By Iain Blair
Dark and super-intense dramas are the specialty of acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. His 2010 feature film Incendies, a drama about the legacy of civil war in Lebanon for a Montreal immigrant family, earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. Villeneuve made his Hollywood directorial debut with Prisoners, a suburban-vigilante drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It too was nominated for an Oscar. He followed that with Enemy, an eerie thriller starring Gyllenhaal as a history lecturer who discovers an unexpected alter ego.
But it was his explosive 2015 hit Sicario — about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) whose hunt for justice thrusts her into the lawless US/Mexican border where drugs, terror, illegal immigration and corruption challenge her moral compass — that really got Hollywood’s attention. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Achievement in Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray) and paved the way for his latest film, the sci-fi drama Arrival.
When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team, led by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers. But this Paramount release is not your usual alien invasion epic.
I spoke with Villeneuve, who’s currently in post production on his biggest project to date — the sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling — about making Arrival, which has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best director in Villeneuve and best editor in Joe Walker. (Read out interview with Walker here.)
This is your first sci-fi film, but definitely not your usual kind. What was the appeal of doing it?
Yes, it’s my first but I was raised on sci-fi and was swimming in it as a kid. I read a lot of comic books out of Europe — those great graphic novels. I was dreaming of doing a sci-fi film for a very long time, but was looking for the right story, and then this came along. I was so excited because this was a chance to do something very different. It’s an alien invasion, but told from an intimate point of view, by this person who’s in mourning and dealing with strong emotions in her life, and who suddenly is thrust into this momentous event. So it’s about aliens but also a mother-daughter story.
This is also your sixth film with a female protagonist. Why do you love having women at the center of your films?
The truth is, in my first two films I had two female leads and for me it was a way to get some critical distance from my subjects. I don’t know why. Then it just carried on from there. I’m in love with women and femininity and very interested in the female world, and I love to tell their stories. For me, being a man is about taking control, but being a woman is more about listening, and I love the tension between the two.
Is it true that with Sicario, there was some pressure to change the female lead to a man?
Yes, but it was telling this story of drug violence through a woman’s eyes that really interested me. That really interested me! I like strong women.
What did Amy Adams bring to this role?
A great sense of her character’s internal life, her inner world. She has this great capacity to play several layers at once, and is able to convey very strong emotion without words, which I don’t see too often.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
By far the biggest was creating the aliens and figuring out this new life form — its way of thinking and behaving, its culture and its language. Creating something that’s never been seen before without it looking just like a visual effect was very hard and took a long time.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
From the very start, and you now have to prep for post. Even so, it still feels like the process is too fast. I like to have a lot of time in post and the edit to think about the film and change things, but all the VFX guys were very hungry to get started as soon as possible, and that caused some tension. It was a very complex cinematic structure, and I needed to be able to play with it in the editing room.
Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love post and editing — so much so that if I wasn’t a director I’d be an editor. It’s insane the amount of creativity you have in post, and you don’t have to deal with all the problems with weather and actors and equipment and time and money. You can just focus on the creative part of actually making the film, so I love post. We did the whole film in Montreal. We shot it there, and used VFX houses there, and there are so many good ones — Rodeo, Oblique FX, Alchemy 24, Raynault and Hybride.
Talk about editing with Joe Walker, who cut Sicario for you and was Oscar nominated for 12 Years a Slave. Was he on the set?
Joe never likes to visit sets, for a very specific reason — when he sees all the hard work and pain we go through to get a particular shot, it makes him afraid to cut. So he came to Montreal and we sent him dailies and he started. Then he worked with me on the director’s cut. It was a very long edit and we worked non stop for about eight months. It’s the longest edit I’ve ever done, first because it was a nonlinear structure, and second because we wanted to give clues to the audience without revealing too much.
So it was very tricky, especially since two of my main characters were completely digital. So it was a tough edit and it took time to work it all out. Joe was also very involved in all the sound design, as he began as a composer and then as a sound editor, so we did the sound together as we cut.
The VFX play a crucial role. Talk about working with VFX supervisor Louis Morin, who did Sicario for you, and whose credits include The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain.
I’m very grateful to him because he understood that the edit was very complicated, and I put his team under a lot of time pressure, as I took my time. The spaceships and aliens were designed, but all the scenes with them and everything else had to evolve in the edit. Then we had hundreds of computer screens in the military tents and we had to feed all those, which was a lot of work, and then all the military equipment. It was very complicated.
What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Definitely the aliens. If you have a machine-like alien, it’s a lot of work but not difficult to do. What is really hard, is creating a life form that looks real — not like a visual effect — and one the audience will accept and have an emotional experience with. Hybride did them, and while it was a huge challenge, they did a fantastic job. And I was very involved. I sat down with the artists to share ideas and that’s the only way you can get it right.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
In Montreal with Harbor Picture Company colorist Joe Gawler (who worked out of Mels, which used to be Vision Globale). It’s so important and dealing with the aliens was the main thing. But the rest was fairly simple as we did so much in camera.
What can you tell me about Blade Runner 2049?
(Laughs) Not much. I’m not allowed to say much, but it was the biggest, most ambitious and longest thing I’ve ever done, and we’re currently in the middle of post on the Sony lot. It’ll be out next October.
Nothing. I need a long break to recharge after doing the last three films back to back.
Check out the trailer:
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.