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Arrival director Denis Villeneuve on the politics of the year’s best sci-fi film

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‘I was honestly afraid that it could be seen as a pro-life movie’

Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures

The moody first teaser for Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner 2049 arrived earlier this week, and the footage couldn’t be more different from his currently-in-theaters film, the thoughtful, patient Arrival. Starring Amy Adams as a linguistics expert brought in to decode the language of an alien race that mysteriously arrives on Earth’s doorstep, Arrival blends hard science fiction with a hopeful take on humanity’s ability to work together. It’s one of our favorite films of 2016.

Arrival may seem like a sharp turn from Villeneuve’s more harrowing work, like Sicario and Prisoners, but talking to the director in person it’s easy to understand how the two halves of his career merge. He’s passionate but incredibly considered in conversation. He was raised in a small village outside Quebec — “I was the worst hockey player in that part of Canada,” he says of his childhood, “so the only thing I had was dreaming” — before visionary French artists like Moebius, Enki Bilal, and Jean-Claude Mézières made him fall in love with science fiction. His love of film followed, and while his career took off with gritty stories focused on the darker aspects of humanity, he didn’t actually get to work in the genre he loved until Arrival.

I recently sat down with the filmmaker in Los Angeles to talk about the the challenges of working in science fiction, some of the more controversial interpretations of Arrival’s themes, and what the film means in the geopolitical landscape of 2016.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Spoilers to follow.

Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which isn’t the most obvious candidate for a film adaptation. How did you and screenwriter Eric Heisserer find the movie in the short story?

I landed in Los Angeles a few years ago. I was meeting with people all around that wanted to know what I was doing next. I said to myself, “The thing that I can do here that I can't do at home in Montreal is sci-fi. I was dreaming to do sci-fi, I'm not joking, since I was 12 years old. I was raised with it, but I was hoping to find the right story to tell, because it's a difficult genre and there's a lot of cliches, a lot of tropes.

I met [producers] Dan Cohen and Dan Levine, and they said "We have a short story you should read if you're looking for strong sci-fi material: Story of Your Life.” At the time, I said to them "It's powerful, but it's so literary. It's a gem, but it's not a movie. How can we adapt this?”

At that time, I was jumping on to make Prisoners, so I didn't have the time to adapt it myself. They came back, to my great surprise, several months later with a screenplay written by Eric, and I was very impressed by how Eric has been able to crack the way to create a cinematic, dramatic structure out of it. From there, I got on board, and I went on for a few months working with Eric. I felt that in order to create that structure, Eric had to go quite far away from the short story — and my job was to go back toward it, in a way. It was a long process.

What did you change to bring it back to the source material?

I won't fall too much into details, but let's say that the ending Eric imagined in the beginning was quite different, and was more about technology, and less about language. Talking with Eric… I will not use the word “convince,” because he didn't need to be convinced. He agreed with me that it could be a good idea to go back to the root of the short story, which was about the idea that the main gift of the alien would be language. He came back very quickly with strong ideas. It was not like “Here's my screenplay. Now it's yours to shoot.” I need myself, as a filmmaker, to explore ideas and to make things evolve in the direction that I felt that I could be able to do it.

Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures

This is a movie of ideas, including the concept that Amy Adams’ character knows her daughter Hannah will eventually die — and decides to have Hannah anyway. That’s caused some people to read this as a specifically pro-life movie. Was that intended? If not how do you react to audiences reading into that?

The thing is, when you make a movie, you are dealing with images that will create ideas — or the opposite. You have ideas, and you create the images. [But] there's a responsibility. For me, the movie was about a woman having a new relationship with death and changing her perspective on her own life, and finding a new humility going through that process. That was the heart of the movie.

I was honestly afraid that because of the nature of the story, it could be seen as a pro-life movie, which is not for me. In the short story, the idea is that the heptapods see life like a [scripted] play. They know what will happen, so they have the choice — either they do it bored to death, or they embrace it and try to be at their best, like an actor on a stage.

