Blade Runner is the 1981 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Michael Deeley. Hampton Fancher and David Peoples wrote the screenplay. The film stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Daryl Hannah. It is considered one of the most groundbreaking science fiction films of all time.
Producer Michael Deeley liked the throughline of Dick's book - the idea of a bureaucratic detective chasing androids. He was drawn to the question that the book presented: what makes us human? When first approached, Ridley Scott, Deeley and Fancher's first choice to direct Dangerous Days, turned the project down because he was already working on Dune. However, that film was taking longer than anticipated and, a few years into development, Scott's older brother, Frank, died of cancer. Ridley Scott decided to switch gears and signed on to Dangerous Days. He worked with Fancher extensively to revise the screenplay. Mainly, Scott wanted to know what was outside the windows in the futuristic drama. Scott also felt that calling Deckard a "detective" was lazy and uncreative, so Fancher found a slim volume by beat writer William S. Borroughs called Blade Runner: A Movie and fell in love with the term as a description of Deckard's job chasing androids. They licensed the title from Borroughs' representatives and Dangerous Days became Blade Runner.
Originally, a small production company called Filmways was going to finance Blade Runner and, based on Fancher's original screenplay, had budgeted about $12.5 million total for the whole film. By the time Scott signed on, Filmways had already spent $2.5 million on the film but got nervous when they saw the scope of the project expanding. There was no way Filmways was going to be able to support Ridley Scott's vision - and they pulled out, even though sets were already being constructed.
Pre-production went on as planned, however, and David L. Snyder, the Art Director, remembers having "dog and pony shows for all the distributors". Alan Ladd Jr., who had distributed Alien while he was the President of 20th Century Fox, read Fancher's script and loved it. Ladd was now running his own company, through which Warner Bros. put up $8.5 million for the North American theatrical rights to Blade Runner. The foreign theatrical rights went to Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw for another $8.5 million. Finally, Deeley approached Tandem Productions. Tandem's principals, Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, had primarily financed television, but they liked the idea of cloning and the film noir style that Ridley Scott was developing. They agreed to put up the completion money (whatever it took to finish the film) in exchange for all television and home video rights, the theatrical surplus, and a deferred $1.5 million fee. Deeley admits that he conceded many more rights to Tandem than he was comfortable with - but he had no choice because they were two weeks away from having to halt pre-production and risk Blade Runner being dead in the water before shooting a single frame.
As Deeley was desperately trying to put the financing back together, Ridley Scott became more and more obsessive about Fancher's rewrites - and soon, the cast started to weigh in as well. Hampton was getting exhausted, so Deeley and Scott hired writer David Peoples to give the script a harder edge. As for casting, Dustin Hoffman was originally attached to play Rick Deckard. Scott and Hoffman spent hours together, and Hoffman made it clear that he saw Blade Runner as more of a social statement than a film noir. Eventually, Scott and Fancher realized that they had gotten too far away from the ideas that they had originally liked, and Hoffman stepped down. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg was in the middle of post-production on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and told Ridley Scott that Harrison Ford was about to become a huge star. Scott flew to London to watch scenes from Raiders and realized that he had finally found his Rick Deckard.
In terms of Blade Runner's (now iconic) look and design, Ridley Scott was inspired by Heavy Metal comic books. Also, "one early and key Blade Runner visual reference was artist Edward Hopper's hauntingly lonely painting 'Nighthawks.' This famous work depicts a group of nocturnal urban dwellers frozen in silent meditation under the stark florescent light of a sparsely populated all-night diner" (Sammon 74). Scott worked closely with artist Syd Mead to translate these references into the unique, urban landscape of Blade Runner. They built Deckard's world on a backlot at Burbank Studios (now Warner Bros.) - an Old New York Street "that had been built in 1929 and witnessed the original filming of such detective classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep". Mead, along with Scott and Lawrence Paull, the production designer, "retrofitted" the Blade Runner sets onto the existing buildings on the lot, as if the guts of the buildings were now on the exterior.
The Blade Runner shoot was brutal in every way. Harrison Ford says in the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, "it was a bitch, working every night, all night long, often in the rain ... it wasn't the most pleasant shoot". Hampton Fancher commented that some people who worked on Blade Runner did not want to work in film anymore after the shoot was over - and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times claims that many crew members started calling the film Blood Runner. Katy Haber, the production executive, called Blade Runner "a monument to stress" (Sammon 202). Producer Michael Deeley did not make another theatrical film for 10 years.
The reason the shoot was so difficult was because of night shooting, conflicting personalities, Ridley Scott's inexperience with American union crews, and the constant budgetary constraints. According to Lawrence Paull, Ridley Scott would come to set every day and change everything - turning massive pillars upside down, changing wall colors. Paull commented, "working with [Scott] was the first time in my career as a designer that the paint was still wet as the cameras were rolling" (Turan).
Meanwhile, some of the actors felt as though they weren't getting enough direction from Ridley Scott. In a Boston Globe Interview in 1991, Harrison Ford said, "There was nothing for me to do but stand around and give some vain attempt to give some focus to Ridley's sets..." (Sammon 211). Kenneth Turan agreed, writing, "with so much attention paid to the visuals, it was inevitable that the actors would get shorter shrift". However, many of the actors had intelligent and insightful suggestions for their characters, and Scott was open to hearing them. Edward James Olmos created a street language for his own character. Rutger Hauer improvised the last line of his final speech "like tears in rain...". Unfortunately, though, Harrison Ford was supposedly frustrated by working with a director who was "happier to be sitting on a crane looking through the camera than talking to him" and reportedly spent a lot of his off-camera time sitting in his trailer.
