For a guy with a near-immaculate string of critically praised arthouse and, lately, commercial films to his name, Denis Villeneuve is strikingly cautious about his future behind the lens.
The French Canadian director, known for his meticulously crafted emotional slow-burns—from 2010’s Incendies to Prisoners and Enemy in 2013, to his first Oscars Best Picture contender, last year’s sci-fi masterpiece Arrival—is in the midst of awards season press for Blade Runner 2049, his dive into the cyberpunk dystopia of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic. The film, which yielded euphoric critical praise, marks Villeneuve’s first foray into mainstream blockbuster-making. Less happily, it also now marks his first brush with high-stakes commercial failure.
Villeneuve’s reimagining of one of science-fiction’s most iconic properties is, altogether, surprisingly ballsy. It’s ponderous and slow and beautiful—like a big-budget franchise film with the heart of an arthouse movie. It’s quietly devastating more than it is satisfying, and more preoccupied with the nature of free will, memories, and subjugation than explosion-filled action sequences. It’s virtually everything a traditional blockbuster is not, right down to its middling box office debut. All told, the $150 million epic stands to lose its production company, Alcon Entertainment, and investors $80 million. (Globally, it has grossed around $250 million; domestically, about $90 million.)
That’s more money than Villeneuve, whom I meet in an airy corner office overlooking a sunset-lit Manhattan skyline, can comfortably dismiss. He’s rueful while discussing it, maintaining a tone of almost Zen-like humility. “The truth is that it was a privilege to make this film but, I mean, you’re always as good as your last movie,” he says. “As a filmmaker, I know that my position is always very fragile and vulnerable, and I cannot afford to do that twice. If my next movie has the same fate, it will be bye-bye big budget, you know? I don’t want that.”
“I’m from the indie world, where every time you make a movie, it’s a huge fight,” he continues. “And you never know when you’re gonna shoot again. Where I’m coming from in Montreal, you make a feature film, it’s out and you don’t know when you’re gonna have a camera in your hands again. It could be a year, two years, ten years. So I’m quite philosophical about that aspect of my job…To know I’ll have the chance to do another [film] is massive. It’s part of the game. I’m OK with that because it’s part of the game. You cannot deal with fear.”
Humbled though he may be, that next film is of no less sprawling proportions. Villeneuve’s passion project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune, is in the process of being scripted—a dream 35 years in the making for him, one he seems afraid to jinx. “I cannot talk about a project when I am writing, it’s too fragile,” he insists. “You know you’re making a movie when you have the eye behind the camera. Beyond that, it’s not a given. Anything can happen.”
He first read Dune as a teenager, he allows, citing it as “insane” inspiration for his sci-fi imaginings, alongside the work of artists and graphic novelists like Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Philippe Druillet, Jean-Claude Mézières, and Enki Bilal. His version will have little in common with David Lynch’s 1984 misfire (though he politely stresses how much he “respects” Lynch’s vision) and will instead spring directly from the book.
“It’s a beast. It’s really difficult,” he says, smiling at the prospect. “But I love it. I think it won’t be a fast project because I have too much fun.” He’s in the “dreaming” phase of prep, he explains. He struggled with a “problem” in the script’s structure for days before suddenly waking up two days ago “at 5 a.m. saying, ‘I got it! It’s so simple, but I got it!’ That part is my favorite.”
Still, taking on Dune won’t come cheap. (Just ask Alejandro Jodorowsky.) Villeneuve is aware of the pressure to succeed financially with his next film, and has made peace with it—he’d just rather not be reminded right now. “I cannot make a movie thinking about…” he begins, before reiterating his “responsibility” as a filmmaker to his audience, his artistic ambitions, and, yes, to his financiers.
“I want to honor that responsibility,” he says. “It’s important for me that I’m not oblivious about what’s happening with Blade Runner in the U.S. The producers, they are my friends. I feel responsible, honestly. But then at the same time, it’s a bit out of my control.” He’d do “nothing” differently if handling the film again: “It’s the movie I wanted to make. And I hope it will [stand the test of] time. That’s my only goal.”
Not that he doesn’t have theories about what went wrong. Villeneuve is careful not to lay blame on any doorstep (the film’s marketing team did “a great job,” he says), and instead rattles off box office returns by geographical location in bemusement. Numbers out of England, France, Spain, and Italy were “strong”; major U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York, and L.A. “did great.” It’s in middle America, he says, where “I think we underestimated the amount of people who knew about the first movie and the culture of it. I don’t know…” He trails off, then hazards a guess about its formidable 163-minute runtime. “The movie’s length, maybe? It’s a long movie that had the buzz to be very arthouse, so I think…”
He falters again, then shakes his head: “I don’t know. But I would love to know.”
