The science fiction thriller Blade Runner 2049, the much-anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner, takes place 30 years after the events of the first film, with Ryan Gosling starring as K, a new replicant model, with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard.
Oscar-nominated director, Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) was a fan of the original and wanted to bring some of the essence of that film to the new one. The process of creating the music started with a long and passionate conversation between the director and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer about their “shared love of the Vangelis score” and how to bring that sound into a brand new story. That original music was seminal as well critical to the overall tone and atmosphere of the first film.
“The esthetic of the original film, it’s kind of driven by the sound world that Vangelis created. They were huge shoes to fill,” stated Wallfisch. “But Denis gave us a musical way in, which is that this is a new story. Even though we are in the Blade Runner universe, it’s a completely different narrative.”
This new approach to the score enabled the composers to pay homage to the esthetic of Vangelis while creating a new sound and universe that was set up to serve the director’s “visionary story.” In composing the music, Wallfisch and Zimmer also had to “rise up” to the visual element of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the subtlety of the performances.
“The smallest eye movement by Ryan Gosling was often a massive emotional signifier. There were clues there as to how to approach the score,” revealed Wallfisch. “A lot of what we did needed to be quite understated and say a lot with very little.”
After seeing the film, the composers went into the studio with Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker. Zimmer started playing a tune on a CS-80 keyboard. “It was immediately like a visceral connection with Denis,” remembered Wallfisch. “It was exactly the sound he wanted to hear and the tune was strangely hopeful in a dystopian film.”
That melody was a key into the process of finding themes and evolved into a track used in the middle of the film. There were four or five other main themes, which came later.
The wooden horse theme was a musical signifier for and became a “huge pillar in the structure of the story.” The filmmakers needed a theme that felt very elemental and part of the fabric of the film, so they came up with a very symmetrical four note melody – two rising notes, followed by two falling notes. That melody played very slowly with gravitas.
“Joe put it up against the final seawall sequence and it was like an immediate connection, so that stuck,” said Wallfisch.
The “creation” theme is heard over the sequence with the birth of the replicants and Rachel’s return at the end of the song. Played by an ensemble of basses – actually one bass overdubbed – that are playing very high and “completely out of the comfort zone of the instrument,” giving the sound fragility and beauty at the same time.
Heard over the opening story cards, the puzzle theme consisted of piano chords that are only heard at the end of a long digital process that manipulated the sound. Only remnants of the original acoustic are heard. To the composers it was analogous to a musical replicant. “The nature of the harmonies are very complex and set up in such a way that they can transpose and repeat and never repeat themselves, at least not for very long times,” explained Wallfisch.
Although there is an inherent emotional power in an orchestral sound, the composers made the conscious decision to not use an orchestra. They still had to get the same “emotional potency” from synthesizers.
“That was a really exciting challenge for me to really run with that concept. The key was to create something new, while paying our respects to the original, but be very bold in our choices and not be afraid to be adventurous,” shared Wallfisch. “It was a wonderful process of discovery. We all went on the process together.”