We speak to the director about making a film that the whole world is talking about, nearly casting Bowie and Jared Leto going blind
Denis Villeneuve knew directing Blade Runner 2049 would be a colossal gamble. Whatever happens, the Canadian filmmaker says, the sequel will always be compared with the original masterpiece. After all, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, was a towering landmark of cyberpunk cinema that spawned decades of imitations, redefined dystopian sci-fi, and questioned what it means to be human. To this day, Harrison Ford and Scott still squabble over whether Rick Deckard is a replicant, and who here hasn’t embarrassed themselves with a misguided Roy Batty impression in the rain?
“The first movie takes place in 2019,” Villeneuve tells us. “There’s a gap of 30 years, and technology has evolved differently from our reality. So we created an alternate universe.” Basically, Blade Runner 2049 stays true to the original’s neo-noir tone and world, but Villeneuve has fast-forwarded to the inevitable collapse of society. Atari is still doing big business, and the environment is fucked. “The first movie was based on the idea of extending the 70s,” Villeneuve adds. “My movie is a projection from the first movie.”
We soon learn that Deckard went into hiding shortly after his exploits with the origami unicorn. It’s now up to Officer K, a Blade Runner played by Ryan Gosling, to hunt down Deckard for the sake of the planet. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive questioned Gosling’s humanity, but Blade Runner 2049 does it more literally. Along the way, there are encounters with Nexus 8 replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K’s partner Joi (Ana de Armas), and replicant scientist Niander (Jared Leto – part-time musician, full-time method actor).
Crucially, Villeneuve’s career, which now consists of ten features, has been slowly building up to Blade Runner 2049. There was a touch of unicorn in the spider ending of Enemy, a generous dose of detective action in Prisoners, and a whole lot of smart sci-fi in Arrival. Plus, as someone who started out in documentaries, he clearly favours practical effects over ugly greenscreen. We sat down recently with Villeneuve for a one-to-one chat about the movie’s experimental nature and how he nearly cast David Bowie as the villain. If it was a Voight-Kampff test, it simply confirmed that Villeneuve is superhuman.
Has Ridley Scott seen the film yet?
Denis Villeneuve: Yes. He saw the finished movie. For me, when I make a movie, there’s always one screening that I’m afraid of. If you make a follow-up to the original Blade Runner, it’s frightening to show it to Ridley Scott (laughs). I didn’t want to know when he would see it, because it would be the worst two-and-a-half hours of my life.
But he saw it and he loved the film. It meant the world to me. That’s why I think I’m more calm right now, because I know that Ridley and Harrison Ford loved the movie, and I feel that there’s ground under my feet now.
What did Ridley specifically enjoy about it?
Denis Villeneuve: He liked the way I approached the main character with Ryan Gosling. There’s something about the inner rhythm of the film, the way the movie evolves. He felt very respected. He felt that I was very close to the atmosphere, the rhythm, the themes of the first movie.
The most iconic moment in the original Blade Runner is Rutger Hauer’s improvised monologue. Can you still bring that kind of spontaneity to a film like this? I imagine everything had to be planned very far in advance.
Denis Villeneuve: It’s important for me to bring that. It’s important to give space for that spontaneity. I would not use the word “improvised”, but I will say there were many moments that were modified, or there was an epiphany or idea that came from me or Ryan or Harrison Ford that sparked the desire to do something different than what was on the page.
Sometimes it’s a little detail, sometimes it’s huge. There’s one scene specifically that was written differently. Ryan came in with an idea that I thought was extremely strong. It’s a scene that we shot on the third day of shooting. That’s the day the movie was born. When we did that scene, all the crew was in awe. They said, “Wow.” It was very simple, but it was a perfect idea. From that day, it became our measuring stick, to make sure we were going in the right direction.
Ryan Gosling can do a Nicolas Winding Refn film like Drive but also a musical like La La Land. Is he the most famous person with charisma who could conceivably be a robot?
Denis Villeneuve: The thing is, to portray a character that will be a Blade Runner that is killing his own kind; to deal with the weight of being a replicant killing replicants, that existential conflict, that moral conflict; someone that will be able to go through that dark journey and still bring some light to it, and be able to express a lot of things with very minimalistic dialogue; Ryan Gosling gave a performance that I think was fascinating and fantastic. He’s so charismatic. Such a strong actor.
I knew that he was perfect for the part before I made the movie. But as I was doing the movie, I discovered very quickly that he was more than perfect. He brought a lot of ideas to make the character stronger, to make the journey stronger. Every scene, he brought ideas. He was my muse.
