The screenwriter behind “The Thing” reboot and “Final Destination 5” clung to his dog-eared copy of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” for years. Chiang’s 1998 story lacked action-packed battles or toppled monuments.
That’s not the only reason Hollywood wouldn’t bite.
“It’s not a franchise film. It’s not based on a property the world knows about,” Heisserer says. When he described the story of a linguist trying to decode an alien race’s language to studio executives, “their eyes glazed over.”
His resume didn’t help.
“Absolutely nobody wanted to take a swing at that, especially from someone who’d done ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’” Heisserer says.
He wouldn’t give up. Finally, the production team behind Netflix’s “Stranger Things” swooped in to support his vision.
Now, Heisserer’s “Arrival” is gathering rave reviews prior to its Nov. 11 release. It could be this year’s “Gravity” – a smart, sophisticated science fiction tale.
Amy Adams stars as a linguist asked to communicate with one of 12 alien ships hovering over the planet. Jeremy Renner co-stars as her partner, a scientist with a growing fondness for Adams’ character. Are the aliens a peaceful species? Or is the calm before the invasion storm?
“It’s the kind of movie I wanted to make when I showed up in town,” he says.
FAST FACT: Author Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” won the 1998 Nebula Award for best novella.
The toughest audience for his “Arrival” screenplay? The source material’s author.
“I said, ‘Ted, I’m gonna take a child of yours, and you’re gonna have to trust me,” he says. “Ted understood the reasons why I made some changes to the story.” The screenwriter’s version broadened the scope, making the drama more of a global threat.
“Any time you bring in a new element to the story there’s always the risk of worsening it. It’s like bringing in new ingredient to a recipe,” he says. “You hope it’ll make it work.”
Both stories share a common theme, one Heisserer says connects more than ever to our fractured times.
“The interesting irony of our society right now is that we’re the most connected we’ve been in our history as a race. We also seem to be having the hardest time communicating at the same time,” he says.
‘When you’re working on a franchise, you’re more of a constructive worker than architect.’
For years, thoughtful science fiction floundered on the big screen apart from movies with the words “Wars” or “Trek” in it.
Now, we’ve seen cerebral smashes like “The Martian” and “Gravity,” and now “Arrival.”
“I think prestige directors are leading the charge for us in a way that you wouldn’t [see] otherwise,” he says. “Those are one-off stories that have so many other risky elements. There’s a lot of intellectual ideas behind them.”
It’s clear “Arrival” allowed Heisserer to flex his creative side in ways not previously possible.
“As a writer, when you’re brought on for remakes, it’s a property that’s studio owned. They’re very protective of them. They have a direction and a plan,” he says. “When you’re working on a franchise, you’re more of a constructive worker than architect.”
“I made a commitment to myself to write for a new genre every year, to expand my horizons and exercise new muscles. It helps your craft,” he says. “As a comic book writer I was both writer and director … that was very helpful for me as a screenwriter.”
The scribe’s horror roots still haunt him, but in ways he can laugh about now. He says he still gets hate mail for some of the reboots he worked on.
One memorable missive?
“He said he hated the writing on ‘The Thing’ because the CG was so terrible,” he says. “It’s the price you pay for working on beloved properties.”