by Harlan Kennedy
Do Androids dream of electric sheep?
Do Northumbrians dream of eclectic myths?
Every so often the British cinema hatches a mold-busting filmmaker, and the world stops, looks, and listens, aware that an accident has happened in the process of Nature.
Ridley Scott, Northumberland-born and 41, has made three feature films in six years: a measured pace à la that other British-based painstaker, Stanley Kubrick. There is brain-stretching contrast between Scott’s Napoleonic France in The Duellists and his futuristic Space in Alien; now the future calls again in Blade Runner, but it’s an earthlier, punkier clime.
Yet a closer gaze at Scott’s work urges instant re-routing of thought. Scott was a scion of British TV advertising, honing his craft in the make-or-break thirty seconds of eulogies to sliced bread or tributes to chocolate bars. With his brother Tony (soon to make his own feature-film debut directing The Hunger), he founded Ridley Scott Associates and carved for the company a healthy slice of the commercials market in Britain. The shot-by-shot high polish perfectionism that TV ads teach (at least in Britain, where they are a whole cine-subculture) impart a visual thrift and thrust learned on no other movie training grounds.
Where Kubrick is an explorer and unraveler of special worlds – an accreter of mysticisms and resonances – Scott is a refiner, an intensifier, a compacter, and catalyzer of them. Blade Runner shares the same implosive, closed-world obsessiveness as The Duellists and Alien. All three films unfurl in fictive limbo-lands that have their special rules, parameters, and exoticisms.
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner is based, confronts us with a Future America where everyone who is anyone has left for “Off-world” (the planets) and the seething human detritus left behind copes with an increasingly inchoate globe. The streets are stalked by alien worker-robots, who’ve escaped to Earth from being gastarbeiters on other planets and must now be destroyed. The destroyers are bounty hunters like Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford); they pick up fat paychecks for retiring “replicants” (androids) and look forward to a happy, less finite retirement themselves. But how does one tell a human from an android?
Los Angeles in 2020 is a maze of urban murk. Neon signs and neon-stemmed umbrellas ribbon the eternal night of steam, narrow-street grime, and growling garbage trucks. Above eye level, a pair of sparkling, pyramidal skyscrapers punch up their totemic tribute to Progress, threaded by the firefly traffic of airborne hovercars. Higher still, a floating blimp with loudspeakers and giant TV screen taunts: “Come to Off-world.”
The movie’s human-versus-humanoid chess game is instantly overturned in a tingling confrontation that is the whole movie in blueprint miniature. A plump and sweaty greaseball chats across a desk to a sleek robotic suit-and-tie type. The suit-and-tie gives the greaseball the “Voigt-Kampff replicant-detection test.” In mid-catechism the “rep” scents danger: “My mother, I’ll tell you about my mother!” he ejaculates – and perforates his startled, sartorial, and human interrogator with two blasts from a laser gun. PHTT! PHTT! Sic transit Voight-Kampff.
The texture of the movie, as with all Scott’s work, is a densely figured kinetic tapestry. There are antiphonal layers of color and shading. The burnished gold skyscrapers glint above the Stygian forlornness of the streets. Bulging Egyptian-style pillars stand amid the grime of sidewalks. The background is filled with throwaways of oddball action: An origami-obsessed policeman doodle-twists paper into animal shapes in the corner of a cop-headquarters scene, as Deckard receives his assignment. There are tangy mixtures of race, color, and lingo out in the streets, as Hispanics Orientals, and WASPs jostle in an eternal film noir nighttown.
As in The Road Warrior, we’re in a world welded from the waste-materials of past epochs: Scrap-Heap Futurism. But most of George Miller’s film took place at bleached-bone high noon; Scott’s is the midnight version. Rain, steam, ethnic chaos. Bluish-smoky exteriors, whose miasma creeps into offices and corridors. Oriental street signs that spike and bewilder the Western eye. And in the noir landscape and the 2020 omnium gatherum of times and cultures, it’s ever more difficult to peer through and discern the differences between humanoid and homo sapiens.
Gone are the B-pic days of sci-fi, when stony stares and speak-your-weight voices made pod-spotting something your aunt could do – when a valve on the back of the neck, or stray wires sticking out of an ear were dead giveaways. In Blade Runner, visual puns and mirror images suggest a trompe-l’oeil assault course through how-do-you-tell variations on human life. A gold glint in the eye is the only – and only occasional – hint of man-made humanity.
