For a long time Denis Villenueve was looking for a science fiction project to direct. In the genre, it was not easy to find strong material that had depth and freshness, not old recycled ideas. He wanted the story to be new, with an emotional journey that was mature and intellectually challenging, something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sci-fi movies he loved in the 1970’s. The director still vividly remembers the first time he saw those films and the experience he had when he saw them.
“I was looking for that kind of story. When I read the short story, I realized writer Ted Chiang is a master writer. It was such a strong story with what it was saying about humanity. It was so powerful,” shared Villeneuve. “There is always a mystery about inspiration. How come all of a sudden you see something and you know you will dedicate two years of your life, full time, just to go on that journey.”
Based upon the short story The Story of Your Life, Arrival is about linguistics professor (Amy Adams) and scientist (Jeremy Renner), tasked with interpreting the language of alien visitors. It was a long, non-stop process bringing the final film to the screen. From the story to the screenplay, to the shoot, to the editing, there was a lot of evolution.
The director admits Arrival was by far the most difficult editing process he had ever been through. The filmmakers wanted to make sure the audience was excited and retained a playful relationship with the movie. Finding the right balance between challenging the audience intellectually, while giving the viewer enough information so that they were not lost, was difficult. If the audience was lost, the film lost its emotional impact.
Villenueve likes to watch his favorite films over and over. He wanted Arrival to be thought provoking enough to sustain several viewings.
“The first time it’s a discovery, an enigma. You are trying to figure out the ending and you are embracing the emotional journey of the character.” Villeneuve continued, “If you see it the second time, knowing what is coming, then you realize how much Amy is a master. Everything is very precise in the way she acts. There is no off note from any point of view.”
Villeneuve started working with editor Joe Walker on Sicario, when Joel Cox and Gary Roach, his editors on Prisoners, were not available. The director was “deeply in love” with the work Walker did with director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). He liked that Walker edited “for the big screen.” He also felt Walkers was brilliant with cinematic structure, and had a strong rhythm to his editing. During that first film together, the director decided that he “had found the one.”
“Joe was able to create tension through the perfect length of a shot. He was not afraid to go to the extreme limit of a shot length in order to create tension,” said Villeneuve. “Joe is a brilliant artist.”
The film was shot in Montreal. Cinematographer Bradford Young came onto the production early in the process. Villenueve spent a lot of time with him storyboarding the project, finding the right cinematic language. One of the main ideas behind the cinematography was to embrace natural light.
“It is very mesmerizing for me, the fragility of light, the sensuality of light,” explained Villenueve. “I wanted someone who would have the flexibility and generosity to be able to capture the sense of childhood and the relationship of the child with nature.”
All the memory shots between Louise and her daughter were designed to be from the girl’s perspective. The director did not want the little girl to have to hit her marks, but rather to have the camera be fluid enough to react to the child. Villenueve felt Bradford was a sensitive and intuitive camera operator, the best for that type of shooting.
The cinematographer needed to bring the naturalistic lighting that the director desired for the film. It was not a case of having the spaceships landing under a “perfect sun.” Villenueve did not want the movie to look like a postcard. He wanted the landing to have a relationship with every day life, as if the ships arrived on a bad morning with bad light. The movie would be more impressive if the cinematography was more “humble” on the human level. Bradford was totally open to these ideas.
Villeneuve wanted a cinematographer with the creativity to establish a different environment inside the spaceship. Bradford was very creative with lenses, often using old, out-of-fashion lenses.
“He has a very grounded relationship with cinema,” revealed Villeneuve. “I was really impressed by it and I really want to work with him again. I had a great time with Bradford.”
In terms of the production design, Villeneuve wanted his actors to always be in contact with real sets inside the spaceship, not green screens. He insisted that the whole chamber and corridor be built. He tapped production designer Patrice Vermette for the job.
“I wanted my actors to be in relationship with something tangible. I didn’t want them to be in front of a virtual world, so we created that chamber. We did a lot of research to find the right textures, colors, that kind of dark matter,” confessed Villeneuve. “We were inspired by American visual artist, James Turrell.”
Shadow puppeteers moved behind the spaceship screen where the aliens appear so that the actors had a relationship with the alien presence in real-time. Not only did this help the actors with their performances, but it also helped Young and Villeneuve in setting up the shots.
“We had a lot of shots that were not planned because we were in that space. It was so inspiring, like being inside a strange temple,” stated Villeneuve. “It was quite minimalist, but it had very special qualities. It was a long design process. We wanted it to look like nothing we’d seen before.”
The biggest challenge that the filmmakers faced was in creating the aliens. The director wanted a sense of their behavior, how they moved, and even how they evolved. Villeneuve was looking for very specific traits to imbue into the entities: a strong intelligence, culture, and logic as far as possible from human logic that still had recognizable patterns.
The director and concept designer worked for months, drawing, inventing the shape for the creatures. Because it was the first time that Villenueve was working with animation, he found the creative process to be difficult. The fact that he had to give instructions to one animator, which were then passed on to another animator, and so on thru a chain of computer designers, was the opposite of how Villeneuve was used to working on set: one-on-one with an actor or cinematographer.
“It was longer than I thought,” admitted Villenueve. “That’s why I have a lot of admiration for Pixar people.”
Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson started the music before the shoot commenced. He had read the script and seen the spaceship and alien artwork. The first cue composed was for the first time that the spaceship is seen. In addition to the instrumentation, human voices were incorporated into the score, which evolved through the creative collaboration between Villenueve, Walker and Jóhann. Going back and forth with different iterations as the edit was finessed Villeneuve believes the movie owes Jóhann a lot for what the director described as “the most impressive score that was written for movies in a long time.”
Too many to mention in this article, Villeneuve expressed appreciation for his crew, “The thing about filmmaking is the privilege to work with great artists. You’re not alone in your bedroom doing ice sculpture.”