The morning after his double BAFTA win for Blade Runner 2049, Oscar nominated director Denis Villeneuve gave a thrilling masterclass to students at the NFTS.

Talking to NFTS director Jon Wardle, who had also collected a BAFTA the night before - for the NFTS which was awarded Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema - Denis revealed some of his processes behind creating Arrival, Prisoners, Sicario and Blade Runner 2049.

Beginning by talking about Blade Runner 2049 Denis said, in reference to Ridley Scott’s iconic original Blade Runner, - “I knew I was working on sacred territory.  I would never have dared to pitch for Blade Runner 2049, I thought there were loads of directors who could have done it better than me, but when the script came to me I connected with it and loved it.”

Asked about the difference between making Blade Runner 2049 compared to his previous films, Denis explained “It was my first time doing a movie of that scale.  I was used to directing a chamber orchestra and now I was trying to direct a symphony orchestra.  I like to make sure everyone is working in the same direction and that was one thing I missed, being able to have as much personal connection with everyone working on the film.  I like intimacy, direct contact.”

Denis emphasised his delight in the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the importance of those relationships, “Slowly you build a creative family.”  One of Denis’ regular collaborators is NFTS graduate Roger Deakins, who won a BAFTA and is Oscar nominated for his work on Blade Runner 2049.  Roger was Oscar nominated for his work on two of Denis previous films - Sicario and Prisoners. “I learn so much working with Roger Deakins, every shot I am learning from Deakins.” Denis said, praising Roger for - “The strength of his storytelling as well as being a master with light”

Asked about the key to working on a VFX heavy film like Blade Runner 2049, Denis replied “It’s about communication, storyboarding.  I discovered the power of storyboarding because of Deakins, and it is one of my favourite processes now.  It is the best way to communicate – I love it.”

Discussing the sound design and music on Blade Runner 2049 Denis said “I brought it in very early in the creative process.  Sound design and music can feel like it is something that is rushed at the end of the filmmaking process, but I love to work on it for a long time.  We worked on sound for a year.  It’s a big luxury to be able to do that, but I deeply love it.”

He paid tribute to composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who sadly died recently, and who Denis had worked with on Sicario, Prisoners and Arrival, recalling “I’d give him the screenplay and he’d send tracks and ideas very early on and we’d back and forth about it, it was a very exciting process and very productive.”

Denis told the students that although he starts working on sound and music early, when he edits he likes to edit without any music“Music is very dangerous and very powerful, it can change the nature of a scene very easily.  So I love to edit without music, because it influences your perception of a scene – it can mask the weaknesses, so without music in the edit you can better feel the scenes or shots that aren’t working, where there is a lack of tension or emotion, then when you have the scene right, the music can add even more.”

Talking further about Arrival Denis said “A movie like Arrival is a movie that comes together at the very last second, when all the ingredients, the performances, the sound, the VFX, come together.”  He told students that his background in documentary had helped his editing process - “Arrival evolved a lot during the edit.  One of the challenges of it was the repeated nature of teacher going in, teaching, learning and coming out and processing.  Something that worked well in the screenplay didn’t always translate.  It deeply helped me on Arrival that I had a background of making documentaries – it helps you develop a way of seeing material in a different way – you see things that weren’t in the screenplay.  Documentary was the school for me!”

Asked by one of the students about how he developed the aliens’ language symbols in Arrival, Denis revealed “The idea of a circle language was there from the start.  I wanted the language to have nothing in common with any language of the earth, to have a kind of nightmarish quality.  I came up with this idea of them using ink like squid, I thought it’d be beautiful.  I wanted the writing to be part of their being.  At one point I thought it could be on their skin.  I come to cinema from words, I love words, it’s one of the reasons I chose to do Arrival – the power of words to change your perception of reality.”

Asked about working with actors Denis stressed, “Casting is massively important; you have to make the right choices.”  And then when you have the right actors to give them creative freedom to bring their contribution and ideas to the film - “I don’t rehearse with actors, I like the danger and spontaneity that it’s happening right now in front of the camera for the first time” he said.  Continuing, “If you do all the prep and have all the conversations beforehand with the actors, they can be free, and you can have wonderful explosions on set.  I always make sure to create a safe creative space for the actor.  I like to be prepared, but I’m ready to tear that apart if I get a better idea from the actors.” Explaining that it was an attitude he relished in the crew he worked with - “I need to work with cinematographers who’re flexible and who are inspired by actors bringing something fresh, that we hadn’t planned for.”

Reflecting on what makes a good producer, Denis said “I like people who are honest and direct.  For me, good producers are people I can trust.  And also people who can make strong decisions, sometimes taking a risk for the sake of the movie.  I like to work with people who are not afraid.  A producer must protect you from yourself – as a director I can make mistakes too and they can help keep you in the right direction - if they are brave enough to tell you.  Producers are supposed to be your best friends, your allies.”

(Denis was interviewed by ITV directly after the masterclass to give his reaction on the School's Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema BAFTA and working with NFTS alumnus, Roger Deakins - watch the interview here.)

Asked about his tips on directing, Denis recommended - “If you don’t know the answer right away it’s important to take the time, even if it’s only 15 seconds, to wait and think.  You have to be ok with being uncomfortable and not knowing the answer right away, to not be afraid of that.  I’ve realised when I’m in that space I’m very solid, the most grounded.”

Concluding, Denis advised students - “When you make movies it’s like a tattoo on your face – if you do well or if you mess up, it’s there for everyone to see, so you need to choose your projects carefully and work with good people.”

If you’d like to attend masterclasses like this one, sign up to one of our upcoming open days and find out which course is best for you: