The only nuclear power plant in Quebec was visible from the windows of Denis Villeneuve’s childhood home, near the St. Lawrence River. Ask if the landscape seemed, well, a tad ominous, and the director laughs, recalling the jokes he and his siblings used to tell people, about being born in the nuclear reactor. It’s almost a superhero origin story — the radiation gave him his powers! Except in this case, Villeneuve doesn’t have X-ray vision. As we’ve seen from Arrival, his alien-language drama that just earned eight Oscar nominations, he has sci-fi vision.
“We always had a strange relationship with that reactor,” Villeneuve says. “The thing with nuclear power, it’s man playing with nature at an extreme. You’re getting something positive from the power, but at the same time, it’s very menacing. Maybe it sparked a fear of — and a desire for — the unknown.”
Villeneuve’s story somehow reminds me of another power plant, the belching gas refineries of Torrance and El Segundo, California — the facilities on which Ridley Scott modeled the miniatures for Blade Runner’s famous opening shot. Driving by those refineries late at night on the 405 freeway, you couldn’t help but feel you’re in a sci-fi movie, and Villeneuve says he felt the same way when contemplating his surroundings: When you’re a Canadian kid who’s stuck sitting on the bench at most hockey games, your brain wanders. “I was like the worst hockey player in Canada,” he says. “So I was living in a dream-state. There’s an expression for it in French — I was always in the moon.” One day, an aunt came bearing gifts — two big boxes of European sci-fi comic books and graphic novels, the works of such acclaimed authors as Druillet, Moebius, and Jodorowsky (later a sci-fi director himself, best known for an aborted, pre–David Lynch version of Dune). Villeneuve devoured these comics, or they devoured him. “They were beautiful,” he says, “and powerful.”
Cinematic fantasy followed: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, yes, Blade Runner were among his favorite films. It was a special kind of torment that he was only allowed to watch the first part of 2001. He loved Close Encounters for what it said about the American family as much as for its extraterrestrial speculation. (A bonus: It also introduced him to François Truffaut and the French New Wave.) But it was Blade Runner that he found himself returning to, over and over, first in the original voice-over version and later in the more expansive director’s cut. “It was a shock to discover the same film from a different perspective,” he says. “And I must say, I’m in love with both of them. I cannot turn away from the love I have for the first version. The voice-over, even if it was saying obvious things, was riveting, because of the deadpan way Harrison Ford spoke, almost as if he were bored to death. It created a strange feeling. I recognize that Ridley’s director’s cut is more cinematic, but there was something more noir about the one with the voice-over.”
Villeneuve briefly flirted with the idea of a career in actual science, before veering off, in college, in pursuit of his sci-fi dreams. “It wasn’t logical at all,” he says. “But it was a calling.” Unfortunately, the aspiring filmmaker’s studies at Montreal’s University of Quebec made him realize that making the kind of sci-fi he wanted was out of reach, for the moment. “We didn’t have the budget, the money,” Villeneuve says. And so he signed up for a Canadian television competition called Destination Worldrace. “I was like 22 years old, and that was a really fantastic experience,” he recalls. “The idea was to give a video camera to someone and a plane ticket, and for seven months you did a five-minute piece every week in a different country. Total freedom. That was the best school I ever had.”
Villeneuve won first prize in his particular contest, and then scored a job with National Film Board of Canada. Short films followed — REW-FFD, Le Technetium — and soon he took the plunge into features, the first four of which revolved around women (August 32nd on Earth, Maelström, Polytechnique, Incendies). He proved to have a talent for violent realism — and for offbeat narratives. (Maelström features a talking fish as a narrator.) Still, Villeneuve isn’t a great fan of his first two films. “They were not strong enough,” he says. “There was a weakness in the way they were written.” So he took a nine-year break between his second and third efforts, in part to help raise his children, but also as a sabbatical of sorts, to learn how to be a better director, a better storyteller, as he puts it, “how to turn cinematic poetry into reality.” The results were his “twins” — Polytechnique and Incendies. Polytechnique, a movie about a school shooter, garnered unexpected controversy — “All the headlines in Canada said we were insane” — and then later, great acclaim, winning nine Genie Awards (Canada’s top prize), including Best Picture. Incendies, an adaptation of a play about the war in Lebanon, was his breakthrough.
“It was the movie that changed everything,” he says. “The play was getting a strong reaction on the stage, and I remember thinking, If I can get just ten percent of that reaction, the movie will be quite strong. We first screened the movie at the Venice Film Festival, and there was a ten-minute standing ovation. That was the first time I’d had that in my life.”
