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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

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.

“It took months of thinking and meditation and research,” said Villenueve. “I was looking for a concept designer to help design the aliens. We had several portfolios, but I was amazed by Carlos Huante’s work, how he’d draw souls, real beings, not just creatures. We worked for months brainstorming and it was long process, very difficult for me. I have more respect for directors creating a world now. It’s not easy to define a new species, a way of thinking, a culture, a language. It was a very long work in progress.”

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 complex calligraphy. The director liked the idea of having ink spill out of the heptapods.


“The idea in the short story is of circular language that has no beginning and no end,” he said. “In research and development, Patrice explored different avenues, and designer Martine Bertrand came up with the logogram that is more organic and nightmarish, that would look out of this world. We were looking for no relation to any human language, we fell in love with this idea and started to work with that. I had to figure out how to produce logograms from my aliens while avoiding being long and boring. We needed something that looked efficient. We were thinking they could grow ink in the plasma atmosphere, living in that white mist fog and create a floating logogram. That allowed the language to come out fast. The sounds were an expression of their emotions, with more intellect coming from the signs. This beautiful species uses written language as their first means of expression instead of movement or gesture. They produce words out of their bodies.”

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Villeneuve wanted a DP who had no experience with sci-fi films. When cinematographer Roger Deakins wasn’t available, top on his list was rising star Bradford Young, who shot “Selma” for Ava DuVernay and J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” 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.

Villeneuve remembered Young’s cinematography in David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “I was amazed at the way Bradford used light to create strong intimacy and poetry with light a lot of sensuality” he said. “I needed a cinematographer who was flexible and able to create that intimacy. He’s not afraid at all to go at the limit of light, to play with darkness. I wanted a cinematographer who was willing to create a laboratory with two kinds of light — natural light and human light — to embrace everyday light and out of this ordinary light, make an alien spaceship look for real that it is coming out of a bad Tuesday morning.”


The next challenge was to create the light inside the spaceship, said Villeneuve, “that is artificial and responds to other laws. In a very delicate and precise way, we changed color patterns and the light effects on the characters. There was another logic inside the spaceship from a cinematographer willing to explore, to search and brainstorm with me. We became close friends. I’d love to work with him again.”

The relationship between the director and his DP is “almost sacred,” said Villeneuve. “We make no compromise, it’s a meditative process. The set became a temple.”

READ MORE: ‘Arrival’ Visual Effects Breakdown: Watch This Detailed Video Chronicling The Building of an Alien Invasion

The movie changed a lot in the editing room. Villeneuve struggled with the film’s twisty enigmatic ending, which still confounds some audiences, but also gives them reasons to debate and revisit the film. “It was a long, painful, editing process,” he said. “Joe Walker and I were worried that we needed to find an equilibrium between the tension and mystery and the playfulness of the puzzle. The idea was to create a vertigo in facing the unknown, but not create frustration inside the audience. It was difficult, but we found the right equilibrium to make sure the movie will work.”

To that end, Villeneuve mounted several research previews. “I wanted to screen it with people who knew nothing about the project,” he said. “When you do a movie with a puzzle, you don’t have any distance. I needed to make sure it was on the right track. What we discovered is when someone in the audience felt too lost — if intellectually they were not engaged — the ending was less powerful from an emotional point of view. So we tried to give as few clues as possible, but enough clues to be able to stay engaged and follow the story.”

And yes, the studio did get involved. “We had constructive conversations with Paramount,” he said diplomatically. “It was not a big studio trying — they were supportive, they knew the movie was a different enigma and a delicate project.”

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