Arrival: Denis Villeneuve Explains His Sci-Fi Opus

Behind the scenes of the sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

Unless you’re living on another planet, you’re likely to have heard a good deal of water cooler chat about Arrival, the new science fiction film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) that’s been playing in theaters for the past month.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story The Story of Your Life, it stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Brooks, a linguist who is brought in by the government to help translate the language of a visiting alien race. She needs to find out what they want and why they’ve come to earth, but that means deciphering their language with the help of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

There are so many aspects of the film that are better not to have spoiled before seeing the movie, including some of the big reveals in the film’s last act, but it’s proven to be one of this year’s films that rewards those who see it more than once.

What’s a little strange about the release of Arrival is that unlike Villeneuve’s previous movies, he literally hasn’t been around to help promote the movie. As soon as he finished Arrival, he was off to London to start working on Blade Runner 2049 with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. He didn’t attend any of the film’s premieres in September, and the film opened without him doing even the smallest amount of promotion.

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Finally having a break from production on Blade Runner 2049, the director made some time to talk to people about his new movie, and Den of Geek got on the phone with him for the following conversation where we will give a VERY MILD SPOILER WARNING in case you haven’t seen Arrival yet. (And believe me, we tried our best to find out anything we could about Blade Runner — we have so many questions about it—but to absolutely no avail.)

Den of Geek: I’ve spoken to Eric Heisserer and a few of your other collaborators on the movie, so what grabbed you about Ted Chiang’s short story when you first read it?

Dennis Villeneuve: The truth is that it was so refreshing to see a story about aliens that was about being in a relationship with them, establishing contact, trying to find a common ground and decode their language. The main idea was that this alien movie would be about language, and how this language changes your perception of reality. I thought that was such a poetic, strong and beautiful story.

And you read the short story first before any screenplay?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was introduced to the short story first, and I read it. I think at that time, I was about to do Prisoners, and I remember saying to the two producers, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen from 21 Laps, I remember telling them that it was a very, very beautiful and poetic story, but to make a movie out of it would be quite difficult, because the short story is really about a repetitive process, and beautifully intellectual, but without any dramatic structure. Later on, both Dans came back with a first draft written by Eric Heisserer that was a very clever adaptation, and I jumped on board right away and after that, I started to work with Eric in order to finalize the adaptation of the screenplay.

We’ve spoken about genre a few times in the past, so as far as science fiction goes, there are touchtones like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien, and I think you had a nod to the latter there, but visually, it’s still very different so was that important to you to create something visually different from other sci-fi films?

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For me, it was a major priority. I wanted the aliens to fell like a new experience. The design of the aliens took me months and months of work, because with the artist Carlos Huante, we spent months working on the design of the entity, making sure that it would look like nothing we’ve seen before and will have the proper qualities of what I was looking for, the presence that I was looking for. I wanted a being that will inspire a strong presence and intelligence that we would feel could come from another dimension, that would obey different laws. I wanted to feel really a different culture, a different way of thinking, and it was about getting away from any form of anthropomorphism. I wanted the Heptapod to be as far away from human beings as possible.

Was there anything in the original short story that could inform you of what the aliens and their ships should look like?

Actually, the spaceships were not described in the short story. In the short story, there were just screens that were appearing on earth; there were no visible spaceships. The spaceship presence came from Eric’s idea. The only thing I knew was that Ted Chiang in his mind, humans are coming from fish and Heptapods would have come from starfish, so they had seven legs and no front or back. That was the thing I knew about the Heptapods, they had seven legs. Besides that, I was totally free.

The spaceships, I thought that at the beginning of the screenplay, they were described as spheres, and I felt that that shape had been seen before in sci-fi, so I made research to try to find a shape that looked fresh, looked ominous, frightening, but that will bring a feeling of humanity from a human point of view when you stand besides it, a certain amount of fear. I discovered during my research that there is in our solar system right now, an object—not a planet, but it’s bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet. It’s a flying object and it’s name is Haumea. It has that strange oval shape, and it feels like it’s coming out of the brain of Ridley Scott, and it’s really frightening, and I decided to base my spaceship on the shape of that flying object in space, that strange rock.

To me, the aliens look almost like two arms coming down from God in the heavens above. I’m not sure if anyone else pointed out that resemblance.

Both aliens when they’re side by side, they look like both hands. That was one of the ideas. That they’d look like two giant hands, and the idea was also that at the end of the day, what we are witnessing is a teacher going to teach the two students, and it’s a very repetitive process. I was saying to myself, “How can I keep the tension high? How can I make sure the audience stays on edge?”

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The idea was to play with curiosity and slowly reveal the alien, one layer after a layer each time they come into the spaceship. Like a slow striptease, and I did that by having that idea of the screens and that thick mist behind the screens that will help me to create a veil, to create mystery.

I know you weren’t able to make it to Toronto for Arrival’s premiere there, but have you had a chance to see the movie with an audience and interact with them about the movie yet? It’s interesting how much more you get out of the movie seeing it second or even third viewing.

I was at the Q n A last night for the very first time. I had never watched the movie with an audience. Why? It’s because I worked very hard to finish this movie on time in order to be ready to jump on the plane and go to the Blade Runner set. I didn’t have a second to rest between the end of Arrival and the beginning of Blade Runner—I did it back-to-back, so in a way, I have no distance at all.

When people are talking about Arrival, it’s like they’re talking to me about a dream that I had. (chuckles) It’s very strange. I was not at the premieres in Venice or Toronto or Telluride. The movie opened everywhere, so it’s just like I’m witnessing that from a Space Station. I feel very disconnected in a very strange way, not about the movie itself, but about the experience of giving it to the world. It’s very strange.

It’s one of those movies where seeing it with an audience and seeing the tension that’s created is great. One of the nice things is that they deliberately have not shown the aliens anywhere, so when people see the movie, they’re really seeing them for the first time, which is rare.

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Yeah, I’m very grateful to the studio. They took care and that was my strong recommendation to try to keep the secret alive.

How are things going with Blade Runner? Have you actually finished shooting or are you still shooting?

The shooting is finished, we’ve wrapped.

Last time I spoke to you, you hadn’t even begun. Has it been tough to make a movie that’s a sequel to such a well-loved film?

No, no, of course. Every movie has its own challenge, and this one is to take the universe of someone else and make it my own, and that is a very different thing to do for me. It was a very intense shooting, but very rewarding at the same time.

Besides Harrison Ford, you have a lot of new characters and an interesting cast, but had Ridley been developing this for many years before you came on board?

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The thing is that I’m not necessarily allowed to talk about that project. (chuckles) I’m sorry I’m being boring, but I cannot say a lot about that project.

I’m just wondering where it was at when you came on board. I feel like Ridley’s been talking about making the movie for a number of years. Did you have time to develop the screenplay with him?

Yeah, the thing is that movies evolve all the time. The screenplay evolved as we went through the process. All the movies I’ve done, I’m rewriting the movie as I’m storyboarding, and through the preproduction, writing with the actors and in the editing room, so a movie always evolves.

Any idea when we might see the first teaser or trailer? Will it be this year or next year?

That I cannot tell you, unfortunately. I apologize for this. I promised that I will not talk about the project.

Is it true that you might do another movie with Jake Gyllenhaal? Is that down the road or your next movie?

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Oh, yes, yes. I was totally focused on the shooting of Blade Runner, so I’m just out now about a week, coming back to life, so I haven’t started to work with Jake on that yet.

Arrival is still playing in theaters across the country.