Denis Villeneuve, from Quebec dreamer to Hollywood's new king of sci-fi

In six years, Montreal director Denis Villeneuve has gone from Hollywood outsider to the man with the golden touch.

Montreal director’s Arrival is up for 8 Oscars, but he's just getting started

Denis Villeneuve's journey to the Oscars

6 years ago
Duration 9:10
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve could bring home an Oscar on Sunday, but he's already preparing for what's next, including a sci-fi collaboration with fellow nominee Ryan Gosling

Director Denis Villeneuve feels lucky.

Not only has his film Arrival brought him to the Oscars for the second time, but he's currently hard at work on the sequel to Blade Runner.

It's the kind of sci-fi epic Villeneuve could only have dreamt of growing up in the small Quebec town of Gentilly on the St. Lawrence River. As a boy, he would lose himself in science fiction: the bold illustrations of European comic artists Jean Giraud and Philippe Druillet or films such as Stanley Kubrick's space epic 2001

Villeneuve broke into the movie business when he won the Radio-Canada film competition Course Europe-Asie in 1991. (Radio-Canada)

"I always loved storytelling, and as a child that was my favourite part of my existence — that bubble when I was reading," he told CBC News this month in Los Angeles.

Villeneuve considered a career in science, but he couldn't resist the urge to tell stories. His early films Maelstrom and Polytechnique showed a director unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. 

In 2010, Villeneuve shifted his focus to the Middle East to adapt Incendies, a play about a twisted family tree. It swept the Canadian film awards and was nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category.

Villeneuve is surrounded by cast members and producers of his film Incendies at Quebec's Jutra Awards in 2013. It swept the ceremony and also went on to win eight trophies at the English-Canadian Genies. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Hollywood began to take notice of the bold director. Success in Quebec had helped him establish his cinematic identity, but Villeneuve had bigger stories to tell.

"I knew that by coming here I will have the tools and resources to make some of my dreams," he said.

Villeneuve soon displayed a knack for working with A-list actors, while pushing the audience's buttons. Hugh Jackman explored the limits of fatherly love in the 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners. Emily Blunt found herself in the grey zone of the U.S.-Mexico drug war in 2015's Sicario.

Drawn to female stories

Sicario featured another Villeneuve signature, the strong female character.

When asked about the women in his life, Villeneuve joked that growing up sometimes felt like a Fellini film. Raised in part by a pair of powerful grandmothers, he said they left him with an appreciation of a female perspective.

From left to right, Amy Adams in Arrival, Lubna Azabal in Incendies and Emily Blunt in Sicario. 'I am always moved and attracted by screenplays that portray women evolving in our world today,' says Villeneuve. (Paramount Pictures/eOne/Lionsgate/Associated Press)

"There is something about the position of women in society: their access to power [and] struggle to have the same chances as men. It is something that deeply touched me, so I am always moved and attracted by screenplays that portray women evolving in our world today."

But after the intensity of making films like Sicario and Prisoners, Villeneuve was ready for something with an optimistic tone. When producers approached him with a project based on the Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, he instantly recognized the potential.

Based on Chiang's novella, Arrival is a film about alien contact, but also much more. Woven into the mystery of how to communicate with Earth's new visitors is the main character's own journey. Amy Adams stars as an interpreter trying to decipher visions from her own life.

Denis Villeneuve 'in the trenches' with Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams

6 years ago
Duration 1:23
The Oscar-nominated Canadian director on collaborating with his two latest Hollywood stars for Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.

Although Academy Award voters don't generally fall for sci-fi, Arrival landed eight Oscar nominations, including for best director and best picture. However, there was one notable exception: a nomination for Adams — an exclusion that saddens Villeneuve.

"She has the movie on her shoulders and it is important for me to say that I owe her," he said.

"The success of Arrival belongs to Amy."

Diving deeper into sci-fi

While other directors would be content to bask in the Oscar glow, Villeneuve is hard at work on his next project: Blade Runner 2049 starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. 

Coming to screens this October, the film follows the events of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. With his dystopian vision of the future, director Ridley Scott depicted a world where capitalism and cyborgs blurred the concept of identity — the perfect type of heady material for cerebral director Villeneuve.

But he also recognized that the opportunity comes with great risk.

Blade Runner will be by far my most risky project. It is dangerous artistically. It has been so far the most exciting experience of my life.- Denis Villeneuve

"Blade Runner will be, by far, my most risky project. It is dangerous artistically," he said.

"It has been so far the most exciting experience of my life."

Shooting in Hungary while trying to satisfy fan expectations hasn't been easy. But, again, Villeneuve has found a new muse with whom to share the burden: Gosling.

TIMELINE | From child star to A-lister: How Ryan Gosling navigated Hollywood and made it to the top

"He's the best ally I could ever dream of," Villeneuve said of the fellow Canadian.

"He is a brilliant actor but also a very intelligent, impressively clever guy that has strong ideas about storytelling."

Juggling an Oscar campaign and a Blade Runner sequel should be enough, but Villeneuve has just announced his followup project: remaking another sci-fi classic, 1984's Dune.

The price of success

In six years, Villeneuve has gone from Hollywood outsider to the kind of brand-name visionary studios are lining up for. It has been an amazing, but exhausting run for the father of three. 

Asked about the price of all his success, Villeneuve said, "It's the only thing I don't like about cinema. It can drag me away from my family and I am trying to find equilibrium."

Since the script for the new Dune isn't written yet, that gives the director a chance to take a break and go back to dreaming. 

But what keeps him moving forward is his faith in film as an agent of change. Part of the appeal of Arrival is how it seems to mirror life on Earth. The film shows a world where international tensions are rising.

The world is "not in happy times right now," Villeneuve noted.

But Arrival also focuses on what happens when people overcome their fears and work together. That, too, is part of cinema's power — and something Villeneuve believes in. 


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.