Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s always a challenge to decide how coded to be and how clear to be.
When director Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER was released back in 1982, its heady concepts and existential philosophies began being bandied about by audiences. In the 35 years since, these debates haven’t waned, but rather grown – and so has the mass appeal of the property based on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
Producers on BLADE RUNNER 2049, the highly anticipated sequel based on a story by the film’s original adapter, Hampton Fancher, hired on Michael Green, who’s having quite the lucrative year with LOGAN, ALIEN: COVENANT and AMERICAN GODS already released, and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS on the precipice. Green has co-scripted a tale befitting of the legacy the original – and just as deliciously ambitious.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the talented screenwriter about how he was able to walk that fine line and still manage to gift us with a masterful, riveting epic. And don’t worry about spoilers as we both agreed to speak without any chance of them popping up.
The original was very polarizing, but ultimately became a beloved cult classic. When you first set about this, was there more of a push to make this one hit on more of a mass appeal?
No. The best parts of the experience – and it’s been a four and a half year experience for me – have been no one came at this with any cynicism at all. People, starting and ending with Alcon – the studio who got the rights and produced the film by hand even though it’s being distributed by some larger studios as well. They protected it because they love it. They didn’t buy BLADE RUNNER to turn it into something else. They wanted to maintain the integrity of the title as they understood it, as you say, a revered piece of literature and cinema. There was no moment in any of the development where they said, “We need to do the things movies do. That we need to replicate this moment in another film.”
One of the most dispiriting notes I’ve gotten on another project was literally someone saying, “Hey can you have our superhero moment just like IRON MAN had in IRON MAN.” There was nothing like that from any of the people involved here. It was “What’s the best story we can tell and what’s the best way to tell it?” That’s why I felt it was a safe place to play with fire, which we all knew it was. If I’d sensed any cannibalism or carnivorousness from any of the people involved where they would not want to make a piece of property, that wouldn’t be a place to play. I think that’s one of the many reasons this project attracted the caliber of talent that it has. Everyone felt this was an un-cynical place where artists wanted to show their regard for a film that inspired them by making a film that would’ve inspired them.
It very much feels like it was an artist’s medium to be able to work on this. As the writer, I bet it was daunting but also a blessing.
Perfectly said! It was daunting and a blessing. I had the good fortune of inheriting a sack of seeds that [Hampton Fancher] selected and seen to sprout and got to plant them into others and grew an orchard. I had Ridley Scott’s blessing. I had him as a goalie to say if something felt right or not right. And then I got to work with Denis Villeneuve, who made the film his own and whose work I admire so much. Two of my favorite directors helping me shape the ideas I wanted to see. And always, from both of them, from the spirit of let’s shape them so they’re most effective. That is a gift – an absolute gift in every moment.
Were the shorts [he wrote NEXUS DAWN] intended to originally be part of this film, but cut for time?
No, no, no. They were meant specifically for that. Andrew [Kosove] and Broderick [Johnson] came to me and said they were setting aside some time and some resources to do some viral shorts. I gave them my instinct. I said, “I’d love to take a crack at them time depending.” They gave me a wide berth of what would be interesting. They saw the opportunity to help build the bridge between the two time periods for those who are deeply involved or the type of people to watch short films online, which is to say, my people.
I said, “Who’s going to shoot it?” And they said, “Luke Scott.” He’s a wonderful director and the right person for that. It went great. It was a great day of filming. he did it in a day, I believe. I loved the look of it. I asked him, “The set looks great.” He said, “It’s a perfect bridge between the Byzantine look of the first and the brutal instincts of the new film. I went, “Wow! That’s really well-put. I can’t wait to say that and make people think I’m as smart as you.”
I wrote another one, but I don’t know what happened to it. I loved the Dave Bautista one [NOWHERE TO RUN]. I didn’t write it, but he’s really engaging.
Was there any character whose voice changed once they signed on?
Not really. In fact, I’ll go the other way. There were other pieces of casting where I said, “Given that we’ve gotten this person, should I do a pass to suit them?” The response was no. Not to say, there are certainly characters who took a certain piece of dialogue and made it their own – as actors need to. Everything happened authentically to everyone’s performance because Denis could spot very well when a line wasn’t suited to the person saying it. He’d either help them find it or me help them find it.
The original is known for being wildly ambitious and ambiguous – depending on what cut you were seeing. Were there times with this where you felt you were being too clear and had to obscure the deeper meanings?
It’s always a challenge to decide how coded to be and how clear to be. Because we were doing BLADE RUNNER as a title, it’s aligned with ambiguity and irresolution and questions of authenticity. We were free to lean into that more and you do have to do that dance of how much do we help the audience understand, how much do we hold their hand, how much do we hold back. It was interesting to see from cut to cut how much was left ambiguous and how much they helped people follow through-lines and resolutions and meanings behind things.
It is instinctual. I have my point of view which is words on a page, but it is Denis’ point of view, as it is crafted in the editing room, to decide how much people know at given points and how much clarity they’re given – everything from when do they first hear the name “Rick Deckard,” to helping them understand the consequences of scenes they’ve just seen, as opposed to just letting them interpret it for themselves. I think people are going to come out of this film, without giving anything away, asking a few key questions about what is “real,” and what isn’t. Just like the first film, once you start asking questions of humanity, “real” and “not real,” become idiosyncratically defined.
There’s a lot of moments where I wanted to pause it and think about the concepts you’re alluding to.
You can buy a DVD at some point. You can iTunes the shit out of it! For me, it’s more meaningful that you had that instinct meant that it is a film that people will pause at and watch again. And not just to get plot. But they’ve accepted it’s an existential film, to some degree, as it is sci-fi and noir and all those other things. That it has questions that it asks. That it has experiences that you want to mine and infer from. I’ll end on a “thank you” that’s even a question you would ask, because it means perhaps we’ve done something.
More of an esoteric question to end on. There’s a lot of talk in this about what we’re designed to do in life – our purpose. When did you first realize yours?
[laughs heartily] The question is predicated on the assumption that I have and do.
But you’re the king of 2017!
Uh, yes. But what about 2018?
Bigger things! Also, granted, these projects are long gestating things.
I think I had an idea of wanting to be a writer before I had any idea of what being a writer was about. It was a process of interest meeting disposition meeting incredible good fortune in the opportunities that were being open to me.
I happen to come of age in a time where the things I love went from marginalia, to four-quadrant films. The idea that I’m a screenwriter in an age where a company like Alcon, and with the support of Sony and Warner Brothers, will throw the amount of money like this that is required to make a film like this and to film something, I’d consider a dream project with me getting to influence it in the ways – either modest or meaningful – that I have is beyond expectation. It’s beyond anyone’s ability to create that condition. You just fall backwards luckily into that – and I have.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens on October 6. You can read our no-spoiler review here.