Boston Online Film Critics Association members Steve Head, Dave Reidel and Bob Chipman discuss various titles screening at Boston-area repertory theaters this month.
It was six years ago that I interviewed with Paul M. Sammon, author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. My intent was to publish the interview on the blog at America Online’s social networking site, Propeller.com, where I was a contributing writer. Regretfully, this never happened.
The interview took place in December of 2007, around the release of the Blade Runner 5-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD. At that time, the set was the most comprehensive release of Blade Runner on home video. What’s more, it included the new documentary Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner, in which Mr. Sammon was a contributor. Coinciding with the DVD release, a revised edition of Mr. Sammon’s book, including an in-depth interview with Harrison Ford, an element the first edition lacked, was published in the UK.
Although my proposed feature was topical (personally, I considered it ten thousand tons of awesome) it wasn’t something AOL editors were interested in. I don’t recall the exact reason. To the best of my recollection, it had to do with their assessment of the interview’s traffic potential. So I shelved it.
This past weekend, while going through a box of old cassette tapes, I was surprised by the discovery of my interview with Mr. Sammon; and that it runs 70-minutes. Listening to it, I got thinking that fans would definitely dig this regardless of when or where it’s published. I mean, hell. I’m a fan, and I’m fascinated by any information about the making of Blade Runner.
That being said, here’s Part 1, all 1,600 or so words of it. Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon.
STEPHEN SLAUGHTER HEAD: It must’ve been 8 years ago now since I read [Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner].
PAUL M. SAMMON: It could have been. I’m happy to say its been in print continuously since 1996.
HEAD: I was gonna say ten years ago.
SAMMON: Actually eleven.
HEAD: My first thought was, when I heard you were involved with the Blade Runner DVD, was this was a great idea. They’ve truly gone to an expert on the subject. And it’s like giving a sort of insight that isn’t from the filmmakers, who are typically biased in the assessment of the film and their work. What I mean is, rarely would they be truly critical of their work.
HEAD: I think that sometimes maybe we’ll get those rare interviews where the filmmakers or actors are like, yeah, I’ll admit the film isn’t great. But rarely does the talent get real and say something like that. And I think that having an outsider’s point of view, somebody guiding us through the production like this is a great idea.
SAMMON: Well, as always, candor comes at a price in Hollywood. As someone who has worked and continues to work that side of the street, I mean I spent most of the eighties as sort of a Junior Vice President of Domestic Publicity for a number of studios.
SAMMON: Yeah, I’ve actually worked in the so-called Enemy Camp [he laughs] for some period of time in fact. And it becomes quite clear early on that a big, um …. I’d say the foundation of the lack of complete honesty in a lot of talk about the history of motion pictures is definitely because people realize it’s a very small community and that everyone is going to wind up at some point crossing another person’s path. And there are so many… it’s such a complex process to get a motion picture started and through the pipe and then out the other end of it. And it can be such an incredibly demanding process both psychologically and physically that people come to a point where they might say something that’s going to really irritate someone. They’ll think: I worked on a picture that turned out very badly, and I might be in a position to really understand why that happened. Maybe it was a bad script, or maybe something happened with the studio interfering, or maybe there was some problems between the director and the actor. But many times you just don’t know.
So what ends up happening is, the talent has put themselves out as a target by perhaps going on information that’s incorrect. And then at some point they realize … there’s really no upside to pissing people off in Hollywood. [He laughs] It’s as simple as that.
I mean, we are talking about people and you have to maintain relationships. And if you go into a situation where someone automatically doesn’t trust you… I mean, trust is at a premium, too. It’s just so difficult to get a movie made and it’s just a lot easier sometimes to pretend that everything went very smoothly so you can just honestly work on the next one. I mean, I hate to be that cynical about it, but there’s what happens.
HEAD: I’d like to think that someone could be free to say what they want and that someone on the receiving end of that would be understanding and appreciative of it.
