‘Blade Runner,’ Take 3
Ridley Scott was living in London in 1980 but looking for a leading man for his first Hollywood movie. The script was a strange one -- it was a surreal tale adapted from a 1968 novel about murderous artificial people in futuristic Los Angeles -- and Scott didn’t have a certain title since he couldn’t use the more-than-a-mouthful name of the book: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Scott did have a star in mind, though: He had seen “Star Wars” and decided that he wanted his star to be the actor who had played that charming scoundrel Han Solo.
“The reaction of one of the producers was: ‘Who the hell is Harrison Ford?’ One of the reasons I went for Harrison was the fact that I knew that Steven [Spielberg] and George [Lucas] were doing this thing called [“Raiders of the Lost Ark”]. It smelled good to me. I simply called up Harrison’s agent and said, ‘I want to meet Harrison as soon as possible.’ Like two days later we met and he turned up with the stubble and the hat and the leather jacket on because he had been shooting. It was like 10 o’clock at night. So my meeting for ‘Blade Runner’ was with Indiana Jones.”
Scott chuckled at the memory, then groaned, reached for a bag of ice and propped his leg up on a chair. The 69-year-old British filmmaker was fresh from knee surgery -- “Too much tennis,” he said with a sad shrug -- and at the time was still working on his 19th film, “American Gangster,” due in theaters in November. But he was eager to talk about “Blade Runner” and the past because he’s getting a rare chance to revisit and reengage both. Scott oversaw a new remastered version of the film that enhances its Vangelis score, adds snap to its visual effects and even includes a bit of new footage, all for the 25th anniversary of the dystopian epic. “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” will be shown for a month at the Landmark Theatre in West L.A. and then will go on sale as a DVD in November.
The tale of “Blade Runner” is not a sunny one. The version of the film that reached theaters in 1982 (it opened against “E.T.”) was weighted down with a somnambulant voice-over narrative and a tacked-on ending that Scott loathed; the set too had been a contentious one, with Ford and Scott locked in a surly struggle. Also, Philip K. Dick, the author of “Do Androids Dream,” died just four months before the film reached the screen.
Then, famously, the history of the film took a sharp turn away from ignominy. First, the advent of the home-video era brought the movie to a wider audience, one that was increasingly attuned to the film’s cyberpunk visions and its technological concepts.
Then, close to the film’s 10th anniversary, a so-called director’s cut was given a theatrical run in Los Angeles and broke revival-house records. That version was actually a preview print, as Scott refers to it, which might have been missing the monkey-wrench additions (like that clunky Ford voice-over) but also was missing large chunks of music and a key dream sequence.
This current “Final Cut” version, Scott said, comes closest to what the film could have been and, in his mind, should have been.
“It’s quite a thing to come back to this film now, after all this time, after a quarter of a century,” said Scott, whose résumé includes “Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.”
“This is a film that, in many ways, has echoed throughout popular culture in a very special way.”
The film also seems to have been a career landmark for just about everyone involved.
“I was never on another movie set quite like that one,” said Daryl Hannah, who portrayed the sexualized android called Pris. “I was very young, and every day it felt the way you fantasize that making a movie would be -- like you’re stepping into another world.”
Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor who played the menacing but poetic killer android called Roy Batty, talks about how the movie “captured a vision of the future that to this day holds up. That’s quite an achievement. It was a film all of us knew was going to be special. A lot of that is because of Ridley.”
Although in hindsight everyone seems to laud Scott’s bold film, at the time there was considerable debate on the quality of his anachronistic noir vision. There were critics who were divided on the film, but, before that, there was also the crowd of financial backers and studio executives who felt it was too convoluted and complicated and needed to be dumbed down for audiences.
“I learned a lesson from all of that,” Scott said, leaning over again to rub his rebuilt knee. “I learned to stand my ground. I was stubborn, but I learned I should have been more stubborn.”
Watching “Blade Runner: The Final Cut,” anyone who lives in Los Angeles today would be struck by how prescient the film was about the direction of society and culture. To Edward James Olmos, the film, set in 2019, amounted to a crystal ball in many of its details.
“What you see now is how unique this image of Los Angeles is and, in hindsight, how correctly it predicted so much, such as the mix of urban Latino and Asian cultural influences in the city,” said Olmos, who portrayed a taciturn cop in the movie. “About the only thing in the film we haven’t gotten yet is those flying cars.”
