Eric Heisserer is a veteran screenwriter and producer with a long history in the science fiction field. His scripts include the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the prequel to The Thing, as well as horror films like Lights Out and the actually-quite-decent Final Destination 5. With Arrival, he elevates his game to create one of the strongest science fiction films in recent years. He sat down to discuss the project with us during a recent press day.
Question: What research did you do in preparation for this?
Eric Heisserer: I did a lot… which turned out to be just enough to be dangerous. [Laughs.] The gulf between my knowledge and someone who does this for a living is wide. I was writing characters of that level of intelligence and caliber dealing with the biggest challenge of their lives. That’s tough to fake. Thankfully, there’s an organization called the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Scientists join it just to pair up with screenwriters; they’ll consult with you on appropriate projects. I used them to make sure not only that my facts were right, but that the characters were authentic when they were conversing with each other.
Q: How did you determine the nations where the ships land. Movies like this tend to focus on the U.S.
EH: The point was that there was no real correlation. Not all of them are over specific countries. In fact, one of them is over the Indian Ocean. We were free in some sense because not everything the aliens did had to have a motive, or at least a motive that we needed to explain. We could leave that question alone. We knew that the spots couldn’t be overtly political, and that the shouldn’t follow any given pattern, but other than that, it didn’t need to have a reason. Just so long it was as easy as possible.
Q: Given the importance of China for a movie’s box office these days, was there any trepidation about making a Chinese figure the central antagonist?
EH: Well the good news is that we’re seeing it filtered through our own perceptions and the distortion of the media. And that wasn’t because we felt an obligation to be nice to a given character or cater to a particular national sensibility. It was “what’s right for the themes of the film?” We had an American setting, so an American general wouldn’t have worked. But a Chinese or a Russian general – with all of the gulfs between our characters that that entails – demonstrates the ripple effect of communication and a lack of communication.
Q: This is a film with a lot of unanswered questions, deliberately so. It’s key to the mystery and key to what you’re trying to say. How many of those answers did you need to have, solely for the sake or getting the screenplay into fighting shape?
EH: I had some of them, a few overt statements and solutions that stayed in a lot of drafts. The beauty of post-production is that you get to find out which parts aren’t necessary. Like a poem, you find out what words you can cut. You also need to do that because you don’t want a 4-hour film!
Q: How did you come up with the look for the aliens?
EH: That comes in part from the original short story by Ted Chiang. It was specific in that they were not humanoid, not like us. From there, we looked to the deep, deep sea. New species are being discovered there all the time, and in the last five years we’ve seen a lot of them discovered in the lowest depths of the ocean. That was the start. That was also how we decided that their language was organic. And it sort of grew from there.
Q: They struck me as very Lovecraftian, which is great for adding tension.
EH: Right? That’s part of it. We needed something inscrutable, something we could impose our own ideas on – for good or ill – and then move forward with the story.
Q: Were there specific movies from the past you drew upon?
EH: Mostly Close Encounters, which is the final word on stories like this, I think. I’m also quite fond of Contact, though that was less influential as far as this particular project goes. But it started with Close Encounters, and if we can evoke something resembling the feelings and emotions that they movie did, we’re probably doing our jobs right.