Extremes of Light and Temperature: Notes From the Set of 'Blade Runner 2049'
How do you follow up on a masterpiece? That was the challenge screenwriter Michael Green faced after he took on the daunting task of scripting the sequel to the beloved 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner. Just over three years later, Green, who co-wrote the screenplay, traveled to Budapest to watch his words turn into visual wizardry by acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and many others during the Blade Runner 2049 shoot in 2016.
Throughout it all, Green -- who also wrote or co-wrote the 2017 movies Murder on the Orient Express and Logan, and co-developed American Gods for Starz -- kept a journal documenting his thoughts and encounters, including insightful behind-the-scenes vignettes involving Villeneuve, actors Harrison Ford and Jared Leto, and his own set-visiting parents. With Blade Runner 2049 now available on demand and awards season kicking off this Sunday with the Golden Globes, he's adapted his on-set journal into this exclusive look-back at a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A spoiler: The first line of dialogue spoken in Blade Runner 2049 is “Hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty.” It wasn’t scripted that way. But movie dialogue is clay to be molded and moved around. That this bit of clay landed where it did gives me joy -- a private joke, shared by all who were offered a chance to continue the story told in one of the most revered films of all time and said, "Sure."
"Do you have any interest in a Blade Runner sequel?” said the email from my agent over four and a half years ago."
It’s playing with matches, yes, only we’re all pyromaniacs.
I was one of the first. A writer always is. In this case, I was second, after Hampton Fancher, the original writer of the original Blade Runner, sat down with the original’s director, Ridley Scott, and drafted a tone poem of a document -- a tuning fork for the music of a world, populated by storms and stormy characters, some of them armed.
In March 2013, I was led to the stylish conference room in Scott Free Productions’ Los Angeles office, took a seat in an impossibly comfortable recliner, and was handed Hampton’s work to read. Some weeks later, Ridley Scott thought my response to it worthwhile and offered me the job. I was writing Blade Runner. Those who say "never meet your heroes" need pick better heroes.
As nervous as I was, I had no idea just what kind of ride I was boarding, how dizzying the scope and company. In the Los Angeles of Rick Deckard, cars fly.
Though customarily lazy about journaling, I kept notes on what I saw while playing in the brutalist toy box of Blade Runner, mostly to help me feel like it was all actually happening. It didn’t. But the record stands.
July 9, 2016: Arrive in Budapest
Budapest Airport is tiny. Don’t know why I expected something bigger but I did. Was tired and turned the wrong way every time there was a turn. My mouth sour from the chocolate soccer balls I ate for breakfast on the Lufthansa leg.
Flew here straight from the American Gods set in Toronto, telling no one where I’m going except Bryan [Fuller, co-showrunner]. Playing grand mal hooky.
A kind driver met me, offered to carry my knapsack. Clearly non-union. I told him "No, thank you," and now he thinks me rude. I couldn’t explain that my computer contains the only non-secure copy of the Blade Runner script in the world and I’m terrified to let it out of my grip. My laptop is worth, conservatively, a quarter billion dollars.
No matter what country you’re in, production stages look like warehouses from the outside. I saw a good dozen of them in the complex and ask which ones are ours. Our line producer grinned, "All of them."
I have been on many sets. I have not been on a set like this. Each warehouse is a stadium, filled with an outsized structure, built to scale, one environment after the other. The map of the movie made real.
Until now I had a fixed image of what each of these spaces looked like. With each room we walked I could physically feel those images unfix and leave my mind forever, replaced by fact. Extravagant fact.
Back at the hotel I realized: Today is July 9. Three years to the day I flew to Rome to meet Ridley to pitch him my first pass at what a story for this movie might be -- only to be rerouted on the ground to meet him in Spain.
A three-year storm. Shooting starts in two days.
July 11, 2016: Shoot day 1 of 91
I should be excited. I’m numb. It’s not the jetlag, but the heat. I can’t stop sweating, as noticed by everyone who shakes my hand.
