When, back in 1982, Ridley Scott brought to life the dystopian future created by Philip K. Dick it was rightly declared a masterpiece. Blade Runner was such a visionary, ground-breaking piece of cinema that it made most movies of its time pale into insignificance. Scott knew, though, that the neo-noir tale still had several chapters to be told and, some 25 years on, the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, has become the most hotly anticipated film of the year, if not the decade.
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve was handed the task of continuing the story, with Ryan Gosling as his lead and Harrison Ford reprising his role as Agent Deckard. It was a challenge the acclaimed Arrival director was determined not to pass up, especially given that he was hand-picked by Scott.
“It’s a fantastic artistic gift, but it’s also a trap,” he tells us. “You know, it’s a mixed feeling of exhilaration but also a big burden on your shoulders, because you almost have to unplug your self-preservation instincts to do something as a filmmaker.
“The chances of success are almost none, they’re very narrow because you know that no matter how much you do, no matter how good your movie is, it will always be compared to what is considered as a masterpiece. So why would you do that?”
Despite such misgivings, it took Villeneuve just one reading of the screenplay dreamed up by Scott, Michael Green and co-writer of the original, Hampton Fancher, to convince him to come on board. The plot sees LAPD Officer K (Gosling) uncover “a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos”. This revelation then sends him on a mission to track down Deckard, who has been missing for 30 years.
Villeneuve says: “I hesitated a lot and at one point I said, ‘Okay, if ever I wanted to do a movie of that scope, of that size, if ever I want to embrace science fiction with that kind of budget it has to be a meaningful project – something that I strongly believe in and something that is very risky’.”
Some directors might have baulked at the scale of the project, but not Villeneuve. And he received Scott’s unwavering support.
“The first thing he did was give me his blessing,” he says. “Then he very simply explained to me what his sources of inspiration were for the first movie, gave me some guidance and then said, ‘Now it’s over to you’. When he left he added, ‘Listen, if you do your homework correctly this can be fantastic. If you don’t, it could be a disaster’.”
Villeneuve created his own vision of Los Angeles with Scott’s words in mind, he reveals. “I wanted him to feel respected and to stay faithful to the spirit and the poetry of the first movie. Even if I was failing.”
Gosling was the first choice for the role of K and as a fan of the original himself, the actor took little convincing to sign up.
“[The original] was one of the first films I’d seen where it wasn’t clear how I was supposed to feel when it was over,” Gosling says. “It just asks a lot of questions and it didn’t answer very many. It sort of haunts you.
“And when I heard that Ridley was going to continue the story, I was excited to know I would learn more about those characters and that world that had stuck with me all that time. And then to know Denis was going to be making it, to me, it became something that I really wanted to be a part of.”
As with Blade Runner, the importance of the screenplay, mise-en-scène and cinematography cannot be overemphasised. Villeneuve put his trust for the latter in celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, with whom he’d previously worked on Prisoners and Sicario.
But getting the right cast was always at the forefront of the director’s mind. While Gosling’s role was written for him and Ford was the only actor one could ever imagine as Deckard, there were still plenty of parts to fill.
“Casting is one of the most important parts of the film process for me,” Villeneuve says. “We did casting in China, in South America, everywhere, to find specific characters and it gave me the chance to see who the great up-and-coming actors in the world are. And I had the chance to work with four of them.”
Villeneuve’s fab four consisted of Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri and Ana de Armas. For rising Cuban star de Armas, this was a project she just had to be a part of, even when it appeared she might be overlooked for the role of Joi.
“They called me when I was in an Uber,” she tells us. “I think the driver went nuts because he really experienced what it’s like for an actor to get a part. I started screaming and crying. It was so emotional, so exciting and all of a sudden, it was all over the news and my phone started blowing up.
“And I was over the moon and I couldn’t believe I was going to be a part of this movie. Even until I got to Budapest [for the shoot] I always thought, ‘I’m going to get fired today’. [laughs] It was like, ‘Pinch me!’”
