Hello Reddit, I’m Eric Heisserer and I adapted Ted Chiang’s short story “Story Of Your Life” for the big screen. I then spent a decade getting the film made with production company 21 Laps. That film, now known as “Arrival” stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and is directed by Denis Villeneuve. It hits theaters on November 11th. Ask me Anything!

Proof: http://imgur.com/9TCU5fS

EDIT: Thank you so much! I'm being shuttled off to some interview now but I will try and get back to unanswered questions later.

Trailer here: https://youtu.be/h0Cr0Qzf9p8

Comments: 206 • Responses: 46  • Date: 

smgulz36 karma

I loved the short story (and will be going to Arrival opening night) so much but it is just that, a short story. Was it hard adapting such a short story into a feature length film? What did do to avoid just putting new narratives in for the sake of filler?

HIGHzurrer44 karma

Excellent question. I was lucky enough to have Ted as a resource while I wrote it on spec, and the biggest hurdle was to infuse the movie with conflict and dramatic escalation -- aspects not needed in the story because it was built as a literary piece. So we had to make sure the new "organ" of the geo-political panic wasn't rejected by the "host" of the core story.

Thankfully (and also regrettably) current events continued to prove to us that something like this would freak everyone out. And if the public weren't given any clear answers about the alien visitors, they'd invent their own worst-case ones.

monimata10 karma

Can you talk about how the optioning of Ted Chiang's short story came about?

HIGHzurrer17 karma

I carried his book around for years, hoping to find producers read "Story of Your Life" and fall for it like I did. Dan Cohen and Dan Levine at 21 Laps finally did, and together we got the rights to the story.

FullTorque31 karma

In recent times sci-fi and films involving outer-space in particular are becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood (Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian, Passengers, Life). Why do you think that is? And what separates Arrival from the rest?

HIGHzurrer31 karma

I think once it was made clear that a prestige director could make a studio some money with a realistic science fiction film, other films had a chance to get made in that space. But each one is a giant risk. I wouldn't say they're popular so much as big talent around town is saying, "I want to make this my next film" and some buyer is willing to take the chance on them.

I don't know if it's my place to say what distinguishes Arrival from any of those others. I'd be proud to be included in that pantheon.

JohnTyler-Flounder24 karma

What was it like working with director Denis Villeneuve on the project and what made you want to turn this short story into a film?

HIGHzurrer65 karma

Working with Denis was the best experience I've had with a director. When he officially signed on, he called me and said, "Now we are married." And he meant it! I've never been asked so many questions (happily) about a screenplay. He was so curious about everything, from subtext to dialogue to design.

TheSwellFellow16 karma

I really liked the 2011 Prequel to The Thing that you wrote I love the 1982 original and felt that yours fit perfectly, giving a nice set up for the original while telling a compelling story and furthering the mythos of the creature and its history and abilities.

How difficult was it to balance trying to write an original story while also keeping true to Carpenters vision for the creature and the reverence people have for it?

HIGHzurrer12 karma

It felt like an impossible battle to win, knowing you can't really make something to stand alongside what writer Bill Lancaster and Carpenter made, but the director and I had so much love for that film, we did our best to write-by-autopsy and craft a story that teed up the 1982 story well.

I will miss a lot of the pieces that never made it to the final cut, but it was nice to write a 120-page love letter to the 1982 film.

TheSwellFellow8 karma

Thanks for the answer! One last question... how did you pronounce Matthijs' name? My name is Matthias and I've always been curious to how similar they sounded.

HIGHzurrer10 karma

Muh-TY-us is how I heard it pronounced.

AirshowDisaster14 karma

You hiring, mate?

HIGHzurrer24 karma

Maybe next year, actually!

lebaneselinguist96111 karma

Hi there. I'm a linguist from Lebanon, and I gotta say, I'm so excited to see this film. I've recently read Ted Chiang's story and seen the trailer. looks to be one of the better depictions of linguists I've seen recently (perhaps despite the errors with the Arabic script!) What was the process like of working with actual linguists on the film?.

