“This movie is about a growing understanding of our place in the cycle of the universe …It explores, inside of that, communication and time. What time means, if it exists, and if all we have is the present moment.”
When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team are brought together to investigate in Arrival, a provocative science fiction thriller from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners).
The elite team is lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.
“I’ve dreamed of doing science fiction since I was ten years old,” explains director Denis Villeneuve, who fell deeply in love with the short story ArrivaL is based upon, Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life.’ “It’s a genre that I feel has a lot of power and the tools to explore our reality in a very dynamic way.”
“After Dan Levine and Dan Cohen first contacted me about doing a movie,” says Chiang, “they sent me a DVD of Denis’ film, Incendies (2010), to give me an idea of what they had in mind. That played a big part in my taking them seriously. If they had sent me a copy of a conventional Hollywood science-fiction movie, I probably would have ignored them. It wasn’t until a few years later that Denis was actually attached to direct, but he was the director they had in mind from the beginning.”
Villeneuve approached Arrival differently for a number of reasons. Even though he thought ‘Story of Your Life’ was “fantastic material” he simply didn’t have time to write the screenplay because he was in the middle of shooting Prisoners (2013).
“I had no time to write a screenplay,” says Villeneuve, “and, to be honest, I didn’t know how to crack that short story because it’s very intellectual, in a strong and beautiful way, but from a dramatic point of view it’s a bit difficult to articulate because it’s about process.”
Villeneuve left it with the producers, including executive producer and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who had already been working on an adaptation of the short story from early on in the production process.
“They came back a few months later with a screenplay written by Eric Heisserer that was surprisingly good,” says Villeneuve. “I say surprising because Eric was able to crack it and create a sense of tension and a drama inside of that process of translation.” Villeneuve was on board.
Though Villeneuve had always been the producers’ first choice to direct the film, Arrival’s journey began when Heisserer and fellow Producer Dan Levine and Executive Producer Dan Cohen, both of 21 Laps (fellow Producer Shawn Levy’s production company behind current TV sensation Stranger Things), were looking for a project to collaborate on. Levine and Cohen were big fans of Heisserer’s writing so the three met to discuss potential projects.
After two hours of discussion they still hadn’t settled on a project. When Levine asked Heisserer what had excited him recently, Heisserer gave him Chiang’s collection of short stories ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ (2002, Tor Books).
Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life.’
was. Running through my head was ‘this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read…please let the rights be available.’ I read it with great anxiety and then had to hunt down Ted Chiang.”
Heisserer was equally taken by Chiang’s story. “Ted’s short story gripped me in a way that very few stories do,” recounts Heisserer. “It wasn’t that I felt that the qualities of the story were inherently cinematic, but it gave me something that I hadn’t had in a long time. It fed my brain and my heart. It made me think and feel, and it treated me with a lot of respect as an intelligent reader. At the end of the day I felt it gave an optimistic message about humanity, and in turn about myself.”
“Eric and I didn’t talk about the script as it was being written,” explains Chiang. “He pitched me his idea for the script early on in order to get me to grant permission. I should note that when I wrote the story, I never envisioned it being made into a film and I had difficulty imagining what a film adaptation of it would look like. When I heard Eric’s pitch I was able to visualize the film he had in mind and I liked it, so I let him go ahead and write a script. After he had finished it, I read it and offered a few comments. Over the years the script has undergone some changes, but in most ways it’s still what Eric originally pitched.”
“This script came to me and our company, FilmNation Entertainment, from the folks at 21 Laps,” says producer Aaron Ryder, who says FilmNation focuses on making films for grown ups, like Under The Skin, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech and Nebraska. “It’s an unusual one because Eric Heisserer wrote it on spec and the folks at 21 Laps, Shawn Levy, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, developed it with Eric. There’s something about this script that has that sense of realism to it and when you apply that realism to science fiction it’s pretty fascinating.”
“What I love about the short story is that it has a lot of layers,” explains Villeneuve. “One of them that deeply touched me is this idea that someone is in contact with death. What would happen if you know how you will die, when you will die? What will your relationship with life, love, your family and friends, and with your society be? By being more in relationship with death, in an intimate way with the nature of life and its subtleties, it would bring us more humility. Humanity needs that humility right now. We are in an era with a lot of narcissism. We are at the point where we are dangerously disconnected from nature. That’s what this beautiful short story was for me—a way to get back into a relationship with death and nature, and the mystery of life.”
“I found myself without a cinematographer for this project at the beginning because Roger Deakins was working on another project,” says Villeneuve, who had to figure out who else could create the movie he envisioned. “I needed a strong eye, someone [who could] bring sensuality, that would be able to capture life. The movie is in two parts: There’s Louise’s relationship with her daughter, this is the heart of the movie, and then there’s the sci-fi. I needed a cinematographer able to embrace with [sensitivity] and delicacy the relationship between the mother and her child, and the way I wanted to approach it, while at the same time [able] to bring freshness to [the] sci-fi [elements]. Bradford Young was a massive discovery for me. As a filmmaker, to work with him, [I felt] I was seeing the birth of a genius.”
“When Denis and I first started talking about the film,” recounts the cinematographer, “one of the things that we were really concerned about is that, as filmmakers, we often inoculate the process with our own preconceived notions about what a genre could be. This genre was sci-fi but what we wanted was to be just as surprised when the aliens arrive as the viewer or the characters in the film are. We wanted to be as naive as the characters about what it means to interact with alien intelligence. That allowed Denis and I to take a step back from the process and decide that this film needed to be raw. It needed to be truthful. When the aliens and spacecraft arrive, we all feel surprise, and as frightened and compelled to be in contact with them as the characters in the film.”
Retaining a sense of mystery about the aliens, maintaining their otherworldliness, was crucial. “Often times in sci-fi films human beings have so much influence on our interpretation of what alien intelligence is,” explains Young about their attempt to move beyond preconceptions. “This is about backing away from that. What if human beings never had contact with aliens? Would they have alloys? Metals? Would they arrive with all the things that we assume because we, as human intelligence, have access to these things? It’s about a fresh look at how simple and raw life can be for human beings on Earth and how simple and raw it could be for alien intelligence. We wanted to scale it down and make it very personal—that’s been our focus from the beginning, making a very innocent, personal film but with scale.”
“Spielberg and Close Encounters are probably a pretty good inspiration for what we’re doing,” explains producer Aaron Ryder about their jumping off point. “First off you have an alien Arrival movie, you’re not going out and finding aliens, they’re coming to us. The second thing is we had the opportunity to design something that we see through our character’s eyes for the first time so that going into an alien ship impacts us too.”
The spaceship, which was dubbed “the shell” in the script, held symbolic space as well. “There was a relationship with life, with birth, that was perfect for the idea behind the spaceship,” explains Villeneuve. “We thought, Patrice and I, that the spaceship should be made from matter that’s not from Earth. It’s not a shiny spaceship. It’s not white, or made of metal or plastic, it’s made of a strange stone. We aren’t sure what this is exactly. We can’t even guess.”
“We’re trying to approach this naive perspective within the genre and also through the photography,” explains Young. “The way we photograph the film is that much closer than what some sci-fi films would be. We talked about the film being very raw, but it’s really massively naturalistic and trying to be as natural as possible, while also exploring this idea of darkness. Not darkness as a frightening thing, but darkness as an unknown. When we step into the spaceship, which is ultimately a temple, it’s a place where a certain level of truthfulness is revealed to humanity. We don’t feel frightened to be in the ship. We feel enlightened. Throughout the film we’re working with darkness in all of the places humans occupy, but when we enter into the space the aliens occupy, we’re working with a level of brightness.”