Take replicant-factory worker J. F. Sebastian (William J. Sanderson) – R. R. Isidore in the book, “chickenhead,” a van-driver for an animal-repair firm. Sebastian lives in the “Bradbury,” a giant moldering tenement awash with dolls, dummies, bits of dummies, and a-patter with articulated hand-crafted midget-humans who open the door to say “Hello” and then bump into walls.
With fitting and final irony, Sebastian’s pad becomes the thronging-ground for the star replicants themselves: Deckard’s bounty quarries Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah). Roy spouts battle poems, spews out rueful philosophy, and emits megahertz howls before charging at you. Pris comes at you with cartwheels and locks up your neck with her thighs.
The story’s trajectory toward these Nietzschean spawns of man’s own ingenuity – through a Dantesque Toytown where seething plurality aids sudden ambush – is the movie’s main forward thrust. Its startling, tragic resolution is the death-rattle coda of companionship between Deckard and Batty. The replicant’s hour comes – his man-made machismo seeping away – as he sits samurai-style, head bowed, through the night, waiting for death. At first the villain of the piece, he suddenly becomes its mythic, empathic center. Batty turns Frankenstein’s monster to Biblical Adam; Deckard veers from hunter to homomorph. In a film noir future, an android Philip Marlowe puzzles over his own humanity, his own place between the animals and angels, men and machines.
It’s no surprise that Scott’s eclectic eye has since sought out a sci-fi project, Dune, and a film based on the Tristan and Isolde legend – worlds at once remote and masonic. And lurking within the esoterica of periods and settings in Scott’s films, like a Minotaur in the maze, are apocalyptic appetites. Scott is interested in the point at which manners and mechanics yield to monomania in a society or a community.
In Alien, the space-capsule hypersleep in which the astronauts are first discovered is a movie metaphor for social-emotional auto-pilot. When they awake, it’s to the ravenings of new emotions, new rules, penalties, and boobytraps in the game of survival. In The Duellists, the kid-glove protocol of the Age of Reason is seen to be mere social choreography camouflaging an inner dance of demonism; the demons dance out in Harvey Keitel’s glittering aggression and in swordfights that are more like the collision of medieval broadswords than the elegant knitting of Napoleonic rapiers. In Scott’s new film, the streamlined conquests of the Space Age have left behind a litter-bin world ripe for anarchy and civil strife.
Myth and mist are time-honored bedfellows, and Scott’s flair for creating depth and dimension with smoke – it turns his sets into a round-the-clock incense bath – is synesthetic with his love for sequestered worlds where threatening urgencies stir through the opacity of time.
Scott is also one of the few movie-makers who meticulously storyboard their films. He was trained at art school and suckled on comic strips. Alien owes its slackless narrative to an action blueprint as purposive and pre-planned as Hitchcock’s. Similarly, Scott’s movies can’t be re-cut by volatile producers or wildcat editors, using the usual spare parts of master-shots and close-ups.
In Blade Runner, the comic-strip concision is wrapped and sauced in Scott’s supple gleam and swirling blends of tone and color. Blade-edge cutting meets sooty film noir fantasy and sci-fi fundamentalism in year 2020. Adjust your lenses for perfect vision.
Ridley Scott interviewed
by Harlan Kennedy
Where did the title Blade Runner come from? It’s used to describe the bounty-hunter hero and his trade, but I notice it doesn’t figure in the original novel by Philip K. Dick.
I wanted a title for a hired killer or whatever a hunter is called when cast in that particular mold. And this man, Rick Deckard, is an efficient exterminator engaged in what is essentially bounty-hunting. He’s paid to nail someone – some person, some thing – and it’s legalized. What do we call him? Well, in about the fifth draft of the script, the phrase “blade runner” popped up. I thought, Christ, that’s terrific! Well, the writer looked guilty and said, “As a matter of fact, it’s not my phrase. I took it from a William Burroughs book.” And the book, oddly enough, is called Blade Runner: The Film. So we got permission from Mr. Burroughs to use the name, and bought the title, and it just stuck because it was fun.
We changed the character a bit from Dick’s novel. In the book he’s a bit of a renegade, a freelance, with a bonus for each job. But in the film he’s part of a bureaucracy. We thought it would be nice to see this character gradually emerge as a very efficient exterminator who is almost Kafkaesque. A lot of elements in the plot are, in a funny kind of way, Kafkaesque.
