How the Blade Runner 2049 screenwriter used math to write the sequel

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I’ve called Blade Runner 2049 the most anticipated movie sequel off all time. It’s 35 years in the making and transports us into a fabricated future and sees the return of Harrison Ford in a third act full of lush visuals, action-hero bravado, human compassion and dire brutality. The film is well worth the long wait.

Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples wrote the original screenplay for Blade Runner based on the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This time, Fancher wrote a short story that became fodder for the sequel and collaborated with writer Michael Green on the new screenplay.

Perhaps the busiest writer in Hollywood, Green has four giant films releasing this year. In addition to BR2049, he co-wrote Alien: Covenant and Logan. He also wrote the upcoming remake of Murder on the Orient Express. All that while writing and producing the TV show American Gods. Yeah, that’s a lot for anyone, human or replicant.

Green was a latecomer to Blade Runner, but that’s not surprising considering he was only nine when it came out. But even as a child, he was a movie enthusiast.  “I saw E.T. five times in the theater. I asked every family member to take me. I was completely unaware there was a film called Blade Runner.”

Photo courtesy: Sony Pictures

As the years went on and he became interested in a writing career, he finally caught part of BR on cable when he was in college. “I found a TV in a dumpster and it got one channel with rabbit ears. It’s kind of romantic when I think about it. I turned it on and the director’s cut of Blade Runner was playing.”

He thought he’d watch for five minutes while he ate some noodles, but he became enthralled. “Later came the Laser Disc, then the DVD, then there was a new version. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the theater, which is an experience I’d love to have.”

Then came the viewing of the original BR after he got the job to write the sequel. Green claims it was a very different experience.

Photo courtesy: Sony Pictures

He began to ask himself questions like, “What is it about this film that makes me revere it? Why did it stick in my memory?  Why did it change my own consciousness?” Though Green wouldn’t answer those questions for me during my 15-minute interview, he really didn’t need to. His answers were in his screenplay.

2049 is a creation myth to rival Genesis. At times, the film walks through Adam and Eve territory. At other times, it’s a glorious fairy tale with moments of Pinocchio and Snow White and the Huntsman. I asked Green if these allusions were intentional. Again, he was a bit cagey.

“I’m certain that you, as a viewer, will see different iconic lighthouses or flags in the slalom than I did. But there were things we had in mind. Paradise Lost came up a lot when I was talking to Ridley. There is a Deuteronomical aspect to it, certainly in the first film. ‘I want more life, Father’ is as much a Deuteronomy quote as Deuteronomy.”

To buttress its mythic structure, 2049 incorporates several giant reveals and reversals.  I’ve chosen not to share them here so you may experience them on your own.  But these twists and turns no doubt informed the structure of the screenplay.  Green says he simply followed his instinct.

“When you know where you want to go, and what moments you want to make land, then certain placements of things become inevitable. For one thing to be true, other things need to be true leading up to it.”

If that sounds a bit like math, Green says you’d be correct.

 

Photo courtesy: Sony Pictures

“Whenever I talk to screenwriting students, I say – not jokingly – that if you’re not taking a math class, or if your screenwriting courses are not teaching math, they are just peddling bullshit theory and you should go.”

Huh? Green explains.

“I came from television, and if you’re ever going to be a producer, literal, actual math comes into play more often than you think because it’s a numbers game of ‘how can I do what I need to do in the time or with the resources I have?’ That is actual math.

“Then there’s structural math. It’s not the cynical application of formula, which is a way to get through something when you lack talent but have fortitude. Although formulas can certainly get some people to a place where they can employ creativity. [Structure] requires knowing when something plus something equals something.”

Green says to beware of studying just theory, because, “The practice of telling a story visually f***ing requires math.”

He has harsh words for anyone who thinks being a writer will offer an escape from numerical equations. “They’re f**king self-deluded.  I want to tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong! That’s not the career you want!’ There are plenty of other careers where you never have to do math again.”

Math plays out in yet another important way when it comes to movies: the box office. While Blade Runner was a financial flop back in 1982, Warner Bros. is hoping 2049 will be a boom. With advanced ticket sales currently outpacing other successful movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, Warner Bros. stands to get their wish.

Blade Runner 2049 opens October 6. Let us know if you’re planning to see it.

 

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

9 Replies to "How the Blade Runner 2049 screenwriter used math to write the sequel"

  • comment-avatar
    Suzanne klaus October 3, 2017 (7:23 am)

    I teach test prep in Boston and I write screenplays. I teach my students to not look at math problems as “problems” but challenges. It takes the fear out and allows the problem solving process to begin.

    I agree with Mr. Green. Good math skills will carry you in life with the ability to problem solve systematically. Screenwriting, for me, at least is learning how to piece together a story so it is creative, entertaining and in some cases challenges my audience to think on a higher level.

    My students know I write screenplays. I will share this article (minus the swears) with them.

  • comment-avatar
    Joel Karlinsky October 3, 2017 (7:34 am)

    A practical example of math would be helpful. Thanks. Loved Blade Runner and looking forward to seeing BR 2049.

  • comment-avatar
    Brian Bozick October 3, 2017 (7:51 am)

    Just one issue…there are no careers that permit the absence of math. In one way or another, math is essential to life, whether you realize it or not. To ignore this is to deny reality or merely confirm your ignorance.

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Ross Leong October 3, 2017 (8:16 am)

    Shanee, hello!
    Interesting take, well written.

    Personally, (and without wishing to come over as too much of a pedant about this), I’d say that if you said that Michael Green used a ‘calculated’ approach to screenwriting, I couldn’t agree more.

    But your specific use of the word ‘mathematics’, with the formulaic and theoretical implications inherent in that word (as against, for instance, ‘arithmetic’, which involves real world calculation and things), seems to be a bit of a stretch, and doesn’t serve you well at all.

    Just my two cents, of course.

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck October 4, 2017 (3:46 pm)

    As an engineer who came to screenwriting late in life, I never saw an obvious connection with mathematics. But one thing I did learn in screenwriting class was that your story has to be “rational” and orderly — things cannot happen just because you want them to happen. The “calculation” (in the broad sense of the word) needed to create believable characters with plausible motivations is central to the art of storytelling. It cannot be ignored, and it needs no justification.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul October 5, 2017 (12:06 pm)

    A good article but I would have liked an actual example of how the writers used math. I do know that numbers are used in screenwriting, the number of pages to a script, the three act structure, the number of characters used, the number of scenes, the one minute per page rule, and putting all of these numbers together in the final product and others as well. Interesting.

  • comment-avatar
    Florent October 6, 2017 (2:26 pm)

    Great Article; loved the movie.

  • Scrittura, frattali e replicanti. Riflessioni su Blade Runner 2049 | Kikaweb October 10, 2017 (3:21 am)

    […] curiosamente arriva proprio da Michael Green, uno degli sceneggiatori di Blade Runner 2049 in una recente intervista che parlava proprio di come non si può scrivere sceneggiature senza lavorare con la […]

  • comment-avatar
    scoo October 13, 2017 (9:35 am)

    His comments made absolutely ZERO sense and he seems extremely arrogant.

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