Shepherding Arrival to the Screen
Eric Heisserer on wooing your director, working with your source material, and how a screenwriter is like Charlie Brown.
It’s easy to understand why studios repeatedly said “no thank you” to Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s 1998 short fiction piece Story of Your Life. It’s a medium budgeted non-tentpole sci-fi with a female lead, based on cerebral source material with minimal conflict and a dead child at its center.
But Chiang’s story packs an emotional wallop, and it certainly walloped screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Enough so that despite two rounds of studio passes and the advice of his own representation to let it go, Heisserer spent more than seven years shepherding Arrival to the screen.
The film tells the story of college linguistics professor Louise (played by Amy Adams), who is conscripted along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to aid the military in communicating with one of a dozen alien spacecraft that has landed on Earth. Throughout the film, the viewer is also given periodic glimpses of Louise’s life with her daughter Hannah, glimpses whose significance isn’t revealed until the final act.
The screenwriter behind the A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and this year’s horror hit Lights Out, Heisserer had been tossing out Chiang’s story as a dream project during producer meetings for several years.
In late 2010 he finally found a pair of receptive ears in producers Dan Cohen and Dan Levine. The trio received a 90-day shopping agreement from Chiang and put together a pitch. Every major studio passed. But Heisserer continued onward anyway, securing a yearlong window to the story’s rights and penning the script on spec.
In 2012 Heisserer pitched the completed script to all the major studios. Again they all passed. However, finally a pair of upstart financiers, FilmNation and Lava Bear, agreed to put up the $47 million budget for a package that included Adams in the lead and Sicario’s Denis Villeneuve directing.
With Arrival now in theaters and generating Oscar buzz, Creative Screenwriting spoke with Heisserer about wooing Villeneuve over coffee dates, changing the philosophical thrust of Chiang’s original story, and how a screenwriter is like Charlie Brown.
In a piece you penned for Talkhouse you wrote about your mother reading you classic sci-fi tales as bedtime stories. How old were you when she started?
I was probably six years old, maybe even younger. I remember when I was six she read me the Robert Heinlein classic Have Spacesuit – Will Travel, and that stuck with me for a very long time. It blew my mind as a young, impressionable kid.
Was she a fan of science fiction, or did she just sense that it was something that would appeal to you?
I think she just had some intuition about me. It’s possible that I exhibited a lot of curiosity about sci-fi in the TV or movies that came along early on. I don’t know if any other parent would’ve then latched onto the idea of “I will read Bradbury and Heinlein and Asimov to him,” but that’s where my mom went with it.
She’s always been a voracious reader herself, and she keeps a journal of all the things that she reads. When I was growing up she would have to give away or sell back books to make sure that our house wasn’t overgrown with them.
When did you first come upon Ted Chiang’s short piece Story of Your Life?
It would’ve been in the early 2000s. I first discovered his story Understand. It had been published online somewhere and a friend sent me a link to it. I actually passed it along to my mom after I read it, and told her, “This guy is amazing.”
I discovered that he had a collection of short stories called Stories of Your Life and Others and I bought it off Amazon. I sat down and thought I’d just read one story, and five hours later I’d plowed through half the book. I had to stop when I reached Story of Your Life because it just emotionally wrecked me.
How has your relationship with the story changed over the years? I have a two-year-old now and I would’ve reacted to this story much differently if I’d read it for the first time a decade ago.
That collection of stories in particular is something that I feel is worthy of revisiting every few years, because Chiang explores faith and religion and how our reality and our psyche can be so connected to assumptions.
I think being compelled to revisit a story, and taking something new away each time, is the mark of profound fiction, whether it be sci-fi or not.
I’m not a parent, but I have several friends who’ve gone through that recently and so the story takes on a different timbre when I go back and revisit it. And I’ve re-read Story of Your Life a lot of times. (laughs)
When and how did director Denis Villeneuve become involved with your adaptation?
He became involved close to the end of 2013. We had a long and slow courtship where he just asked a whole bunch of questions over a series of coffee meetings.
It was weird because every time I felt like maybe I should ask, “Are you now committed to the project?” But I would always get cold feet. I felt like the boy trying to work up the courage to ask his crush out to prom. (laughs)
At the end of each meeting Denis would say, “This was lovely Eric. Let’s do this again next week.” That kept going for about two months. And after every meeting the producers and one or two people from the independent financiers would call a little breathless and say, “Is he finally on now? Did you close it?” and I would have to say, “Well, we’ve got coffee again next week.”
They were completely confounded, as was I, because in my previous experience with directors it’s always been kind of a one-meeting situation, where it almost felt like a hostage handoff on a bridge. I handed them the script, they took it, and they said, “Thanks kid. The next time I see you is probably going to be at the premiere.”
I wasn’t used to the way it was with Denis. Then when he finally signed on he called me directly and said, “Okay Eric, now we are married.”
Was it you as a collaborator or the material itself he was “dating” during those coffee meetings?
I would say it was an even split. Half the time we would get into the pages and the scenes and the subtext, and he would have very specific questions. He would always bring a dog-eared copy of the script, on which he had written all sorts of questions and comments.
But the rest of the time we would talk about science and politics and philosophy. It was like an amazing two-person podcast.
For a sci-fi film with effects like Arrival, what is the draft like after you actually get an idea of what the production budget is going to be?
We didn’t have to lose a massive eight-minute sci-fi effects extravaganza or anything. This wasn’t that kind of movie. It was just a matter of pinching here and there.
