Blade Runner 2049 has been out for nearly a week now and although it may not be tearing up the box office – which is par for the course, at least for a Blade Runner movie – it is nevertheless challenging audiences with new ideas, new mysteries and difficult ideas about the commodification of humanity, the nature of the human soul, and… well, the rest would be spoilers.
That’s why we’re back with another intensive SPOILER interview, this time with screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, who can’t explain away every ambiguous plot point and debatable theme in Blade Runner 2049, but who can, at least, discuss them in a LOT more detail than you’ve heard elsewhere.
So again… just to be clear…
THIS INTERVIEW IS FULL OF SPOILERS.
From the first question onward, we’re going to delve into some of the biggest questions about the plot and themes of Blade Runner 2049, and how they connect to the ending of the original Blade Runner. We’re going to talk about mysterious motivations, huge plot twists, and subtle hints about the characters that you might have missed the first time you saw the movie.
You have been warned. See Blade Runner 2049, and THEN read this spoiler-filled interview with Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (the latter of whom had to get up and leave for part of the interview, in case you’re wondering why he’s silent for so long).
Crave: I want to get right into it. At the beginning of Blade Runner 2049 we find out that some replicants live more than four years. The whole plot kind of relies on it, in a lot of ways.
Michael Green: Yes.
But that is an idea that was only introduced in the ending of the theatrical cut of the original Blade Runner. Is that canon?
Michael Green: That does not canonize it, because it either is: if you like that ending, then that is the moment when that became true, and if you don’t like that ending it could have happened in the intervening years. But that thing that was not possible for Roy Batty in the presence of his maker became possible in the intervening years. Had he had… sorry, I shouldn’t go too deep here.
Michael Green: No, no, I don’t need to put a fine point on it. It can be debated whether those are years extended to previous models, that previous models already had that ability, or whether it’s entirely new models.
Is that an idea that you introduced partially so that you could keep Deckard in the story, and keep alive the mystery of whether or not he’s a replicant?
Michael Green: It’s an ancillary benefit. The main reason is so that there could be institutional memories from years past – human, non-human, or both, or uncertain – so that people could have lived through those intervening years and have something to say about it, and not just leave the past in the past. Some people live through the past and it changes the present.
I admire the way you managed to bring Deckard in without settling it once and for all. Whether or not you’re comfortable telling me, in your own heads, did have to be a replicant or a human in order for you to tell the story you told?
Michael Green: No, the very important point – and I’m going to turn this to Hampton in seconds, because it’s much more important what he says than I do – is it would be foolish to come into this movie and answer a question that is pleasurable to be confounded by. But rather, the uncertainty needed to be woven into the fabric of this story. You honor the importance of that question by digging at its importance, and you don’t spoil it by giving a midichlorian count, if you will.
Hampton, do you have a thought?
Hampton Fancher: How you can beat that, man? That’s it!
Michael Green: No, no…
Hampton Fancher: I mean really, that’s it. I mean, life is ambiguous. That’s got to be ambiguous. But the way… [to Michael Green] You are a poet, man.
Michael Green: [Fart noise.] Can you spell that? [Makes fart noise again.]
I can make that work.
Michael Green: “Green: Fart noise.”
You managed to make another potential clue, another thing to debate. At the beginning you say that Blade Runners are replicants who hunt other [replicants]. Theoretically they could always have been. Is that another clue you’re adding to that tapestry?
Michael Green: I think the most important answer to that question is that Blade Runner is a world where people, like yourself, like myself on the weekends, love to pick up on things like that and discuss them and debate them. There is a, if we’ve done our job well, we have added to a conversation that has been going on for 30-odd years, and there are more things to talk about. Rather than say “yes” or “no”, I’ll say I’m so glad you’re asking that question because it means that someone whose taste I admire has a point of view on a question we raised.
Flattery will get you nowhere.
Michael Green: On a person I’m talking to!
I have a question for Hampton. I’ve always wondered… I know “Blade Runner” is a title that was chosen for the original film to make it sound more action-y, but within the story itself, what is the etymology of “Blade Runner”? Why are people who hunt replicants called “Blade Runners” specifically?
Hampton Fancher: Well, “Blade Runner”, as you probably know, is a William Burroughs term. Ridley [Scott], in our first meetings, trying to hash out a way to improve my first draft… There was a lot of dialectical sport going on, that went on for months, and I was writing a lot of scenes in different drafts and things. And it was a while. We were a month into all this before Ridley said, “By the way, what does he do exactly?” “Well, he’s a detective, Ridley.” “Yeah, but what kind of detective. He’s got to have a [title].”
