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A Trip Back to a Dystopian 2019: An Interview with Blade Runner’s Katherine Haber

Katherine Haber is a founding member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Los Angeles and served on its Board for 23 years. She was awarded an M.B.E. by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 for services to the community in Los Angeles. But for me, when Katherine Haber comes to mind, I think of what has been marked by many critics as the perfect science fiction film. I sat down recently with the producer who describes herself as the “first in, last out” on a movie that grew into a classic after it initially bombed in 1982. That movie is, of course, Director Sir Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece, Blade Runner.

DGW: Katherine, you described the experience of sitting through the original screening of Blade Runner as like giving birth in public.  When did the pregnancy begin?  When did Blade Runner first appear on your radar?

KH: When Michael Deeley’s tenure at EMI Films was concluded, I continued working with him as he searched for his next film to produce. In 1979, his friend Brian Kelly optioned Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and introduced us to Hampton Fancher, who he had hired to write the screenplay entitled Dangerous Days. And the rest, as they say, is history.

DGW: So, the film wasn’t called Blade Runner originally?

KH: God no. That was Ridley’s contribution that he stole from the William S. Burroughs book, Blade Runner (a movie). Dangerous Days was the forerunner of Blade Runner. So, I was on the project at the very, very beginning. Ridley wasn’t even the first director.

DGW: Oh, right.  Who was the first director?

KH: Robert Mulligan.

DGW: And why did Robert Mulligan leave the production?

KH: Michael and I worked with Robert Mulligan for over three months but parted ways due to creative differences.

DGW: Interesting.  So how did Ridley Scott come on board?

KH: Ridley had been Michael’s first choice, as his star had risen dramatically with the release of Alien in 1979, but Ridley was prepping Dune when Michael first approached him and was not available.

DGW:  So when did Ridley become available?

KH: After the Mulligan relationship broke up, Michael re-approached Ridley through his producer, Ivor Powell, and he came on board.

DGW: And did Ridley do a pass on the script himself?

KH: Absolutely. The script took various and sundry forms, and it was Ridley who brought on David Peoples (recommended by his brother Tony) to work on the rewrite. I ended up spending many, many hours of my life at the Chateau Marmont, which is where, during the good old days, the sounds of typewriters would echo around the hotel, as the hotel was where the studios would put their out-of-town screenwriters to work on their screenplays. David came in from San Francisco and worked on the rewrite with Ridley, despite Hampton’s objections, turning it into much more of a detective story.

Harrison Ford, Katy Haber and Ridley Scott on the set of Blade Runner
Photo by Steve Vaughan, Unit Stills Photographer.

DGW: Got it.  What was the next phase?

KH: The casting process. Dustin Hoffman was the first choice for Deckard, but after many conversations with him, he too had different ideas about the film, and we parted ways. It was Steven Spielberg who actually convinced Ridley to cast Harrison Ford in the title role, having just worked with him on Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can also take credit for introducing Ridley to Rutger Hauer by showing him three Paul Verhoeven films: Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Turkish Delight, which all starred Rutger. In Blade Runner, Rutger’s character, Roy Batty, dies in L.A. 2019 after giving that beautiful speech the actor wrote, and, as you know… sadly, we lost Rutger Hauer last year… in 2019.

One week before shooting, we were in pre-production, and Filmways, the company producing the film for Warner Brothers, filed for bankruptcy. So, Michael brilliantly put together another financing package with new partners (The Ladd Company, Run Run Shaw and Yorkin & Perenchio) in only ten days. That ensured that the crew stayed on payroll during pre-production. We then moved from our offices in Warner Hollywood to the Warner lot, where most of the film was shot.

DGW: What was it like to work with Ridley?

KH: Early on in the production, the relationship between Ridley and the crew became a bit strained, especially when Ridley did an interview with an English newspaper about working in the US. He said that he preferred working with English crews, who were so used to his mode of working that he talked to them in shorthand and that they would reply “Yes Guv’nor” and get it done. Well, when the article was published, the publicist left a copy in Ridley’s trailer. And when Ridley’s driver found the article, he printed up 100 copies and set them on the catering table. The next day, the crew showed up in t-shirts with the words “Yes Guv’nor My Ass” printed on them. Katy to the rescue. I had four t-shirts printed for Michael, Ridley, Ivor Powell and myself that read “Xenophobia Sucks”.  When some of the crew asked me what xenophobia meant, I said, “Fear of strangers,” which definitely cleared the air and improved relations dramatically.

DGW: Can you tell me a little about the now-famous friction between Harrison and Ridley? Friction which Ridley has since said he takes responsibility for.

KH: When working on Alien and all the films he directed in England, Ridley always operated the camera. He directed his films from the camera. When he came here, he had every intention to work in the same way but was not aware that the Cinematographers Union does not allow directors to operate. He had to find a new way, and that was to shoot video assist simultaneously with film. That way he could see the scene as if through the eye of the camera. This became extremely frustrating for Harrison, who was used to working with hands-on directors like Spielberg and Lucas because he was performing without a director on the set. When he was shooting crane shots, Ridley would be behind the operator, directing Harrison. But their relationship did develop and was repaired as production continued.

Katy Haber and Ridley Scott watching a monitor on set of Blade Runner
Photo by Steve Vaughan, Unit Stills Photographer.

DGW: Very good. So, you are shooting on the Warner Brothers lot, and it was transformed into this futuristic set…

KH: No, no, it was meant to be L.A. in 2019. So it wasn’t that futuristic. But it was a post-nuclear world.

DGW: Yet it does have a rather 1940’s look to it mixed with advanced technology.

