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Director Denis Villeneuve on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Pressures, Why ‘Dune’ Is the ‘Project of His Life’

Variety logo Variety 2/10/2017 Kristopher Tapley
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Director Denis Villeneuve says he’s been in two “parallel universes” the last several months, promoting his Oscar-nominated film “Arrival” and soaking up the awards season adulation, while also shooting and then editing his next project, the hugely ambitious “Blade Runner 2049.”

Speaking recently on Variety‘s “Playback” podcast, Villeneuve called the sequel to Ridley Scott’s revered 1982 original the riskiest project of his career.

“I feel [the pressure] every day,” Villeneuve says. “At the same time, I’ve never been that inspired and excited. I love risk. All of my projects have come with a certain amount of artistic risk, or sometimes a risk of how you portray reality. I did a movie once about a school massacre and I had a huge responsibility to the victims of those events. I did a movie about a conflict in Lebanon, so there again, you have a strong responsibility to reality. When I did ‘Sicario,’ I felt responsible to how I would portray the Mexican society there. So I’m used to pressure. For ‘Blade Runner,’ it’s artistic pressure, and by far the biggest ever.”

He’s reticent to go in depth too much because he doesn’t like to discuss projects until they are completed. That’s particularly so on the topic of the film’s music, which he and composer Johann Johannsson are currently working through. Given the aural iconography of Scott’s film — the complex sound design in addition to Vangelis’ original score — there are big shoes to fill.

“I think the movie we are doing, we will need to find our own identity and territory, and at the same time be faithful and linked to the first project,” Villeneuve says. “It’s that equilibrium we are trying to find.”

That sense of equilibrium also includes not overburdening the new film with CGI effects. The first “Blade Runner” made notable, landmark use of practical wizardry, inspiring everyone from James Cameron to Christopher Nolan. Villeneuve says it’s not only important to maintain that connectivity, but a major inspiration for him as an artist to work in that way.

“I’m very old school,” Villeneuve says. “I wish I had the chance to do my ‘Aliens’ as animatronics. That was my dream at the beginning [of ‘Arrival’]. We were dreaming to put them in a gigantic aquarium with gigantic beasts that would be moved by puppeteers. But sadly, it would have been too expensive. I hate green screens. It sucks out all my energy. I get depressed. I have an admiration for directors who can work with that on a daily basis. For ‘Blade Runner,’ we tried our best to do as much as possible in-camera, building everything.”

He takes a moment to praise cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work on the film, which, judging by the trailer alone, promises some of the most striking images of the 13-time Oscar nominee’s illustrious career.

“Roger was insanely impressive in how he was able to create landscape with tricks,” Villeneuve says. “For me it was beautiful. I think I can count on one hand how many times I saw a green screen in all of those months of shooting. There will be CG enhancements, of course, but as much as possible it was in-camera. Having witnessed what he’s done for months, I think it will be Roger Deakins’ best work. He was deeply inspired by the project.”

Meanwhile, if Villeneuve is uncomfortable discussing a project he’s in the midst of finishing, you can imagine he’s not keen on digging into what he has on the horizon. His next film will be an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s towering sci-fi novel “Dune,” but he wasn’t expecting to be in the saddle so soon. Nevertheless, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I was able to do ‘Blade Runner’ thinking I would do nothing after, because there was a rhythm in the past few years that was very exciting and I learned a lot as a filmmaker,” he says. “But I got slowly a bit more and more tired physically. And as I was doing ‘Blade Runner,’ which was a very long shoot, I remember thinking, ‘That might be my last movie. I’m going to bed for like three years.’ Now that I’m editing, I’m finding back my energy. And since I was 12 years old there was a book I read, which is ‘Dune,’ which is my favorite book, with ‘1984.’ After ‘Prisoners,’ the producer of Alcon asked me what I would like to do next. I said, ‘Dune,’ spontaneously, that if anyone could get me the rights for ‘Dune’ — and I knew it was very difficult to get those rights. For me it was just a dream, and I guess I’m lucky that Mary Parent from Legendary got the rights and offered it to me. I can’t say no to that. I have images that I am haunted by for 35 years. I will not say no to that. That’s going to be the project of my life.”

“Arrival” is nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay. “Blade Runner 2049” hits theaters Oct. 6.

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