The Writer of 'Blade Runner 2049' Answers Our Burning Questions
There's a lot that makes the Blade Runner universe work: the visual spectacle, the futuristic design, the music, the flying cars, Harrison Ford eating noodles, and Sean Young looking like a '40s femme fatale while being from the future. But none of that would matter if the story didn't grip us, and from its origins as a novel (Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to the just-released sequel, Blade Runner 2049, there are heady ideas on the page before there are existential robots in fighting in the rain.
Screenwriter Michael Green took original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher's treatment and got it into shape for director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Enemy). The result is the story of K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant (the Blade Runner word for android) who searches for the mysterious child of another robot after the discovery of the mother's bones.
Green is no noob when it comes to beloved franchises. His television credits include Smallville, Heroes, Kings and American Gods, and his feature film work includes the 2011 Green Lantern, Logan, and a “story by” credit for Alien: Covenant. He's also written plenty of DC Comics, the including Superman/Batman, Batman Confidential and rebooted Supergirl books. We had the good fortune to geek-out with Green about his (spoiler-heavy) choices just before Blade Runner 2049 hit theaters.
Part of Blade Runner's legacy has been the argument over whether or not Harrison Ford's character Deckard is a Replicant. Clearly that is something you decided to face head-on, but in interesting ways. (1) You find out the new main character, played by Ryan Gosling, is a Replicant five minutes in. (2) I saw the new one and I still don't know if Deckard is a Replicant or not.
Green: The nature of your assessment tells me that we may have done something right. We would be silly people if we came out and said “this film is going to answer that question.” There is no answer. It is the act of discussing it that is interesting and makes the film endure.
It is the welcoming of ambiguity, uncertainty, and irresolution that makes this interesting. The question of authenticity, be it Deckard's or the film's version, is what adds to the film's luster and legend. We'd never try to spoil all that. But what's clear to me instead was that the question itself should be woven into the fabric of the story, and that a contrasting main character for a new film would be a Replicant who was very aware that he was a Replicant, and could go on a different type of journey.
Very aware… or so you think.
Green: Yes, or so you think. Enough so you can have the experience of watching him wonder if that is the case. And wonder in a completely different way. In an aspirational way. It becomes a question of “can you change what you are by virtue of what you do?” I don't want to answer that for people, but the film raises the question. And others.
I, as a superior intellectual, recognize that this film works on allegorical level. But I could imagine being on the phone with the writer of the movie and wanting to ask some baseline questions. One of those questions might sound a little something like: the new Replicants, the Jared Leto-created Replicants, how do people in the wild know that they are Replicants? You might think that in Mach 2.0, after the earlier crisis, they might, say, all be blue, or all have stripes, or something, no?
Green: I'd rather not answer directly, as I don't like telling people how to interpret the material. But what I can say is that, conditional for me and my understanding of the “current world” of 2049, Jared Leto's character has reintroduced Replicants where all the old tension is taken care of. These all know their place. That's part of the product. They have no aspiration to more, they are clear what they are. Gosling's K even says that he is aware that his memories are not his own, and that they are "thundervests" – storm vests for dogs that you give them to make them feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
So if I lived in the world, I would just know.
Green: Or you wouldn't think twice to ask. Also, that's a world where anyone who is still living on the Earth, there's a reason for that. There's something inherently human about humans. So if you are not off-world, you either lack the means or health. But let's back up, because I really hesitate to tell people how to interpret. But that's how I understood. If people disagree, though, there are other ways to interpret that are equally valid.
You've done something here that I don't think I've ever seen work this well before. You've got a main character that's an android. And he's in love with a hologram. It's hard to make you care about two “fake” people without a “real” one in there. How did you make me care?
Green: The character of Joi [played by Ana de Armas] was a gift handed to me by writer Hampton Fancher. Digital companions were one of the initial ideas he had in his treatment, and that K would have one. When playing with those toys, my imagination went to “we are following the story of a Replicant, who is considered a lesser human” so now we are seeing him have a strong bond that's a third species, lesser than even Replicants.
I knew we'd be telling the story of his character's aspiration toward ascension, so since we are defined by what we love, what he loved needed a story as well. Now, if that story is merely a projection of his fantasies combined with excellent programming, or if she is a “special” version of herself who became something more because she was involved with someone unique – that's something I hope people struggle with.
When he sees the advertisement for a different Joi at the end … it hurts my feelings. And a Blade Runner film should hurt one's feelings.
I also noticed, in all the grand displays of signage, a lot of Russian and even a reference to the Soviet Union. Was that meant as kitsch or is the Soviet Union back in this world?
Green: I appreciate that you were looking for and found such things. Anything is possible if it isn't confirmed or denied in the film. I am reluctant to canonize anything that isn't specific to the story at hand. If it is implied that means it is there to be interpreted.
The first film, though, has numerous references to other cultures and languages, and it doesn't quite let you know if you are seeing the kitsch of a bar or a government poster. We do know it is a different timeline since 2019 is approaching and we don't have flying cars yet. But there are cultural inevitabilities that exist in both worlds. I can say that Hampton told me privately that in 1986 he spoke to Ridley about what a Blade Runner sequel would look like then, and had they been able to make it happen it would be about Rick Deckard going to the Soviet Union.
Interesting. I don't think any character ever says "United States of America." But when they do visit San Diego it's a giant garbage dump. As someone who makes comic books and geek-facing franchise films, is this some sort of commentary toward that city's annual Comic-Con convention?
Green: I love Comic-Con too much to call it a garbage dump, but I have seen overflowing trash there.
When writing a film for director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins you can add “and then we see XYZ” and you know it will look amazing. Were there any moments that exceeded expectations?
Green: Oh, the whole thing. But your question actually worked more in reverse. I would write something and then Denis would go to Roger and then come back and say “this is how we see it more specifically.” And sometimes there would be a storyboard as well as a call or email, and they would have the details of the visual painted out for me. I could then import to the script. And then I could take credit for these images on phone calls like this one.
Thrillist: When did you first see Blade Runner?
Michael Green: I came to it a bit late. I'm 44 years-old so I was nine when it was first in theaters, and I was the kid who wanted see E.T. the Extra Terrestrial five times. Dragged my mom twice, my dad once, cousins visiting from other countries -- anyone who had a car I made them take me, and I had no awareness of a movie called Blade Runner at that time.
I didn't see it until I was 19, when I had a crappy apartment in Westwood, California, working crappy jobs and spending my nights and weekends trying to write. I rescued a television from a nearby dumpster and lugged it home. It was more a table than a TV because it only got one channel. I turned it on one night while eating take-out – and I only realized today that it was probably Thai noodle soup, so, eating noodles and chopsticks like in the movie. I flicked it on and there was Blade Runner, and what I believe was the Director's Cut. I was only going to watch five minutes while I ate, then cut to hours later and I watched the whole thing.
So your initial encounter did not have the voice-over, which was added to later recuts of the movie?
Green: No, I didn't see the voice-over version until I was writing this film.
People have mixed feelings about that voice-over.
Green: Well, that's part of the fun, isn't it? You get to argue about it?
But more importantly, you didn't see it with the grand scope. You saw it on your crappy television.
Green: And then laserdisc in a college library. I've never seen it on a big screen. There was one on IMAX just now, but it was the night before the Jewish holidays started so I couldn't see it. Missed my chance.
Hashem would understand.
Green: I know, I know. But I stayed home. We made a brisket.