Arrival, which is up for eight Academy Awards on Sunday night, is a film that flips time upside down, treating the future as the present and the present as the future. Without revealing too much about the sci-fi drama, it is safe to call it a profound work of art preoccupied with the pliable notion of time – how our actions today inform our lives tomorrow, and possibly yesterday, too. (It is delightfully confusing.)
And for all that Arrival is about the future, both its potential and its pitfalls, the future also has big plans for its director, the Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. With Arrival a certified success and two massive franchises now under his creative control (this fall's Blade Runner 2049 and a new version of Dune), the sometimes quiet, always curious, perpetually stressed 49-year-old Canadian can safely be called Hollywood's next king of the blockbuster – the new Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott or James Cameron, directors whose mere names evoke brands both audiences and studios can place their implicit trust in. However Arrival performs at the Academy Awards this weekend, Villeneuve will emerge Monday morning no less a hot property.
Not, of course, that the director can be bothered to think about such things. First, he needs some, well, time.
"I must say, the pacing that I've been doing for the past few years is too much. I cannot go on like that. I need space between movies," Villeneuve says, clearly exhausted on the other end of the line in Los Angeles, where he's driving somewhere to work on something that is likely conflicting with something else. There's no doubt the sheer speed at which he's been releasing movies is remarkable, even unprecedented: both Enemy and Prisoners in 2013; Sicario in 2015; Arrival in 2016; Blade Runner 2049 this year. "I love to work, obviously, but I did learn so much during that first period of time when I took a break, when I tried to have a bit more time to dream between movies, to reflect on what actually happened. To evolve as a filmmaker, and to avoid repeating myself."
Which is why Villeneuve, or more accurately today's version of Villeneuve, is exactly the kind of filmmaker Hollywood tentpoles so urgently require: workaholics who have actually put in the time to deliberately develop their vision, building their filmographies carefully and with caution. Like a Spielberg. Or a Scott. Or a Cameron.
While the rest of the industry is intent on awarding mega-budget blockbusters to second-time filmmakers with only a Sundance credit to their name, the smart money will be on Villeneuve, the kind of filmmaker who elevates his game every film, producing something distinct yet also distinctly Villeneuvian each time. Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival couldn't be more different in genre or theme, yet they all are visually and dramatically inseparable, each speaking a language of immense cinematic confidence: a sort of raw realism, aesthetically realized through the prism of unimaginable violence and trauma.
It's a stark, bracing, frequently icy style rooted in humanity's darkest corners of isolation and despair. Yet while Villeneuve's vision is concerned with misery and struggle, immersing yourself in his work is never an exercise in anguish. Rather, the cinema of Villeneuve is one that is a captivating sort of discomfort – a sense that everything might be wrong with the world, yet you cannot help but watch to see how that reality reconciles itself, or, more frequently, collapses. It's a unique push-pull sensibility that is on full display in everything from the director's early work (Polytechnique, Incendies) to the English-language films that followed (Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and now Arrival), each further inching the director toward the mainstream.
"For Denis, nothing is just on the screen just because – everything has a purpose, everything should make sense," says Patrice Vermette, Villeneuve's long-time production designer, who is also up for an Oscar for his work on Arrival. "Everything should be connected."
Which is all good news for Hollywood and even better news for moviegoers weary of franchises left in unsteady hands. (Blade Runner fans in particular know how easily films can be mistreated by devil-may-care studios; there are at least seven different versions of the original 1982 film clogging the canon.) But what is good for the movie industry might not be good for Villeneuve, at least in terms of his sheer stamina.
"I cannot allow myself to go outside the bubble of now," Villeneuve says. "I know that can sound ridiculous or frustrating, but I can't.… Talking about the future is like talking about a child before conception. I need, honestly, to do my own work, to meditate, to think, to draw, to work. As I did before."
That original restful period Villeneuve is referring to is the significant gap he took between his second and third features – nine long years between the 2000 drama Maelstrom and 2009's Polytechnique, back when he was just another talented name earning accolades in Quebec, but mostly shrugs everywhere else in the country (and perhaps feverish, chin-stroking newspaper columns wondering whether the Montreal massacre of 1989 needed to be revisited cinematically; it turns out, yes).
The mid- to late-aughts were a creatively fruitful period for a rested and recharged Villeneuve, and for the now-marquee directors he surrounded himself with, too: Jean-Marc Vallée, Philippe Falardeau, Kim Nguyen. And though working in Quebec ensured your audience was limited to francophones and the occasional Genie Award voter, it had its advantages, too.
"In Quebec, since the movies were heavily subsidized, and the movies never really make any money, it gave us the freedom to experiment, to make a movie only for expressing yourself artistically," says Vermette. "We had our own star system because of the language, so our movies never competed with American films, and it took the pressure off. We were all able to develop our own voice and vision."
Asked, though, whether he ever takes the time to reflect on his early work and what themes might travel through his filmography, Villeneuve once again prefers to isolate himself from any time in his life other than the right here and right now. "I took time to recover from those first two features because I was unsatisfied, I needed to readjust," he says. "Now, I have projects that are inspiring, that I cannot say no to. I can't say no to a job I love. But I do need to go slower."
That's a familiar enough Villeneuve refrain. Consider this quote from a Globe and Mail interview when the director was promoting Sicario in 2015: "This is the busiest fall of my life.… But I'm going to take a good break in 2018." Or this nugget from late last year, when he was holed up in Budapest shooting Blade Runner and pushing Arrival: "I would love to take a plane to Cuba and hide under Fidel Castro's bed and they will not find me there." For all the talk of taking some time, Villeneuve cannot simply stop himself, not any more.
Even now, no matter how hard he fights the urge to shut it down and take a break, his vision for Dune is percolating in the back of his mind, a childhood dream terrifyingly close to becoming reality. (This all despite the fact that Frank Herbert's epic series of sci-fi novels carries the unavoidable stench of being "unfilmable," thanks to one abandoned version by Alejandro Jodorowsky and one should've-been-abandoned version by David Lynch.)
"I remember a good friend of mine and I doing storyboards of Dune during high school, it's such an old project," Villeneuve recalls. "For me, this is like an exploration of the relationship between religion and politics. Even the socio-economic landscape of the world today! The scope of Dune is something I'd never have approached before. But I would have never agreed to do Dune 10 years ago. I wouldn't have had the skills."
Which is certainly no longer the case, at least if we're talking about the here and now. Time, after all, is only relative. The chance to create, to fully imagine the worlds of his childhood fantasies? Well, that's a concept Denis Villeneuve can grasp with his own two hands.
What is this life for, he says, except "just the chance to create good cinema?"