Oscars: 'Arrival' Producer Compares Amy Adams to Michael Jordan, Touts the Film's Timely Political Message
"We're happy the movie speaks to this moment with an advocacy that is more important than ever before," says Shawn Levy, who talked to THR about bringing director Denis Villeneuve's esoteric ideas about organic-looking spaceships and banyan tree-esque aliens to life.
For Shawn Levy and producers Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde, Arrival had an undeniable synergy. At the end of a general meeting with Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter mentioned an obscure science fiction short story he wanted to adapt. Then, during another general with a pre-Sicario Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director mentioned he always wanted to make a sci-fi film. Levy spoke to THR about how he and the producers somehow helped Villeneuve bring his esoteric ideas about organic-looking spaceships and banyan tree-esque aliens to life.
How long has Arrival been in the works?
Five and a half years. It started with a general meeting with Eric. At the time, he was known for horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing). The meeting definitely went in a different direction. It's not like we brought him in to write a horror film in our slate. We weren't looking then — although now we have one or two horror films in development, but that's never been our go-to. What is our go-to is that if we recognize talent, we want to get to know the person because that's the only way a collaboration is going to bloom. It was at the end of that meeting that Eric mentioned Ted Chiang's short-story collection Stories of Your Life.
What were your first thoughts after reading Chiang's story as a vehicle for Heisserer to adapt?
The first thought for us at [Levy's production company] 21 Laps was, "Please let this be available." So often you come across something great and the rights are long gone. The second thought was that clearly "Story of Your Life" was the biggest gold nugget for adaptation in the collection. But then the third thought was, "How the hell do we make this a movie?" It poses challenging adaptation issues.
Did you ever fear you wouldn't get Amy Adams to star?
Getting the movie, developing it right, getting the financing and getting it made — that was not a quick or easy road. But getting Amy was. She was the collective first choice from the get-go. But Amy only occasionally answers emails and her cellphone — I've known her since we did the second Night at the Museum movie together — so we called her agent Michelle Bohan, whom I know. I said, "You've got to read this script now, and trust me, you're going to want Amy to read it immediately." I knew this was special and Amy and her team would recognize that. But Amy was very concertedly going on hiatus. She wanted to not work for a bit. She read this script promptly — and hiatus canceled.
What other decisions had a positive impact on the film?
There's a bunch of those things. We didn't cast the Ian role until quite late, and a lot of names were discussed. Amy may very well have suggested the Jeremy Renner idea. I think Renner in Arrival is like [Scottie] Pippen to [Michael] Jordan. His is not the flashy performance, and he wasn't going to be the center of scenes or the film, but he so strongly supports everything that Amy is doing in every scene. I feel like the casting of Renner is this quietly defining happenstance.
Would you have done anything differently on this film?
I have made a bunch of movies; I've produced a bunch more. In 2017, I don't think anyone is ashamed of talking about reshoots, additional photography and/or regrets. But we producers look at Arrival with sincere pride and not a regret that I can think of. So much of producing this movie was about empowering and advocating the instincts of Denis Villeneuve. That's really our central pride, that this was a guy, when after we first met him, having seen Incendies, we had this hunch that he could be an emerging master. Now in 2017, I think his mastery is self-evident. The secret is out.
Have you been to the Oscars before?
No. I've had a really fortunate career, but I have spent the lion's share of it in much more popcorn fare. I made a weird rule for myself in film school that I would only go to a film festival or an awards show when I had a real reason to be there: I'll go when I've earned it. The first [festival] was Sundance with The Spectacular Now four or five years ago. And now we've done a whole bunch of things with Arrival and [Netflix's] Stranger Things. I'm happy I waited because I feel like I did the work.
What advice have you gotten about what to expect at the Oscars?
I am that guy who grew up so captive to the glamour and grandeur of the Oscars. I've been watching them since I was a 5-year-old in Montreal. Every time I've met an Oscar-nominated artist, I always ask what it's like. And the range of answers goes from jaded actors, who say it's long, to people who just describe it as epic.
How do you balance the excitement for the film with the current events happening in our political climate?
I struggle to balance the outrage and heartsickness that I'm feeling — and that all us producers of Arrival are feeling in the face of current events — with the thrilling celebratory atmosphere of the Oscar nominations. Our struggle with that dichotomy is slightly reconciled by the fact that Arrival has turned out to be so exactly what we want to express, in a way that is so much more timely than we could have ever anticipated. The movie is about a fear of aliens. It's about suspicion and fear in the face of the other and the surmounting of that fear with hope, trust and, most critically, communication. I'm not retrofitting that movie's themes to the times — that is actually at the bedrock of the source's story and of Denis' movie. We're happy the movie speaks to this moment with an advocacy that is more important than ever before.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.