The American sci-fi drama, Arrival, is finally releasing in India tomorrow, two weeks after it released in the US. Written by Eric Heisserer the film is based on the short story 'Story of Your Life' by author Ted Chiang. When the movie premiered in September at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, it received tremendous applause from the audiences.
Arrival stars Hollywood biggies like Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma and Oscar Award winner, Forest Whitaker. In a brief tete-a-tete with SpotboyE.com, the film's director Denis Villeneuve opened up about what his film is all about. Excerpts:
How did the germ of the idea for Arrival come to you?
Arrival is based on a short story I fell deeply in love with called ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang. I’ve dreamed of doing science fiction film since I was ten years old. It’s a genre that I feel has a lot of power and the tools to explore our reality in a very dramatic way.
Considering it's a sci-fi flick, the internet is full of theories about Arrival's plot. So what is the film about?
The story of Arrival is about Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, a linguist working at a university in the northeast United States. She has been hired by the US government to go inside one of the spaceships to get in contact with the aliens and to try to translate and understand the purpose of their visit. It’s about a relationship with another civilization.
Why did you decide to go ahead with this particular story?
What I love about this story is that it has a lot of layers. 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 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. 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 aspect.
It's always a challenge to adapt a short film into a big feature. How difficult was it for you?
To be honest, I didn’t know how to crack the 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. I left the adaptation bit to the producers and Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter. They came back with a screenplay written by Eric that was surprisingly good because Eric was able to crack it and create a sense of tension and a drama inside of that process of translation.
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The spaceships that we see in the trailer look nothing like the popular images from sci-fi movies. Was it a conscious decision to offer a different look?
Initially, the spaceships were supposed to be round, like spheres, but I felt that had been done before. It wasn’t ominous or strange enough. I came up with the idea that the spaceship should be shaped like a pebble, a little stone, ovoid. I based the shape on an asteroid, or small planet called Eunomia (aka asteroid 15) that’s in orbit in the solar system. The shape’s insane, like a strange egg, which felt mysterious, frightening to me. There was a relationship with life, with birth, that was perfect for the idea behind the spaceship. We thought that it 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. The way it works, too, the way they travel through space will be totally different from what we have seen before.
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How did you manage to get such big names for the film?
Casting for Arrival was the easiest in my career because everybody fell in love with the screenplay. I needed an actress that would be strong enough to make us believe that – someone with vulnerability, sensibility, strong intelligence and range to bring that onto screen. Amy Adams was the actress I was dreaming of for this part because I knew that audience would believe in this movie if the actress believed in it – everything is happening through her eyes. Amy fell in love with the screenplay and got on board right away.
Jeremy and I have wanted to work together for a while, so there was an opportunity there. It’s very unusual to cast Jeremy Renner, who is more of a James Bond or Jason Bourne type of an actor, into the role of an intellectual. It was funny because, from time to time, on set he had to jump around like a rabbit because it was too contained. But seriously, Jeremy, came on board because he was dreaming of working with Amy Adams again. He came full of generosity, because he’s there to support Amy, I was amazed by his talent and strong instincts. He was able to bring that dimension of a scientist in a very dynamic and funny way.
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Forest Whitaker is one of the best actors living today. He is a master, and I saw that because he had the toughest part on this movie. His character, Colonel Weber, didn’t have a lot of depth on the page and Forest was able to bring a gravitas, wisdom and dimension to this character in a way that I was very impresses by. It was not an easy process for Forest, there was a lot of work on set and I’m very grateful.
You have customised the spaceships, have you done that to the aliens too? Because there isn't a glimpse of the aliens in the trailers.
Abbot and Costello are two Aliens that Louise and Ian meet in the chamber inside the spaceship. I became very humbled trying to design an alien. It's a big challenge to try to create something that hasn’t been done before. I wanted them to have a huge, strong presence, like a whale. I wanted to have this feeling of being near a huge beast underwater where you feel a strong intelligence or a presence. Maybe you can have that feeling with elephants, too. If you meet an elephant in the wild, there’s that feeling of a strong presence, an instinctive presence and deep intelligence. That's what I was looking for in the design of the aliens. That's why it was important for me that the aliens would not necessarily have eyes but I wanted to feel their presence, even if we didn't have a strong contact with them at first. To create the aliens I worked with an artist I love. I looked at several portfolios then fell onto Carlos Huante's, he had worked with Ridley Scott on Prometheus and other movies. I felt that, through his creature that was what I was looking for: a soul, a presence, a mystery, and a lot of originality too. Shapes that I had never seen before. Aliens that I felt were unseen in cinema. I started a process with him where I explored tons of ideas. The most difficult thing I have ever done in my life was trying to create a new life form. We drew inspiration for the aliens from whales, octopi, spiders and elephants. I wanted the alien to be a creature that’s surrealistic, that comes from the world of dreams, of nightmares. In that regard it's a success. Amy Adams in a still from the movie Arrival