PODCAST - ARRIVAL: The Writer's Journey
Arrival: The Writer’s Journey
By Jacob Krueger
This week we’re going to be talking about Eric Heisserer’s script Arrival.
It’s really a beautiful thing when you see a friend create something that is such a pure expression of who they are. I’m lucky to count Eric among my friends, and I’m really proud of him for this movie.
Beyond just the superb quality of the film, one of the reasons that I’m proud of Eric, and one of the reasons that I think that Arrival is so valuable for emerging screenwriters to look at, is the process by which Eric wrote it.
Now, Eric is a pretty big time writer. He writes a lot of horror movies, he’s written for the Nightmare on Elm Street & Final Destination franchises, and he just had a big hit with Lights Out earlier this year. Eric is not a guy who needs to write scripts on spec; he is not a writer who needs to go out and write a movie that he’s not getting paid for.
But Eric made a really bold choice. Instead of taking one more well-paid ‘work for hire’ project, he instead dedicated years of his life to making a little movie that mattered to him. A movie that, quite frankly, is a pretty hard sell.
Imagine walking into a producer and trying to explain this film. “Look, I want to make an expensive sci-fi movie, the main character is a linguist, it’s mostly about language and the nature of time. It’s going to get really deep into very complex ideas that normal people don’t understand. And most of the action is just the main character standing in a spaceship, trying to learn a language that neither she nor the audience can possibly understand. It’s going to cost a lot of money to make because we’re going to need some big special-effects. And, oh, did I mention it’s also really sad and profound?”
This is not an easy pitch. If it had been, Eric, at this phase of his career, probably would not have had to write the script for free. But that’s what he did.
He did it because it moved something in him. He read this short story– written in 1998, so it’s not like this was the hot new thing out on the market– he read this “unadaptable” short story and he was moved by it. And he decided that he wanted to turn it into a screenplay, whether it was “adaptable” or not.
Before this movie was completed he had written over 100 drafts of this script. And, I think the thing that stands out here, that you should think about if you are an emerging screenwriter, is the humbleness. The desire not to get it done, but to get it right.
Not to get it finished or get it sold, but to get it to a place where it was a pure expression of what he wanted to say.
So often, when I work with young screenwriters, they are rushing through the process of screenwriting. They’re either going out looking for the hot idea that they “know” they can sell, which as we all know rarely turns out to be the one that actually does. Or, they are rushing to complete the idea, just to get the script on the page, following some commercial formula, trying to sell out, or blow things up, or “save the cat,” or do whatever they’ve been taught by a screenwriting book in order to conform to the formula. They’re rushing through the process, looking for that quick payoff.
If you are one of those writers, if you have made that mistake, I want to suggest to you that you take a page from Eric Heisserer.
Rather than looking for the script that you think you can sell for a lot of money, look for the script that you would be willing to write for free.
Instead of looking for the formula that you’ve seen before in other movies, look for the question that you wish you had an answer to. Rather than rushing through your script to try to get to the end, allow yourself to slow down, writing 100 drafts, if necessary. Allow yourself to slow down and step into each character, and each moment, until you have the script that you want to write on the page, exactly the way that you want to write it.
In Eric’s case, by following his heart rather than his business mind, building the structure around the questions that he wanted to explore, rather than around the formulas that commercial movies tend to rely on, and writing the script that he was willing to write for free, rather than the ones he would happen to get paid for, it looks like Eric has not only created a total hit feature film, but is on the short list for Oscar contenders this year.
For you, as an emerging screenwriter, this is even more important.
At the end of the day, if he wants to “go Hollywood” Eric has a bunch of franchises he can fall back on, and a proven track record as a horror filmmaker. Eric doesn’t need to break in, and he doesn’t need to prove himself to anybody.
Yet, rather than coming with the attitude of “if they’re not going to pay me for it, I’m not going to do it”, he took the idea that no one could believe in, that every studio passed on, and showed them how beautiful it could actually be.
Here’s the amazing thing about screenwriting: absolutely no one knows what’s going to be a hit, and absolutely no one knows what’s going to sell.
There are a bunch of people who pretend that they know, but the truth of the matter is that Hollywood is like high school: fads come in and fads come out. And, by the time you are done replicating what you’re seeing on the screen today, you will already be years behind. Because the movies that you’re seeing on the screen today are actually the scripts that sold two years ago. The trends that you’re watching in the theaters today are actually the trends that passed two years ago in Hollywood. And by the time you’ve copied those trends, you’re not two years behind, you’re probably three.
If you’re Eric Heisserer, you have a big-time agent who can whisper into your ear and go “hey this is not hot right now” or “hey this is.” But if you’re a young writer, you probably don’t have that agent. You don’t have the person who’s on the phone all day, following every trend at every moment.
That means you have to rely on yourself. And sometimes relying on yourself means taking an improbable idea, rather than one that seems like a hot one. As an emerging filmmaker or emerging screenwriter, oftentimes the script that breaks you in is not the one that sells. Oftentimes, the script that breaks you in is the one that other people are afraid to write, or producers are afraid to make.