At first glance the story strikes one as being a reverse variation on Alien. Instead of six humans fighting a monster, we have one human fighting six replicants. It’s also set in a menacing, industrialized, rather Gothic future. Did you think of Blade Runner as being theme-and-variation on your last film?
No. My initial reaction on reading the script was that it seemed on the surface another futuristic script, and I figured I’d just done that and I ought to change gear. But when I thought about it more, I thought it’s not really futuristic. It’s set 40-years on, but it could take place in any time slot. And so I started to backdate it in my head – as far as the look and feel are concerned – and what we’re really doing is a 40-year-old film set 40 years in the future. It’s the Philip Marlowe world: film noir, ceiling fans…
I came into the setting-up of the film quite late. The Blade Runner project had been developed by Michael Deeley and Hampton Fancher. They worked on it for probably a year before I came to it. I’ve been with it about a year and a half.
The film’s visual canvas is very crowded, eclectic, full of hybridized details. Especially in the architecture and streetscapes. Why?
That’s what’s going to happen. I think the influence in L.A. will be very Spanish, with a big cross-influence of Oriental. But the film isn’t “predictive,” if that’s the word; it’s a kind of comic strip. I still relate very strongly to that kind of material, to comic strips and comic-strip characters.
Any particular artist?
Yes, Mobius, I think, is marvelous – probably the best comic-strip artist in the world. We had him working a little bit on Alien, and I tried to get him involved in Blade Runner. I’d love to do a complete film with him, but I always catch him on the wrong foot. My concept of Blade Runner linked up to a comic strip I’d seen him do a long time ago; it was called “The Long Tomorrow,” and I think Dan O’Bannon [author of the original Alien script] wrote it. His work on that was marvelous because he created a tangible future. If the future is one you can see and touch, it makes you a little uneasier because you feel it’s just round the corner. And you always get in his work a sense of overload, of cities on overload. We set the movie in L.A., but it could have been Chicago or New York.
What about the characters who are at the center of the movie: the “new race,” the replicants? Although there are some concrete details about them – their four-year lifespan, their vulnerability to the “empathy” test – their genesis and genetics are left mostly unexplored.
We deliberately stopped, in screenplay development, going too far into the idea of genetic engineering, which we could have done. That would have been another, entirely different film. It would have been 2001, in a way. In fact, to go into the study of genetics and its future is fascinating. But it was another can of beans.
So we drew a line: We wouldn’t explore the laboratory details, the genetic explanations. Instead we’d ask: What if large combines in the next few decades became almost as powerful as the government? Which is possible. They’d move into all sorts of industries – arms, chemicals, aerospace – and eventually they’d go into genetics. And then you reach the point where genetics starts developing into the first “man-made” man. I think it could happen in the next 12 or 15 years.
From there, as happens in Blade Runner, you can quite easily slip into breeding a second-class generation to do things which normally you or I wouldn’t care to do, or psychologically couldn’t stand to do. For instance, going into Space knowing you’re not going to come back. You take a humanoid and dick around with his brain, bring him along certain psychological lines, and he’s going to go quite happily.
The movie is concerned with making us believe in the possibility of autonomous thought and emotion in the replicants. They’re at the cutting edge – where programmed response turns into free-will consciousness. And they’re looking for origins and parents.
Parents and parent figures are important. There’s a scene between Tyrell and Roy Batty, the replicant, when Tyrell says, “And what can the maker do for you?” And Roy Batty says, “I want more life, fucker.” Well, he now has to say, “I want more life, father.” Which, funnily enough, works better.
Working with Harrison Ford, who’s today’s pop-adventure super-hero, did you want to bring echoes of Indiana Jones or Han Solo to his role?
No, as it turns out he’s quite a different character in Blade Runner. You know, I hadn’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark when I first went to talk to Harrison about the role. I said, “I’ve got this great idea; we’re going to do this Marlowe-ish character. Bogart and that sort of thing.” And he said, “Just done it. Can’t do it.” And I said, “Hell.” And then I next said, “What I want is this sort of unshaved individual….” And he said, “Can’t do that. I’ve just done it.” So we suddenly changed gear completely and went through this rather frightening process of cutting all his hair off. It was a brave thing for him to do.
The crop-headed style has also spread out to the rest of the movie. You’ve gone for a punk look in many of the characters and most of the extras.
