Over the past few years, director Denis Villeneuve has rapidly become one of the more interesting voices in Hollywood. In 2013, he burst onto the scene with his first mainstream film, Prisoners, which not only starred the likes of Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, but also managed to spellbind viewers almost instantly. His next film, Enemy, was a bit less mainstream in its appeal, but was still well respected as the artsy film it was. Villeneuve’s profile was raised to the next level last year when he released the Oscar-nominated film Sicario.
The next movie on the docket for release is the intriguing-looking Arrival, a film that takes a close encounter story and gives it a unique spin — one that focuses on communication and language. How would we communicate with an extra-terrestrial species? What would happen if we mis-communicated with them? And even worse, what if we did something out of respect, only for the aliens to take it as a slight that could lead to the world’s destruction?
These are all very interesting ideas that I hope get explored well in the film, and if initial buzz from critics is any indication, this could be another checkmark in the “win” category for Villeneuve. But this is a film that almost didn’t come into being. Arrival is a movie that, believe it or not, is based on a short story entitled “Story of Your Life,” written by Ted Chiang.
In an interview with THR, Villeneuve discussed how, at first, he couldn’t wrap his head around how to tackle the subject matter:
“Itâ€™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, “Itâ€™s beautiful, but I donâ€™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.”
As mentioned above, one of the big pieces of the drama surrounds the language barriers between the humans and aliens. Of course, in order to make this believable, Villeneuve and his crew needed to come up with the language, so that it felt like the story was based in some sort of reality.
“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.”
Arrival will mark Villeneuve’s first foray into science fiction, but it certainly won’t be his last. Next on his slate is the currently-untitled Blade Runner sequel, which is a film with all sorts of emotional baggage attached to it. Villeneuve went on to discuss why science fiction means so much to him, and why it’s taken him so long to take one on. Yes, Prisoners may have been his first big movie, but there was plenty of other work before that, and none of them really delved into the sci-fi realm.
“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, youâ€™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 didnâ€™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 â€” itâ€™s expensive most of the time.”
Up until now, all of Villeneuve’s films have definitely felt like the work of a fine craftsman. They were put together with such meticulous attention and care, and while I personally see that very aspect from what I’ve seen of Arrival thus far in the trailers, it sounds like Villeneuve himself still hasn’t made an opinion on whether or not he actually likes the film yet:
“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 itâ€™s like I gave birth to something and I didnâ€™t see its face.
“I didnâ€™t touch it, I didnâ€™t smell it, I donâ€™t know. I didnâ€™t have the time to make my own opinion about it. I donâ€™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, Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s for you guys or the press to say what they think about it. Itâ€™s strange to talk about a movie that I just did as Iâ€™m doing something else. Iâ€™m so profoundly into the process right now. My life is 100 percent Blade Runner right now, so Iâ€™m in the future, Iâ€™m not with you anymore.”
And speaking of Blade Runner:
“First of all, itâ€™s not possible to live up to the original. Itâ€™s Ridley Scott. Itâ€™s a masterpiece. Itâ€™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 Iâ€™m doing is taking Blade Runner and making it my own, and that is horrific. To realize that when I look at the dailies, itâ€™s not Ridley Scott, itâ€™s me, and that itâ€™s different. Itâ€™s still the same universe, we are still in the same dream, but itâ€™s mine, so itâ€™s like I have no idea how you people will react, I donâ€™t know. It has its own life.”
Arrival hits theaters on November 11, 2016.