Venice: 'Arrival' Director Denis Villeneuve on His Love of Sci-Fi, Female Leads and Taking on ‘Blade Runner’
He also discusses believing in aliens and how his Venice competition entry is "the opposite of a Michael Bay movie."
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is back on Venice's Lido after his film Incendies premiered at the Venice Film Festival's Venice Days strand in 2010. The film went on to capture an Academy Award nomination and started Villeneuve's work on a series of acclaimed films from Enemy to Prisoners to last year’s Sicario.
After exploring the darker side of humanity in the drama genre, Villeneuve is coming around to his one-true passion, sci-fi, with two back-to-back films. The first, Arrival, based on the short story “Story of Your Life,” world premiered in competition in Venice.
It stars Amy Adams as a brilliant linguist recruited by the U.S. military to assist in alien translations after a dozen colossal pods land around the planet and no one knows if the alien heptapods inside come as friend or foe. Jeremy Renner stars as a physicist helping to support the mission and Forest Whitaker plays the colonel in charge.
Arrival has been universally hailed in Venice, with critics praising it as the smart movie sci-fi audiences have been waiting for and awards buzz for the lead actors and director already taking shape. The Hollywood Reporter called the film “just what we need in the these fractured times — a smart parable about open-mindedness and unification.”
The second sci-fi project? The Blade Runner sequel, currently shooting in Hungary. Villeneuve flew into Venice from the set for less than 24 hours to meet with press. The film is one of the most anticipated movies of 2017, and will star Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in his original role of Rick Deckard.
THR sat down with Villeneuve to discuss how Arrival came together and just how he’s planning on taking on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner original.
How did you create the language of the heptapods?
There was a lot of research made for this language. In order to find a language, the main premise was that it needs to be circular. But besides that, we knew nothing. The idea was to show something that we hoped was never seen before and would have the complexity that was required. I wanted it to be a bit nightmarish and almost feel like an impressionist work of art.
There was a dictionary made, with tons of logic structure to it. And it was needed because we see in the movie a lot of [language], so to know they mean something for real, that was very useful for the actors.
How did you see the potential for a feature movie in the short story “Story of Your Life”?
It’s a very strong short story, a very beautiful, powerful little masterpiece, but there was not a dramatic structure to it. It could have been possible, but it would have made a totally different object. And I said to the producer, "It’s beautiful, but I don’t know how to approach it."
And then they came back later with a screenwriter that found the right idea to bring a structure to it, and I agreed to come on board. We rewrote the screenplay over and over. It was a very long process to find the right equilibrium between that process and the dramatic structure.
What do you love about the sci-fi genre?
It feels to me like it is something that is closer to dreams in some ways, a formation of reality that creates a distance with reality that allows me to explore reality in a more playful way.
Is it an accident that after a career of very intense dramas you’re now doing two sci-fi pics in a row?
Yes and no. The thing is, I was dreaming to do sci-fi for a very long time. I was a sci-fi addict when I was a kid and a teenager. Novels, graphic novels, movies, it was my way to deal with reality. I was very bad at sports. I was very bad at hockey. When you [are] a bad hockey player in Canada, you’re nothing. So I was into science fiction all the time. That was my drug.
So my friends who knew me for a long time, they didn’t understand why I was doing dark dramas, where is this coming from, you know? I knew that I would do sci-fi. But it just came late for two reasons. First, I was not finding a good enough story. It is very hard to find. And also it is the first time that I had the money to do it. In Canada you are free, but it is very difficult to find a lot of money, and the sci-fi genre very often — it’s expensive most of the time.
Do you believe in aliens?
Yes, yes, yes. I think that it would be very boring if we were alone. I hope, because humanity is not doing very well, so I hope that there are other people out there.
Was there pressure on you to include more action sequences in the film?
Listen, when you show that to a studio, Paramount, they love the film now, but I feel in the beginning they felt it was a strange animal, a strange beast because it’s the opposite of a Michael Bay movie. So I feel they thought it was a bit strange, but everybody was on board.
What was unique about the editing process?
Each movie I make has its own heroes, and the two heroes for me in Arrival are Amy Adams and Joe Walker, the editor. We worked very, very hard, and it was by far the longest editing process.
Why? Because we had to create in postproduction half of the cast, you know, the two aliens were digitally created. My dream was to create them for real, but it was too expensive sadly, so I had to go with CGI, and it was like a very long process to create the behaviors of those beings and then to find the right pacing.
I will say that my first cut was more abstract, and I realized I need to be more generous and to give more to the audience, because no one will understand the movie and the movie will be less powerful at the end if you didn’t get the twist at one point.
It’s not often that we have a female lead in a sci-fi picture. Was Jeremy Renner always on board as the supporting character?
You know I had a lot of respect for Jeremy Renner as an actor before I worked with him, because I was very impressed with what he did in The Hurt Locker. And I wanted to work with him for a long time. For me it was very moving that he was there for Amy; he was not there for himself. He knew that from the start.