A strong buzz followed the movie around the film-festival circuit, leading to a pickup by Sony Pictures Classics and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. “It was like putting my foot in another world,” Villeneuve says. Major Hollywood studios began approaching, among them Warner Bros., for which he directed Prisoners, a kidnapping drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. He almost turned it down; the subject matter was too dark, too tough. But he decided to take the job, and even pushed Jackman, as a man using “extreme interrogation” techniques to find his abducted daughter, to go even further in the torture scenes. What might have seemed like just another thriller became a surprise Oscar contender, thanks in large part to the performances Villeneuve coaxed out of his A-list cast. It probably also helped that he had developed a strong rapport with Gyllenhaal just prior to Prisoners by shooting the smaller, slightly surrealist art-house film, Enemy, in which the actor plays a pair of doppelgängers. (They plan to reteam on The Son, an adaption of Jo Nesbø’s novel). It was a strong one-two punch — despite sharing a star, Villeneuve’s first two English-language films couldn’t have been more different in subject matter, scope, and budgets, and both worked as calling cards for his signature style.
“I didn’t have a plan per se,” Villeneuve says. “The beauty of all this is that it wasn’t planned.” He knew he wanted to leave the comfort zone of the Canadian system, but he was wary. “I was hearing all sorts of stories about how foreign directors were crushed by Hollywood,” he says. “I didn’t want to direct Legally Blonde 7. And so I was not dreaming of going to Hollywood, necessarily. It just seemed an impossible road to go there and do my own movies. But then I was invited.”
Still, he trod carefully. Although Villeneuve was offered much larger studio projects immediately after Prisoners, he turned them away. “There were some tools I still needed to master,” he says. “It was like karate — I needed a different color belt.” He chose to do Sicario, a violent tale, to learn how to do a story with a bigger scope, before tackling Arrival — the fulfillment of his childhood sci-fi dreams. “To create worlds? To create aliens? It’s much more challenging than I thought,” he says. “We worked hard to make sure the movie would have a strong feeling of everyday life, as if it had been shot on a very bad Tuesday morning.” As otherwordly as they are, the alien heptapods in that film seem like something that could exist: a blend of spiders and octopii, with the wrinkled skin of elephants. Their logogram language seems like squid ink. Their spacecraft have the polish and shape of a stone. Only film’s intermittent time-flashes have a lyrical glow to them — they’re the only parts where we see any sunny weather — anything involving the alien ships feels dark, moody, and textured, even if those spaces are more peaceful than the military camps outside.
Once he had Arrival behind him, Villeneuve decided to step all the way up and take a shot at the Blade Runner sequel, which kept him shooting in Budapest for much of last year (causing him to miss Arrival’s world premiere). As a huge fan of the original film, he was naturally intimidated. “How many times do you hear someone say, ‘Oh, like in Blade Runner?’ It’s a major cultural reference, a masterpiece.” What if he messed up this iconic sci-fi world? “You feel like a vandal. You’re walking into someone else’s house, and trying to figure out where to put the furniture, where to paint the walls a different color.” The project was a minefield, but he didn’t flinch. “I don’t take precautions. When I make a movie, there’s no net. I like to jump, hoping that the wings will flap and I will be able to fly.”
Inevitably, there’s already been much speculation about whether Villeneuve’s Blade Runner film will address the old issue of whether or not Ford’s Deckard is a replicant. Villeneuve is playing coy for now. “For Ridley [Scott], it’s obvious. For him, Deckard is a replicant. It’s not a question. But Harrison [Ford] doesn’t agree. For him, Deckard is a human. For me? I like the question. I like the idea of a question. I like the mystery to stay alive.”
If Villeneuve gets his way, his next project will be a new film adaptation of Dune. (Count him among the few who actually like the David Lynch film, at least for its production design: “It’s stunning!”) But he doesn’t think he would have been ready for Dune if it hadn’t been for Blade Runner 2049, and he wouldn’t have been ready for Blade Runner 2049 if it hadn’t been for Arrival. “Taking the time to do these movies, I allowed myself to express some part of myself that comes from a deep, deep pleasure,” he says. “I feel at total peace with myself when I get to go in this direction.”
With the Blade Runner sequel, Villeneuve has a new dream: final cut (something both Ridley Scott and David Lynch didn’t have). He has always had that up until now, and if he doesn’t get it this time out, he may question his suitability for the world of blockbuster filmmaking. After all, grinding out yet another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was never one of his dreams. “If you ask me how to do Spider-Man, I don’t know how to do it,” he says. “I barely knew Superman. That was not my world. Dune is my world. I know how to do that.”