Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in early September, ARRIVAL has been one of the best received films of 2016, and please allow me to throw my whole-hearted endorsement of it in the ring as well. On the surface, it’s a science fiction work, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which was then adapted and fleshed out by genre screenwriter Eric Heisserer. But underneath, there’s a deeply emotional story about paranoia, trust, and what drives us to do irrational things. As directed by Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO, PRISONERS), and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, ARRIVAL isn’t just out to Wow! you, it wants to get into your head and under your skin and fill you ideas that you will hopefully talk about long after you see the film.
I realized when I got an invite to talk to ARRIVAL screenwriter Heisserer that I don’t often get asked to talk to writers, and that’s a shame because they often have the best stories—and certainly the best war stories of how often the finished film bares little resemblance to what they originally wrote. Heisserer began his film career as a writer of franchise pictures and reboots—the 2010 remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the prequel to THE THING, and the wildly inventive FINAL DESTINATION 5. He then wrote and directed a small-budget Hurricane Katrina-set thriller called HOURS, one of the last films starring Paul Walker, who passed away just before the film was given a limited release. More recently Heisserer did an uncredited polish on THE CONJURING 2.
Over the last couple of years, Heisserer has been writing like mad, usually working on multiple scripts at once, including a take on VAN HELSING for Universal; a small handful of comic book adaptations for Valiant Comics; and an adaptation of the book BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman. But earlier this year, Heisserer got his first producing credit (alongside James Wan) for the surprise horror hit LIGHTS OUT, from his original screenplay. After years of watching works he’s written get mangled in post-production, the writer was in a position to make sure he remained a part of the creative process for the entirely of the production. I had a chance to talk to Heisserer recently by phone, and he did not disappoint in the telling of many stories about ARRIVAL (of which he also is an executive producer) and other works, both past and future. Please enjoy my chat with Eric Heisserer…
Capone: Hi, Eric. How are you?
Eric Heisserer: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Steve?
Capone: Good. First of all, congratulations on a hell of a year for you. You’ve had a couple very interesting and successful things this year, including ARRIVAL, which people haven’t seen yet, but the response on the festival circuit has been phenomenal. What was it about this short story that intrigued you and made you want to flesh it out the way you did?
EH: Well, Ted Chiang does this amazing magic trick where he really lures you in with some amazing, cerebral concepts, some big sci-fi questions and, then he punches you in the heart with a real emotional follow up. So that’s the experience I had with “Story of Your Life.” I was so intrigued by a linguistic way into a first contact story, and a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the way that he contextualized so many of these fascinating mathematical concepts within his narrative. Then at the end of the story, I was just emotionally devastated.
So when I have a real emotional response to a story, that’s when I end up with the fire in my belly to try and find a way to adapt it. It doesn’t matter if the story itself doesn’t feel very cinematic at all. If it doesn’t even feel like a cinematic transposition could even work, I’m still drawn to it simply because the way it made me feel. That’s my prime directive in tackling anything that I adapt is being to lift up and carry over that feeling and translate that to the big screen.
Capone: So this was a story that you found, right? This was not an assignment.
Capone: How long ago was that?
EH: For years, I carried around the dog-eared collection of stories. I would tell every producer I could—you do the bottled-water tour where you go around and everybody’s like, “Hey, kid. What do you got? Is there anything out there?” And I’d go, “Yes. There’s this story, and it’s about a linguist and a woman who’s the lead, and it’s a first contact, but nobody shoots each other, and Will Smith doesn’t punch an alien at the end.” And they’d get all glassy, especially when I’d start talking about linguistic relativity, and they’re just like, “I don’t think so, kid.”
Finally, I guess it was 2010 that I made this connection. There are so many ways this business, especially with the writer-producer and writer-director relationships, it is so cleanly akin to dating, where you go into a lot of bad dates, or you go into relationships that look good on paper, then you get into it and realize it’s just not going to work out by just the way people have different perspectives on things. I really bonded with Dan Levine and Dan Cohen over at 21 Laps [Entertainment]. Of course, that’s Shawn Levy’s company, and Shawn had not done anything in this arena, and I had not written anything. Actually, I had written a bunch of stuff, but none of it ever got made, and this was really a risk for both of us. But we were very passionate about it, and they saw I was ready to carry this thing as far as I could, and off we went.