For his part, Ridley Scott admits "Blade Runner was "probably the hardest pressed thing [he'd] ever done". It was a mammoth task to create the world of the film, to "expand [Deckard's] universe into credibility...there was nothing to borrow from" (Greenwald). He also accepts that he probably did not work with Harrison Ford as much as he should have, but also indicates in his behind-the-scenes commentary that he and Ford have since patched things up. Despite the difficulty of production, Terry Rawlings, the editor, summed up his feelings about working with Scott, saying, "Ridley has talent. Plenty of it. Which goes a long way towards soothing whatever temporarily ruffled feelings I might have during a shoot" (Sammon 221).
When Philip K. Dick saw a cut of Blade Runner for the first time, he was dumbfounded. He had to watch it twice before exclaiming, "How is this possible? How can this be? Those are not the exact images, but the texture and tone of the images I saw in my head when I was writing the original book! The environment is exactly how I'd imagined it! How'd you guys do that? How did you know what I was feeling and thinking?!" (Sammon 284). Sadly, Dick died suddenly soon after this screening and never got to see Blade Runner in its completed glory.
Unfortunately, test audiences in Denver and Dallas were not quite so rapturous. They found the film too slow, too hard to understand, and too graphic in its depiction of violence, among other things. Despite the positive comments on the stunning visuals, these sneak previews left the Blade Runner team anxious about the film's chances of success. The tepid reactions led the team (not just Tandem, though they supported the idea) to add in more of Deckard's voice over and a happy ending, which consisted of "Rachael and Deckard driving in Deckard's sedan outside the city limits in a beautiful, verdant landscape" (Sammon 299) - among other minor changes to improve the film's clarity.
When Blade Runner was finally released in theaters, audiences were just as baffled as the original test audiences. The film only grossed $14 million during its initial theatrical run - it was definitely a flop. Critics were similarly mystified. Pauline Kael called Blade Runner "A visionary sci-fi movie that can't be ignored...[but] if anyone comes around with a test to detect humanoids, maybe Ridley Scott and his associates should hide". Gene Siskel wrote that the film "looks terrific but is empty at its core" (Bukatman 43). It did not help that it Blade Runner was up against stiff competition - it came out right after the release of E.T. and was competing with other summer science fiction films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian, and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing.
In reaction to the falling box office numbers, "Warners hurriedly initiated a then-new distribution strategy designed to maximize profits from films whose initial box office reception had been mediocre. The studio's plan involved pulling Blade Runner from its theatrical engagements and re-releasing the motion picture through Warner Bros.' own Warners-Amex Satellite Entertainment Network" (Sammon 322). That could have easily been the end of the Blade Runner story, had it not been for the growing popularity of home video and TV. Blade Runner soon became one of the most rented tapes on the home video market. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott noted, while watching the brand-new music channel MTV, that he saw "more and more and more with bands' [music videos] that there were dark nights with rainy s**t and lots of steamy drains. And... I'm going - that's from Blade Runner!"
In 1989, stereo-film preservationist Michael Arick discovered a 70mm print of Blade Runner - the one that had screened at the Denver and Dallas preview screenings (with minimal voice over and without the happy ending). NuArt in Los Angeles ran the film for two weeks - and every screening sold out. People lined up to see the film wearing Deckard-inspired overcoats. The problem was that this print was a workprint - not a Director's Cut, as Ridley Scott insisted, since he was not "satisfied with either its content or its appearance" (Sammon 350). In 1992, A Scott-approved (but hurriedly assembled) Blade Runner:Director's Cut hit theaters and after a month, it "hovered within the top-fifty grossing motion pictures in the USA for a 10-week period" (Sammon 368). By late 1994, the film had sold 1.2 million VHS copies.
Blade Runner has had an enduring effect on Hollywood for the last quarter-century. Director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim) says that the film "changed [his] life". Kenneth Turan from the LA Times calls Blade Runner "the first science fiction art film... [when it opened], Reagan was promising people that the future was going to be great. But at that time, there was growing materialism and this film was about spiritual fulfillment. We have the choice to emphatic and to be human". The look of the film influenced Terry Gilliam when he was making Brazil, as well as the stage design for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour.
In 2002, Scott himself oversaw the digital restoration and the final, definitive version of Blade Runner called The Final Cut, but legal battles kept it out of theaters until 2006. When this new version of the film came out, Roger Ebert wrote, "I have never quite embraced Blade Runner, admiring it at arm's length, but now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon" (Ebert). He praised Ridley Scott's decision not to replace his analog special effects with new CGI graphics, noting that fans were upset with George Lucas when he did that on the re-release of Star Wars. Ebert also approved of the removal of the voice-over and the pat ending. He felt that as a result, "the story benefits, too, by seeming more to inhabit its world than be laid on top of it" (Ebert).
Kenneth Turan argues, "everyone agrees that Blade Runner was so ahead of its time that it wouldn't have been a major hit even if not a frame [of Scott's original cut] had been altered" (Turan). He believes that the film just took time to find its audience. Whatever the case, Blade Runner's audience continues to grow, nearly 3 decades after its initial release. There had been ongoing rumors about a Blade Runner sequel, and in May 2012, Scott confirmed that the project was moving forward, with original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, original producer Bud Yorkin, and Scott's own Scott Free Productions. He claims that the new film will have a female protagonist.