'Blade Runner 2049': How director Denis Villeneuve approached a sci-fi classic

When he was offered the job to direct the sequel to Blade Runner, Denis Villeneuve went a little Batty.

As in Roy Batty, the synthesized human “replicant,” played by Rutger Hauer, who makes a pilgrimage to confront his visionary maker in the original. Villeneuve insisted on his own pilgrimage, albeit a less ominous one — he wanted the blessing of Blade Runner visionary Ridley Scott, and he wanted it in person.

Otherwise, no deal.

Blade Runner meant that much to Villeneuve, who was profoundly moved by the 1982 movie when he saw it as a teen in Quebec, and who has drawn upon its vast influence for his own memorably moody sci-fi, like last year’s Arrival. Blade Runner is also all over his 2013 movie Enemy — featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a rumpled philosophy professor who becomes obsessed with his doppelganger — in its urban dystopian atmospherics and its themes: What is identity? Am I original? Who am I really?

Villeneuve’s identity, for the moment, is this: The guy fiddling with the DNA of a beloved classic, finding a way to replicate (pardon the pun) that experience for fans, while creating something essentially new.

Blade Runner 2049 arrives Friday, starring Ryan Gosling as a police officer in mid-century Los Angeles searching for his missing predecessor, Roy Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising his title role), who holds the key to a crucial mystery.

We talked to Villeneuve about his challenge.

Scott talks about Blade Runner being his most personal movie ever. Did he tell you why?

After Alien, his plan was to do Dune, and something happened, he lost a brother [to cancer]. And suddenly Blade Runner was the movie that was a more meaningful reflection of his state of mind. He needed to work, he needed to explore the shadows that were related to how he felt, and that was Blade Runner. He was angry with God. I think you can feel that in Blade Runner. And I think the movie as it resulted is very close to the dream of the movie he had in his head when he began. And that is rare, and special.

I think for a filmmaker there must also be something special in the way Philip K. Dick’s story lends itself so aptly to the medium of film. In the original, a replicant finds out memories she thinks are hers are actually designed for her and implanted. Film comes very close to fulfilling that role for us — movies become shared memories, implanted.

Well, that’s the beauty of the original, and the source of its melancholia, which is the feeling we tried to preserve. That idea of a character who is struggling with identity, struggling to know how much is programmed. Replicants are so close to humans, and we too are programmed by our genetic heritage, and also by our experience. Can we get free of that? Can we become truly independent entities?

One of the things that separates your sequel from the original are its references, often to classic art and literature, even to Sinatra. They pop up like the ghosts of a dead civilization, and that civilization is ours.

We had to preserve the idea that it is the future, but one that is still in relationship with its past. That’s one of the things about Ridley’s movie that was so brilliant, that made it feel real, in a way. The objects were reminiscent of old phones, old cars. What we show people in 2049 is a continued expression of that logic, and so I had to choose artists who would be in keeping with that, and with that melancholia. There will be no place for Celine Dion — this is a sci-fi film noir.

There’s a nod to Nabokov that seems telling. It’s a selection from Pale Fire, which Nabokov concocted as a fictional poem by a fictional poet, but in the process created something completely original. That’s very Blade Runner.

Also, this movie has a more Eastern Bloc feel to it. The first movie has a definite Asian feel to it, [Scott likened it to “Hong Kong on a bad day”] ours is more suggestive of the old Soviet empire, and there are elements of that in the original story.

The movies are very concerned with how to distinguish between humans and replicants. I’m wondering: In your opinion, can replicants make art?

A fascinating question. I think, yes. They are very close to human. They lack human experience, they are different from an emotional point of view, but they have their own sensibility, so I think yes, definitely. But it’s an interesting question. I think, if there is a Blade Runner sequel, I will steal your idea.