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FOG! Chats With Paul M. Sammon, Author of ‘Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner’

The making of Blade Runner was a seven-year odyssey that would test the stamina and the imagination of writers, producers, special effects wizards, and the most innovative art directors and set designers in the industry.

And journalist Paul M. Sammon was there to document the entire process.  In his book, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Paul documented the intensive, intimate and anything-but-glamorous behind-the-scenes account of how Ridley Scott purposefully used his creative genius to transform the work of science fiction’s most uncompromising author into a critical sensation, a commercial success, and a cult classic that would reinvent the genre.

With the recent release of Blade Runner: 2049, Future Noir is once again available in an updated and expanded edition which also includes new material including interviews, a look at the theatrical release of The Final Cut, as well as a look at the long awaited sequel.

Paul was extremely generous to take some time to discuss the book, his relationships with cast and crew and his thoughts on Deckard being a replicant.

*  *  *  *  *  *

FOG!: I read the first edition of Future Noir when it came out and I’ve since read the new edition, which improves on what is already considered to be an indispensable book.  I can’t imagine many films today allowing a journalist the level of access you had during a film’s production.  How did you find yourself getting involved with Blade Runner?

Paul M. Sammon: My Blade Runner involvement actually stretches back to 1959, when I read my first Philip K. Dick story as a boy. That was “The Father Thing,” which remains one of Dick’s most disturbing shorts. I subsequently sought out any and everything with the name Philip K. Dick attached – which wasn’t easy during that period – and bought a first edition paperback, in 1968, of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is Blade Runner’s source novel. Then I was fortunate enough to meet PKD at a lecture he did at Cal State Fullerton in 1973.

After his speech, I approached him, and told Phil my first experience with his work was “Father Thing.” He roared with laughter and apologized for screwing with my head. Luckily, Phil was very open and warm. We exchanged phone numbers, and kept in touch during the Seventies.

Fast-forward to 1981. At that time I was both a prolific free-lance journalist and a member of the professional filmmaking community: for instance, I had already crewed on a film titled Silent Running in 1971, worked as genre publicist for Disney’s The Black Hole in 1978, and was employed by Universal in 1981 as a Junior Vice President of Specialized Publicity, to help promote Conan the Barbarian, among other films. So by ‘81 I was both a writer and a studio employee.

Also in 1981, when I heard that Blade Runner was going to happen, I actively lobbied Cinefantastique and Omni magazines to allow me to cover the production as it occurred. I then arranged a meeting with Michael Deeley, Blade Runner’s producer. Michael was impressed with the samples I’d brought showing what I had written in the past, and, I think, reassured when he discovered I was part of the Industry. Meaning that I was aware of the unspoken protocols surrounding the film business and, hopefully, wouldn’t be a pain in the ass. Deeley next walked me down a hall and introduced me to Ridley Scott, who’d just been hired to direct Blade Runner. Ridley and I then spent hours talking about every topic under the sun. Two days later I received a letter from Michael granting me complete access to all phases of Blade Runner’s production. And I ran with that.

You were writing a bit at the time for such publications as The American Cinematographer, Omni, Cinefex, and Presumably you were a science fiction fan?

I was and remain a lifelong SF aficionado, both of the films and SF in print. However, I was raised in a household filled with eclectic autodidacts; my parents literally read everything, from Emerson to Bradbury, and I picked up their habit. So as much of an admirer as I am of science fiction, I also read and enjoy non-fiction books (on neurology, astronomy, quantum physics, contemporary politics, philosophy, film studies, biographies, etc). As for fiction, I routinely peruse literature (authors like T.C. Boyle and George Saunders), mysteries (I am particularly in love with Irish author John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels), horror (Robert Aickman, Laird Barron, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti) and many other genres. Finally, SF; Greg Bear, Ted Chiang, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, and Tim Powers are just a few of the authors I turn to.

So yeah, I’m a science fiction fan. More a constant, compulsive reader, though. Of anything. I’ll read the ingredients on a cereal box!

How long were you on the set of Blade Runner?  What was your relationship like with Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford, Michael Deeley and other key cast and crew?

