Interview: ‘Arrival’ Screenwriter Eric Heisserer Pleas for Better Communication

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A lot of alien invasion movies take it for granted that we will be able to speak with our visitors. The Day the Earth Stood Still brought an English-language warning from Klaatu. Contact took the form of a long lost father to speak to its heroine. Even Independence Day’s aliens could possess humans to speak through them.

Imagine that if beings from beyond our solar system came to Earth, they might not have the benefit of Earth languages, English or otherwise. That is the possibility posed by the new movie Arrival. Twelve ships land around the world, and each country tasks its top scientists to communicate with the heptapods inside. Earth’s best and brightest are linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physics specialist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Even as they gradually develop a language with the heptapods, impatient foreigners and even members of the U.S. government jump to hostile conclusions.

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 Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay to Arrival, adapting the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life.” The film really unpacks themes of communication that seem to resonate in modern day conflicts. In an example, Louise tells the story of the explorer who discovered Aborigines and mistook the word “kangaroo” for the animal, when the tribe meant “I don’t understand.” Louise reveals later she made the story up, but it illustrates how miscommunication could become fact. I was eager to get the opportunity to discuss these linguistic and intellectual concepts with Heisserer one day in an office on the Paramount Studios lot. And this conversation only represents one of the themes in Arrival, which is in theaters Friday, November 11.

CINEMA THREAD: Did you make up the kangaroo story?

Eric Heisserer: [Laughs] No, that was also in Ted’s short story in a slightly different context. The beauty about that was I discovered that it was slightly mythologized, that it couldn’t be held as an actual story. Which is why at the end of it, she says it’s not, but it was still just as effective.

CT: How did you approach articulating the thought process Louise goes through?

EH: It’s a boring answer but a lot of work, a lot of trial and error. Trying to find the number of “memories” that she has and where. Defining how those are sparked and making sure that there’s an evolutionary process to it. If it’s the case of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if it’s the fact that she’s immersing herself in the language and the more she does that, the more she starts to perceive the world and time the way that the heptapods do, that would give us a logarithmic scale. The moments with her daughter become more frenzied the more she understands this language.

CT: But even her thought process as far as explaining to the military and other scientists how she’s approaching these beings. It’s a lot of intellectual stuff. Was it a challenge to present that?

EH: I can tell you early on I delivered a draft, my very first draft to the producers. There was a sequence of scenes early on during that process of Louise teaching very basic vocabulary words to the heptapods and Ian was demonstrating. The producers read this and said, “Eric, this isn’t sexy at all. This is really kind of boring. It’s like kindergarten grade words. It’s super basic. Why do we need this? Can you make it more specific?” I said, “Do you know what a Pulaski is?” They’re like, no. I said, “It’s a tool that firemen use so you can’t really get specific. You have to start basic.” They said, “Then can you make this more palatable or interesting or visual?” I tried and then I had to come back and say, “Guys, here’s the question that we’re trying to get to.” I drew on the whiteboard the question and I said, “Here’s all the work that it takes with each word so that the aliens understand what the question is. At the end of all that, you have to make sure that they have enough vocabulary with them that you get an answer that’s adequate to help you, which is why you have to start with all these basic words.”

They stared at me for a good long while and they said, “That’s the scene that has to be in the movie.”

CT: Is that also how you explain linguistics to the audience from the ground up?

EH: Right, and that there’s a difference between visual communication and auditory. Where you feel like you have too many roadblocks in one, you try the other.

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CT: I wish I could be as patient as Louise. Was it a challenge to not let her be condescending to the characters who can’t think as critically as she does?

EH: I think she’s the type of person who’s been around people all her life who can’t think that way. We saw her in academia as a teacher so she knows how to speak to someone who’s not as well versed in that world as she is. But you’re absolutely right, it does require patience. I think teachers just by their design have to be more patient than the rest of us.

CT: Is it also true there are sometimes you can’t afford to be patient and you have to just do something and let people see the results?

EH: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s why the kangaroo example can be so powerful because it’s a way for her to get done what she needs to get done.

CT: You see how I’m thinking about these concepts. Is the alien invasion really a way to explore communication in humans?

EH: Yes, it’s my plea that we communicate better with each other. That here in a time when our interconnectedness is greater than any other time in human history, we’re having such a hard time being able to be above board and direct with one another.

CT: As Louise deals with, even the people who don’t understand get a say. How do we work with people and give them a say when they don’t understand what we’re discussing?

EH: [Laughs] It shows how important it is to share your perspective on things. Some of that may be enlightenment and some of that may just be more confessional, not just of knowledge but of personal experience.

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CT: Did you have to learn to communicate a certain way with studio executives to get people to see what you’re pitching them?

EH: I tried and I failed. It never got bought so I had to write it on spec. That was a lesson in frustration simply because once you take something out and you pitch it around town and everyone says no, your agents will say the dumbest move is to write it on spec because you already know what the answer is. But I was trying my best to think like Louise and forge a new answer.

CT: That was for Arrival. Have there been other projects where you developed a different way of thinking to communicate with the people who had the money?

EH: Yes, but that requires me to understand what level of vocabulary the studio or the executive has on that genre. There are very many people in the business and they’re all at various levels of fluency in the language of that genre. I was just talking with somebody about how on person can have a very narrow idea of, say, what a romance movie is. They think those are the only ingredients that you need to go into the recipe to make a good version of that. Then you have someone else who comes in who’s been maybe a fan of that for a much longer time and is much more well versed and knows that there are a billion ways to make it, and there are a billion ways to make it horribly. And that you have to find a more sophisticated route.

CT: Arrival being science-fiction, you also did a lot of horror scripts. Did horror have a challenging vocabulary?

EH: Certainly, certainly. I would often run into people with greater power than I who would have an authoritative voice on horror and teach me that it was just jump scares with a music sting and that whatever I had been trying to craft wouldn’t work. It was up to someone else who could have a greater authority than I to trump that decision and say, “No, I believe that there are plenty of other ways to get under people’s skin. You have to trust me that this is going to work better.”

CT: Was horror more of a learning experience for you?

EH: It was, in as far as I had to find out earlier if someone believed in more ways to scare someone.

CT: Did you script all of the background banter in Arrival? I picked up on people on the radio saying, “Should we abort? Stand by for frag order.” Are those all in the script?

EH: They weren’t always in the draft but I had to write them during production, so yeah, I had to write that stuff as they were shooting. Even the news anchors. I was a caller on the radio show. I was the first one to call in the Rush Limbaugh guy. I was the southerner who said, “Ma parents taught me that you don’t show up to someone’s house uninvited.” That was me.

CT: But the pundit’s rant was enough without the callers?

EH: His rant was enough, yeah.

CT: How much of the movie was also in the short story?

EH: The relationship between Louise and her daughter was there. So many of the scientific concepts were there. The linguistic relativity was the cornerstone of it, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The whole idea of bing able to perceive time differently just by immersing yourself in a language.

CT: Were there any subplots you had in the script that did not work in the logic you’d constructed?

EH: I don’t know about that. A lot of trial and error certainly went into it, but there were scenes that were shot that didn’t make it to the final film. A lot of that was just about narrowing down the POV more to Louise. There were plenty of other scenes of Jeremy Renner being a very smart mathematician and talking about some of the scientific concepts. There are a couple extra scenes of Forest Whitaker of Col. Weber discovering that he was very much a linebacker for them trying to protect the scientific community against everybody else who was like, ‘Just go in.’

CT: Did you describe how the aliens look in the script?

EH: Yes. But, again, it was an evolution from there. 

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