‘Arrival’ screenwriter Eric Heisserer is a linebacker for the creative process

‘Arrival’ screenwriter Eric Heisserer is a linebacker for the creative process

Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner star in the critically acclaimed 'Arrival.'

In Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when humongous spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew (which includes Jeremy Renner) must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind. Based on the short story, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and written by Eric Heisserer.

I recently sat down with Eric to discuss the process of turning a script into a film. I do want to add a disclaimer. My introduction to him wasn’t as creepy as it might come across on the page.

I want to start off with that you’re sort of my idol right now.

Eric: What?

Right?

Eric: Okay.

I hope I don’t cross into creepy stalky territory.

Eric: [laughing – hopefully not uncomfortably]

You wrote Lights Out which I loved. You did some work on The Conjuring 2, which I loved. And I loved Arrival.

Eric: Good deal.

I’m sort of geeking out right now.

Eric: Well hello.

So after all these years of hard work, how does it feel to be an “overnight” success?

Eric: [laughing] I understand now when they talk about that. Overnight? Where were you guys ten years ago?

Right?

Eric: I get it. For me, it’s just another year. We may be in a place when it’s another five years when a film I’m involved in hits the big screen and yet, there will be countless that never get that far – bodies left at the drawbridge.

So many scripts are in development hell forever. Did the stars align for you to get this script produced?

Eric: I think in large part is that I wrote in on spec. [A spec script, also known as a speculative screenplay, is a non-commissioned unsolicited screenplay. It is usually written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company, or studio.] When you do that, you can be the architect of it and build it the way you want it to be made. It’s not a part of a franchise and you’re not a writer for hire.

When you’re in that space, more often than not, you’re just being given directions. I think I knew this is where I wanted to start gearing my career when I wrote this draft in 2011. Since then, I have written at least one thing on spec to try and preserve my voice more than anything. That’s the big lesson I learned from this. When you do this, you can stick to your guns because it’s entirely you and someone buys it for what it is. Whereas, when I’m brought in to pay the rent for somebody else’s property, I don’t necessarily have that authoritative voice, understandably so.

I don’t know if you want to tell us about any of your scripts or not, but what kinds of stories would you like to tell going forward?

Eric: I found a fascinating post-apocalyptic novel by Josh Malerman a couple of years ago called Bird Box. I adapted that for Universal because it’s a unique creature in its own right. I’ve taken some swings at some other big properties and taken some risks. I’ve adapted Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. We had interest from Morton Tyldum (The Imitation Game) to direct that so I hope we can lure him back. He’s a busy man. I have a handful of other things. I have a spec that I wrote this year that I’m just finishing up. It’s based on a real life character which is a brand new muscle to work. It’s like getting the box of chocolates with all the different flavors. I can’t help myself: ‘What’s it like to write this?’

Do a little horror, a little sci-fi, a little drama.

Eric: Exactly. Do some TV now and then.

Okay, so what drew you to the short story in the first place?

Eric: It was the way it made me feel. I was really excited about trying to share that feeling. It’s a strange mix of being devastated and heartbroken but uplifted at the same time. To me, it’s like a magic trick. It’s a fascination of how Ted did that in the short story. I wanted to learn that. It’s a little bit like seeing a martial arts master and saying, ‘I want to go to this guy’s school.’ I knew that taking this risk by adapting this short story would at least teach me some new things, but mainly it was about how it made me feel.

I know it happens with screenwriters where someone will buy the script, but the final product is not at all how you envisioned it. I’m guessing the final product turned out at least fairly close to your vision?

Eric: Yes. Largely because I was brought into the family that made the film so I was there every step of the way. I was an executive producer which gave me an unprecedented role in making this work. We all made the same movie. That’s the beauty of this. Everyone came and committed themselves to what we were making and didn’t misinterpret it. It’s a movie about communication.

