Few 2016 films were as intricately and affectingly written as Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve’s “first contact” science-fiction drama about a linguist (Amy Adams) tasked with figuring out a way to communicate with mysterious extraterrestrials. The issue of translation was also faced by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who set about trying to adapt Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” — a nonlinear tale steeped in heavy scientific concepts — years before he even had a studio commitment. Despite the many creative obstacles in his path, Heisserer (whose previous credits were largely horror-related, such as last year’s Lights Out) ultimately fashioned a masterful script that has been nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Ahead of the Academy’s big night on Feb. 26, we spoke with Heisserer about what drew him to Chiang’s source material, developing the aliens’ language, and his collaboration with Villeneuve. (Arrival is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra HD, and Digital HD.)
Yahoo Movies: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. How’d you first hear the news?
Eric Heisserer: My wife woke me up and we watched on her little iPhone as the stream came through. They do it alphabetically, so I was at the top of the list, and I was still hyperventilating when my manager called.
It must have been an especially gratifying moment, given how long you worked on the project — initially as a spec script. What was it about Ted Chiang’s short, “Story of Your Life,” that drew you?
It’s rare to find a story, even a science fiction story, that appeals to both the head and the heart. We’re talking about a piece of fiction that has a graph delineating Fermat’s principle of least time in it, so it gets very detailed and theoretical. And with all of that came this bittersweet, heart-filled story about a mother and daughter. By the end of it, I was just emotionally devastated and uplifted at the same time. And I thought, “This is what art is. This is what everybody should experience. How can I just amplify this to a wider audience?”
Chiang’s short story doesn’t immediately seem like a good fit for a movie, so how did you initially find an “in” to the story?
You have to be at peace with the idea that you need to deviate from the source material, while hopefully staying true to the spirit of it and keeping with its message. The first major change that I had been passionate about was to make it a true “first contact” film, and have the aliens actually land in our backyard — instead of the technology that they use to communicate with from a distance, which is part of the short story. Honestly, from that one major change, it just had a ripple effect — it caused a chain reaction of other dramatic choices that all led to a more filmic version. The geopolitical tensions, the escalation that happens all around the other sites and how communication breaks down among ourselves — that all seemed to feed in well to what I needed to do to make it a film.
Creating the Heptapods’ language was crucial to developing the story into a script. Was there any particular “aha” moment when you finally felt like you’d figured it out?
That’s become a rather famous story, and I have my wife to thank for it, really. I had been attempting in the script to describe the nonlinear language of the Heptapods, and all my early attempts were very novelistic, in that I wound up with just giant blocks of text. If I have one pet peeve as a screenwriter, it’s that I don’t like scripts that try to be novels. So I was complaining to my wife about it over dinner … and she was like, “You’re going to have to show me what you’re talking about.” So I drew a very crude Heptapod sinogram on a piece of paper at our kitchen table, and said, “This is what I’m saying.” And she just matter-of-factly said, “Well, why don’t you put that in the script?” [Laughs]
I said, “You can’t put graphics in … wait, can you put graphics in a script?” As it turns out, no, you can’t. But I was just stubborn at the time, and I went ahead and hand-drew six or seven of them, scanned them in, and I’d just have blank spaces in the final draft of the script. Then when I exported the PDF, I would manually insert them into the script. I did that with every new draft. So it was a lot of work that I regret now, but it made sense at the time.
Watch Amy Adams make contact in ‘Arrival’:
Did you always plan to echo the nonlinear form of Chiang’s story in the script? And was there ever any pushback about that idea?
I’d always embraced the nonlinearity of the storytelling, and I felt like it was very organic to the themes of the film. There really wasn’t any pushback from the producers or the buyers; I believe we probably got a little bit of pushback once the studio, Paramount, finally got to see the film. There was some question of: Will audiences follow this or not?
How much did the script change — if at all — once Denis Villeneuve came aboard as director? How did your collaboration work?
I think it worked like a marriage. It didn’t change so much; he didn’t come aboard because he wanted to see this radically or fundamentally changed. But he had a number of very specific ideas that improved it. He’s a man who embraces — and is fascinated by — procedure and process, and just wanted to dive as deeply as possible into what the protocol was for an encounter like this, and what equipment we have to help us with this. It was his curiosity that led us both to find out about this strange sort of shower technology that they use on pickup trucks when they come from possibly contaminated environments. Weird little bits like that that suddenly lent this authenticity to the story, and made everything more frightening.