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Oscar-Nominated Alumnus on Making Arrival, Learning at Emerson

Aaron Ryder '94. Courtesy photo

On the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, film producer Aaron Ryder ’94 was up at 4:00 am with his toddler, who had gotten out of bed for one reason or another.

When the Emerson alumnus learned that his film, Arrival, had been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, chaos reigned.

“I had this little naked 2-year-old running around and people screaming and high-fiving,” Ryder said in a phone interview. “It was great.”

Ryder spoke to Emerson College Today on Thursday, January 26, before talking to Emerson students and community members via Skype at the Bright Lights Film Series’ screening of Arrival.

The science fiction film stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is tapped to lead a team trying to figure out what extraterrestrial visitors are trying to say. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker also star.

The Academy of of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also nominated Arrival for Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Cinematographer (Bradford Young), and Adapted Screenplay (Eric Heissener), as well as Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Production Design. The Academy Awards will be held Sunday, February 26.

The movie was nominated for nine BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards, including Best Film; two Golden Globes; and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Ryder said Arrival came to him as a script, and was “quite honestly one of the best…I’ve read.

“I’ve always been a big fan of sci-fi, but the thing about this movie is it had this emotional component to it,” he said.

Arrival was nominated for eight Academy Awards. 

Director Denis Villeneuve had read and loved “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang, the story the script was based on, and came on board fairly early.

The decision to cast Adams as the lead was unanimous and instantaneous, he said. When Ryder and some of the other filmmakers met Villeneuve in a Montreal hotel to discuss the film, they decided to write down on a slip of paper their first choice to play linguist Louise Banks, and flip them over at the same time. Every last one flipped to read “Amy Adams,” Ryder said. They called her agent from the hotel lobby and inside of a week, she was in their office, talking about doing the film.

Ryder said the shared vision and collaborative spirit of cast and crew on this film was rare and integral to the final product.

“It was a collection of people who worked really well together, and it happens that that’s kind of the theme of the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s resonated as well as it has,” he said.

Back at Emerson in the early 1990s, Ryder — producer of Memento (2000), Donnie Darko (2001), and The Prestige (2006), among others — said he wanted to direct, but fell into producing because he “realized [he’s] more of an accomplice.”

It was an interesting time to study filmmaking, he said, because the industry was beginning to go digital, but the students were still learning their craft on celluloid film. He said because you might only have enough film for two or three takes, it taught him discipline and made him work harder to tell the story he wanted to tell.

He also learned how to fashion a tale from the late John Coffee, an Emerson history professor who knew how to bring the past to life.

“I think I learned as much about telling stories from Dr. Coffee than I did from any film class,” Ryder said.

At FilmNation Entertainment, the independent production company of which Ryder is co-president and Emerson Trustee Steve Samuels is a founding partner – half the interns hired are Emerson students, Ryder said. He added that as “the old guy in the room,” he tries to spend as much time as he can with them to stay fresh.

He spent some virtual time with Emerson students on Thursday night, when he Skyped in to the Bright Family Screening Room to talk about Arrival and some of his upcoming projects with Visual and Media Arts Chair Brooke Knight and the audience.

Ryder also talked about competition within the film market today, and the constant need for studios to do testing. He said it’s all done to rack up numbers and reviews that help motivate people to come out and watch it.

The screening drew a large crowd of student filmmakers and film lovers, including Monamie Bir, a Marketing Communication graduate student.

“The move truly depicts the essence of Emerson – the smooth marriage between science and the arts,” Bir said. “It was quite refreshing to watch a sci-fi film with an emotional undertone.”

Vishakha Mathur G ’17 contributed to this story.

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