SAMMON: And I couldn’t agree with you more. In the best of all possible worlds, that’s absolutely the way it should be. But unfortunately there again you’re dealing with human beings, and to be human is flawed by definition. So I think that even though sometimes you go into things with the best of intentions, you can say to yourself, Well, I’m just going to be honest here and just say well, this didn’t work out. And it gets someone upset. You never know, that might be a project they tried to get going for like thirty years and you’ve just attacked their oldest kid. You know what I’m saying. It becomes like there’s so many emotional things tied up into it, it’s not just all guile and strategies to make sure you don’t aggrivate people, it really gets down to total human interaction. It’s like people dealing with each other. It gets very complicated. We always forget that the movie business is not only a business, but it’s very talented, sensitive people. And it just gets complicated.
HEAD: What was the sort of general marketing strategy you had for Blade Runner? Did you have a press junket, per se? What kind of organized interview process was put together for the initial release?
SAMMON: That was one of the fascinating perks in being able to be involved with that motion picture, literally from the moment it was announced until [He laughs] … until now, twenty-seven years later … was that I was able to very closely monitor not only the actual production process, but the promotional process, the publicity and marketing, all of the stuff that comes after the film is in the can. That was one of Warner Brothers’ biggest films for nineteen eighty-two. Ultimately, I think production costs on Blade Runner was about twenty-eight to twenty-nine million dollars. So, in early nineteen eighties’ money, you’re talking about something that’s closer to about eighty to a hundred million dollars now. So that’s a major motion picture.
And they were giving major promotional pushes. They had things like, they had a sort of very early, behind-the-scenes electronic press kit people taking behind-the-scenes footage that they then cobbled together into like a fifteen minute promotional short that they showed at science fiction conventions around the country. They had journalists come in a junket, a press junket, but it was very low-key and it was mostly done …. most of the press was done after the film was wrapped, and people like Harrison and Ridley were talking to press, that type of thing.[He laughs] Very briefly. But on the other hand, the studio did have a huge idea of pushing it in terms of having spin-offs; which just then, really, the whole idea of having all these after-market things like paperback tie-ins and action figures and all that really got traction because of Star Wars. With the first Star Wars coming out in ’77 and Blade Runner coming out in ’82, that’s just five years right there. And so all of this was just gearing-up. All of which is a long way of saying that Warner Brothers had actually indeed mounted a fairly major promotional campaign to promote Blade Runner. They had a Blade Runner fan club that they were going to start going to really promote after the film came out, and if it was a hit – that’s the caveat right there. And also they had spin-off products, like they had the Blade Runner sketchbook, which a little company called Blue Dolphin Enterprises did, or Blue Dolphin Press.
HEAD: I had that sketchbook. It was fascinating. Like the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back sketchbooks, it was really something. Didn’t they do a Blade Runner storyboard book?
SAMMON: Yeah, like kind of a slimmed-down production art slash screenplay combo, where you know there were pre-production drawings and also the script itself. And there were little die-cast Spinners.
HEAD: Oh yeah! I had a couple of those.
SAMMON: And so you know of course what stopped all this dead in its tracks was the fact that the film was just this terrible financial flop when it came out. Nobody went and saw it. I clearly remember opening day on a Friday. I actually saw the film on its opening weekend in two different cities within forty-eight hours. Both on the West Coast. The first in San Diego. And I had gone to, what at that time was one of the largest, premiere theaters there in town, to see the evening show of Blade Runner to see how many showed up. And here it was on a Friday night in one of the most attractive theaters in San Diego, and there were literally three or four people in the audience, and that was counting me. And this was a theater that held hundreds, if not a thousand. So… [he laughs] … the writing was on the wall that first day. And then the weekend that came up right afterwards, I flew up to San Francisco and I saw it again. And this was like a seven o’clock screening on a Sunday night, and it was the same thing, but this time there was like two people. I mean people just did not go to see it. I mean the word was out on that thing just as soon as it hit the screen.
HEAD: Do you believe Blade Runner‘s box office failure was more due to being a critical failure or a marketing failure?
SAMMON: Well it was also for the most part definitely a critical failure. Most people who saw it were reviewers – and I do make a distinction between reviewers and critics, because I have been both myself, and they are two distinctly different breeds of animal.