Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, 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
“We’re at a time when our inter-connectedness is greater than any other time in human history and we are fumbling left and right with our ability just to be able to talk to each other.”
The road to getting ARRIVAL made was a bumpy one – a years long process that has finally come to fruition. And screenwriter Eric Heisserer (LIGHTS OUT, HOURS) has been shepherding it every step of the way.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, Story of Your Life, the impossibly gorgeous sci-fi masterpiece tells the tale of international language expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she’s recruited to decipher an alien language from inside one of the twelve ships that have landed across the globe. As the clock ticks away and the government breathes down her neck, she attempts to figure out why those beings are here and what exactly they want.
I spoke to the affable, talented screenwriter about everything from the short story’s evolving nature, to the similarities between the aliens’ language and our modern devices, to how the heady science of the film was developed.
Why the title change from the short story?
I think mostly it was a marketing decision, but also motivated by the fact that the title itself was a bit of a spoiler. And people got very protective once they understood.
The daughter was aged down for the movie. What was the reasoning that went into that?
Part of it had to do with we didn’t want to forecast a disparity in the age of our lead actress. If you went over something in the course of 30 years, then you’re definitely seeing the aging effect and that was showing our cards. The other issue was the end of the story with the daughter character was also different in the short story. When you put it under the scrutiny of the film adaptation, it really didn’t hold water. Too many people asking, ‘Why didn’t she just do this?’ So we settled on a new resolution for that, that felt more appropriate and a little shorter for her.
Tell me about the challenges involved turning this from a story that’s told from the inside out, to one that’s told from the outside in.
The first thing that I focused on – since I brought it to the producers and I was like, ‘Please let me make this’ and then we didn’t sell it to the studios and I was like, ‘I wanna write it on spec now.’ But the first thing I did was really do a hard transplant and focus entirely on the emotional journey and make sure the characters of Louise and Hannah played out the way I wanted it to. With that secured, I began to do the harder work on focusing on the first contact and how much information to portray.The biggest change that I had to make, and I had to first pitch this to Ted Chiang in order to get the rights to the story, was I switched it from a remote communication to an actual first contact where they showed up at our front door. That gave me the conflict and the escalation of tension that the short story didn’t have at all.
What were themes and ideas from the short story that you wanted to extract or expand?
Pre-destination and how often we feel that free will and predestination are at odds with each other. Something I loved about Ted’s lyrical story broke that open a bit and said, ‘What if you could see everything that you could be doing in the future, or you saw your whole life before you and yet you decided to make the same choices.’ That’s not quite pre-destination, but it’s like understanding yourself as a character and saying, ‘even though I know all the heartbreak that may be coming ahead for whatever choices I make, it’s still worth it.’ And that’s something so inherently hopeful about humanity and it’s a positive message. I have been starving for positive messages in movies so I wanted to talk about that.
I also wanted to talk about how ridiculously important it is to establish clear lines of communication with each other. We’re at a time when our inter-connectedness is greater than any other time in human history and we are fumbling left and right with our ability just to be able to talk to each other – not only internationally, but to our neighbors.
There’s something to be said of this idea of returning to a “back to basics” way of communicating: The heptapods use semagrams. Our modern times we use emojis, gifs and vine videos of dogs dancing to Toto’s ‘Africa’ – which is the greatest!
[laughs] I love it so much!
It brings so much joy! Do you think we’re progressing or regressing in language?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think that we’re changing again and anytime we’re on the cusp of change, we have something that’s psychologically called ‘Extinction Burst.’ Extinction burst means that some part of our culture and society realizes, ‘Uh-oh. We’re changing. This is coming around the bend.’ And it’s that last fit of, ‘Are you really serious? I’m going to test you.’ And the test is ‘Can we grow up or not?’ I don’t believe that we’ll lose some of these forms of communication because of it, but I think we’ll have a better way of processing them. The question of how intimate we are with our technology and our forms of communication is a big issue right now.
When you’re a writer, you sort of have to be an expert on whatever you’re writing about to make sure the words have conviction. Especially with this, there’s so much science to the language. But then there’s this interesting dichotomy where you’re coming from a place of authority in a fantasy – a sci-fi.
Is that something that presented a challenge to you?
It terrified me. it’s something I didn’t think about until I was neck deep in the project and I realized, ‘Oh no. What am I doing? I’m writing about people who are smarter than I am and they are in the greatest challenge of their life – stuff they even are worried about.’ It was sort of a quantum jump for all those things. I took solace wherever I could. One of my shelters was reaching out to experts; I talked to linguists. I talked to science experts. I talked to Stephen Wolfram, a lovely Brit who’s got a huge following and on the forefront of physics. He’s got a software called Mathematica and there were plenty of times where he just took over my computer in order to show me remotely, while he was in England. I hung around with scientists and engineers and mathematicians and language experts even on a social basis. There’s a science and entertainment exchange that is a group that’s like a professional dating service in terms of ‘Are you writing a movie about so-and-so? We’ll get you a pro in that field!’
Oh that’s so cool!
What I’ve learned about them is they talk to each other in this kind of jargon – this well-informed language of math, of science, of whatever it is – very casually. They treat everybody in the room as smart as they are, which is lovely and respectful. So much of it went over my head, but also reminded me ‘I have to make the smart people sound smart.’ Whenever I asked a question like, ‘What’s that principle? What’s that theory?’ They would stop and their eyes would light up like whenever we’d see a movie we were crazy about. This is how they are with ideas. This is how they were with formula and theory. I needed to capture that magic and bring it back. The more I hung out with people like this, who were absurdly smarter than I was, the more comfortable I was writing about them.
Do you wanna hang out with them now that this process is done?
I hope they will wanna hang out with me. That’s the test.
Have they seen this movie yet?
No. They have yet to see it. I’ll find out if they’re like, ‘You’re dead to me!’
‘You got this wrong, kid.’
[laughs] Yeah. I will get plenty of those.
The heptapods are named Flapper and Raspberry in the short story and here they are Abbott and Costello. What was it about that comedy duo versus say Martin and Lewis?
It was the ‘Who’s on first?’ piece. It was the basic communication problem there that I loved so much and I thought how better than to put an inside joke of these two.
There’s breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout that lead to the reveal. In the book, these are way more obvious. Was there a trick to doing that here?
We knew that the more she immersed herself in the language, the more intense the time fugues would be. We had a rhythm that we had to adhere to. We had some rules that we had to create that didn’t need to be in the short story, but when you start to tell the cinematic story, you had to get there. We even got down to making sure that each of those moments had to be prompted by something – that they couldn’t be completely unmotivated. That something had to tie them together. A lot of those survived all the way to the final cut. Some of them are a bit more impressionistic.
There’s the joke in the movie about the Sheena Easton song in each country. Is that for a fact? If so, name them.
[laughs] I will get back to you on Twitter on that one.
I saw this at Beyond Fest and there was A LOT of pot smoke happening – not by me.
[laughs] I love that! All right.
And I was thinking, ‘What is this movie to them?!’
It was hard for me to grasp these concepts and I’m sober, you know?
Did this ever cross your minds?
That’s a bonus.
…This other level of what the f*ck.
[laughs] Yeah. That’s a total bonus. To those who like to go to a movie and experience that way, this may operate on a completely different level for them.
ARRIVAL opens on November 11.