Sunday, 7 April 2013

Chapter 6, Part 1 - Harrison Ford: From Artisan to Artist

‘Harrison has an immense understanding of the entire movie-making process. You can’t fool him. He always knows exactly what is happening. His contributions were tremendous, on a story level as well as to his own character. He brought many ideas to me. In fact, it got bloody embarrassing. They were so good there was no way I could wriggle out of using them.’ Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner

The release of Blade Runner in May, 1982 (September, 1982 in Britain) marked a definite attempt by Harrison Ford to change his image. The fan-following built up by such light entertainment vehicles as the Star Wars pictures and Raiders of the Lost Ark were puzzled by the singular lack of humour in Ford’s performance. So much so that they stayed away in droves. Blade Runner was not initially a commercial success.

Ford fans were puzzled by the lack of humour
in the actor's
Blade Runner performance.
But Blade Runner was perhaps Ford’s most important film up to that point. Certainly, it was his first opportunity to sustain an Acting performance in a starring role. The insight and depth he brought to the character of Rick Deckard showed that Ford was capable of far more than the wisecracking characterisations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones would lead audiences to suspect.

More than that, the backdrop against which the drama of Blade Runner was played out, although futuristic, was grittier and more realistic than the fantastic environments of Indy and Solo.


No matter how skilled a film’s performers and technicians are, unless the blueprint from which they work – the script – is tightly crafted, the final movie will suffer as a result. Most movie people agree that just about all the problems encountered during the shooting of a film can be traced back to difficulties left unresolved by the scriptwriter – yet when everything goes swimmingly, it’s the director who gets all the credit.

The script of Blade Runner was based, loosely, on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by respected science fiction author, the late Philip K. Dick, who died tragically on March 2nd, 1982, shortly before the completed film of Blade Runner was released.

No, it's not real ... but don't you wish it was?
The need for the script to be ‘right’ is so universally recognised by filmmakers that it often takes longer to produce a screenplay that everyone is satisfied with than it does to shoot the actual film. Blade Runner is no exception. Work began on the transfer of Dick’s story to the screen almost a decade before the film was released.
‘It all began years ago,’ Dick told Starlog. ‘Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks were both interested in Androids, but they didn’t option (purchase the film rights to) it. That was the first movie interest in any property (story) of mine. Then later, Herb Jaffe optioned it and Robert Jaffe did a screenplay back about 1973. The screenplay was sent to me and it was so crude that I didn’t understand that it was actually the shooting script. I thought it was a rough. I wrote to them and asked if they would like me to do the shooting script, at which point, Robert Jaffe flew down here to Orange County. I said to him then that it was so bad that I wanted to know if he wanted me to beat him up there at the airport or wait until we got to my apartment.’

The first scene of Blade Runner opens with this arresting visual ...
The Jaffes made little progress with their attempts to put Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on the big screen. But the Jaffes weren’t the only film folk interested in the project. Some time in 1974, Hampton Fancher approached Dick with a view to obtaining the film rights to the novel, but as the rights still rested with the Jaffes, Dick was unenthusiastic. Then, in 1977, the Jaffes let their option on the film rights lapse and within a year, Fancher and his partner Brian Kelly found themselves in possession of the movie rights for Dick’s novel.
Kelly approached Michael Deeley, Oscar winning producer of The Deer Hunter with a view to raising finance for further development, but the reception was cool. Deeley felt that there would be too many problems involved in translating Dick’s complicated story to the big screen. Nevertheless, Kelly and Fancher persevered. Fancher produced an eight- page outline for the film which so impressed Deeley that he encouraged the partners to come up with a full script. ‘I hadn’t ever intended to write the screenplay myself,’ Fancher recalled, ‘but I was convinced that this was the only way to get the project off the ground.’
‘Lord knows,’ commented Dick, perhaps uncharitably, ‘I didn’t think much of his screenplay.’ But despite Dick’s reservations, Kelly and Fancher took their script to Deeley once again. ‘He loved it,’ said Fancher.
Deeley began to hawk the script around the production companies in Film City. ‘People were interested,’ said Fancher, ‘but they wanted changes. They’d want a happy ending or they’d want something else changed. It was pretty precarious there for a while. I think there were about four or five drafts written before Ridley Scott came into it. When Ridley came in that sort of wrapped it up because of the Alien reputation. That’s what it needed for the studio to get down to business with it.’ On the strength of Ridley Scott’s participation, Michael Deeley had put together a deal with Filmways. At this point the title of the project had changed from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to The Android.

