Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
Eric Heisserer’s screenwriting roots to date have primarily been in the horror genre, including the remakes of The Thing and A Nighmare on Elm Street, the 5th Final Destination, and this year’s sleeper hit Lights Out. But for some time his dream project was a humanistic sci-fi drama based on the short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. Arrival is just that project and after a long incubation period with Heisserer, it’s living up to its name, with high praise and year end awards consideration. Feature one of a Amy Adam’s best performances as a interpreter asked to translate alien language, Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) have delivered a timely, thoughtful, and surprisingly emotional story about the need for human connection and communication. As part of our Contenders series of interviews, I spoke with Eric about his wonderfully layers screenplay.
I’ve read a little about your determination to get this movie made. What was the process of getting it into production?
It was a labor of love for me, I think I told my representatives that if I could get just one more film made, it would be this one. But when we brought it to 21 Laps (production company), they read it and loved it. But it took a number of years to get it made. I carried a dog eared copy of the short story collection around for years. And when I did the bottle water tour, when you meet with producers about potential projects. They would ask if I knew of any properties I’d want to adapt. And this would always be the one to come up. I spoke passionately about Story of Your Life, but I always knew it would be a long shot. I’d never worked on a story like this and to work on something considered prestige sci-fi would be a hard sell. It has a lot of cerebral elements and emotional undercurrents. But it’s also not a franchise film or invasion film. That made it a difficult sell. But I found producers that understood the passion I had for it and helped me pitch my heart out, but every studio said no. I came home, couldn’t let go of it, and decided to write it on spec. And thankfully, Ted gave me the option for a year.
I was so excited to hear Amy Adams was your first choice for the role, because this is exactly the kind of role I love to see her play, and this is one of my favorite performances from her. What made you think of her for the role of Louise?
She was my first and probably only choice for the part. As an actress, when she’s on screen, it’s like I can see what the character’s thinking. She projects so much through subtext. And I knew this would be the kind of role that demanded that specific talent. I was just so lucky when we got her on board, I just love her in this.
Arrival and Lights Out both have female protagonists, both deal with mothers and daughters, and feature women suffering through grief. Did you think about what draws you to those types of female characters and there similarities?
They definitely connected, although I of course wrote Arrival first. I guess I would say I’ve been trying to write a character that can hold a candle to my wife. That’s the kind of persona I like to see on screen, so I just keep trying. She’ll kill me if she knows that, it’s probably going to embarrass her, but I’ll be honest and say she’s a huge inspiration.
This is a very different film for the director Denis Villeneuve. Seeing his other films, what were your initial feelings about him taking on your screenplay?
I’d seen Incendies and Prisoners. And I immediately knew he was a skilled director who can set the perfect tone and atmosphere. But what made nervous was, I didn’t see anything optimistic or hopeful about the human condition in his work. His other films were designed that way, so it was an appropriate. But our film was designed to have a far more optimistic view of the world. And I just didn’t know if he’d embrace that, but I was so grateful that he did. And he told me, that spirit was a big part of what drew him to this script.
Did you collaborate on a final script before filming?
We collaborated a lot, but the bones of the script didn’t really change at all. The changes we made had to do with adapting to our budget and changing some plot points in order to distance ourselves a bit from Interstellar. There were some plot points early on that felt close to that film, which had just come out. But the biggest thing he added was to show more of the process. He loves process and showing people doing their work. And he really embraced showing as much of that as possible. So he wanted to show the types of showers trucks would go through at the camp and steps of getting in and out of the suits. The paper work and booster shots they’d need, all that stuff he loved showing, and I love researching and writing that. Those are the things which help with immersion.
I saw Arrival the night after the first Presidential debate, so I had my eyes open to the timeliness of the story. And found myself looking at the film almost as a call for people to calm down, be civil, and start talking and listening to each other. What real world issues and ideas would you like people to bring with them into the theater?
I had no idea the film would be this timely. I don’t think I’d want it to be this timely. But I’ve been passionate about the need to strengthen our communication bridges for a while. Internationally but also between different cultures within the same nation. So often, we become our own worst enemies. And if we are ever gifted first contact, I would hope humanity would find a way to come together in ways we haven’t before.
