Denis Villeneuve likes to share. The Quebec director is one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood at the moment, but for his latest film, Arrival, he brought the production home, shooting in and around Montreal and showcasing Quebec’s thriving film industry by hiring local talent in many technical categories.
Now Arrival is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, with members of Villeneuve’s Quebec team up for best production design (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte), best sound editing (Sylvain Bellemare) and best sound mixing (Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye). The film is also nominated for best cinematography, best editing and best adapted screenplay.
In preparation for Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the Montreal Gazette sat down with the Quebec nominees to talk about their trades, and the visionary filmmaker who brought them along on Arrival’s charmed journey.
PATRICE VERMETTE (PRODUCTION DESIGNER)
Job description: “The production designer takes care of the whole visual envelope of a film. They create the ambience, the design, they supervise the rentals, draw the sets and create the visual harmony of a film.” Specifically speaking: “Before we went into production, Denis and I had a few months to discuss ideas and make sketches — we had the luxury of time. We developed the esthetic and the shell of the spaceship. We decided that the ship wouldn’t land, that it would hover 28 feet over the Earth, because humans must make the last effort (to reach it). We analyzed different countrysides, to find the right look for the big field (where the ship appears). We had the idea for the orange suits (the humans wear); that gravity would shift inside the ship; and that (the entry) shaft would turn into a hallway. We decided that the camp of scientists would be further away. We developed the whole concept of the mise-en-scène.” Getting connected: “We created these esthetic links between the spaceship, (Amy Adams’s character) Louise’s house, the university (shot at Montreal’s HEC), Place des Arts (where Adams’s character meets a Chinese general late in the film) and the hospital. The texture of the ship is stone, representing the history of civilization. You find that motif in the architecture of the university classroom; then in the spaceship’s interview chamber, which is like a classroom with its big white screen. In the house, there is a big white window with a hazy view of the lake, looking out at the future into infinity. In the university classroom, the board is white, not black or green. The interior of the ship is like a temple, dark and calm, in contrast to the wires and the chaos of the military camp. I like working on different levels — not just esthetically.” The aliens’ language: “At the beginning, we didn’t want the audience to know it’s a language. We wanted people to be surprised and wonder what it is, kind of like the ship. The esthetic is attractive, but danger can be attractive. We wanted the language to be a starting point.” On all the Oscar love: “C’est un beau cadeau de la vie. It’s a nice bit of recognition by my peers — the designers who voted. I was walking on air for a week. I think (they appreciated) the fact it’s a bit different, and surprising, esthetically. This film is a great example of teamwork. We all embraced the story and were inspired by it.”
PAUL HOTTE (SET DECORATOR)
Job description: “My job is to break down the elements of the decor that we see in the film. I had 10 days with Patrice before we were swarmed by our team. We were able to think and talk about things. He had already met with Denis, so he knew what he wanted.” Specifically speaking: “We found this company on the West Coast, this kind of army surplus place that specializes in military equipment. We were able to buy all our tents and equipment from them. We had six tents, 20 by 60 feet, with hallways connecting them. In one of the main tents, there was the command centre, which was where everything converged. In there we put these big tables, computers, lights, all together as in a crisis situation — fast, nothing fancy.
“There was the spy tent, the medical tent, the barracks, the cafeteria, the science tent for Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner’s character), and the cryptography tent. That was my biggest challenge, the biggest piece of the puzzle in terms of budget and preparation, which took up most of the time of our team.
“At the same time, I worked with other decorators on the decor of Louise’s home, the university and the hospital. I had four decorators working with me; each had a part of the decor they were responsible for, and their research was done based on discussions we had, which were based on discussions I had with Patrice.” On all the Oscar love: “I see it more as (a recognition of ) the ensemble, not just the production design. Denis Villeneuve has his own cinematic language particular to him, like a writer or a novelist has his own way of explaining life.”
SYLVAIN BELLEMARE (SOUND EDITOR)
Job description: “On the whole, we use the term ‘conception’ or ‘construction’ — it’s the writing of the sonic language of the film. There are more naturalistic films, but Arrival was a work of construction. We received the finished visual edit and then we added all kinds of sounds that didn’t exist at the time of the visual edit.