Capone: The detail and the thought that goes into the science of this film, which I realize is only a part of what the film is really about, but in my mind I’m thinking “The first love of the person who wrote this was science fiction.” It’s not horror, it’s not whatever else you’ve written up to this point.
EH: Absolutely. 100 percent. It was so fascinating that when I got my break in the business it was with a horror script, and it surprised me more than anyone else. It was the only horror script I’d ever written, and I had five sci-fi scripts that were just way too much money for anyone to look at.
Capone: And you have another script based on one of Ted Chiang’s short stories in the works as well, correct?
EH: Yes. It’s in early days, but I do hope that if this movie is successful or at least moderately successful in terms of its return on investment, then maybe we can get some more work. UNDERSTAND is the name of that one.
Capone: So that’s what you’re hoping for, but meanwhile LIGHTS OUT was a huge hit, so are people coming at you for more horror scripts now as well?
EH: [laughs] The way the universe works never ceases to amaze me. I had been very clear I was never going to do another horror movie again, and then the opportunity for LIGHTS OUT showed up, and I couldn’t turn it down. So that’s sort of my one foray back into horror, and now they’ve got me. I think I read somewhere in the trades or online on Twitter that the whole team had been hired to do LIGHTS OUT 2, and then the studio called me and said “Hey, so maybe you already heard—you’re hired!”
Capone: So does that mean you’re officially on that then, or are you still figuring that out?
EH: Oh, that’s still in the works. It’s moving incredibly slow.
Capone: Even that experience must have been different for you, because you were also a producer on the film, so you have a certain amount of protection of your material. You’re not just handing over a script and hoping for the best. You’re involved as part of the whole team all the way through, so that must have been a better experience than maybe some of the other things you’ve been through in the recent past.
EH: One thing in common between both LIGHTS OUT and ARRIVAL is I wrote both of those on spec, and that helps protect the initial intent of the film.
Capone: I think the first thing I remember seeing by you was FINAL DESTINATION 5, which must have been to a certain degree fun, because you had to come up with the most amazing kill scenes to match the rest of the franchise. Was that a burden, or was that fun to get crazy with it?
EH: Fun? I don't know that I would use that word for it. I would say, you might really enjoy solving sudoku puzzles, and then someone tells you write six of the hardest sudoku puzzles you could, and you realize just how complicated it is to make them. It was liberating in some respects, yes. I was a big fan of the first movie, and it was my intent to try and loop this one in with it and wrap up the series and tie it in a nice little bow.
Capone: For the first few films that you were involved with, they were either part of a franchise, or reboot or prequel. Were there examples of ones where you handed over your script, and what you ended up seeing later, even though your name might have been on the film, was transformed into something that really wasn't what you had written?
EH: Sure. That happens more often than not, especially with big studio property that they’re very protective of. I would say I recognize probably around 5 percent of ELM STREET as mine. There are a handful of lines of dialogue there that are still mine, and there are a couple of core concepts. But that’s alright; that’s how it goes. That’s also why I talked earlier about the relationship I had with producers on ARRIVAL, and how I felt protected there because the first thing you want to do is make sure everybody involved creatively is making the same movie. And anytime you’re with someone in the creative field of a movie, and you’ve delivered something that is different from what they want, or God forbid you’re on set and you hear someone involved in the cast or crew say, “I really hate Freddy Krueger,” you just know you’re in trouble. You know that it’s not going to be at all like you wanted it to be.
Capone: A lot of that ELM STREET remake was shot here in Chicago. I was on that set for a little bit, and not a single thing that I saw shot on a very busy shooting day was in the movie. What I found was interesting about what you did on THE THING was you had an end point. You knew how your film had to end. Did that make it easier or harder that you had to land in a certain spot?
