Look under the hood and many of the Hollywood studios’ best movies are independently financed, like Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival.” The studio won the brainy sci-fi thriller in a Cannes 2014 bidding war, plunking down a record $20 million for North America and other territories — but only after it was already financed and packaged with Oscar-nominated Denis Villeneuve, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner.
“Arrival” was initially developed at Twentieth Century Fox, where director-producer Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment has sustained a rich first-look production deal for 10 years that stretches back to the first “Night at the Museum.” Levy, who studied English and Theater at Yale, has continued to direct family movies like “Cheaper By the Dozen” and DreamWorks’ “Real Steel;” meanwhile, 21 Laps also produced “Date Night,” the $2-million Sundance A24 hit “The Spectacular Now” (developed from the bestseller), and discovery Matt and Ross Duffer’s breakout sci-fi Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
Levy and his 21 Laps production executives Dan Levine and Dan Cohen like to look for talent in unexpected places. “I have to believe that people are more than the sum of their IMDb page,” Levy told me in an interview.
At the end of a general meeting five years ago with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who had always wanted to write sci-fi but got stuck in the horror realm (“The Thing,” “Lights Out”), 21 Laps asked him what he was reading. He showed them Ted Chiang’s 2002 short story “Story of Your Life,” about a linguist trying to communicate with aliens. They saw a movie in it. (They also liked his love letter to parenthood, “Hours,” which he eventually directed with Paul Walker.)
“They fell in love with the short story the way I did,” said Heisserer over the phone. “It was the feeling you got at the end, the biggest payoff was the thing we wanted to transpose to film. They took a risk on me.”
No one from Hollywood had ever approached Chiang, and he was skeptical. At the same time, Levy saw fellow Montrealer Denis Villeneuve’s haunting Canadian foreign-language Oscar nominee “Incendies,” about twins in search of their family identity. When 21 Laps met with him, he expressed an interest in sci-fi. They showed Chiang “Incendies” and Villeneuve his short story. “Read this,” they said. (They still didn’t have the rights.)
“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.”
They nabbed the rights and hired Heisserer to adapt, as Villeneuve went on to direct “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” Fox passed on the script, as did other studios; one asked them to change the linguist role eventually played by Amy Adams to a man. “It’s what studios do,” said Levy, who pacted with Glen Basner’s FilmNation and David Linde’s Lava Bear as producing partners.
The studios initially didn’t know what to make of the script, said producer Dan Levine, “because it’s sci-fi on the surface, but there’s so much going on at a deeper, more emotional level. That’s what’s so appealing about the short story: you never see sci-fi with such emotion.”
“Story of Your Life” was a non-linear and cerebral story on an emotional topic: a mother’s feelings for her daughter. Heisserer infused it with a dramatic narrative. “It had no conflict,” he said. “My first major change was to bring the aliens to our front door and have them land in various places around the world, add a ticking clock and global tension.”
He also inserted graphics of the heptapods’ visual language into the script. “Countless times I’ve been told to dumb it down,” he said. When he tried to explain to the producers how Dr. Louise Banks would teach the aliens basic English vocabulary, he demonstrated on a blackboard. They told him to add it to the screenplay. “This was never subject to the bullshit of the studio development process,” said Levy.
When Villeneuve was ready to consider the movie, 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.”
The director asked Heisserer to research the actual protocols and Pentagon situation binder for what the U.S. would do if contacted by aliens; he also found other evolutions of the squid-like heptapod shape in newly discovered deep-sea aquatic life. He liked the idea of having ink spill out of the heptapods as they delivered their ink blot calligraphy.
“Denis brought a sense of realism to this,” said producer David Linde, who is now CEO of Participant Media. “I don’t think you’ve seen sci-fi like this, where the texture of it is very real. The newscasts, what people are wearing. You had that feeling in ‘Close Encounters.’ Those were real people, and their surroundings were very normal.”
When Roger Deakins wasn’t available, top on Villeneuve’s list was rising cinematographer Bradford Young, who shot “Selma” for Ava DuVernay, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” Villeneuve didn’t want to work with any DPs who had done a sci-fi film before, he told Levine, “because it’ll look like other sci-fi films.”
Together, they found ways to distinguish the lyrical flashbacks with Banks and her young daughter, improvising shots of lapping waves and a caterpillar on a stick. Executing the stark design of the interior alien spacecraft with its wide glass screen between the aliens and scientists required innovative lighting from Young. With influence from light artist James Turrell, Villeneuve and his longtime production designer, Patrice Vermette, delivered remarkable designs for the faceless aliens, the planed oval spacecraft, and calligraphy.
Photo by GUILLAUME COLLET/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
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, brave, and androgynous 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.
“Denis knew that the movie would live, shot with wide angles and close-ups, in Louise Banks’ eyes,” said Levy. “She has the depth, the courage to do a little and trust that it’s a lot, that it’s enough.”
Added Levine, “With all this chaos and noise around her, she’s able to be a sea of calm and communicate when nobody else is listening. There’s a quiet strength to her that is powerful.”
Adams suggested her buddy Renner for her charismatic astrophysicist sidekick. “He was very comfortable,” said Levine. “He knew it was her movie. It’s rare to see a male actor take a supporting role.”
Add up the ways “Arrival” does not bow to convention and you can see how the studios were incapable of developing it themselves. And how going rogue is sometimes the only way to show them what’s missing from the studio system. It remains to be seen how much audiences are willing to embrace the movie’s twisty plot, which demands attention. And Villeneuve has yet to emerge from the “Blade Runner 2049.” In a competitive year for the Best Actress Oscar, Adams is in contention for a slot, but Oscar voters will also appreciate the film’s craft.