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SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE - A Quartet of PGA Members Comes Together To Produce "Arrival"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Monday, January 9, 2017

Meetings aren’t always fruitful. Sometimes they’re simply opportunities for the parties involved to feel each other out, exchange ideas, chit-chat about current events, complain about traffic, enjoy bottles of water.

Shawn Levy and Dan Levine had a general meeting a while back with writer Eric Heisserer, known for such horror titles as The Thing and Lights Out. It was pleasant enough. They got to know each other. It ended with handshakes. But as Heisserer headed for the door …

“I asked him what he was reading these days,” Levy recalls. “He said, ‘I really like a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang called Stories of Your Life.’”

So naturally Levy and Levine—the producing tandem atop 21 Laps—perked up from that general meeting malaise. They got the book, read it and paid particular attention to one tale, “Story of Your Life,” about a linguist who learns an alien language. What followed is one of those quintessentially Hollywood string of felicitous events that film people gush over at awards season cocktail parties—if the picture is well received, at least.

producers Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, and Dan Levine 
en route to Arrival's Venice premiere.

In this case the prognosis is excellent, judging by the reception that the sci-fi drama Arrival has gotten. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and based on the aforementioned source material adapted by Heisserer, Arrival is about a language expert with a tragedy in her recent past, who is summoned when a bunch of mysterious space ships settle at different spots around the globe.

It all started with that general meeting, which set the tone for the high level of communication that developed among all the parties involved.

“We spent two hours with him,” Levine said of the meeting with Heisserer, which occurred about five years ago. “When he mentioned, ‘Story of Your Life,’ it was like a lightning bolt. It was one of the most incredible short stories we had ever read.”

From that point, usually the road to production becomes perilous, because a lot can go wrong. In this case, perhaps because of the admiration of the material by everyone involved, elements fell into place quickly.

The producers learned that the rights to the story were indeed available, but needed to spend some time convincing Chiang that his creation could actually become something Levy described as a “cinematically rich” motion picture before the author would agree to the option.

At the same time they were wooing Chiang, they brought the project to Villeneuve. As a directing entity, he’s been hotter than any sun in any galaxy, with Prisoners and Enemy released in 2013 and last year’s Sicario to his credit, as well as a current gig shooting the long-awaited reboot Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve warmed to the project immediately. With all of the principals having the same reaction to the story, momentum came naturally.

Producers Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder (left) confer with 
director Denis Villeneuve on set.

“I think if you ask Denis and my fellow producers, you might get a different answer for each person,” explains Levy, director of family-friendly comedies like the Night at the Museum series. “When you speak to people who have seen the film, it resonates in different ways for different people.

“For me it wasn’t because it’s deeply cerebral or spectacularly visual,” he continues. “For me it’s this core theme that, if you know your love will end in loss, do you choose it anyway? That for me is in the short story and in the screenplay and in Denis’ vision. It’s the first thing that got me kind of vibrating about this material—that fundamentally human question, that fundamentally human capacity, to choose love even if you know it will end in heartbreak. It’s beautiful. It’s resonant. That’s why.”

While the rights were being obtained and Villeneuve’s services were being secured, Levy and Levine partnered with David Linde, now CEO of Participant Media, and Aaron Ryder of FilmNation, and all four producers eventually set up the title with Paramount as distributor.

“It was kind of this fantastic gift that dropped on our desk,” Ryder explains. “I was attracted to it because I don’t think I’ve seen elevated science fiction in a long time. There was an emotional component to this as well. I haven’t really seen anything like it since Contact, which was 20 years ago, or Close Encounters, which was 40 years ago. Those two stood the test of time.”

Linde, formerly CEO of Lava Bear Films, was one of those enraptured from the start. “The script was submitted to us by 21 Laps,” he recalls. “We always felt it was a beautiful piece of material. We began to pursue it as a fellow producer and financier. Lo and behold, some of my best friends at FilmNation were doing the same thing. There was a lot of competition for the title.

“We and FilmNation and 21 Laps decided the best way forward was for us to all work together,” adds Linde. “And that’s what we did.”

Not every three-company collaboration works, but this one did. While having Villeneuve attached as director was considered a godsend, it was also a source of concern. After all, he’s a busy man these days.

The team at La Biennale di Venezia 2016 (from left): producer Aaron Ryder,
cast members Jeremy Renner and amy Adams, producers Shawn Levy, 
Dan Levine and David Linde.

