Canadian director Denis Villeneuve makes character-driven, darkly arresting, eclectic material that both perplexes and amazes simultaneously. And for quite some time, they were the type of arthouse pieces that typically begin their cinematic journeys at the Cannes Film Festival. But he was given the opportunity to lend his cinematic sensibilities to a larger sci-fi spectacle with Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 35-year-old classic Blade Runner. It’s an understatement to say critics embraced Blade Runner 2049¸as they were in awe of how the movie visually outstripped its seminal original. Villeneuve recently received a BAFTA nomination in direction, his second following last year’s Arrival. While he was not one of the DGA nominees this year (which largely skewed toward an indie bunch, Christopher Nolan having the only nominated film with stateside gross north of $100M-plus), there’s always hope at the Oscars.
How has Blade Runner’s message on a future society changed in the time since the original?
This sequel became relevant to me in its use of technology, and our intimacy with it. We have this intimate relationship with technology that is getting more powerful, and it’s getting close to the world that’s described in the first Blade Runner. It’s still an existential movie, but the sequel raises questions about what it is to be human, the relationship with our memory, the broken dream, and the melancholic human story.
Bringing Rick Deckard to life, I needed Harrison Ford’s input on that. It was a huge responsibility to take on a legacy universe like Blade Runner, to imagine how this world evolved over 30 years.
How did your attachment to the project begin? Did you pitch yourself for the movie?
I would have never been able to pitch myself for this movie. It’s so bold, dangerously ambitious and a frightening project. Alcon called me. They wanted to meet in a secret location, so we met at a café in the desert in New Mexico. [Alcon head] Andrew Kosove put the screenplay in front of me. I was really moved as it was a testament to how much trust they have in me. We had such a beautiful experience making Prisoners together. As I was reading the screenplay, it felt strangely familiar to me, in regards to the way the story was being told, like one of my older movies. At first, I said, “Why me?” but then I understood why they chose me; they know my sensibility very well.
I read the screenplay several times, I loved it so much, but I didn’t want to have this burden on my shoulders. It was a very risky project. I was saying to myself that I needed to find inside me all the technical skills; everybody might hate me for doing this. But because of the power of the story, I felt moved and decided to say yes.
Which of your older titles did Blade Runner 2049 remind you of?
Incendies. Both movies have in common an investigation. Someone is doing detective work. It’s about someone looking for a specific thing about somebody else, and it slowly unveils things about the protagonists who go through a strong existential crisis. Both movies are rebirths and have similar obsessions.
There were several cuts of the first movie. Which was the jumping off point for you with the sequel?
For me, Blade Runner 2049 is a standalone movie. It’s good to have seen the first movie, but if you didn’t, you could still enjoy this one. The way it was written was very clever: it played with the ambiguity of the first movie. In the story of the first movie Deckard falls in love with AI and it deals with the moral issues of that. In Ridley Scott’s latest cut, Deckard is discovering he’s like one of the replicants he’s been hunting. He might not be human. He could be artificial himself. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard doesn’t know about his identity, he doesn’t know if he’s human or a replicant. This idea came from the original book. The policeman is doubting about his own identity, much like a doctor who comes in contact with diseases starts thinking he has all the same symptoms.
Was the script always meant to be enigmatic or was that something you found in the editing room?
I don’t want to spoil the story about the girl, but it was always meant to be a prodigal son-like story in Ryan Gosling’s K searching for his identity and ultimately the hero, Deckard, at the end. K has no answers, but it’s a complex movie and there’s a lot to talk about it in it.
Is there a world where a third film could be made at a lower cost, or does that depend on the pic’s Oscar endgame?
That’s a question that should be asked to the producers at Alcon. I don’t like to put words in others’ mouths. Alcon is very proud of the movie and they’ve told me this 100 times. They believe in this universe and they’re still inspired. I don’t know the outcome of that, but the dream isn’t dead.
I’m working on the screenplay right now with Eric Roth for Dune. Cleopatra will require a long process of preparation and research. It’s a long term project. Right now, I’m committed to Dune, and I don’t want to rush it. I need to slow down. I made five movies in six years. I just finished doing press for Blade Runner 2049 a few weeks ago and I’m home back in Montreal. I’m still digesting the experience of Blade Runner 2049. It was the most challenging artistic journey of my life. In making the film, I went to film school.