Denis Villeneuve Explains the Four-Hour, Two-Part Release of ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ Disappointing Box Office, and ‘Bond 25’
With Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve had the particular challenge of creating a sequel to one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time. How do you make a Blade Runner that doesn’t feel redundant, that builds off of Ridley Scott’s original vision, and imagines the future of a futuristic world created 35 years ago? You do it without nostalgia, according to the French Canadian filmmaker.
Villeneuve, who directed BR 2049 from a script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, began by trying to figure out how the world of the 1982 film “would have evolved from a sociological point of view and a geopolitical [one],” and by doing whatever he could to protect the mystery of original. The sequel follows Ryan Gosling’s LAPD blade runner K in 2049 Los Angeles after he finds evidence that – and spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it yet – a replicant gave birth to a child. The groundbreaking discovery sends K on a hunt to find the now-grown child, meet Harrison Ford’s Deckard, and question his own identity.
When I caught up with Villeneuve in New York a few weeks ago, he told me why it was so important his sequel didn’t answer the original film’s lingering questions, including the still-up-for-debate Deckard mystery. The director told me about 2049‘s original four-hour cut and what he trimmed from it, he shut down the rumor that he planned to release the film in two-parts, and responds to the movie’s disappointing box office. Villeneuve also explained why he (sadly) won’t be directing Bond 25.
This film is so incredibly beautiful. And the world you’ve created is so distinct and fresh, but also echoes Ridley Scott’s original world in many ways.
Yeah, that was the goal because the first movie – there was a before and an after Blade Runner. Sci-fi was never the same after. [Laughs] It influenced so many movies. It has been revisited so many times. So the idea was to try to have look that will not feel pre-digested, or seen before. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Considering the massive influence it had on sci-fi, did how did you approach making something new while not losing the essence of the original?
The thing is, I tried to not approach it with nostalgia. To try to figure out how this world evolved. One thing I loved about the first Blade Runner was the world that Ridley Scott depicted had layers of time. You felt the stratification of time. You had buildings coming from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘20s and then the Sydney building on top. So we just put a few layers on top of that. To try to go with no nostalgia, but humility. Not trying to overstate it. Just to go as simple as possible in it. Yeah, humility is a good word in some ways, even if doing this project was very arrogant. I mean, try to figure out how it would have evolved from a sociological point of view and a geopolitical [one], and the climate and all those things. All the different elements that will influence this world and the technology, how it will have evolved.
You’re kind of going backwards to go forwards in a way. You have to make the future of a movie made 35 years ago, but set in the future.
Exactly, it’s like period movie. Most of the time I was shooting it didn’t feel – it’s strange, it felt like an alternate universe and something that was strangely future that belongs to the past. That strong impression very often because there was no digital world, no internet. It felt like old fashion science-fiction movie.
Were there things that were too futuristic that you had to dial back to keep an old-fashioned feel?
The digital holograms, I had to figure out a way to make sure that they would not look gimmicky and that they would look analog and real. Like Joi. That was a journey to try to figure out how Joi, Ana de Armas’ character would look like. Not trying to make it too Star Wars-like.
Joi is such a presence in this movie.
Yeah. You use the word presence. It had to feel as real as possible, but the audience had to keep in mind that it’s an artificial being. So it has to find the right equilibrium between both.
Similar to the original, the sequel maintains an air of mystery. You aren’t outright answering the biggest questions left by the first film. Was that what you wanted from the beginning?
It’s something I loved in the screenplay. I thought it was pretty clever from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, how to approach some of those questions and to keep the questions alive. Not to kill the question by answering, to not being very pretentious to answer to things that didn’t relate. I wanted to protect the mystery.
In another interview you mentioned you were going to show the replicant factories, and then you spoke to Ridley and he sort of convinced you not to.
It’s something that was in the screenplay. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. So that was easy, something I removed from the screenplay. The birth of the replicant is something that I think Ridley was afraid of, because he didn’t want to give any clue. He wanted to keep the mystery, to keep the sacred quality of it. So I tried to approach it more like a sacred experience, almost like a religious experience. Not like a real birth, to feel ... as [little like] technology as possible.
