Denis Villeneuve is sitting in the bar of a Beverly Hills hotel. He’s been fielding the press all day, talking about Blade Runner 2049. We spend the next half hour talking about the big risk he felt he was taking by doing a sequel to a film that is so iconic, his relationship with cinematographer Roger Deakins, and how he built over 90% of the sets to create that immersive dystopian world we see in the film.
The director of Sicario and Arrival explains how he brought his crew in early on and storyboarded every frame of the film, in a process that helps unify every aspect from lighting to cinematography to the soundscape.
Read our chat below.
Blade Runner is a giant to take on.
It really is. When you make a movie, you’re inspired by the story and when I read the screenplay, I felt home. It made sense in what I was doing and the exploration about what I was saying about this world.
When you make a movie of that scale it’s a big risk. I’d thought about doing it before, but it needs to work to risk everything and it needs to be meaningful. When I read the screenplay, it felt right to take the risk and it spoke to me. I knew how I was going to make it and I said, “If it’s my last movie then that’s OK.” There was this promise of a great movie and I knew if I didn’t do it then someone else would and I didn’t want anyone else to fuck it up.
I was so in love with the first movie. It’s very strange, you read books and screenplays and you know you can’t do them, but this one I knew I had to do.
So, I’m curious, what is your first memory of watching a film or seeing something on TV that impacted you?
I’m sure it’s linked to a Disney movie. I remember the astronauts walking on the moon. I was a young boy, probably three or four and it’s one of my earliest memories. I remember it because it was an event. I didn’t understand the importance at the time but I saw how the adults around me were behaving. I remember watching astronauts being on the moon.
You have Ridley Scott’s film, and you have your vision. What did you have to do to make sure your vision didn’t get lost when making the film?
I had complete freedom when making this film, but I wanted to do the opposite — I wanted to make sure I honored the legacy of the first movie. I’m different to Scott and a different director so it would have been easy to go so far away from the original and that was my fear. I feared I could end up doing things that weren’t necessarily Blade Runner and it was a huge responsibility.
When I was in LA, I felt secure but when we were in Las Vegas, I was trying to make sure we were still in the same Blade Runner universe.
Can you talk about the world you created and the conversations you had with Roger Deakins? Did you storyboard for this film?
When you make a movie like this you have to do a lot of planning. There were so many sets. We constructed 90% of the sets and it was a huge undertaking. Every shot was storyboarded.
I was working on Arrival at the time and I needed to bounce ideas off of someone. As soon as I traveled to Budapest, I had to figure things out and usually, that’s something I do alone, but I didn’t have the time to do it solo. I brought Roger Deakins to Montreal and we spent weeks together. We discussed the socio laws, the economic laws, everything. Dennis Gasner came with us and the movie was born there.
It saved my life to have that huge laboratory in this small room with Roger and two storyboard artists working full time.
We live in an era where you could have forgone the 90% of set building and used CGI. Was that important you do that?
Both Blade Runner films are very intimate with a lot of scope to the story. For the movie to work, I needed strong and precise performances. I needed the actors to focus on the world they were in. I needed them to be inspired and believe in the world. I had it all built. It’s not extraordinary because movies have been made like that since the beginning of time. But in the last 15 years, there’s been this trend where movies are made using a lot of CGI but I didn’t want that.
The first question all the actors asked me was if they were going to be in front of a green screen the whole time with fear in their eyes. For me, I can’t work like that. I need to be in a real environment and it’s about the colors. On lots of movies, there are a lot of ideas that can inspire you on the day of the shoot because an actor might suggest something and I wanted to have the freedom and the space to create and encourage those moments and you lose that when you use greenscreen, you just can’t do it.
But also as a viewer, it felt as if I was in that world because everything about it and the detail was such that you could feel every color, every detail, everything about it.
It’s more immersive and you feel it. What’s great is that with the sets, Dennis Gasner would go so far as to, if we had a window, he would design the other side of the street and designed light patterns to reflect that.
I wanted to talk about the lighting because it felt that each character had their own lighting language and it was a language in itself.
The beauty of bringing your set designer and cinematographer right from the beginning is that, as you rightly say, each character had their own lighting and we had those conversations. The sets were designed to enhance that and respond to the needs of the lighting. It’s not something that was applied or decided later. It was all planned. We worked together and the sets were designed for the lighting and not the other way around.
Usually, it’s the other way around.
Right. This time we didn’t do that. Dennis and Roger have already worked together and it was easy.
Because they know each other’s language.
Absolutely. They know how the other works and so they could communicate.
I want to talk about the influences of the costumes in the film and what you talked about with Renee April.
