Denis Villeneuve needs a break. When the prestigious filmmaker calls late one November evening, he sounds exhausted, as if he’s just returned from a four-hour session at the gym. “I need to digest what happened in the past six years,” he tells me. “I need to figure out how I want to evolve as a filmmaker…” Fair point. After all, the 50-year-old French-Canadian director and writer has been on quite a tear these past few years, carving out the kind of lush filmography that made folks like Richard Donner, David Lynch, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott such celebrated auteurs of their times.
Between crime thrillers like 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario to understated sci-fi gems like 2013’s Enemy and 2016’s Arrival, Villeneuve has not only proven himself worthy, but incredibly formidable. He has a heart for muscular stories akin to Michael Mann and an eye for design that rivals Jonny Ive. Each one of his works are elaborate, if not enchanting, and yet cruise on by with an air if naturalism that would make Richard Linklater flinch. His latest masterpiece, Blade Runner 2049, is a culmination of all his vices, a groundbreaking sequel that eschews any formulaic nostalgia for raw ingenuity.
In some ways, the whole thing feels like a total anomaly. How else do you explain the existence of a heady, meditative, 153-minute neo-noir sci-fi film in this day and age? Better yet, one that doesn’t introduce its most iconic star until over halfway through the film and whose source material was initially a flop upon release? Maybe Warner Bros. and Sony knew they had something special in their hands, that this story was worth telling right now, that this was the type of blockbuster studios should be making. Or perhaps that’s why it took seven production companies to get this sucker off the ground.
Box office be damned — the film has yet to cross the $100 million mark domestically — but the risk was worth it. Because in our era of gluttonous reboots and fan-fiction filmmaking, Blade Runner 2049 radiates on the fringe, and much like George Miller’s Oscar-nominated spectacle, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the film feels part and parcel of the franchise. It’s less of a sequel and more of a film, an incredibly important distinction that Hollywood may be courting, especially given that Villenueve now has carte blanche to do whatever he wants, be it 007, Star Wars, or Dune. Don’t worry, he’s addicted to the spice.
“You cannot be in two places at the same time,” he admits. “Bond would be a dream of mine, and I would have a lot of fun. I do not know if it will happen or not. The thing is right now I’m committed to writing and trying to do Dune.” The keyword right there is “committed,” one of the best ways to describe the filmmaker and his ensuing body of work. Rest assured, this is a filmmaker who treats every project like it’s his first, coddling each film in ways that are both precious and obsessive. But that’s why he’s exhausted, because like any great father with kids, his mind never stops going. He lives to create.
Read ahead for our exclusive interview with Villeneuve in which he digs deep into the convulsing aesthetics, topical themes, and mind-numbing what-ifs of Blade Runner 2049. In addition to providing plenty of context for the film, he details his original plan on working with the late David Bowie, why he wound up passing on the original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and whether or not there’s a future to the franchise. Beyond that, you’ll see why he’s currently one of the most essential eyes in the industry (if you haven’t already) and why Consequence of Sound named him Filmmaker of the Year.
The Calm Before the Storm
They approached me, I would never dare. I would never propose myself. They came to me in a really cinematic way. They gave me a rendezvous in an unknown place where nobody could see us, and they gave me the screenplay there. Honestly, I was in shock when they proposed that. I was moved because they put this responsibility in my hands, and, at the same time, I was dying to read the screenplay. The producers are my friends; I made [Prisoners] with them in the past.
I was very hesitant because several things happened at the same time. At first, I had very mixed feelings about the idea of making a sequel to the original Blade Runner. I felt secure that Hampton Fancher and Ridley Scott were behind the project, but still, I was thinking, What a crazy idea to do that. When I read the screenplay, I understood; I thought it was a very powerful and profound screenplay that felt like home. I said, “Okay, I understand why they are approaching me: the exploration of identity and memories, it makes sense in the continuity of my work, it makes sense to make that movie for me.”
The screenplay inspires you, you start to dream about it, and I was very surprised when I read the screenplay. I said, “Okay, I’m doomed. I might have to do that. It’s crazy.” And … I didn’t say yes right away because, first of all, I had to make sure that I was being very honest with myself. Would I be able to do it technically? Would I have all the knowledge to bring it to the screen? And also, would I be at peace with the idea that my chances at success were very narrow, that I would be judged by the film community? Would I be at peace with all that? And once I found that peace, I found that freedom to say yes.
I’m not talking about days. I’m talking about a long time.
