Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Arrival: 'I was heartbroken and uplifted at the same time'

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Nov 9, 2016, 6:00 PM EST

In just two days you'll be able to see what is almost certainly the best science fiction movie of the year, and perhaps a modern classic of its era. Arrival, based on the short story "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang, is a haunting and powerful tale of first contact with an alien race whose means of communication may have a profound impact on humanity.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (who is currently filming Blade Runner 2049), starring Amy Adams and adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), Arrival does what the best science fiction -- written or filmed -- always does: open our minds to incredible ideas while telling an emotionally compelling story about the effect of those ideas on human beings.

Blastr had an opportunity to interview Eric Heisserer about his own response when he first read the story, adapting it to the screen and more, including his surprising admission about his recent attempt to write the screenplay for Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

How did you come upon the story by Ted Chiang?

Eric Heisserer:  I read "Understand," another short story by him, online. A friend of mine sent me the link to it online so I could have it. I devoured it, and I was totally fascinated by him as an author, so I looked him up to find out what other stuff he had. That story was in the collection, so I just bought that off Amazon cold, and it showed up two days later. I sat down late at night and thought, "Oh, I'll just read the first story." Five hours later ... I had to stop the story. I realized I was so emotionally affected by it. I had to get up and find my wife and hug her. I just needed to see the outside world for a while.

He's not super prolific, yet his work is so acclaimed.

He was even nominated for a Hugo for one of his stories and he turned it down. He said he wasn't good enough. 

When I talked to the producers earlier, they said he was actually a little hard to track down to get the rights. He just was kind of oblivious.

Outside of one amateur writer-producer who had no credits and no IMDb page, we were actually the first to contact him to option the rights to something, so that was significant to me, because I was like, "What? How is this possible?"

Talk about the elements of the story that really spoke to you, and then the second part of that question is, what makes it sort of coalesce in your mind in terms of seeing it on the screen and thinking, "I'd like to adapt this"?

The answer to your first question, I'll say that I was just emotionally devastated. I was heartbroken and uplifted at the same time. That is a crazy feat, I think, for any writer to do to a reader, or an audience. If that was the only thing, I would be like, "Wow, this is a really affecting story," but because it's Ted Chiang and it's science fiction, I got a bunch of cerebral concepts that I'd never been introduced to before. I hadn't really heard of Fermat's principle of least time before I read that story. I didn't even know about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (note: Sapir-Whorf is a concept in linguistics and cognitive science that holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' cognition or world view). All these things were brand new. Linguistic idea.

My mind and my heart were both engaged in the story. My primary directive to adapt it was just to transfer those feelings into a screenplay format. I wasn't really thinking about how cinematic the story was or wasn't. That was a problem for future me. I was like, "I'll figure out the movie later on," but I want to know this feeling. Then the future me was like, "What have I done?"

It was a very literary story that I suddenly realized didn't have an easy organic kind of cinematic transfer. I had to do a number of things to it to get there. Once I made the choice to have the heptapods arrive on the planet, and meet us face to face, so to speak, and have it be a legitimate first contact scenario, instead of a remote one, the other choices sort of lined up for me, I understood this was how I want this to be. This is a close encounter story.

Is it easier to expand a 30-page short story as opposed to contracting, say, a 400-page novel?

They're different challenges, and they're both challenging in different ways. I want to say that given the choice between the two, the short story's easier, simply because there is enough room for you to expand some things to make the story work in the time frame you need. Whereas every novel that's like a 400-page thing or longer, requires you to cut. There are some novels, maybe most novels even, that don't survive that too well, that need all of that time with the reader, with the audience, to really fully feel what the story's trying to say.

Once this whole process was underway and you were working on the script, did you talk to Ted a lot?

We traded emails, I want to say fairly regularly. He may say it wasn't nearly enough for him. But honestly, there were months when I didn't have any more news for him at the time, or it was a slow development cycle, and he was brand new to this. Hopefully he felt respected. Every time I had a draft that I needed his eyes on, I sent to him.

There are a handful of drafts that I didn't show him just because I knew I wasn't ready for his input yet, but it wasn't going into anybody else's hands. At key moments, he always got a reading. He always got back to me with notes and those are the ones that I cherish most, really. Because he's the originator. He'd done so much work ahead of time. He could tell me when I was wrong on linguistics or theoretical physics or something like that. He'd done that work.

It's a very rare thing that we see one writer on a movie. Many times someone works on a script, but then the director comes along and wants to rewrite himself or bring in his own writer. But not this time.

No. Because that's one that (Villeneuve) nurtured from the get-go. He called me after he was fully on board and he told me, "All right. We're married now." Usually it's the last time I see the director, until we're at the premiere, and he's like, "Hey, yeah, you're ... oh yeah, the writer, yeah." That's usually how it happens.

But he grilled me about every page of this script. Rightfully so. He wanted into the DNA of the material. He was really here to get to the subtext of every scene, and understand the relationship that one scene had with another, or all the characters' choices. That was a great school for me because anything that I couldn't articulate, anything that I couldn't explain to him, I knew probably wasn't necessary or it was problematic. He'd either get rid of it, or he'd come up with something better on his own that would fill that space.

I was there writing stuff for him all through production. I'd get calls at all hours, like, "Eric, Eric, I need this"...we needed tails and heads to things, and I was constantly doing that kind of work for him. Which was great, it's how you end up making the same film start to finish. It's protecting that story. Everyone was onboard to do that.

(possible slight spoilers ahead)

Was this more challenging in a way because of the fact that you were dealing with a specific kind of structure for certain sequences?

Open eyeClose eye Show Spoiler Totally. We were very careful with that. We also had to be very careful with our timing of those moments. And earn them. And make sure that they didn't happen before she had any exposure to the heptapod language, and then once they did, it had to go up in kind of a logarithmic scale, so that the more she got involved in it, the more out of sync with her normal way of seeing the world happened. We had more of everything, I guess, in the script. We shot all of that, or most of it anyway. There was a Jenga game that happened, certainly, in editorial, where some of those flash points were pulled out. Some of those moments were removed, and with that we had to remove a few other pieces, and all of that was a very careful kind of amputation to keep the whole thing working. It made it more elegant, actually. It just made it more of a refined story whereas some of it was a bit repetitive.

Let me ask you about a couple other things you're working on. You are working on Sandman?

I've walked away from that, but it was great. It was a great experience. I hope it finds a home in TV. I did a film script, and then I turned that in saying, "This doesn't work as a film."


I said, "You need to fire me and you need to find a TV home for it." I think they're going to get there, but it's not up to me. The best I could do was just say, "I may not be the best person for this as a film, and I don't know if it exists. I think it exists only in TV."

Van Helsing, you did a draft of that?

I did that one with Jon Spaihts, he and I co-wrote that one together, yeah. I have no idea what's going on with that one yet. I'm sworn to secrecy on a lot of that. They're keeping that pretty tight. But I can tell you that our initial prototype for him was Mad Max.

When you wake up in the morning and turn on your laptop, what are you working on right now?

I'm actually working on a comic book right now for Valiant. I'm always working on more than one thing because I tend to, once I start feeling too much like one thing is work, I'll switch over to something else and spark it. The other is a spec script that I'm about to finish, actually. That's all I'll say for now.

Arrival lands in theaters this Friday (November 11).