Reviving the disquieting world of “Blade Runner” produced a quiet hiss of anxiety in Denis Villeneuve. He counted Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction detective thriller among the best, most beautifully shot films he had ever seen. It was the first VHS movie he bought in his youth for repeated home viewing. It was an inspiration for creating his own catalog of ominous, critically respected, commercially successful works, including “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Arrival.”
While his steadily rising career made him a fitting candidate to oversee the highly anticipated spinoff “Blade Runner 2049,” which takes place 30 years after the first, Villeneuve refused the first offer. In a recent phone conversation, the director said that making a follow-up to the cult classic through his own point of view felt like a presumptuous, risky career choice.
“When they showed me the screenplay, I hesitated a lot before I said yes. I had mixed feelings to the idea of making a sequel to the original ‘Blade Runner.’ The truth is, honestly, I didn’t think it was a good idea from the start,” said Villeneuve. “I felt an intimate connection to that story. I thought that it was a very exciting idea to go back to this universe. I felt inside me that I would be able to do it technically. But to make a sequel to this movie, I didn’t know. I had to make peace with the idea that my chances of success were very narrow. Very narrow.
“I said yes for several reasons. One that was very arrogant and pretentious was that I didn’t want somebody else to [louse] it up. I really thought it’s such a fantastic bad idea to make a sequel to ‘Blade Runner’ that I really want someone to care. And they will do it no matter what happens. I was looking for a sci-fi project of that scope and I said, ‘OK. It’s massive, the biggest artistic risk of my life. But it’s worth taking it because I love this universe so much.’ ”
Villeneuve said he feels the film’s “paranoid atmosphere” is timely for today’s audiences. “It’s the triumph of bullies right now,” as equipment that was designed to bring us closer together instead persuades the public they have “permission to judge other people in a very harsh way through the internet.
“There’s something hard about society, about our people,” he said. “There’s something in the idea of being present to each other and technologies in a way that it seems to make the human contact less efficient. We are less present as human beings. Everybody is in front of a screen right now. Everybody’s looking at their iPhones right now, walking in the street, and they are less than human. Just think how today we’re losing links with our collective memory.”
Villeneuve’s worries about the ambitious assignment eased as the new film accessed key resources from the original, allowing him to bracket the two stories faithfully rather than leaving the first behind. He drew on insight and advice from Scott, returning cast members including Harrison Ford and concept art again created by futurist designer Syd Mead.
While he still felt there was no guarantee of popular success, he relaxed his concern about delivering an embarrassment. He said he thought “that I will need to make that movie only for thinking about the process, thinking about the joy of filmmaking, making this movie as a love letter for the first ‘Blade Runner,’ but not thinking about any kind of rework.”
The once-problematic project began to give him surges of enthusiasm.
“So I had to make it just for the pure joy of filmmaking. A pure artistic gesture which gave me a lot of freedom. Once you accept the idea that your chances of success are super small, then you become free.”