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‘Arrival’: How DGA Nominee Denis Villeneuve Shaped His Unique Oscar Contender

Here's how to make a brainy sci-fi movie that's a critical and box-office hit. (Hint: It has almost nothing to do with the studio.)

Denis Villeneuve

Daniel Bergeron

There’s no question that “Arrival” is one of the best-crafted movies of 2016 — its many critics group and guild nominations attest to this. On Oscar nominations morning, the sci-fi drama will likely dominate the field along with “La La Land.” And in a competitive year for the Best Actress Oscar, Amy Adams is in contention for a slot.

READ MORE: ‘Arrival’ Star Amy Adams: Queen of the Fall Festivals ands Maybe Oscar

All that said, there’s no way this film’s smart script and unique visuals would have survived a studio’s development process.

The movie boasts an unusual pedigree: Independently produced by Fox’s 21 Laps producer Shawn Levy, Film Nation and Lava Bear, and acquired by Paramount at auction for $20 million at Cannes 2014, “Arrival” is far from Hollywood standard fare. It’s custom-made and idiosyncratic in all the right ways. Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has charted his own course from the Oscar-nominated “Incendies” to English-language thrillers “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” was very much responsible for this unusual hybrid genre movie, which launched at the fall festivals and was embraced — in all its strangeness — by audiences ($154 million worldwide) and critics alike.

The “Arrival” producing team of 21 Laps’ Dan Cohen, Shawn Levy and Dan Levine arrives at the AFI lunch, later joined by Amy Adams. Cohen and Levy are also producers of “Stranger Things.”

Anne Thompson

“Arrival” is based on a story by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, an award-winning author who reacted to the producers with skepticism. Their pitch included showing Chiang “Incendies,” Villeneuve’s 2010 French-language drama about twins in search of their family identity. Meanwhile, they brought Villeneuve “Story of Your Life,” Chiang’s mind-bending short story about alien communication. “We said to each of them, ‘If a guy like that could be on the movie, how about that?’ ” said Levy. “We were trying to convert a ‘maybe’ into a real thing.”

Chiang and Villeneuve agreed to develop the story, and the director went on to direct “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” Meanwhile, Heisserer started to write the script, infusing the non-linear and cerebral story with a dramatic ticking clock narrative and enhancing an emotional thread: a mother’s feelings for her daughter. When Villeneuve was ready to consider “Arrival,” it took countless meetings before he committed. “We met at a coffee shop for an hour and a half, and talked philosophy and politics and time and science,” said Heisserer. “This went on for a month and a half.”

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

Villeneuve, emerging briefly from “Blade Runner 2049,” called me to walk through his key decisions on the movie. “We met the challenge thanks to Amy Adams,” he said. “In the movie she’s a real person, and that’s thanks to the writer Ted Chiang, who created that character. He is the soul of the movie. The short story at the heart of ‘Arrival’ is a string of beautiful ideas about language and the struggle of a woman with her mourning process: powerful ideas, the complexity of Louise is coming from him. I owe him a lot. The movie is based on the tension of a cultural exchange. The movie takes the time to explore the limits of language. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, come in contact with cultures where the only way to communicate is through intuition.”

READ MORE: ‘Arrival’ Official Trailer: Amy Adams and Denis Villeneuve Make Alien Contact In Ambitious Sci-Fi Drama

In a Hollywood movie-star turn, Adams carries “Arrival” — with able support from Renner — which wowed audiences and critics in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. With five Oscar nominations (“Junebug,” “The Fighter,” “Doubt,” “The Master,” “American Hustle”), the red-haired beauty can take her pick of the best roles. It’s easy to see what attracted her to Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant and brave linguist whose empathetic and intuitive ability to parse the complex language of sophisticated alien visitors could save the human race from extinction. Along the way, she bonds with her fellow scientist, played by Renner, Adams’ co-star on “American Hustle.” But with her own six-year-old at home, Adams also responded strongly to playing a mother.

“Amy’s a window into her soul,” said Villeneuve. “She gives access to so much depth, so many layers. She needed to be able to tell different stories: trying to understand an alien language, also a woman in contact with military culture, a woman in the mourning process. She seems to be depressed at the beginning. There’s a lot of stories at the same time. I needed an actor able to portray a character who slowly seems to go crazy at the same time she feels the logic in her disorientation.”

“There’s a lot that is unspoken that I have to communicate,” said Adams. On set communicating through the glass wall, she saw white light and moving shadows. “Denis had puppeteers with balls walking back and forth from side to side. That helped us all to connect to something we couldn’t see, and develop an emotional reaction to these beings. In meeting him I realized how special Denis is. He’s so compassionate, he brings an emotional intelligence to his movies. This is a mother story, this is the story she tells her daughter, that hit my sweet spot. I loved that this woman was going toe to toe with the men … but she’s vulnerable and brave and scared all at the same time.”

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