HIGHzurrer13 karma

That Arabic script bothers the heck out of me, too!

I consulted with a linguist early on, during scripting, and it helped me to round out Louise's character more in the film. Later on, linguist Jessica Coon came on board to help during production and was a huge help to the process.

While a linguist and a translator are two different vocations, in the film I have Louise straddling both just for the occasional lucrative translation gig, and to explain why she has an SSBI with the US government, which would make her an ideal candidate for this job.

boumtjeboo10 karma

Hi Eric,

I can't wait for Arrival. I've avoided all material since seeing the first trailer.

I have a few questions:
1) Were you onset with Denis Villeneuve and company every day? What was it like working with him?
2) What are the essential sci-fi films of the 21st century?
3) Is there any hope for Sandman?


HIGHzurrer17 karma

Oh wow. Good questions. 1) I was there for about two weeks, and it was a well-oiled machine. The beauty in that experience was this: Everyone was making the same movie. Seems like such a small statement, but it's nigh impossible to find. 2) Quite a few, actually, I'm happy to say. Just in the past few years, The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar. I'd have to dig into IMDb to check the dates on a few others. 3) I really hope so. I have been strongly advocating for it as a prestige TV series instead of a film, so I fired myself from the project because in my opinion it is built to become a series.

FootballCTE9 karma

What are Jeremy and Amy like?

HIGHzurrer18 karma

Absolutely lovely, in my experience. Both were kind and generous with their time.

CineNaste7 karma

Can you talk about your vision for the Van Helsing movie.......?

HIGHzurrer12 karma

I would LOVE to. But alas for now I cannot.

cinemelia6 karma

I saw Arrival at TIFF and it blew me away. My question is, after spending a decade or more getting a film made, how do you feel when you watch the finished product? Are you at all able to sit back and experience the film as any audience member would?

HIGHzurrer9 karma

The best way I can describe seeing the final film is: Relief. Just a deep sense of relief down to my bones.

samgillard5 karma

What is one aspect of the finished film that you couldn't have imagined when writing it a decade ago?

HIGHzurrer10 karma

Seeing it actually get made.

coltonwalter5 karma

In-n-Out or Five Guys?

HIGHzurrer11 karma

A question for the ages. If I had to choose only one, In-n-Out. But I can't be burger-monogamous.

ZooMass20125 karma

What is your go to lunch when you are on set?

HIGHzurrer14 karma

Grilled chicken, rice, a green vegetable. Water.

Then I go into the CANDY ZONE in the afternoon.

HouseZanotta5 karma

What are your favorites tv-shows and any of them influenced anything on your work on Arrival?

HIGHzurrer9 karma

For the large part I worked on this in a bubble, to make it its own thing. But there are surely subconscious influences here.

DEmonicpizzapan5 karma

What advice do you have to give to an aspiring producer/director who wants to get into the film industry?

HIGHzurrer7 karma

Make stuff. Share it. Try new techniques and new ideas.

Archteryx4 karma

I would like to ask what other works/books/movies influenced your making of Arrival? and do you have a favorite book that you would care to share?

Thank you.

HIGHzurrer14 karma

Tackling something like this adaptation meant going down the rabbit hole in a lot of non-fiction reading, particularly anything that explored linguistics or things like Fermat's Principle. I also paid some close attention to an early short film of Chris Nolan's; "Following." Just to see how much could be communicated through nonlinear storytelling.

But more than anything, when I got lost in the woods, I just returned to Ted's remarkable story to help me find my way.

monimata4 karma

Really looking forward to Arrival! Can you briefly talk about why it took so long for the film to get to the production phase? Thx :)

HIGHzurrer30 karma

It took so long because it's such a huge risk. It's a non-franchise science fiction film with a female lead, tackling heady concepts. I can't say the number of times I was told, "We'll make this if you change it to a big action-invasion film where a human punches an alien at the end."

monimata4 karma

Is The Sandman truly a go? (Please say yes!)

