Interview | Denis Villeneuve on (Re)Creating the World of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

The director thinks audiences are finally ready for what 'Blade Runner' offers, and calls the original cut a guilty pleasure.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Denis Villeneuve is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world, the director of acclaimed dramas like Prisoners and Sicario, and one of the most intelligent sci-fi movies of the decade, Arrival. And he knows he could very well be throwing all that good will away by directing a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The original 1982 futuristic detective story, based on Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is a lynchpin in the science fiction genre. But before it inspired a generation of storytellers, it was a box office bomb with a theatrical cut that gave the film a happier ending, and added a somewhat bored voice-over by the film’s star, Harrison Ford. It took years and several director’s cuts for Blade Runner to grow from a cult classic to a bona fide, universally recognized classic. But that is now the Blade Runner legacy, and making Blade Runner 2049 is – obviously – playing with fire.

I sat down with Denis Villeneuve this weekend to talk about the difficult decision he made to even direct Blade Runner 2049 in the first place, and why he felt it was necessary to take such a huge creative risk. He also explained his ideas on what makes Blade Runner feel like Blade Runner, and how he made certain Blade Runner 2049 felt like it took place in the same dystopian world.

And yes, we even talked about that original theatrical cut, which for years was the only version available, and why he still calls it a “guilty pleasure.”

The following interview is SPOILER-FREE. The rest of our interview with Denis Villeneuve, which tackles Blade Runner 2049‘s ending (in detail), will be available after the film is released on October 6, 2017.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Crave: First off, I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night, and I think you knocked it out of the park.

Denis Villeneuve: Thank you. Thanks for seeing it, because you are among the first people to see the movie. Since the beginning, when I did it, I decided I needed to be at peace with the idea that you guys might all hate me after! [Laughs.]

Because of the insanity of the task, and because I wasn’t sure, honestly, at the beginning, when I heard the first time that they were thinking to make a follow-up to Blade Runner, I got instantly very excited, and at the same time, “Oh no, it’s such a bad idea. Why? Why are you daring doing this?” There are some movies like that, that should stay untouched in some ways. But what convinced me is…

Sorry, I started the interview without you!

That’s fine. That’s my first question, actually. What was YOUR goal in making a Blade Runner sequel? Because it is daunting and it arguably wasn’t necessary. The first film is great.

I agree with you. My goal… it was like, honestly, I think from a very primal point of view, it was to make a kind of love letter for the first movie. For me, [it’s] a testimony for how much I love and care about the first movie. Because when I decided to do it, I did it for several reasons.

First, the screenplay I felt was strong. I fell in love with the screenplay, with the story. I said, okay, that screenplay… strangely, it talks about things that I feel familiar [with], they are things that I explore with my previous movies. I feel like there’s a thread, something that you’re following from one movie to the other, themes that you explore. It felt like… I felt home, strangely.

What specific themes?

Exploration of memory, the power of memories over a being. How to be accepted by a father figure. How to get rid of your genetic DNA baggage. […] And how can you achieve to be a real adult by getting rid of this baggage? Not the genetic one, but the education, you know? It’s all that. A lot of themes that I felt were in continuity with what I explored in my previous works.

So the screenplay, I said to myself… I didn’t say that to myself, but yes there is something, the arrogance of saying to yourself, “Okay, I love that screenplay, and the first Blade Runner for me means the world. And somebody will do it, and I’d rather take the pressure upon my own shoulder than having someone else fucking it up.” You know? [Laughs.]

I felt like, strangely, I had to sacrifice my relationship with… I put in danger my relationship with the rest of the world of cinema by doing [Blade Runner 2049] but I had so much love for the first movie. It was a way, in a way, to protect it. I said, I need to protect it. I need to. And right from the start when I took the screenplay, I said okay, strong story. There are strong elements. But there are dangerous elements that are bringing the aesthetic away from what was the first movie, and I had the freedom to change those aspects of the story.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

What sort of aspects were off?

I wouldn’t say “off.” They were not “off.” They were designed to be directed by someone else that had different skills than me. And I felt that I tried, I did my best to keep the intimacy. What the first movie, one of the things that I love, is that it’s an intimate point of view. It’s a very intimate story, and the scope of it is always seen from, you are just above the shoulders Rick Deckard and Roy Batty.

And I tried to go back to that intimacy, and more specifically in action scenes. I felt that I had to stay as close as possible to the spirit of the first movie, where there was some kind of beautiful realism in the way I depict violence.

You brought up something about the baggage, and I was thinking about having the baggage of a film that is so particularly stylized, and having to tell your own movie in that same style. It has to feel like it’s in the same world. Was that limiting? Was that freeing? How much freedom did you have to add to Blade Runner?