L.A. today perhaps isn’t quite the blow-torch skyline and acid-rain megalopolis of “Blade Runner,” but the film certainly created standard images and codified themes for several generations of science fiction films. It’s hard to watch such movies as “The Matrix,” “The Terminator,” “The Fifth Element” or “Minority Report” (which was also based on Dick’s writing) and not see links to “Blade Runner.” MTV, cyber-punk fashion, graphic novels and even some architecture have pulled elements from the visual accomplishments of “Blade Runner.”
From the novel by Dick, the film took its core plot of a bounty hunter on grim, dying Earth chasing down androids who have a pre-set “death date.” For the film, these hunters were called “blade runners” (a name that came from an unrelated William S. Burroughs novel; producer Michael Deeley and Scott just liked the sound of it) and the androids were called “replicants.” That term came from screenwriter David Peoples’ daughter, who was studying biology at the time and offered the term. “We were going to call them humanoids,” Scott said, “but that sounded pretty good, so we used it instead.”
What may be most unusual about the film is how many of the key components came from the actors involved. One example: Hauer, concerned that his death scene was too protracted, jotted down a few lines about the nature of death, and that became his soliloquy during the powerful rooftop scene in which his character dies in a downpour.
“He wrote these lines, they were like Shelley,” Scott said with a measure of awe. “He wrote it in his trailer and, like 45 minutes later, we just did it up there on the roof. I always have cast actors who are not afraid to speak up. On ‘Blade Runner,’ there were some significant contributions.”
Maybe none were more significant than the contributions by Olmos. It was his idea that his character talk in “Cityspeak,” the hybrid of four languages that shows the polyglot nature of L.A., and it was also his notion to fiddle with a piece of paper and create origami while in the background of one scene.
“I really was trying to find a way to blend into the background and not do anything but also not look like I wasn’t doing anything; it’s difficult to do that, you don’t want to distract from the action in the scene, but you also don’t want to look artificially still,” Olmos said. “You need to be like a tree in the wind.”
The casual creation of fidgeting became a key part of the film; the origami, linchpin symbols in the film. The paper unicorn shaped by Olmos’ character, for instance, telegraphs to the audience a huge plot point: that Ford’s character, Deckard, is himself an android.
“It all fit together perfectly, but that shows how confident Ridley is on the set and how he is constantly working toward the place the story should go and how open he is even while filming,” Olmos said. “It’s a true talent, and he has that confidence to embrace the art around him.”
Still, the embraces during the making of “Blade Runner” were sometimes more like a wrestling match than a hug-fest. “Yes, there was a lot of passion and conflict, it’s true,” said Sean Young, who portrayed Rachael. “But I think that’s because there were things worth fighting for.”
Scott, who had already directed “Alien,” had come to the project after a stellar career making television commercials (a few years later, he would make the celebrated “1984" ad for Macintosh) and right after walking away from an aborted attempt to bring the Frank Herbert novel “Dune” to the screen. Scott’s older brother had just died unexpectedly, and the director hoped that in making his first film in America he might distract himself from the grief. “I wanted to make a movie,” Scott said, “where I walked through the gates at Warner Bros., the ones I had only seen in Cary Grant movies and old horror movies.”
That sort of carefree daydream soon gave way to sour complications. There were several versions of the script, and the first writer, Hampton Fancher, quit after Peoples was brought in to rework the story. Much has been made too of the squabbles between Scott and Ford.
“No, we’re fine,” Scott said. “Actually, I got on all right with him at the time, but it was such a difficult film to convey that I got tired of explaining it . . . and Harrison tends to be a person who keeps himself to himself, particularly in those days, and if that happens with an actor, then so do I.”
Scott paused and then grinned mischievously. “And generally speaking, I actually think the movie was one of the better things he’s done. Hee hee.”
Even with Ford as reluctant star (he was the lone notable absence when “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” made its premiere at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago), the resonance of “Blade Runner” is unmistakable now. For one thing, it propelled the late Dick to the status of Hollywood concept machine; there have been eight other films based on his writings and three more are in the hopper. None of them, though, has matched “Blade Runner” and its mix of Philip Marlowe and fire-pit future tech.
Scott, meanwhile, has not revisited science fiction. “I suppose I haven’t found a future that is as interesting as that future.”