Celebrating 30 Years of Blade Runner
Three decades after its release, Ridley Scott’s movie of the Philip K. Dick novel remains an icon of knotty science-fiction film mastery.
On the closing day of the Cannes Film Festival in May 1982 I sat in a terrace restaurant with Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, the director and writer of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which was to have its world premiere that night. I had just written a cover-length story for TIME on E.T., and in gratitude Spielberg had invited me to lunch. Sitting with Mathison was her beau, Harrison Ford, and we spent much of the afternoon discussing his new film, Blade Runner, which I had seen before leaving for Cannes and which would open June 25. Ford said he had enjoyed making the movie but was annoyed that he had to record a voiceover narration at the insistence of the producer, Bud Yorkin, who had also insisted the ending be changed. Even then, a month before its release, Blade Runner was awash in internecine controversy.
When the movie premiered, 30 years ago today, it received mixed reviews. Its star and director, Ridley Scott, were unhappy; and Philip K. Dick, the author of its source novel, had wildly conflicting feelings about the adaptation. The picture’s backers would consider it a flop — costing $30 million to produce, it earned just $27.6 million in its North American release.
But Blade Runner, the disputed child in a standard Hollywood custody case, would mature into one of the seminal artifacts and art works of science-fiction filmmaking. This film about the future found its salvation there. The movie has gone through more gestations than the monster in Scott’s Alien: a comic book, two video games, three sequels to the source novel and, of course, four increasingly refined versions of the film. Last year, Scott announced that he might make a sequel or prequel to Blade Runner.
Three decades after it opened, and seven years before the period in which it is set, we celebrate this important birthday by offering a few glimpses at what Blade Runner was and what it would become.
By 1980, Dick had been writing in the genre its adherents called SF (never, please, never sci-fi) for three decades. Many of his short stories and novels would be made into movies: “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” into Total Recall, “Second Variety” into Screamers, “Adjustment Team” into The Adjustment Bureau, plus Spielberg’s Minority Report, John Woo’s Paycheck and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. But Blade Runner was the first, based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
A biographical sketch at the time proclaimed that Dick “considers his best work to be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?… because it deals with the misfortunes of animals and imagines a society where a person’s dog or cat is worth more as a status symbol (and costs more) than a house or car.” Yet when Dick managed to get a Blade Runner script, he found that the animal motif was gone.
And what does that title mean? It came from a novel by Alan Nourse that William S. Burroughs had adapted as a screenplay in 1979. Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples just appropriated the title for their Androids project.
The Making of Blade Runner
In Charles de Lauzirika’s feature-length making-of doc in the 2007 four-disc Blade Runner DVD pack, Fancher explains that his script was a kind of closet drama, with most of the scenes taking place within 1940s-style interiors. Scott kept asking, “What’s outside the window? There’s a world.” Fancher’s response: “F— the world.” Since Scott’s main interest was in creating that world, he looked to designer Paull and the art department for backup. And when Fancher was slow in producing rewrites (“They used to call me Happen Faster,” he says), Deeley hired Peoples, who hadn’t read the original novel.
Fancher had written the Deckard character for Robert Mitchum, a noir star then in his 60s. The producers considered nearly every leading man of the day: Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Peter Falk, Al Pacino, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds. They wasted months detoured on Dustin Hoffman. Somebody floated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name, and this was before he’d made his first hit, Conan the Barbarian. Then Scott and Deeley saw rushes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they had their star.
Scott cast Hauer as the android Roy Batty after he was shown the actor’s early Dutch films. He tested several ingenues for the replicant Rachael and gave the role to Sean Young — “So perfectly right,” says Deeley. “She could be an android. She may be an android, for all I know.” Daryl Hannah, another cute kid without much screen experience, stuck on a blond punk wig, “puttied out my eyes” after seeing Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu and became the replicant Pris. Joanna Cassidy, one of the great underused beauties in movies of the time, was perfect as the snake lady. She was 62 when interviewed in 2007, and still looked gorgeous.
The visual team of Blade Runner — one of the last big fantasy movies to be made without much computer graphics finery — worked directly for Scott, who sketched each of his prolific ideas on paper (they were called “Ridley-grams”). He plundered the imagination of “futurist” Syd Mead and stole from the work of the French artist Mobius (Jean Giraud) in Heavy Metal magazine. Production illustrator Tom Southwell saw a Japanese ideogram he liked and placed it in the window of the noodle shop. He found out it meant “origin” — the theme, the big question of the film. Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull borrowed the explosions in the first shots of Blade Runner from effects he had created for (but were not used in) Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point more than a decade earlier. The top of the police building was a redesign of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moral: Never throw anything away.
When Scott looked at the first four-hour rough cut, he told his editor, “I think it’s marvelous. But what the f— does it mean?” Fancher’s take was less querulous: “You’ve ruined it,” he said to Scott. The film’s financial backers, Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, weren’t crazy about it either. It was they who ordered up the voice-over narration (which Fancher had used in an early draft). Paul Sammon, one of several Blade Runner-ologists to speak in the 2007 doc, blamed the flop on E.T., which he called “happy comfort food” and which, by its extraordinary success, pushed out all darker science-fiction visions. A young director, Joseph Kahn (Torque), blamed it on Reagan. Yeah, well. In fact, Blade Runner was one of several dystopian science-fiction films to tank in the early and middle ’80s. Tron, The Dark Crystal, The Keep, Labyrinth: none found a large audience.