The Secrets Behind Blade Runner 2049’s Surreal Threesome

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Warning: Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 follow.

A threesome can be complicated enough on its own, but Blade Runner 2049 ups the ante even further.

In the new sci-fi spectacle from director Denis Villeneuve, replicant-hunting K (Ryan Gosling) lives an awfully lonely life, spit on by society because he himself is an android tasked with killing his own kind. K’s only relationship is with Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent hologram who is devoted to K but can’t truly kiss or hold him since she lacks a corporeal form. For that, she employs a pleasure replicant around the corner, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), whom Joi summons to K’s apartment and projects herself onto in one of the movie’s most striking sequences. Though the effect is surreal and sometimes unsettling as Joi’s face commingles with Mariette’s, K goes in for the kiss, and these three artificially intelligent beings find a unique new way to make love.

“You have several things happening for the first time in the scene,” said Villeneuve, who met with Vulture over the weekend to discuss a sequence that he had labored to keep secret for months. “You have a man who’s being touched by a woman for the first time. You have a hologram that feels she can be real for the first time. And you have a prostitute who’s being kissed by a man with love for the first time, and she’s not sure how to deal with that.”

The result is striking, but the method to create it was painstaking. “It was one of the toughest VFX in the movie, by far,” said Villeneuve, who had CG artists working on that scene alone for well over a year. “We used a blend of very, very old techniques and cutting-edge technology.”

The tricky part is that Joi doesn’t get Mariette’s motions exactly right, and Villeneuve didn’t mean for her to. Though Joi superimposes herself on the replicant’s body, it’s not a one-to-one match: Joi is often a half-second out of step, cocking her head just a moment before Mariette does or letting her lips linger later than her physical counterpart might. “I didn’t want Joi to just envelop Marietta, I didn’t want it to feel magical,” said Villeneuve. “I wanted to feel the limit of the technology.”

To lean into that effect, Villeneuve let the scene’s choreography be mostly dictated by Davis and de Armas. If he wanted Mariette’s face to be the dominant one in a particular moment, he would give Davis the freedom to interact with Gosling as she wished, then bring in de Armas to reproduce what Davis had done. If he wanted Joi to come to the fore in a shot, the two actresses would flip, with Davis coming in second to emulate de Armas’s movements. The superimposition, then, would be just shy of perfect, and all the more eerie for it.

It helped that like most scenes in Blade Runner 2049, this one moved at a deliberate pace. “The way eyes move, or a hand … I felt the smaller the gesture, the more erotic and powerful the scene would be,” Villenueve said. To give the threesome an even more surreal feeling, the director had both of his actresses scanned in 3-D so that at certain moments, as they would blend into each other, he could create a new, chimeric form. “I loved the idea that you were feeling both presences of both women at the same time and that sometimes, it was like you were feeling a third woman,” Villenueve said.

The director was excited to show the final cut of the scene to Davis and de Armas. “They both were mesmerized,” he said. Yet Villeneuve was much cagier when it came to showing the press and the general public what he had made. Blade Runner 2049’s trailers were purposefully light on plot and revealed very little character information. By Villeneuve’s request, the movie skipped the fall film-festival circuit and journalists had to sign binding nondisclosure agreements to not mention moments like the sex scene in their early, prerelease articles. In a letter to critics, Villeneuve even asked for K’s replicant identity to be kept secret in reviews, though it’s a crucial detail revealed in the first few minutes.

“I liked the idea that you were supposed to learn it as the movie goes on,” said Villeneuve, though some wonder whether that secrecy cost the movie an expanded fan base. After Blade Runner 2049 opened below expectations this past weekend to a $32.7 million haul, pundits suggested that more plot details should have been revealed in the marketing in order to reach beyond the cult audience that remembered Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. If moviegoers had known, for example, that there were significant romantic elements to the story, it might have enticed more women to buy tickets.

Did Villeneuve have any regrets about his spoiler policy or the box office? “As a filmmaker, I’m not arrogant,” he told Vulture. “People put a lot of money in the movie to allow me to make something like Blade Runner. They trusted me, and they gave me a lot of freedom, and they are friends. So of course I want the movie to be a success at the end of the day. It’s a long journey, but I want them not to lose money.”

Still, Villeneuve thinks the element of surprise is underrated in today’s spoiler-soaked society. “As a cinephile, one of my best experiences was when I was on a film festival jury,” he said. “I had to watch 20 movies without knowing anything about them. You don’t know the genre, you don’t know the country, you don’t know the story. You don’t know if you’re about to look at a comedy or a horror movie!”

To him, that lack of knowing is an enticement in and of itself. “I’m relieved to be able to talk about the movie — I spent a year talking around the pink elephant in the room,” Villeneuve said. “But people want to know too many things before. They should read about the movie after they see it, not before.”

The Secrets Behind Blade Runner 2049’s Surreal Threesome