For her, it was not about science fiction. She wanted to create these characters and this level of realism. She didn’t want the costumes to distract from the character but create the character. We went for something more sober and added that realism to make the world more believable.
The main influence for me was the first movie. When I’ve made movies in the past, the influences have always been a painter or a poet. This time it was a movie that was a big influence. The book by Phillip K. Dick was also influential and inspired me.
How has your working relationship with Roger evolved over the years in the films you’ve worked on together?
The thing I love about Roger is we’ve worked on three films together and each time I say to him, I see a movie with this light, aesthetically looks like this, and then I’ll watch the movie when it’s all done. First, it was Prisoners, then Sicario and now Blade Runner 2049 and at the end, I looked at them and said, “He listened to me.” He fought until the very last drop to ensure it was on screen. Roger helped me at the beginning and he is there until the very end. With Blade Runner 2049, it was the same. He was there from the very beginning and there until the very end, finishing the movie and supervised on the visual effects with me. I wanted the VFX to look as real as possible. The key thing was how it was lit, and Roger was there to ensure that it all happened and looked how it needed to look.
I sat through the movie and thought how if you froze each frame, the details on the screen are so lush, you could have an exhibition.
It’s one of Roger’s best work by far. You’re right and I’m not saying this because I directed the film. It’s stunning what he did.
There’s a similar pacing to the original film. How was that experience for you in terms of getting it right?
I’m deeply happy with the pacing. I’m grateful that the producers embraced it because it’s unconventional. When you make a movie, you’re in a bubble and when we were doing this, we were in ours. I was convinced and I’m still convinced that’s the best way to tell that story. When the movie came out I was in France talking to film critics, they were telling me the film was fantastic but asking if I was insane? They were questioning the pacing and how we did it because to them, that pacing doesn’t exist anymore.
I’m grateful the producers gave us the freedom to do that. This film needs to be meditative and immersive. The movie needed to feel as if there was a certain weight to the scenes and I’m happy the studio supported that. The movie is designed for the big screen. It’s a love letter to theater and cinema. I don’t know how it would look on an iPad and it’s been done for the cinema.
I remember when the trailer came out and I had watched about 2 seconds on my phone and I had to stop because I needed to feel it. You’re right, the difference of seeing it on a bigger scene made all the difference.
Exactly and that’s how we made it.
Let’s talk about the soundscape of the film. What was the approach?
It was an impressionist approach that was very much influenced and inspired by the first movie. In the first movie, there was that fantastic ambiance atmosphere that was just an expression and not linked to any strange technological sound. It was a beautiful melancholic atmosphere and I wanted to have that same approach.
I wanted to approach it so that the boundaries between sound design and music were blurred. My sound design department created sounds that were closer to music and my composer created music that was closer to sound design and both of them danced together.
I did something on this movie that I’ve been dreaming of doing for so long, and that was to start sound design very early on in the process. The designers were on board as we shot the movie.
And that’s such a rare thing.
Yes. They’d never done that before. The task was huge. I wanted the movie to feel like the first one and they worked so hard. It was the first time that I had ever mixed a movie in Dolby Atmos and honestly, I’m so proud of the sound.
Let’s do something fun. Let’s do a word association game with a few of your films.
Oh, that’s dangerous.
Let’s go with Sicario.
Freedom and honesty.
Was there a scene in Bladre Runner 2049 that was harder to shoot that you had envisioned?
The seawall fight. The fight in the water was a challenge. Technically, it was by far the toughest scene I had ever done.
It was a bit mad to do what we did. Technically, it was tough for me.
You’re working on Dune next. How’s that coming along for you?
It’s in the writing process but that’s fantastic because I need to slow down a bit. I need to take time to digest what’s just happened and digest the past six years so I can know where I’m going for the next six.
I just thought about the opening of the film and how you set it up and how you draw us back into the world of Blade Runner.
As a filmmaker, you always have that thought of how do you open it? When I saw the original movie, one of the things I loved was the opening and what it created. That feeling of a curtain that opens into this dystopian world that I had never seen before with the Vangelis music and the landscape of LA. It was so powerful and I knew when making this that I could never beat that, but I had to find something that right from the beginning set the new laws of the movie and renew that relationship with the first movie. So, I had the idea of solar farms and we worked from there with the winter lights and that atmosphere. It was so exciting.
So, with the original, we had lots of different cuts and versions. Are we going to get any special cuts?
There’s just the one edit. My director’s cut is the 2D Atmos version. There are a lot out there, but my favorite versions, if you want to watch them, are the 2D Atmos version in IMAX. I’m not a big fan of 3D films, I’m old-fashioned.