Prepare your eyeballs for the visual spectacular that is Blade Runner 2049. In the hands of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger A. Deakins, nearly every frame of this much-anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi original — which resumes the story of bounty hunters called blade runners who "retire" factory-made replicants — dazzles. It's the third collaboration between Villeneuve and Deakins (after 2013's Prisoners and 2015's Sicario), and their artistic visions align perfectly. "It started on Prisoners—we just see things the same way. Maybe we just have the same dark, cynical view of the world," Deakins says with a laugh. "We did seem to really be in sync."
Shooting in Budapest last year, the cast — which includes Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford reprising the role of Rick Deckard, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Jared Leto — was aided by immense practical sets courtesy of production designer Dennis Gassner. "Roger and Denis were never hindered by the scale of the imaginary world because most of it wasn't imaginary at all," says Gosling, who plays a younger blade runner named K who discovers a secret tied to the first film. "As an actor you can focus on the internal landscape of the character because the external landscape of the world has been so fully realized and is so rich." For Villeneuve it was important that his film hewed true to the spirit of Scott's original, which so influenced him as a young man growing up in Quebec. "In the past when I've made movies I've used references from other artists — painters and graphic novels or even music," the director says. "But for this movie there was always an elephant in the room, one I didn't try to escape: There's this movie called Blade Runner. That was my main reference, and I embraced it. This film is a love letter to Blade Runner."
For this scene, which takes place outside Los Angeles, Deakins was inspired by a memory of Australia after a dust storm. "I remember seeing the Sydney Opera House bathed in this red dust," he says. It was Villeneuve who suggested the gigantic erotic statue. "To my great happiness, Roger and the producers loved it," he says. "They said it was an idea that could only be born in the mind of a French director."
"I wanted to approach the movie keeping elements of film noir and darkness that were in Los Angeles," Villeneuve says, but he decided the scenes outside the city, like this one, would have a cooler palette. "The sunlight would peek through the smog and dust and have a wintery kind of silvery light. It was an important way to bring this universe close to me. As a Canadian I cannot brag about a lot of things. But winter?" he laughs. "That I can do."
This moment in the film was one that Villeneuve and Deakins storyboarded not knowing that executive producer Ridley Scott had scribbled a drawing that turned out to match their vision almost identically. "When I saw the sketch I thought, 'Oh, fantastic. I'm going in the right direction,'" Villeneuve says. A gigantic 40' × 30' LED screen played images across from Gosling to simulate the right light and color of the neon hologram. And yet Deakins still wanted to supersize it: "Denis and I were always frustrated that it didn't feel big enough."
"I like those references to a world that has disappeared," Deakins says of the sequence where Gosling's character finds himself in a dead city filled with relics from another era, including a hologram jukebox that plays Frank Sinatra. "There's just something sort of odd and a throwback to the past." Adds Villeneuve: "The word dream is so important. It's a movie about dreams and broken dreams. It's important to have that kind of presence in the film."
Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind trillionaire, lives in a golden-hued lair. “It has no windows and is designed like a pyramid, one designed to resist through the times,” says Villeneuve. Deakins says that they liked the irony of a character without sight living in a world of constantly moving sunlight. “It’s all very weirdly surreal,” says Deakins. Another irony? Leto stayed in eye-obscuring contacts throughout production so couldn’t appreciate his surroundings. “He never saw it,” says Deakins. “It’s a shame.”
In this, one of the opening shots of the film, K’s car hovers over the metallic concentric circles of solar farms struggling from lack of sunlight. “I was looking for an image to start the film with that silver light right from the start,” says Villeneuve. Deakins says they looked at images online and found solar farms outside of Los Angeles and in Spain. “It looks like an eye and reflects the opening shot of both this film and the original,” says Deakins. Special credit should be given to the aerial director of photography, Dylan Goss, who had to constantly take photographs through clouds. "He didn't shoot a single plate in sunlight, bless him," says Deakins.