'The script took a year of rewrites. Fancher had done a good job in fleshing out Dick’s story, but it still read like a stage play: there were few exteriors, and the world his characters inhabited remained unexplored. One day during their script discussions, Scott asked him, “Hampton, this world you’ve created — what’s outside the window?” Hampton admitted that he hadn’t a clue. “Well, think about it,” replied Scott, and suggested he read a sci-fi comic called Heavy Metal — the same comic Scott had used as inspiration on Alien. The next day, Fancher, “came back in all excited, going ‘Yeah, let’s go outside the fucking window!” Quite how far outside the window Scott wanted to go, the writer soon found out. “His imagination is like a fucking virus,” said Fancher, “it keeps growing and spreading and mutating. Ridley’s mind is almost too fast for his own good; very often, it pulled ahead of himself, at great speed. Then he’d tumble over it, ideas were pouring out of him so fast.”
“The idea of making it on a set on a Warner backlot was almost unthinkably expensive,” says Scott, “ and yet that was the most practical way to go. I researched and did a little bit of travelling. I’d been to Hong Kong before, I’d shot a commercial there for Benson and Hedges, and I always remembered the sheer density of the city, and thought this would be the benchmark for my film. That would be the future. Particularly if you’re on the west coast of America, the majority I felt could be either Hispanic or asiatic, or a strong melange of all three. That’s how I gradually built the process of Blade Runner: all those years of commercials, all that awareness of urban deterioration and disintegration. You have these cities that become retro, with their guts on the outside. The guts can be beautiful.”
Scott kept urging Fancher to give him more clues, more mystery — more detecting — but the writer felt out of his depth and so Scott instead turned to David Peoples, who took Dick’s world and populated it, but still came up short on plot. “Clues are not my strong point,” said Peoples. “If anybody was authoring it at this stage it was Ridley. He was dominating, supervising and caring about what went on here... I would sometimes be writing a scene that Ridley would be shooting the following week, and twice I guess I was writing stuff that was going to be shot that day and just frantically trying to make certain changes to solve this particular thing or that particular thing.”
Principal photography began on March 9th 1981, and immediately the film fell behind schedule. “After the first day of shooting the production manager called me to say were now five days behind,” remembers Alan Ladd. “Ridley had shot smoke all day.” The first scenes to be shot were on the elaborate Tyrell Corporation set, with nearly 6,000 square feet of polished black marble and six enormous columns, but Scott had walked in, took a look at the columns, and said, “Let's turn them upside down.” "Ridley literally changed everything. I can't think of one set we went into and shot the way we found it," said art director David Snyder, "It was brutal." Actor M. Emmett Walsh complained to Snyder that "by the time you guys get finished lighting, we're lucky if we have time for three takes." For one scene during which Walsh had to repeatedly smoke a cigar which left him choking on smoke, he muttered, under his breath “You son of a bitch. You should be hung up by your balls and left to twist in the wind.” To his horror, Scott heard him. “I feel that way now,” he replied.
By day three, they were two weeks behind schedule, and Tandem’s financiers started hovering at Scott’s shoulder. The film’s $18 million budget was a three-way split between The Ladd Company, who would release the film through Warner Brothers, Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw, and Tandem, who had been brought into the deal on the promise that they would get the next Star Wars. Instead, they saw nothing but rain, gloom, a woman being shot in the back, and a relentlessly perfectionist director who shot the same sequence over and over again, all day long. They questioned Scott on everything — “Why are you taking so much time to set things up? Why so many takes? We don’t have the money for this” — and every time they did, he flew into a rage. ‘’It was the first time I’d worked extensively in Hollywood, and suddenly the new kid on the block was faced with the facts of life here” says Scott. “There was an inordinate amount of explanation that had to be done... I was not as independent as I thought I was. It got hard, I had to give a lot of explanations which I’d honestly felt I’d earned the right not to have to do after all those years. After shooting over 2,000 commercials and The Duellists, and Alien, suddenly there I was I was still explaining myself. So I got very short-fused. I was getting pissed of. Pissed off regularly. Every day.”
“It was just wretched awfulness, really. Blade Runner was a monument to stress,” said Kate Haber, “Tandem was furious with Michael and Ridley, Ridley and Michael were battling Tandem and our leading man and director got to the point where they were barely speaking to one another.” Ford was driven to distraction by Scott’s attention to his sets; he would look up and see Scott perched way up on a crane 30 feet in the air, peering into his lens, composing his perfect shots, and wonder: what am I supposed to be doing here? ‘”I played a detective who did no detecting,” he complained, “There was nothing for me to do but stand around and give some vain attempt to give some focus to Ridley’s sets.”
“Harrison wanted to be directed,” says Ladd, “and Ridley wanted to fool around with light. Harrison just wanted to be reassured, and Ridley didn’t want to be bothered. At that time Ridley was very shy, and didn’t want to deal with actors. It was the same on Alien. He knew what he wanted but didn't know how to explain to the actors how to get there.” Eventually the two men stopped speaking to one another, says Ladd: “Harrison wouldn’t speak to Ridley and Ridley wouldn’t speak to Harrison and I was stuck in the middle, ‘Could you tell him to do this, or tell him to do that?’ It was difficult.” By the end of the shoot, Ford was “ready to kill Ridley,” said one colleague. “ He really would have taken him on if he hadn’t been talked out of it.”