We continued to go up and down on how many alien ships there would be. There was some more to the sequence where Louise gets taken up to the ship alone, and we had to shave some money off of that. Then there were a couple of other places we had to trim.
Did you do a new pass when the leads were cast?
I didn’t do a specific pass for Amy or Jeremy, but I did go back and do a pass to get rid of any moment in which the subtext became the text. I realized that I could pull those moments out because actors of that caliber love to live in interpretation and they love to live in subtext. You don’t ever want to spell out, “This is what you should be acting.”
I interviewed you a few months back when Lights Out was released, and you told me that you like to break the corkboard in your office into two sides. The left side was for all things structure related, and the right side was a random assortment of images, bits of dialogue, etc. that inspired you. Did you do something similar for Arrival?
I did. I actually had a photo of Amy Adams for Louise way back in 2011, long before she was cast.
I found some really interesting concept art from this great community called conceptart.org, which showcases work from artists around the world. I went down the rabbit hole there and found a bunch of interesting new ideas for spaceships. I kept looking for something that connoted a sense of no forward or backward – spherical ships or oblong ships that didn’t necessarily point in any one direction, because I wanted something to convey that these aliens don’t experience time in that way.
When researching scientists and physicists, I also found a guy in the field who dresses a little like Bruce Springsteen. He’s like a rock star. And I thought, “That’s the kind of character I want Ian to be.” Get rid of the pocket protectors and give me somebody who’s a little bit more rugged.
[Warning: the following two questions include plot spoilers.]
Tell me about some of the changes you made to the original story.
Originally I actually had the ship landing on earth, so it touched the ground and a portal opened up that led to a long corridor that went into the interview room where Louise interacts with the heptapods.
That started to change when Denis and I sat down for our long series of coffee conversations before he joined the film. Denis was much more interested in making it feel otherworldly. It was his idea to have the ship hover about twenty feet off the ground and to change the gravity at the ship’s entrance.
I went back and started playing with those ideas, and Denis would say either “OK” or he would say “I deeply love this.” And whenever he said the latter, you knew you were good. So I just kept trying to write something that would make him say “I deeply love this.” That was my high bar for the entire development process.
There was a great line from Jeremy that I kind of miss in the final film, which was “These things have come from light years away, you’d think they could go an extra 20 feet.” Jeremy is a funny guy. He delivered that line so well. But I think Denis had to pull it out because it may have broken the spell.
Your script also presents a different philosophical point of view than the source material in terms of the ending. In Ted Chiang’s story, there’s this idea that our lives are predetermined and all we can do is embrace that inevitability and the joys to be found along that path. But in the film, Louise’s destiny is more of her own choosing.
I think that started with an emotional revelation that I had, which was that I felt it was far more profound to give Louise that choice.
Then I had to figure out if, by changing that, was I breaking everything. It could be that she does have free will, but I think it’s still left up in the air whether the future is deterministic.
This is a weird tangent, but there’s a group of friends who I play video games with and then we gather and talk about them. We were playing a game that allowed you to make decisions along the way that had moral consequences. You could take the high road or the low road. You could turn evil or good and that affected the narrative of the game.
Each of us had played through the game and done the good things. Then we talked and said that we were going to go back and play again and this time play the evil choices and see how the narrative changed.
But the next time we met we all confessed that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do the bad things. So we wound up picking a variant of the path we had done before.
That was around the time I was developing the script, and I thought, OK, it’s quite possible that Louise has to choose the path she does because it goes too much against her character not to, and the deterministic element of the future is really just a matter of our character. Maybe even if we know what the future is, we can’t escape our own choices.
Was there anything you had to cut from the final version of the film?
There was a scene that had been in the first draft, and that survived all the way through production, and it’s a moment that I’ll always think about when I think about the pieces that got cut away.
It was a moment between Louise and her daughter Hannah, and part of the reason why it was there was to show that their relationship wasn’t always positive. It was a normal parent and child relationship.
It was an extension of the scene where 12-year-old Hannah says “I hate you” at the very beginning of the film. Hannah and her girlfriends were going to see a movie, and Louise discovers that she has not done her homework and therefore she makes her stay home. Hannah throws a fit.
That’s where that “I hate you” comes from and Hannah goes storming off and the last thing she says to mom is “Why won’t you just let me live my own life?”
It’s something that a normal 12-year-old would say, but the effect that it has on Louise is profound and the look on Amy’s face in that scene breaks your heart.
It happened in the middle of the movie, and what we discovered was that if you didn’t know where the end of the movie was going, it was a bit of a head scratcher for audiences, like, “What was that about?” But for those who had already seen the film once or knew the plot ahead of time, when they got to that moment they were just broken by it, and things couldn’t really escalate from there.
Did you have to be talked into cutting the scene?
I didn’t have to be convinced. I knew immediately. Even though it was a scene I loved, I knew it didn’t have a place in the story.
Because you’re also an executive producer on the film, you’re in the enviable position of getting to voice your opinion. You’re not just – as you said before – throwing the script into the back of a car and then watching as the director peels out, never to be seen again.
(laughs) Yes, I am grateful for that. In this job, as a screenwriter, you’re Charlie Brown, and you’re trying to kick the football and you end up on your ass so often and then you have to figure out a way to get back up and go again.
When it comes to things that are passion projects that are driven by me for so long, like Arrival was, to not have a seat at the table would have been soul crushing. And there are definitely projects where it feels more like it’s a relay race, and the writer gets to do one lap, then hands the baton over and he’s off on the bench the rest of the time.
So I am supremely grateful that everybody on the Arrival team made sure that I was part of the family.