I never thought about that. I said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I don’t know.” In my library that night I think I saw, I’m a William Burroughs fan, and there’s a little manual of a so-called novel, it’s like 30 pages or something, done with a screenplay conceit, stylistically. It’s called Blade Runner: A Film, and so Blade Runners were guys, nefarious people, who ran narcotics underground, literally, like in subways and stuff, and they were called “Blade Runners”. It was a very dangerous job. It was a tightrope situation. So I thought that’s it. He’s a Blade Runner. So I came in the next day, I said, “Okay, he’s a Blade Runner.” They loved it.
And so then, months later – way later, I mean, we finished many scripts, the film was in pre-production I think – we didn’t like the title. I love Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? “I’ll see that movie!” “Well, nobody else will, Hampton. We’ve got to come up with something.” So everybody was trying to come up with something. Michael Dealy, the producer, said “Fuck, what about Blade Runner?” And we all said, “Yeah!” It’s a beautiful thing because it has an edge to it.
But in the film itself did you ever think to yourself, why do people call this job “Blade Runner” within the story? Is it because the original person who had that job ran with a blade a lot and it was like a nickname?
Hampton Fancher: No, it wasn’t that. It was the danger of the job. To my thinking that’s what it was. It was like running on the edge of something. It’s like a man running, that’s danger right away, and he’s running on a sharp edge.
Michael Green: On a tightrope that cuts your feet.
Hampton Fancher: That cut your feet. Fuck you up, man. You don’t want that job but everybody admires it.
Back to this script, one plot point that’s very important to the investigation – but we don’t find out anything about it – is the blackout. Is that a plot device just to make it more difficult to investigate this mystery in the information age that came post-Blade Runner? Or did have any ideas about how that would be important later, and maybe they got cut?
Michael Green: Again, nothing was done out of mercenary plot. It was more just thinking about and imagining the conditions of the world we were entering into, and that a sort of fuzziness of everything, that nothing was certain, to allow for uncertainty, to let the world be a new thing that had its roots in the past but the roots hit shale. So then once I had that idea I realized it painted everything, and that it didn’t just allow for ambiguity… I also think there are no accidents.
Hampton Fancher: You think there are no accidents?
Michael Green: No accidents in a world like that. Sorry, the spoiler version of things: if you’re in a world where great pain was taking to hide something very important to a powerful and thoughtful group, that there may be connections to that. Or not.
That was one theory I had, was that we’d find out that in order to hide the existence of his child, Deckard may have been personally responsible for the blackout. Or at least the group he was working with.
Michael Green: Here’s what I would say to that. If Deckard had any involvement in it, he would never admit it. He would never take the [credit]. A) Because he’s not someone to take credit, and b) it would obviate the purpose of doing it in the first place, if he ever counseled involvement. But as we find, he had help. There’s a short film or comic or something waiting to be told of what did happen there, and if there was an involvement. It’s one of the things we debated and I’m much happier that there’s no answer.
I was very pleased with the way you structured this. We find out that K is Deckard’s son, and they WAY later we find out that he’s not. That’s such a nice double-twist. It’s kind of a “Chosen One” story but it’s not about the Chosen One. The kid is the most important thing in this universe and it’s not about that kid. What does that do to the narrative?
Michael Green: I’ll answer that question without giving it, because I don’t like explaining the purposes of things.
Michael Green: But I’ll say my experience of watching the original Blade Runner, in any version, one of the reasons I love it and go back to it is it hurts my feelings every time. And it was important for this movie to recreate that experience. Because when I think of what Blade Runner means to me, I think of a beautiful thing that hurts me, and I could think of no more beautiful idea to hurt me than that one.
You hurt me very deeply with Joi, the character…
Michael Green: How so?
Well, I was getting very affectionate about her and then right at the end, you just shove that advertisement in our faces. “She’ll tell you everything you want to hear.” And I’m like, god damn it…
Michael Green: It’s again, since we’re doing this in the aftermath of things, you know Joi represents a third species, perhaps. That there are humans, there a Blade Runners, and now there’s this thing that Hampton invented called Digies, which I should let him speak about. But you could watch her interactions with K and believe she is different, or you could watch her interactions with K and believe that this is just excellent programming.
[It’s] something Denis and I spoke about very specifically, he had a very clear vision of how he wanted to manipulate people’s feelings. We debated. One of us feels one thing, one of us feels the other. But we knew that we wanted it to, that in any event that she had to be 100% real to K, so that what happens to her is crushing, and that seeing what you’re referring to, that ad, can be a heartbreaking moment whether or not it negates what she was. It doesn’t necessarily mean [that]. We don’t know.
Maybe I’m being cynical. Hampton, what are your thoughts?
Hampton Fancher: I think waking up from a dream is painful if it’s a beautiful dream.
Michael Green: That is well put.
Hampton Fancher: I mean, that’s what it is. But that’s what life is. And also another thing that life is, is it’s not forever. So whatever you think, whatever is your reality, isn’t going to hold finally.
