“Peo­ple are re­ally hun­ger­ing for in­tel­li­gent sci-fi”

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

Peo­ple are re­ally hun­ger­ing for in­tel­li­gent sci-fi,” says Dan Levine, pro­ducer of first con­tact tale Ar­rival. “We’ve had In­ter­stel­lar, Grav­ity, The Mar­tian. It seems ev­ery year there is that one film that re­ally pushes the bound­aries. And as huge fans of sci-fi we’re just thrilled to be in that con­ver­sa­tion.”

Con­ver­sa­tion? It’s an il­lu­mi­nat­ing choice of word. Ar­rival is all about con­ver­sa­tion: lan­guage, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mean­ing. And that’s a rare thing, given first dates be­tween mankind and ex­tra-ter­res­tri­als rarely end well on the big screen. While other alien en­counter movies revel in death ray diplo­macy and tac­ti­cal nu­clear trash talk, leap­ing to DEFCON 1 at the speed of a Roland Em­merich adren­a­line surge, Ar­rival asks “Why can’t we just put our ac­tion se­quences aside and lis­ten to one an­other?”

It’s an un­com­pro­mis­ingly smart film, in­spired by an equally cere­bral short story – Ted Chi­ang’s 1998 tale “Story Of Your Life”, which won both a Ne­bula and a Theodore Stur­geon award.

“We had never read a story like it,” says Levine, who dis­cov­ered Chi­ang’s tale in a col­lec­tion of his short fic­tion. “On the sur­face it had a re­ally strong sci-fi con­cept – what would hap­pen if aliens came to the Earth? How would the Earth re­act? – but it treated it in a doc­u­men­tary style way. At its core it had an in­cred­i­bly mov­ing story of a mother and her

daugh­ter. It was just so rare to see such a high con­cept grounded with such emo­tion.”

It’s also a story con­cerned with lin­guis­tic rel­a­tiv­ity and cog­ni­tive de­ter­min­ism – con­cepts rarely served as a dip op­tion with your Cineworld na­chos. The film­mak­ers knew they needed to trans­form Chi­ang’s brainy para­ble into some­thing not just ac­ces­si­ble but cin­e­matic, too. The Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis isn’t ex­actly box of­fice.

“It was an in­cred­i­ble chal­lenge,” says Levine, part of the pro­duc­tion com­pany be­hind re­cent Net­flix phe­nom­e­non Stranger Things. “I have to give so much credit to our screen­writer, Eric Heis­serer, who worked with us tire­lessly, draft af­ter draft af­ter draft, try­ing to open up the story. We had that re­ally strong emo­tional core but there wasn’t much else to the story. We had to build up around that, and it took mul­ti­ple drafts to get it right.” first­con­tact Brought to the screen by De­nis Vil­leneuve

(Si­cario, Pris­on­ers, next year’s Blade Run­ner 2049), Ar­rival opens with a dozen alien craft touch­ing down around the globe. They perch on the hori­zon like gi­ant, cloud-wreathed eggs, omi­nous and un­know­able. Fighter jets scram­ble, YouTube melts and the US gov­ern­ment throws in a squad of boffins at the Mon­tana land­ing site. In­cluded in the team is Amy Adams as ex­pert lin­guist Louise Banks. Haunted by mem­o­ries of her late daugh­ter, she must at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate with the oth­er­worldly guests while the world quiv­ers on the blade-edge of war.

As fel­low pro­ducer Aaron Ry­der tells SFX, Vil­leneuve’s skill-set as a di­rec­tor was cru­cial to the project.

“One of the things that was im­por­tant in the short story was its sense of re­al­ism. It doesn’t rely on too many movie tropes. And De­nis didn’t re­ally see this as an alien in­va­sion movie – more an alien ar­rival movie. What would be the pro­to­cols that were in place? How would they be im­ple­mented? How would peo­ple re­act? What would the gov­ern­ment be do­ing? What would the news or­gan­i­sa­tions be say­ing? That was the tone and the tex­ture, which is es­tab­lished right up­front.

“And that’s some­thing De­nis has at the fore­front of his de­ci­sions,” Ry­der con­tin­ues. “When peo­ple watch the movie one of the things they re­spond to is that it feels so real and so tense, and that’s what De­nis does very, very well. He am­pli­fies that ten­sion bet­ter than just about any work­ing di­rec­tor out there.”

“The thing we al­ways mar­velled about with De­nis is that he’s the kind of di­rec­tor that can put you on the edge of your seat but can also bring tears to your eyes,” adds Levine. “You just don’t see that in movies these days. It’s usu­ally one or the other.”

Just as ex­cep­tion­ally, Ar­rival en­gages in a slow dance with the un­known. It’s a film that thrums with a steadily build­ing sense of awe, pac­ing its re­veals so that the au­di­ence ex­pe­ri­ences first con­tact along­side the film’s pro­tag­o­nists. You won’t see its alien visi­tors blown in the trail­ers or splurged in the mar­ket­ing. “Ev­ery­one got it,” says Ry­der. “Ev­ery­one wanted a sense of won­der pre­served.”

