With “Arrival” opening in theaters this weekend, MoviesOnline had the opportunity to sit down at a roundtable interview with the film’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, at a recent press day in Los Angeles. The clever sci-fi thriller is directed by Denis Villeneuve from Heisserer’s screen adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” about what happens when mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe. An elite team led by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to communicate with aliens in a race against time as mankind finds itself facing an unprecedented global war.
When Chiang wrote the award-winning short story in 1998, he never imagined it would become a film nearly two decades later. Heisserer wrote the script on spec and producers Shawn Levy, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen at 21 Laps helped him develop the project. While the final script changed over the years, it remains close to what Heisserer originally pitched. In our interview, he revealed how the project first came together, his passion and persistence in adapting it to the screen, the challenges he faced securing the financing, why Amy Adams was always his first choice, his collaborative process with Villeneuve, and how his own directing experience has changed how he writes movies now.
Here’s what he had to tell us:
How did this project first emerge?
ERIC HEISSERER: I’ve been a fervent fan of Ted Chiang’s work for a number of years. I found a short story of his called “Understand” on an online zine that a friend of mine sent. I love it so much. I was like, “Wow! What else has this guy done?” I found the collection of short stories on Amazon, bought it. It showed up two days later, and I sat down thinking I’m just going to read the first story. Hours later, I’d just chewed right through it. I got to “Story of Your Life,” and that’s the one I had to stop and put it down and go out and hug my wife. It had such a profound emotional effect on me. I then realized this is what I wanted to share with an audience, not how cinematic it was or lack thereof, but really how this made me feel and if there was a way I could gently lift it from the source material and find a way to translate that to film. Then, I would be a lucky dog.
How did the producers at 21 Laps react when you pitched the idea to them?
HEISSERER: It wasn’t until I spent two years from one producer meeting to the next. Anytime they asked if there was a piece of source material I wanted, I would say, “This. It’s a short story. It’s the sci-fi story I’ve been wanting to make all my life.” They would ask what it’s about and I’d get into, “Well, it’s a female lead. It’s a non-franchise movie. It deals with linguistic relativity.” Their eyes would gloss over at that point, like I’d lost them completely. I’d nearly given up on that when I sat down with Dan Levine and Dan Cohen at 21 Laps. They has read the script for a drama that I’d just finished directing called “Hours.” They were very excited about finding something that was non-horror for me to do, because the one thing I’d kept saying was, “I don’t want to do one thing. I’ve been doing one thing. I’d only written one horror script out of 13 when I got in and I’m desperate to try and do something that’s emotional and sci-fi.” They were like, “We’d love that. We’ll take a look at it.” I did not expect to get a callback, but Dan Levine called on Monday and said, “This is phenomenal. This is absolutely great. You haven’t shared this with anybody else, have you?” I was like, “Well, for two years now…” He just went pale and then he said, “Well whatever, we’re doing it.” And we were off to the races.
What were some of the challenges of getting the project financed and what made you decide to write the script on spec?
HEISSERER: We got a shopping agreement, which is a very easy thing to do in order to get 90 days and run around and pitch out our version of the movie. “Here’s the story. Here’s how I envision the film to be.” We went to all the studios and all the studios said, “No, no, not at all.” We got some interesting qualifiers at that time. Plenty of passes were like, “Well we’d consider making it if you’d change the lead to a man, if you make it a standard invasion movie, and someone punches an alien at the end of it.” We had somebody else who just fundamentally misunderstood the story and they were like, “If you can get rid of the flashbacks, then you’ll have yourself a good movie.” I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening! No, I can’t.” The Dans and I were just bemoaning that. Usually, that’s the end of it. When you pitch an idea to the buyers and the buyers say no, that’s the end of the road.
But, I called them the next day and said, “This is in my bones. I’m so in love with the character and the story. I just want to get a chance to write it. I’m going to do this on spec. Let’s just quietly get the rights to it, and I’ll write it on spec, and you guys can nurture this with me and help me along the process.” They were great shepherds in that regard. Of course, all my reps at the time were like, “What?! No! Everyone said ‘no.’ You’re wasting your time. You’re literally wasting your time, Eric.” I was really stubborn and said I have to do this anyway. And, I’m no longer with those reps. At any rate, we got the script completed, and we sent that out about a year later, and all the studios passed again. But some of the financiers, like the Aaron Ryder and Dave Linde’s of the group, were passionate about it, and they got very excited. We had a featherweight bidding war is what I would call it among the people that really understood the material and connected with it. They were passionate about it. At one point in time, Lava Bear and FilmNation found out that they were both in the mix and they bolted on together in order to win and make it happen. Therefore, we had ourselves a movie we were backing. I had the kind of relationship to everybody in the process that I’d been asking for, for years and years, in other genres where I was also exec producer and could help shepherd this thing all the way to the end. There was a little bit more development process and then a lot of pining and looking at that picture of Denis and just hoping someday…
How did you convince Denis Villeneuve to come on board and make the film?
HEISSERER: He’d read the short story and connected with it many moons ago and made it very clear, “I don’t know how this is a film. How do you make this a film? I don’t understand. Then finally, we got the script to him and he read it and sat down with me. It’s such a strange experience with me and Denis in that every other time I’ve sat down with a director, it’s like a half-hour meeting. I’m putting my kid in their car and they just drive off and I wave and that’s the end of it. I don’t know what happens next. Then here, it was a coffee meeting that lasted for 90 minutes, and we talked about philosophy and politics and Snell’s Law and all sorts of things. Then, at the end of it, he said, “That’s very nice. I like this. Let’s do this next week.” I was like, “Alright! Sure!,” and we did that six more times where it was a little two-person podcast, me and Denis, in a little coffee shop in Westwood. We just kept doing that until finally I got the announcement, “He’s on board now fulltime.”