Total freedom. That’s the thing, is that Ridley [Scott] stepped away right at the beginning. “It’s your movie, you have full responsibility, do what you want.” So then the thing is, I felt that it was important to keep root, aesthetically, in the film noir aesthetic. It’s still a detective story set in Los Angeles in that future. So I felt [that] was important to keep.

But from there the screenplay was allowing me to get out of there, to visit new places, new environments. That’s where it gave me freedom to bring new laws to this world. Sometimes it was daunting. Frightening, because I always try to keep the movie in some urbanity, even if we were going quite far away from downtown. I tried my best to stay in the Blade Runner universe, even when we were going in a trash dump or things like that. That was tough because the screenplay was taking some liberties that I really tried to keep in the Blade Runner universe.

That is my point. Even though Ridley Scott gave you freedom, you have to decide for yourself, “When does this stop feeling like Blade Runner?

Yeah, exactly.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

What do you think the line is? Is there a rule you set for yourself, or were you feeling it all out by instinct?

It’s a balance between instinct and intellect. It’s like, I will say, for me? Definitely the urbanity. As long as I feel that it I was a in relationship with L.A. – or it could be another urban center – but the idea that you are in a relationship with the urbanity, and a feeling of the dystopian atmospheres that were creating the rules of the first one. As long as I was playing in the boundaries of those rules. I don’t know if I’m clear by saying so.

And a thing that I felt was helping me a lot to stay with a kind of familiarity with the first movie was sound design. It’s something that I remember really struck me, that the first movie, the sound design is very peculiar, very particular, very impressionistic. And I tried with the sound designer to be… that’s the closest thing to the first movie, is the sound design and music. That, as much [as] we took liberties with the visual, I insisted the sound design would be very close to the first movie.

When you were making this Blade Runner, were you concerned at all about making it accessible to people who hadn’t seen the original? Obviously you don’t want them to be completely confused, but is that really who this made for? Because there are dramatic moments that are really going to play if you’ve seen the original.

That’s one of the challenges that I had. I felt that I tried rewriting the movie, shooting it and editing it to make it standalone as much as possible. I feel that if you haven’t seen the first movie, you will understand what’s happening. Your pleasure will be bigger if you know the first movie. That’s the way I see it. If you know, if you are familiar with the first movie, it’s going to be a more fulfilling experience.

But if you don’t know it – and I made the test – people understand the story and enjoy it. I made that. That was [important] to me because it’s a movie that is beloved by a generation but the new generation is not necessarily in contact with it, and I wanted them to enjoy the movie as [well]. And at the same time it was, for me, I said to myself it’s, in a way, if ever we succeeded and we make a movie that is a good movie, it would be a strong invitation to revisit the original one, for those people who haven’t seen it. Yeah.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

A whole generation has grown up loving and being influenced by the original Blade Runner, but it wasn’t a big success when it first came out. I was, financially, not big, and it found an audience later. Do you feel like audiences are more ready for Blade Runner now?

I think the blurred line… listen, the audience was quite sophisticated in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hiroshima Mon Amour was a success. It was a commercial success! I mean, audiences back then… It’s just, I will say that people are disoriented by the blurred line between who is the good guy, who is the bad guy. By the blurred line between who is human, who is not. It was a total new way of, aesthetically, the movie was pushing the limits of creating a total new world that we hadn’t seen before.

And people got disoriented by it, I think. It was like a depressing film noir and they were expecting another Han Solo movie. I think that’s why, at the time, the movie wasn’t a success. But I think people are more used to this kind of universe [today], and yeah, it’s a movie that could be revisited. I just saw the movie again. Again. I saw it in IMAX this time. And again, it’s a fantastic. It’s totally old, the VFX, everything, and still this movie could go out today and I think it would be a success.

Did you watch The Final Cut or the original?

It was The Final Cut. I saw it with Ridley, so of course it was The Final Cut, yeah. [Laughs.]

I was at a screening at UCLA and Christopher Nolan was introducing the original theatrical cut as a film that inspired him, because that was the version we had for so long. What is your relationship to that original cut?

It’s a guilty pleasure. It’s the movie I was raised with. For me, the very first time I watched one of the intermittent director’s cuts – I don’t remember exactly [which] one – and there was no voice-over, I missed it, at the beginning. I remember that. For me that’s some kind of film noir quality, a Marlowe quality, that kind of bored voice-over, you know?

He was so bored.

Yeah, yeah. But it was such a contrast with what we were seeing the image. Honestly, I loved the theatrical version at the beginning. I fell in love deeply with that universe. It was part of the Blade Runner I knew. I was young when I saw it at the time. I deeply loved it so I still love it today. But I understand where Ridley stands, and I enjoy the very final 2007 director’s cut. I’m in between both movies. There’s a dip between my nostalgia for the very first one, and my respect for the last one.

Top Photos: Primo Barol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images & Warner Bros.

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.