There’s are two documentaries I thought of when watching, Into Eternity (about nuclear waste storage) and The Visit (about preparing for an alien visit), because the film really makes you question how humankind would be perceived by another species. Did you think about what the alien’s point of view would be?
We must seem very like a very paranoid and reactionary culture. At first, I wanted to avoid that, because it can seem like a trope in a movie. So I was very conscious about going to that well too quickly. And yet, every time I tried to avoid, it felt like I was avoiding an innate side of our culture. There was a recent news story about three white men planning to set fire to a mosque, and that story had shades of something that happens in this film. So ignoring that would have been wrong. So I just had to embrace it. And acknowledge the fact that the longer the ships hoovered over people and the government refused to share information, the more paranoid and fearful society will become. That’s when people come to their own, uninformed conclusions, and it will be the wrong ones.
And you also have the split at the camp between the academics, who believe in study and patient observation, and military men who have been trained to take action and defend. So that seems like it provided a lot of the tension between the characters in the film.
Definitely. But in research you’ll certainly find a lot of men like Forrest Whitaker’s character, who are career military and see the potential value in having both. People who wanted the academics to provide the solution, and not have to take aggressive military action. Those are exactly the types of men and women we want in power within the military because they’ve been through war and seen enough to know, it would be better to work themselves out of job if that means peaceful resolution. And when you have to bring a team together, he’s the type of guy within the military you want in charge. The type that will defend the value of academics to the government. There’s a whole movie going on that the audience never sees of him constantly having to defend them to the paranoid government.
But I wouldn’t call the film cynical about the government, they simply don’t know the right way to act, domestically or internationally. Because the film is set in the US, we see the details of how they’re responding. Were you at all concerned about how other countries were going to be portrayed, considering the shorter screen time they recieve and concern about international stereotypes?
I was, and continue to be nervous about that. There were some story elements that dictated specific reactions from specific nations. But the director and I both asked for assistance from international interpreters and looked into how countries are set up to deal with crisis. Sometimes the stereotype goes completely against the real reactions they would have. And sometimes the stereotype is somewhat accurate. I don’t believe the China government is warlike or aggressive as they might be stereotyped as, but I do believe that rather than go through the challenge of teaching a new species Mandarin or using a tool that breaks things down easily by wins or defeat, they might use that tool.
How did you come up with the visual idea behind the langue? I understand you developed the written language before Denis was involved.
I talked about it with Ted Chiang, who had some ideas I tried to incorporate. And then I tried to describe it in writing. But that didn’t make a lot of sense. And while having dinner with my wife, I said how dissatisfied I was trying to describe it in the script, and she asked, what does it look like? I drew it on a napkin, and she told me to just put it in the script. So I left white space in the word document and when I turned it into a PDF, would add the image. The circular symbols in the film are close to what I had in the script. I really wanted to focus primarily on this idea of non-linear language, and a circle was the best way to express that.
Being a graphic novelist, do you feel your background plays into how you write visually for the screen?
Definitely. But even more than that, the little directing I’ve done has helped me become a better cinematic writer. It’s kept me from pulling some tricks as a writer that ultimately wouldn’t have helped the big picture. It’s made me far more aware of writing something that if I were to read that as an actor or director, I would have no idea what the writer wanted me to do. I don’t want an angry call from a director asking me to explain myself.
The film has a little narration, but not a lot and I didn’t notice a lot of reflective narration, telling the audience how the character’s feeling. Was there more narration or did you intentionally keep it on the minimal side?
Over narration is a huge pet peeve of mine. And if it’s just a description of how they should be feeling, that always strikes me as a lazy crutch. I like to write in something for the actor to be doing with their hands, so they can use their body language and physical behavior to express something about the character in an indirect manner. And even then, those might just be suggestions for the actors, because really skilled actors already know how to get to the subtext of the scene. The moment we got Amy, I went back through the script and removed any narration I felt would feel like training wheels.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)