EH: Sure. It was writing a film by autopsy. We had some forensic evidence that was basically the little pieces of information on the Norwegian camp that we got from Carpenter’s film, and we just poured over that. The director was already on board at that point, so he and I spent many, many hours reviewing that film and talking about how to actively recreate everything so that it was all in the right place.
Capone: Aside from LIGHTS OUT and ARRIVAL, were there any other films that you wrote where the filmmakers did involve you to a certain degree in any changes, just as a courtesy?
EH: I think the turning point for me on that—a friend of mine calls it working above the fracture line—happened after I wrote and directed a film. It was the Paul Walker film HOURS. Once I had that experience under my belt, I feel like there was a value added to having me though production on something, even if I wasn’t directing. So that helped. I don’t know if I would be in the same position with some of these other films if it weren’t for that experience.
Capone: Was that empowering or liberating, to be the guy at the helm of something?
EH: It was good for me to be in those shoes because I could understand things from that perspective. It was an education on my part to have a better and closer relationship with other directors that I worked with from there on. And it also makes you a better writer. You end up seeing exactly what you can and can not use—what’s helpful in the screenplay to a production and what can hinder it.
Capone: Am I right, your “Lone Wolf 2100” trade paperback [from Dark Horse Books] just came out?
EH: It came out in September, yeah.
Capone: How did you get involved in comic books?
EH: I was looking to try and write something in another medium as a way of sharpening the saw, just trying to flex some new muscles, and comic books felt like a good thing to take a swing at, because it’s a kissing cousin to film and screenplays. One of the sci-fi scripts of mine that I was so excited about getting made at some point in time, the rejections I got for that, or the passes I got from studios, were like “This is way too expensive, but it would make a great comic book.” So I finally took that rejection as a dare, and Dark Horse was willing to try it. They started out giving me four issues, but I begged and pleaded and got five.
We did that five-issue run, and it went very smoothly, and it sold well enough that the editor then approached me and said “We have this Lone Wolf property, and we’re looking to revise it again, do you have any ideas?” So I lucked out with Lone Wolf, simply because I built a little relationship with them.
Capone: A year or so ago I heard about you doing film projects with Valiant Comics. Are you still doing that?
EH: Yeah. Definitely. Those processes are going slowly, but I did do some drafts of BLOODSHOT, and I think I was the first writer on HARBINGER and I’ve been a shepherd on HARBINGER for a while. I got so excited about those characters that I went to Dinesh [Shamdasani, CEO & Chief Creative Officer] and Warren [Simons, Editor In Chief] and said I have an idea for a comic book in this world, and I think they’re going to let me take a swing at it, so that might be fun. That might come out early next year.
Capone: You’re saying in the Bloodshot-Harbinger world?
Capone: So another character, is what you’re talking about?
EH: Exactly. Like a new title.
Capone: Are you also still involved with this BIRD BOX film? Is that still happening as well?
EH: I wanna say maybe. It’s hard to say. We don’t know yet. Obviously, everybody involved is passionate about it, and they want to get the movie made, but there’s…I think they call it the “invisible war” that happens in pre-production all the way during development, and that's what we’re waging right now.
Capone: Back to ARRIVAL for a second, I remember as a kid watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” show and him talking about, if we ever did meet alien life, that the common language would likely be math. I never quite understood it as a kid; I think I understand it a little bit more now, and that’s certainly a part of what’s going on in the film. Was that in the short story, or did you introduce that?
EH: Yeah, there was certainly a lot in the short story, and there was also a lot featured. We even shot a lot of that. Jeremy Renner’s character had a more pronounced role during production, and it was only in post that Denis and [editor] Joe Walker editor realized the more they made the focal point Amy’s character, Louise, the more aerodynamic the movie got. So it was better for us that way. There was really great material.
There were a number of other big mathematical concepts that Jeremy’s character got to toy around with. I think there’s still even little bits and pieces there where he’s talking via satellite to other sites, and it’s all about the fact that simple algebra is hard for the aliens to grasp, but the very complex, variable math is easy for them to understand and interpret, and that was a set piece from the short story that I also found compelling. Anything that’s about relativistic math and science they understand just by the fact that they have a non-linear existence. This is like super-cerebral stuff now, I realize. I’m listening to myself going “I’m kind of boring.”
