Saturday 18 May 2013

Chapter 6, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: From Artisan to Artist


Harrison Ford’s involvement in Blade Runner goes back further than that of David Peoples. ‘They first asked me about Blade Runner,’ said Harrison Ford, ‘when I was doing ... hmm, Empire, I guess – I have such a bad memory. They were going to make it in London at that point in their plans and I said, “Well, thank you very much, gentlemen, but I don’t want to work in London any more. I want to go home.” Five of my last eight films have been made in London. When they came back to me, it turned out that they couldn’t put it together in London for some reason.’ That reason was intertwined with the collapse of Filmways and the involvement of Tandem Productions and The Ladd Company.

However, according to the book Harrison Ford: Reluctant Hero, Scott had approached Ford during the filming of Empire in 1978, not about Blade Runner, but about Alien, to play the role of Captain Dallas. Ford turned it down as he didn’t want to play another space pilot and the role went to Tom Skerrit. Scott’s approach to Ford about Blade Runner was during the filming of Raiders in 1980.

Hard to believe now that anyone other than Ford could
have played Deckard, but the producers also approached
Dustin Hoffman
I asked Associate Producer Ivor Powell to explain the ins and outs of the move from London to LA. ‘After getting Filmways in as the major and the distributor, the next problem was how to shoot the film. Despite all the location scouting we did, there was no one place that had the concentration of architecture that was right. As always, with a film like Blade Runner, it comes down to how you are going to crack the script, how you’re actually going to make it work, how the logistics are going to work and how they are going to work within a price. The budget was gradually being pushed up and Filmways, I guess, were being carried screamingly along with it, and though we were unaware of it at the time, they were having tremendous cash-flow problems. They believed in the project, but I don’t think they had the money for a twenty million dollar movie. The budget had gone from about twelve or thirteen million dollars, which was totally impractical, right up to twenty million plus. Finally, Filmways collapsed and Michael Deeley, very cleverly I think, turned the film around to Tandem Productions (the company of Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin) and The Ladd Company in a very short space of time, though we went through a terrible hiatus where we were trying to hold the crew together. The directors’ strike was looming for later that year. We knew if we didn’t start the movie by a certain date, we would never start at all. It was one of those pictures that you knew that if it didn’t get made then, it would never get made at all. It wasn’t every director’s cup of tea. Finally, the cash-flow started and we got off. We had, at that time, attempted to do a budget. I’d done a quick budget, which had come in at seventeen or eighteen million dollars, if we were making the picture in England. But if we’d made the move to England, it would have been too late to beat the director’s strike, which ironically never happened anyway. So for that, and some other reasons, we made the movie there, at the Burbank Studios.’

With the production base re-located to Hollywood, Harrison Ford once more became available for the leading role as Rick Deckard, blade runner. But for many of Ford’s fans, Blade Runner was a radical departure from the kind of film that had endeared their hero to them. Ford was following his oft-stated intention to avoid type-casting and ensure that each of his roles was sufficiently different from the last.

Ford almost didn't sign for Blade Runner because it was originally
scheduled to be filmed in the UK and Harrison didn't want to make
 another movie in Britain right after Star Ward and Raiders
Ford was finally signed for Blade Runner while the finishing touches were being put on Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, as with Raiders, Ford was not the filmmakers’ first choice for Deckard. I asked Ivor Powell why Harrison Ford had been picked for the role. ‘By popular demand, really,’ said Powell. Raiders of the Lost Ark hadn’t come out then, so we didn’t know if it was going to do well. At one time, we were even talking to Dustin Hoffman, and that would have been a totally different picture. Dustin is not a macho character and he asked Ridley, “Why the hell do you want me to play this macho character?”

‘Ridley was searching for more than just a superficial, macho film,’ continued Powell. ‘He wanted a real character in there, and Dustin, as I understand it, put forward some wonderful ideas. But it wasn’t the film we were talking about making. Finally, I think it just came down to the fact that Harrison fitted the bill.’

Ridley Scott also told me that, as far as he was concerned, Harrison Ford was the man for the job. ‘He has a very unusual quality that shines through in two pictures, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. It’s a strange, slightly sinister, side. Very low-key and sombre. Almost a different Harrison Ford. Very dangerous. It fitted the nature of both Deckard and the film very well. The only other actor we saw for the part was Dustin Hoffman. He was looking for a different kind of movie. But, god knows, I’d like to work with Hoffman some day. After things fell through there, we went straight to Harrison. He’d been under consideration from the beginning.’

