Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Chapter 6, Part 3 - Harrison Ford: From Artisan to Artist

As was his custom on his other films, Ford did most of his own stunts for Blade Runner. One memorable scene had him clinging precariously to a ledge, hundreds of storeys above the teeming streets.

‘We were using a 65mm Mitchell camera,’ explained effects man David Dryer, ‘which weighed about 75 pounds. With that kind of weight cantilevered out over Ford there was always the chance that the camera would break a casting and come right down on him. So we rigged a special plate and support to get the camera actually looking back down on itself.’

It was Rutger Hauer’s job to haul Ford up onto the roof. ‘Harrison didn’t want to fall down that twenty foot drop, or whatever it was. So he was hanging there, with a wire for support, but it was still kind of tough to get him up.’

But Ford was dismissive of the danger involved. ‘That shot where I’m hanging from the girder ... well, god knows, I’m not hanging 30 storeys above the ground there. Not only am I not hanging from the girder, I’ve got a safety belt on and a wire that’s got me clipped to the bottom of the girder ... and I’m acting like I’m hanging from a girder, from the contortion of my face, the sweat of my brow. That’s all acting ... wonderful acting!’ But on a more serious note Ford is careful to draw a clear distinction between what he does and ‘real’ stunts. ‘What I’ve done in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner is “physical acting”. Stunts are falling off a tall building or crashing a car. Something you’re silly enough to think isn’t going to hurt the next day.’

Ford claims he wasn't really dangling from a girder by his fingertips
30 storeys above the ground ... but I don't believe him for a second.
Meanwhile, rumours abounded that Ford had drastically altered his appearance for the movie, one American newspaper even claiming Ford played Deckard with a shaved head. ‘The crewcut was my idea,’ said Ford. ‘And I had to talk Ridley into it, because he was afraid that it might make me less ... gorgeous. The haircut couldn’t be done unless Ridley was there. It took about four hours to get it. With long pauses for consideration by Ridley. My ambition was always to get it right down. Real short. I wanted to give the impression of a character who has given upon himself, was unconscious of his appearance and had lost, to a large degree, that ego that keeps us all doing things like combing our hair, brushing our teeth and all of that. I thought it was important to suggest that and change my appearance in some way. I think it’s more interesting for an audience, even if they know right away who it is. They don’t have the same expectation of you if you don’t look the same. It gives you a foot forward.

‘And one of the other things that drives me nuts when doing a four month shooting schedule is when someone is fiddling with your hair between every shot. I just can’t stand that. It just drives me nuts. If I could have short hair on every film ... I mean, some of my best friends are hairdressers, but it does drive me nuts. The first thing I do after a film where I have long hair is cut it all off.’ The beard was also Ford’s idea. ‘The first day of Blade Runner, I’m shaved. When the events begin to take over my life, it hardly seems a proper time to shave ... when things are going the way they are in Blade Runner, there doesn’t seem time for a bath and a shave. I think that kind of detail goes to make up the character. I try not to lose sight of those little things.’

An early continuity pic of Ford ... here his hair
is longer than it appeared in the final movie.
By this time, Ford had had a chance to think through Deckard’s relationship with Rachael. ‘It’s clear that Deckard doesn’t think very much about women at all,’ he told the author of Blade Runner souvenir magazine. ‘He’s the type of guy that would see them occasionally but not have any use for them around the house. He has a wife and child but they seem to have gone in search of a better life. Deckard acknowledges on Rachael’s first appearance that she is attractive. But then she becomes a puzzle and, when he figures out she is a replicant, he seems to have no further use for her. He sees Rachael as a zero. But her display of emotion, even though he knows it’s false, implanted, pulls him out of his despair. As he begins to become involved with her, he is forced to confront what is really going on around him.’


Director Ridley Scott called ‘cut!’ for the last time on Blade Runner during the second week of July, 1981. The production was already over-schedule and over-budget. The filmmakers busied themselves with such vital post-production activities as editing, dubbing and adding the excellent Vangelis music. The following January, the first of the Blade Runner trailers was released in America. It featured scenes from the movie under the music of the Inkspots, enhancing the idea of Blade Runner as a 1940s pastiche.

A rough cut of the film previewed in Denver, Colorado. The feedback from that screening indicated the fans were unhappy with the abrupt ending of Deckard and Rachael stepping into the lift and the doors slamming shut behind them.

‘Fortunately, we had also shot an alternative ending, with Deckard and Rachael leaving the city together in a Spinner, heading towards the unpolluted Northwest,’ said Scott. Also at this stage, there was no Harrison Ford voice-over to explain the more ambiguous scenes in the film. I was lucky enough to see this version at an early preview in London around March, 1982, and feel this ‘first draft’ to be far superior to both the theatrical release cut and the later ‘Director’s Cut’ released on VHS video.

When the film came out on June 25, 1982 in America, the 1940s look and the laconic (some would say, ‘bored’) narration was singled out by the critics as the chief target for attack. Ford was a little defensive about such comments. ‘I thought it had the makings of a very original film,’ he said. ‘It was no ambition of mine to play the character like a Forties Bogart figure, but it was always on Ridley’s mind. It was always my hope that there wouldn’t be a voice-over, that we wouldn’t need one. I thought the character needed to be a representation of a certain type of physical environment, the result of that kind of life. The voice-over was always Ridley’s idea, from the beginning.’