Capone: Hey, I asked the question. But that always stuck with me. With science fiction stories, it’s not tried very often, but it’s done so beautifully here—mixing science fiction and a pure, emotional story. How did you make sure to get that mix and balance right?
EH: Well, I didn’t nail it with the first draft, I’ll tell you [laughs]. It took a long while. I started writing the first night I got the rights to the story from Ted, and I was having to pitch to him over the phone, and it took me a solid year of writing and re-writing to find that balance. There’s a definite alchemy to it. But I placed both of those at such high importance, because those are the two pieces from his story that worked so well and affected me so deeply. It was my responsibility to make sure that they ported over into the cinematic version. And I had the advantage that I could just reach out. If I was ever blocked or if I had a question, I could call Ted or I could email Ted, and he’d get back to me.
Capone: What was your experience with Denis like? How much contact did you have with him, how much did he come back to you with questions or ideas?
EH: Honestly, it was like the best director relationship I’ve ever had. He was absolutely delightful. Having seen his other films, INCENDIES, PRISONERS, and a couple of his other films, I thought I’m about to sit down with a very dark and tormented soul here. It’s going to be intense. He is the sweetest man. He is open and he’s caring and he is a really good listener. It did not go at all the way that I expected. When he was interested in the project, he read the script, he also read the short story, he had done all this work, and every other project where a director is coming on board and wants to meet with the writer, my experience has been it’s a very binary meeting, in that they sit down, they talk for half an hour, they ask a couple of questions, then it’s like putting your kids in someone else's car and they drive off and that’s it. That’s how it goes. You wave goodbye.
But with Denis, it was like an hour-and-a-half coffee meeting at this little coffee shop, and we talked about philosophy and science and politics and the human condition. And after all of that, he was like, “This was very good. I like this, Eric. Let’s do this next week.” And I thought “Next week? What?” And of course the producers called me very breathless like, “Is he on? Is he going to direct the movie?” And I’m like, “Uh, no, but we’re having coffee again though.” And that went on for six weeks, and it was like a little two-person podcast that we had at this coffee shop going over and over things, and finally at the end of that time, he reached out to his people, and they reached out to our people and they said, “Alright, he’s on board officially. We’re doing this.”
And I didn’t understand fully until after that he called me and said, “Alright, Eric. Now we are married.” And it totally then sunk in with me just how he’s very cautious, there was a courtship going on that even I wasn’t aware of, and he treated me so well. So much of what was in the script survived, simply because he didn’t move anything without asking first “Why?” So many directors make the assumption that they understand the subtext of a scene, that they understand why a line of the scripted narrative is in some place, or a simple line of dialogue. Or they just make a unilateral choice to change it and go another direction. Sometimes, they come out with a fantastic film just doesn’t happen to represent the script. It’s just different. Denis doesn’t.
Denis has a real, deeper level of respect for the material. I can get calls or emails from him at all hours saying, “Eric, what is this? I don’t understand. Why is this here?” And if I don’t have a good answer for it, then it’s gone. It’s already on the plastic when he’s calling, but if I can tell him why and point somewhere else he goes, “Ah! Okay, okay, okay.” And he was that way all the way through.
Capone: I want to ask about one more thing you have coming up. Are you still involved in this VAN HELSING film for Universal?
EH: So far, unless you know about something I don’t.
Capone: No, no. There seem to be hints that Universal is trying to establish some greater cinematic monster universe. Does this fall into that, or is this something separate?
EH: Well, these are early days, so I don’t know where it’s going. But I can tell you currently, there are connections to other monsters and other films. There is an interconnectedness we’re building to see if it works.
Capone: But it’s not connected to the VAN HELSING film we saw a few years ago.
EH: No. Not at all. Our early inspiration for VAN HELSING was basically MAD MAX circa FURY ROAD. That type of character. Not the world, but just the character.
Capone: Eric, it was great to talk to you. Thank you so much, and best of luck going forward.