“Our biggest obstacle was having the most prolific director working today,” Ryder elaborates. “He has quietly made five films—none of them small movies— over four years. We had to put the movie together and we cast Amy, but basically we had to put it on hold for the better part of a year to wait for Denis to finish another film. It was daunting to keep our arms locked together and not let the project fall apart. But that spoke to the faith of everyone involved in the project.”

Casting of the leads also came together relatively quickly. Amy Adams was a name that appeared at the top of everyone’s list and not because it was done in alphabetical order.

“Amy played Amelia Earhart in my second movie (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian),” Levy relates. “She was very, very quickly, if not instantly, at the top of the director’s list as well as the producers’. If the producers are seeing it with Amy and the director is seeing it with Amy, it’s gotta be Amy. She instantly responded to the script and came aboard.”

Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, who after enduring a personal tragedy early in the story, is recruited by the military to try and communicate with an alien presence that has suddenly visited Earth. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the role emphasized the emotional life of the character.

“Part of her brilliance is that she doesn’t need to go big in order to find power on the screen,” Levy says. “I think this is a tour de force performance of quiet power. Amy’s eyes have a transparency to her feelings that carry the movie. Count the number of closeups—static big closeups. That is the bedrock of the movie. She can do a tremendous amount with simple things.”

The role of Ian Donnelly went to Renner, but that casting was less clear at the beginning.

“We struggled with the Ian role,” Levy recalls. “It never was going to be a big, loud starring role. We needed an actor with intelligence because Ian is a man of science. But we also needed generosity in an actor who could hold the screen with Amy without trying to find moments and make scenes his own. Amy and Jeremy knew each other from American Hustle, and she was a staunch advocate. She felt like he was the guy we were looking for.

“A bonus with Jeremy is that he brings wit and levity to a very serious movie,” Levy continues. “And I think audiences will be grateful for that.”

Producer Aaron Ryder consults with director Denis Villeneuve on set. 

The producers’ close communication in prep led to a blissfully uneventful shoot. “Our biggest challenge, production-wise, was the Hazmat suits,” Levine reports. “They were claustrophobic, hot and heavy, so we had to train our wardrobe team to be like an Indy pit stop crew to get our actors into them fast and, more importantly, out of them at lightning speed. They practiced over and over, and during filming they did an amazing job. They’re the real unsung heroes on the film.”

Arrival may be arriving at the right time. Given the frenetic pace and intensity of the current news cycles, the film represents a rare opportunity to pause and reflect. It works as sci-fi, as mystery, even as a thriller, but above all, it just gets you thinking.

“What’s beautiful about this movie is that it speaks to us and the audience in a myriad of different ways,” Linde shares, “from an incredibly thrilling, beautifully directed film to something that actually speaks to contemporary life in a big way about the necessity for communication and trust. They're pretty powerful messages.

“Denis’ incredible dexterity in mixing big powerful moments with almost incredible subtleties of direction is what makes this movie work,” he continues. “It’s that mixture of a very large canvas with the intimacy of character, especially Amy’s character, that I think is resonating so strongly. Denis is a unbelievable communicator.”

 Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder discuss an upcoming scene with
Amy Adams

Although Villeneuve is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, the four producers—all PGA members—have known each other to varying degrees for many years and are all fans of each other’s work.

“On a project like this, it’s always great to have the PGA at your back,” Levine says. “I’m really proud to be a member. I know Shawn is as well. It’s nice to know in the end you’re recognized by your peers.”

Said Linde, “Being a PGA member is one of the highlights of my career. I have been accused of being a hybrid, in that I enjoy doing many different things. But everything about my career has centered around the production of films by great filmmakers. To be recognized for that by the PGA is a thrilling moment.”

Levy is busy these days with a number of projects, including season two of Stranger Things on Netflix; he and Levine also have this season’s John Hamburg-helmed comedy, Why Him?, starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Ryder has the indie drama The Founder, among other titles, in the pipeline. Linde has A Monster Calls coming out at the end of 2016, directed by J.A. Bayona and starring Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones.

But right now they’re enjoying the rewards of that rare phenomenon in the movie business whereby the elements fall into place as dreamed—almost a Hollywood script unto itself.

“This is one of our great prides,” Levy smiles. “A classic, homegrown piece of development.”

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