“It’s really a group effort, and I’m the spokesperson. I’ve got a big gang behind me. There’s the sound technician, getting the raw sounds; the foley people (who match sound effects with visuals after the shoot); the (general) sound effects people. Many things were shot in the studio using a green screen, so we had to create all those sounds — of the spaceship, the heptapods’ voices and movements.” Approach: “I always said to myself I just had to follow Amy Adams. I wanted the sound to accompany her. She’s in a state of non-temporality; from the beginning of the film, she’s not comfortable. She has to help the army, but she doesn’t like these people. She quickly falls into delirium and has visions from who knows where. So I wanted the sound to be kind of trippy and nebulous, like she’s a little stoned.” Case in point: “After Louise Banks meets Costello (one of the aliens), alone in the ship, when she comes out she has just understood: she has seen the future. She runs toward the base and the military people are running to meet her; then the ship moves. At that point, any director from Hollywood would have inserted music. But Denis said, ‘No, no, no, no music. The ship is coming toward her — that’s what I want to hear. I don’t want any cream on top.’ That’s him. He was guiding us, and it’s thanks to him if the film is great. He has very strong instincts, and he listens to his instincts.”
CLAUDE LA HAYE (SOUND RECORDIST)
Job description: “On set, my job is to record the dialogue, first and foremost, and the background ambience if I get the opportunity.” Case in point: “In Arrival, many scenes involved the actors wearing spacesuits. My job was to ensure the communications. At first nobody could hear anyone else. I had to make sure everyone could hear everyone and that their voices were at the right level. Each actor had a microphone and headphones in their suit. Denis had to be able to communicate with people, and they had to hear Denis and the first assistant director.” Approach: “Recording sound is about capturing the real performance of the actors, so the director can take off from there and create something else. It’s about placing the microphone and working with the lighting (setup) and the decor, and noises you don’t want to hear. Getting all those things right is not easy.” On all the Oscar love: “We’re riding the Denis Villeneuve wave.”
BERNARD GARIÉPY STROBL (SOUND MIXER)
Job description: “The sound for a film starts on set, in this case with Claude La Haye. Then there’s the visual edit. During that time, the foleying and the sound editing starts; and then there are all the sound effects. The creation of the voices of the heptapods started in New Zealand with David Whitehead and his wife, Michelle Child. The foleying was done in Paris with Nicolas Becker, and we had a whole big team here with Sylvain Bellemare at the head. Olivier Calvert was in charge of the sounds of the spaceship and the ambience inside. The job of the mixer is to mix all those sounds together and create a final atmosphere. My job is to make sure Denis Villeneuve’s ideas for sound are clearly realized.” Approach: “Denis wanted to be close to Louise Banks. I made room around her voice so we would feel close to her. If he needed a feeling of anxiety — like at the beginning where she arrives at the military base — in the mix, I played the sounds around her loud, to make it chaotic and nerve-racking. Or when she comes out of the tent to go toward the spaceship, there’s an interior point of view from inside her suit, which feels claustrophobic. I toyed around to make it sound like she was inside a bubble, and brought the music in softly. That’s all the job of the mixer — to sculpt all the sounds to provide the sonic ambience of the film.
“Denis wanted it to be as naturalistic as possible. He didn’t want the cliché of a big action film, with this big sonic mass. He wanted it to be delicate, and you can feel that in the film. He insisted the spaceship have no motor or other sci-fi effects. So when the ship moves, which is the only moment it makes sound, you hear rock and ice, morphed together — natural sources so that we feel like the Earth is grumbling. When humans are around the ship, the alien presence is felt through static in their communication. And there’s this strange wind sound, which is based on all kinds of wind, mixed together. In the mix, we went for subtlety and poetry over effects and sonic pressure.” On all the Oscar love: “I think it’s the colour that Denis brings to American cinema. It’s a different way of doing things that is felt on every level. He offered us this platform and we were able to accompany him well.”
Denis Villeneuve has his own cinematic language particular to him, like a writer or a novelist has his own way of explaining life.