EVENT | BLADE RUNNER DAY | VENUE | BFI SOUTHBANK CENTRE, LONDON

LOOKING BACK AT:
Blade Runner Day
The British Film Institute, London
(21 March 2009)


In mid-October 2008, the BFI promoted its ongoing 75th birthday celebrations by announcing the winner of its nationwide Visions for the Future poll. Industry leaders, film and TV professionals, and BFI members had chosen Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's seminal science-fiction film released in 1982, as the one film they wished to share with future generations. In addition to creating huge buzz around the institute’s Visions for the Future screenings from January 2009 (the films included Quadrophenia, The Godfather, Stalker and Pulp Fiction), the poll rounded off the BFI’s year-long birthday with a themed day of activities dedicated to the winner. Blade Runner Day took place on March 21 2009 and brought together a number of high-profile guests: author Paul M. Sammon, producer Michael Deeley, actor Rutger Hauer and director Ridley Scott. Following an onstage Q&A, Scott was presented with the BFI Fellowship, marking his contribution to British film and television culture, by director Stephen Frears. What follows is a brief overview of the day and some highlights of the best interviews.

The morning began with a screening of On the Edge of Blade Runner (UK, 2000), Andrew Abbott’s 52-minute documentary produced for Channel 4TV and written by film critic Mark Kermode. Shot seven years before Charles de Lauzirika’s Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (2007) for Warner Home Video, Abbott’s film begins with the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and combines archival recording, special effects test reel footage and newly commissioned interview (circa-2000) to reprise the story of Blade Runner’s genesis, its production, reception and legacy. Like de Lauzirika’s film, On the Edge benefits from the testimony of key players: screenwriter Hampton Fancher recalls reeling from disagreements with Ridley before the hiring of co-writer David Peoples (“Ridley never said ‘if you don’t do what I want you to do then we’ll get somebody else to do it’; [he] was shy and manipulative”); executive producer Bud Yorkin reflects on Ridley’s style and his need for reshoots (“I think he was indulgent”); while Ridley himself recalls his strained relationship with certain crew members, including its executive producers (“On the film I became a screamer, I got really angry”). The film adds to the Blade Runner narrative with testimony from sources left out of the Dangerous Days history: science-fiction author Brian Aldiss describes Dick’s amphetamine use (“Dick was writing about what was happening to him and the drug culture of California with a little twist of lemon”); actors William Sanderson and Joe Turkel praise Ridley’s artistic sensibilities and his vision of twentieth-century urbanism; and actor M Emmett Walsh recalls tensions onset due to Ridley’s perfectionism and the pressures brought to bear by executive producers Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio. Unlike de Lauzirika’s film, On the Edge provides no interviews with Harrison Ford—placing the documentary in the context of its time, before Ford embraced his promotional role as an advocate for the 2007 Warner Home Video release—but includes descriptions from Ridley and production executive Katherine Haber addressing the actor’s unease during production.

It is a shame that Deeley’s comments on the Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner documentary are so diplomatic because, going on his anecdotal evidence at the BFI, Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio were the clear villains of the Blade Runner production story