After Prisoners and Enemy, you said that you and Jake Gyllenhaal had a bit of a love/hate relationship. Was that what it was like bouncing around ideas with Ryan?
Denis Villeneuve: (laughs) No, no, no, no, no. Jake and Ryan are two different actors. I love Jake deeply, and I sincerely can’t wait to work with him again. He’s a close friend. I don’t like to compare people, but the thing I will say about Ryan is that Blade Runner is by far the most difficult and longest shoot I’ve ever done. To work with an actor that is as committed and engaged and professional as he was, it made a world of difference.
Does Ryan have any odd or funny habits you don’t get with other actors?
Denis Villeneuve: He has a very strong sense of humour, which helps when it’s 4am in the morning and you’re freezing cold. He’s always keen to help me get the best out of him. Acting is a very difficult job. You have to play with your own emotions in front of everybody, in front of the camera. You have to put yourself in a very vulnerable, sometimes humiliating, position in front of the camera. I felt he trusted me 100 per cent, and that he never put his anxiety on the table. He was ready like a solider every morning.
I’ve watched a few of your earlier films, like Maelstrom, which co-stars a dead talking fish. How experimental can you be with a blockbuster of this size?
Denis Villeneuve: One of the producers, when he saw the results, he said, “Wow, that’s an expensive arthouse movie.” The movie has that quality. Yes, it’s still a commercial movie, but I think that the way we approach it, it does still experiment. In fact, some of the moments in Blade Runner are the most experimental I’ve done in my life and I’m very proud of that.
“For me he was Blade Runner before its time. When you think of Blade Runner and you look at the aestheticism, it’s Bowie” – Denis Villeneuve
Am I right in thinking that Jared Leto’s character was originally going to be offered to David Bowie? They’re quite different actors.
Denis Villeneuve: They’re different and not different. There’s a theatricality in both of them, and they have a kind of insane charisma to them. When you’re casting, you dream. A lot of people that I dreamed of when I read the screenplay are in the movie right now.
The idea of David Bowie came at the beginning. I’m sure Ridley Scott would not agree with what I’m saying right now, but for me he was Blade Runner before its time. When you think of Blade Runner and you look at the aestheticism, it’s Bowie. So to bring Bowie into the movie was a circle – he was a source of inspiration for Blade Runner, and I thought he would make total sense.
Early on, I discovered that the screenwriter was thinking about David Bowie, and I said, “OK, let’s approach David Bowie. He’s a fantastic actor. I’m sure he’ll at least listen to us, and maybe he’ll say yes.”
And then we learned the sad news that we had lost a great artist. Strangely, it was a very long process for me to accept it. I mean, it’s a strange thing, because the man was dead. But to let that dream go… I was not able to find anybody. There was nobody for me. I said, “OK, he’s dead. What do I do?”
For a month, we started prep, and the producers were very, very patient with me. And then I brainstormed. And then the Jared idea came. I met with him, and I’m very proud and very happy with what he brought to the movie. It’s a tricky character to portray.
Did you hire Jared Leto knowing he was a method actor?
Denis Villeneuve: (laughs) I knew, because one of my very good friends, Jean-Marc Vallée, did Dallas Buyers Club, so I knew Jared was a bit intense, a bit radical, and – as you said – a method actor, and so he will do crazy things sometimes.
Basically, his character is blind. We did lenses for him that were based on real blind people. It’s a really delicate process. The thing is that Jared insisted his lenses would blind him for real. A friend of his is blind, and he spent a lot of time with him, and he did a lot of research about blind people, their gestures, their rhythm, the way they play with the voice, the way they move – but without falling into clichés.
And then he insisted on coming to set blind all the time. For camera tests, for all the scenes, for all the rehearsals, he was always blind. That means Jared never saw the sets. He never saw my crew. He was blind all the time. He just heard voices. It created such a strong atmosphere. He had such a strong presence. Because can you imagine it? When he was coming on set, 300 people were suddenly dead silent, looking at him walking with the help of an assistant, slowly, on set.
Some of those sets were already quite dangerous for people who were using their eyes. So it was always nerve-wracking for me to say, “Jared, on this scene you will walk four footsteps forward, and don’t move more, because you will fall.” (laughs) But seriously, it was a very nice commitment. It created a very beautiful moment in front of the camera.
Is Harrison Ford happy in real life?
Denis Villeneuve: Harrison? He’s the funniest human being you can meet.