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Arrival Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on His Oscar Nomination, Amy Adams, and Figuring Out What Heptapods Look Like

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

In adapting Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” into the script of Arrival, Eric Heisserer faced the challenge of turning a mind-bending concept, which plays out over a few pages, into a linear, or at least somewhat linear, film. The resulting spec script made it onto the Hollywood Black List, a collection of the best unproduced scripts, in 2012, which eventually led to the material being brought to Amy Adams and director Denis Villeneuve. On the day of his first Oscar nomination, Vulture caught up Heisserer to talk about how his Arrival script changed over time, his thoughts on the film’s political themes, and his disappointment in the Academy’s snub of Adams (for a nonverbal encapsulation of his thoughts, just check Twitter).

First off, congratulations. 
Thank you very much.

How has your morning been? How did you hear the news?
I checked the alarm and watched a little streaming thing on my phone, my wife next to me. 

Arrival’s adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story, which is so contained and kind of metaphysical. What made you interested in turning it into a movie? 
It was primarily how the story made me feel. I was really caught up in that, Is there any way for me to capture this and then broadcast it to a wider audience? I guess, as part of the mission being to adapt someone else’s work, my motive was: I feel heartbroken and up at the same time, how can I torture people with this?

Was it challenge to turn that into a typical movie structure to make the mystery work onscreen?
There was. There was a lot of work to be done on that. A lot of research and development on my part. I went through a number of drafts just to find that a lot of those versions were dead ends. And I think a part of that problem’s just, any time you try to tell a nonlinear story, you’re making it harder on yourself. 

You have to find a way to not give away too much, I’d imagine.
Yeah. And also not be too oblique or obscure. And find some other story element that work. Emotionally, it still has to be linear, even if chronologically it isn’t.

I know the script was on the Black List. What was the development process like, going from a spec script to the finished project? 
When I wrote it on spec and once it got out of the Black List, it was a bit like putting that draft under glass for many months until Denis came onboard as our director. Then, he had a number of really phenomenal ideas and is really interested in process and procedure. He gave it breathing room in certain spaces, in particular, the first act, where part of that first contact experience with Amy Adam’s character, Louise. 

Was that more of the discussion of the language?
I had a lot of that in the script, but in 2012 and 2013, I got to do some more of it when Denis came on. And ultimately, I gave him more to shoot than he would need for the final cut. It’s just one of those stories where it’s like, “Okay, I know we’re very careful with the moment between Louise and her daughter, but let me give you two more scenes just in case.”

You can figure out how much the audience really needs to know and how much Amy gets across in one scene or not.
Exactly. That’s the beautiful and poetic thing about it: We discovered how much Amy did the storytelling for us purely in her performance.

I was really hoping that she would get nominated. 
I’m still in shock over that. 

In film, there’s more of a focus on geopolitical tensions, how different nations might react to an alien invasion. What interested you in adding more of that dynamic?
Dramatically, I realized early on that I needed a fuse to light. I needed some clock that felt like it was ticking along in the background to give me escalation and dramatic tension. The geopolitical arena really worked well for that. And the more that I looked into our current state of geopolitics, the more I felt like this was a bright subject for it.

After the film came out, I know a lot of people reacted to it as a response to the election. I know you couldn’t have predicted that in advance, but were you thinking about nationalism in specific, or was it more of a general message of communication?
Um, well, not to try to split my answer and say both, but communication is what I’ve been consumed with in thinking about the story for this film. But the more I looked at our national political landscape, the more I did worry that the kind of weird and angry, easily aggravated tribalism could absolutely become a scene in this story, not only in our country, but also in a movie where you have the revelation of aliens existing and showing up that can really break a lot of people’s minds and certainly wreak havoc on certain religious doctrines. It makes it hard to stomach. And we can get some dynamic leaders out of that, and very often they are those really bad people. 

How did you develop the heptapod language? Did you consult with linguists?
I first started by diving into the research on my own, and once I decided I was pretty much an expert on that, I reached out to a linguist and discovered I was barely a novice. Primarily, there’s more work in the script to be done to make sure that everyone understood the distinction between a linguist and a translator, Louise kind of straddles that in the film for narrative purposes. But there are many other fascinating aspects about language construction and the way they go into it, almost with an archaeologist’s sort of mindset. That I found really engaging. Some of that wound up on the cutting-room floor, simply because it ended up being dry and too procedural for a wider audience. But the nerd in me absolutely loved digging deeper on language construction.

There are only so many smart sci-fi films like Arrival that get made every year. Is it a surprise to have a script like that picked up?
Completely, absolutely. I really do. I think that we have other films to thank for even the opportunity to get this one made, with Gravity and Martian and Interstellar before us, helping pave the way. This one gets particularly detailed about things like Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. We went whole hog into making sure these characters were real scientists, and as such the audience has to keep up with us.

It seemed like that paid off. Maybe audiences are a little bit smarter than people estimate.
I would think so, yes. Thank God. 

Do you have other sort of sci-fi ideas you’d love to investigate further?
Oh, yeah, I certainly do. I’m going to keep those under wraps for now though. 

How much were you involved in thinking of what the visuals were in the film, going from the script to the finished project?
I had to take a swing at all of those, all of those visuals and concepts evolved as we brought in the team that selected cinematographer Bradford Young and our production designers Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte. A great example is of the heptapods, the aliens themselves. Denis wanted something that had never been seen before. For the longest time, they were similar to the aliens as described by Ted Chiang — these cylindrical creatures that had seven limbs and extended these spokes, so you didn’t know their front from the back, or you had a real sort of experience with them. Early concept artists and some animators came to us and said, “This is all well and good to be completely foreign, but once you start animating this and having it move, it’s going to look completely fake, because nothing like this exists in the world, so we can’t model motions based on anything.” So that’s when we went back to things like deep-sea life that’s only briefly been discovered and we tried to find a way in with that to create some model. The ship design was a sphere; I was trying to find everything that had an echo to the circular language to make sure all of that still felt authentic. And it evolved into the sort of skipping-stone design. So, my hat’s off to the design team.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Adapting Arrival