If you’re one of the millions who’ve seen the sci-fi drama Arrival, about a linguist’s attempts to establish communication with aliens who’ve just landed all over Earth, you might have found yourself wondering who was behind the film’s beautifully sleek images, its gigantic alien antechambers and carefully guarded reservoirs of emotion.
And the film’s director, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, is definitely someone worth knowing. Since his breakthrough film Incendies in 2010, he’s made four other films — Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival — and he will release Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the classic 1982 sci-fi detective film, in October 2017.
So, needless to say, Villeneuve is a little tired. He didn’t do a lot of press for Arrival’s November release because he was on set for Blade Runner, but he’s both happy and a little taken aback by the surprise success of Arrival, a movie he made so long ago that the 2015 conflict between Russia and Ukraine erupted while he was in editing on the film.
I met with Villeneuve when he was back in Los Angeles to talk about his film, and though it was the end of a long day for both of us, he nevertheless became visibly animated when talking about how he created puppets to suggest Arrival’s aliens to its cast, and why he needs to take a break to get perspective on his career.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Arrival has its reveals, definitely, but it’s also, on some level, a movie about how knowing spoilers can make certain experiences richer. I wonder how you, as a filmmaker, experience the idea of spoilers. How do you feel about them?
I was on a jury for a film festival once, so I had seen something like 17 movies without knowing anything about them. I was sitting in a theater, not knowing where [each movie] was from, what genre it was, who was in it. It was one of the most intense and beautiful cinematic experiences of my life. To sit in a dark room, not knowing what the first frame will be and what it will be about. You don't know if you're watching a comedy or horror movie.
I think today people know too much about film. I understand that there's lot of movies and it’s expensive [to go]. People want to know what they will be seeing. But I feel that trailers reveal too much. It's beautiful just knowing the title and [nothing else]. We are seeing too much right now.
Myself, as a filmmaker, I'm not sure I'm that interesting. Some filmmakers, it’s worth it to listen to them. I could listen to Martin Scorsese for hours. Myself, I think I'd rather people watch my movies than listen to me.
There’s been a lot of political upheaval throughout the world in the last year, and Arrival was released in the US in the immediate wake of the election. How do its themes of communication and understanding resonate for you as you look at the world at large?
What was interesting for me in that project was the playfulness of the idea of language changing your perception of reality. There's a link with cinema, with that. There's a lot of things that I was really deeply moved by in the story, and the politics [between world powers] of it all were more in the background. They were there to bring tension and to give a proper journey.
With Joe Walker [Arrival’s editor], we were in the editing room, saying, "Are we going too far?" Then I would open the newspaper and say, "Oh, no. [Russia] just invaded Ukraine." Sadly, we are going through not a nice period.
We’re seeing the result of a decade of reality TV shows, where the goal is to see people get humiliated, and the more they are stupid, the more they are stars. When people are looking at that shit for too long, they confuse politics and reality shows. The fact that Arrival seems like a balm on people's souls right now means a lot. But it also means the world is really not in a good place.
A lot of Arrival is solving puzzles, figuring things out, watching as characters think things through. That can be tricky to portray onscreen. How did you work with the actors and others on the crew to convey that intellectual quality?
Actors need to be driven by emotions. What I do first is try to make sure that they can work with as much reality as possible. On Arrival I put a lot of time into the interior of the spaceship, to create that chamber with that tunnel, to create physical things, to use as little green screen as possible and always be in contact with something real. That huge chamber that we built, all my friends, other directors, came, and they went, "Whoa!"
At the end [of the chamber], we had that huge white screen, and I thought that it would be a good idea to have puppeteers behind it [where the aliens are in the film], to act like a shadow presence, so the actor will feel that there's some presence there, that there are beings there. In order to try to create original and fresh and interesting moments, to try to create something that looks like life.
I'm trying to create an environment where the actors can evolve safely and take risks and not be judged. For me with actors, it's really about their inner journey as a character. My job is to focus on the meaning and the poetry of what was coming out, but I love to be surprised by actors. I love when they do something that I was not prepared for and that sometimes brings more strength to the story.
You’ve made enough films now, in enough different genres, that we’re starting to get a sense of what your career looks like.
That's terrifying! Time was so compressed in the last few years. I made five movies in six years, which is too much for me. I will need to have a slower pace in order to make sure I don't repeat myself and try to do things that are meaningful.
You want to slow down, but have you liked the pace of that work over these past few years?
Honestly, yes. It was not planned, but I had never felt that alive, working like that.
At home, where I was raised, I was used to doing a movie every three or four years. By the time you write the film, by the time it's financed, years have passed.
To be in contact with the camera that often, with actors, I learned so much in the past six years. It was a massive, intense cinema crash course. That's why after Blade Runner, I want to stop, slow down just a little bit.
What’s a thing you know now that you maybe didn’t before you went on this streak of filmmaking?
My relationship with actors. I'm much more comfortable with actors now than before. A billion times more comfortable. I love actors now; before, I was afraid of them. I got more and more comfortable with actors and more and more secure with working with them. I am more collaborative, less dictator-y, more open.
[Before this period], I was more academic, more, maybe a bit conservative in some ways about the film language, trying to be as minimalistic as possible, trying to find some purity in the form. I needed to be totally narrative-oriented, meaning that I was very influenced by American cinema, but in a very good way. I needed that deeply.
I feel that after Blade Runner, I will rethink all of this. Whether I will go in another direction or go forward in this direction, I don't know. But it was a real need to try to approach storytelling through the most, I will say, humble point of view.
When you look back at these five films, they’re very superficially different in terms of genre and story, but I’m wondering what links you see between them. Do you see a throughline in what material draws you to it?
That's why I need to stop. Seriously! When you keep the pace of what I did, for instance, in a row, I didn't have time to see necessarily the links.
Honestly, I'm attracted to a story if I feel an intimate link that goes to my own evolution as a human being. It can be a relationship with anger or a fear that I have or an obsession that I have or a weakness or something. I dig into it, and I make it my own. It's something that is hidden under the hood. That's the fuel of the movie for me. Other people will not maybe see what is there, but it's how I am able to direct the movie.
The link between all those movies, honestly — I apologize, I have no distance. It's not a bad thing. It's good. When you make a movie, you need to deeply be in control of what you are saying. It's important to not try to overthink and censor yourself, to be truthful and to say something honest. To be honest, I need to look at myself [to find that link].
You don’t move the camera a lot in Arrival, but when you do, it’s very precise, very methodical, often with a kind of ominous forward momentum. How did you approach the question of when and how to move the camera in this film?
A process I'm enjoying more and more that came from my relationship with [Roger] Deakins [the director of photography on Prisoners and Sicario] is the process of storyboarding.
In my early movies, I only storyboarded sequences where I felt that there was some technical challenge, like a stunt or an explosion, where you need to storyboard so that people know [what’s going to happen]. I thought storyboarding was a restrictive process.
I discovered working with Roger that it was the total opposite. It's a way to find the right [shots and camera movements] in a more precise way. It brings me more freedom on set, because everybody knows what we are doing. Then I can tear the storyboard apart.
For me, storyboarding is about what’s written [in the script], and finding the right pacing and the way the movie will breathe. It's something that is a very intuitive process, but it's tracked in the storyboards very early on. Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner were tracked in storyboards.
It doesn’t mean I always follow the plan! It's a very intuitive process to find the best shot for a scene and what will be the most meaningful. What will have the most impact and will create the most tension and most poetry. It's my favorite moment of my job.
Arrival is playing in theaters throughout the country.