Meet the Canadian woman Hollywood calls when they need to talk to aliens
To get the science right, the producers of the highly anticipated upcoming movie Arrival hired Jessica Coon, a real life linguistics professor.
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When aliens first appear in the movie Arrival, no one can understand them, so a linguistics professor — an expert in lost languages played by Amy Adams — is asked to figure out a way to communicate with them.
To get the movie’s science right, the producers called upon Jessica Coon, a real life linguistics professor.
"I spend a lot of my time working on Mayan languages," Coon says of her study at McGill University in Montreal where she holds the Canada Research Chair in Linguistics.
"Before they started filming they sent me several drafts of the screenplay and I was asked just to give feedback on some of the more linguistically relevant parts,” she says.
Once filming began, the production worked to have their fictional expert match their real-life consultant.
"The set crew came to my office and they took pictures of everything," Coon says, "they borrowed all the books from my shelf. They wanted to know, ‘What kind of bag do you carry? What kind of papers are on your desk?’ and Amy Adams’ office in the film looks remarkably like a McGill linguistics office, right down to the ugly filing cabinets and bookshelves that we have."
A lunch with Amy Adams quickly followed, which Coon says, “was a lot of fun and probably the most glamorous thing I’ll ever get to do in my academic career.
"I learned from having lunch with Amy that they cast her role first and then found the male lead to compliment her,” Coon says. “Apparently that’s very rare in Hollywood."
On set, she enjoyed helping out with the movie’s visuals.
"They said, ‘Imagine you’ve just been helicoptered from your office at McGill to the site of this alien spaceship, and you’re working on translating this language and understanding the structure of it, and you have a team of fifty military cryptographers, and you’re in charge, what do you write on the whiteboard?’”
Coon loves the finished story. “Often in films there’s some kind of universal translator that just works right away, but realistically this is unlikely and this is the first movie I can think of that really engages the question head-on of how we would communicate with another kind of being.”
Would she answer the call to communicate with aliens in real life? “I think I’d have to say yes,” Coon says. “It’d be pretty hard to say no to that opportunity.”
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