Production Designer Dennis Gassner Gets His “All-In,” ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ Moment With ‘Blade Runner 2049’

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An Oscar nominee for Blade Runner 2049—a sequel to Ridley Scott’s ‘80s sci-fi classic—production designer Dennis Gassner saw challenges everywhere when he first signed on to the project.

“It was going to be particularly demanding in lots of ways. You think about trying to remake a film 35 years later. What is that going to be like?” the designer reflects. “We shot it in Budapest, Hungary, and that was a challenge in itself.”

A steward of design for the last several Bond films—as well as the upcoming Bond 25—Gassner knows a thing or two about the particular challenges of working within a beloved cinematic canon, balancing a loyalty to preexisting material with the desire to break new ground.

Working with director Denis Villeneuve for the first time and reuniting with 14-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins—with whom he’d collaborated on a number of Coen Brothers films, among others—the production designer would source visual references from around the world to help expand Blade Runner’s visual universe, the majority of which would be represented in-camera with actual structures created for the film.

In the end, on Villeneuve’s sequel, there would be one word that would define the aesthetic of this art house blockbuster for the ages, that would inform every creative choice: Brutality.

Warner Bros.

As someone who has worked on the Bond franchise, is there something appealing about working within the canon of a franchise, or the history of a classic like Blade Runner?

I think so. Somebody was going to do it, and I said, “Well, why not us? We’ve got the experience and the history.” To give it our take was the best shot that we were going to have to actually make the movie. It’d been started and stopped so many times; it was the broken record syndrome. So we said, “Let’s give it a go.” Denis had great sensitivity to the material and the story, and it was really about having the experience that gave us the confidence to go ahead under a challenging situation.

As you went through your preparations, how did you go about absorbing the Blade Runner aesthetic, such that you could reproduce it for this new film?

To me, it was about the take that Denis provided us, with a landscape that was unique. We had to be respectful, as I have been with the Bond films, and tried to find the right balance so that there was a familiarity, but we could justify 2049. There were a lot of moving parts to sort out—the technology, the way the film looked.

With all the directors I work with, I say, “Can you give me one word that defines the film? That will be our touchstone?” Denis came back immediately and said, “Brutality.” I was sitting with him in the dead of winter in Montreal, and I got it. It was going to be a harsh place to live, environmentally. The first film had that same nature, but we wanted to say, “If anybody in human existence is going to survive, it has to protect itself.”

The pattern language of the film basically started with the spinner [K’s flying car]. We needed to find a new signature for that, and the angular graphicness of that became the strength of what the architecture looked like, which we carried to the police station, to Wallace’s Towers, into the interiors, and so on. Once we discovered that language, that became our signature.

Then, it was about incorporating all the lighting within the set so that it was a bit of a throwback to the original film, but our own signature, as well.

Warner Bros.

Did you end up shooting in any exterior Budapest locations?

85% was on stages. We turned the stages over twice, which is a massive achievement, in itself. Then we had a few locations that were part of the Budapest community. I’m glad we chose this city because it offered a lot of varying things, from secessionist period to the Soviet style of brutality. It was visually arresting.

What was the process in putting together designs for all the technology we see in the film? It seems that we might see several generations of future technology on screen.

There were similarities to what you would know today, as you’ve been through the generation of the computer age. Technology is growing, and in 2049, we had a dynamic shift in the sense of fossil fuels being gone, and the ability to generate things. We came up with a new power source, a new way of generating things that were our own with an analogue kind of foundation, and some technologies that exist today.

It was really about moving the story along, and not getting stuck in too heavy a technological situation, so everything was planned very uniquely to tell that story. It was all fairly subtle—that was the nature of how we wanted to play it. It felt right within the context of the brutality of the environment.

What was the importance of scale to this film, when it comes to the enormous structures we see?

Because of the technologies of the day that Ridley really didn’t have much of [on the original Blade Runner], the computer world really wasn’t viable at that point, so they were doing a lot of matte standings to kind of do the extensions to get the wide shots. So I said, “Scale is going to be a real advantage.”

Scale was a really important thing for us. Obviously, Wallace’s office reflected the scale of where Wallace was going beyond the Tyrell Corporation. It was about power, the power struggle. The whole film was about that, in some way. It’s about, how do you survive, and who has the upper edge, and how it all works. The strength of that resonated in the scale of the music—the depth of the sound had this massive quality to it. For us, it’s all about the character of the mood, and how you felt as you’re watching the film.

Warner Bros.

When I was studying architecture at University of Oregon, I saw this film called Lawrence of Arabia. When Lawrence came into the desert, the scale of the music and the visual power were so amazing to me, and I decided to get in the film business at that point. I said, “Who is the architect of that? Who is allowed, in our gracious world, to be able to create those things?”

That’s been my quest through a multitude of films, to create that sense of power, and they’re all done with a particular kind of taste, with a particular style that is balanced so that it’s not power for power’s sake. It’s power for story’s sake. When everybody arrives on the set, I want them to feel one step beyond what they thought about in the mind when they were reading the script. That is what I can provide to help elevate the film.

How do you determine how much of a set you’re going to build, and where you look to visual effects to complete the picture?

Roger, Denis and I wanted to have everything in camera. That was the big quest. It’s kind of an old school technique. If it needs extension to widen the scope, then you have the reality of that in camera, and you can feed off of all the elements—the lighting, the architecture, and so on. It has to be integrated. That’s the thing about this film that I think it’s really important to say, that we built 85%. The other percentage of that was extensions and the sweetening. That’s the way the film looks the way it looks.

What was the thinking when it came to the sharply geometrical, patterned spaces we see within Niander Wallace’s building? What did that build entail?

Again, it was about power. The first image you saw was a powerful thing. It was an archive that was massive, and we needed to have that same language. We built, probably, a third of that; the rest was extended. But it was a likeness extension, so all the lighting and the architecture was there. It’s just a matter of allowing the visual effects department to extend it.

It was a fairly simple set. I think we built 300 of the units, and the rest of the 1,000 were manifested another way. The visual effects department loves doing it this way because the lighting is always there. It’s not something that they have to make up or worry about. The proof’s in the pudding. The die has been cast, and all they have to do is follow the rules.

Warner Bros./Alcon

The public space where Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette and her fellow prostitutes meet K is also mesmerizing.

That was all real. Every graphic in every vending machine was designed and lit properly. Again, we built out to the stage space we had available. It’s like a giant puzzle.

When you start designing a film, you know what stage space you have. You have nine stage spaces to work with, and then you start to design per the space you have, and allow for the large stages—Wallace’s office was in one of the largest stages. But then we also then had to shoot that, and strike that, and then bring another set in.

It was a massive undertaking. I have to say, the construction departments were stretched. It was the biggest challenge of their lives. It was challenging for us to get everything there, but we managed it. It was all-in.

That’s the fun part, for me, about coming to different countries—everybody learns something. The experience of making film is now about having a world experience. It used to be just in California, when I started, but now it’s everywhere. Everybody is learning, everybody’s understanding, and everybody’s contributing. That gives us strength for the future, where we have such a powerful medium to explore, to tell stories, to entertain people, to educate people—allowing people to think about how things are done, and how things are created.

That’s why I got in the business. I wanted to rebuild Manhattan as an architect—and I have many times, but in the film business. That’s the nature of it. We’re a non-invasive business. We come in, we do our jobs, we take pictures and leave, and leave the environment the way it is. There aren’t too many businesses that I can do that, especially at this scale.

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