A screenwriter with an interest in genre storytelling, previously known for various outings in the horror genre, Eric Heisserer fought a lengthy uphill battle in pitching a film based on Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life”, before director Denis Villeneuve came to the helm. With the acclaimed, intellectual sci-fi film, eventually re-titled Arrival, Heisserer has seemingly broken out of a box, demonstrating further his ability to handle dense and complicated material, and to turn any genre on its head.
Seeing the final product on screen, it’s evident that adapting Chiang’s short story was no easy feat—the film, occurring on multiple timelines, on scales grand and intimate, follows a master linguist tasked by the U.S. government to enter a first contact scenario with an alien race. Speaking with Deadline, Heisserer breaks down his writing process, his experiences in the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and the reasons the short story format translates so well to the big screen.
How did Ted Chiang’s short story come to you, and what about it resonated with you?
I found out about Ted Chiang first through another story called “Understand” that was just on some online magazine. I’d come across it and devoured it and thought, “This guy’s great. What other stuff has he done?” I bought a collection of short stories I found on Amazon and a couple days later, it showed up at my door. I made the mistake of sitting down and thinking, “I’ll just read one.” Actually, I had to stop in the middle of the book when I got to “Story of Your Life” because it had a very profound emotional effect on me. I was in tears, and I was both heartbroken and uplifted. My head was just full of big ideas. I had to walk around the block a couple of times afterward and just hug my friends.
The next day, I was like, “Oh god, I want to give this to other people.” Obviously I had recommended the book to everybody, but there’s a way to transplant that to film and then carry it to a larger audience. That’s the gift, there. That’s the real gift that I would be able to, if I could manage it. I was all caught up on just making sure that I could communicate that feeling. I wasn’t thinking about, “How is this a movie?”
Given your work in horror and other genre fare, would you say you are very interested in bending, expanding or further exploring new avenues in genre-based storytelling?
Very much—I found myself sort of forced into one lane, and it was working on other people’s established horror franchises, versus content that I was leading the charge on. I wanted to continue working in other genres, partly because it sharpens the saw. You end up learning more about your craft as a writer when you do that. I was trying to improve myself, but also I had been a fan of sci-fi for a long time. I had a lot of passion about this particular project, and that’s why I wouldn’t let go of it.
What is it about the short story format that transfers so effectively to the feature film?
Oddly, the short story seems to be the perfect amount of content to adapt to a film. You don’t have too much, and it tends to be new content you need to generate in order to make that adaptation work. If you have the real estate to do that, then you end up with a better quality movie than trying to build something by process of elimination. So many sci-fi novels tend to end up being a subtraction.
Supposedly, it took a number of years for you to get this project made for the big screen.
This was an extreme risk for buyers and for studios. It made perfect sense why it took so long to get made. The first leap of faith was having someone commit to me as the voice for this, as the writer. That was an uphill battle in its own right, and required me actually to get to a point in my career where I had written the drama screenplay for the film I directed, Hours—Paul Walker’s film. Once I had that as a piece of material that other people could see that I did, I could write outside of the horror genre. I think that’s why I started getting some more traction on Story of Your Life. It really wasn’t until the two Dans [Dan Levine and Dan Cohen] at 21 Laps backed my horse, so to speak, that we were really going, we had the momentum.
In adapting the short story, what did you expand or flesh out for your feature script, and what did you subtract?
At some point in time, having worked on this for several years, the differences between the script and the story turn into a bit of a soup in my brain. The greatest change that I had to make was to really have the heptapods show up at our front door, have it be a first contact scenario where they’ve landed on Earth. That generated a lot of conflict and tension that helped drive the story forward, dramatically speaking.
I also had to play around with how much of the other information that I found so compelling in the story worked in this film. We ended up even shooting a lot of that. We got as far as, in post-production, having to make these decisions. An example would be the scientific work that Jeremy Renner’s character Ian does. That’s explored more in the script and in the film, and then ultimately it wound up being more just a detraction from Louise’s story, and had to be shaved off.
We had to change the way that Hannah’s story ends—I’m being a little vague here. In Ted’s short story, there’s a pretty distinct difference. I chose the path for her, I chose the ending because I felt like giving Louise a choice— giving her agency and free will, even in what seemed like a deterministic future, an insurmountable task—giving her that option made it more profound, as a parent or as a mother, to make that choice to have Hannah. That then required me to change—spoilers—how Hannah dies.
