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WRITERS ON WRITING: Eric Heisserer on Adapting 'Arrival'

Alien first contact is a long-held traditional theme in cinema, but rarely has it been shown with such delicate beauty as in Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer.

Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew's site: Email: Twitter: @ABloomenthal

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Alien first contact is a long-held traditional theme in cinema, but rarely has it been shown with such delicate beauty as in Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams as expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks. Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer, from the Ted Chiang short story Story of Your Life, Arrival pulls off a pretty neat trick in coupling the threat of global annihilation with Banks’ more intimate effort to bridge a non-verbal, interplanetary communication gap.

With theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) by her side, Banks routinely boards the alien ship — one of twelve that descended upon various points across the globe. Only a glass barrier separates Banks from the faceless, multi-legged creatures. And as Banks learns to interpret the inky symbols the aliens squirt onto the glass — octopus style — their communion somehow helps Banks master the grief of losing her young daughter. It's only natural that Banks grows protective of her new friends.

Screenwriter Heisserer spoke to Script magazine, to tell us more.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

As you began adapting the short story, did you go down any false paths that required course correction?

The first attempt was pretty faithful to the story, but I realized that the DNA in the story only got me halfway, and that there was a lot I had to make up on my own. I needed the dramatic engine of potential conflict and escalation between Earth and the aliens, and in the short story, the communication occurred through a looking glass technology, with the aliens light years away, so the interaction was more of an extended Skype call. This gave a very flat narrative with no peaks and valleys. So instead of a video conference with aliens, it made all the difference to have them show up in ships, so we’re face-to-face. This was by far the biggest change I made to the source material, but I needed to run it by the author to see if he saw the same value in it, because any time you’re adding something that wasn’t part of the core material, there’s a threat of the new organ being rejected by the host. You have to ask: “Is there a way to incorporate this fluidly?”


Eric Heisserer

How much research did you do into linguistic science?

I did a great deal of research to learn both about linguistics and theoretical physics, and I thought I learned a lot. But when I sat down with a real linguist and a real theoretical physicist, I realized I only learned enough to be dangerous. So I did my best to make sure that they could police me, even if it was just asking: “What would you do in this scenario? What would you say if you were in this situation? Please tell me.” And for people in these science fields, contemplating a first contact scenario is a once-in-a-lifetime dream, so I had plenty of feedback.

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There was an intriguing moment when we hear a documentary style voice-over delivering technical information about the spaceship. Tell me about the decision to include this narration.

It was one made out of necessity and limited time and resources. Sometimes the best decisions come out of that. I’ll admit that for a long time, we had plenty more scenes of Jeremy Renner’s character showing the progress and setbacks he was making on the science and math end of his effort to learn about the heptapod creatures and the ship itself. He was only able to gain a limited understanding, while Louise was making much more progress on the language side. But all the information about the ships — the fact that they don’t have any kind of footprint, radioactively or otherwise — came from him analyzing the shell outside. We unfortunately had to peel that piece away, but it contained so many vital pieces of information that let the audience know that we were doing alot of work outside of the face-to-face sessions with the heptapods. We found the perfect answer by creating a montage of scenes in a Werner Herzog-type of documentary, that explained all of the stuff we learned so far.

Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jan Thijs

Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jan Thijs

The heptapods conversed with the humans by shooting out ink, to create hieroglyphic-like circular symbols, which the short story merely described as “vaguely cursive doodles.” How did you elevate your descriptions on the page, to convey your vision to the filmmakers?

Initially, I got very dissatisfied with my own written description of that language. There was a lot involved, and the more I tried to put that into the screenplay as a simple written description, the more chunky it got. If there’s one thing I despise as a screenwriter, it’s large blocks of text. I’m not a novelist here, and I don’t want to read a novel. I want to read something that’s sleek and elegant. I would go as far as to say that Walter Hill’s screenplays are my favorites, where it’s almost Haiku.

So one night, I was complaining to my wife over dinner: “How am I going to make this work?”

She said, “Just show me what you’re talking about.”

So I drew a very crude version of the heptapod’s logogram and said, “It would look something like this.”

She said, “Just put that in the screenplay.”

But as you may know, screenwriting software, at least at this time, doesn’t allow for graphics to be inserted. So I wound up entering a bunch of hard returns to create blank spaces on several pages in the script, and then when I converted it into PDFs, I manually inserted the graphics in every draft. I did this a hundred times. I was like, “Kill me now.”


Heisserer’s early sketch of a logogram.

Editor's Note: Please take the time to also read Eric's own words on The Talkhouse site, explaining more on how he approached the writing of Arrival and the lessons he learned on the journey from script to screen. You'll also want to follow Eric on Twitter: @HIGHzurrer. He often rants about writing, offering invaluable insights and lessons.

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