Replicating Without Being a Replicant
Like any screenplay, the reality of the filmmaker is always recurrent. You read a screenplay and the dream is always figured out. Once I got on board, one of the first things I said was, “If I do this movie, I would like to approach it this way, and that I will do it this way, and what is in the screenplay right now, I will change that, that, that, and that.” From the start, there were things — etiquette of how the violence was approached, how the action scenes were designed — I wanted to spin from the spirit of the first movie. So, we changed that. Then there was an old process of working to try to make the movie less expensive, which was great by the way. It was great because the story was very long, and I thought there was a more economical way to talk about money but a more simple way to tell the story, and some moments didn’t make it in a certain budget.
So, the situation where I had to find a more economic way to make the movie was fantastic for me because it allowed me to toughly take control of the universe and the project and make it very close to me. Then, once that writing process was done with Michael Green, the screenwriter, I did another pass. When I’m talking about a pass, I’m not talking about changing the meaning of the movie or changing the story, but changing the way the story is told. When I storyboarded the movie with [cinematographer] Roger Deakins, then it was a process of bringing the project very, very close to me as we approached each scene with the camera as we were story boarding. When you story board, you are rewriting the story from words into images, and very often there are dialogues or the way the scenes are. So, then again I did some work with Ryan Gosling, and on the first day of shooting, we were still working on the screenplay to make sure that we had the best draft to go on camera.
Evolving the Aesthetics of Blade Runner
Of course, [aesthetic] is a very important aspect of the first movie; it was like a landmark in the cine-story. There’s a before and an after to the original Blade Runner, it changed sci-fi forever, it became a genre in itself. I can’t tell you how many times I heard on set, “Oh, this looks like a Blade Runner shot, or this set looks like Blade Runner.” So, it was a massive challenge to try to visit this universe with fresh eyes and keeping the thing in contact with the sense of the first movie. The first thing I did was approach one of the best cinematographers of our time [Deakins], and he started to work with me right at the beginning, storyboarding and designing the world with me, and then I worked with Liz Gasner, the costume designer. Basically, I went with the logic of the climate, and I imagined how the world would have evolved, from an economic, thematic, geopolitical point of view between the first movie, and how it would have an impact on the city, the vehicles, the props, the clothes.
The fact that Hampton Fancher and Michael Greene had this fantastic idea that there would be a colder climate in California involving snow meant the world to me. As a Canadian, that’s something I know from a very intimate point of view. When it’s cold, I know how people walk, think, behave, talk. It’s very different if you meet someone in Montreal in January than in July; they’re not the same human. And it’s the same about the light. When I design a movie, one of the first things that comes to mind is how will I approach light. How will I inspire my cinematographer? The light was very specific in Prisoners, and the light was very specific in this movie. I had decided to bring that silver, that kind of light at the beginning of December, to the film. It is a light that is very close to me, and it informed me on how I would shoot the movie.
The beauty of making a movie is that you can have control over everything without making any concessions. The color palette, that kind of charcoal super gray, gray to darkness, was to go back to the spirit of the first movie, something that would be more of a kind of a winter Blade Runner. That kind of sense between the first and the new one, that was planned very precisely according to each scene. Then there was this idea that we would follow the thread of the color yellow. The color yellow would have some kind of meaning or be something that the audience could follow from a subconscious point of view. They would be like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going down the trail of yellow bricks. That color evolves the movie, bringing in the main character; it’s desire, it’s madness. For me, it was so fun to have the change to approach color this way.
It’s About Experience
I like movies that are immersive, where the audience feels that they’re going through a world from a sensory point of view, and that they lose control in their reality, and that something grabs them, and that they’re absorbed by a world — and to use the powers of cinema to do that is so powerful. The thing is that Blade Runner is a movie that has been thought and designed to be seen on a huge, massive screen with great sound. It’s the opposite of a movie for an iPhone. It’s a reaction to the trend to watch things on small formats. It’s really a movie that was made for IMAX screens, and that’s not about the box office; it’s really about how the movie was thought, designed, and shot. It’s really to be a cinematic experience.
But It’s Also About Hope
Science fiction will always be more interesting when it’s a mirror of the present time. I am an optimist, a worried optimist. I don’t want to fall into cynicism. I need hope. It’s important to look at the world for what it is right now, but it’s important to keep the flame alive. And it’s a thing that I love in the way the main character is dealing with humanity, his relationship with humanity. And the way he sacrifices was pretty powerful at the end and something beautiful to be said about today.
