Interview: The Producers of Arrival on Making ‘Sophisticated’ Sci-Fi

Producers Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde may have a modern sci-fi classic on their hands.

Arrival is a special film. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) from a script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), and based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, the movie stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is tapped by the U.S. military to solve the riddle of an alien language when 12 massive ships suddenly appear at locations around the world. As global tensions escalate and the mystery of the visitors’ purpose deepens, Louise works feverishly to decode their tongue while also experiencing an inexplicable series of visions from her own life.

The movie is thrilling, somber and deeply moving, and it creates a sense of awe that only the best science fiction can convey. That’s because the director, screenwriter and cast (which also features Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) have a palpably personal grip on the material, and because the producers – including Dan Levine (The Internship), David Linde (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Aaron Ryder (The Prestige) – stood fast in support of challenging, intellectually demanding material that is still nevertheless exciting and emotional storytelling.

Arrival is not just potentially a modern sci-fi classic, but a great movie, period, and one of the year’s best. Den of Geek spoke with producers Levine, Ryder and Linde recently in Los Angeles about bringing this profound tale to the screen.

Den of Geek: Dan, I think it was you, if I read this correctly, that got the story from Eric to read and just got the ball rolling on this?

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Dan Levine:  Yes. I’m not only a producer on this, but I’m president of Shawn Levy’s company, 21 Laps, and we had met with Eric because he was a writer of horror that we really loved, but he had written a really great dramatic script that made us wonder, “Wow, he’s got more to him than meets the eye.”

We had a long meeting with him where we pitched him a lot of ideas and he rejected all of them, and on his way out we said, “Is there anything that you’ve read and loved?” And he’s like, “You know what? There’s this book of short stories I read by Ted Chiang. You should check that out.” And he didn’t mention which story, and so we flipped through it and came across “The Story of Your Life,” which was the original title, and we were just in awe.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful … Like the movie probably impacts people, that’s how the short story impacted us, and we set on the long quest to find Mr. Ted Chiang and get the chance to get the rights from him so we could try to put the movie together.

Was it tough to track him down? He’s not exactly making the rounds in Hollywood, is he?

Dan Levine:  No. It was a long, long process. He didn’t have an agent, didn’t have a lawyer, had a day job. We eventually found him. He was in Seattle, and he was mystified by us, what we wanted, what we were going to do with it. We had probably five, six two-hour phone calls with him where I would walk him through how movies get made, how you take a story, what happens next. His big question was, “How can you guarantee it’ll be a great movie?” I was honest and I said, “I can’t.”

He said, “But what kind of director are you going to get?” because he had some concerns about some sci-fi directors that he didn’t want on this, and we had just met with Denis Villeneuve off of his film Incendies, and Denis had told us he had been dreaming of doing sci-fi. So while we were talking to Ted we had given Denis the short story, but we then gave Ted his movie, Incendies, and said, “I don’t know if we can get him, but this is the kind of guy we would like.” He watched it, he called us back, he said, “If you can get him or someone like that, you can have the rights.” So he gave us the rights, and then Denis said he loved it, and that’s led to us all sitting here now.

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When you read a great book or short story or even look at a great video game — it could be anything — is it an intangible thing that just screams at you, “I’d like to make this into a movie?” Does it trigger something in you that says, “I have to translate this to the screen?”

Aaron Ryder:  Sure. I mean, it’s a bit of a burden if you think about it, especially if it’s a well-known book or piece of literature, that you have the obligation in a lot of ways to hold what’s great about it, but it’s a different medium, and that’s very difficult. It’s why I think short stories make such great films, because you have the opportunity to expand upon them and change them a little bit more. It’s a testament to, I think, in this case with Eric, because he’s not just a writer, he’s a filmmaker as well, so he sees things in a very cinematic way, and I think that helped out a lot in being able to transpose a short story like this into a screenplay that felt cinematic.

There were things about the short story that you just need to change in order to fit it into a two-hour story like this, but it’s an obligation I think everybody has to take on when you’re adapting from one medium to another.

Dan Levine:  I think it’s different for everyone, but for me I think the real barometer, and particularly in this one, is when your heart starts racing. There is that intangible, and that’s this thing is unbelievable, and I just remember vigilantly reading this thing and not only just being so thrilled with the story and blown away by it, but also thinking in dread, “Are the rights available?” So that’s the first thing, sadly, a producer’s mind goes to, because so much great sci-fi is already optioned, and that’s usually where the story ends, and luckily for us on this one, they were available.

I’m always campaigning for more published science fiction to be adapted. I look at my wall of books of home, and I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff there that can get made. Why do you think a lot of books get optioned and then never get filmed?

Dan Levine:  My experience has been that a lot of the classic sci-fi, a lot of the Phil K. Dick, all the great ones, someone optioned early who’s not in the film business who wants to be a writer, and they’ve held onto the rights and they will not — they say, “I have to write it,” or “I have to direct it,” and they have unreasonable demands and usually a script that’s not very good. Or the author is deceased, and then there’s an estate involved and there’s split rights. So many great, classic stories are tied up and you can’t unwind the knot.

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There are also genres that become fashionable and less fashionable, right? And I think that we’re in a moment right now where sophisticated science fiction is actually — people are responding to it, whether it be like Interstellar or The Martian or Gravity, and I think we’re maybe in that category now, too. I think that there’s an appetite for that, and I think you’ll start seeing more of it, and probably seeing some of those books on your shelves.

