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‘Arrival’ Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Writing the Unfilmable Story: Awards Spotlight

The page-to-screen journey of a modern sci-fi classic, in the words of the writer that helped unpack an unsolvable mystery.

Eric Heisserer Daniel Bergeron

Eric Heisserer

Daniel Bergeron

In the nearly 20 years since Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” was published, the story took on a near-mythic quality in the realm of short fiction. As a nuanced, layered piece of science fiction, it blended the complex notions of parental grief with a granular examination of interspecies linguistics. However, the narrative approach that brought Chiang so much acclaim also seemed destined to keep the story confined to words on a page.

Enter screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose varied interests and occupations provided just the right outside-the-box approach to help guide Dr. Louise Banks’ triumph and heartbreak to the screen in the form of “Arrival.” Heisserer is familiar with genre scripts that stem from an established framework, having worked on “The Thing,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and a later installment of the the “Final Destination” franchise.

READ MORE: ‘Arrival’ Exclusive: Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams Want To Make Science-Fiction Feel Real Again — Watch

“Arrival” gave Heisserer the chance to tackle the same trademark blend of loss, discovery and logistics that helped power Chiang’s original tale. Though many of the film’s visual elements (director Denis Villenueve’s sense of calm and scale, Bradford Young’s exquisite cinematography) draw praise, it’s Heisserer’s roadmap that points the way. While it’s an alien visitation parable, “Arrival” is a human story, an idea that Heisserer happily reinforces.


Heisserer talked to us about the first time he read “The Story of Your Life” and the lasting impact it had. His desire to  adapt the story came from a place of deep emotional connection, rather than a desire to play with VFX.

Though the film became an awards player and a box-office success, it was a harder studio sell than he anticipated. Heisserer explained that the film found its champions among independent investors.

A group of people learning to work together to help people understand the value of communication? Sounds like it would make for a great movie.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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