Oscar-nominated ‘Arrival’ screenwriter Eric Heisserer was offered the chance to make the movie much earlier, if he would switch the lead to a man
Oklahoma native Eric Heisserer spent more than a decade trying to get Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 sci-fi novella “Story of Your Life” made into a movie. Last year, under the direction of “Sicario’s” Denis Villeneuve, his dream finally arrived in theaters as “Arrival.”
Around 2005, Heisserer read Chiang’s story of a linguist named Louise Banks whose life is fundamentally changed when she is recruited by the military to communicate with aliens who have made first contact with Earth — and it changed his life, too.
“At the end of the day, it was just how it made me feel, and it was my deepest wish to find a way to gift that to other people,” Heisserer told me in a recent interview.
Not only was the alien invasion film a box-office success, earning more than $195 million worldwide, but the emotionally resonant and elegantly cerebral film earned eight nominations for tonight’s Academy Awards, including best picture, best director for Villeneuve and best adapted screenplay for Heisserer. One of the most notable snubs of this year’s Oscars was the absence of “Arrival” star Amy Adams, whom Heisserer has called “the beating heart of this film,” in the best actress category.
But Heisserer told me he could have seen his adaptation of “Story of Your Life” hit theaters much sooner if he was willing to make one major change: Turning the lead into a man instead of a woman.
“Oh, that was right away,” he said. “Let me tell you, Brandy, I tried to pitch this first before I went off to write it on spec, and we went out to all the major buyers in town. And one of them said that exact line. One of them said, ‘We’ll definitely consider making this if you change the lead to a man.’ And I said to myself, ‘I’m not coming back here anymore’ – and I haven’t.”
In 2010, Heisserer found supporters in Dan Levine and Dan Cohen – whom he affectionately calls “the Dans” — at the production company 21 Laps. The writer eventually decided to pen a speculative screenplay in the hopes of getting the movie made – and getting it made without reverting to all the usual sci-fi cliches.
“This was a unique experience for me in that since I wrote it on spec with only the producers of 21 Laps in the room with me, we were all very passionate about avoiding all of those tropes and crafted a script that sidestepped the kind of things that you might hear from, you know, a traditional studio executive,” he said. “I really didn’t get that kind of pushback until after the film was made and our distributors like Paramount and Sony then had to scratch their heads a little bit and figure out how they would market something that zigged instead of zagged.”
He also found a likeminded partner with Villeneuve, and Heisserer called working with the esteemed helmer “a lovely marriage.”
“The ideas and the emotion that he brought to this made it better because he and I wanted to make the same movie. Like he didn’t look at the script and say, ‘Here’s a chance to make my first dark comedy.’ He didn’t do that,” Heisserer said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to infuse it with the tropes of science fiction that I worked so hard to avoid. He was completely on board with the thing that we were all trying to build together, and therefore, all of his ideas, even if he labels them as traitorous or betrayals, they never were. They were just improvements and enhancements on what I had tried to build the foundation for.”
Good for Heisserer for standing his ground and keeping the lead of “Arrival” a woman. As previously reported, fellow Alliance of Women Film Journalists member MaryAnn Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com found in her 2016 Where Are the Women? analysis that of the 153 wide releases in the U.S. in 2015, only 34 had female protagonists or an ensemble that was primarily female. That just more than 22 percent, despite the fact that women account for 51 percent of the population.
Another 15 percent had women protagonists sharing the spotlight with male co-protagonists, while almost 63 percent feature male protagonists or ensembles that were primarily male.
Furthermore, only 31 percent of 2015’s films represented women well, by which she means “women are depicted as fully human, embodying the same kinds of flaws and struggling with the same sorts of problems as men onscreen have to deal with.”
Hollywood has clung to this dismal standard of unequal representation despite the fact that Johanson’s examination (and others like it) revealed that, statistically speaking, movies that represent women well are just as likely to turn a profit as movies that don’t represent women well, and movies with female protagonists are just as likely to make a profit as movies with male protagonists.
Plus, since movies that represent women cost 20 to 24 percent less to produce and are just as likely to be profitable, movies about women are actually less risky, as business propositions, than movies about men.
To read more of my interview with Heisserer, click here.
The Oscars red carpet starts at 7 p.m. Eastern Time / 6 p.m. Central with the ceremony beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern / 7:30 p.m. Central. I’ll be following along live at my BAM’s Blog and on Twitter @BAMOK.
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