Editors Note: This story originally ran on December 12, 2016.
When Arrival director Denis Villeneuve first read Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, he couldn’t see a clear way to make a movie out of it. “The short story is more intellectual in a good way,” Villeneuve says. “It’s more about language and not your political problems. It was a very powerful idea but there was no dramatic structure. There was one for a short story, but not for a movie.”
But then came screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s Critics’ Choice-winning clever interpretation, and Arrival was born. When alien ‘pods’ arrive on Earth, containing beings whose language and appearance is alien to us, how will we treat them? Politically pertinent stuff yes, but Arrival obviously also has huge appeal outside of that topic. With Amy Adams’ stirring performance as a grieving language expert, Jeremy Renner’s sweet, dorky scientist and Forest Whitaker’s hard-nosed military leader, Arrival is both an action sci-fi and a think piece, throwing some very smart twists into the bargain.
AwardsLine spoke to Villeneuve about his long-held love of sci-fi, the challenges inherent to the genre and diving in again to make Blade Runner 2049.
Amy Adams is so perfect for this role. Did you have her in mind from the beginning?
Eric finished the screenplay, we finished it, then we said, “Okay, who would we dream of to do this?” We said, “Amy Adams.” We offered it to her and she said yes after 48 hours, so it was difficult to see other people than her in there.
Quite a few of your films center around a female protagonist, what is it that appeals to you about telling a story through female eyes?
My first two movies, I wrote them for women thinking that it will give me a proper distance with my main character because I was not a good writer. It sounds weird the way I say it, but I was trying to find a way to have distance with my subject and trying to be as intimate as possible. At the same time, I didn’t necessarily know why I was so attracted to create stories about having a main character who is a woman. I didn’t try to realize a why. It’s just that it deepens part of me. I am touched by it. I love women. I’m inspired by the feminine condition. Women need to interact with the world, their relationship with power in the world, the evolution of the place of a woman in society. I think it’s just deeply inspiring. As a man, I feel that I cannot talk about that. I mean there’s a lot of female directors that will do better.
You had some serious technical challenges in making Arrival, like inviting an entire picture-language for the aliens. How tough was that?
To create a life form and to create a language, I was dreaming to do that all my life. It was a big dream and I realized quickly how difficult it was. It just increased my respect for a director who did it before me, to create a new form of life. It was a big challenge. For the language, I wanted to have specific qualities. My production designer, Patrice Vermette worked with the help of an artist Martine Bertrand. They came with this idea that I deeply loved, and Patrice deeply loved the idea to an extreme where we had a dictionary. We had everything. I remember even in the living room the assistants were following the language. That was very fun to do actually. I have at home posters of what Patrice did where you have the words with the meaning. He went crazy. He lost his mind and he created a real language out of it. It’s very beautiful actually.
The score in Arrival really stood out, just as it did in Sicario. How do you settle on what kind of a score you want?
Music is very powerful and I’ve always been very afraid of different composers because they arrive at the end of the process. Everybody is working in one direction. Everybody is working hard and the composer arrives two weeks before the end and applies a powerful device of music. So in order to make peace with that and to make sure that everybody was working in the same direction, what I did is that I started to work with Johann Johannsson, a composer that I loved. I brought him very early on the project, even before I started to shoot. Like for Arrival, he read the screenplay, saw the artwork, started to send me tracks, and I fell in love with one of them and it became one of the tracks of the movie. Then it’s a very long collaborative process. It’s like a dance between me and Johann to arrive at the end of something that feels married together, that it’s not music on top of images.
The idea of diplomacy and how we respond to alien nations is a really strong theme in Arrival, with a hopeful message. Was that part of the appeal from the beginning?
When I did it, it was because it was a movie with light, a movie that proposed an optimistic view of the future, and I did that after I made five films that were very dark so I needed a bit of optimism.
How did making Arrival prepare you for making Blade Runner?
Arrival was by far my most effects-oriented movie. It was so different it helped me to feel ready to go on the scope of Blade Runner. More specifically, the idea that you start post as you are in prep with the tool of previs. You create in the computer the sequences according to storyboards, like a kind of animated short film. You see the evolution, each shot, the camerawork, the background, everything kind of goes together as you are working. Everybody knows where to go because there’s that kind of computerized short film that is made in pre-production. I hate that. I like to be free on set. I like to be inspired by actors. I like to play with life so I hate when it’s programmed. That’s another battle for the future. I will try to do things in a different way.
You were a big fan of the original Blade Runner. Did you feel a lot of pressure going into that movie?
It’s the first time that I had to take the universe of someone else and to make it my own. It’s very challenging, the biggest artistic challenge I’ve had in my life probably. Listen, I hesitated a lot before doing it, but when I said yes I committed at one hundred percent and it’s very difficult to talk about it because I’m in the process of doing it, so it’s a bit like asking a hockey player to describe how he will score as he’s going through the other players. It’s a massive challenge.