Eric Heisserer talks ‘Arrival’ and why he had to get this film made!

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Arrival is one of the most talked about and best-reviewed films of 2016. In the film, Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a trained linguist who is hired by the military to help communicate with an alien race. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival but went on to play at Telluride, TIFF, and about ten other festivals all across the globe. 

Several members of the We Live Entertainment staff saw Arrival at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and loved it. I did a video review of the film with friend and colleague Nick Iacobucci while Ashley Menzel and Nick Casaletto each did a written review for the film. Fred Topel best known as Franchise Fred saw the film at Beyond Fest after hearing rave reviews and loved it just as much, if not more than everyone else on the site.

About a week ago, I was very lucky to get a chance to talk with Eric Heisserer about the film. Heisserer wrote the screenplay for Arrival which is also based on a short story written by Ted Chiang. Heisserer has had an amazing year as he also wrote the surprise horror smash hit, Lights Out, which also happens to be the film where I first chatted with Eric.

Below is my complete in-depth interview with Eric on Arrival. Please be warned that this interview does contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film yet, please watch it first and then come back to We Live Entertainment to read this interview. 

Hi, Eric, we met once before at the Lights Out press day.

Lovely

I’m sorry to have to do the phone interview with you today. I know you’ve been busy all day doing round tables and all that good stuff.

I would love to be able to see you face to face, but this is the next best thing.

I just want to tell you right off the bat that I loved Lights Out and then when I saw Arrival at TIFF,  I thought it was fantastic. I mean, this year has been a fantastic year for your career and I hope it continues into the future.

I really appreciate it. I’ve got to say this certainly helps a little bit to deal with the fact that we lost David Bowie this year.

Yeah. Makes up for it a little bit. How long were you involved with the project? I heard it kind of went through hell in the beginning.

I was the one that brought it to the producers, and we pitched it around and tried to sell it to studios, and nobody bought it. Then, I went back and re-read the script and said I can’t let this go. This one is in my heart so much, I’m just going to write this on spec. My reps hated me for that, but I was stubborn, and I said I just have to do this. I’ll have to find some other way to pay the bills in the meantime. Thankfully, Ted Chiang the author, gave us the rights and the time to do that after I had pitched him my idea of how to adapt it. He said all right, let’s give this a try. I started writing that night, and it took me basically a full year before I had a script that I was happy enough with that we could go out and pitch it.

As my reps predicted, all the studios passed again, but this time, independent financiers in the market were attracted to it, and there was a bit of a bidding war among some of these smaller independents. Lava Bear Films and Film Nation were two of the players in that and then they discovered that they were both bidding for the same thing and sort of came together, and they ended up with the movie that way. I guess the development hell section was not so much on the writing side because all that was done in a vacuum as I wrote it on spec, but it was the fact that early on we were pretty discouraged by studios that were saying the only you’ll get this made is if blah, blah, blah. You make the hero a lead or a male instead of female and if you make it a standard alien invasion movie and get rid of all the flashbacks. Those kinds of notes are what we got back early on.

Wow. It’s pretty crazy to hear that story because I feel like that’s starting to be the new story that I have been hearing from a lot of writers in Hollywood. This past week I actually met with the cast and crew of Hacksaw Ridge who said almost the exact same thing. They said that they tried to pitch their film to studio after studio after studio and no one would take it. They really had to fight tooth and nail to actually get it made, so I’m sorry to hear studios won’t take great material. I’m glad, however, that Paramount picked it up, but I’m also saddened to hear the struggle because movies like Arrival where I feel like they make you think, and are intelligent, are the type of films that I always love going to see and ones that I would happily go out and pay to see more than once.

Yeah. I appreciate that.

I’m floored by this movie. I really am. I’m sure a lot of my colleagues have said the same thing to you. You’re actually friends with my friends, Courtney Howard. She asked me what I thought about the film was when I saw it in Toronto and I told her, it was great. You definitely have to see it. When you have a short story and turn that into an actual feature length film, what is that process like?

The first is finding out how much of that story can be transferred pretty directly. How much of a direct port the page to the screenplay page and so that gets into how organically cinematic the story is, but also how much of a run time you have to that core narrative. That feels like a very dry answer to your question, but it’s better to try to adapt a short story where you can add material to make it fit the time that you need for a feature length film than I would say to adapt a novel where you always have more than you can use and it’s a matter of pruning down, and more often than not you realize that the more cuts that you make, the less like the novel the end product can be.

Got you. What was it exactly that attracted you to Ted’s story in the first place?

It was the way it made me feel. My emotional reaction to that story. I was heartbroken, but I was also hopeful. I had a real profound melancholy and to have that emotional reaction after which Ted had already introduced me to things like Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Fermat’s principle was just a complete package. I thought, gosh if I can have audiences feel even a fraction of this, then I must adapt this.

That’s great. I think it’s very important for people to feel deeply connected to the source material. I love the linguistic approach in this movie, and I feel like it’s so unique to the genre in so many different ways. How do you process that as a writer and was there any pressure knowing that the focus was on communication and language rather than explosions.