I was involved with the entire production for roughly 16-18 months. This included prep, principal, post and the model/photographic effects. My relationships were, on the whole, good. 35 years later, Ridley and I still speak, Michael Deeley is a friend, Joanna Cassidy and I go to the movies together (often-she’s a film buff like myself). I just spoke with Sean Young a few days ago. Plus, I deepened my friendship with Phil Dick. What a shame that he died and never saw the completed movie.

Sammon (left) seen with Rutger Haurer at Blade Runner event at BFI Southbank. Photo by Linda Nylind.

During the actual process, I basically observed and stayed out of the way. Tension was high during the shoot. Harrison was unhappy, for various reasons, but I never had any problems with him. In fact one night we sat in his trailer talking about Russian literature, or, rather, The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s classic Stalinist satire. Ford is very, very smart, highly verbal, and, best of all, likes to have fun. A total pro.

Was writing a book the ultimate goal?

Never. I thought that once I’d turned in my original 25,000 word Cinefantastique article (titled “Welcome to Ridleyville”) and the three articles I did for Omni magazine in 1982, my Blade Runner reportage was complete.

But I kept thinking and thinking about that production. Kept it on my personal radar as Blade Runner gained traction via home video during the remainder of the 1980’s and flew even higher after 1992’s release of The Director’s Cut. I basically became increasingly obsessed with what I saw as this visually magnificent, thematically rich, amusingly weird film as the years rolled by.

Additionally, by the early 1990’s I’d worked on quite a few other films. Things like Lynch’s Dune and Blue Velvet and RoboCop.  But very few other than the titles I just mentioned matched Blade Runner’s pedigree. Plus, here was a film that was obviously such an influential Earthshaker.

So why had it failed? And why hadn’t someone (else) done a book about what I’d first-hand witnessed during the making of this one-of-a-kind production?

I then started to write articles about the film again, for mags like the late, great Video Watchdog. I concurrently revisited the tons of interviews and notes I’d gathered and never used for my original articles, and, finally, one day I just called up Ridley to say, “Hey. It’s 1993, and I think Blade Runner is going to continue to grow in stature well beyond where it is now. Do you mind if I write a book about it? Would you be onboard and willing to cooperate with that? I want to compose something that not only chronicles Blade Runner’s history, but will give readers a better insight into what really goes into the making of a major motion picture.  Besides, maybe once I do, people will stop asking us if Deckard’s a replicant!” Ridley laughed at that last one and said “Sure.”

I subsequently spent about three years of further research and interviews and collating my old material to come up with the 1996 edition of Future Noir. And I’ve never really stopped working on revising the book since then. Although I’ve actually written about 20 other books too! But Future Noir is, I guess, my crown jewel. Simply because it documents such a seminal motion picture.

Although the film wasn’t a box office hit, it’s influence and fanbase continues to grow even today.  What about Blade Runner do you think resonates so much with audiences?

What usually strikes initial Blade Runner viewers is its incredibly intricate world building. Even now, 35 years on, you can freeze just about any shot and see layer after layer of detail tucked away in same. Ridley and his designers did an astonishing job of making this alternative 2019 Los Angeles such a bristling, living space.  That design is tremendously catholic, and diverse, yet believable, too. Crappy old diesel-powered junkers are puttering down on the streets next to sleek flying cars. Blade Runner’s architectural mash-ups and wardrobes have proved influential as well. In the latter instance, Blade Runner’s costumes were brought into the film from many then cutting-edge fashion designers , everything from punk to retro-chic to the absolute pinnacles of current haute couture.

Anyway, by then by mixing everything up so realistically, Blade Runner’s never looked dated. It still seems real.

That’s one reason the film’s endured. What’s on its surface. But there’s more to Blade Runner than meets the eye. The mood of the film is so deeply hypnotic and melancholic; Vangelis score, Terry Rawling’s editing, Ridley’s direction, all helped solidify Blade Runner’s mesmerizing sense of sadness. Part of that tone also, of course, arose from Ridley’s decision to overlay old 1940’s film noir clichés – the shadow, expressionistic cinematography, the endemic societal corruption, the femme fatales, the flawed hero –  with real-world concerns. I mean, look at what you see in BR: overpopulation, the degradation of the environment, homelessness, the yawning divide between the haves and have-nots.