Language And Sound Design
Communication and the alien’s language are central to both the story and the structure of the film, both providing and revealing the narrative structure. “The beauty of the short story is that it was about language,” explains Villeneuve. “I fell in love with the short story because it was exploring language, in a beautiful, poetic, powerful way. The problem is that intellectual exploration of language can be mesmerizing in the short story, in a novel, on paper, but in a movie I needed something to create tension. The presence and impact of aliens takes a larger place in the movie than in the short story. I wish I could have had more space to explore language in the movie, but the movie didn’t allow it. That’s my only regret, I wish I had been closer to the short story in that regard.”
Both the written and “spoken” forms of the alien language posed specific challenges, as did creating the sound of the spaceship. “The production designer has a huge task on this project, which was to create the interior of the spaceship, but most importantly he had to develop the language,” explains Villeneuve. “Patrice had the idea to ask the artist, Martine Bertrand, who we both love. She came up with the idea of this abstract approach. I wanted the language to be almost frightening and very impressive—I didn’t want something that could relate to any human language—[I wanted] a language that comes from another way of thinking. Martine came up with the idea of abstract circles that look almost like coffee stains. Maybe the idea came from there… It’s one of my favorite things of the movie, how she developed that language.”
A great deal of work went into creating a believable language. “Patrice created a dictionary,” explains Villeneuve. “He created a structure, how to develop the words, how the words were constructed. There were piles of documents explaining to me how the language [worked]. It was the most beautiful thing to see the level of detail and passion that Patrice brought to the project, it was insane.”
Creating the alien’s spoken language was a challenge that Villeneuve only had to tackle in post-production. “When I was in post, there was another huge challenge that was in front of me which was to develop the way that the aliens talked,” says Villeneuve. “We had developed the written language, but then there was the sound. Joe Walker, my editor, talked about this man, Dave Whitehead, who lives in New Zealand, is well known for his work on a Neil de Camp movie or the Lord of the Rings. He’s a master of sound, one of those guys who has knowledge about sound waves, and who can explore and develop strange languages. He thought the idea was a beautiful challenge and started to develop the language with Joe Walker. It was a very long process and he was very generous. I’m very proud of the way the aliens talk. In fact, it’s not talking, it’s expressing emotions through sound. What I loved about David is that it had a deep logic, which was based on the way the aliens were deigned, their body.”
“The thing is, the most powerful sound is silence,” explains Villeneuve about the sound design. “I tried to let the movie breathe. The approach is quite minimalistic. Sylvain Bellemare, the Supervising Sound Editor of the project, brought some striking sounds. The aliens are silent, but when they move or do something, the sounds are quite remarkable.”
“I needed someone that would approach sound in a crazy way and I found a crazy sound designer,” explains Villeneuve. “One of my friends, Sylvain Bellemare, was the perfect man to design the sound of this movie. Sylvain came up with this insane idea of that rocky shock like an earthquake sound for when the spaceship is moving, one of the most powerful sounds I have heard in the cinema.”
“This movie is about a growing understanding of our place in the cycle of the universe,” says Whitaker. “It explores, inside of that, communication and time. What time means, if it exists, and if all we have is the present moment. That’s a very interesting concept and one that we all should look at.” Whitaker also appreciated Villeneuve’s skill and excitement about the project. “He’s very enthusiastic and has a clear vision of what he wants to see. There’s no wasted energy. When he sees what he wants he moves on. There’s a certainty to the way he does stuff and an excitement that has affected most of the crew.”
“It’s a very suspenseful film, there’s something about it that’s to me,” says O’Brien, “because we don’t know what’s going to happen completely. It’s stretched out in that Hitchcock way. Because it’s so mysterious and other worldly, audiences are going to be totally gripped to the screen the entire time.”
“I can’t wait to see this movie with an audience,” enthuses producer Dan Levine, “because the floor will drop out of the theater. People will gasp, because you are so caught up in this story. You think you’re figuring it out and then you realize it’s something else completely, but it works perfectly. It’s a deeply emotional, powerful ending that I can’t wait to experience through other people’s eyes.”