Denis Villeneuve (‘Blade Runner 2049’): ‘At peace’ with movie after Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford loved it [Complete Interview Transcript]

After years of successful films “Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Sicario,” director Denis Villeneuve received his first ever Oscar nomination last year for the sci-fi movie “Arrival.” Returning to the futuristic world with “Blade Runner 2049” this year might bring him back to the Academy Awards in a few weeks.

The long-awaited, highly-anticipated film sequel stars Ryan Gosling as a young blade runner trying to uncover secrets and find a missing man from the past (Harrison Ford, star of the original epic movie). Watch our webchat hosted by Gold Derby’s Zach Laws with Villeneuve above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: So, Denis Villeneuve, needless to say there were high expectations for “Blade Runner 2049.” Before the film opened, I’m curious, what was your anticipation level like? Were you nervous, excited for fans to see it? What was your anticipation level like?

Denis Villeneuve: I was really looking forward to share it with the fans because the level of secrecy along this project, we deal with a level of secrecy like the CIA. There was so much secret, we had to protect everything all the time so it was, for me, a release to share it with the audience. At the same time I will say that I was really looking forward to the feedback from the fans, but there was a part of me that was at peace when the movie opened because Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford had seen the movie already and they had been very generous with me. They loved the movie so for me, I was feeling not secure but in peace, so that’s what I would say.

GD: The film has been in development for such a long time, I’m curious, when you came aboard, what stage was the script in? Where was it at when you came on board?

DV: It was a pretty advanced screenplay written by Michael Green from two drafts from Hampton Fancher. It was advanced but it’s always a sign as a director, you have a script in your hands and there’s work that needs to be done, specifically about not the story but about budget-wise the movie was a bit expensive. More important than anything else, the movie was written for Ridley. With all my respect and adoration for Ridley Scott, I’m very different and I needed to bring the story closer to me in some ways, so I didn’t change the nature of the story, of course, but we did a fair amount of work with Michael on the screenplay.

GD: Could you give us some examples of some of the ways that you made the story your own?

DV: Just as an example I would say the approach of K, character played by Ryan Gosling, walking, discovering Las Vegas, was totally different in the original screenplay. I would say that the attack on Vegas was also very different. If someone was reading the original screenplay and seeing the movie, you will see I paid for that (laughs), to make the movie mine. It’s everywhere. I didn’t have the choice. That’s the only way to work. It’s a process that I’m doing right now on “Dune,” to revisit the scenes and find images, cinematic images that I feel that I will be able to do that are inspiring me.

GD: Speaking of those images, obviously the original “Blade Runner” is very well known for the world that it creates and its visual look, so what were some of the ways that you and your department heads, like Roger Deakins and Dennis Gassner, what were some of the ways that you expanded on the world of the original and made it something new and unique?

DV: The thing is, as long as I was in Rick Deckard’s neighborhood, what I call his neighborhood, which was that cityscape that we all know from the original “Blade Runner,” I felt secure. I knew I was in known territory. But the thing that was a big challenge to me was when we were getting out of the neighborhood, when we were getting out of the outskirts of Los Angeles, when we were going to Las Vegas. That was a challenge, because I knew that we would be in different scenery, that would need to bring something different, but I would need to make sure that we would stay in contact and we would stay in the same kind of spirit as the original “Blade Runner,” and that was a long journey. It’s the first time that I was doing something inspired by the dream of someone else, by Ridley Scott’s dream. So I felt a huge responsibility, more precisely in scenes like Vegas or the character is traveling in trash dump Los Angeles, municipal trash dump at one point, and I made sure always to keep a link with the urban landscape and never go away from the idea of L.A. and always try to keep the essence of what makes a “Blade Runner” movie, which I think part of it is that film noir category, the tension and then those atmospheres, that thick atmosphere cloud, the foggy atmospheres.

GD: There’s also the influence of growing multiculturalism that was explored in the original film and that you expand upon in this one. Can you talk a bit about that?

DV: One thing that was quite revolutionary in the first movie was this idea that it was a sci-fi movie but you were still reading the levels of time. It was like in the first “Blade Runner,” that happens in 2019, from the ‘80s you are seeing it from the ‘70s, you are seeing neon signs that belong to the past, the architecture, buildings that belonged to the early 20th century and still you are in the future. You felt time, like in real life, that made Ridley’s world more real, more accurate, more relevant. I tried to have the same approach. It means that the cultural influences that are in the first movie are still present. I was trying to induce the idea that there will be new cultural influences that will be a bit stronger in “Blade Runner.” One of them is the Russian influence. That feels like hints everywhere that it’s a culture that is in this world, it is alternative universe, has a lot of influence, a lot of economic power present in the United States. Why? Because I felt like it was a way to express to the viewer that we were in an alternate universe, that some political power like the Soviet Union, were still present, like in the Philip K. Dick novel. That’s what I thought was really exciting, to redefine the world of 2049 and it gives a distance between the world of the movie and the world of today, it gives a common tongue to it.

