the time I was that age was, and I had it fully endorsed by a very bad article by Pauline Kael – and you can print this: I was so angry. I’m still angry that she destroyed the film in three and a half full pages of the New Yorker, without mercy. Even becoming personal. And I never met her. Because I’m 44, I’m mature – pretty mature at that point. And I thought, “You know what? I’ll never read another piece of criticism about me”. I’ve never read press since. Because if you read press and it’s great, the danger is you’ll think you rule the world for about half an hour, and you don’t, you never do. And if you read bad press, they can be wrong. And she was so fucking wrong. She was wrong to do that. Also, what’s wrong about critique is, I can’t reply. But I replied to the editor, saying, “If she didn’t like the film that much, why did she devote so much time to its destruction?” Why didn’t you just ignore me? Ignoring me’s fine.

But in any other industry, if I’d been one of the investors, I’d have sued her, because she can kill a movie before it’s even off the starting block. To me, that’s as bad as industrial espionage.

Why do you think it had that reaction from some quarters?

Because she was an old lady who didn’t get it. You can’t do that. You can’t say, “I don’t get why David Hockney painted, I think he’s no bloody good.” You can’t do that! And if you can, it’s always that dangerous thing: those that can do, and those who can’t teach. Or write about it. I think writing about it is worse, because teaching one of the most important things we have in our communities, which is under the attention… health and teaching are the most important things we can actually support. They’re together. Teaching, and health, and welfare are the most important things in society. Other than that, you’ve got a lot of freeloaders you’ve got to get rid of. 

You mentioned Giger. I was wondering whether in Alien: Covenant, you’ve got David in his lair creating monsters. I was wondering if that was an homage to Giger, when he was working on Alien and he was in his corner.

No, no. Giger was very private. A great guy. I’m the only one allowed in there every day. I’d pop in there at about four o’clock in the afternoon for a cup of tea. He took the smallest stage in Shepperton, which is a 12,000 square foot stage. I gave him an entire studio to work in. He always wore black. I’ve never seen someone wear so much black. But then he was covered in white powder – chalk of some kind, from sculpting. He was a lovely man, and I got on very well with him. It was a 100 percent relationship – I’d go in there every day and then because I can draw, I’d say, “Can I have a bit more on the head, a bit off the back.”

The point being, in a book called Necronomicon, I saw the alien. I said, “God, that’s it.” The studio were very nervous. They thought it was too much. I said, “How can it be too much? It’s unique.” I went to Giger and he said, “I can do better.” I said, “I doubt it. Besides, you’ve got to do the chestburster, the facehugger, and I want you to get involved with the planet.”

So I had Giger design the planet and a section of the ship – the beautiful what I call Croissant, the boomerang – he did that. The production designer, Michael Seymour, did the other bit, the Earth stuff. Giger did the alien stuff. And it was good, because we got two design brains working on two separate entities.

It just struck me that David was creating his monsters was kind of like Giger.

I was thinking more, honestly, of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Right. A Renaissance man.

Da Vinci was a great man – not evil in any sense of the word. But on his mantelpiece you’ll find a helicopter, flying objects, a few pretty good fucking paintings, and every other thing you can possibly imagine. And he’s a buddy of Michelangelo, who’s pretty good with marble. And painting. So were they both AI? I look back in history, and look at milestones of AI, and you’d have to include Leonardo, Michelangelo, on his capabilities, is extraordinary. But then you’ve got to look at maybe Mozart. Picasso? Not really. A genius painter, but not so inventive and innovative that it would stand out.

I always had the theory that if you go back 70,000 – I think it’s 70,000 years. You’ve got a caveman, who’s only just walking upright. So his prime function on a daily basis is to find food. By now he has family. By now he’s found he’s better inside a cave, out of the weather than not. So one day he witnesses lightning strike a tree. The tree falls, hits a deer. Kills the deer and cooks the deer. He smells cooked meat, tears at the meat, burns his fingers. Sucks them, “My god that tastes good.”

Also, his fingers are black. So he hauls the deer back into the cave. The family then feast on cooked venison for the next week. In that time there’s a lot of charcoal wood in there as well. On the walls of his limestone cave – this is the moment, this is the big moment. Does somebody touch him? Like the two fingers in the Vatican? [God touching the finger of Adam]

Does somebody touch him, and one evening, the family are all huddled up now they’ve discovered fire to keep warm, and he enters the realm of entertainment, by standing up and starting to draw on the wall what he saw today, which is the deer. He draws what he saw. Have you seen those drawings?

Yes. There’s the film Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, isn’t there?

Stunning. Picasso saw the ones in France, which are now all locked up, and shortly after that, he did Guernica. So the influence of that… was that the moment of getting touched, of getting an idea? It’s so grand, it’s bigger than Galileo, it’s bigger than anything. 

You’re describing that 2001 moment, almost. The monolith.

Yeah. Exactly right. Because the monolith really was a moving entity through space which would probably come to a ball of dirt, of earth, that has the right atmosphere or whatever, and think, “Time to have this injected with movement.”

In this instance, we get the grand idea of using a shinbone as a weapon. And so those elements, I think, are things that we take for granted. But you’ve got to look back on that and think, “Why are some people, i.e., cavemen, Leonardo, Mozart – why are they so special? Was it accidental?”

On that topic, is the flute in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, is that a similar sort of thing? The first instrument? Is that why you put that in there?

Well, yeah. The flute would probably be the most basic instrument – you get a reed, you punch a hole through it, blow, and you get sound. So I felt the flute was the most basic of all instruments – the air. Or you could have percussion, drums. But I think it was air, to get an interesting, magical sound. But I always revolve around the idea of, I like the genius of Michelangelo.

In terms of his brain, his mathematical, engineering, artistic mind. It makes him one of the absolute greats, really. He was 100 years ahead of his time. So yeah, the flute is a symbol of simplicity, but also, it’s a sonic lock: you play the right notes, it opens a door.

So on The Martian, dealing with NASA, was fascinating, because I was dealing with real scientists – astrophysicists, everything. They were fascinated by what I do, which is fiction. They said, “Your suits look better than ours!” There was this great swapping of notes. They said, “Of course we look at movies, because sometimes you guys come up with ideas we hadn’t thought of.”

Science, mathematics, art – mathematics is totally art. In the same way that music is mathematics, right? So it’s all linked. And I think when we bring up the whole idea of God, I think the idea of God is much more complex than that. Was there a creator? That’s a different question. Or was there a group that are our creators, who pre-visited us? I believe in that possibility way more than I believe in the Holy Bible. It’s kind of logical. Now they’re admitting there are millions of entities off us, now, in this immediate galaxy, that have life on them. Thirty years ago, they said it was absolutely ridiculous. I could never accept that – I thought it was nonsense.

Ridley Scott, thank you very much.

Blade Runner 2049 is out in UK cinemas on the 5th October.