There’s being on a roll, and there’s whatever you’d call the last six years of Denis Villeneuve’s life.
I asked the Montreal director about the learning curve between his new film (Arrival) and its predecessor (Sicario), and how that feeds into the film he’s currently shooting in Budapest: Blade Runner 2049.
“It’s true that when I pick my projects, I look at the subject and the relationship I personally have with it, but there’s also a desire to take on films that are increasingly challenging from a technical point of view,” he says. “I’d say the biggest difference between Arrival and Sicario came from a design standpoint. We had to conceive creatures and in fact create an entire world that didn’t exist. We had to go from our imagination and create something out of thin air that was still based on some form of reality. My previous films were all born out of research and a need to be as authentic as possible, in the sense that if truth is always stranger than fiction, then you need to stick as close to reality as possible to create fiction.
“In science-fiction, however, I’d always thought it would be very pleasant and free to create that kind of thing when in fact it’s extremely gruelling! (laughs) My respect for filmmakers who have done that kind of creation in the past has expanded tenfold, because I found it difficult to make my first sci-fi film. It was pleasurable, but when you sit down in the morning to create an extraterrestrial, boy! It takes a lot more research and development than I’d assumed to find what you need.”
In Arrival, Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Brooks, a translator and linguist who’s called upon by the U.S. government to deal with a very big — and very new — problem: a visit by beings from outer space. Alongside mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the colonel (Forest Whitaker) who serves as their go-between, Brooks is tasked with communicating with the beings despite the fact that, if they do have a language, it’s extremely different from our own. As global tensions mount over the way the visitors are being treated (some nations are a little more trigger-happy than others), Brooks and her team must navigate the complexities of language before the situation reaches a boiling point.
The film is adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang that has a very, very unfilmable particularity: its twists and structure depend almost entirely on usage of verb tenses in the writing. It’s entirely based on a literary construction, and verb tenses don’t have a super-obvious cinematic equivalent.
“You’re absolutely right about that,” says Villeneuve. “After Incendies, I sat down with a lot of producers to discuss what my next move would be. I had been looking for some sci-fi material to develop. I met with lots of people, and I asked myself what doors Hollywood could open that would stay closed in Montreal, and that was science-fiction. It requires budgets and infrastructures that we don’t necessarily have at home.
“A couple of producers brought the Chiang short story to me and asked me if I thought I could make a movie out of it. I was very seduced, very transfixed by the beauty and the originality of the text, but I had to tell them that even though it was incredible, it was so literary and so lacking in cinematic structure that I just thought it was going to be an incredible challenge for whoever would want to tackle it. I said I was interested, but I had no idea how to decode it. I went off to make a movie, and when I came back they had the first draft of a script by Eric Heisserer. He had managed to find a way to express the ideas cinematically.”
Denis Villeneuve is conscious that the breakneck pace at which he’s been making films is an anomaly, even when you’re dealing with the big budgets and high-pressure work environments that come with Hollywood projects.
“Generally speaking, in Quebec you make a film roughly every three years… if you’re quick!” explains Villeneuve. “The time it takes to write a film, to secure financing is enormous. The fact that I started developing American projects parallel to my Quebec work means that it went too fast, essentially.
“I’m really only able to film the movie I’m making at the moment because there’s nothing lined up afterwards. People ask me what I’m doing after Blade Runner and I simply tell them: sleep. I sincerely need time to recuperate physically, because these aren’t small films. From a technical standpoint, they demand an incredible amount of preparation. My goal in the future is to continue at a fast pace, but one that’s not as exhausting. I made five films in six years. I’m always, always, always working. In order to evolve as a filmmaker, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on what you’ve just made.” ■
Arrival opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 11.
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