For me, the idea that everything is written in front of us is not necessarily appealing. But what appeals to me is the idea that through our intuition, we kind of know things in advance a little bit. That's very mysterious for me, that we try to repress those instincts. But being in contact with our finality, and being more in contact with our nature, I think we'll find that humility, and I think that human beings are lacking humility right now. We are trying too much to control nature.

The idea that the movie would be seen as pro-life would be sad for me, because I respect life, but I believe a woman must have her freedom. That's what I would say.

What I found particularly moving was the idea that she knows her future will result in heartbreak, pain, and divorce, but she willingly goes along with it.

That, I think, is a big difference between Eric and I. I think Eric was seeing this as she chooses to have the kid, so it gives more dramatic power to the character. The way I see it is just, she doesn't have the choice to acclimate to what the heptapods are telling us. She doesn't have the choice. Now it's “How does she allow herself to have the joy to have the kid, even if she knows that?” That, for me, is a much more powerful idea.

You know you're going to die. I know I'm going to die. I have three kids. What can happen right now? I need to trust life, I need to embrace life. That, for me, is more important than thinking [we can always have a choice]. That's the way I see it, personally.

That's where as a filmmaker I feel like I'm sometimes the best friend of the screenwriter, and sometimes I'm a traitor, because I found my own ways of seeing the movie. Eric and I are different artists. I say that with humility.

The film pretty openly drives home the idea that humanity cannot survive if it is tribalistic and fragmented, which between Brexit and the US election have become foregrounded concerns. Were you consciously working that into the story?

The main thing I was attracted to was this idea of exploring culture shock, exploring communication, exploring this idea of language changing the perception of your reality. That was gold. The idea of the geopolitical transformation of the world is something I felt we have seen in other movies before, and it was not the strength of Arrival. It was something that needed to be there because our goal was to create a movie where the aliens have a stronger level of realism, so we needed to see the impact of those landings all across the globe. But I try my best to stay on Louise's perspective all the time, so it’s seen from an intimate point of view.

What is funny is that as we were doing the movie, sometimes there were things [in the film] where I was saying to myself, "Oh, come on. People are more wise than that." And then I would open the newspaper in the morning: "No, we're okay. We're not going too far.” Even in the editing room, [editor] Joe Walker and I were sometimes wondering if we were going too far, and reality was always pushing us to stay there.

Paramount Pictures

That's an interesting problem, though. You're cutting the movie, you're seeing all these things happening in the real world. Did that inform your process? Were you inclined to lean into any issues because of the things you saw happening in real time?

No. The thing is that in the short story, the human beings are much more mature and much more wise. In the movie, they are a bit more aggressive. I was dreaming to do something a bit more peaceful in some ways, but at that time, I think Russia was invading Ukraine, where it was like, "What the hell is going on?" It's crazy how history repeats itself. I think Eric's idea to create geopolitical tension in the background was a great idea. I decided to embrace it, but honestly, it's not like something new happened in the world. It's just recurrent.

When I was young, I was raised with all those problems in the Middle East, thinking, "In two years, it’s going to be solved, because we see what's happening. We understand the consequences. Let's bring peace, guys, and do something." And it's still the same old stories over and over again. People, it seems, don't evolve very quickly.

You mentioned how you grew up on science fiction, and you’ve been able to make a film in that genre which is quite optimistic and positive. But now you’re tackling a sequel to a movie that’s famous for—

A dystopian, dark, and depressive environment.

Exactly. How is whiplashing from Arrival to Blade Runner 2049?

That's the thing. You can do that when projects are different. I was able to go from Enemy to Prisoners because they were like two different animals. One is a rhinoceros, the other one is a fox, you know? To go from Sicario to Arrival, obviously both movies cannot be more different. And the same with Blade Runner. I was able to work on both movies at the same time because they were totally different. Total different views about the world.

What’s next, after the tear you’ve been on the last few years? Are you slowing down?

Yeah. The only way I was able to work on [Blade Runner] was knowing that in 2018 I would sleep. That was the only thing.