I’d say that’s the thematic core and so here I am trying to translate something into something else. I’m dealing with the idea that clarity and intent are so important to get right before we make any decisions or any judgments. That was a huge touchstone for me throughout the script, and thankfully everybody involved early in the process knew that and got behind that. I don’t know if any of us could have predicted how salient it would be, how relevant it would be looking at our current political climate right now and how easily people jump to conclusions on things, but it was something that was sewn into the DNA of this script from the get go.

That’s very interesting. I feel that’s another thing that kind of comes up a lot when talking with filmmakers, writers, and actors where they bring up the fact that they didn’t plan for the message to be so relevant to the world today. I often hear “we didn’t set this up to come out at this time,” but it is sometimes nice how the cards just fall into place at just the right time.

Exactly.

The other thing about this film is the jumping around in between the different timelines. That seems like it could be very complex. How did you approach the twisted timelines?

In the story, it happens right away, and there’s just a pattern of like, I almost think of little tiny chapters where you’re with the daughter, and then you’re back on the site. It goes back and forth fluidly. We didn’t really have that freedom here in the story because we found like introducing scenes with the daughter before Louise had a time to sort of absorb any of the written language didn’t make sense. It felt like we were breaking some logical points there so we wound up constructing more of a logarithmic scale where we slowly introduced these little moments, these little memories with her and her daughter and just spaced them out so that they became more and more intense up until the point that she was aware that she was seeing her own life non linearly and that she could even possibly effect that. There’s the non zero sum game moment was kind of, I would say huge, pivot point for her. It was like a big game changer that let her realize that there was a lot more going on just due to the effects of her immersion in the Heptapod language.

I thought the use of the timelines in this film was just brilliant. I feel like the last time I’ve seen a movie where I can actually say that I loved the use of timeline as much as I loved in this one, was probably Donnie Darko.

Oh yeah, well that’s a great example.

Yeah. It reminded me in a lot of ways of how Richard Kelly did that with Donnie Darko. Just wonderful. This is a question my wife wanted me to ask you this. Do you happen to be a Dr. Who fan and the idea that time is wiggly wobbly timey wimey?

Yes. Yes, I am. The answer is yes.

Okay. Perfect. Then, there’s so many great messages in this film, what do you hope that people get out of it?

Most of all, I hope that people think more about how they communicate with others and how there are consequences to what they say and what they do. How easily things can get misinterpreted. I’ve seen one miscommunication ruin someone’s life even for a short period of time, but sometimes it has a longer effect. I’ve been a victim to something like that myself and it’s because we have all these tools now around us for instant communication and instant public communication. There are mouthpieces for nearly everybody out there in the world and how we communicate with one another and our transparency and our honesty in that form of communication is ridiculously vile right now and I feel like it could really make or break us as a people. Looking at this movie and seeing how making just a slight miss-assumption about something at the start can really be our own doom. Maybe they take something from that. The kangaroo story that I use as the example in the film, it basically a small version of what I’m trying to impart to people.

No, I agree. I think that was the biggest surprise. When people saw this movie at Toronto, it was interesting because the thing that I heard from the people from our site who actually saw it before me was it’s not what you expect it to be. It’s not your typical alien invasion movie. It’s all about communication, how we as humans just kind of mess up communication. It’s all about how we deal with our communication and how we go about handling it. It was so refreshing to see an alien invasion movie that was focused on communication that I just couldn’t help but love it.

Thank you.

With Lights Out you had Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer and you got to work with a first time filmmaker on that movie. Now, you get to work with Denis Villeneuve as a director and then you have Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. What does that feel like as a writer to see like, oh my God, I’ve got like this A-lister director and A-lister cast. What does that feel like from a writer’s standpoint?

It’s the best experience. It’s like watching someone make a gourmet meal with the most refined and the best tasting ingredients possible. Like the freshest elements. That’s what I feel like was done here. We brought the best versions of everything and everyone to the table to build this amazing story here. That’s the best gift ever like I didn’t expect … I can’t tell you how many years I thought dealing with people that were strange gatekeepers that prevented me from reaching out to some people like this, telling me like nobody’s going to want this kind of story. I’ve heard that over and over again. There’s no audience out there that is going to follow any of this and to have the kind of faith that I would eventually find, people like Denis and then Amy and Jeremy and Forest and Bradford Young and Jóhannsson on score. Everybody who showed up was the best for this story and all made the same movie. I don’t know if I’ll ever … To have one movie like this in ones career, I can die happy now.

What do you feel is the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard when it comes to trying to pitch this movie or trying to sell this screenplay to a studio or a company?

One of the most ridiculous notes I ever got was get rid of all the flashbacks.

Wow. You would not have a movie without them.

Yes.

Finally, if you had to pitch this movie to audiences, how would you pitch it?

Oh wow, thats tough. A linguist learns the power of choice and her decision can shape the future of humanity.

Sounds great. Thank you so very much Eric. I wish you nothing but the best of luck with this film and your two future projects. Hopefully I get to talk to you again in the near future.

I’ll would love that, Scott. Thank you.

My pleasure, Eric. Have a great one.

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