HIGHzurrer14 karma

I hope so! But likely not with me, as I'm recommending they don't use a feature writer but instead a TV writer. (I think Bryan Fuller has figured out a thing or two about adapting Neil to TV.)

acorn2oak3 karma

Any hope for Bird Box? I have read it 3 times now and consider it one of the best written screenplays. I often use it when I am teaching on tight writing as well as the use of themes.

HIGHzurrer4 karma

Arrival might be the thing that gets Bird Box into production, so keep those fingers crossed. I can't say much more beyond that right now.

TheSwellFellow3 karma

Here's another question that I'm always interested in when talking to filmmakers... What were you favorite movies growing up? Did they span genres? Most of your writing credits have been on horror/thriller and sci-fi films.

HIGHzurrer4 karma

I'm not monogamous to any one genre. In fact I've written nearly 60 feature screenplays at this point in my career, and less than ten of them have been horror. (A lot have been science fiction, admittedly.) It's just a matter of what a studio is willing to risk. And more often than not, they will make something they already own -- a franchise, or a branded book, etc.

I wanted to do something other than horror so badly, I had to direct a drama to break out.

deedlittle3 karma

How did you approach the writing process for a film like this? Did the premise and idea of it all seem really daunting? I really enjoyed all of your previous work with horror films and can't wait to see this.

HIGHzurrer16 karma

My prime directive was to capture the way Ted Chiang's story made me feel when I read it, and transpose that to the screenplay. Of course it felt very daunting -- I had committed to telling a cerebral science fiction story with a female lead, tackling linguistic relativity, Bayes' Theorem, Snell's Law, etc. I didn't know if anyone besides me would be as fascinated and emotionally invested in the material as I was with Ted's story, but I couldn't get it out of my head or my heart.

Xyliss3 karma

Now the movie is entering theatres around the globe, is there anything you look at in the film and wish you did/was done differently?

I'm very excited to see this movie! Just over a week to wait 😀😬

HIGHzurrer8 karma

I worked so hard on the dialogue in Mandarin for Denis. Spent weeks crafting the lines that he finally approved! And then that scoundrel goes and doesn't use subtitles in that scene.

I guess there's something to be said there about the nature of language. And I love Denis. But he's also a mischievous fox.

GobbieBoom3 karma

HEISSERER! Scully here. Bless. <3 I'm always a sucker for how much autobiography goes into a script, whether it's theme, certain characters, or elements of the story (or even all of the above), so I'm curious-- How much of you is in the script, and how did it end up manifesting?

HIGHzurrer8 karma

I found a lot of Louise's qualities reminded me of my wife, in terms of character traits and mental acuity. I wrote a good portion of the early drafts while Christine was out of town producing episodes of the show she was on. Occasionally I could visit her, but during the weeks we were apart, writing this script was a way for me to be closer to her. She actually never knew that, I don't think.

etbb3 karma

As a proud quebecois, how was it to work with Denis Villeneuve ? did you know of his work before ?

HIGHzurrer8 karma

He's the best. Just the best human being with whom to collaborate on a film. And I was a fervent fan of his since INCENDIES.

MarcusHalberstram883 karma

I recently read that you've committed yourself to writing one spec script per year. Considering how that's worked out for you (and for people like Max Landis), do you think the spec script market is starting to return to its Shane-Black-in-the-90s level, or do you think you're an anomaly?

Also, are you mentally preparing yourself to go from "niche horror writer" to "award-nominated prestige writer"? How's that going?

HIGHzurrer7 karma

Well, I can say I write a spec a year, I don't know if I'll ever SELL a spec a year. I'm not sure we'll ever get back to the 90s days when a courier walked into the Carolco offices with a three million dollar check and asked, "Whose script is this for again?"

The "niche horror writer" is just what the public has seen. They haven't seen the fantasy scripts I wrote, or the action adventures, the dramatic TV pilots, the Danish film adaptations, or any of the other 50 projects that never got made. So I guess I will shake my head at "prestige writer" the same way I do with the other labels. You gotta write what you love, ya know?

saganistan3 karma

Is Ted Chiang the new Philip K. Dick?