When he took the part he said, "I love the part, but I know it’s Amy’s movie, and I’m going to be there." They are close friends. He just wanted to help her create that universe and that character, which is honestly, the opposite of what we see in the cinema most of the time, where women are there to create heroes. Women are around to make the men look great, or strong. When you think about it, I hope that in the future we won’t have to talk about it with journalists, that it will be normal.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot in the movie?
For me the most difficult one was to be able to portray quickly a relationship between a daughter and a mother, to feel real child behavior in front of the camera. I did a huge casting to find that little girl. She’s a fantastic actress. Like if I asked her to look at a flower, the flower becomes the most beautiful and strange thing in the world through her eyes. I was very nervous, because to find that is very difficult, but it needs to exist. You cannot create that, you know.
And I needed a cinematographer that will have the patience and the flexibility to capture that. And Bradford Young is amazing; he’s like a young master. I think he will impress us a lot in the future. That cinematographer is very, very precise.
Is there one scene that embodies the film for you?
For me, the scene that expresses most the movie, is the way the little girl is seeing the world, when she sees nature. The one shot that is very important to me, there is a shot where she sees a horse. That is one of the most important shots of the movie.
What has become more difficult for you as you make more and more films?
I’m trying to find a way to keep my voice alive with its imperfections. It’s difficult because there are a lot of voices around and a lot of pressures. To keep that intact, that glance, or that view of the world intact, not from an ego point of view, that’s difficult, not to be narcissistic, it needs to be from a very strong creative impulse. To try to create it and not doubt it, but at the same time take the ideas of others that are stronger than mine for the sake of the movie, you get tired at the end of the day. To find the right equilibrium is not easy.
Arrival has been described as provocative sci-fi. Would you agree with that?
The truth is, I finished that movie because they were waiting for me, literally. I was starting prep [for the Blade Runner sequel] as I was finishing Arrival. I took the time to finish it, I finished the movie, but it’s like I gave birth to something and I didn’t see its face.
I didn’t touch it, I didn’t smell it, I don’t know. I didn’t have the time to make my own opinion about it. I don’t know if I like it or not. When you make a movie you have joy, you have anger, whole different feelings through the process. Right now, I’m totally naked in front of you because I see it and it will be very strange. One day I will look at the movie again, and it will be like a beautiful moment because I will receive the movie without all this.
For right now, I have no distance and I cannot qualify the movie myself. It’s for you guys or the press to say what they think about it. It’s strange to talk about a movie that I just did as I’m doing something else. I’m so profoundly into the process right now. My life is 100 percent Blade Runner right now, so I’m in the future, I’m not with you anymore.
What does it mean for your life to be 100 percent Blade Runner?
I wake up at six, I get to bed at midnight, it’s like seven days a week and you dream about it. Very often I wake up in the middle of the night, and I know I’m doomed, because I know I won’t go back to bed, because I’m too excited, there’s so much work. So I don’t sleep a lot. So that’s why if you ask me what I’m going to do after Blade Runner, I’m going to sleep.
With Blade Runner, will the visual language pay tribute to the original, or will it be something completely your own? Do you feel pressure to live up to the original?
First of all, it’s not possible to live up to the original. It’s Ridley Scott. It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best sci-fi films, one of the best films in the past 50 years.
For me, what terrorizes me right now is what I’m doing is taking Blade Runner and making it my own, and that is horrific. To realize that when I look at the dailies, it’s not Ridley Scott, it’s me, and that it’s different. It’s still the same universe, we are still in the same dream, but it’s mine, so it’s like I have no idea how you people will react, I don’t know. It has its own life.
How has it been working with Ryan Gosling?
I must say, the thing I can say is that Ryan Gosling is insanely good. I’m very impressed by that actor. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him and I never had someone that was as much a trooper, as dedicated, as precise and engaged. I feel that he is a real partner with me. I said to him, "You know, we are going to do it together and it’s like walking in a dark room with a lighter trying to find the way out. It’s a huge room and we are alone and it’s dark and it’s cold." And he said, "Yeah, I understand exactly." But we have a lot of fun.
It’s funny because very often we say that nobody realizes that a bunch of Canadians took over Blade Runner. We are, like, covert, nobody knows. I knew he was a great actor, I didn’t know how brilliant — he’s really an intelligent person, very clever, very provocative mind, he’s bringing a lot to the project right now, a lot, in a positive way. I’m very excited about it.
And what’s it like to work with Harrison Ford?
It’s a long shoot, and I started prep with him, but I didn’t start to shoot with him. But I will say that Harrison, to my great relief … you know Harrison Ford, he was one of my biggest heroes. I grew up with him, so to meet a man like that who is kind of a legend in your heart, that has that kind of humility, generosity, open-mindedness and simplicity, one of the nicest human beings I’ve met. I’m really looking forward to start working with him.
What are your top three science-fiction films?
2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner … so you can see that I’m in deep shit!