Author Ted Chiang reveals how Arrival went from page to screen

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Feb 14, 2017

If you're a connoisseur of contemporary literary science fiction, then the name Ted Chiang is most certainly on your radar. For those who saw Arrival, Chiang's name may ring a bell as the author of the short story "Story of Your Life," from which the film is based. The story won Chiang the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella, and his body of writing work has earned him multiple Hugo and Lotus awards.

Arrival's commercial and critical success gives it the rare distinction of a science fiction film that's also garnered major award season recognition, culminating in eight Oscar nominations. Usually genre titles are shunned when it comes to marquee awards, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve have remarkably bucked the trend. With the film now available on Digital HD and Blu-ray and DVD, we reached out to Mr. Chiang to ask what the adaptation process was like for him, his thoughts on the Hollywood version of his intimate story and what he'd like to see happen in the wake of Arrival's success.

You've been publishing stories since 1990, so was it a surprise when Hollywood finally came knocking to option your work?

Actually, I never really thought of my work as being the sort of thing anyone would want to adapt for Hollywood. Most of my work is pretty internal. A lot of what's happening is taking place inside someone's head. It never really occurred to me that my work would be suitable for movies, and certainly "Story of Your Life" was an extremely unlikely candidate.

The world of film and screenwriting is so different to how you write, so were you trepidatious about allowing your work to be adapted?

Yes, that's definitely true. I was first approached by Dan Cohen and Dan Levine who work for 21 Laps Entertainment. They had been approached by Eric Heisserer, who originally pitched them the idea of adapting my story. They liked his pitch and got in touch with me. I was intrigued simply because they chose a story that is such an unlikely choice that I was really curious what they had in mind. They sent me a DVD of a film from a director they thought might be a good choice, and that was Incendies (2010), which was one of Denis Villeneuve's first films. When I watched it, I thought it was a really interesting choice as an indicator of what they were going for. If they had sent me a copy of Transformers, I probably would not have proceeded the conversation. At that point, Villeneuve wasn't attached but they thought he would be an interesting possibility, so that played a big role in my willingness to give them a chance. And then a few years later they were able to get Villeneuve attached.

Often when an author's work is optioned, that's it. No one ever talks to you again and they make what they want to make. What was your experience with Eric Heisserer?

There wasn't a lot of back and forth. We did exchange emails from time to time. He really had a vision for how to adapt it and came up with the approach early on and all by himself. He wrote the initial draft of the script on spec, as in he was willing to do it for no money. Initially when they approached me they didn't have any money to offer. They were looking for a shopping agreement which was no money, but also a no commitment deal. It just allowed Eric permission to work on the screenplay. The fact he was willing to write it on spec, which is a major investment of his time, made me willing to let him run with it because he was clearly emotionally invested in the project. At one point during that option period, he did pitch me his idea and laid out the movie as he envisioned in his mind, and yeah, I liked his pitch.

How different was that pitch from what eventually ended up on screen?

There are definitely changes in the screenplay along the way. Paramount released the final draft of the screenplay (HERE). The initial draft does differ in some ways, and then you can compare the final draft to the film itself and you can see there are some differences there too. I feel like his initial pitch captured the emotional core of the story and I think that remained true throughout the process to the final film.

The character of Dr. Louise Banks and her narrative is the emotional spine of your novella. Were you content with how they brought her POV to life?

I definitely was impressed by Amy Adams' performance because that is something you can't tell from reading a screenplay about how exactly this will play out on-screen. I think she is convincing in all of the different hats that Louise has to wear.

Your heptapod creations are visually compelling in the film, but as the author did they match at all how you envisioned them to be?

With regard to the design of the heptapods themselves, the heptapods in the movie aren't exactly what I describe in my story, but I am quite happy with how they are portrayed. When I designed the aliens for my story, one of my primary goals was that I wanted aliens who didn't remotely look like people. The aliens that we see all the time, certainly in movies but also in a lot of written science fiction, have two arms, two legs and a head with eyes and a mouth on it. I wanted an alien that was radially symmetric and did not have a face you could look at. The aliens they came up with are radially symmetric and they don't have a face so their aliens do what I wanted from my aliens.

Arrival has been called a "smart science fiction movie" from the start, and that's what you do as a professional writer: craft smart science fiction stories. Do you hope that Arrival's success might lead more people back to reading intelligent science fiction?

What I would hope in general is that the movie changes people's ideas about what science fiction is. For people who are not regular science fiction readers or science fiction fans, Hollywood gives the impression that science fiction is all about special effects, gigantic explosions and battles between good and evil with the hero and villain having a fist-fight on the edge of a cliff. Science fiction, at its core, is not about any of those things. I hope that Arrival will maybe shift people's ideas of what it is. Whether it's what people expect from science fiction movies or what people think science fiction in written form might be, I hope Arrival gets people to take science fiction more seriously and not as simple popcorn. And I say that as someone who likes popcorn films.

Can you recommend a science fiction writer that you think more people should be reading?

One of the science fiction writers that I always recommend is Greg Egan. I personally am a big fan because of the way he dramatizes philosophical questions. He has a bunch of short story collections out. One is called "Axiomatic" and another is "Luminous." He's intellectually rigorous.

What about science fiction TV? Anything in that realm you find worthy?

I first saw Black Mirror some years back before it was on Netflix. At the time, I wished it was available in the U.S. I really enjoyed it because it's actually about the way technology affects our lives. Most science fiction TV is a procedural, "monster of the week" or "case of the week," and I liked that Black Mirror departed from that. It was really refreshing.