Following the screening, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (1997) author Paul M Sammon discussed Blade Runner onstage with Oscar-winning producer Michael Deeley and academic Will Brooker (ed. The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science-Fiction Classic). The amiable tone was set with questions about Yorkin and Perenchio, the film’s completion bond guarantors. Citing On the Edge, Sammon asked Deeley for his response to Yorkin’s onscreen claim that, having gone $5.5 million over budget, the Blade Runner production was at that point effectively “taking money out of his childrens’ pockets”. According to Deeley, “all that anger and bitterness was caused by greed”, “one knew that they were strictly amateur in this respect, especially Perenchio”, and on the matter of the film’s financial arrangement: “at the end of twenty years, the Ladd Company [which owned domestic distribution rights] and Run Run Shaw’s [foreign territories] rights were passed to Yorkin and Perenchio, so they now have everything. Curious to say that neither Ridley nor I have ever been paid a profit on the picture”. Indeed, almost every reference to Yorkin and Perenchio was critical: Sammon condemned Yorkin and Perenchio’s behaviour, referred to the “group” [Tandem Productions, run by Yorkin, Perenchio and Norman Lear] as “obstructionist” throughout production, and emphasised Deeley’s point that Tandem “wound up owning the film, [with] all the ancillary rights”—yet they simply “didn’t give a damn”. Noting that times have changed, with the release of the Blade Runner: The Final Cut (5-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition) DVD two years ago, Sammon praised the work of Warner Home Video, which hired him as consultant and commissioned new materials to promote the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary; Deeley’s evaluation of the 1980s market for theatrical distribution reinforced the notion that a platform release could have benefited the film throughout awards season; Brooker, detailing how the film became a classic text for film scholarship in the early 1990s, discussed the subtle changes in the theatrical, Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions which help shape our understanding of the film across platforms (cinematic, literary, digital); and in Sammon’s personal reflections on Philip K Dick, he argued that drugs, rather than being a conduit to another reality as described by Scott Bukatman (1997), were energy boosters to sustain his productivity (“it was prosaic, he just needed the cash”). Sammon often followed up on Deeley’s statements and audience questions with his own interpretations. On the subject of the theatrical version’s original voice-over narration, Deeley's account did not identify the author responsible (only that he was “one of Yorkin’s friends”); Sammon identified the man as the late Roland Kibbee, a television writer then in his sixties, and recounted a story told to him by Ford about the (third and final) recording of the film’s narration: “Here was a man in a hobby suit, the cigarette ash falling all over the keyboard. Ford said, ‘Hello, I’m Harrison Ford’ and [Kibbee] said ‘Shut up and let me write your narration!’ [Ford] said right then, ‘I knew this was going to be a hard slog’”. Similarly, when recounting the production’s well documented ‘Yes Guvnor My Ass!’ T-Shirt incident, Sammon noted that it was Chief Makeup Artist Marvin Westmore who in Deeley’s amiable version of events “should have known better” than to leave a British newspaper (Deeley and Haber confirm The Guardian) where it could be found by the rest of the unionised American crew. On one unresolved matter, Sammon questioned Deeley about an alternate titles sequence—included in the Workprint section of the 2007 Final Cut Collector’s Edition—featuring single droplets of rain, or tears, gliding through frame. According to Deeley, Yorkin had already stepped in at this point to take over production and had arranged for the graphic to be shot without consulting either Deeley or Ridley. Finally, both Deeley and Sammon confirmed that writer William S Burroughs, who adapted Alan E Nourse’s cyberpunk novel The Bladerunner (1974) into a “half-assed” film treatment called Blade Runner (a movie) (“done to satisfy a contract” and published as a novella in 1979), was paid a $5,000 fee in exchange for rights to the highly desirable title.

Author Paul M Sammon interviews Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty) for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)

One guest who was bound to attract attention was Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Where Harrison Ford was less involved in the film’s traditional publicity campaign in the 1980s (though he did participate in on-set interviews), Hauer enjoyed the one-on-one interview, roundtable and press junket process, and has continued to support the film’s publicity efforts, including through multiple charity events, to the present day. Joining Sammon onstage, after a special theatrical screening of Ridley’s The Final Cut, Hauer lightened the tone of the event considerably with his implacable LA charm and star quality. The actor reinforced the notion that he conceived, with Ridley, Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” monologue (which may be accurate, but David Peoples provides conflicting testimony in the Dangerous Days documentary); expressed his delight that the film’s performance in ancillary markets sustains its popularity for global audiences (“the film has been underground for twenty-five years pretty much”); and was critical of the distributor’s approach to marketing the film theatrically in 2007: “They were releasing the film thinking they were hot, they were going to make a shitload of money, and I thought ‘I think they might be right, if they release it right this time’. Guess what? The closer you got to the [release] date, you saw the [distributor] support shrink ... I thought: ‘Amazing, isn’t this amazing. They’re doing it again. And I like it’”. Hauer’s answer to an audience question concerning the textual significance of his character’s body tattoos was equally amusing. Downplaying any explicit meaning that Ridley may have attributed to its design, Hauer described it as another unknowable “layer,” something we look at and wonder “what the hell is that now?” Since the accuracy of Hauer’s memory was probably in question here, Sammon tried to give his explanation for the tattoos based on interviews he had conducted personally with Ridley—but Hauer, with a glint in his eye and behaving like the olympian prankster and sneak, stopped Sammon twice during his explanation (with a cheeky wave of his water bottle that amused the crowd) in order to tell us “I don’t know the answer ... but I’m curious if Ridley answers that question”. For a short time, Hauer and Sammon signed autographs and posed for photographs at the BFI Shop with waves of enthusiasts.

Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty) hooks up with fans, signing autographs for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)

The highlight of the day came shortly afterwards with the arrival of Ridley Scott. In a preemptory move however, Ridley’s office had block-booked 2/3 of the auditorium for his private guests, few of whom actually showed (and news of which unfortunately unsettled a few in the crowd who hadn’t been able to book online as a result). His onstage interview spanned from the earliest days of his career as a trainee graphic artist in Hartlepool to his latest work on the $200 million blockbuster Robin Hood for Universal Pictures. Reflecting on the strengths of Alien (1979), he said that “the priority of the director is to cast well” and in describing his approach to the chestburster scene he repeated the oft-told elements of his version of the story: it was to be a one-take action, John Hurt’s (Kane) artificial chest was packed with high-pressure pumps loaded with blood and offal, and actress Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) slipped backwards in the carnage. Ridley also alluded to the difficulties he experienced onset with the Blade Runner crew—Special Photographic Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull cites one such example in relation to the lighting effects in the Tyrell building—and took aim at those who criticised his autocratic style: “[If] everyone and their mother gets in the kitchen [then] there’s too many chefs. The director is the chef, whether you like it or not, that’s the job and if you don’t like it don’t work on the movie. So I was always thought to be a little tough because [of that]. I don’t want advice, I’ll fall on my own sword thank you very much”. This response, though persuasive, was characteristic of Ridley’s account. He repeatedly identified his authority as a visual stylist, placing great emphasis on his early career as a media entrepreneur (his scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art; his role in television as set designer; the founding of RSA in 1968 where he shot 2,700 commercials, averaging two per week; this all before before The Duellists in 1977). And in his statements about actors he was both partisan and defensive: citing the five films on which he has partnered with actor Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster and Body of Lies; their current project Robin Hood marks the fifth collaboration), Ridley asserted the New Zealand star’s superiority as “probably the best actor in the world today”.

I haven’t been so excited by a director’s Q&A before. Twice in interview the houselights were brought down and clips were screened: the chestburster scene from Alien, in which Kane succumbs to his dreadful fate as carrier of a living organism that must literally eat its way out from within; and the rousing ten minute-long Germania battle sequence which opens the historical epic Gladiator (2000). There followed some light discussion, with Scott reflecting on the changing nature of the industry: for him, the second half of the 1970s was the heyday of Modern Horror which he linked to the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This discussion did not thrill me quite as much as the experience of spectatorship—we were in the company of one of the most important directors of the New Hollywood whose name still carries enormous symbolic weight in commercial cinema and modern advertising. Like my fellow filmgoers, I’ve seen these clips hundreds of times in my life: the subtle concern in a look shared between the science officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Kane at the dinner table; the gruesome beauty of the alien as it emerges slowly, insidiously, from a gaping red cavity now in the latter’s chest; and in Gladiator the images of archers readying their arrows, an entire hillside in flame as fire pots strike every tree, every pitiful soldier. I was more interested in Scott’s response to his own images; and I admit to being fascinated with this very idea, the author onstage viewing iconic moments from his past work in real time with his audience. I was thrilled to be present.

Images: by me.
23 March, 2009

Producer Michael Deeley signing autographs for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)

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