Given that Québécois director Denis Villeneuve likes to work closely with no-fuss actors like Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s interesting that for the biggest film of his career, the keenly anticipated remake of Blade Runner, that he enlisted fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling, while Harrison Ford, the star of Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film, seemingly takes a supporting role in the closely guarded production.
“Nobody realised that a bunch of Canadians took over Blade Runner!” quips the ebullient Villeneuve, 49. “It’s impossible to live up to one of the best sci-fi films of the past 50 years, so taking Blade Runner and making it my own is terrorising me.”
Significantly he’d never worked with Gosling. “I knew he was a great actor, but I didn’t know how brilliant. Ryan has a very provocative mind and he’s bringing a lot to the project right now. I feel that he’s a real partner with me.”
Villeneuve is at the Venice Festival on a fleeting visit from the Hungarian set. Gosling didn’t turn up at all for his opening film La La Land, and Villeneuve had likewise missed the premiere of Arrival, his Spielberg-esque extra-terrestrial movie, which had eased the Prisoners and Sicario director into the sci-fi realm.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, "Story of Your Life" (and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay), Arrival follows Adams’ expert linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, and Renner’s mathematician/physicist, Ian Donnelly, as they decipher the language of the visiting alien heptapods.
Villeneuve knew that in Venice, his reliable and again no-fuss stars would hold down the fort before his late, well, arrival. He had also known that, in casting Renner, he had an actor who wouldn't mind playing second fiddle to Adams, and it certainly helped that the pair are good friends.
“Jeremy knew from the start that it would be Amy’s movie, and he just wanted to help her create that universe and that character, which is the opposite of what we see in the cinema most of the time,” Villeneuve says. “Women are usually around to make the men look great, or strong.”
No actress probably does inner strength as well as Adams, who was raised in her early years as a Mormon and retained those humanist values after her parents’ early divorce had proved so harrowing. Villeneuve knew she could get to the heart of anyone, even aliens. Though Arrival is not about aliens, he insists.
“Really it’s about us; it’s about humans. I like that Amy plays someone who’s more pedestrian. She’s not glamourous, she carries the weight of being human on her shoulders. That was what was so fun and different to me.”
Nevertheless Adams’ Dr. Banks is mighty clever in working out a method of communication.
“There was a lot of research made for the aliens’ language and the main premise was that it needed to be circular,” Villeneuve explains. “The idea was to show something that we hoped had never been seen before and to have the complexity that was required. I wanted it to be a bit nightmarish and almost feel like an impressionist work of art. There was a dictionary made for the movie, incorporating logic and structure and it was very useful for the actors.”
Adams admits to being fascinated by words, even if she isn’t good with languages. “When I had to speak Mandarin [negotiating with the Chinese] in the film, that was very humbling because I studied for what I felt was plenty of time. But what I learnt was that Mandarin is not a language where you can master even four sentences in two weeks. You have to understand the language, the intent.”
"It would be very boring if we were alone. Since humanity isn’t doing very well, I do hope there are other people out there."
Villeneuve adores sci-fi and says that his three favourite sci-films are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course Blade Runner.
“I was dreaming to do sci-fi for a very long time. I was a sci-fi addict when I was a kid and a teenager. Novels, graphic novels, movies, it was my way to deal with reality. I was very bad at sports. I was very bad at hockey. When you’re a bad hockey player in Canada, you’re nothing. So I was into science fiction all the time. That was my drug.”
Does he believe in aliens?
“Yes, yes, yes! I do. It would be very boring if we were alone. Since humanity isn’t doing very well, I do hope there are other people out there.”
Initially he says he wanted to create the aliens “for real”, but it proved too expensive. So he had to go with CGI.
“Paramount love the film now, but in the beginning they felt it was a strange beast. It's the opposite of a Michael Bay movie. It was a very long process to create the behaviour of these beings and find the right pacing between the two time zones. It needed to be confusing or it would be less powerful, especially at the end. You need to get the twist.”