KH: The skyline of Los Angeles with advertising billboards and all the other special effects were done in post-production, at which point I moved into Doug Trumbull’s Maxella Studios. The interiors—Deckard’s apartment and the Toymaker’s apartment—were filmed in The Bradbury Building. [The Bradbury Building is an art deco office building located in downtown Los Angeles.] Two weeks of shooting in The Bradbury Building was a major feat. The crew call was 6:00 pm after the office staff left the building. So, the crew moved in and trashed the building. Dirt and water on the floors and smoke throughout… when we finished shooting at daybreak, the crew had to clean up the five-story atrium as though we had never been there. We had to do that over two weeks. There was only one office we occupied for the entirety of the shoot, which was JR’s toy shop. The crew had a lot of overtime during that period.

DGW: Speaking of tension, let’s move on to two weeks from the end of shooting.

KH: Tension indeed. We were shooting the Batty and Deckard rooftop scene, and there was a looming directors strike that threatened to shut down production a week before completion of principal photography. Michael Deeley decided to take the bull by the horns and said we’re going to shoot two weeks in one week. That meant cast and crew working around the clock. But because we were shooting day for night, we had to put the rooftop set on rollers and move into one of the closed sets, so that we didn’t have a problem with light at daybreak. That was a very simple way of dealing with it. But the overtime put us over budget by $5million. That put us into the hands of the completion bond guarantors, who were Perenchio and Yorkin. That meant Bud Yorkin took charge of the production. The first thing he did was fire Ridley and Michael. Eventually, the DGA intervened on Ridley’s behalf. I was obliged to stay on to create the continuity of production. I was the only one left for post-production. One of the many things I handled with Yorkin was the dubbing of the film.  Ridley was allowed to continue shooting inserts in London, and I kept him updated on what was happening during post-production in Los Angeles. By the way, the directors strike never happened.

DGW: Now, you’re in post-production, and you have to get Harrison Ford in to record the Deckard voice-over, which was not part of Ridley’s plan.

KH: No. Ridley didn’t want to do it. Harrison didn’t want to do it. Yorkin hired his friend, Roland Kibbee, to write the narration and directed Harrison on the dubbing stage. Harrison still hoped the voice-over wouldn’t make it into the picture by performing it as badly as he could. Ridley referred to the narration as “Irving The Explainer”. I also played my part as a Second Unit director for a day by directing stunt doubles for Deckard and Rachael fleeing the city by car. We called it “the happy ending”. I went up in a helicopter above Moab, Utah, with a cinematographer, and we were up there for about eight hours. It was snowy, cloudy, and freezing cold. Everything we shot was unusable. That’s when Ridley begged Stanley Kubrick to give him the outtakes from The Shining, and that’s what made it into the picture. So, as you can see, I was the first on the spot and the last to leave.

Harrison Ford as Deckard on top of a vehicle in Blade Runner

DGW: Let me ask you… I’ve seen every cut of Blade Runner, in part because you have taken me to screenings. I can honestly say I find each cut captivating. Why, in your opinion, did the initial release of Blade Runner bomb so badly?

KH: Well, let me turn the tables and ask you why you think it bombed? I knew what we had. I knew what we’d done. I was as dumbfounded as everyone else. But I don’t think anyone was quite ready for the story Ridley wanted to tell. A love story between a human and a Replicant. It was a movie ahead of its time.

DGW: I saw it for the first time on videocassette at the age of 12. My parents rented a VCR player from the local video shop. I had to watch it a second time and a third time. I hadn’t realized filmmaking could be like this. Each viewing was an emotional experience. You ask me why I think the film was slow to find its audience? When I look back at that time, the early ’80s, the cinema was full of adventure tales. But they weren’t necessarily dealing with the darker side of humanity. As the 20th Century turned darker, I believe audiences began to relate more to the darker themes within Blade Runner.

KH: Just think of where we are now. We’re humans, but we’re experiencing what the Replicants experienced in Blade Runner. That’s the really interesting point. The reason they leave the Outworld and come to earth is for a longer lifespan. And now, we’re considering how long is humanity’s lifespan here on earth. You know, it’s sort of prophetic.

DGW: As you say, it is a movie ahead of its time, yet a movie of our current times. This time with you would be for nought if I didn’t ask about the Blade Runner controversy. Which side are you on? Is Deckard a replicant?

KH: Ridley always wanted to leave that open to the viewer. I like to believe he wasn’t, which makes it a far better love story. When we were shooting the interior of Deckard’s kitchen, and he is washing the blood off of his hands in the sink, the camera is close up on Rachael with the red pupils in her eyes. All replicants have the red pupils to identify them. As the scene continues, Deckard walks into Rachael’s close-up, and the red light is reflected in his eyes as well. That’s the shot that began the inquisition. Rather than re-shoot, Ridley kept it in, resulting in the controversy to this day.

DGW: Wow! I don’t know if that’s ever been revealed before.

KH: I don’t think it has. You’re the prime recipient.

Sean Young and Harrison Ford as Rachel and Deckard in Blade Runner

DGW: Katherine Haber, I think there can be only one final question. Which cut?

KH: The final cut. It most accurately reflects Ridley’s vision, so I stand by it 100%. And it has the unicorn in it, both as animal and as origami.

DGW: And there’s no happy ending.

KH: No happy ending.

Written by Grahame Wood

One Comment

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  1. Fascinating work, Mr. Wood!

    Thank you for providing a reader with fascinating details about the production of THAT movie, a sci-fi movie that set the bar so high, nothing has come close to going higher.

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