Then, underneath that, you have these extremely adult questions and existential concerns-what does it mean to be empathic? To be human? Are our machines more human than those who created them? Why are we here? Why can’t we defeat death? Have corporations gone totally amuck? Are we rushing headlong into a doomed, soulless future?

Finally, look at Blade Runner’s characters! Crazy, charismatic Roy Batty, sly punker Pris, impossibly gorgeous Rachael, alcoholic burn-out Deckard, reptilian, manipulative Tyrell…with all that, is it any wonder that Blade Runner never seems to get old?

Were you surprised when Ridley and Harrison announced that they would be collaborating on Blade Runner 2049?

Not really. They’d buried the hatchet years ago. I was surprised and delighted that they waited for such an excellent script and director, and didn’t jump at the first opportunity to do another type of sequel. I should give a shout out to Cynthia Sikes Yorkin, Bud Yorkin’s widow, for making Blade Runner 2049 happen the way it did. She’s the unsung hero behind this worthy sequel.

What are your thoughts regarding Deckard as a replicant?  Ridley says he is, Harrison says he isn’t.  What do you think?  Is Deckard a replicant?

I’ve already written this in Future Noir but, to a certain extent, it depends on which version you see.

In the original theatrical cut, the one that doesn’t have Deckard’s unicorn daydream, Gaff’s leaving the tinfoil unicorn behind at Deck’s apartment at film’s end basically means he came to that apartment, found Rachael, and didn’t retire her, as payback for Deckard offing the other replicants. Which he didn’t, of course, but never mind.

However, in the Director’s Cut and Final Cut, the one with the Unicorn daydream, that tinfoil origami Gaff leaves at the end signifies something deeper-that Gaff knows Deckard’s private thoughts. Which means they could be artificially inserted memory implants. So it somewhat depends on which version of the film you see.

I really should point out, though, that during the making of Blade Runner, Ridley originally wanted to only suggest that Deckard might be a replicant, not that he was one. That ambiguity seemed to become more literal as shooting progressed. But that’s part of the fun of the film – is he, or isn’t he? Not that that question has been definitively answered; while Harrison and Ford were making Blade Runner 2049, they were still arguing this point!

What are you currently geeking out over?

Wow. Well, movies music and books remain the three things I’m most passionate about, so I can go on and on and on here. Let me give the short reply. Short by my standards, anyway.

Books? I already gave a pretty thorough rundown on what I’m reading these days – oh wait, I left out all the books about Stanley Kubrick that have finally started pouring out, and I really like a film book titled A Cinema of Loneliness, by Robert Kolker. Magazines I often read include Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Little White Lies, Granta, Cineaste, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, The Atlantic, and a billion other pro and semi-pro zines.

As for streaming services, I like the Shudder Channel (some tremendous domestic and international horror films there, like They Look Like People and Resolution and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and The Autopsy of Jane Doe). For my cinematic vegetables, I turn to Filmstruck, for its art films and Criterion Collection titles. I also dig shows like Fortitude, on Amazon, which is this crazy-cool drama/SF/mystery hybrid taking place in the Arctic Circle –  but nobody seems to be watching it.

Music? Anything of excellence; Explosions in the Sky; Sia; Lettuce; the Swedish folk-rock duo First Aid Kit; Antibalas; This American Afro-beat; Deep Funk Revival Band; Children of the Wave, an experimental electro-duo; David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time album; Grady Champion and BB King for some blues; La Luz; Lana del Rey; Washed Out…

Comix? I finally got around to buying Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, which I’m eager to start. That’s nestling alongside all the various psychedelic Steve Ditko collections that are finally coming out.

And oh yes, one last shout out; The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049, by Tanya Lapointe. What an excellent melding of text and art and photos. If you loved the first Blade Runner sequel – which I did – you gotta get this one.

Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner is available now

 

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