Vil­leneuve hired artist Car­los Huante to help con­cep­tu­alise the crea­tures’ ap­pear­ance. In­spired by ev­ery­thing from whales to spi­ders, oc­to­puses to ele­phants, he sought an alien vis­ual that had never been seen on the screen.

“You have to keep in mind that we’re work­ing in a pretty well-worn genre,” ad­mits Ry­der. “And if you’re cre­at­ing space­ships and aliens you re­ally don’t want to have any­thing be fa­mil­iar. We spent a fair bit of time dis­cussing what these aliens and these ships would ul­ti­mately look like.”

“The short story had a de­scrip­tion of the aliens that we de­parted from,” Levine tells SFX. “De­nis and Car­los de­serve all the credit. They had to cre­ate a CG cre­ation that our cast could

I think that the chaos the film shows is ac­cu­rate

act with, could re­act to. It’s a real char­ac­ter in the movie and to give a sense of soul and weight and pres­ence to it was such an in­cred­i­ble win for us. We’d seen so many great films where when you fi­nally get to see the alien it’s a dis­ap­point­ment. We re­ally wanted to avoid that.”

fac­ing the un­known

Amy Adams is the beat­ing heart of Ar­rival, as Ry­der ac­knowl­edges. “One of the ap­peals of the short story and what we loved about the script – and why I think we got some­one of Amy’s cal­i­bre – is that it’s rare to see such a strong fe­male lead in a story like this. Just to see that point of view amidst all the noise and chaos of what’s go­ing on in the world… She has the abil­ity and strength to stay calm and fo­cused, to com­mu­ni­cate with the aliens. And she has such an in­cred­i­bly ex­pres­sive face. That was one of the chal­lenges – hav­ing an ac­tress you could see re­lat­ing to an alien that ob­vi­ously wasn’t re­ally there when we were shoot­ing. Ev­ery day on set we were thank­ful that she was in the film.”

Paired with Adams is Jeremy Ren­ner as the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Ian Don­nelly. Given Ren­ner’s best known for such bi­cep-flex­ing fare as the Bourne, Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble and

Avengers fran­chises, did it feel like coun­ter­in­tu­itive cast­ing?

“Yes and no,” says Levine. “He can’t look like a mus­cle­bound ac­tion star and still be be­liev­able as a physi­cist. At the same time he has to have a phys­i­cal­ity to him and be a movie star. This movie’s go­ing to re­mind peo­ple what an in­cred­i­bly strong dra­matic ac­tor Jeremy is. His per­for­mance sneaks up on you. He’s a quiet pres­ence in the movie but he gains such emo­tional ve­loc­ity through­out the story that it just hits you so hard in the end.” Levine and Ry­der cite Spiel­berg’s Close

En­coun­ters Of The Third Kind as a touch­stone in­spi­ra­tion. But that was 1977 – this is 2016 and hy­per-caf­feinated, pixel-drenched ar­maged­don is the de­fault set­ting of science fic­tion cin­ema. How did such a fiercely thought­ful film as Ar­rival ever make it to the screen in­tact? Surely there was pres­sure to make it more mul­ti­plex-palat­able, to dial down the lin­guis­tic the­ory and crank up the tracer fire?

“It was a long process to get this film made,” Levine con­fesses. “Our goal ev­ery step of the way was to pro­tect De­nis and this beau­ti­ful movie. And yes, there were def­i­nitely times when we ex­pected – and got – that pres­sure. But the beauty of the film won out over any con­ver­sa­tions like, ‘Well, we don’t have a big alien at­tack ac­tion se­quence,’ or ‘It’s too chal­leng­ing for au­di­ences.’ I think that af­ter the sum­mer au­di­ences are thirst­ing for some­thing chal­leng­ing.”

“And let’s be hon­est,” says Ry­der, “when it comes to movies like this one, where it’s in­tel­lec­tu­ally chal­leng­ing to some de­gree, there’s al­ways go­ing to be a push and pull be­tween the film­mak­ers and the peo­ple that have to get this movie out there to the masses. And that push and pull usu­ally re­sults in a bet­ter film, be­cause you have some­thing that is equally bal­anced – com­mer­cially minded and at the same time el­e­gant and so­phis­ti­cated.”

And is this how a real life first con­tact would play out? “I of­ten think about this,” laughs Ry­der. “Aaron is ac­tu­ally cur­rently liv­ing in a bunker un­der­neath his house, where he spends most of his time in fear…” “Some call it crazy. Oth­ers call it pre­pared!” Ry­der con­sid­ers the ques­tion more se­ri­ously. “I think that the chaos the film shows is ac­cu­rate. Peo­ple would panic. Peo­ple wouldn’t go to work. They’d be glued to their TVs. What we re­ally tried to ac­com­plish with this film is ask, ‘Why are they here?’ Ev­ery movie skips over that and goes straight to them want­ing to de­stroy us. That was the part of the movie we wanted to live in. What is that mo­ment? Who would talk to them? How would we find out what they want?”

For­est Whi­taker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Ren­ner at­tempt to un­der­stand the aliens.

Amy Adams plays a lin­guist haunted by the death of her daugh­ter.

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