For Denis Villeneuve, his vision for Blade Runner 2049 started with one word: snow.
It was right there on the page, planted near the beginning of Hampton Fancher and Michael Green's screenplay for the decades-in-the-making sequel: "snow." Specifically, "snow, in California."
"After reading that, that was when I decided to make the movie," says the director, speaking from his home base in Montreal. "As Canadians, we have an intimate relationship with snow. It is something I was raised with. I know how it smells. I know how people walk through it. I know how people talk together through it. I know what kind of light you see through it. Seeing 'snow' in the screenplay, it was a strange way to bring together something very intimate that I was familiar with, and invade the movie's world with that element: winter."
It all makes perfect sense once you feast your eyes on Blade Runner 2049. Although it retains the visual hallmarks of Ridley Scott's original 1982 neo-noir classic – Los Angeles is still clogged with holographic neon ads, squalid apartment complexes stretch forever into the sky, as if The Jetsons were reimagined by Hieronymus Bosch – Villeneuve's film heightens the dystopian dread to chilling extremes. This is a movie that will freeze your bones, in a way that only a Canadian born in the snow could imagine.
From the desolate slums of an endless L.A., where a new android-hunter named K (Ryan Gosling) picks up where famed detective Deckard (Harrison Ford) left off, to the soulless and sterile offices of the film's chief villain (Jared Leto's tech guru Wallace), Villeneuve crafts a cold, unforgiving landscape. As intolerably frigid as a Montreal winter? Certainly. But in Villeneuve's future, the snow is also a harbinger of even worse climes to come.
It is a sense of eternal foreboding that acts as a skeleton key to the filmmaker's oeuvre. From his early Québécois dramas such as Polytechnique and Incendies to his increasingly marquee-flavoured Hollywood productions Prisoners, Sicario and last year's Oscar-bait Arrival, Villeneuve's films practise an unrelenting, icy aesthetic. It can be a brutal vision to take in, all broken promises and pools of blood, but the trick Villeneuve consistently pulls off – most often with his regular cinematographer Roger Deakins – is that his images are enticing enough in their detail and scope that you simply cannot turn away. It is a captivating sort of trauma.
"I took Hampton and Michael's story and I visually invaded it with Roger," says Villeneuve, who turned 50 on Oct. 3. "We share a common vision of things, and we storyboarded the whole movie together, transforming the words into images. The world here, it didn't collapse from the time of Ridley's original. It just got worse. The Earth, it's dying."
Although Hollywood has long enjoyed a decent dystopia flick – even before Scott's original Blade Runner inspired leagues of acolytes and imitators – it is still remarkable that Villeneuve's very specific, very damned vision of Earth's final days got the green light from producers. With its beyond-bleak imagery, brutal violence, unsettling sexual content, lengthy running time (163 minutes) and puzzle-box narrative, Blade Runner 2049 is a high-concept art-house film that just happens to cost upwards of $150-million (U.S.) and carry the weight of a storied franchise.
"It was a long journey, and it was a project that was done knowing our chances for success were very minimalistic," says Villeneuve, who is by now used to such daring and subversive endeavours. After all, every genre he's touched has been turned inside out by his unique style, one that challenges everything the safe world of major-studio cinema stands for.
A Hollywood drug-war thriller shouldn't be grotesque and cynical, yet Sicario succeeds exactly because of Villeneuve's eye for unsentimental despair. A kidnapping drama about a father determined to save his child shouldn't turn into a shiver-inducing horror show, yet Prisoners steps inside the shadows and decides to go even further, enveloping itself in a pitch-black darkness. Even Arrival, Villeneuve's most hopeful work, only finds a happy ending through the most unimaginable of sacrifices. The filmmaker knows how to twist our insides to an unbearable degree, and we cannot help but ask for more.
"Each of his films is different, yet challenging. And he challenges himself to different kinds of material over and over. That takes a strong ambition," says Harrison Ford, who makes a welcome, if brief, return as Deckard in the new film. "You can tell he's not phoning it in. He works the material over. And that's ground zero for me: ambition."
While Villeneuve's ambition has led him to this, easily his largest project to date, it has also been his most challenging – though not in the expected ways. The budget is massive, sure, and a five-month shoot in Budapest would be difficult for any director to manage, of course. But making a new Blade Runner also means making a movie built on obsession.
As a cursory search through the Internet reveals, countless fans are still trying to answer the Big Question lingering over Scott's original film: Is Ford's robot-hunter Deckard himself a machine? Contradictory statements over the years from Scott and Ford, plus at least eight different cuts of the first film, have only clouded the truth. To protect whatever answers the sequel might provide was a new test for Villeneuve. He wasn't just making a movie, he was engineering a mystery weighed down by three decades' worth of wild-growing mythology.
"It was painful," the director admits. "It brought a level of secrecy and a level of paranoia to the movie. We had to have very few people with the screenplay, and they were all kept on-site. Everything was uber-secured, and everybody signed contracts to not reveal anything. It's a bit painful to work in that high-level-secrecy environment."
It was a level of stress Villeneuve didn't need, especially considering the unsustainable pace he's been on.
"I did five movies in six years. It's a privilege, but it's too much," Villeneuve says, echoing similar comments he made to The Globe and Mail earlier this year. "It is great, but at one point I need to stop and think about what I've done, to understand what just happened. I feel the past few years went by like a dream. I need to pause to know what to do next. I work with powerful tools right now. I don't want to spoil that privilege."
That pause may not happen immediately, though. Next up for Villeneuve is an adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic sci-fi novel Dune, and he's rumoured to be circling both a new version of Cleopatra and the next James Bond adventure. As exhausted as he may be, he cannot seem to help himself.
"I felt artistically, Blade Runner was worth the risk, it was worth the pain," Villeneuve says. "Reading the script, what was written was poetry. This was not the typical blockbuster movie. This had a soul, and the potential to deliver strong cinema. If the potential is there, I will jump on board."
So Denis Villeneuve will take a break – but perhaps only when it snows in hell.
Blade Runner 2049 opens across the country Oct. 6.