It’s not true, of course. Authors such as Orwell, Ishiguro, and Camus were formative influences on me, as were many others.

However – and as you can probably tell from this website – if I were allowed to choose only one movie as the inspiration for my writing, I would pick Blade Runner. It is the finest neo-noir film of all time and my personal favourite movie of all time.

An added bonus is being able to include Phillip K Dick as providing me ‘everything I know,’ given the film is loosely based on his novel: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Here it goes.

1)      Make your villains sympathetic

If there’s been a more sympathetic villain in science fiction than Roy Batty, I can’t think of one.blade-runner - roy

When we first meet Roy Batty he quotes William Blake (or to be precise – deliberately and brilliantly misquotes him):

“Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.”

He steals the first scene he is in and every one thereafter, including those with Deckard. Roy gets all the best lines and provides the most profound philosophical insights.

Roy Batty is charming, charismatic, brilliant, psychically imposing and attractive. He rails against the cruelty of the established order, he’s smarter than the rest of them, and his character is richer and more complex than any other in the cast.

But he is also cruel, manipulative, and brutally violent. He is the most intensely human of any of the characters (which is sort of the point).

So sympathetic the character that when Roy dies, he makes possible one of the most memorable and most quoted death scenes in the history of cinema.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”

2)      Make your heroes flawed

Richard Deckard drinks too much, acts like an arsehole towards Rachael, and gets beaten up by every single one of the replicants. Pris, Zhora, Leon and Roy Batty all best him in hand-to-hand combat.

He hates his job, yet carries it out with ruthless efficiency, including by shooting a female replicant in the back as she tries to escape.

decakrd drinkingDeckard is weak physically and his morality ambiguous. And he may not even be human.

And yet, we want him to escape Roy when he is being chased across the rooftops, we want him to do right by Rachael; we want him to get out of his soul-destroying job.

More than anything, we want him to live.

3)      Trust the intelligence of your readers

In the original cinematic release, the production company so mistrusted the intelligence of the audience that the droning voice of Basil Exposition was introduced to overlay the entire movie. Everything from explaining what language the characters spoke on the street, to providing a précis of the philosophical message of the film at the denouement. Duh.

It was stupid and distracting. It also breaks one of the rules of story-telling: don’t give someone a story and say: “this is how you are meant to read it, and this is what you are meant to get from it.”

Removing the voice over for the Director’s Cut improved the movie immensely. Blade Runner teaches us that beautiful aesthetics, an immersive world, well-drawn characters and a compelling narrative are more than able to speak for themselves.

4)      Be stylish and immersive

The light and shadow, the long dark jackets with collars upturned, the unforgettable musical score by Vangelis, the perfect bodies of the replicants (well, except for Leon), Deckard’s sidearm and apartment, Tyrell’s office, the spinners, Gaff’s costume, the backlight that captures the drop of blood spilling back into Deckard’s rice whiskey when he sips it after being beaten up, the apocalyptic cityscape, the line of smoke rising elegantly from Rachael’s cigarette, the origami unicorn: all so damn stylish.bladerunner-full

Once you are immersed in the Blade Runner world you don’t leave until the movie ends. This dark, gritty, environmentally damaged, Asian-influenced dystopia pulls you in by the guts and by the mind and does not let go.

Each scene is a work of art – and indeed was literally made so by Anders Ramsell who painted 3285 watercolour prints of Blade Runner and turned them into a short film.

Blade Runner was released in 1982. More than thirty years on and it hasn’t aged. Thirty years on it still portrays a speculative world that feels believable. By way of comparison, Logan’s Run and Tron were released around the same time. Watched now, they are amusing artefacts of how badly some science fiction can misjudge the future.

So go ahead and drown your readers in your world. And make your world beautiful, even if it is a dark and terrible beauty.

5)      Embrace ambiguity

Is Deckard a replicant? Is Roy Batty the bad guy, or Tyrell Corporation, or the system? Will Rachael die? Are replicants able to feel as a human being can feel? Do they have a soul? If someone else’s memories are implanted in your head, does that make them any less important in forming your identity as an individual? What is human?

The Director’s Cut keeps this ambiguous. It denies the viewer any clean or easy answers.

The beauty of ambiguity is that it survives watching and re-watching, reading and re-reading. It allows multiple interpretations. Ambiguity means that whatever you as a writer put into the work, others may draw out something completely different – and those differing interpretations can be just as ‘true’ as anything the writer intended.

6)      Don’t go for the easy ending

The original cut of Blade Runner did go for the easy ending. Rachael and Deckard fly off into the sunset, his turgid voice-over saying, in essence, “Yeah, maybe we will live happily ever after.” The ending was imposed by the studio against the wishes of the director. It was so tacked on that they had to repurpose unused footage from The Shining (basically an aerial shot of a car heading off into the sunset).