I walked from the production office to set shielding my bald head with script pages. I entered the stage expecting the relief of air conditioning, but the Police Station set is a dimly lit swamp. The inside of a crock-pot.
I asked if the lack of air conditioning on the set is a European thing. No, I’m told it is a Roger thing [Roger Deakins, cinematographer]. To achieve the right misty, rainy look, to light the cityscape through Lieutenant Joshi’s window without resorting to visual effects requires careful climate control. Watched as Roger’s team moved quickly and tirelessly and without complaint and wondered if I really have the fortiutude to direct when I would kill every bit of mood required for the scene’s success to turn on a fan.
Robin Wright stood nearby in a long coat. Her assistant told me not worry about her. "Robin never gets hot."
I promised myself I will not be the first to pass out. I took as much as I could before needing fresh air.
From the rain-streaked night fabricated inside, the stage door opened onto nuclear blast of sunlight. Heat that hurts the lungs. Extremes of light and temperature. Inescapable in any direction. My eyes took whole seconds to sort through pain and adjust and land on the 300-lb. stubble-faced Hungarian security guard. I tried to turn my squint into a smile like I fit in.
Later, I recreated the look I gave him in a mirror. Whatever it was, it is not a smile. It looked like I was suppressing diarrhea. Which was also true.
Shoot day 3 of 91
There is a running reference in the script to Nabokov’s Pale Fire that has survived every draft and I hope the editing room. In it, we are given a puzzle of fractured hope. The author of the meta-text is either the prince of a country called Zembla or a madman, or both. I always root for both.
A writer on a film set has no official task and therefore no official physical place. So no matter where a writer stands, you’ll be looked at as out of place or in the way. On the first day, I moved my chair from the visitors tent to the main monitor, reserved for the director. I act like the prince of Zembla and it becomes not fact but accepted.
Denis [Villeneuve, director] doesn’t balk at my presence. He is congenitally kind and gracious, as warm personally as his films are brutal, which is as good a definition of an artist as I’ll ever devise. Over the year we worked through the script, he was generous with his trust and his time, two things most costly to a director. These first few days on set, I can feel his attention drifting further and further from me, as representative of lapidary text, to those with whom he is actualizing it in the fluid now.
It might have been our second meeting when Broderick [Johnson, producer] and Andrew [Kosove, producer] asked Denis how he imagined a building’s look and he answered, "I don’t know yet. I need to dream about the movie more." He’s had my trust ever since.
After lunch I moved my chair back to the tent.
Shoot day 4 of 91
I get asked a lot about the difference between being a writer in television, where the writer-as-showrunner has the final say on all creative decisions, and in film, where the writer’s role is undefined and idiosyncratically subject to the director’s interest. From now on I will tell this story:
We were filming Scene 24, K and Joshi (Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright) in the station. I know this scene. I’ve rewritten it a dozen times. I know what needs to happen, every seam and coinage. This scene bears weight.
They finished a fourth take. Something stalls the fifth. Denis called my name in his French-Canadian accent: "My-Kill."
He came to me, voice confidential. The soft-spoken general.
"My-Kill, we are going to try something with the dialogue in this scene. It can be simpler. I do not want you to be mad at me."
I could never be mad at him.
Denis and the actors work through the scene privately. Paring it. Reordering. It takes hours but they have hours. Movies.
By mid-afternoon they landed on a version they like -- and it works -- the same scene, shorter, more muscular, though two lines will probably flip in the edit and they cut one data point they can grab in a single tomorrow when they realize it’s missing.
Now TV: While all this was happening, I was answering questions about American Gods episode 104, shooting six hours behind in Toronto. Showrunning at a distance. A particularly frantic text/email combo came from the assistant director on set: Someone forgot to get our approval on the layout of a wedding invitation magneted to the fridge in the background behind Emily Browning’s head and they can’t shoot her coverage until I pick one.
I looked at the monitor. Ryan Gosling tries a new version of a line, simpler, leaner. Magic.
I looked at the wedding invitation options, selected the fourth of five. It went on the fridge.