The smarmy blade runner Holder (Morgan Paull)
runs the Voigt-Kampff test on Leon
At the time Scott was approached to direct Blade Runner, he was scheduled to helm Dino De Laurentis’ multi-million dollar adaptation of the best-selling series of Dune novels by Frank Herbert. But delays in the production made it possible for Scott to squeeze Blade Runner in before beginning work on Dune. (For the record, Dune was later filmed by the team of director David Lynch and cinematographer Freddie Francis).
What was it about the script that convinced Ridley Scott to take on the project? ‘What appealed to me, having just done Alien which was very interesting, was the involvement in just developing that future environment further. I love that whole process, almost as much as any other part of movie making. I just didn’t want to step off onto ordinary ground again. What I felt was great about the script was that it was dealing with the near future. It had to be a familiar city, which it is. A lot of aspects of that city are familiar right now. In fact, a lot of people who will see the film, will experience that kind of future themselves. I also liked the aspect that there was a real character in there, rather than a two-dimensional cardboard character, which happens too often with science fiction films. Because the film is usually dominated by a monster or event the characters do, essentially, take second place.’
After Ridley Scott was signed to direct, a major revision of the script, by now called Dangerous Days, began. Initially, Fancher was resistant to some of the changes proposed. And as a co-owner of the project, Fancher was in a position to dig his heels in. But pressure to alter portions of the script became so great that Fancher realised the only way out of the situation was to bring in another writer.
Enter: David Peoples.
As Fancher remarked later, ‘I was surprised when I got Peoples’ script. Those things that Ridley had wanted that I thought couldn’t be integrated into the script had been rendered by Peoples in ways that were original, tight and admirable. I really liked it. But we never actually collaborated. He came in on very short notice and he had a lot of work to do, but he did it very fast and very well.’
Peoples had been brought into the project during November 1980. Shooting was still several months away. ‘I read the script,’ said Peoples, ‘and immediately felt that it was so good that I was disappointed, because when they came to have a meeting I told them I couldn’t make it any better. It was a terrific script. I don’t know which ones Phil Dick read that he didn’t like, but certainly the one I read was absolutely brilliant. And that was the one I worked from to make the changes Ridley wanted, to make it more his vision.’

Ridley Scott directs extras in a Los Angeles street scene.
Throughout this process of re-writing, Ridley Scott kept a watchful eye on the developing script. Another title change was instigated.
‘The final title actually came from an obscure science fiction paperback (by Alan Nourse),’ Ivor Powell, the associate producer told me. ‘This paperback had something to do with doctors in the future, when doctors and medicines are banned. There are all these illegal doctors who go out to administer medical help to the sick, and the people who supply them with instruments when they run out are called blade runners. Hampton Fancher gave that name to Deckard in his script as a code-name. I’m not sure whether it was Hampton or Ridley who came up with the idea of calling the film Blade Runner.’
Dutifully, the filmmakers bought the rights to Alan Nourse’s Blade Runner novel, only to discover that there was another book of that name by William Burroughs. Originally Nourse’s novel was to be filmed and Burroughs had been hired to adapt the script. But when the movie fell through, Burroughs had his version of the story novelised and published in book form. Blade Runner’s producers were forced to purchase the rights to that version of the story, too.
In the meantime, David Peoples was running into problems. During his revision of the script many of the sets and vehicles were either under construction or already built.
‘One time I changed a scene,’ said Peoples, ‘and somebody said, "Jesus, you wrote the ambulance out!" I said, "So what?" and they said, "Well, it’s already built."’
Peoples gives full credit to Ridley Scott as the true architect of Blade Runner. ‘If anybody was authoring it at this stage it was Ridley. He was dominating, supervising and caring about what went on here. Then, down the line, Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer made some really nice contributions in the way of dialogue. 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.’
Next: Casting Blade Runner