Depending on what version of Blade Runner you've seen or preferred, it's possible to make strong arguments that main character Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a human or an artificially created Replicant himself. It's a question fans have debated since the movie came out in 1982 — and it's a debate the star and director are still having to this day.
"Harrison and Ridley are still arguing about that," Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve said yesterday. "If you put them in the same room, they don't agree. And they start to talk to very loud."
Villeneuve was present for one of those arguments. "I sat in the middle and went, 'Well…'"
Right now, Villeneuve is in the middle of something else, making a sequel to one of the most fiercely beloved science fiction movies of all time. At a roundtable discussion at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, he confessed that he isn't used to talking to press while making a movie. But he's never done a movie as big and charged as this one before.
In the conversation that happened yesterday afternoon, Villeneuve talked about how he decided to sign on to Blade Runner 2049, finding an aesthetic approach that flowed from the first movie's landmark visuals, and whether technology can help humans be better to each other.
On finding the confidence to make a sequel to such a beloved movie: "Three things. First of all, I had Ridley Scott's blessing. That's the first thing I asked once I said yes. There were some conditions. I wanted to be in front of him and looking into his eyes and saying, 'Yes, you can do it.' The second thing, the screenplay I felt had strong ideas in it. I'm not saying it was a perfect screenplay. I'm just saying that I understood why Ridley felt that there was potential to do a strong movie there. And the third thing was that I'd been offered a lot of big scifi movies in my life but I always felt it was dangerous to do those big movies because there's a lot of pressure when you make those big movies. I said if I do it one day, it will be for something that is really worthy and really meaningful artistically for me.
"The first [Blade Runner] movie is one of my favourite movies. I said to myself, 'They will do it. No matter what we think, the studio will move forward and will make it.' I don't know if I'll succeed but I know I will give it all my love and all my skills. I will work so hard. I didn't want it to fall into the hands of someone that wouldn't. I said at least I will be passionate about it and give my blood to make sure it respects the spirit of the first movie. It's a bit arrogant; I was afraid to see a sequel to Blade Runner but I said, at least if I do it, I will have some control over it. I can blame only myself."
On the importance of casting:
"The most important part of the film process is casting. You need strong actors. I'm a very different film director from Ridley Scott but it's a thing that both of us have in common. We always aim for excellence with the actors in our casting; there's no compromise. The casting I've done, one thing I'm sure of is that the performances in our movie are very strong. Very strong. I had the chance to do a massive casting around the world where I got to choose from among the best young actors. One thing I love in the screenplay, there's a lot of strong female parts. Femininity is very important in the second movie, like it was in the first movie. So I had the pleasure to meet actors that sometimes are well known in their own countries but less known in North America like Sylvia Oaks and Anneli Armas. Carla Jueri. Mackenzie Davis. Those young actresses are strong artists and they brought a lot to the movie. The four of them are the movie's secret weapon."
On the decision to bring back Harrison Ford:
"It was the other way around. Harrison was there before me. The birth of the project was the producers from Alcon were able to unfreeze the rights. It was honestly like a master, high-skilled negotiation to bring the rights back to life. They unfroze something that was very difficult and the first thing they did was approach Ridley, of course. They said they'd love to do with him and I think Ridley said, after 15 minutes, 'Fly to London NOW.' What Ridley told me was, when he did the original Blade Runner, he had the desire to follow Deckard's and different other stories. It was a universe that was open. You have a detective in the future. The desire was there. It's just that so much shit happened with the first move that it froze there.
"They went to Ridley and they went to [screenwriter] Hampton Fancher and both of them had an idea to do a sequel that excited everybody. The first thing they did once they got the idea was they phoned Harrison. At the early stage of screenwriting, they asked him because, without Harrison, there was no movie. Harrison said yes and they developed the movie. Harrison was there before me. I didn't go to Harrison; I had to be approved by Harrison.
"Once I agreed to do the screenplay, I had to meet Ridley to hear from his own voice that he wanted me to do this. And then I had to meet Harrison to be scanned by Harrison to make sure Harrison Ford approved."
On taking Blade Runner's future into the future:
[Note: I personally asked Villenueve two questions. Here's the first: The first Blade Runner popularised a sort of future-shock vision of cyberpunk and that aesthetic imprint is all over the place now, and people are familiar with it. Can you talk about, aesthetically, some ways that you want to surprise people again?]
"You're putting your finger in the soft spot. Is it a soft spot or a painful spot? It's a movie that's been cut-and-paste so much through the years that influenced sci-fi and all the movies — even Star Wars movies — are influenced by Blade Runner. So how can you go back to something that was so original but became a landmark [in that way]?
"It was a long process to find the keys. The keys were in the screenplay and the ideas of Hampton about how climate evolved. Climate for me was a key because [changing] climate means different kind of light. And that was something, with Roger Deakins, we explored those ideas and came back that we feel is deeply inspired by the first movie but slightly different.
"Let's say that the first movie was made by a director born in England under the rain. The second one was made by a Canadian direct that was born in snow. So the light is different. It was a lot of work to try to extend and project this universe into the future and try to find something that I hope will have some kind of freshness."
Wanting to stay true to the spirit of the original Blade Runner:
"There was a melancholia, a nostalgia feeling of loneliness and existential doubt. A kind of inner paranoia about yourself that I wanted to keep alive in the second movie. I wanted to keep the film noir aesthetic alive — very important — and a certain kind of pacing, too, that I deeply love in the first movie. I tried to adapt it to the rhythms of today's movies but I still tried my best to keep that tension alive. Ridley told me that it touched him because I was able to extend that atmospheric quality that the first movie had."
On all those different versions of the first movie:
"The thing is that I was raised with the first one. For me, there was one Blade Runner. At the time, there was no internet, there was no A.O. Scott. I remember seeing the first movie and facing deeply in love with it. It became for me an instant classic. Me and my friends were all in love with it. I remember a few months later reading a review of the movie that was very bad. I was so angry because I felt the critic was all wrong because he felt that the adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's novel was not right. At the time, I totally disagreed.
"Later on, I discovered what Ridley's initial dream was and I really loved Ridley's version, too. The key to make this movie was to be in-between. Because the first movie is the story of a human falling in love with a designed human being and the story of the [other edit] is the story of a replicant who didn't know he's a replicant and slowly discovers his own identity. Those are two different stories. I felt like the key to deal with that was in the original novel. IN the novel, the characters are doubting about themselves; they are not sure if they are replicants or not. For time to time, they're doing Voigt-Kampff on themselves to make sure that they're humans. I love that idea. So I decided that the movie would be on that side, too, that Deckard in the movie is as unsure as we are about what his identity is. That, I love it, because I love mystery. That's an interesting thing to me — not the knowing who he is or not — but the doubt [of it]."
On the relationship between humans and technology:
[The second question I asked Villeneuve: Because of the source material, the first movie asks the viewer to think about how technology changes what it means to be human. Do you feel like you've made a movie where technology lets us be more empathetic to each other or more disconnected from each other? There's a lot of disconnection from the first movie. Do you feel like you're closing a loop there?]
"No, unfortunately, I think that it's an extension of the first movie. And what you describe is a lot of what science fiction is, exploring the human condition and our relationship with progress and the unknown. But the DNA of the story I adapted from Hampton [Fancher] has the same thematics as the first movie so we didn't evolve in that regard."
Do you feel like technology can do that? Connect us more with each other?
"No. I deeply believe it has to come from ourselves inside, not from an outside device. That's why scifi is so interesting."