Blade Runner 2049 director didn't want the film to be "too Marvel"

Harrison Ford, who returns to the Blade Runner franchise, talks about why the film is unique for the audience as well as the actors.
Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 neo-noir fantasy about androids that look just like human beings, stars Ryan Gosling (far left) and Harrison Ford (left).
Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 neo-noir fantasy about androids that look just like human beings, stars Ryan Gosling (far left) and Harrison Ford (left).PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

Denis Villeneuve took on the sequel to the iconic Blade Runner because he knew his producers would fully support his vision

A funny thing happens when acclaimed indie directors start making big Hollywood films: The cinematic sensibilities that once made them stand out often wither in favour of crowd-pleasing explosions, happily-ever-afters and other tropes of mainstream cinema.

Director Denis Villeneuve has been a notable exception, leaving his distinct auteurish stamp on blockbusters as varied as last year's Arrival - the contemplative science-fiction drama that bagged Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director - and Sicario, his grimly compelling 2015 thriller about the Mexican drug wars.

Now he has taken on Blade Runner 2049, the long-gestating sequel to director Ridley Scott's 1982 neo-noir fantasy about androids that look just like human beings.

The film is racking up glowing early notices and this, despite clocking in at two hours and 43 minutes and being released with an adult R rating in the United States - both of which suggest the money men did not extract too many concessions from Villeneuve, who cut his teeth making French-language indies such as the mystery drama Incendies (2010).

Opening in Singapore tomorrow, Blade Runner 2049 stars Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.

Ford reprises his 1982 role as a policeman who hunted down errant humanoid robots, with Gosling playing a younger officer assigned the same task in the year 2049.

I wanted the focus to be on humans and not gadgets, on what we were saying about our world today and to keep contact with the poetry of cinema and not be overwhelmed by the technology.

DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE, on not overusing special effects in Blade Runner 2049

The iconic status of the original Blade Runner would be enough to intimidate any director who took on the sequel, while the US$185 million (S$253 million) budget for this film would certainly come with some pressure to make a film appealing to the widest possible audience.

But in a one-on-one chat with The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently, the French-Canadian filmmaker reveals his secret strategy to resist such pressures and stick to his artistic vision.

"It's very simple - for me, it's all about relationships: Who are you making the movie with?" says the 50-year-old Quebecois.

"I agreed to make this movie because I knew I was working with producers who will respect my vision."

The producers, Mr Andrew Kosove and Mr Broderick Johnson, made Villeneuve's first Englishlanguage film, the acclaimed 2013 thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

"I'd never felt respected like that before as an artist and director - the way they treated me and protected my vision," says the director.

"After that experience with them, I felt secure that making a movie on a bigger scale, I knew that those producers would help me bring my dream onto the screen and protect it. And they did, again.

"So it's all about who you are working with. Honestly, I was lucky."

Big action set pieces are a mainstay of tent-pole films - the ones studios count on to make most of their profits.

But for Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve did not want those scenes to feel "too Marvel" - a reference to the credibility-straining, effects-heavy action typical of superhero flicks.

"I felt there was the danger of some action scenes looking unrealistic and I worked hard to bring them back to realism so the emotional impact of the violence would be stronger," he says.

The other thing he avoided was overusing special effects.

"I wanted every time we used special effects to be necessary to the story and to have a meaning, and not just be there for the sake of playing with toys.

"I wanted the focus to be on humans and not gadgets, on what we were saying about our world today and to keep contact with the poetry of cinema and not be overwhelmed by the technology."

'As long as Ridley Scott enjoyed the film'

In a separate interview, Gosling, 36, says this philosophy was apparent on set.

Villeneuve "was very focused on grounding it and not getting lost in the fantasy element, to the point where he created real environments for all of it, with very little green screen built - most of it was practical sets and props".

Despite all his efforts, Villeneuve worried about what Scott and Ford would think of his efforts.

"There're always one or two screenings that you're afraid of as a director. And for this film, it was when Ridley saw the movie," says the director, who is married to Canadian journalist Tanya Lapointe and has three children from a previous relationship.

"For me, it's a big thing because it's the first time I've done a movie inspired by someone else's vision. But he had a positive reaction and it was a massive relief.

"That's why I think I'm calm today - because I know Ridley and Harrison Ford enjoyed the film."

Gosling, star of the Oscar-winning La La Land (2016), believes the director successfully threaded the needle of paying tribute to the original while making this story his own.

"He's a huge fan of the original - it inspired him to want to become a film-maker," says the Canadian actor, who has daughters, aged two and one, with wife and actress Eva Mendes, 43.

"But he's also a complete individual and wanted to make his own film and I think he walks the line really elegantly between that and being respectful. And I know he was encouraged to do that by Ridley as well."

But as much as Villeneuve admires Scott's Blade Runner, he says his Blade Runner offers a more upbeat take on the future than the original, even though it is set in a world racked by climate change and ethical dilemmas from new technology.

"I think we are lacking utopianism (in science fiction) - there are a lot of dystopian visions and one reason I made Arrival is I needed, as an artist, that kind of positive vision.

"While it's important sometimes to make dystopian movies as warnings, it's always important to explore different avenues that could bring the world to a better place," says Villeneuve, whose next project is a reboot of Dune, another iconic science-fiction novel and 1980s film.

"These are two things I will try to find an equilibrium between in my projects, and I go from one to the other."

•Blade Runner 2049 opens in Singapore tomorrow.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Director's running start'. Print Edition | Subscribe