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Secret Science Nerds: Arrival Screenwriter Eric Heisserer Puts on a Sci-Fi Clinic

If you were anywhere near a movie theater, TV, or computer screen in the past week, there’s a good chance you saw advertisements for Arrival, a new sci-fi movie that stars Amy Adams as a linguist tasked with establishing communication with an alien species. The movie puts scientists front and center in a tense stand-off that has world-ending implications. So it should come as no surprise that the source story, Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award and Sturgeon award-winning Story of Your Life, has strong sci-fi roots. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer had to rediscover his own roots in the genre in order to tackle the adaptation. His latest screenwriting effort easily earns Heisserer a place in our pantheon of Secret Science Nerds.

In a chat with The Talk House, Heisserer went all the way back to some of his earliest memories, those of bedtime stories written by Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, and read to him by his mother, “stories of new worlds, new ideas, and possibilities for the future.” But Heisserer kept that literary passion quiet in his not-so-science-friendly hometown in Oklahoma. He says it was Chiang’s story, decades later, that drew him back to the genre.

Despite the award-winning source material and Heisserer’s status as a proven screenwriter, he had a tough time getting a studio to bite on the adaptation. Instead, he got the okay from Chiang to write the script on spec and, over the next year, learned the hard way how difficult it is to get science-fiction right.

For starters, Heisserer didn’t have the luxury of making things up from whole cloth; his details had to be rooted in the dynamic and complicated sciences of linguistics and theoretical physics. He found the linguistic approach to a first-contact story intriguing, and took a deep dive on concepts like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, i.e. how the structure of a language influences the culture in which it’s spoken. Heisserer wasn’t just writing about incredibly intelligent experts in their fields, but “writing for characters way smarter than [he is] as they face the biggest mental challenge of their lives.” He spent time with linguists and physicists to get a handle on their jargon, their references, and their interactions. All of that detail went into the script.

The “heptapod” language itself had to be deciphered by the characters in order to reach a basic level of understanding with the aliens, and vice versa. For Heisserer, it had to be created first. The screenwriter took to Twitter after the movie’s opening weekend to lay out a wealth of behind-the-scenes nuggets on the creation of the logograms, and much more. For example:

As easy as it would have been to get carried away with the cleverness of this language, in his script, Heisserer stressed the importance of clarity and emotional transparency, saying, “We just don’t do it enough. So many of our conflicts and our problems stem from miscommunication.”

As for the math, Heisserer reveals that “Jeremy Renner’s character had a more pronounced role during production, and it was only in post that Denis [Villeneuve] and [editor] Joe Walker realized the more they made the focal point Amy’s character, Louise, the more aerodynamic the movie got. So it was better for us that way. There was really great material.” Still, he put the work in, exploring such relatively obscure concepts as Fermat’s Principle and Snell’s Law.

Arrival took 100 drafts of the script to get to the finish line, ultimately giving moviegoers one of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking, and scientifically rich films we’ve seen in years. I think most of us, including Heisserer would agree that it was worth the effort.

What other Secret Science Nerds would you like us to profile in a future article? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Twitter

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