There’s a reason for that. I think various groups are developing today – faction groups which are religious, social, whatever – and Punk, if you really trace it back, probably emerged from some louts, “bovver boys” as we used to call them, who developed their own little culture of protest. They probably stem from Manchester or Birmingham. And they decided out of sheer aggression to shave their heads. What could happen in the next 40 years is that various of these groups will stick. And they will harden up, so that there will be religious, political, social, and just nut-case factions. And I think the police force will become a kind of paramilitary, which they nearly are now. We’re just one step away.
We used a lot of real punks for the street scenes in Blade Runner. Because I had so much “crowd,” it was better to save time and money by recruiting a huge number of extras: 200 punks, 100 Chinese, another 100 Mexicans. And it was much easier then to have the 200 punks turn up in the morning and dress them down a bit, dowdy them up, because they came in looking like bloody peacocks, which I didn’t want. And by dressing them down, you immediately get the effect of the punk physical essentials: the oddball haircuts, that peculiar look of the face, because they either shave their eyebrows or their hair. And then the glimpses you get of them on the street are great because they’re desaturated – not full-blown punks, just odd people on the street. Because things will fade. That characterization will fade and something else will take its place. But there may be vestiges or remnants of punk.
The movie’s set designs show a style of “additive” architecture: Pipes and pillars and porches, etc., are superimposed on the outside of older buildings. Does this “exoskeletal” look have a secondary purpose or meaning in the film?
Primarily a logical one. We’re in a city which is in a state of overkill, of snarled-up energy, where you can no longer remove a building because it costs far more than constructing one in its place. So the whole economic process is slowed down. Once a structure like the Empire State Building goes up, it’s probably going to be there for… you name it. How the hell are they going to take it down? So it’s a physical feeling you get about that society.
Were many of the scenic effects and city vistas created by special effects?
Yes, I was working with a guy called David Dryer, who did special effects on Doug Trumbull’s film, Brainstorm. I was using Trumbull’s studio-factory, so pretty well ninety percent of the special effects were done with David Dryer and Trumbull’s team. And although Doug initiated most of the effects and was there as a kind of mentor, generally speaking David was the special effects director. And a marvelous one, I think.
On your two British-based movies, The Duellists and Alien, you operated your own camera. But there were problems in the U.S., I believe, because of the unions?
When I first went to Michael Deeley – we were out in Hollywood then, piecing Blade Runner together – I knew I would have to face this, the practical problems of making the film because of the unions. I’m used to working very closely with the lighting cameraman and operating the camera myself; it’s simply a faster process for me. The alternative is going through the whole communication hassle, and then you’ve got to be political and then diplomatic and it’s all bullshit when you’re working against the clock all the time. Whether you’re doing a big movie or a small movie, you’re still working against the clock.
How do you keep your stamina up – and your temper down?
I find the process of filming very difficult – maybe this is why I want to be a producer – because it’s like trying to write a book with many hands or paint a picture with many hands. A film has to have a guiding mind, otherwise I think it flounders. Of course it’s a team effort, but in the final analysis it should cohere round one person. If or when I’m a producer and I hire a director, I’ll want to know why if he’s not pressing his points all the way down the line. Otherwise, I haven’t hired the right individual.
How’s your determination on the set?
Still right up there. It’s difficult and it becomes hard on other people, and on me. But only temporarily. I find I may get depressed for half an hour and that’s it. If I get into a temper, I’m now trying to just walk away. There are several corridors in Pinewood Studios with holes in the walls!
And what will your next film be?
Legend of Darkness. It’s written by William Jortsberg, a Norwegian who lived, until a couple of months ago, in Montana and has now moved to Hawaii. It’s literally a fairy story. I was going to do a film called Knight, about Tristan and Isolde, but we couldn’t get the screenplay together and I split from it. So I went right back to basics and I looked at Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and a little bit of Siegfried. This has all finally developed from the Tristan and Isolde idea. But I moved away from that story as such because I thought it was too esoteric for the audience, and frankly too heavy. So I decided we must write an original, try to avoid all the normal clichés, but keep the dark and light sides of the story. There’ll be no swords pulled out of stones, no dragons, no Celtic twilight. I figure we’ve got the first real medieval film.
Harlan Kennedy, “21st Century Nervous Breakdown: Interview with Ridley Scott,” Film Comment, July-August 1982, pp. 64-68