Of all the changes that the 2000s have brought to film, one of the most lamented is the death of the mid-budget drama—the original story without superheroes, without franchise aspirations, where great actors stretch out their skills on the grandest stage. For decades, careers were made on those films. Then, one day, they all shrunk, relegated to independent cinema or prestige television.
This, in part, is what makes Denis Villeneuve so special. The films he’s made—most notably Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and Arrival—have been widely praised, but also, seemingly, anachronistic—the films people dream of making but no longer have the chance to.
So what’s that director doing rebooting a sci-fi franchise?
Well, for one, it’s not just any sci-fi film he’s making a sequel to. It’s Blade Runner—for this critic’s money, one of the best films ever made in any genre. But still, when I sit down with Villeneuve, I have to ask—was it hard to adjust to playing in another filmmaker’s sandbox?
“It’s not worth making images that you feel have been made before, or that you feel you’re repeating someone else, and walking in the path of someone else,” Villeneuve says.
“It’s arrogant, it’s pretentious, but you try as much as possible to create something new every time. Even if you have multiple influences, as you are doing images in cinema, it’s always the goal to explore new avenues. Of course you don’t succeed all the time, but in each movie if you can achieve a few strong real images that are fresh—that’s a huge achievement I think.”
Doing this in any film is hard—doing it in a sequel considerably more so.
“You’re right that it’s more difficult doing this process using characters and a universe that has been dreamed by someone else before, and that was by far one of the biggest challenges of doing Blade Runner 2049—to take care and, at the same time, to make my own images out of Ridley Scott’s universe.”
Now that he’s done it, the real challenge will be to step away, to go back to the world of original ideas, and not be drawn back into the Blade Runner universe when new ideas inevitably come for yet another sequel.
“What happens now sincerely depends on how the world reacts to this one. For now, I know that there are some ideas that of course I am sure that the temptation to tell will be big as the creator of this one, but we’ll see.”
A Starman lost
Villeneuve wasn’t able to make Blade Runner 2049 exactly as he originally envisioned. In the film, one key role—Niander Wallace, the man who crafts the replicants—was not meant for the man who took it, Jared Leto.
The part meant for David Bowie.
Villeneuve casually revealed this on stage to a crowd of us in Barcelona in June. When we met again in Berlin in September, I asked Villeneuve to tell me the full story.
“I never met David Bowie, I never talked to him. I never had that privilege. The thing is that, when you read a screenplay, you dream. It’s the birth of the dream. And there was a character that needed an actor that would come with a very strong charisma, an actor that will have a kind of theatricality, someone that will be able to deliver the lines and bring power into them—someone that will be beyond this world. Someone that you will believe has no age—that you will not know if he is good or bad—that will be a symbol of ambiguity.
“David Bowie, I felt, for me, was almost, I think, a source of inspiration for the first Blade Runner,” Villeneuve tells me. “When you look at David Bowie—there is so much David Bowie in the first Blade Runner, and I thought it would be beautiful to see him in this world.”
It wasn’t meant to be.
“I had the impression to be in contact with one of the roots of the first movie, and we didn’t at the time approach him. We just discussed about him together, and got in contact slowly. When it was time to make the move, I learned in the press that very morning that sadly the greatest artist had gone.”
David Bowie passed away on 10 January 2016.
“The world lost one of its great artists, so I will not complain for me, but for me it was very sad because I would have loved to work with him.”
Replacing the composer
The score of the original Blade Runner by composer Vangelis remains iconic and influential to this day, its reputation only growing with time.
For Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, Villeneuve built a successful partnership with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose score for Sicario was nominated for an Academy Award.
Initially, the pair were set to work together on Blade Runner 2049. In September, news broke that Jóhannsson had left the project—and his work was replaced completely by composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
I ask Villeneuve what caused Jóhannsson to leave the project.
“The thing I will say is that making movies is a laboratory. It’s an artistic process. You cannot plan things. Jóhann Jóhannsson is one of my favorite composers alive today. He’s a very strong artist.
“But the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Johan and I decided that I will need to go in another direction—that’s what I will say. I hope I have the chance to work with him again because I think he’s really a fantastic composer.”
A spotlight on the disenfranchised
The original Blade Runner is the crown jewel of a sub-genre of science fiction dubbed ‘cyberpunk’. While so much sci-fi turns its gaze to those for whom the future is brightest, cyberpunk shows us a developed world’s lower classes, who the future has left behind. While even our blade runners are stiffs working against their will, the film empathizes with those they hunt down—the ‘replicant’ slave class for whom freedom is a crime.
Villeneuve continues that in 2049, and is clear that what he has to say extends far beyond the realm of fiction.
“It’s a very good question because the movie in some ways is based on that tension of those class levels—of replicants being enslaved, being used as slaves, not being real citizens. It’s something that I feel is sadly relevant in the world today.
“The world is divided by the Western world and the rest of humanity, where you feel there is something that should not still exist—the disparity of wealth, and the disparity of opportunities. It’s one of the topics that I thought why the movie I hope will be relevant to the audience today.”SHOW MORE