There’s a trope I wasn’t fully aware of until I saw this film, and until I talked it out with my wife – who’s more of a sci-fi expert than I am – about stories about artificial intelligence or artificial beings who explore the realities of their physical existence through interactions with a prostitute or surrogate. We’ve seen it in Her, and even more recently Ghost in the Shell had a scene kind of like this.
Michael Green: Did it?
Yeah. Can you tell me about this sequence and what that represents? Because you could have easily gone torrid, and I’m so glad you didn’t. It could have been overly sexual and not conceptual and think you and Denis found a good balance. Can you tell me about that scene and its construction and where it came from?
Michael Green: It’s entirely about emotional connection. It’s a moment where Joi makes a choice, which is an interesting thing for her to do, and allows you to wonder if there’s agency inside her, to individuate her. Going back to themes of ensoulment… I’ll pause there, that’s a new paragraph.
In that moment she makes a deliberate choice to find a way to have a connection, to physicalize an emotional connection, which leaves me, at least, wondering whether she’s experiencing an emotion or not. That she wanted to physicalize or whether, again, it’s just excellent programming. But a concept came up, just thinking about K, that you’re only as worthwhile as what you love and K, at this moment in the spoiler conversation of things – the grand spoiler conversation of things – K loves her. So she wanted to be more real for him because in her eyes, he is becoming more “real”. “Real” being in quotes because everything is real, it’s just a question of whether you value that thing as opposed to weighing it against a human as we know humans.
The paragraph I would have gotten into before was, this all goes back to the topic sentence that I went into the film with. The idea of ensoulment. What is a soul, when does it enter a body, when does it leave a body? Must you be a human borne of humans to have one, or whether it is something you actualize by your own actions? Again, without ever answering those questions, those questions motivate a lot of the behavior.
I don’t know. From my perspective, and this is just my interpretation, it feels like you do answer it. For me it boils down to… if you accept, initially, that K is a child of a replicant, a new species, then the fact that he can go against his programming is simply by virtue of him being born. He talks about how if someone’s born, they must have a soul.
But by the fact that we find out later on that WASN’T quote-unquote “special”, and that he was able to lie and defy his programing – and indeed, so was Luv – does that not make the argument that simply by not accepting that they don’t have a soul, they immediately have one?
Michael Green: I can have that discussion as a fan offline, but as a writer in an interview – and this is the quote I will give…
Can I use that intro, on the record?
Michael Green: Yeah, absolutely. I can have that discussion as a fan offline but as a writer in an interview I can’t codify the answer. I can’t tell you what is an answer there because we don’t make that statement clearly in the film for a reason. You need both answers to be potentially true for an answer to be meaningful for you. If God came down and showed us a miracle, God would have destroyed the concept of faith?
But wouldn’t that be relaxing?
Michael Green: It would be relaxing and we would be made comfortable. The goal is of the film is to entertain, but it is not the most comfortable of couches. [Laughs.] And that was from day one, just talking about with Ridley in the beginning and knowing that Denis was going to come in and make it his own. These are directors whose art fundamentally seeks to challenge your comfort and your aesthetics. With every film they make, my own boundaries grow.
Two Blade Runner films now have made a big deal about off world colonies, and the significance of Replicants to off world colonies, and we never get there. Is that the point that we never get there or do you think it’s actually something worth exploring someday, if they ever make another Blade Runner.
Michael Green: [Thinks] I’m trying to find the best way to answer it…
Oh, then it was a good one.
Michael Green: No, no, it’s a very good question. The business of both Blade Runner films is about the people left behind, meant to live in the world as they’ve inherited it. It’s not a great one, and you get the feeling – and I certainly interpret it this way – that anyone who can have the Earth has left the fucking Earth. If you have the genetics and the means, you got out. And if you’re here you either have financial limitations or perhaps there’s something wrong with you or you’ve been assigned to [Earth], that it’s been out of your hands. But there is a better world to aspire to in the off world colonies. That beacon blinking ahead, anywhere around you, has to change how you feel about your own life.
Were you ever tempted to go for the big twist? Like, what if the twist is humanity is dead and the only things that are left are Replicants?
Michael Green: We were never tempted. No one involved with this was ever tempted by anything other than what makes the best stories in the moment, for the characters we are witnessing at hand. There was no instinct from the studio who acquired the rights and produced the film, to any of the directors or any of the writers involved, to ever do something that was akin to creating a cinematic universe that became a platform for future films. It was nothing short of, what is the movie we want to see that deserves the title Blade Runner? So no one ever said, “But what’s the big twist?” No one ever came at it from the outside saying, “When are you going to do that thing that works in other movies? When are you going to employ the formula that we enjoyed elsewhere?” Nothing like that. It was always, given the story we have agreed is worth telling, how do we tell that story best?
Hampton Fancher: That’s true.
Michael Green: Give him a question now.
Hampton Fancher: Don’t! Don’t, man. I love listening to this guy.
Top Photos: Warner Bros.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.