I’ve seen so many directors who come in and don’t understand the subtext of a scene. They won’t ask me a question about why I put something in there and don’t realize it’s a setup to a callback later. Or they’re only interested in one or two elements. They can still make an interesting movie in their own right, but it doesn’t necessarily show everything I was doing. If it’s successful, I won’t criticize that.

Here, we had something that was really delicately built. This script was like building a boat inside a bottle. There was so much that had to be done right, especially with the non-linear style of things. Everyone treated it with that kind of care and attention. [Director] Denis [Villeneuve] asked me questions on just about every page. I never had a director get that in depth and get into the DNA of the material. That’s a testament to him.

One of the producers, I think it was Dan [Levine], said, ‘we were a family. We were all on the same page.’ That’s so rare on a film set where everyone’s actually working together.

Eric: Yes. It is! It’s a rarified feeling. I was on set for Lights Out and then I flew directly to Arrival in Montreal. It was a great example of two different schools of thought. We had an amazing film and an amazing director for Lights Out, but we had a lot of people who were looking for another version of that film. A lot of things were on fire and yet, it turned out great. There were a lot more battles to be fought there constantly and it can exhaust someone. Then I stepped onto the set of Arrival. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, by the way, was easily the best dressed man on set everyday – just dapper as all hell. He was so chill and called everybody bro. ‘It’s alright bro, we got this.’ That attitude was pervasive throughout everybody. Dan was right.

For Lights Out, was it because David Sandberg was such an unknown? He had done the short film. Was that why people were nervous?

Eric: Oddly enough, the more people would listen to him, the more people stuck to what he was doing, the better the film was. The more people pushed against him, the more it started falling apart. He absolutely had the right idea. That’s what I learned. One of the big roles of a producer is to be a linebacker for the creatives.

Now that you’ve worn both hats [as a writer and producer], do you have a greater appreciation for either side?

Eric: Yes. Both are fairly thankless, but still.

What did you learn that you were maybe surprised to learn?

Eric: I had no idea how often you have to defend what you’re already making – how easily people outside that process feel they can change direction. This goes back a bit, but there was a three week break in production of The Thing prequel where someone at the studio was convinced we should be shooting in 3D. It really wreaked havoc on something that could have been a nice, smooth process. Instead, we’re fighting this invisible battle to shoot it in this format. It affects everybody. You get fatigued. You show up and you’re like, ‘for the first two hours, I just fought with someone over something that’s stupid’ and now you have to get plugged into the film you’re trying to make. Yes, it’s tough. Producers handle that and fight a lot of those things.

Speaking of 3D, I’m glad this wasn’t in 3D.

Eric: Yes!

I’m tired of every movie being in 3D because I don’t think it ever adds anything to a movie. Anyways, as a writer, I’m sure you have a mental picture of each character you write about. Amy, Forest, Jeremy, were they at all what you originally envisioned?

Eric: When I pitched the movie in 2011 trying to get a studio to buy it, I used index cards including pictures of my dream cast. I put Amy as Louise back then long before I realized we’d actually get her.

And is she who you envisioned when you first started writing the script?

Eric: As the actress, yes. There’s a time when you stop thinking about who will play the role and embody them as their own person.

Lights Out had huge buzz and now this is getting huge buzz. Is that scary? Is it validating? Is it both?

Eric: It’s the risk of exposure that I don’t really like. I don’t know how actors do it. I can guarantee you that I will get hate mail from somebody.

Of course.

Eric: Stay away from the Internet.

Do not let the trolls get to you.

Eric: Yes.

What’s the weirdest comment or tweet or something you’ve ever gotten?

Eric: I remember getting an unsolicited Facebook message out of nowhere from someone saying that as the writer, I ruined the movie because it had terrible CGI. In their head apparently I wrote, ‘and it had terribly awful CGI’ in the script and everyone obeyed it. That was the weirdest I’ve have recently.

Don’t you wish you had that power, to control everything about a movie?

Eric: That’s kind of scary too.

Arrival is now playing in theaters.

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