‘Arrival’ Director Denis Villeneuve on How It Feels Relevant Post-Election

TheWrap Screening Series: “Are we going too far? I would open the newspaper and say, ‘No,'” Villeneuve says

With its message about the importance of communicating with those you can’t understand, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” feels especially relevant after the presidential election. But Villeneuve says he hopes his film would have worked 20 years ago, and will still work 20 years from now.

“When you think about it, there’s not really a period of humanity where things went great. There’s always sadness and violence around the world,” Villeneuve said in a Q&A with TheWrap Awards Editor Steve Pond on Wednesday. “As we were editing the movie, the geopolitical context was describing the screenplay, but we had to adjust a bit at some time. I would ask, ‘Are we going too far?’ I would open the newspaper and say, ‘No.’”

“When I saw the final picture, I was really struck with how relevant it was,” added star Amy Adams. But she was drawn to the picture for its more hopeful side. “It’s not just the message of what’s happening in the world. It’s the message of coming together, unity. It’s something that all people who believe in that want that, but we don’t know how to achieve it. That feels timeless.”

“Arrival,” also starring Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, depicts the first contact with aliens on Earth and how language barriers inhibit communication.

“I love culture shock. I love the idea of exploring someone else’s culture and being confronted by this culture and trying to embrace it. And I love words. Maybe my favorite book is the dictionary,” Villeneuve said. “It’s that idea that language could change your perception of reality, that culture could make you evolve.”

Adams’s character, Louise, carries an emotional “heartbeat” that she found unique, especially for a sci-fi film. “Arrival” finds Louise, a language specialist brought in to communicate with the aliens, grappling with her own grief and loss.

“When I first started reading it, I really responded to her story line, her integrity, and when I got to the end and figured out what I was actually reading, I thought this is so amazing, and I went back and read it again and I realized this would be a beautiful challenge,” Adams said.

Producer Dan Levine addressed the rarity of a sci-fi film that carries so much emotional weight.

“I think that’s what drew us all to the script and originally the short story, because it’s that rare sci-fi with a beating heart to it,” Levine said.

Realizing the emotional heft of the property he was working with, Levine gave Villeneuve complete freedom to create. Villeneuve devoted much of the production design budget to the interior of the spaceship and the ominous look of the alien “heptapods,” giant seven-tentacled creatures that blend deep sea aquatic life with elements of the grim reaper.

“I wanted them to have a very strong presence, like if you were meeting an elephant in the mist at dawn,” Villeneuve said. “When you are in the presence of a very huge being, a huge entity, you feel a strange fear, but an ambivalence and strong intelligence, a different sensibility. I wanted them to be a strange subliminal representation of that.”

The mood inside the empty black corridor of the spaceship contains a cinematic window to another world. Levine described it as being “in the presence of something strange and unusual.” The set itself inspired Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young to play with the film’s visual aesthetic, and it likewise took Adams to a dark place.

Adams is currently in the Oscar hunt for her work in “Arrival.” Like Adams herself, her character is a mother, and she faced an especially daunting challenge with getting in the headspace of a mother’s grief.

“Any artist, when they have to go to some place that feels dangerous and very vulnerable, there’s a resistance that happens and you have to find your way through it and create. I call it an empathic response because I haven’t had to go through that. It’s being open to that experience. That’s not a place your mind or body wants to visit.” Adams said. “I go into a very focused trance and have to stay in a specific place, but it allows me to come out of it so I can go home to my daughter.”

“Arrival” is in theaters now.