Arrival: Interview with Director Denis Villeneuve

“I’ve dreamed of doing science fiction since I was ten years old,” explains Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who fell deeply in love with the short story ARRIVAL is based upon, Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life.’

“It’s a genre that I feel has a lot of power and the tools to explore our reality in a very dynamic way.”

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“After Dan Levine and Dan Cohen first contacted me about doing a movie,” says writer Chiang, “they sent me a DVD of Denis’ film, Incendies (2010), to give me an idea of what they had in mind. That played a big part in my taking them seriously. If they had sent me a copy of a conventional Hollywood science-fiction movie, I probably would have ignored them. It wasn’t until a few years later that Denis was actually attached to direct, but he was the director they had in mind from the beginning.”

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Villeneuve approached ARRIVAL differently for a number of reasons. Even though he thought ‘Story of Your Life’ was  “fantastic material” he simply didn’t have time to write the screenplay because he was in the middle of shooting Prisoners, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

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“I had no time to write a screenplay,” says Villeneuve, “and, to be honest, I didn’t know how to crack that 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.”

Sense of Tension and Drama

Villeneuve left it with the producers, including executive producer and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who had already been working on an adaptation of the short story from early on in the production process. “They came back a few months later with a screenplay written by Eric Heisserer that was surprisingly good,” says Villeneuve. “I say surprising because Eric was able to crack it and create a sense of tension and a drama inside of that process of translation.” Villeneuve was on board.

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Though Villeneuve had always been the first choice to direct the film, ARRIVAL’s journey began when Heisserer and fellow Producer Dan Levine and Executive Producer Dan Cohen, both of 21 Laps (fellow Producer Shawn Levy’s production company behind current TV sensation Stranger Things), were looking for a project to collaborate on. Levine and Cohen were big fans of Heisserer’s writing so the three met to discuss potential projects.

After two hours of discussion they still hadn’t settled on a project. When Levine asked Heisserer what had excited him recently, Heisserer gave him Chiang’s collection of short stories ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ (2002, Tor Books).
“I got the book, read through it and came across ‘Story of Your Life’ and my jaw dropped when that twist hit,” explains Levine. “I couldn’t believe how good the story was. Running through my head was ‘this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read…please let the rights be available.’ I read it with great anxiety and then had to hunt down Ted Chiang.”

Gripping Story

Heisserer was equally taken by Chiang’s story. “Ted’s short story gripped me in a way that very few stories do,” recounts Heisserer. “It wasn’t that I felt that the qualities of the story were inherently cinematic, but it gave me something that I hadn’t had in a long time. It fed my brain and my heart. It made me think and feel, and it treated me with a lot of respect as an intelligent reader. At the end of the day I felt it gave an optimistic message about humanity, and in turn about myself.”

“Eric and I didn’t talk about the script as it was being written,” explains Chiang. “He pitched me his idea for the script early on in order to get me to grant permission. I should note that when I wrote the story, I never envisioned it being made into a film and I had difficulty imagining what a film adaptation of it would look like. When I heard Eric’s pitch I was able to visualize the film he had in mind and I liked it, so I let him go ahead and write a script. After he had finished it, I read it and offered a few comments. Over the years the script has undergone some changes, but in most ways it’s still what Eric originally pitched.”

“This script came to me and our company, FilmNation Entertainment, from the folks at 21 Laps,” says producer Aaron Ryder, who says FilmNation focuses on making films for grown ups, like Under The Skin, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech and Nebraska.

Realism Applied to Sci-Fi

“It’s an unusual one because Eric Heisserer wrote it on spec and the folks at 21 Laps, Shawn Levy, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, developed it with Eric. There’s something about this script that has that sense of realism to it and when you apply that realism to science fiction it’s pretty fascinating.”

Lots of Layers

“What I love about the short story is that it has a lot of layers,” explains Villeneuve. “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 an 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.”