David Linde:  My focus is always on storytelling. I do enjoy sci-fi. I enjoy all sorts of literature, not very much non-fiction oddly enough, but I read a lot of fiction. What blew me away about this story, and we were talking earlier about it, is that I think everybody who read this in whatever form it first came to them, either as a short story or a script, didn’t hesitate to want to be involved.

I think, in partial answer to your question, it’s really, really hard to build movies, especially today, and I think science fiction ultimately also tends to be really ambitious, and often wants to really be about something. The greatest science fiction writers are talking about real, really, really big, important issues about humanity and the world and prospects for the world and things like that. As wonderful as that is, it’s difficult to translate to a movie. So I think it’s also one of the reasons that there are science fiction movies that you will never forget ever, because the worlds tend to be so vivid, the stakes often tend to be so high, that’s it’s an interesting dichotomy of being really hard to make, but when you do, they can be just transcendent.

Did you get any pushback from the studio (Paramount) in terms of, “Can we have more action? Can we have more explosions? Can it be less about learning the language?” and that kind of thing?

Dan Levine: We were lucky. We had such a strong movie and a director that the studio respected. It was an acquisition by the studio, so we were lucky to have FilmNation and Lava Bear behind us, and we were all on the same page about protecting the script, protecting Denis, and protecting the movie, so we all linked arms on that. I think the studio really respected what we had. Are there conversations? Yes, “Can we do more for this or that?” Yes, but I think in the end of the day everyone trusted Denis’s vision.

David Linde: Films build themselves to a certain extent. This one needed to be built as an independent movie. It was built and written and constructed as an independent movie for very specific reasons, including because it was of paramount importance, no pun intended, to absolutely honor Denis’s vision of what it was, of the movie. So it was built as an independent movie, and then when you come to the studios and say, “Okay, we’ve now built this essentially for you,” what you find is some studios that say, “Well, we’d prefer to build it ourselves,” and then others that say, like Paramount and Sony, who say, and others, who say, “Great, fantastic. We’re in.”

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Aaron Ryder: It’s also one of the stories too, based on its complexity and the way the structure of the film is, that it’s not so easy to just add a car chase in here. Inherently it’s a very intricate story, so you have to uphold that in order for it to work, and I don’t think anybody would want to unravel that, and everyone was very mindful of that throughout the process.

David Linde: Spaceship race? Could we have a spaceship race? (laughing)

It’s funny you mention that this is an independent film, because you have to use your resources more cleverly and you don’t necessarily have the kind of money that a giant franchise picture has, but yet you’re still making a movie about aliens and space and things coming to Earth.

Aaron Ryder: Yeah, we had a much smaller budget than a lot of studio movies, but at the end of the day, audiences don’t care really about what the budget is. You have to deliver something that has the awe and wonder and emotional impact that’s important to them. That’s why they’re going to a movie. They don’t care. Yeah, it’s complicated to make a movie in this genre without having an enormous amount, but out of that limitation comes — I think it brings the best out of people.

Dan Levine: Yeah, every day was a challenge to get what we needed, but our unifying goal was, get Denis what he needed to make the movie he wanted to make. Somehow we figured it out.

Aaron Ryder: I think there’s also so many movies out there are so reliant on visual effects on this gigantic scale, and I think there’s a bit of fatigue with that in that we like the idea of having something that has a bit of a real texture to it. When I mean real I mean a texture of realism to it, and it lends itself to this.

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David Linde: I would argue that there isn’t a moment where visual effects are really part of the story that is not in absolute support of the story. There’s never a moment where we’re trying to distract you or Denis is trying to distract with an additional explosion or another ship or something like that. It’s all very, very much in support of the story, and I think that’s one of the reasons that audiences are responding to it, because it means that the storytelling is even more effective. I always think about the moment where Amy first sees the ship, or when she first sees the sheer size of the alien. Yes, those are big ticket visual effects items, but they’re built around her experience.

I read that she wasn’t really looking for a project when this came along, and she just couldn’t pass it up.

Dan Levine:  I remember when we went to Montreal to talk to Denis about who should play Louise, and remember, we had a list of one actress and he had a list of one actress, and it was Amy, but the challenge was, and it’s true, she had just done a string of movies and we were told that she just was going to take a year off. We were so fortunate. She had an agent that was an incredible champion of this project, and we gave her the script, and usually you wait months to get an answer. Within I’d say a week or two, we got a yes.

Aaron Ryder: It was one week, she in on this. And you know what? It’s very unusual to be one and done with an actress, where the producers and directors all have one person in mind and you go to that person and she says yes immediately. We were very lucky.

Dan Levine:  We are. She told us that it was really the first few pages that had her in tears, and she said, “That was it.”

There are a lot of things unusual about it. It’s unusual that one screenwriter was on the whole film all the way through.

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Dan Levine:  It’s so hard to do. You can tell when a film has that, the one voice, and it’s so important.

If you could name a classic science fiction film that you would cite as inspiration for this, what would it be?

Dan Levine:  I think we always talked about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If we can be half as good as that, we would be thrilled. That was our aspiration. It’s such a classic, and it’s got a beautiful visual component but it’s got an emotional story at the heart, and that was the one that we referenced the most.

Aaron Ryder: There’s something about that movie. I had the great opportunity to see it on a big screen not too long ago. There’s a sense of a grounded nature to that film. The way these people look, the houses they live in, the cars they drove, the clothes they wore, there is something so relatable about them. You put them in this extraordinary situation where it hits you. You’re right there with them, and that’s why it had such an emotional impact on you, and I felt like, I think we all feel like, that’s probably our biggest influence, but that’s a pretty dark shadow to stand in.

Arrival opens in theaters this Friday (November 11).

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