Falling asleep in the car back to the hotel, I had a forgotten memory hit of the first film set I ever saw: I was 16 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane was filming down the street from where I was taking summer classes at UCLA. My movie-obsessed friends and I waited for three hours on a frat-house balcony for them to blow up a car. The car finally exploded and, as everyone cheered, a piece of glass hit me on the right cheek, a half-inch under my eye.
I was warned. And I came back.
Shoot day 22 of 91: Los Angeles
I’m equally glad to be home as I am terrified to miss a minute of production.
My new morning routine is to make coffee, open up my laptop and watch Blade Runner dailies until my kids wake up. My daughter, nearly 8 and newly interested in movies, has taken to getting on my lap and asking me story questions. She calls Ryan Gosling’s character, K, “Robot Boy.”
I watch every take. I like a lot of them. I worry about most of them. When you write a film you give up your right to ever love it. You can only ever evaluate the cut as it stands against the grandest dream for what it might have been and want its improvement. (That time I asked Steven Spielberg if he can watch and enjoy any of his films without memory of faults or process, he shook his head no... then leaned forward and amended his answer. "Raiders," he said. He could watch Raiders of the Lost Ark as a fan. I was glad for him. Everyone should get to watch Raiders.)
My daughter watches another scene. Ryan’s close-up, third take. A sudden swell of emotion.
"Why is Robot Boy crying?"
"Someone he loved died."
"Can’t he make them alive again?"
"No. Dead is dead."
She thinks on this. A rabbinical stroke of her chin: "Maybe your movie is too sad for people."
Shoot day 32 of 91
I met Harrison Ford today. He starts in Budapest in four weeks and wanted to talk through his scenes. So I met Harrison Ford today.
He sat down and spread three drafts on the conference table, each well-read. I pointed at the current version on top.
"You spilled coffee on the shooting draft."
He took a pause.
"If there isn’t coffee on your script, you’re not making a movie."
A four-hour meeting. He spent the better part of the first sniffing out whether I’m actually the person who wrote the script or just the current stop on an assembly line.
The rest was spent talking through the intention of every line in Scene 115 (K and Deckard having their drink). He wants to say even less than the current cut-down version. In television, actors always want to say more. Dialogue is the medium. Movie stars, the big ones, the ones you need to get your movie made, they want to say as little as possible.
Actors like him, the great ones, are like rock climbers. They know exactly what they need to support their weight -- a grip for the fingers and two toes -- and that’s all they want to advance. We read the scene through a few times. By the last, Harrison had pared away everything but bones and sparkle.
I smoothed out the new version, he read it again. We both liked it. Our salads came. I wondered how to ask him for that script cover with the coffee stain.
Day 48 of 91: Back in Budapest
From the airport I was called to go straight to a meeting with Jared Leto, who I hadn’t yet met. Some last-minute notes on his scenes -- can I meet him in the lobby soon as I arrive? This is usually a red flag. An actor about to lob a grenade.
"Sure. I might brush my teeth first."
My parents arrived at the hotel. They came to visit set. They always come to visit set. I’ve tried to stop them. There’s no keeping away the Jews. I settled my parents into their room. I warned them the work order shifted and so their one set day is going to be a boring one. Stunts take forever to set up and are over fast. They couldn’t be happier.
"I’m meeting Harrison Ford, though," reminded my mother. She wasn’t asking. She was stating future fact. My mother adores Harrison Ford.
I met Jared in the lobby, ready for a fight that never comes. He made suggestions for what amounted to eight word substitutions over 15 pages and made sure I was comfortable with each.
Day 49 of 91
Hana and Allan Green are set-visit veterans. They’ve visited me on several shoots. On every shoot. They know what shoes to wear. I can see it on their faces as soon as we arrive: They’ve never seen anything like this. No one has.
Ninety-minute set-ups between stunts, no problem. They love every minute.
Then, one problem: I have no idea how to introduce my mom to Harrison. He and I haven’t chatted much after the first meeting and I’m not sure he remembers me.