GD: You’re also dealing, of course, with the expansion of technology. Obviously the original “Blade Runner” is all about robots and things, so that comes with the territory but it’s interesting the ways in which you guys explore what technology is gonna look like 35 years from now, particularly with his girlfriend, almost like a human version of Siri. Can you talk a bit about that?

DV: For me what the movie is interesting is in what it says about the world today, not about the vision of the future we’re depicting, because basically we are depicting a future that is inspired from the first movie, not from our reality. But what it says about today is our relationship with technology, the way it’s seen in the movie that our character cannot have an intimate relationship but with what would be an app, with a machine. That machine is designed to fulfill his desires. It’s like an app that is a mirror of his conscious. It’s really an app that, she’s there to project his desires. If he wants to do sports, she will try to encourage him to go aside and to run, that’s kind of thing. That relationship with technology, the boundaries between machines and humans, from an intimate point of view are smaller and smaller. We are closer and closer. That’s something I thought was quite interesting and how technology doesn’t bring us closer one to the other, but we are closer to the technology itself, that I thought was an interesting comment. The thing which makes this movie singular also is it’s a sci-fi movie with very advanced technology but also there’s something very true about it, because there’s no more internet. So it means that it’s an analog world. The digital world is confined to a very specific domain, the digital girlfriend you were talking about earlier, but apart from that it’s an analog world, and that I felt sometimes as we were shooting, I had a strange impression I was doing a period movie instead of a sci-fi movie, because of the way of reality in the world that reminds me of old noir film instead of today’s movies.

GD: Can you talk a little bit about working with special effects in this movie? How much of this stuff was practical? How much of it was computer generated?

DV: It was very important, it was fundamental for me, that we would construct, we would build all the sets. Everything was done on camera. Talking about set design, the apartments, the streets, the buildings, all the landscapes were real. There’s CGI in the movie, of course, in the movie to transform the backgrounds, to add the elements to the backgrounds. There were some visual effects, stunts that I cannot talk about because I don’t want to expose. There’s things like that I think have not been done in a movie before or that had not been achieved with that level of quality before, and I think it was really because the people working on the movie wanted to honor the legacy of the original “Blade Runner.” The original “Blade Runner” visual effects, what Douglas Trumbull did in the original “Blade Runner,” the VFX supervisor, it’s masterful. Today, the original “Blade Runner” is still a landmark from a visual effects point of view. That’s why every single person, artist, that worked on this movie gave their best. I think the movie achieved things that were not done before, that I’m very proud of.

GD: I wanted to ask you about the cast, starting with Ryan Gosling. Can you talk a little bit about working with him, ‘cause the character of Rick Deckard is so central to the original “Blade Runner” and now here’s somebody kind of filling in his shoes, in a sense. What was that relationship like between you two?

DV: I was able to do this movie because of Ryan Gosling. What I mean is that he was with me every minute of the making of this project. He was my very strong ally. He was not just there to punch in the morning and go. It was really like we spent days, days, days, weeks together, talking about every single scene before the movie started, to dig into the scenes and to make sure that every line there was as elegant as possible. We explored all the structure of the movie together. It was, for me, a privilege. That’s a thing I do usually alone but to do it with a close partner like that made things more dynamic and also I will say that as the movie was going along, Ryan is someone that has a very strong spirit, very positive energy. I needed that energy to go through that insane long shoot. I was not used to that kind of length of shoot. Ryan’s attitude was very important for me, so I will say he was my muse. He was my partner. I never felt alone in the dark. He was always there with me. We shared the responsibility together and I’m really grateful for that. Now, as an actor, there’s a lot of moments in the movie I owe him a lot because the movie was written for him. And when I read the screenplay I said, “Okay, that’s for Ryan,” and he’s the only actor I approached. What he brought to the movie, I think it’s fantastic.

GD: And then Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard, but 35 years into the future, what was that like working with him?

