Last week, The Carsey-Wolf Center started off the new year with another Script-to-Screen event, this time for the film “Arrival.” After the screening of the film to a packed theater, there was a Q&A between the screenwriter Eric Heisserer and the director of Pollock Theater, Matthew Ryan. Heisserer has worked on screenplays for many other films — including “Lights Out,” the remake of “The Thing,” and “Final Destination 5″ — but he’ll likely be best known for his screenplay for “Arrival,” which is currently considered as a contender for an Academy Award.
“Arrival” is a science-fiction film starring Amy Adams, who plays a linguist tasked with the job of communicating with a species of aliens that have just arrived on Earth. The film tells a non-linear story filled with many complex themes, varying from the deep bond between mother and daughter, humanity’s perception of time, and humanity’s struggle to survive. A film juggling all of these complex themes could easily result in a failure, but with screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s help, the film ended up surprising critics and audiences around the world.
Heisserer offered great insight into the screenwriting process, especially on his difficult experience of adapting a book into a film. One of his greatest challenges was finding a studio to produce the film, which wanted to create an action-packed blockbuster rather than the character-focused science-fiction film it is now. He stated that one of the more ridiculous reasons why a studio rejected “Arrival” was because they wanted “a human to punch an alien in the face at the end.” Ultimately, this film found a studio producer, but not without challenges.
Fortunately, Heisserer didn’t encounter any challenges with Ted Chiang, the author of the original story the film was based on. Heisserer spoke of his initial fears of meeting with Chiang to discuss his interpretation of the story, but the encounter ultimately turned into Heisserer easing the author’s fears over book-adaptations gone wrong. Throughout the screenwriting process, Heisserer would encounter some troubles with translating the book into a script, but Chiang would readily help him. It was an amiable relationship not commonly seen in Hollywood film productions, which is likely one of the reasons why the film was so successful.
Heisserer also told many stories about director Denis Villenueve, which provided a sense of the writer-director relationship while also generating laughter from the audience. He spoke highly of the French-Canadian filmmaker, saying that his experience with him was “absolutely delightful” but unlike any experience he’d had before.
Prior to signing on as director, Villenueve met up with Heisserer several times over a few months to discuss different topics. Once he officially signed on, he immediately called Heisserer and told him, “Okay Eric, now we are married.” Heisserer then realized that the several meetings they had were essentially a courtship and that he would be more involved in the production of the film than expected.
Their close relationship lasted throughout production, with Villenueve consulting Heisserer before making any changes to the script. This is not commonly seen in film productions, since most directors make changes without consulting the screenwriter, so Heisserer ended up playing a much more significant role in this film than most screenwriters do.
Another aspect of the film Heisserer gave information about was the musical score. He praised the crazy genius of the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and his unique musical contributions to the film. In most cases, composers meet with the directors after the film has been made to compose for it, but Jóhannsson was already creating music before the film was in production. Jóhannsson composed fascinating audio tracks, including an audio palindrome — a tune that if played backwards, plays the same tune — which works well with a film that doesn’t have a linear storyline.
“Arrival” is a unique science-fiction film, and it’s clear that it would not have been the film it is now without the contributions of Eric Heisserer and all the talented, passionate people involved in its production.