Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL has always been an independent film at its core – shocking given that it’s distributed by Paramount Studios. In the film, linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked to decipher an alien language, making contact with those inside one of twelve crafts that have landed across the globe. And she’s under the gun to figure out who they are and what they want.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, producers Dan Levine (President of Production for 21 Laps), Aaron Ryder (producer, FilmNation) and David Linde (CEO of Participant Media, formerly at Lava Bear), along with Eric Heisserer (screenwriter/ executive producer), filled us in on how our new favorite sci-fi film got made.
So let’s dive deep into this oral history of sorts, shall we?
Eric Heisserer: I’ve been a fervent fan of Ted Chiang’s work for a number of years. I found a short story of his called Understand that a friend of mine sent. I loved it so much I found the collection of short stories. I got to Story of Your Life and that’s the one I had to stop, put it down, and go out a hug my wife. It had such a profound emotional effect on me. I realized this is what I wanted to share with an audience.
It wasn’t until I spent two years on it, from one producer’s meeting to the next, when they asked if there was a piece of source material I wanted and I would say, ‘This. It’s the sci-fi story I wanted to make all my life. It’s a female lead. It’s not a franchise movie. It deals with linguistic relativity.’ And their eyes would gloss over. I had nearly given up on that and then I sat down with Dan Levine and Dan Cohen at 21 Laps. They had just finished reading a script for HOURS and they were very excited about finding something for me that was non-horror. I was looking to do something emotional and sci-fi. I didn’t expect to get a call back, but Dan Levine called on Monday, saying, ‘This is phenomenal! You haven’t shared this with anyone else, have you?’ And we were off to the races.
Dan Levine: We had a meeting with Eric Heisserer, who’s a writer we really admired. He was mostly writing horror at the time. We spent two hours with him trying to find ideas and he said no to everything, but on his way out, I said to him, ‘Is there anything you like?’ He said, ‘There’s this book of short stories by this unknown sci-fi author Ted Chiang you should check out.’ I had never heard of Ted and we read the book, Story of Your Life, just was a jaw-dropper. It was the most amazing short story – not just emotionally. It was a bombshell! I started sweating it and going, ‘I hope this is available. I hope nobody has the rights to this.’
Eric Heisserer: So we got our shopping agreement – a very easy thing to do to get 90 days to go around and pitch out our version of the movie. We went to all the studios and they all said, ‘No. Not at all.’ We got some interesting qualifiers at the time. ‘We’d consider making it if you change the lead to a man.’ ‘If you make it a standard alien invasion movie where someone punches an alien at the end of it.’ We had somebody else who just fundamentally misunderstood the story who said, ‘If you can get rid of the flashbacks, then you have yourself a good movie.’ I was like, ‘I can’t believe this! I just can’t!’ Usually that’s the end of it – when you pitch to the buyers and the buyers say no, that’s the end of the road. I called up the producers and said, ‘Hey. I can write this on spec.’ All my reps at the time said, ‘What?! No. You’re wasting your time.’ I was really stubborn and said, ‘I have to do this anyways.’ And I’m no longer with those reps.
Dan Levine: We developed many, many drafts with [Eric]. It’s a long complicated short story and the script is complicated. It changed quite a bit. We probably did twenty drafts before we showed it to anyone. The opening scenes were so deeply moving. I knew we were on the right path.
Eric Heisserer: We got the script completed and sent it out about a year later. All the studios passed again, but the independent financiers – like Aaron Ryder and David Linde – were passionate about it. They got very excited. We had a featherweight bidding war among the people who really understood the material and connected with it. At one point, Lava Bear and FilmNation found out they were both in the mix, and they sorta Voltron’d together in order to make it happen. And therefore we had a movie with backing.
David Linde: As a producer or executive, or any other of the many hats I’ve worn in my life, I’m very interested in distinction. Today audiences demand it. I love genre, but I had never read or seen a film that was so delicate and at the same time so big. Combining the power of a science-fiction movie with the intimacy of a film about relationships. When I read it, it was one of the few cases where it was like, ‘Oh yeah. We’re doing this. No doubt about it. We’ll grab on to Eric’s feet until he agrees to do it.’
