Communication is key to everything we do. It can form love, it can destroy hate, and allow you to explore other cultures. Using our mouths, our hands, our sounds, and our letters, we have formed the greatest and most sublime relationships based on our gloriousness to communicate no matter how restricted that can be. Of course, our languages and our thoughts can be processed a bit wonky and, therefore, hate and loathing can run rife (like Trump, who uses his “skills” to anger and rile up racism.)
Regardless, the purity of humanity comes from our silent and bustling conversations. Denis Villeneuve, of Sicario fame, has directed a stirring sci-fi film that focuses on the vitality of language and listening to one another through the medium of an alien invasion.
Peculiarly enough, whilst most careers do need this vital component of humanity, writers and actors need it most. So at the Corinthia Hotel, a hive of BFI buzz, journalists and actors Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams to language and Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival.
Speaking of dialogue and conversation, Amy Adams says she was enthralled with the script from the first page: “I realised very quickly, just by the way that it opens. The first five minutes of something usually makes me decide whether or not I’m going to like a script and this one begged me to keep going. And when I got to the end of it I had to go back and read it again, knowing what I knew.”
As for Renner, he states that this wasn’t a movie, by any means, like any other alien films. “To me it didn’t read like an alien movie at all,” he says, the day after the premiere has left him in a tired drawl. “I didn’t even wonder what the aliens were like. It’s a story told through Amy’s character’s eyes. I didn’t even really think about it until I got to the end and thought “I got to reread this thing”. And then what Denis does with the movie is make it this big, giant, beautiful, global film and to me, a really beautiful, moving drama.”
As Jeremy Renner points out, Amy’s character – a linguist named Louise Banks – is centric to the whole story. A smart, emotive, and intellectual character who is still somewhat of a rarity in the cinematic world. “I think sometimes females are written as if they’re smart in the description but then not given anything smart to do or say!” Amy laughs about getting such a generous part. “So the fact that she gets to be smart, not just act smart is awesome. Also, the fact that she’s acting not only with her intelligence, which is required of her, but also with her instinctive intelligence really appealed to me. That was fun to get to play.”
Another big part of Louise is motherhood, which trickles throughout the script, as well as through the process of developing the character. “When I spoke with Denis that was the thing that let me know he was on the same page as me; he saw what I saw in the script,” says Adams speaking elegantly and beautifully. “At the end of the day he just said, ‘This is a story about a mother, you start the film by speaking to your daughter’, and that caught me. So I knew he was going to protect the story, and that’s what’s important to me.”
For Renner, his character Ian Connelly is the theoretical scientists who deals with imagining larger scale theorems and creatures such as the ones in Arrival. “There was a challenge to it because it’s information that’s really not that interesting – zeros and ones, theorems, things like that,” Renner mentions about his developing the character to make him amiable to the audience. “How do I, first of all, understand the material and then secondly pass that onto the audience without losing them with the boring zeros and ones, all the binary. So we thought, maybe we make this guy funny, or at least give him a sense of humour. Richard Dreyfuss from Jaws came to mind because that guy just loves sharks and I thought maybe I could draw on that with this guy’s love for alien and extraterrestrial life. But yeah that was the main challenge, making this guy accessible, and emotionally available.”
As the talk turns to the theoretical side of character development, Amy Adams enthuses that her time developing Louise’s linguistic skill through culture and maths. “I’d previously thought it was like being a translator, or somebody who just knew a lot of languages, and when I spoke to the linguist she said actually no I’m not an interpreter or translator. She said she studies the cultures around the languages and how the language is formed and processed. Once it became anthropologically and sociologically relevant I felt I could really identify with that part of the character. So much of linguistics is mathematical, that’s how you break down the language, and that’s just not my millhouse, at all. The zeros and ones – just not going to happen! But the rest of it really spoke to me.”
Danny Leigh, our moderator, points out the resonating factor of Arrival that differs it from other science fiction opuses. The peaceful calm nature which apparently echoed through the set.
“It really was very peaceful, so quiet. It was weird. So quiet and contained,” Renner says, agreeing with the sentiment.
“And so civil. I don’t normally bring my daughter to set because I think sets are generally places for grown-ups,” continues Adams.
“ – We both brought our kids.”
“Yeah I brought my daughter, she’s very quiet, and would hang out. It was just so calm, and very lovely.”
The French-Canadian director Villeneuve has had a developing American career with fantastic movies such as Prisoners and the aforementioned Sicario. Adams speaks about how she came to work with the now acclaimed director. “I wasn’t very familiar with his work before reading it. I signed onto this when he still had films to be released – he had Sicario and this and he was deciding which one to do first – so it was quite some time ago.”
“That long ago? –“ interjects Renner “-Wow!”
“I agreed to do it when I met him. Usually I go and talk to people about it, but here I kind of gave him my word, I was like ‘We’re going to do this, I don’t know when or how, but we’re going to do it’. And I’m so happy to be here now!”
“I was very familiar with Denis’s work, I’ve seen all of his films,” says Renner with a very different tale. “I was almost a part of Prisoners, so I was obviously very impressed with him as a filmmaker. When it came to meeting him he’s just a charming, lovely, smart, emotionally intelligent dude. But I mainly did the movie because of my relationship with Amy (the pair had worked together on films such as American Hustle.) I thought the story was great and I thought it was a great role for her. It’s roles like hers which are lacking in Hollywood for actresses of this calibre, women often just get victim roles. It’s a fantastic script which shows the leading woman as smart, and as a superhero! She saves the world, and I think that’s just a fantastic thing. She can get you down with just being a woman – she’s compassionate, and tolerant. When I think about what separates men from women, it’s that compassionate gene.”