David Bowie and What Could Have Been
Casting is a very delicate moment and very important. You will choose your main color palette, you will choose the people that will bring souls in front of the screen, and you have to be very careful when you do casting. There were a lot of people that came to mind when I read the screenplay; an idea that came to the table very early on when we started casting was that Wallace could be played by someone like David Bowie. It made so much sense to me. I said, “That’s a genius idea! That’s a genius idea!” David Bowie, for me, was Blade Runner before its time. Probably, the original Blade Runner was inspired by David Bowie. He was so ahead of his time. He’s a sci-fi character in itself. He embodied the Blade Runner spirit.
So, I said, “If I bring back a new Blade Runner, to have David Bowie in it would make so much sense,” and he’s a very avant actor, who had a nice theatrical quality, and I needed someone who had that insane charisma. I thought he was perfect. But the truth is, I started to bring this idea to the table in front of everybody, and everyone got excited about the idea, and we reached out to his people to know if he’d be available, just to know. I was afraid he’d be on tour or busy or didn’t want to act again, I didn’t know. I don’t know him, never met him, never talked to him. The first thing, as we were doing this process, the news landed one morning — super sad news for the world — that this great artist had gone away.
Of course, I was super sad for such a loss, and at the same time, and from a selfish point of view, I was like, “Oh boy…” [Pause.] Jared Leto asked me a question. He said, “How come you came to me that late?’ I never told him the answer is because I had to mourn him …. a long time. I needed to find another good idea, and it was a very long process for me to let the passion for Bowie fade away. So, I started to shoot the movie not knowing, and the producers were fantastic. They said, “Take your time, we understand. You will find an idea.” And when the idea of Jared came, then I knew that I’m so grateful Jared accepted because I needed the quality I was looking for, and honestly, I was blown away by his performance.
More Woman Than Woman Is Our Motto
One thing that has to be seen when I read a screenplay is that there are a lot of parts for an actress. Very often you read a screenplay and there are one or two there. But there were several ones [for Blade Runner 2049], six or seven, very important female characters with some of them in a position of power, and some of the characters, through that, are more like the first movie, closer to characters inspired by film noir, where you have the femme fatale. For me, the important thing was to make sure those characters would be real and not have a lack of dimension and that other characters were also very contemporary.
It’s true that they are sexy — it’s a take of the first movie and it was in continuity of that — but I tried to create real beings, not just clichés in front of the camera. And I think the actresses that I cast were very strong. A character like Ana de Armas’ Joi is portraying glory. She’s a very sophisticated character that’s evolved in a very strong way through the movie, going from an object to the subject and transforming herself. So, I understand that if you look at the movie on the surface, there are a bunch of beautiful women, but if you look at the movie closely, you will see that it is more profound.
Finding the Next Vangelis
I am the biggest fan of Jóhann [Jóhannsson]’s work. He did three insane, fantastic scores for me, and I am very proud of his work. And the thing is that, when you make a movie, you’re not making shoes; it’s an art form. And at one point, the movie comes alive itself and me, the director, I felt that the movie was welcoming music that sounded like Vangelis music, but nothing else. And that’s why I approached Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, who were familiar with that sound and worked with the CS-80, the famous synthesizer from Vangelis, and they brought that beautiful melancholia we were looking for. I will say that Jóhann’s work was great, it was just different, and it was not accepted by the movie the way I wanted. For me, there was a melancholia that I was looking for, and a specific emotion in the score, and aesthetically, it was powerful when you put Hans’ music on the movie, how the movie came to life.
The Future of the Franchise
The last time I saw Ridley [Scott] was at the premiere because he’s pretty busy right now. I know that, to my great excitement, there will be other possibilities. I cannot talk about it right now because it’s at a very early stage, but it’s something… The producers are very happy with the movie, and they are dreaming of others maybe … but it’s very early, I cannot talk about it.
Do Sandworms Dream Too?
I’m dreaming about Dune full time now. It’s at a very early stage; I’m in the writing process. It’s been a while since I’ve pined in front of a white page and had to think about it. I’m working with a fantastic screenwriter, his name is Eric Ross, and he’s very inspiring and a very powerful writer. We are working together, but it’s going to be a long process, and I want a long process because I need to digest what happened in the past six years, I need to figure out how I want to evolve as a filmmaker, and more importantly, I need to make sure that I will do my homework to make this adaptation possible. If you ask me right now what I want to do in life, it would be Dune. That’s what I want to do, just focus on that.