Scott was a little more philosophical. ‘We never addressed the problem of the voice-over early enough,’ he told me. ‘I wanted the voice-over from the beginning. The screenplay was written with a voice-over.’ But that wasn’t the voice-over that appeared in the finished film. And Scott was far from happy with the end result. ‘The voice-over is an essential part of the Marlowe-type character of Deckard and also to a degree helps clarification. One of the most interesting aspects of Apocalypse Now was the voice-over. It was incredible. I think Coppola went on for nearly six months trying to get that right. I think, with hindsight, I would have re-done the voice-over in Blade Runner, and I think Harrison would as well.’

As it turned out, the final narration was no masterpiece and it jarred against the other aspects of the production. Of particular note was the corny speech over the scene in which replicant Roy Batty dies. Ford’s tired voice proclaims. ‘I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life. Anybody’s life. My life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have it got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.’ Raymond Chandler, it’s not.

Ridley Scott directs Ford during the final showdown
with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).
Almost predictably, the reviews weren’t good.

Playboy’s Bruce Williamson thought Blade Runner was a ‘major disappointment’ despite ‘smashing production values and fine actors’ and summed up the movie saying, ‘by the time Ford and Hauer face off for their climactic showdown, Blade Runner had grown dull – a simple case of Philip Marlowe meets Frankenstein.’

The British trade publication Screen International felt ‘the special effects dominate the film while the plot and characters fade into the background,’ and pointed out that ‘in spite of his voice-over ironies, Rick Deckard is no Philip Marlowe.’

The American trade bible Variety said that ‘Ford’s frequent inertia mutes the detective angle of the story which is couched in some hard-boiled Chandleresque narration and in the long run proves to be the weakest aspect of the pic.’

Some critics believed that the level of violence in Blade Runner was more explicit than was necessary. Ford countered this in his usual eloquent style. ‘There’s a really unfortunate and ill-advised attitude to the violence in the film. I am conscious of violence in a film. I abhor it when it is used for the sake of itself. I was anxious to make sure this character represented the abhorrence of violence. And he does. He wanted to get out of the police force because he couldn’t stand the killing. After every incident of having to kill someone, the character’s revulsion is clear. And, ironically, he is not killing human beings. That’s what the thematic backbone of the film is. They’re not really human beings. And yet, his empathy with something that looks like a human being – which is later to lead him into a romance with a machine affects him.’

In spite of the negative criticism of the film, Ford’s performance was praised. Scriptwriter David Peoples was enthusiastic about Ford’s portrayal of Rick Deckard. ‘Harrison is an absolutely magnificent actor,’ he commented. ‘He’s amazing. He’s like the great old guys. He becomes Deckard. I mean, you don’t see him act like Deckard, he is Deckard and Deckard is different from Han Solo and entirely different from Indiana Jones. In Blade Runner he’s a seething guy with a lot inside him. He’s a guy who’s got a lot of problems, who’s holding a lot in, and Harrison does it brilliantly.’

Science fiction author and friend of Philip K. Dick’s, Norman Spinrad was more restrained about Ford’s performance. ‘Harrison Ford is fine in the rather undemanding role of Deckard,’ a comment that seems to me to be sniffy and dismissive.

In my view Blade Runner remains probably the most literate science fiction film ever made. Ford’s performance is a masterpiece of understatement and contributed mightily to the film’s artistic success. Ford himself has spoken critically of his involvement in the film, stating that he’s very unhappy with Ridley Scott’s later claims that Deckard was always intended to be a replicant. However, I never got that Deckard was any kind of replicant from the movie in any of its cuts, just that the momentary doubt about his own humanity the character experiences is enough to finally convince Deckard that replicants are worth no less than human beings.

Some people thought this scene indicated that Deckard
was a replicant because his eyes glowed in the same
way as Rachel's ... I'd want more evidence than that.
Yet Blade Runner was an extremely important step in Ford’s career. It was his first opportunity to show what he could do as a serious actor. It was becoming obvious that Ford was a far better actor than his Star Wars and Raiders vehicles allowed audiences to see. But further expeditions into the area of serious acting would have to wait. Already the date for the beginning of principal photography of the third part of the Star Wars saga was approaching. It was almost time for Ford to return to the worlds of robots and rayguns as Han Solo in Return of the Jedi. But not before he’d rested up a while. ‘It would take an Act of Congress to get me to work before Jedi,’ he said, ‘I haven’t had six months with the kids for a long time.’

But Ford would be back at work quicker than he expected. Melissa had been around on set much of the time during the filming of Raiders, working with Spielberg on the script for E.T. During the filming of E.T., Spielberg had Melissa work with the child actors, rehearsing their scenes. It was inevitable that Ford would end up with a role in the movie. Spielberg also persuaded Melissa to play the part of the nurse who takes the “drunk” Elliot to the principal (played by Ford). As with most of the other adults in the film, their faces would not be seen. But nervous Melissa’s hands trembled so badly during her scene she pleaded with Spielberg to scrap the footage. So not for the first time in his career one of Ford’s performances was consigned to the cutting room floor.

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