DV: Very moving. Harrison Ford, we all know him as a huge star, but I never met a star. I met a very strong actor, someone that has a lot of knowledge about acting. All the discussions we had, each line about all the scenes together, there’s moments where I had sessions of work with Harrison and Ryan themselves and I owe them both a lot, sessions on the scenes on the dialogues. One thing that really moved me is Harrison is still very passionate about what he does. I felt that the flame is tucked in there. He’s not bored. He loves filmmaking, and I felt as excited, to think that he cannot fake. I owe him a lot, too, because I would not have been able to bring back Rick Deckard alone. I really needed him. One of the first things I said to him was I needed a partner. It’s a huge responsibility bringing back a character from 35 years. He created the first Rick Deckard in the first movie and I needed him to create that same one.

SEE Hans Zimmer Interview: ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ composer

GD: I wanted to ask you about the soundtrack because it really goes a long way in complementing the images, not just the score, the sounds, the sound effects themselves, the way that they kind of blend in with the music. Can you talk a bit about that?

DV: It’s crucial. I was taking a lot of liberties visually, but I felt that something that was in the DNA of the original “Blade Runner” movie was the sound design and the music. They’re both very unique, very revolutionary. That’s the thing that I felt my movie needed to be close to that spirit. My sound design crew did very impressive work. First I fulfilled a fantasy of mine, which was to work on the sound not just in post but as we were shooting started to work as we were shooting. The boys started the sound design very early. I wanted every sound to be unique and singular and original. We worked for a year and a half like that, designing this world to be really something we have not heard before, with the very specific aesthetic of “Blade Runner,” where sound design and music are blended. Sometimes it’s, “Where is the border between sound and music?” Sometimes my sound design teams were doing things that sound almost music and sometimes my music team was doing things that were almost sound design. Both teams worked very closely together. As for music, I felt as the movie was evolving that I needed music that was very close to Vangelis. Vangelis’ score is a masterpiece. I felt that every time I was putting music that was close to the spirit of my images, it was like my images were responding very strongly to that. They did not accept any other kind of music. So I insisted when I approached Ben Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, I wanted them to take back from the closet that insane beast that is the CS80, an old synthesizer that is digital analog. It’s really a beast, very strange instrument, very difficult to play with, and to compose the music of the movie on the same instrument that Vangelis used in order to bring the same familiarity.

GD: You received your first Oscar nomination earlier this year for “Arrival,” another sci-fi film. Congratulations on that, by the way. You’ve also got “Dune” that you’re working on right now. What is it that attracts you to science fiction as a genre for filmmaking?

DV: First of all, it’s my first love (laughs). I grew up reading tons of graphic novels from Europe, with very strong authors with world-making and dreaming. Dreams were linked with the future, with escaping, with space, with the unknown, how to explore the unknown. To be on the earth, the territory, we saw everything. Now, in order to confront ourself, confront our human condition, to push the boundaries. You need technology. The explorers of my youth were all astronauts. There was something linked with space and questions raised by existence of the universe, existential questions. Science fiction is very dynamic to explore those ideas. I think that there’s an answer there. There’s an answer to all those questions and I love how science fiction, it’s getting us closer and closer to those answers. But anyway, it’s a passion I have and I was waiting to do science fiction since a very long time, and now that I can do it and I have the energy, ‘cause as much as I was dreaming to do science fiction since I was a kid, I must say that to do science fiction, I think is very difficult. My admiration for people like Ridley Scott, [Steven] Spielberg, that did strong sci-fi movies, it’s very difficult. Myself, I thought it was quite challenging.

GD: Receiving that Oscar nomination for “Arrival,” so many other people on your team were nominated as well, the film also won for its sound mixing. What did that kind of recognition mean for you and to see so many people on your team, the producers, cinematographer, sound people, production design, to see all those people recognized?

DV: For me, because let’s face it, it’s a strange process. Movies for me are a piece of art. There’s no contest, no competition between poetry or between art paintings. It’s a strange that we make a competition between movies like that. The only thing that is telling your movie is better than the other one is if it does survive through time. But, the good thing about the Academy Awards is it puts the spotlight away from the director and the stars. It puts the spotlight on the artists that are working in the shadow, like sound designers, cinematographer, editor, costume designers, all those people that work very hard. That’s the beauty of cinema is the teamwork. So I like the idea that the award season is a celebration for the artists that are in the shadow, and that’s beautiful.

GD: Well Denis, thank you very much and congratulations on “Blade Runner 2049.” I look forward to whatever you’re working on next and thank you for your time.

DV: Thank you, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

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