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Thursday
Jan122017

Interview: Denis Villeneuve on "Arrival" and his Future with Sci-Fi

by Nathaniel R

Though awards season is a roller coaster of emotion each year, one of its purely happiest annual trends is the sudden recognition of talent that have been doing consistently fine work all along. This year's "it's about time!" contender is surely 49 year old French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. A famous director at home with six wins at Canada's own Oscars, "the Genies," people are still learning his name in Hollywood and beyond. His international breakthrough was Incendies (2010) about twin siblings journeying to the war torn Middle East. It was nominated for the BAFTA and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Since that breakthrough his profile in Hollywood has steadily risen and he's shown a gift for directing movie stars, versatility with genre, and a particularly refined skill at building and maintaining tension at feature length which has provided thrilling moments in all of his recent films from Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), and on to his current biggest hit yet  Arrival (2016).

Today he received a DGA nomination for Best Director, the surest awards season sign that a movie will be a Best Picture contender at the Oscars. Our conversation follows...

NATHANIEL R: We have to start with Congratulations!

DENIS VILLENEUVE: Thank you.

NATHANIEL: Arrival is yet another strong film from you. It seems like every year you release a new even stronger movie than the one before. Are you feeling very much in your prime as a filmmaker at the moment? 

VILLENEUVE: There was a strong acceleration these past few years. In order to be able to sustain -- how can I say this? I'm a bit exhausted! I need a slower pace I think [Laughter]

Understandable! You'll deserve a break after Blade Runner 2049...

The shooting is finished but we're editing. [When it's done] I think I'll sleep for a few weeks. In the future a little bit more time inbetween projects!

I just watched Arrival for a second time before speaking to you and I'm wondering how hard it was to pull off the structure. It's not a "twist" movie per se but it is circular so by the end you're forced to recontextualize the beginning. I wondered how that would play a second time but it worked beautifully.

It was the main concern of Amy Adams and I to make sure that if someone was watching a second or even third time, they'd enjoy the movie and feel that the logic holds.  It was a very long editing process [with Joe Walker] to make sure that it will play for the audience. Does this makes sense?

Yes

To give enough information, to find the neccessary amount that the audience will be able to catch it but not feel spoonfed. It was a delicate equlibilirim that took us a long time to find. The short story was written this way from the start. The structure was there to start with.

ARRIVAL (2016)NEXT FLOOR (2008)PRISONERS (2013)

I'm mentioning the circular nature of it which is both structural and visual, because I always have such strong geometric feelings when I watch your movies. I have no idea how to say this. The first film I ever saw of yours was Next Floor which is so horizontal tableau but also vertiginous like a skyscraper. And Prisoners makes me think of a confined rectangular due to that horrible solitary confinement. And now Arrival is a circle.

This isn't a question -- I'm not sure what I'm asking [Laughs]

It's very interesting. I will say that my other passion when I was younger was mathermatics. I see each movie like a mathematical equation. It's something that I always like to figure out but I can't say much more about it without going back to my notebook on Arrival. 

Well, good. I wasn't just making this 'geometric shapes' thing up!

It's a very interesting perception. You are the first person who ever mentioned this to me but I have a very mathematical relationship with movie structures. Geometry and mathematics reverberate strongly in me. I had a lot of passion for it when I was younger. I found there's purity and logic in math.

Before these big genre pieces you did more minimalist films like Prisoners, Enemy -- Do you hope to do something more straight drama without all the genre elements.

Definitely. Yeah. I have a beautiful project right now with Jake Gyllenhaal called The Son which is more in the vein of Prisoners, a dark crime story. It's very powerful. I would love to do another big sci-fi movie after that. It's tough to predict because nothing is written yet and it's just at the birth of the projects right now.

Your recent stuff is based on novels or short stories. How do you pick the stories and screenplays? Do you read a lot?

My first movies in French, I was writing them. But I felt when I arrived in Los Angeles that there are strong voices and a lot of the writers were much better than me. I don't knowif I'm a good screenwriter but I know that I can help a screenwriter evolve a screenplay.

In the future i would like to be there at the birth of the project like I used to in Canada. Like Dune as an example. I'm in love with that book for maybe 35 years so to work on the screenplay at the start. That I would love.  Two or three years ago I was reading a lot of screenplays and that's how I found Prisoners. Sicario was sent to me by one of my agents because I wanted material about the Mexican US border. I was reading books about that.  Arrival I fell in love with the short story. My producers knew I was looking for intellectual sci-fi. I've been lucky so far.