I figure to wait until he’s done with his coverage and swoop in. But the scene is riddled with technical issues -- a flaring light on a jib keeps getting stuck, easily kicked to VFX on any other production -- and the day passes awkwardly. No good opportunity.
An opening comes during a reset and I choke and miss the moment. They call lunch, which six hours after a late call, is at 7pm, and Harrison is whisked away. I feel awful. My parents, yawning with jet lag, are spent. Then it’s the weekend. They fly home Sunday. My mom says it’s fine, she’s had a ball -- but I know I have, finally and completely, failed as a son.
I get each of them a coffee. They decide to stay a bit longer.
We come back from lunch and, given the reluctant jib, Harrison wraps almost immediately. I grab my mom’s hand and lead her out the door.
I can see Harrison against a pink sunset sky -- iconic lighting follows him -- too far ahead and nearing a waiting golf cart. About to lose him.
Someone from wardrobe flags him to check a shirt -- Harrison bananas back around toward the porta-potty -- where I call out to him: "Harrison!"
He looks at me, not sure why I’m bothering him at the end of his day. Or ever really.
"I’d like to introduce you to my mom."
A pause as the information settles.
Then, his lopsided grin. "Of course."
His day-to-day dreamy self shifts in an instant to the sharp focus reserved for those who merit his most high-wattage attention. He spends several minutes with her, as sparkling as when the camera is rolling. There in front of the fetid porta-potty, I watch my mother chat with her movie star crush of 35 years, striving for casual and failing adorably. For the first time in my life, I get a glimpse of what she must have looked like as a teenager.
Day 52 of 91
Jared puts in his blind lenses and stays in them the entire time he is on set. It forces him into helplessness, and to the resolve of the blind.
He asked for me at camera. A question about a line that amounts to a single word substitution, same syllable count. He was curt in his answer, unlike our earlier talks. He is not only remaining blind while on stage, but maintaining his character’s regality. Niander Wallace would have little patience for me.
I moved back to the monitor. I marvel at the frame. In my life I’ll never take a photograph as pretty as Roger’s masters. They ran a take. Blind Jared was letter perfect. Acres of dialogue.
One of his lines contains a Bible verse I used as an opening quote for the first screenplay I ever wrote, the one that got me my first writing job, purposed here. A private joke when first typed long ago. In the moment, chilled by his voice, it is as if I wrote that first screenplay not to launch my career but so I might find that quote, hold it safe for 20 years, only to use it now in this scene.
During a turnaround, I looked up from my laptop to find I was sitting next to Harrison.
"Michael Green," he said. "Good morning." He’s taken to calling me by my full name, which is somehow a nickname spontaneously given to me on about half the projects I work on and the only one I will ever accept as valid.
After a short silence he asked me about my mother, "Where’s her accent from?"
I started composing the text to her in my head.
August 29, 2017: Los Angeles
They locked the cut days ago, ten months after wrap. I was invited to screen it tonight.
I’ve seen every daily and one complete cut. I’ve offered my thoughts and had discussions. I’ve gotten through and I’ve been disagreed with. But I have been heard.
The screening begins. I sweat for 164 minutes.
So much of the legend of the original Blade Runner is about chasing authenticity, the themes of the film mirroring the physical reality of the film itself. You can’t watch a version without wondering if it was a true experience of the experience, or a replicated, inauthentic, likely lesser facsimile. For four and a half years I have chased an authentic experience of contribution.
The scale, the ambition, that I ever had a chair at this grand banquet... It’s all beyond imagination. Though all incanted into existence by imaginations. Mine among others.
The screening ends. Things that kept me up at night work fine. Things I struggled with pass unnoticed, eclipsed by arresting visuals and performances.
Afterward, I am late to get into bed. I try to sleep and can’t. I start the crossword. Both Edward James Olmos and Jared Leto are answers, 34-across and 49-down. More private jokes.
One more as I realize: The last line of dialogue spoken in Blade Runner 2049 is, "Beautiful, isn’t it."
I finally fall asleep. And I dream about the movie.