Among other things, the chronology of this movie is very complex. Did you outline with notecards on a corkboard, or something to that effect, to keep the story straight?
I started with a set of note cards; it’s actually how I pitched out the project for a little while. I put all the story beats on the cards, and I color-coded them by difference between the scenes in the future, with Hannah and Louise, and then the present-day alien visitation sequences. I made that all a giant grid on my cork wall for a while. Then, I began to collect little specific details, flotsam and jetsam that came to me over the course of development. I had a repository for that on my wall, where I would just jot down specific lines of dialogue, or I would tear out pictures in magazines of someone who had some piece of wardrobe that I thought, “So and so would be wearing this,” or, “This would be a good look for the alien creatures, or for the ships,” or whatever. Like a mood board, or an inspiration board, really.
Then eventually, all of that comes together. You get a critical mass where you can only put so much on there. When you start feeling like there’s no space for you, then that’s a sign you gotta just stop doing that and actually start writing. [laughs] “I’ve run out of cork.”
Was it challenging to synthesize the complex information required to understand the film without being overbearing in the exposition?
It was a challenge, but it was also incredibly exciting because the stuff that could be labeled ‘exposition’ in the film, it’s just so inherently fascinating to me that I would get excited talking about it to other people. I hung out with a number of scientists and linguists. I’m a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. It allows me and other writers to get paired up with experts in various fields. When you spend some time with really smart people, you get to hear how they talk to one another and how they share ideas. It doesn’t ever feel like exposition. It feels more like they’re either justifying their jobs for somebody else, or they’re talking about a new discovery or a new concept in their field, the way that you and I would talk about a movie we just saw and loved.
Did you go through a research process to understand at a deeper level those linguistic and mathematical concepts on which the film is based?
One of the pieces that we never did get a chance to leave in the film, but is present in the story—I don’t know, maybe it’ll be an extra on the DVD, where you can see Jeremy Renner demonstrate this with a little laser pointer and hand sanitizer. It’s Fermat’s principle of least time, and it talks about how you can pick the shortest path by time, even if spatially, it’s a longer distance. That gets into Snell’s law, and things that it will take me thirty minutes to talk through, because I have just enough information to get dangerous. [laughs]
Was it challenging to find a balance in the writing between intimate, human moments and moments of epic scale?
Yeah. I gave a lot of materials for that, realizing that it’s better to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to those tender moments. It allowed Denis to pick and choose the things that he responds best to, or where the best performances come organically out of those scenes, and then just pick the greatest hits. I was always in the process of providing more scenes, more information, more ideas, and realized that I was with a bunch of artists that are at the top of their game. They’re going to find the best route to those moments.
What was your biggest challenge in crafting this script?
I think the biggest challenge was maintaining a balance of heart and mind. There’s a specific alchemy there. You can’t give short shrift to either. You can’t be preachy on either side, either. This is a fine line. This is the needle we were threading about making sure that we were never too saccharine, or too intellectually snobbish. On the other side of the coin, we never wanted to condescend to the audience. We never wanted to give the audience “4”; we were trying to give them “2 plus 2.” And to make sure that all the emotional moments were authentic and came from real life examples. All the beats there that were between mother and daughter were culled, if not directly from the short story, from someone’s real life experience with their child.
What do you think the political resonance of this film is to the current situation in the United States, with its ideas about communication and cooperation? It feels, on some level, like a film for today.
I can say I wish that it weren’t, that we were in a far better place. I agree that it became a little more timely than expected. Communication is such a critical core theme of the story, and we did our best to showcase how pervasive it is to the whole film—that even our understanding of foreign powers and what they’re up to, all of that was through the communication filter of the American intelligence bias.
Our thought of, “These people are bad, and these people are bad” kind of gets upended toward the end of the film, when you realize, “OK, wait a minute. We may not have a good picture of what’s going on in other countries. And there are little bits and pieces that are scattered throughout—I believe it was [General] Shang, at one point, in an extended version of the scene at the ballroom, where he mentions how news of the attack at the Montana site, when the bomb went off, really rocked everybody else at other, foreign sites, because they thought “Everybody’s in trouble. The U.S. put us there.” We get to see how we’re seen as the villain to other countries because of our mistakes, and all of that is the undercurrent of, “We have to be clear with each other, and when we feel like we misunderstand something, we have to get over whatever pride keeps us from going back to ask to clarify.