Arrival came out right after the US election. It's politics and message about the world coming together, the "zero sum game". The movie suddenly feels far more science-fictiony than it should, I must say.

[Laughter]

When you were making it did you feel this -- were you thinking of the politics of the world?

No. To be honest, one of the things that attracted me to it was the optimistic message. I was just out of four or five quite dark nihilistic movies. I really needed as a human being to see something more optimistic. But I wasn't aware of course of the political context in which it would be launched. That was total coincidence. The movie was released three days after the election. It was a shock. 

ARRIVAL'S PRODUCTION DESIGN INSPIRED BY LIGHT ARTIST JAMES TURRELL

You've changed your team somewhat over the years but I notice you work with the Production Designer Patrice Vermette a lot. He's outdone himself this time. 

I made four movies with Patrice and he's a close collaborator. He can work with very low budget or grand scales, he's really versatile. When I read the screenplay I thought "Boy, that's a huge budget." I thought they'd give me twice the budget! [Laughs] They said 'we have 45 million.' 'It's possible to do the movie this way but we'll have to find clever way to do it!' Patrice comes from indie movies so it's more of the guerilla style. We really found an equilibrium between what we'll shoot for real and what will be CGI in order to make sure the actors are in a real environment as much as possible.

Patrice and I had the same intuition when we read the script. We were both inspired by James Turrell, a famous artist who plays with light and shadows and can create strange rooms with gigantic screens that create a feeling of infinity and can create 3D objects with just light.

You were talking about the importance of something physical for the actor. I 100% agree that that reads well for the audience. But so much of Arrival is about Amy's face and her interiority. So when you're shooting the climactic scene where it's so non-physical and she's floating in space. How would you approach that one. Are you just telling her 'Convey This!' and then grabbing the camera [Laughter]?

The thing is I don't like green screens. It's a technique I understand why we're using it but as far away from the actor as possible. Everything within the spaceship was real. The screen was real. We had shadows behind the screen to create the feeling of the presence of aliens. We create a 360-degree environment to inspire the actors, the cinematographer, and even myself; There were a number of shots that came out of it that weren't planned because we were in a real physical environment.

There was just one scene shot over green screen -- the scene you're talking about. I get depressed when I shoot green screens. It's a color that sucks my energy out. [Laughter] I put it at the end of the shoot to make sure that Amy would be filled with all the story and the emotional impact of the movie to find her way through that scene. Because she was just alone in that green bubble. It was not easy to do for her or for me.

BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017)

Sci-fi seems like a strange genre for you, then. And after Blade Runner 2049 you're doing Dune.

Maybe.

And yet you don't enjoy green screens!

The thing is that its a priority for me to create sets, accessories, furniture, everything around the actors in real environment. The green screen is just there to add. On Blade Runner shoot we used almost no green screen. I'm not the only one who works like that but I think for the actors it makes a major difference.

It shows. The performances in your movies are so good: Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and now Arrival.

You're generosity is welcome. I'm lacking caffeine right now!

more on Arrival | more interviews | more on the Oscar race

 

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Reader Comments (10)

Great read! Bravo Denis!

January 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Great interview Nathaniel, Villeneuve is a wonderfully talented director, and a truly nice guy.

January 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Arrival is truly a great movie. Great job, Mr. Villenueve! On letterboxd, it's the only movie from 2016 that intersects between highest rated and most popular, which is amazing.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Thanks for this wonderful interview.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArghavan

This interview has motivated me to see Arrival again! Thanks!

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Nathaniel- You are on FIRE with these interviews. Good work! Arrival was one of my fav films from 2016.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Love this

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Great interview, Nathaniel! Arrival and Moonlight are the two movies that have "stuck" with me, haunted me. Thanks for giving us new angles on this lovely film.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

Isn't it great when an interview subject points out that you're the only one who's noticed something that's quite specific and/ore personal to their work? Even though you didn't have a question, it's a good thing you brought up the shapes because it led to an interesting answer.

Interesting to hear he doesn't use a lot of green screens. Good for him. It shows. The actors feel fully immersed in their spaces. Everything in Arrival felt both airy and tactile, in a good way.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Kudos for a smart and insightful interview with a smart and insightful director about a smart and insightful film. So looking forward to Villeneuve's next sci-fi project and how it will thematically differ from Arrival.

January 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

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