One missing piece of the puzzle, perhaps? The film noticeably underperformed with women: 71 percent of opening-weekend ticket buyers were male, according to the president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., which released Blade Runner in the U.S. and Canada. Some critics denounced the film’s treatment of its supporting female characters, many of whom are either sex workers or literal objects created to serve men. To other female writers, meanwhile, that was sort of the point: a futuristic mirror of our capitalistic society’s abuse and commodification of women and nature. (Mashable went so far as to call the film “an ode to feminist ideals.”)
For his part, Villeneuve defends Blade Runner’s depiction of women by stressing it is not a projection of what the year 2049 should look like, but rather, an indictment of the way it already is. “The way it was written and the way we did it, it’s not about our future, it’s like a magnifying glass onto this society,” he says. “The way women are objectified and struggling with power, and are used by men, there’s something harsh about the portrait of society. And I think it’s not that I provoke that, it’s just an observation.”
Part of his attraction to Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s script, he says, is that it featured “a lot of female characters, very different, with different strengths. I thought it was uncommon to see that many.” The film plays to his career-long fascination with “the dark zones of society,” he explains, and how women assert themselves within them. “I am not a woman, obviously,” he says. “But I feel I am deeply inspired by women. I made nine features, and six of them have a lead who’s a woman. And it’s not a coincidence.”
“I was raised in a society, in an environment where there’s some real concerns and focus on trying to make the women equal, so that women have equal chances to men,” he says of his hometown, Quebec. “It is not perfect but it’s going in a good direction—progressive, very progressive. And I was raised with that mentality.”
Does he call himself a feminist then? “Honestly, yes.”
“I don’t see feminism as something that is against men, but more... for women,” he says, laughing self-consciously at his struggle to articulate. “I mean, women’s condition is something that I feel is very important to talk about, to explore.” He isn’t without his own flaws, he admits. But for him, the fact that Blade Runner’s depiction of women is being talked about “is something positive.”
One way Blade Runner 2049 reflects the dysfunction of our current moment is through a character whose internalized prejudices go against her own best interests. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is a character trapped by her circumstances, a replicant enslaved to Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and tasked with tracking down Ryan Gosling’s K. She’s a mess of strikingly human contradictions: she sheds a tear for a fellow replicant her master murders, but happily obliges his orders to kill more. She’s a malevolent, seething force for his revolution—one that hurts her own kind, and leaves her unable to evolve herself.
Villeneuve nods emphatically at the idea of Luv as both a victim and villain. “You know, the replicants are strong physically, very intelligent, but emotionally they are very fragile and vulnerable because they don't have the necessary pillow of experiences,” he muses. “So sometimes they react emotionally in a very strange way. And Luv is like a 12-year-old brat, angry and full of Oedipus complex, in love with her maker and jealous of that young cop that could be better than her. There’s some kind of strange competition [between K and Luv], like an annoying little brother. I think, in total contradiction, she’s trying to advance something that is against her own nature.”
While K’s sacrifice at the end of the film leaves room for a potential sequel, Villeneuve is unsure whether another project will ever move forward. “The thing is that the studio really focused and my task was really to focus on this one,” he says. “I had no pressure to develop or to propel a number two. It was made as a standalone. Now, I know that the idea is not dead to maybe go on with what could become a franchise. But for now, the movie has just been released and I think nobody’s really thinking [about that.]”
As for how Blade Runner 2049 will fare at next year’s Oscars, Villeneuve is only cautiously optimistic. The good news: Cinematographer Roger Deakins is a near-lock in his race. The bad news: Historically, the Academy has often overlooked genre fare, though recent years have yielded Best Picture nominees like The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, and of course, Arrival. Each were technical achievements boosted by rapturous critical praise, like Blade Runner. But Villeneuve fears how box office returns might negatively impact its chances.
“If you make a movie like Blade Runner that has some, I think, real strong artistic qualities—and I’m not just talking about my job, I’m talking about the job of my colleagues,” he says, “but it doesn’t do great at the box office, then it’s not considered. So it’s crazy. If it had been a massive box office hit, I don’t know how it would be perceived right now, because it’s the same movie. So I hope it will still be in the race.”
For now, then, it’s onto Dune. And maybe an overdue trip to the movies. “I haven’t been to the theater since a lot of time this year,” he laments. Time spent watching TV while crisscrossing the globe on airplanes did gift him one new discovery: “The Handmaid’s Tale, I must say, is very impressive,” he says, praising Margaret Atwood. “I was dreaming to do something similar, a kind of dystopian, dark story. I had written something but… ah!” He snaps a finger in regret and laughs. “It’s too late now.”