The Heptapods, the aliens within the film, engross the screen with their presence (“Yeah we kind of knew they were like squid-looking things, and really big like elephants,” laughed Renner,) it must’ve been interesting working on set with a vision like this.
“Yeah he was like ‘you see them come high up on the screen,’” Amy says, imitating Villenevue, “(Denis has this great accent and I love to do it.) But yeah there were puppeteers who stood behind the screen and ran around as directed”.
So how did these guys get into the mindset of great digit addled aliens rolling around the screen? Adams continues: “Preparation is so individual, and you have conversations with the director, but a lot of the work I do is done privately sometimes months before work starts. I don’t like to talk about it lots because it’s very long-winded and you’ll get very bored. So it’s very detailed. And then getting into character, it was weird because I knew I was where I needed to be to play Louise when I started getting a stomach ache; I had it all over summer!”
“Yeah it’s different for everyone, and every movie,” muses Renner. “For me here it was working with the director and trying to find an entry point into this guy and make him more than just his job, coming up with a way to humanise him because we had to steer away from a lot of stuff, but still make him a human being and not have him be socially inept because he’s all math. And then you just take it day by day, learn and grow.”
One of the biggest undercurrents of the story was the political elements between countries ready at war with very little understanding of what’s at stake. There’s a question about the political elements and how this related to the current American election underway. Adams jokes: “I don’t think anybody had this election in mind [when filming.]” There’s a pause for nervous laughter (seriously Trump is hilari-scary.) Adams enthuses that politics weren’t the main focus and simply implied. “Now because of what’s going on now that kind of pops out of the film. But it’s been a year and three months since we finished filming and the world is a very different place now. But no, it’s not something we discussed at length. Denis may have acknowledged it with his other filmmakers, but not with us.”
The conversation turns back to the role of Louise and her intellect as Amy enthuses: “There are so many things! One of things, it sounds so base, was feeling ok to just roll out of bed in the morning and go to work. There were times when Denis was like ‘less less less’. I’ve played roles where I’ve lost my vanity before but this one was different because she was so intelligent and imagining this as a woman without vanity was incredibly freeing to me. A lot of my characters have had some of the innate vanity we all have as human beings, but she really didn’t and that was really freeing, very refreshing, for me.”
Such an intricate director whose able to envelop us into his worlds, there must’ve been keen development with Villeneuve. “I read through the script with Denis,” insisting there was little wiggle room with improvisation.
Again, for Renner, his experience differed. “I didn’t. And we didn’t really rehearse. Denis is very loose and free, he’s very Kubrick-like in his style with his cranes and his shots. But when he’s shooting he’s actually very focused what he’s doing, and her beautiful face, and what’s going on in her brain.”
“Keep ‘em coming!” laughs Amy about the compliments.
“So yeah I felt like there was always a lot of room for growth. We were on the same team together, it wasn’t just his movie. He was focused on how to shoot it, but we didn’t care about that, we were just trying to be the characters and tell the truth and keep going. He was also very integral to that process as well. There was a lot of freedom in his own way, in his own terrible broken English, but he’s a wonderful human and an absolute joy to work with.”
With the focus of the movie being on communication, there is also an elements of tolerance and acceptance. What advice do the actors have for anyone who is perhaps struggling to accept those who are different?
“Wow that’s a big question,” says Adams with a sigh and wide-eyed shock trying to process the question. “There has to be openness in the beginning of the conversation. There’s a wonderful experiment, I don’t know if you guys saw, where people talked about where they’re from, and they sit opposite each other looking at one another and they discovered that they had something in common that you wouldn’t expect, and I think that’s the most amazing thing, to really look at people and see them as humans and see what we have in common.”
So, this reporter asked this question and, currently, I have no recollection of it being said. I locked eyes with Renner and Adams and blacked out. But for a man known for giving very little with his responses, Renner answered my question with the utmost eloquence. When tackling the subject of curiosity with other cultures:
“I’ve always been a pretty curious dude,” says Renner (supposedly.) “What this film really made me focus on was the question of what unites and divides us. I didn’t initially think that was part of the movie, it’s not in the script, but the way that people unite kind of comes out of it. What does unite and divide us? I’ve had many long conversations about it and I think it’s a beautiful conversation to have because it’s about what is human. We all have something in common, and that’s language, it does unite people but it also divides – I don’t speak Italian. Religion – religion does unite a lot of people, but almost every war we’ve had has been because of religion, so there’s lots of division. So what is it that unites us? I don’t care if you’re a cannibal, where you live, where you come from, what language you speak, we all have emotion. That’s something really quite beautiful. Fear, unfortunately, is the most powerful human emotion, I believe, but I think that’s really interesting.”
Adams continues: “I’ve always been fascinated with other cultures, though I don’t like travelling – I hate flying. But it’s interesting. I came to the film thinking I was going to leave with something and actually what I left with was really about-
“Me!” jokes Renner.
“Haha! No it’s the thing that got me into the film in the first place, there’s something Louise says about appreciating the moments in-between. Despite all these great things I get to do as an actress, I think the things that mean the most to me are things like teaching my daughter how to read, those quiet moments, like the ones that are captured in the flash-backs. In that way memory serves as an internal scrapbook, and you have to be present in those moments.”
As they walk down the middle of the press conference, looking completely stunning and grimacing as one reporter woo’d in their faces after waking up from blacking out, they descended onto the London streets, ready for their next arrival for the film press.
Arrival is out November.
Read our review now!