And at the beginning, Ford seemed pleased to be involved in the project. ‘I’m preparing to start work on Blade Runner,’ he told an American fan magazine, shortly before Raiders opened. ‘I’m sure I was considered for the film as a result of Star Wars, just as Ridley (Scott) proved his capabilities in this genre with Alien.

‘I can’t complain so far. Star Wars, Empire, Raiders and Blade Runner are classy, high- quality melodramas, not pot-boilers. They all contain currents of intelligence and morality, and are handled with taste. I’m looking forward to Blade Runner. I think I can give it an aspect that will set it apart from Raiders or Star Wars or anything else I’ve done.’

And while on a trip to Britain to promote Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford had apparently brought his enthusiasm for Blade Runner with him. As he told the British magazine, Films, ‘Blade Runner is an important step towards more serious roles. And I think it will be a very commercial film because of its unique vision. But I was serious about it because of the people involved and was happy to find out that Ridley was interested in developing the density of the characters as well. I felt that we could work together to present a character who was interesting and very different to anything else I’ve done until now.’

Ford and Scott laboured long and hard to achieve something they could be proud of. ‘We have a lot of discussions about scenes,’ said Ford during filming, ‘but not about motivation. I don’t ask him what my motivations are and he doesn’t ask me what they are. The discussions are usually about practical matters – what we’re trying to get out of a scene, what the obligations are on him as master of the story and me as the character. Then we look for common ground to accomplish the story points and the character points at the same time. And sometimes that’s done without any discussion at all, and sometimes we discuss all hell out of it!’

Ridley directs Ford in the cut scene where Deckard visits the
injured blade runner Holden, who's been put in a ventilator
by Leon (Brion James).
This process was underlined by Ridley Scott. ‘There is always a period of rehearsals before the film, and I at least try to get a couple of weeks for casting and reading through the script. I usually take a certain amount of time and tell the actors about the overall film, not just about their particular parts. It’s usually a lengthy process, but then it is worth it because they know how they sit, how they figure within the overall piece. It is very important that they understand the entire thing.’

Ford was also aware that the characters must be clearly defined before the first foot of film ran through the camera. ‘Ultimately it is the actor who has to perform the act and commit it to film. So, while a director’s job is incredibly complicated and difficult, there are elements that are never resolved – how a prop should work, whether the character carries his gun here or carries it there. These may be simple little details, but they are only decided when somebody gets a strong attitude about things and begins to form a point of view. The character Deckard does finally. He begins to develop a point of view about the circumstances around him.’

Yet for all this there seemed to be a fundamental difference between Deckard as Ridley Scott saw him and the character as envisaged by Ford, Scott’s Deckard was apparent to the director as far back as the Hampton Fancher versions of the script. ‘It started to emerge for me,’ said Scott, ‘that Deckard was a kind of Philip Marlowe character, which is an obvious comparison. Harrison figured he should go for utter reality, almost like de Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.’ Ford himself saw Deckard as, ‘... a reluctant detective who dresses like a middle-aged Elvis Costello. He’s a skilled investigator, an expert in his field, but he’s a little out of practice when the movie opens. He’s lost his motor drive. Exterminating people, even non-human ones, is not something he likes to do, and he’s not comfortable with authority. He’s very tough, but he’s no match for a top-of-the-line replicant.’

Tough though Deckard may have been, he didn’t seem to be quite tough enough to resist the aspect of Chandler-esque pastiche that was creeping into the movie. Under Scott’s direction, Blade Runner seemed to be taking shape as a kind of homage to the great black-and-white noir movies of the Forties. As the film’s director of photography, Jordan Cronenweath, told American Cinematographer, ‘Ridley felt the style of photography in Citizen Kane (1940) most closely approached the look he wanted for Blade Runner. This included, among other things, high contrast, unusual camera angles and the use of shafts of light.’ All the film lacked at this stage was a punchy voice-over narration delivered in the kind of lazy drawl made famous by Humphrey Bogart. ‘The generation of the idea of a voice-over came very quickly,’ said Scott. ‘Eventually a screenplay was written with a voice- over very much in mind.’ Ford wasn’t happy at the prospect of a voice-over narration, but for the time being kept his counsel. There was still the problem of being able to satisfy the requirements of the script without compromising his own goals and principles.