De Armas and Gosling hit it off instantly, with the La La Land star even buying her a copy of Vangelis’s original Blade Runner soundtrack to use when they hit the gym. The unity flowed into the shooting, too.
“We had long, long table sessions: Ryan, Denis and I talking about the scenes every day before we started shooting. We would never start until we had the scene we wanted,” says de Armas.
“The whole crew was waiting and the three of us – Roger Deakins was always watching, too – would do the scene from back to front, upside down, my way, his way, your way, the other way, the crazy way until [Denis] thought, ‘Okay, let’s shoot now’.
“So it always felt like he was the director but we all felt very included and we were part of it. In some movies, [the directors] don’t let you create and let you bring life and something extra to that part. But that was completely different in this movie, which was a luxury.”
The arrival of Ford on set was a defining moment for both de Armas and Gosling. And his entrance could hardly have been scripted more dramatically.
Gosling reveals: “We talked about Harrison often while we were filming and we were always thinking, ‘Would Harrison approve?’.
“You couldn’t have staged it better because it happened to be on a day when the light was so low that everyone was silhouetted and there was a mist everywhere. And we’d heard Harrison was on set. So we were searching the silhouettes and watching for him all day and suddenly he appeared out of the mist.”
He adds: “I was a fan of Harrison’s, like we all are, but I’m an even bigger fan now. You couldn’t ask for a better actor to work with. He elevated all of our work when he came to set. It was a really great experience.”
Having long sought a chance to do sci-fi, this was one role Gosling couldn’t pass on.
“I’m glad I waited as this was a wonderful way to do it,” he says. “It’s exciting because you’re able to talk about things that are very topical, but you’re given the cinematic distance to experience them on an emotional level and not through the filter of time.
“Part of it is that you can project a realistic version of the worst-case scenario maybe in the hope of avoiding it.”
One thing Gosling and his co-stars couldn’t avoid was the physical demands of the film (hence the gym sessions). But the Canadian believes getting into shape mentally was the real key to his performance.
“For me, the most important preparation was just arriving to Budapest early and sitting with Denis and getting inside his head,” he says. “And also spending time on the sets and in the environments. The hardest part of the job for me was trying not to be impressed. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an experience like it again. It was very surreal because the themes of the film are about memory and you’re walking around in something that you have a memory of as a child already. I was just trying to normalise it somehow.”
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049, deals with a wide spectrum of themes relevant to the present day, in spite of its thoroughly futuristic setting. One of the threads that stands out is that the Replicants are created and then forced into servitude.
“The notion of slavery is very important – the idea that they are using designed people to do jobs that are too dangerous or require too much strength,” Villeneuve says. “I think that’s a comment on today’s reality.”
When all is said and done, the director knows it’s only natural for viewers to compare his work with Scott’s original, but he seems calm when contemplating the audience’s appraisal of his efforts at to replicate the ingenuity of the tale of rogue Replicants and the Blade Runners employed to “retire” them.
“I don’t know how the fans will react to this take on that universe because it’s a movie that was made with a different sensibility, which is mine,” he says.
“I’m not Ridley Scott, very obviously, we are very different filmmakers. I know there is something about the ambiance and design and the film noir aspect that are very similar. We worked hard to make sure we were in the same zone but the screenplay allowed us to take some liberties because the climate is different in the movie, which means the light is different. There are some other things that are different and sometimes it goes away fro, and comes back to, the first movie. It’s a pulsation between the two. It’s a different animal, but I don’t know how people will react – I’m excited to see.”
He concludes: “You know when you have no expectations it’s great to see what comes of it. For me, once I feel that the beast is walking by itself, I have no control over how people will welcome it. The anxiety is behind me.”
Fans around the world are hugely anxious to see the results of Villeneuve’s labour. And as a teaser, he asked directors Luke Scott and Shinchiro Watanabe to create three short films bridging the gap between the original Blade Runner and his own to be released ahead of the premiere. Trailers are so 2019, right?
Blade Runner 2049 hits cinemas across the UAE on October 6.