As far as hit Hollywood movies go, this one couldn’t be more unlikely: A linguist and a physicist are charged with deciphering alien communication while ruminating on the relativity of language and the nature of time.
Yet, “Arrival,” the sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a pair of scientists attempting to communicate with a group of “heptapods” from outer space, has been beloved by both critics and audiences — to the tune of a $195-million box office haul worldwide.
On Sunday, screenwriter Eric Heisserer took home the trophy for adapted screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards. And the film has racked up seven Academy Award nominations, including ones for cinematography, directing (Denis Villaneuve) and adapted screenplay.
For Heisserer, who prior to “Arrival” was primarily known for his work in horror (“Final Destination 5” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), the accolades couldn’t be more satisfying.
When he first pitched the idea around town, the response was pretty much crickets. “Everyone said, ‘This is fascinating — we’re passing hard,’” he recalls with a laugh. “And that’s usually where it dies.”
Except “Arrival,” which is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang, didn’t die. Heisserer decided to forge ahead and write a script on spec. That effort landed his script on the 2012 Black List, a repository of the top un-produced screenplays. Paramount picked up the project, and by 2014, Villeneuve, of “Sicario” fame, was on board to direct.
I wanted to make other people feel the way I did, to make them ugly cry like I did.
— Eric Heisserer, "Arrival" screenwriter
Heisserer, a polymath who hails from Norman, Okla., has worked as a graphic designer, written post-apocalyptic comic books and produced a variety of screenplays — including the “Hours,” the 2013 drama that starred Paul Walker as a dad fighting for his newborn’s life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (a picture he also directed).
In this lightly edited conversation, Heisserer discusses how he discovered Chiang’s work, how he devised an early version of the alien script that is seen in the movie (Hint: it involves J.R.R. Tolkien) and what’s going to happen to humanity when the aliens finally land.
How did you come across Chiang’s story?
I happened to get a link to one of his stories from a friend. I thought, this is really fascinating writing, accessible science fiction that gets deep. Then I saw his collection of stories and I Amazon-ed it. I was like, “I’ll just read the first story.” And five hours later there I was. I only stopped when I got to “The Story of Your Life.” I was totally crying and I was like, “I want to adapt this.” I wanted to make other people feel the way I did, to make them ugly cry like I did.
How did you manage to persuade a Hollywood studio that a film about alien linguistics was a good investment?
I’m pretty bad at pitching to producers: I was like, “This is a nonfranchise sci-fi film with a female lead about linguistic relativity.” And people were like, “Security!” [Laughs.] It took two years to find a producer.
Finally, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen at [the production company] 21 Laps — they read it after reading some material of mine that showed I wasn’t writing just horror scripts. We had several meetings to talk about how this could be a movie. This ultimately resulted in the first major change from the short story: The aliens show up and they park all over the world, rather than just communicating through this looking glass. That was a key decision. We could really add portent to the story.
But it’s still a very complex script — with even the most casual dialogue having to address nuanced issues of language while moving the plot forward.
It was lots of trial and error. I fell on my face a lot. I think writing in my own space where it was just me and the two Dans, we gave ourselves permission to experiment, to play around with some of the strangest ideas. A good amount of it was rooted in the source material. Ted explores a lot of this in a way that is quite palatable. My job was to carry that over without breaking it.
I had access to experts, too — access to linguists, physicists — and I’d ask them how they might approach something. I had to learn about physics, too, about things like Fermat’s principle of least time [that a ray of light will always travel the quickest path between two points]. I did a lot of deep dives.
You also created some of the early alien logograms, which you inserted into the script and which inspired the ones used in the film. How did you come up with the design?
When I was describing [the logograms] in the script, it was too novelistic — it was too much verbiage on the page. I was complaining to my wife about it and she said, “What are you talking about?” So I drew it out on a napkin. And she said, “There you go.” And I said, “You can’t put graphics in a script!” But then I was like, “Who said you can’t put graphics in a script?”
The original design came from Elvish [the fictional language created by Tolkien]. I had been looking at languages that were completely invented. And I settled on Elvish at first because people were using it to inscribe rings — a circular thing. So, I thought, I can start with that and make it my own. That original design then ended up as the basis of the logograms for the story.
As a young man, you worked as a graphic designer for NASA in Houston. How did that experience filter into “Arrival”?
A headhunter got me a job as a subcontractor at NASA. That was in 1990 or ‘91. It was purely based on my software skills. I was really young. I went in for the interview and they said, “Where’s the real guy? Aren’t you like 19?”
I ended up working crazy 70-hour weeks with these genius people creating schematics for technological and instrumentation proposals for the astronauts. I did the layouts. They would all party and there would be a whole bunch of booze — but ginger ale for me because I wasn’t 21. Hanging out with drunk astrophysicists is the best.
Anyhow, I remember once I went and saw “Armageddon” with them — it was a bit of a reunion. They were grumbling throughout the first part. But the moment the two space shuttles launched side-by-side, my whole row stood up and left the theater. I remember [thinking], “If I’m ever in a position to make a movie like this, I want the scientists to keep their butts in their seats.” It has to be real.
You’ve written a number of horror films over your career. What did it teach you about screenwriting?
Horror taught me skills that apply in every other genre. One of the first things it taught me was about sustaining tension. The longer you do that and the better you are at that, the better the entire screenplay or film is. If you are too interested in the resolution of that tension — even if that resolution is a scare or death — you end up giving the audience fatigue. When I started writing action scripts, it was the biggest, most important thing I brought.
Apart from the screenwriting, I understand you’re a bit of a Shakespeare buff.
That’s entirely through my wife, Christine Boylan. She’s a TV writer and producer and also a playwright. She’d heard that Joss Whedon would have Shakespeare groups where he would invite friends over to do a reading of one of the plays. So we started doing that about two years ago. We’ve had as many as 30 people. It’s writers and actors and occasionally producers. Some do research ahead of time or reread the play itself, but we usually come to it cold — then we get drunk and talk about what makes it work.
You’ve written comics — such as the post-apocalyptic “Lone Wolf 2100.” How have comics been formative to your experience?
The comic book store was across the street from Norman High School. It was like having your crack dealer right there. Growing up, it was “Rom Space Knight” — I got really into that. The other one was “Master of Kung Fu.”
I was drawn to “Master of Kung Fu” because I was taking martial arts and I loved the artwork in it. And the more I read “Rom,” about this intergalactic defender who was there to get rid of a race that was hidden among us, I realized that there was all sorts of political subtext to that comic. It talked about racism in some ways. It talked about the mental corruption of someone by a larger geopolitical industry. It dug into stuff I hadn’t thought about before.
So, for me now, it’s about making sure that I don’t just tell a story with lasers and alien races and spaceship, that for it to be resonant, for it to connect to people, I need to make sure that I am also saying something else.
Which leads me to a very important question: When the aliens land, who should they take first?
If the aliens land right now, they’re going to have to start giving out numbers because there will be a large number of people that will want to leave with them. They’re going to be like, “Please don’t leave me here.”