Yeah. There is no display of any kind of technology. When you look at it, it’s just a body coming out of a bag, and that’s it, in a wide shot. But you don’t see how, where she had been made, designed, how did she grow, all the work on the cells. You see nothing and that was very important for me.
Was it your intention throughout making the film to always show less?
When I did the movie, I knew that the things I will not show, that’s what Ridley was worried about. Not what I was about to show. I had to make sure I would not show things.
Did he give you a list of things he didn’t want you to show?
Mostly conversation. It’s a thing I love in the first Blade Runner too, is the fact that there’s a lot of evocations [and] suggestions. Suggestions, how you will see ads about off-world or you will see talk about the replicants being made, things like that, but you will never see the process. You will never go outside of L.A. – you’re behind the main protagonist’s shoulders. It’s a very intimate story. You’re seeing clues or hearing things about the world outside, but you don’t see it. I tried to extend the same spirit.
There is the scene with Niander Wallace where it seems like the film is about to answer the Deckard replicant question. It builds to what you think will be a climactic reveal, but we never get it, of course. What was your process of maintaining the ambiguity of that scene?
My answer will be very boring. It needs to be in the screenplay. Then it’s about nuances of how both characters will react to the subject they are talking about. And for me, it’s one of my favorite moments in the movie. What I think, I hope, we understand that even Rick Deckard is doubting his own identity. That for me is inspired by the book, Philip K. Dick’s novel, where the blade runners are doubting about themselves sometimes being in contact with so many artificial beings. Sometimes they want to take the Voight-Kampff Test on themselves to make sure they are humans and not objects. They are unsure.
And I think that is very moving to see that man at the end of his life still having that massive doubt, still not sure about his memories, how fragile he is and how troubled. And the burden of that doubt makes him beautifully vulnerable. That is one of my favorite moments. I think Harrison Ford did a fantastic job there. And then Wallace, played by Jared Leto, it’s just sadistic to trigger and to play the character and not giving him the answer. Because we don’t know the answer, but Jared Leto knows the answer. He’s the only character, besides Tyrell probably, who knows the real identity of Rick Deckard, if he’s a replicant or not.
I was thinking about this film in relation to a lot of your work. There’s a theme across a few of your films about characters who search for and find information about their identities, and how that information can be both painful and illuminating. In Incendies it’s the twins discovering who their father is, and Arrival it’s Amy Adams and the burden of knowledge about her daughter. Do you consciously explore those ideas across your movies?
I will say that all the characters evolve by discovering more about the past of their predecessors, or I think to make peace with his past. Or to try to stop in order to be able to evolve is a theme that, when I read the script Blade Runner, I said “Okay.” I understood why they approached me. [Laughs] Because when they gave me the screenplay I was like, “That’s so weird. How come they are coming to me and not to those guys? Why me?” And when I read the script I said, “Okay, I understand.” Because the producer loved Incendies. So for me as a filmmaker, it’s interesting to go on about some thematics that are fuel – inspiration that drives me as a filmmaker. Yeah, there’s a recurring theme in some of my movies, which, at the end of the day, I think there are very few subjects that you attack as a filmmaker and they are being told by different stories.
Joe Walker, the film’s editor, has said there was originally a four-hour cut of the movie and it was intended to be released in two parts.
[Laughs] No. The thing is, it’s true that the first cut was four hours and at one point we were like, “Okay, do we go to the producer and release it in two?” But let’s say the idea of the movie being in two parts didn’t get out of the editing room. [Laughs] No, the best incarnation of the movie is what is in the theater. What was striking is that the four-hour cut was quite strong. But personally I prefer the one that is in the theater because it’s more elegant, I would say. But there are some scenes that were like [makes boosh sound]. Quite strong.
That must have been so hard to cut.
No, you have to kill your darlings and I think four hours was too self-indulgent. And it’s a strange conversation because we’re talking about Blade Runner, so people want to know if there are other kinds of cuts. It’s [that way] in all movies; there’s always a long cut at the beginning. The first cut is always long and it’s a process and a lot of editing.
Do you think you’ll ever release the scenes that you cut, or is this the only version we’re going to see?
