WB Studio Backlot Tour with Ridley Scott

WB Studio Backlot Tour with Ridley Scott

Written by Jay West

If there were ever reason to draw comparison to an event the likes of the fantastical “Willy Wonka” giving one a tour of his phenomenal “Chocolate Factory” — then this would be it.

On June 14th, on a warm Southern California evening, I walked with nine others through the backlot of Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank with esteemed director Ridley Scott leading us on. Scott, who has helmed some of the most revered, beloved, and diverse movies in cinema history, including: “Alien” – “Blade Runner” – “Legend” – “Thelma and Louise” – “Gladiator” – “American Gangster” — took us on a “futuristic journey into the past” so to speak… illuminating production experiences that he created and encountered while filming “Blade Runner” at the studio’s “New York Street” area on which streets we walked. Just prior to this “golden ticket” like excursion — the group and I had been immersed in Scott’s landmark tapestry of film art: “Blade Runner” — here in it’s “Final Cut” 2007 incarnation — at a special sold out screening with a few hundred movie-goers in the adjacent, state-of-the-art Steven J. Ross Theatre, also located on the Warner Brothers backlot.

This unique and eventful evening was held as a fundraiser in honor of the Prischman family: Paul, his wife Cristin, and their two beautiful little girls, Michaela (4) and Abigail (2). Paul has been an associate producer on many of the DVDs that most likely many of you have either rented or that you have in your collection. Paul’s credits include: the “Alien Quadrilogy” (the incredible nine DVD disc set of the four “Alien” movies with the saga’s extensive behind the scenes stories and reference materials) – “American Gangster” – “Spiderman 2” – “Gladiator: Extended Edition” – “Kingdom of Heaven” — and the movie of this evening, “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” — which incidentally was named the “Top DVD” and “Best Director’s Cut” of 2007 a couple of days after this event at the 4th Annual DVD Critics Awards in Los Angeles, California.

Paul unfortunately has been battling brain cancer in recent months, and a group of his colleagues and friends recently formed the “Paul’s Brain Trust Organization” in the effort to help raise money for Paul’s mounting medical expenses and to assist Paul’s family, whom Paul has been the sole provider for (to learn more about Paul, you may click on the banner above).

To begin the evening, Paul’s friends: Charles de Lauzirika, Christopher Drake, and Jared Rivet took to the stage in the Steven J. Ross Theatre and welcomed and thanked all for their contributions. It was announced that Bill Hunt, unfortunately could not attend due to a prior out of town commitment, but expressed through his friends that he had very much wanted to be there. Paul, his wife Cristin, and their two daughters then came onto the stage. Cristin spoke of her tremendous thanks for the outpouring of help that she and her family have been receiving for Paul — and Paul then greeted the audience — the audience responded with a warm, standing ovation.

All then left the stage — and the theatre darkened. The familiar “Ladd Company” Tree logo filled the screen… then darkness again… and then BOOM! — imagine hearing a semi-truck hitting the outside of your home creating one of the most intense “thuds” that you have ever heard — and that would reflect the level of impact and intensity of the beginning note of Vangelis’ opening music for “Blade Runner” in the theatre. Then… when seeing the quintessential spiraling industrial buildings with eruptions of flames — the stunning 2K digital picture quality literally made it appear as if one was looking through an expansive, clear window portal directly into the events happening before you… stunning.

Seeing “Blade Runner” in this fashion was probably one of the finest visual cinematic feasts for the senses that one could ever indulge in. It always amazes me when watching “Blade Runner” — in as much as watching Scott’s “Alien” — that both share a unique cinematic vibrancy that feels fresh and immersive each and every time you experience them… akin to the experience of going to that “favorite vacation spot” that you always find yourself returning to because you enjoy the ambiance, atmosphere, and surroundings so much.

Upon the final scene of the movie, with the closing of the elevator doors on the Replicants Deckard* and Rachael as they ran off into their unknown future (*back down..! — back down…! This is the “side of the fence” on which I stand on regarding Deckard’s true nature…!), the audience erupted in applause… and when the final notes of Vangelis’ music faded from the screen after the credits ended, the theatre lights rose, and Lauzirika returned to the stage.