“Harrison and I are very similar,” says Scott. “It can be perceived that we’re bad tempered and crotchety and actually we’re not. We’re actually relatively good fun, [but] if you have a discerning actor, who is smarter than most, he’s gonna ask questions, and you’d better have your answers. If you haven’t got your answers there’s likely to be a row. You have a row and your adrenaline flushes out all the other stuff you’ve got going through your mind and you suddenly come up with a very distilled answer.... rage flushes it out. I get very articulate.” By the time the picture wrapped, on June 30, it had gone five million over-budget, and on July 11th, Deeley and Scott received a letter from Tandem’s attorneys telling them they were off the picture.
The first test screening of the film did not go well. “Almost dead silence greeted the end of the film,” said Deeley. “As the lights came up, the audience filed out as quietly as if they were leaving a funeral service.” They found the film too hard to understand, too graphic, too slow and draggy, and the ending too abrupt. “A lot of things went straight over the head of the audience,” says Scott, “partly because they were trying to follow the main line, which was actually pretty straightforward, but somehow got veiled in complexities that it didn’t have. Part of this was that the proscenium was so exotic, the world you were looking at was so interesting that that was a distraction, but then at the end of the day that is part of the interest in watching the film. It was a new kind of film: because the world was almost as important as the story.”
Tandem insisted he shoot on a new ending, showing Deckard and Rachel driving off happily, removing any hint that Deckard was himself a replicant, and provide the movie with a voiceover, although according to Alan Ladd, “it was Ridley who came up with the narration. He said ‘I loved all those Phillip Marlow stories, Sam Spade and all that. We should put the narration into it.” It was the first time Scott had experienced the preview process, and he thought, “'My God, maybe I've gone too far. Maybe I ought to clarify it.' I got sucked into the process of thinking, 'Let's explain it all.' "
Blade Runner took only $14.8 million upon its June release, and promptly disappeared from screens. As a blockbuster it was bust, but a bust of a very particular breed, for soon the film's designs began to show up everywhere from Brazil to the stage sets for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour, and when laser discs appeared on the market in 1989, Blade Runner became Voyager's top-selling disc, and didn’t budge. In Japan, where the film was a huge success, its art directors were treated like kings, the fans too in awe to even look them in the eye. “Blade Runner had kind of resurrected itself,” says Scott. “but it didn’t resurrect itself on its own. I think MTV did it. That whole MTV generation saw the romanticism and retro neo-classicism — where it’s always raining and always dark — and saw this world as a romantic world. It certainly influenced so many filmmakers particularly in that video world: suddenly every other band had a neo-Blade Runner background. I think gradually kids got it, then they started to see it in the video store — usually on a badly degraded tape — and finally got with it. Its a funny cycle, but it’s great that it resurfaced that way.”
The film thus turned out to be one of those rare, radioactive masterworks that cinema seems impelled to throw up every now and again: toxic to all who touch it at the time, and leaving many careers in fallout, but exerting a mesmeric glow that only increases with the years. From its opening shot of LA’s ziggurats belching fire — as great a flame-grille opening shot as that adorning the front-end of Apocalypse Now — to its spiralling descent into the streets below, to the sound of Vangelis’s arpeggiated electro-harps, Blade Runner is one of those movies that keys into cinemagoers’ eternal desire to be swaddled in wall-to-wall gorgeousness. “If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” says replicant Roy Batty, as played by Rutger Hauer as as kind of Nietszche-in-cycling-shorts. What those eyes of his can see, on the other hand, is another matter, for if you want to know what picture it was that turned the lights out on American movies, plunging such pictures as Se7en and The Matrix into a pitch of Stygian gloom, then Blade Runner is your picture: there was one scrap of sunshine in the original film, but Scott soon removed it with his director’s cut. From the cigarette smoke that fills its interiors, to the rain that drenches its exteriors, Blade Runner wages one serious war on fresh air, further fuelling the suspicion that Scott is far more in love with mysteriousness, than mere mysteries, or their solution.
He never did get enough detective work into his picture, which lacks the bloodhound pant of the great detective flicks. Blade Runner instead moves with the stateliness of one of those advertising blimps that patrol the streets advertising off-world tourist destinations. It's full of slow-blinking owls and dilated irises. Becalmed by its own beauty, Blade Runner is a pedant’s dream — a million tiny details in search of an auteur — and the hawk-like gaze with which the movie’s fans fix upon it is born of a movie which seems to find its somnolent narcotic centre in the scene where Ford pour himself a scotch, and sits back to issue dulcet instructions to the film’s coolest toy: a voice operated photo-enhancer that allows its user to get inside any photograph and nose around it, in 3-D. Sam Spade never had it so easy: the world’s first fully-automated private eye. You can see why the film had such an afterlife on video and DVD, formats which allowed the viewer to pore over the movie with a leisure matching Deckard’s own. Scott is right, in a way: Blade Runner was a new kind of film, certainly one that you watched in a new way. You didn’t watch it so much as get sucked into it, and lost in it, just like its director: you followed the minotaur into his labyrinth.'
— excerpted from my book Blockbuster, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Blade Runner's release on 6.25.82. Stills courtesy of Beautiful Stills From Beautiful Films