‘My object,’ Ford told an American fan magazine, ‘every time out of the gate is to contrast the public’s last known impression of me. So, with Blade Runner, I’m working against Raiders of the Lost Ark. They originally wanted Deckard to wear a big felt hat. I told them I had just finished wearing one in Raiders, so we changed that.’

Despite evidence to the contrary, Ford felt that the science fiction content of Blade Runner was minimal. ‘I wouldn’t call Blade Runner science fiction,’ he said, ‘because it’s much different from the public’s conception of sf-based on movies they’ve seen in the past.’ Granted, but Star Wars was actually less worthy of the tag Science Fiction than Blade Runner. ‘There are special effects in it,’ he continued, ‘but they’re kind of throwaways. From a technical point of view, Blade Runner is not an effects film, but I’m sure Doug (Trumbull)’s work will add a great deal to the story.’

And even at this early stage, Ford was aware of the film’s noir potential. As he told the reporter of Movie Guide, ‘Blade Runner is a big city detective story, the kind Raymond Chandler might have written, but it takes place in the future. It’s realistic and gritty and takes place entirely on Earth.’

Still, for all the confusion over what Blade Runner and Deckard were all about, Ford was enjoying working with Scott. At least for the time being. ‘Ridley’s very particular and demanding in all elements of the production. I knew he was a great visual stylist, but I was glad to find depth and subtlety of character.’


The filming of Blade Runner finally got under way on March 9, 1981, after a year of preproduction planning and an additional fourteen weeks of constructing and dressing sets. The project was already running three months behind schedule.

Actual locations, both in the United States and in Europe, had been considered by the film’s producer, Michael Deeley. But finally, the idea of location filming had proved both impractible and undesirable. The production team were happy to settle for shooting the exteriors on the Warner Brothers New York street set, which had been used for such earlier detective yarns as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946) as well as more recent fare like 1982’s Annie.

Industrial designer Syd Mead and Blade Runner’s production designer Lawrence Paull had been hard at work for twelve months creating the backdrop against which the drama would be played. The cast had been assembled and carefully coached in the lore of Blade Runner. The on-set smoke machine was switched on. The real work could begin.

Most of the action in the movie takes place at night. This meant the cast and crew knuckling down to a gruelling, hours-of-darkness shooting schedule. Lunch was called at midnight and the ‘day’s’ work ended at four or five in the morning. Scott and his key cast and crew members had to survive on an average of four hours of sleep a night, which prevented the kind of family atmosphere Ford had been used to on the Lucas films.

Unlike Lucas, who delegated many of his responsibilities as a filmmaker, Scott preferred to be personally involved in every aspect of the process. Reports filtered through to the trade publications that Ford and Scott weren’t getting along. These reports hinted that Ford was unhappy with Scott’s attention to the mechanics of film-making, a fascination that ran to the extent of Scott operating his own camera during key scenes, a charge Ford denied. ‘It was no big bone of contention between us,’ said Ford. ‘I don’t think he ever got around that problem. He just learned to accommodate the reality. Ridley was able to shoot a few things he really wanted to. And he’s very good. Especially with the hand-held camera. I think there’s quite a few shots in the film with Scott operating his hand-held camera. He likes to watch the performance through the lens. As an actor, I’m glad he wasn’t able to do that all the time. I think it’s better to have his attention on other things. He knows that’s the way I feel. I think that when a director is looking through the camera, he’s watching the edges to be sure where everything is. I want a director to be helping me with a whole scene, the performance. It’s not that this isn’t possible, or that Ridley hasn’t done it before ... and very well.’

Sean Young has reportedly said that Ford was difficult
to connect to on a personal level.
Ford kept himself pretty much to himself during the seventeen weeks of shooting. His co-star Sean Young would have welcomed more collaboration between them. ‘I think Harrison is probably an all-or-nothing type of person and he can’t really relate to other cast members full out, because he feels he might become too wrapped up, and by being friendlier with the crew, he can avoid that whole mess.’

Rutger Hauer was less open in his views on working with Ford. ‘I only had two moments in the film with Ford,’ he said. ‘I didn’t work that long with him, but he was fine. Our scenes were very clearly written in the script. I didn’t feel there was a problem of communication because we didn’t have to talk about it. It was just a matter of doing it without getting hurt.’

Next: The stunts and the press reaction to Blade Runner

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