“Maestro” DVD producer Lauzirika, who has worked with Ridley Scott on producing many of Scott’s DVD releases in addition to other notable movies — and who’d hired Paul to work on the “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set and many DVD projects thereafter — then invited the following “Blade Runner” production team to join him:

  • VFX Supervisor – David Dryer
  • Art Director – David Snyder
  • Visual Futurist – Syd Mead
  • Replicants – Joanna Cassidy (Zhora) & Stacey Nelkin (Pris – then Mary – test screening only)
  • Production Executive – Katherine Haber
  • Screenwriters – David Peoples & Hampton Fancher
  • Director – Ridley Scott

Lauzirika announced that he’d received a letter from Rutger Hauer (Replicant Roy Batty) stating that he would have loved to have been at the event — but that he was currently filming a movie in Romania, and sent along his best wishes.

Lauzirika then fielded a Q&A session with the production panel and the audience:

In response to a question as to why Scott felt “Blade Runner” has ultimately endured with audiences, Scott spoke about the ratio by which he felt there was “good sci-fi” as compared to “bad sci-fi” — which he rated as approximately 10% to 90%. Scott also relayed what he thought that the agenda of cinema should truly be: “It ought to be art first — and then hopefully commerce will follow” — which of course, Scott has shown “in spades” time after time with his filmic works. Scott added: “Despite the fact that there have been so many science fiction films since then (the original, 1982 release of “Blade Runner”) for the most part, there aren’t very many good ones.” When the production panel was asked if they thought that “Blade Runner” had failed when it first opened to lackluster box office returns in 1982 — Scott replied: “We thought we had blown it — actually, we knew we hadn’t blown it, but the audiences just didn’t get it. I think we were ‘ahead of the game’ actually.” Production Executive Katherine Haber concurred: “We felt that we hadn’t blown it — we felt that the audience was just waking up…” (in lieu of the “renaissance” that the movie has experienced over the past couple of decades in gathering critical and audience praise).

A hilarious anecdote was relayed by Scott when asked about Dustin Hoffman’s prospective involvement as he was at one time a strong contender for the role of Deckard: “We followed that #%& ! for months…! (laughs erupted from the audience) We even followed him into a wedding here…!” (in Los Angeles — to which the audience exploded into more laughter!). Scott said that he only jokingly spoke caustically of Hoffman in this instance as he considers him to be a very good friend.

Another moment of levity came when a man from the audience said he’d been at the infamous Dallas “workprint” test screening before the film’s initial release (the same “workprint” that appears in the “Blade Runner: Ultimate Edition” five disc DVD and Blu-Ray sets). He said to Scott that he “apologized for Dallas getting it wrong…” per the negative and confused feedback that the Dallas audience had predominately given “Blade Runner” at the time of the test screening (as many were expecting the likes of “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” given Harrison Ford’s involvement); which then gave Warner Brothers reason to think that trouble was “on the horizon” for the movie.

The inevitable: “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate arose (something which is surely to be debated amongst many film critics and lovers of movies for endless generations to come). It was intriguing and actually hilarious to see Scott and screenwriter Fancher do a “face-off as Scott firmly mandated that Deckard is indeed a replicant, while Fancher insisted that he is human. Scott gave credence to his reasons for Deckard being a replicant: “The whole concept evolved really through Gaff’s origami. Gaff (of the police force who is seen at times working with Deckard) wasn’t in the book, he’s an invention to thread through the story — so, at the end of the film, he can leave his calling card which fundamentally says: ‘I know something about your internal thinking that only you know – and there’s only one way I could possibly know that — and that is because I am part of the office that created you'” — to which Fancher retorted: “Ridley’s off, he’s totally wrong!” — spurring the entire audience to roar with laughter…! “His idea is too complex. I think there is a metaphor in the film that works — for me anyway — and it’s about how we aspire to be something and we fall short of it; we always do. And we’re not sure if we’re being ‘authentic’. I don’t feel ‘authentic’ – maybe Ridley does…” — to which Scott nodded emphatically! During this debate, Frank Darabont (director of “The Shawshank Redemption” – “The Green Mile” and “The Mist”), who sat in the row in front of me wearing one of his signature Bermuda Shirts, jovially “booed” Scott when he said that Deckard is a replicant (Darabont, like Fancher, adamantly opposes the theory that Deckard is a replicant). Lauzirika took the debate into the audience by asking who felt Deckard was a replicant — followed by those who thought he wasn’t. Applause from both sides of the debate equaled out to about 50/50 — though Scott humorously foot noted the results with the comment: “I just want to say… that was not 50/50…!”