Aaron Ryder: When we read the script and got involved with it, it felt very timely. This was one we all earmarked as special.
Really [my initial reaction] was, ‘Why hadn’t Ted’s stories been made into a film yet?!’ That was my bigger surprise. To be honest with you, Dan Levine, he and Darren Cohen at 21 Laps did a lot of the heavy-lifting in developing the story and script. It came to FilmNation at a slightly later step in the process. If you think about some of the great science-fiction films of the past, you think of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, CONTACT, BLADE RUNNER, it’s hard standing in the shadows, but you haven’t felt or seen any science-fiction films with that emotional component to it in quite some time. That’s what was exciting to us. Denis brought this sense of realism – this texture, this grittiness. It was going to be relatable and grounded. That approach is applied to every aspect of the movie, whether it be casting, design, the look, the photography. It had that opportunity. When you see a script that’s got big ideas, and you can put it through a female protagonist, which was also wildly exciting for us, and have that emotional component, you feel lucky it hopped onto your desk. It’s a testament to Ted Chiang. To take a short story that’s relatively dense in its big ideas, to be able to transpose that into a screenplay, also a testament to Eric. It shows he’s a filmmaker too. Without his experience, I don’t think we would have gotten where we had gotten.
Haaaaave ya met Ted?
Eric Heisserer: It was really scary [to get the rights from Chiang]. We had the shopping agreement, but then when it didn’t sell, we approached again to say, ‘We want the full option for at least another year to the story and he’s [Eric] going to write it on spec,’ then that raised some alarms. Pitching to a speakerphone, of an author I’m totally in love with, and saying, ‘I’m going to borrow the keys to your car and I’m going to come back with some after-market changes.’ It was a nearly hour long pitch. Ted is prone to these pregnant pauses and you never know which way it’s going to go with him. It was nerve-wracking for us until he said, ‘I think this will work. Let’s do this.’ I started writing that night.
I emailed him throughout the process. Sometimes months would go by and there was nothing going on with it and I’d have to ‘help pay the rent’ when I was doing this on spec. He would help keep me honest about, ‘Well, this science is this,’ or, ‘This person wouldn’t say that word.’ It was all very important to me because the authenticity is such an integral part of the story. We were the first in legit business to come to him asking for rights.
Dan Levine: It was exciting to find Ted Chiang because he had no agent, no lawyer. He had a day job. He was an obscure sci-fi writer – although everything he had written won awards. Tracking him down, to me, was the mystery and the hunt. We always kept him in the look because we were so thankful for the material he created. He came to set, we showed him scripts. It’s not that he helped write the script – it wasn’t his medium and he knew that. We kept him involved because we loved seeing his wonder and awe of what we were creating off of his idea.
David Linde: One of the things about movies being successful is that they find their place in the world. I’ve always found, especially with movies as distinct as this, especially with filmmakers like Denis, you have to find the right home. Part of the process of finding the right home is dialogue and conversation. The reality of the matter is not everybody is going to see the benefit of a single movie. You work your way to find the place where people find what you’re trying to accomplish. In the world of independent film, it can be harder. If people don’t get it, they don’t get it and I don’t want to be in business with them. Ultimately we found the people who did get it.
Aaron Ryder: It’s changing a little bit – the paradigm of action stars in movies. This isn’t your typical studio movie, but it’s being distributed, wide, by a studio. Because the population of television right now, I think people’s minds are opening a little bit more. The tropes of an action film has to star this guy is not always the case. Hopefully now we can prove that you can have a movie that has big ideas, emotion, be science-fiction and have a female lead it, there’s no reason audiences shouldn’t accept that. It has all the components to make a good film.
