Based on Ted Chiang‘s award-winning short story “Story Of Your Life,” Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival is the one-of-a-kind sci-fi drama audiences are craving for. In an age where most alien films have a plot that involves the otherworldly visitors conquering or destroying Earth, the aliens in Arrival are visiting our planet for unknown reasons. With 12 alien ships located in random parts of the world, it is up to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to communicate with these aliens and find out why they are on Earth before other nations decide to take drastic measures.
We sat down with Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer about making the short story into a film, his collaboration with Chiang, the large amount of positive buzz surrounding the film, and how the message can coincide with what’s going on with the world today. Check out the full interview below.
Geeks Of Doom: So what has your reaction been to the large amount of positive buzz coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival and Beyond Fest?
Eric Heisserer: Largely, relief. There is a great sigh of relief that I have that we made it to the finish line, holding on to something that we so desperately wanted to have an audience for, you know? There were so many times before we got this out, anyone of us was told, ‘no one is going to understand this movie,’ or ‘no one is going to connect with it,’ and to defy that and try and make a film that we thought was as emotional and intelligent as I think everybody did with this, it just leaves me tired.
Geeks Of Doom: What goes through your mind when people are saying this could be up for some major film awards?
Eric Heisserer: I am excited for Amy [Adams]. I think Amy should absolutely be recognized. Bradford’s [Young] work as a cinematographer is unparalleled. Jóhann [Jóhannsson] delivered a score unlike anything I have ever heard. Early stuff that he did – he even did audio palindrome where one track was the same forward or backward. All the master craftsmen that came to this should totally get some recognition. But other than that I try to keep it out of my head. I’m honestly excited my mom’s going to see it.
Geeks Of Doom: The way that Ted Chiang’s short is written, there are little nods as to what the character is experiencing and how it will have an impact on its conclusion. So being a screenwriter, how did you approach adapting the short into a script format?
Eric Heisserer: I approached it first by simply transpose everything in the short story into a film format. Step one was taking Ted’s story and doing a literal conversion and finding out what I had. What I discovered right away was the logic of the non-linear didn’t work in the movie until after Louise had been exposed to the heptapod language, so there was a logic to why she was starting to have these moments. Without that, it felt arbitrary and kind of contrived, and in a way that would never bump you in a short story. In a piece of literary fiction, it worked so elegantly, and suddenly it failed a film. So we gave it a logic, which was when she starts learning the language that she starts to have these fugue states these moments where she was out of time with her daughter. To make all the points that we needed to make with that and have the emotional arc for Louise, we had to enhance that on a logarithmic scale, which is different, again, from just moving chapters back and forth with Louise and her daughter. It sort of culminated to a climax where it happened very frequently in the film, so much so she got a temporal whiplash and starts to lose track of where she is.
Geeks Of Doom: Were you in constant collaboration with Ted Chiang?
Eric Heisserer: He was always there for me, and I was there for me, as much as I could be. We probably had probably a couple dozen e-mail exchanges during the course of writing the script. I sent him every draft that I felt ready to show to him. He didn’t see every single draft cause I was really ashamed. I was trying to make something work, and I knew it didn’t work yet, and I didn’t want to scare him. There were moments where I definitely needed his opinion and expertise. He’s someone who has already covered this ground ahead of time. I had to go over this research about linguistic relativity and Fermat’s principle, and he knew this science already, he’s done his homework. I would come back and say, “I just found this out,” and he would say “I knew that.” So that worked, and I hope he feels that he was a good a part of the process. I tried to make sure he was a family member because it started with him.
Geeks Of Doom: So was the look of the heptapods a part of that collaboration or was that from the original source material?
Eric Heisserer: That was a part of the collaboration. That was something that evolved from the script. The source material had them with seven limbs. In the short story they called them heptapods, so we didn’t change that. But there is a bit of a description about their look. They are cylindrical in shape. When we started to think about how they moved, we needed some examples to give the visual effects teams, not necessarily motion capture but inspiration. That’s when we went to deep sea aquatic life, and from that, some other ideas formed.
Geeks Of Doom: There are some really strong themes of being able to communicate clearly amongst each other, so what I want to know is how much of that is a reflection on what is happening today?
Eric Heisserer: I wish that weren’t the case, I didn’t want it to be that, but that is why the message is so important to us now to understand how just important it is to be clear and open with one another and not jump to any conclusions and not make any snap judgments. We are almost trained to do that now, just from a small domestic standpoint to a geopolitical one, where any amount of action or news byte can be blown out of proportion. We need to stop that and take more time to understand each other.
Geeks Of Doom: When you started working on this, did you see the film making such a statement?
Eric Heisserer: When I started working on this, I didn’t want it to be a mirror to hold up against out society. Cause I don’t know if anyone wants to live in a world where we have the problems we do right now. It was more the case of realizing what I have is a theme you look over how many ways you can portray that in your story. A number of times that it is all based on somebody being able to talk to somebody else in the story and be forthcoming with one another. That ends up generating so much panic and tension and conflict, that sadly you can see right.
Arrival hits theaters on November 11, 2016.