I will say that there’s no great things that are being lost. When I cut something, it’s dead. It means it was not good enough. Even if sometimes I’m cutting my favorite shots, I still strongly think that when it’s cut on the floor of the editing room it should not go back to see the light of day again. I don’t like extended cuts. I must say, apart from Touch of Evil and Blade Runner, I have never seen a director’s cut that was better than the original. I mean, I’m not a fan at all of Apocalypse Now Redux. I thought it was a massive mistake to do Apocalypse Now Redux. It’s true that maybe sometimes the director lost control and had to do what producers – but, most of the time the movie stands by itself. It’s stronger than one individual.
That’s great you were able to release the cut you were most happy with.
Yeah and honestly, that’s the movie I made. I will not show it to anyone, the four hours, it doesn’t work. The movie you see right now is the one.
And of course there’s been conversation around the box office and reception of the film –
I just want to say one thing. What is great is that honestly, there could have been – and maybe it will be linked with your next question – a lot of pressure. The movie is 2 hours 43 minutes. I could have had a lot of pressure to shrink the movie. What you see is the long version, the original director’s cut, full version is in theaters right now. In other circumstances working with other people, maybe I would have been under pressure to cut it down. Then the movie would have been less good honestly, because this movie needed, in order to understand the story and to fully embrace the journey of the character, that’s the length of the movie.
And the studio didn’t pressure you and was fine with the current length?
Yes. Alcon Entertainment, I will say, they have balls, for the sake of better words. [Laughs]
It’s an ambitious move to release an almost-three-hour sci-fi film, and that could tie in to my next question. The movie hasn’t performed as well at the box office as expected, despite the critical praise. What’s your takeaway on that? How much does box office reception matter to you?
First off, of course it matters to me because I feel responsible as a filmmaker. Then I will say the movie was praised and was well-received by film critics for its artistic qualities, saying that we didn’t make any concessions. So maybe we have to pay the price of having made this kind of, as you said, almost 3 hour art-house movie. And for an art-house movie, it did a ton of money. [Laughs]
If you don’t take into consideration the budget of the film, it’s my biggest box office. It’s a huge success, now, from an economical point of view. Now the U.S. box office is very disappointing, that’s the truth. It did well in big centers, like New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago. It didn’t do well in the small towns. That’s the big difference. It did very well in Europe. The international box office is a good one. It’s not a great one, it’s a good, honest box office.
So why? Because all the marketing tools were telling us that it was about to be a big success. The tracking was strong. The tests, good. The only thing that was left was the film critics and it was super well-received. And then the audience that went to see the movie gave the movie a great score. So, why? Honestly, I think everybody is still speechless about why. They don’t understand. Maybe it’s the length. I don’t know. The other day I was at home and I was at the hardware store buying something. The counter guy said, “Hey I’m going to watch your movie, but I heard it’s really brainy and long.” Ah! That’s maybe why. [Laughs] People are maybe afraid of the film because it’s long and supposed to be a puzzle.
I want to ask you about Bond. You recently said your Dune movie is taking priority and you may not be able to do Bond 25 if that were to happen. Is it a matter of priorities and timing? And if you did have the time, what would your ideal Bond movie look like?
Listen, I would love to do a Bond movie. I think Daniel Craig is a fantastic actor and I would like to, but several months ago I came into do Dune and I engaged myself. I committed myself and I’m someone that doesn’t step back. I remember I committed to do Enemy, they came with Prisoners I said, “I need to do Enemy first,” and I had to break to bend the schedule. I did the same with Arrival and Blade Runner. I did Blade Runner, one of my conditions was that I would have time to do Arrival first. Once I commit, I commit. When Legendary offered me to do Dune, on a silver plate? Which was like my dream project that I’m dreaming to do for 30 years? I said yes right away. I want to honor that. It doesn’t mean the movie will happen, maybe in six months the movie will – and Bond is an old fantasy of mine, but I can’t be in two places at the same time. It’s a strange year because I would love to do a James Bond. I need to focus.
Maybe Bond 26.
I would love to. I said to Barbara [Broccoli], I would love to work with you and with Daniel, but I’m engaged. [Laughs] I will love to do it, honestly. I’m a spoiled filmmaker right now.
Blade Runner 2049 is now playing.
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