For those of us who first saw “Blade Runner” in theaters, the first nighttime street scene –Harrison Ford, as the blade runner Deckard, wandering through acid rain in a wrecked, neon-lit downtown Los Angeles–is forever etched in our brains. The street life of the future is chaotic, a babel of advertising slogans–”a new life awaits you in the off-world colonies!”–music and images such as a smiling geisha on a gigantic screen. Scurrying through the rain and smoke are a lot of Asians. Neon signs in fake kanji advertise shops and services. Deckard fights his way through the crowd to order a bowl of ramen from a Japanese at an outdoor stall, only to have his meal interrupted by two heavily armored policemen who take him away in a flying car. One of the cops, played by Edward James Olmos, speaks a strange hybrid language (actually mostly Hungarian) that the Japanese noodle vendor interprets. These elements add up to a dystopian Los Angeles, one inhabited by humanoid “replicants” as well as the human drones of a sinister controlling industry, the Tyrell Corporation.
The process of bringing this world to life was detailed last Thursday night at Bonhams & Butterfield. A panel discussion benefitting the Los Angeles Conservancy brought ”Blade Runner” conceptual designer Syd Mead and producer Michael Deeley together, along with Frances Anderton of KCRW’s ”DnA,” to discuss the film’s design. Mead was hired to create the overall look of the film, a role that got larger as the production design grew more detailed. It helped that Ridley Scott got his start as a designer and spent years directing commercials. It was Scott who encouraged Mead to keep dressing the street on Warner’s backlot until it reached its ultimate state of visual overload.
At some point during pre-production, what was supposed to be a generic city became Los Angeles and a decision was made to go Asian rather than Latino. The resulting look combines elements of Hong Kong and Tokyo in the 1960′s, when both cities boasted acres of lively neon but hadn’t yet attained their present levels of opulence. (For me, a childhood resident of both cities, the downtown of “Blade Runner” actually inspires nostalgia–murderous androids, acid rain and wrecked infrastructure notwithstanding.)
Significantly, the film introduced many viewers to the architectural highlights of Los Angeles. The Tyrell Corporation occupies a Mayan pyramid whose interior resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House. The Million Dollar Theater, a Broadway movie palace, is a prominent part of the downtown street scene. The police station is located in Union Station, a 1939 Mission/Art Deco gem. Deckard travels by car through the Second Street Tunnel. He hunts replicants in the Bradbury Building, a 1893 cast iron masterpiece whose use in this strange future–rain pouring through its broken skylight–is nothing short of inspired.
As Michael Deeley reminded us, “Blade Runner” had an unsuccessful theatrical run, becoming a hit only after it was released on video. Nevertheless, its title soon entered the vocabulary as a pejorative for a certain urban atmosphere. In 1990, my boyfriend used to complain that the Beverly Connection–then brand-new–was too ”bladerunner.” (He had a point: that mall aged so ungracefully that it received a major renovation four years ago and now looks completely different.) In time, “Blade Runner” became a classic not only for its design but for its skillful adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Many consider it one of the best science fiction films of all time.
It’s hard to believe nearly three decades have passed since its release–and that 2019 is just around the corner. Mead suggested that the film’s vision of the future influenced positive change in Los Angeles. Whether or not it did, no one can deny that downtown has been transformed in the years since ”Blade Runner” came out. After years of new construction–including major public buildings such as the Disney Concert Hall, Staples Center and Our Lady of Angels Cathedral–loft renovation and burgeoning residential population, it’s safe to say downtown Los Angeles won’t look like it does in “Blade Runner” nine years from now. On the downside, we still don’t have flying cars. But on the upside (along with the aforementioned), the Bradbury Building has been restored to its original glory, having undergone a major renovation in 1991.