HIGHzurrer14 karma

I'd say he's more the new Asimov.

khellow2 karma

Can you finally clear up what producers do?

HIGHzurrer9 karma

I do not! Other than: They fight an invisible war to protect things you never knew were endangered.

canadian19872 karma


HIGHzurrer2 karma

I have zero say in trailers. That's decided far downstream by marketing. But I will say this: So little of what actually happens in the movie is shown in trailers, and you may even make some false assumptions from it (which is a different problem).

kchj19942 karma

Hope I'm not too late. As a linguist, I'm curious how it feels to make a movie related to linguistics? Was it difficult to include and elaborate materials from a less-known discipline? I'm really excited about the film and hope that it will raise more awareness about language and linguistics. In this election year, the real aliens touching down have been fellow Americans, and we desperately need productive communications to really understand each other and solve the problems. Thanks!

HIGHzurrer3 karma

Yes. This. Absolutely. One of the core themes is clarity in communication -- not jumping to a kneejerk assumption or misinterpreting something. I spent a lot of time consulting with a linguist and then we had Jessica Coon during pre-production and filming to help even more. If it helps, I can tell you Louise (Amy Adams' character) is a fan of Dan Everett.

It was a fight to keep all of the details of linguistics in the story, but it was a fight worth having.

aroll102 karma

What moment was it that you knew you arrived?

( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

HIGHzurrer2 karma

( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

littletoyboat2 karma

Hey, I'm going to see it at Jeff Goldsmith's Q&A tonight! You gonna be there?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

Did we meet? Did I shake your hand?

500milesification2 karma

Hey Eric, I was able to see the film at Telluride a few months ago and had a few questions. How influenced by Contact were you when approaching the story? It definitely has a similar feeling to it. Also, explaining complex theories can be difficult sometimes in film, did you always expect to use a white board explanation (like many Sci fi films seem to do) or was that more in line with Villeneuve's decision?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

I was just influenced by Ted's story, really. And the whiteboard thing came from me defending Louise having to teach basic vocabulary to my producers, where I was showing them why it was so important, and at the end of my diagram of that question they said, "THAT is the scene that should go in the movie."

ImPretendingToCare2 karma

Could you be someone i could talk to endlessly about Intelligent Life out there in the Universe? Or was this just a quick buck?

HIGHzurrer5 karma

Um. It took me ten years to get this movie made.

I carried a dog-eared copy of Ted's book around with me trying to force producers to read it.

I got paid the absolute minimum for the script when financiers came on board.

It was neither quick nor a buck really.

liamquane2 karma

What is Denis Villeneuve (am I pronouncing that right? :~p) like as a director?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

Just the best human being. The best.

beneisrael2 karma

Did you ever have a Logogram dream?

HIGHzurrer3 karma

When I was designing them for the script, yes.

Chtorrr2 karma

Are you a fan of science fiction?

HIGHzurrer9 karma

Yes. Have been since I was a child. My mother read Heinlein and Bradbury to me instead of, say, Seuss.

fooman032 karma

As someone with the exact last name as yours, how many times has anyone said it right on the first try?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

Maybe once.

ShadyCrow2 karma

I'm anticipating ARRIVAL more than any film this year! My question: how do you feel about the marketing of the film? Do you feel like it represents your story in a good way? Certainly the trailers all look good, but this does seem like a tough film to market -- I haven't seen it, but the reason I'm excited about it is that it seems it's interested in way more than "will these aliens kill us all?" Did you enter this writing process knowing that this would be marketed as a thriller -- and do you feel that's a fair descriptor?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

I don't know if there's a right way to market this movie, really. The closest it gets is the new half-trailer called "Common Ground." And I don't know how anyone can think of marketing something while they're writing or making it. My brain just doesn't work like that. I have to make the thing first.

CultistLemming2 karma

Around what percentage of the projects you have worked on have actually been made?

HIGHzurrer2 karma

About eight percent.

nutteronabus2 karma

I'm a bit late to the party, but I saw Arrival during the London Film Festival last month.