The superior ‘Director’s Cut’ version of the film strips away the happy ending, leaving it instead with Deckard finding the Blade_Runner_unicornorigami unicorn in the hallway as he and Rachael head for the elevator (the unicorn dream sequence was also cut from the original because the studio people didn’t understand it – yet it is the single most important clue about whether or not Deckard is a replicant).

The Director’s Cut ending ensures the movie remains true to its ambivalent, neo-noir sensibility.

7)      Pick a theme and don’t waver from it

The theme of Blade Runner is one of the oldest in science fiction: what is human?

The movie approaches this by asking the question of whether replicants have a soul. Blade Runner uses the eye as a symbol for the soul because, presumably, the eyes are the windows to the soul.bladerunner - V-K

The movie starts with an opening shot of the neo-noir cityscape reflected in an eye.

We first meet the villain, Roy Batty, in a shop that builds eyes for replicants. He says to Chew, the man who makes the eyes:  “if only you could see what I’ve seen, with your eyes.”

The film identifies replicants by reflecting red in their irises at a certain angle (the one scene where red is reflected in Deckard’s eyes was cut from the original version).bladerunner - red eyes

The Voight-Kampff machine, used to test whether the subject is a replicant, fixes directly on the pupil and how it reacts to a series of emotionally provocative questions. The Voight-Kampff machine is, in essence, looking through the eye to try to find the soul.

Roy Batty gouges the eyes out of his maker, Tyrell, with his bare hands.  This shocking violence – again, cut out of the original version – is not used as an end in itself, but to propel the central theme of the film.

Though never stating it directly, the film bends towards the conclusion that yes, these replicants do have souls. Interestingly, Philip K Dick’s novel came to precisely the opposite conclusion. Dick believed that his androids were less than human – ‘deplorable, self-centred, unable to feel empathy’. When Phillip K Dick met with Ridley Scott towards the end of filming, this was the main point they debated. Scott demurred, in his mind the replicants were Nietzschean ‘supermen who could not fly.’

8)      Break up your aesthetically pleasing, philosophically profound tale with the occasional bullet to the head

It’s all well and good to create stylish art about serious issues. But, you know, you also have to give the reader some thrills. Now, there is a gamut of ways to do this, and certainly, doing so with nuance and subtlety is commendable.

Me, I like a like a bullet to the brainpan.

The violence is never pointless in Blade Runner. We see embodied in the deaths of the replicants their yearning for life. When Pris is shot and is dying, she doesn’t go quietly. She screams, thrashing against the floor like a child having a tantrum (given she is only 4 years old, that’s sort of the point). Zhora throws herself through a series of plate glass window in her desperation to escape, and Roy, well.blade runner - roy

Roy chases Deckard through an abandoned hotel – terrorising him, arguing morality with him, and then capturing Rick and dislocating his fingers before releasing him. Roy howls like a wolf as he gives chase. At one point, he stops for a few moments to savour the feeling of the rain falling on his face.

In those violent, terrifying final minutes of the film we see the replicant’s thirst for life.

Violence, used correctly, should both thrill and progress the story.

9)      Strive for perfection

Ridley Scott has said while making Blade Runner he tried to create beauty – frame by frame, shot by shot. He was a demanding, exacting director who earned the ire of the crew as filming progressed. When the writer of the first script resisted Scott’s vision for the Blade Runner world, Scott fired him.blade runner - scott

Ridley took the unusual step of making himself head of the art department, so he could micro-manage the visual look of the film. Nearly every object in the film, (most of which was designed by futurist Syd Mead under Ridley’s unwavering eye) right down to the chairs, was made bespoke.

The movie ran over budget and over time because Ridley insisted on shooting and re-shooting scenes and demanded constant re-writes for the script. Decades later, no-one suggests this exactitude was in error.

No work is ever perfect of course, but striving for it is the point. In the short story form, in particular, where sentences can be worked and re-worked, critiqued and re-drafted, all within a reasonably shot time frame, it doesn’t hurt to strive for perfection.

The good thing about being a writer is you don’t have to fire, or harass, or harangue anyone in creating your work. Except, of course, yourself.

 

I could go on, such is my admiration for the film. But I won’t. Because if I do go on much longer I’ll end up like Basil Exposition, trying to tell you this is why you should love the film and this is the philosophical message you must get from it.

If Blade Runner taught me anything, it’s taught me not to be that guy.

bladerunner - final scene

 

 

Email: Voight0Kampff (AT) gmail.com.

Twitter:  @DarklingEarth

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