The Q&A discussion wrapped up — and the before mentioned small group of nine persons and I, who had contributed to the fundraiser per auctions on ebay, met Scott outside of the theatre. Scott greeted us all with handshakes — and then swiftly began leading us deeper into the backlot — relaying stories about his directing of “Blade Runner”. Hearing Scott speak about filming… it was as if he had shot the film yesterday…. his explanations for his choice of shots and the vantage points by which he positioned himself and his crew on the backlot for the production were passionate and detailed. This experience was akin to having a renown artist/painter return to the site of his landscape or subject of inspiration — and “repainting” another canvas, recreating the exact same imagery.

Scott identified many key moments from the movie with the geography around us — including where Deckard sat reading his newspaper when first introduced to the audience, where Replicant Roy Batty was first seen in a phone booth, the location of Hannibal Chew’s “Eye Shop” (a note of irony: Scott directed the 2001 film “Hannibal”), where Replicant Zhora was gunned down by Deckard, and where the climatic face off between Deckard and Roy Batty occurred.

Scott alluded to the “economy” of using the backlot from various perspectives — which manifested itself in the film as a much broader and panoramic vista and landscape; in essence bypassing otherwise the reality of what he had to work with.

After wrapping up the tour, Scott continued to chat with us about various production stories — and of course, I had to ask Scott about the prospect of him returning to the “Alien” franchise — first sharing a bit about me and my personal collectibles (actually, in a manner not dissimilar to that of the character of Sebastian in “Blade Runner” when talking about his “hobby and friends” — scary!)

“Mr. Scott…. I’m a big “Alien” aficionado — I have a full size Alien Warrior — and full size Alien Queen in my loft Downtown (LA) with Alien Eggs….” (the character Sebastian’s home was located at the “Bradbury Building” Downtown Los Angeles — where he had full/life size characters/statues throughout — getting even scarier here..!) “…and there’s an “Alien Hive” facade/mosaic in the works for my loft’s ceiling…” (Scott’s eyebrows rose quite high when hearing all of this…!) — “Obviously there’s a lot of people who’d like to see you return to what you began in the “Alien” franchise — do you think that’s a possibility?

Scott replied: “I think that they (Fox) found a business in “Aliens vs. Predator” — which I think is pretty stupid… but it’s not stupid — it’s actually a franchise, it’s revenue — they have to do what they’ve got to do… and I think that, through that, they kind of blew it away really… they kinda killed “that”. I think all of the “Alien” versions — they’re not bad at all… they all have their problems — because in a funny kind of way…. it’s kind of like to doing a follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — you can’t follow that one… I mean that was so scary — and so crazy, it’s hard to follow. I think “Alien” was so scary — and the beast was so original — the cast was wonderful, but without that beast — you “ain’t” got a movie — and that thing was truly heart-stopping the first time people saw it. To go again… to make “Alien 5” — I’d have to redesign the beast… and it’s not like: “well, let’s go back to Giger and give us another beast” — you’re not going to get it — you’re going to get a variation on a theme…. and people have seen it, so you’d come up with something more original even…”

Scott’s idea of prospectively creating and/or reinventing an entirely new Alien is both exciting and intriguing — and definitively indicative of Scott’s signature of stressing visual concept and design as a vital genesis and center for his cinematic excursions — this would certainly return the “Alien” franchise to its “roots” — and plunge it back into the mystery and “darkness” from whence it first came — which is what made the original “Alien” so invigorating to begin with…!

Scott then bid all farewell — and we all “departed the year 2019″** returning back to present day (**The year in which the story of “Blade Runner” takes place.)

As the sun set, I made my way back through the labyrinth of the sound stages towards my vehicle. Upon turning a corner of a sound stage, a small, shimmering item in my path caught my eye. I walked slowly towards it — then kneeled down…. it was a small, origami aluminum unicorn… Damn..! You’ve got to me kidding me..! Me…? A replicant…? I thought about it for a moment — made sense. I then hopped into my vehicle and did what any self-respecting replicant would do — I drove out of Los Angeles and into the mountainous and forest-like terrain of Big Bear*** for a nice “running in exile” drive…! (***Big Bear, California is where portions of the “happy ending” from “Blade Runner” original theatrical release were filmed).

Continued best wishes for Paul and his family — and thanks to all who produced this event for an unforgettable evening!

– Jay West