Despite it being a press screening at 8:45am on a Monday; despite being in need of the world's largest coffee (and despite also battling an enormous hangover), I was completely blown away by it.

(potential tiny spoiler ahead)

One of the things that really impressed me was that all of the action that a studio film would normally focus on (the 'Independence Day' moments, for want of a better term) were essentially relegated to being background action. Was that how you initially set out to approach the story and, if so, how difficult was it to persuade a studio to agree to make the film without adding any actions sequences in an attempt to make it easier to sell?

Congratulations on one of the best films of the year. A year in which we can have films like both Arrival and La La Land is a pretty damned good one.

HIGHzurrer3 karma

I can confess a key bit: This wasn't a studio film. It was acquired, for sure, but we made it largely independently. No studio wanted to risk making the film as it was, not until they felt assured it would work (and having Denis and Amy on board certainly did that).

All of us wanted to tell this story precisely because it isn't the Hollywood action blockbuster story. It's intimate.

Can I just say, I'm so very grateful you connected with the film. Took me ten years to see this get to screens, and for several of those years I was told repeatedly, "No one wants to see this kind of movie."

Doctorboffin2 karma

Hey Eric, from what I know the movie deals a lot with the international response to the Alien arrival. How did you determine how each country would respond and were you worried about putting a spacific governments in negative lights?

HIGHzurrer6 karma

The movie goes into OUR view of what the international governments are doing, so it's not an accurate POV. It's filtered through our own military and intelligence framework, which comes with an agenda. So if any foreign power is seemingly vilified (and we tempered that where we could) it's more how the US misread their intentions than a reflection on their own internal decisions.

Beyond that, I'd say every country has its own heroes and villains. I don't know if much of it is visible on a first viewing, but in the script we had a lot of dynamism among the people at the other sites.

minimaljest2 karma

Hi Eric, I'm a big fan. Bird Box is one of my favorite scripts ever.

One thing that I loved about "Story Of Your Life" was how you visually diagramed certain symbols into the actual screenplay. Do you think that we're moving towards a more interactive format of screenwriting?

Audio-clips for example, short video comparables, drawings etc. as inserts into the traditional movie "blueprint". So the script becomes less of an outline and more of a living document.

HIGHzurrer6 karma

Excellent question. I'd love to see that, really. I think if a writer has that extent of an authorial voice while creating the document, it can only help the film downstream. The stronger and more specific the original document is, the clearer it is to the creatives later in the process.

Viney2 karma

Hi Eric.

I saw the film the other day. Really enjoyed it. What inspired the alien language? What was it like creating something like that from scratch?

Bonus; if you had the chance to ask a real alien anything, what would you ask them?

HIGHzurrer7 karma

Thanks. Grateful that you enjoyed it. I did a lot of rough design work early on with the language, to the point I actually inserted logograms into the script (which had to be done in PDF as the screenwriting software didn't accept graphical inserts). I knew that I wanted to communicate non-linear orthography with a circular design, but then some artists with even deeper linguistics background took that prototype and transformed it into a real language with 100 different symbols. So that was cool.

My one question, as of right now: "Are we gonna be okay?"

Earthmens-92 karma

Hi Eric! I worked on the film, and I have to say that your script blew me away! I love the short story, but I also loved how well you adapted it as a screenplay. You maintained its sober science and still kept it such a touching, human story. It has, in my opinion, the elements to rank it with the classic science fiction films; it will be talked about for years. I also loved the brief time I spent with Denis Villenueve. A real genius and great human being. I have not seen it yet, so I'm counting the hours till next week!

My question is, now that you've adapted such a well-loved and critically acclaimed science fiction story, are there any other literary works you would love to adapt for the big screen?

Once again, congrats for making this happen through your words. For me, as a long-time science fiction fan, working on the film was like winning the lottery.

HIGHzurrer2 karma

I'm grateful for your work on the film! Thank you for your time and attention in whatever capacity.

I'm keeping quiet for now on my new obsessions, so I don't want to jinx anything.