Dan Levine: After we first met Eric and found Ted Chiang, we were in a long conversation with [Ted] about allowing us to have the rights and he was skeptical. It’s crazy how it happened. But in the midst of these talks, we met with Denis off his film INCENDIES. We were desperate to be in business with him. When we sat down with him, he said, ‘I’d been dreaming of doing sci-fi since I was ten-years-old.’ We said, ‘We just read this story, we don’t have the rights so don’t tell anybody, but here it is. Let us try to get the rights. In the meantime, we went back to Ted and Ted’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll give you the rights. What if it’s not a good movie? How do I know you’ll get a good director?’ We said, ‘Well we don’t know if we can get him, but check this movie out. This is the kind of guy we’d want.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And Denis came back and said, ‘I love it, but I’m going off to do PRISONERS. I don’t know how to crack this right now.’ We said, ‘Do PRISONERS. Let us work on this for a year and when you’re done, we’ll have a script for you.’ And that’s what happened.
Eric Heisserer: It was a lot of pining and looking at a photo of Denis and hoping someday. He had read the short story and connected with it many, many moons ago. He made it very clear, ‘I don’t know how this is a film. How do you make this a film? I don’t understand.’ Finally, we got the script to him and he read it and sat down with me – a coffee meeting that lasted 90 minutes. At the end of it, he said, ‘This is very nice. Let’s do this again next week.’ We did that like six more times and we kept doing that until I got the announcement he’s on board. He called me directly and said, ‘Okay, Eric. Now we are married.’ I understood immediately how he works with writers and why it took so long.
Aaron Ryder: We flew up to Montreal to see Denis to talk about cast – who would be the lead. We had one name and he had one name and it was Amy. The amazing thing about that was that we had just heard she was going to take time off. She had been working back to back to back and needed a break. We gave her the script and usually these things take months, but in a week, we got a “yes.” That never happens. She’s the perfect embodiment of that character – quiet strength and calm. Jeremy – we have to thank her for that. It was a very hard role to cast in the sense of who could that be and who is willing to play a supporting actor to a strong female lead. Amy loved working with Jeremy on AMERICAN HUSTLE and she suggested him. We were like, ‘Of course it’s him!’
David Linde: Amy was an absolute. I don’t think anyone else was discussed. She had wanted to work with Denis and Denis wanted to work with her so it was providence. In the case of Jeremy, we were incredibly lucky. We didn’t offer it to anyone else. It was finding the balance. You had to find two people who were good enough actors to start in one place and end up in a very different place. He was great.
Eric Heisserer: I had her on a notecard! I pitch with notecards and I print them out on a color printer. You’ve gotta get as visual as possible – some of these execs just can’t keep up. It was just trying to sell who these characters were in the film and this was even before I started writing the film on spec. This was trying to find a home for it. Col. Webber was Jeffrey Wright. I don’t remember who I had for Ian. The fact we got Amy was the biggest wish fulfillment for me. I don’t even know if she believes me.
A Morphing Creation
Dan Levine: One of the harder scenes to get right was when she was in the ship. There was a draft where there was too much information and too little. Initially we went with too little thinking it was going to be clear at this point – and we had way too little. We had to massage that and make sure we didn’t over inform the audience where we’d be hitting them over the head, but we wanted the reveal to creep up on them.
Dan Levine: I think the main [theme] was ‘Is it better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all?’ That’s what was driving us the entire time. We had that emotional storyline, but what we didn’t have were the stakes, the tension, the dread, the feeling that this could happen. There was a lot we had to construct around it, but that story was always there. That story was the beating heart of the movie.
Location, Location, Location!
Dan Levine: What we wanted to avoid in the movie was the ships landing around iconic buildings – like the Eiffel Tower and the White House. We wanted to have them show up in mysterious places where you couldn’t understand why they were there. We also really liked the idea of not always answering everything. We like people to wonder. We had so many conversations about, ‘Where should they land? Should they make a pattern when they pull out? Is it random?’ Montana we liked the idea that it parked in the middle of nowhere.
David Linde: This film found its voice as an independent movie. It was not made for $150 million. It would not have been made for $150 million. It was then that we found the right distributors because they understood the voice Denis wanted to bring to the material and that required more of an independent construct in our building.
ARRIVAL opens on Friday, November 11.