How would you describe your collaboration with him?
HEISSERER: He called me directly and said, “Alright, Eric, now we are married.” I understood immediately how he works with writers and why it took so long. And sure enough, he meant it. Even though he went off in the end because he had to shoot “Sicario” first, he and I still kept in touch. Then, when he put his focus on this, I had to atone for everything if there was a question he had. So often you see someone who adopts a script like a child and then they interpret subtext in every scene. They read their own into whatever the description and whatever the dialogue is, and they pay attention to the things that they want to and they ignore the rest. You can still get phenomenal movies out of that, even if it’s not the original intent. Absolutely. But Denis just asked questions every page, like “What is this? Why is this? What is this here?,” the way a little kid asks you about everything, “Why? Why? Why?,” but in a most French Canadian artistic way. He did that. And if I didn’t have an answer, if I was like, “I don’t know,” he’d go, “Let’s cut it,” which rightfully he should. I totally get it. But it was phenomenal. I found myself even on set writing dialogue for anchorpersons on the TV screens in the background.
Was securing the rights from Ted Chiang a huge, arduous process? How did you keep your hopes up that you were going to get these rights?
HEISSERER: It was really scary, and then it was alright. We had the shopping agreement for the pitch, which was a very easy thing that didn’t require much thinking by either party. But then, when it didn’t sell, we bombed out on that. Then, we approached again to say, “We want the full option for at least a year to the story and he’s going to write it on spec.” Then, that raised some alarms. I’ve done a hundred pitches to a hundred different execs. I have some horrible stories that I’ll tell you at another time. Pitching to a speaker phone the author who I am totally in love with and saying, “I’m going to borrow the keys to your car and it’ll come back with some aftermarket changes. Please don’t hate me.” It was a nearly hour-long pitch at the end of it. Ted is prone to these pregnant pauses and he could go as Emperor of Rome. You never know which way it’s going to go with him. He was that nerve-wracking for us until he said, “I think this will work. Alright, let’s do this.” He gave us the year. I started writing that night immediately. I was like, “Thank God! Boom! Back to the computer.” Off I went. I emailed him throughout the process. Sometimes months would go by because there was really nothing going on with it. Or, I had to do a lot of work to help pay the rent while I was doing this on spec. And then, he would help keep me honest about like, “Well this science is actually this…” or “This person wouldn’t say that word…” or this, that, or the other. It was all very important to me because the authenticity is such an integral part of the story. We didn’t have trouble throughout. In fact, nobody else had actually come to him for rights to any of the stories. We were the first in legit business. I think somebody who was outside of the business, like an amateur writer, said, “Hey, can I get such and such story?” But we were the actual…he could find us on IMDb. Now, of course, I think that’s as it should be. He’s got all sorts of comers.
Having directed yourself, does that change how you write movies now?
HEISSERER: It does. I can’t let myself get away with stuff that I know is unfilmable. Or, if I do, I’ll put a marker in it on the script so that it’s for the reader only, and when I go back in, and it’s going to be going to a director, I’ll tell people ahead of time I need to do some slight changes and they’ll go, “What? What are you talking about?” I’m like, “This doesn’t make any sense to a director.” So yeah, there’s that. I keep that in mind. I don’t worry about budget though, at least not early on. I discovered that if you start worrying about budget, then you’ll get half of whatever you’re trying to worry about. You’re constantly working yourself into a corner. So, you just shoot for the stars and then see what you get.
Dan Levine said when you guys came to talk about the casting, you both had Amy Adams in mind?
HEISSERER: Yes, I had her on a notecard. I pitch with notecards and I print them out on a little color printer. You’ve got to get as visual as possible because some of these execs — this is a generalization, yes — but they just can’t keep up unless you give them something pretty to look at like Amy Adams. I had her for Louise. That was just in trying to sell who these characters were in the film and that was before I even started writing the script on spec. This was trying to pitch it out and finding a home for it. I would put down that Louise was Amy Adams and Colonel Weber was Jeffrey Wright. The fact that we got Amy is the biggest wish fulfillment for me ever like that. It’s crazy. I don’t even know if she believes me fully. When I talk about it, she’s like, “Yeah, I’m sure.” I’ve got to find the notecards.
You have a great human story at the core of the film, but you also had to do a lot of technical research when it came to the linguistics. What was that process like?
HEISSERER: Some of that was in the story. Again, Ted had done some lifting for me on that. Then, I went and did some research on my own and spoke to a linguistics expert and did as much reading as possible. I thought I had done a whole lot and then found out that I hadn’t, only enough to make me dangerous, because there’s a giant gulf between me and these people. The best I could do was hope that I captured the essence of what they did.
There’s a theme in the film of is it better to have lived your life in a certain way even if you already knew the outcome and how it would play out. Was that already in the short story?
HEISSERER: The short story was far more rigid about determinism. Ted’s message within the short story was to embrace the inevitable. It didn’t give Louise a choice in the matter and it just let her be at home with that. I got very rebellious and said, “Well Ted, that’s not going to work for me in the film. Sorry. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to change the core of this.” He’s been game. If he secretly hates me on some form like, “I can’t believe he changed this,” then so be it. But, I wanted to make it a profound statement that she still chose to have Hannah, despite knowing what was going to happen in her life. It’s a very small moment in the film, but it means so much to me. It’s when she talks about how Hannah is unstoppable because of her poetry and her swimming trophies and all of that. She’s talking about Hannah’s contribution to the world and how that affects other people, and the fact that if she chooses not to have Hannah, will the world be a lesser place? How many people will she not have been able to affect. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s very much she needs to make sure that this contribution exists.
“Arrival” opens in theaters on November 11th.