In Eric’s case, the script that moved him to the next level in his career was the one that people were afraid to make, that people were afraid to pay him to write. The script that moved him from a hugely successful commercial horror screenwriter into an elite Oscar-worthy screenwriter, was not the script that everybody thought was going to get made. It was the one that other people had so little belief in, that even when this hugely successful screenwriter brought them the idea, they weren’t ready to make the investment. They had to see the execution.
So often, the script that breaks you in is not the one that everyone clamoring for, because so often the things that everyone is clamoring for are cliché. The things that are hot right now are often cliché, and the problem with writing a script that’s cliché is that everybody else is writing it as well. The problem with following a structure that everyone else is doing is that everybody else is doing it. That makes it really hard to distinguish yourself.
Eric could have spent a lifetime writing horror movies and making lots of money. Truthfully, Eric’s always been an artist and even his horror movies have his personal stamp on them, but even tor him, in order to distinguish himself, in order to show that he was not just another successful horror writer; that he was in fact an artist worthy of Oscar contention, worthy of writing important, deep and, poetic films, he had to do the script that people didn’t believe in. The one that his agents thought he was crazy for writing. The one that, at that time, only made sense to him. He had to do it in a way that didn’t conform to the standard sci-fi formula. That isn’t filled with big explosions and chase sequences and special effects. That’s actually a pretty small, character driven drama, woven into some really gorgeous sci-fi imagery.
As an emerging screenwriter, even if you follow the exact same formula that the commercial movies you see in the theaters are following, the problem is that you can’t compete on that level. The chances are your craft isn’t as good as the craft of someone who’s been doing this for 25 or 30 years. And even if your craft were that good, if you’re following that formula you’re competing with thousands of screenwriters with scripts that are just like yours, and a lot of those professional screenwriters are going to have credits and agents and managers and lawyers that are much, much, much more powerful than yours. They’re going to have relationships and contacts and friends in the industry. Which means, if you really want to break into this business, you can’t just do what everybody else is doing.
You have to do what Eric Heisserer did, and invest in the movie that you want to tell; the structure that fits not any movie, but that movie and that movie alone.
That begins with writing a script that you’d be willing to write for free. If the story that you’re writing, the characters that you’re exploring, the questions that you looking at are not important enough for you that you would be willing to do them for free, I would highly recommend doing something else. Because the truth is almost any other job, if you pour the number of hours into your day job that you pour into a screenplay, you will probably make more money.
The truth is, most screenplays do not sell.
Even many screenplays that break you in don’t sell. What a screenplay that breaks you in usually does is it grabs a producer by the lapels, shakes them, and says “Hey! Pay attention to me! This is not something you can get from somebody else. This is a writer worth taking a risk on.”
Oftentimes those are not the scripts that make you a lot of money. The script for Arrival paid Eric Heisserer, even at the point it was greenlit, significantly less that he would make writing a standard, run-of-the-mill horror movie. What it did do was break him into the next level of his career, just like you’re trying to break into the next level of your career. That means it has to be worth it, whether it sells or not. Even if this one doesn’t work out, even if the next one doesn’t work out, even if the one after that doesn’t work out, the process needs to be worth it.
Which brings us to the structure of Arrival.
There’s a really beautiful question at the center of Arrival.
It’s a question that Eric is asking himself as a screenwriter, a question he’s asking us as an audience, and a question he’s asking his main character, Louise Donnelly, played by Amy Adams, as a character.
If you knew exactly how your life was going to turn out and you knew it was likely to be painful, would you do it anyway or would you change?
This, of course, is the question that Amy Adams’ character, Louise, asks Jeremy Renner’s character, Ian, at the end of the film, And Jeremy Renner’s character has a really beautiful response. He says, “I guess I would say what I feel more.”
I think this is probably the best advice that you can take, as a screenwriter, from Arrival.
Being a screenwriter is not about following a formula.
Being a screenwriter is about putting yourself on the page. It’s about exposing the vulnerable part of you, it’s about putting your feelings and your emotions into screenplay form and then using your craft as a screenwriter to shape them into something the audience can understand.
At our studio we teach this as a mixture of Meditative Writing, Craft and Structure, breaking storytelling down into three separate processes:
Meditative Writing: the process by which we connect to our own emotional needs, the core primal emotional needs of our characters, and those dreamlike images that capture the feeling of our movie, even in early drafts, when they don’t totally make sense.
The Craft Intensive: where we build the physical tools that you need to develop your work as a screenwriter, so you can shape that raw material of your subconscious mind, create structure around those dreamlike images, and bring clarity to those really deep profound ideas.
Write Your Screenplay: my class at the studio, in which we look at how to take that art and craft and put it together in order to build not a formula, but an organic structure. The structure that is unique to your character’s journey in the film that you are writing.
If you’ve seen Arrival, you can see that Eric Heisserer is doing this at every single moment: performing that poetic dance between art, craft, and structure.
We have these shockingly striking, beautiful, moving images– these incredibly complicated, hard-to-even-grasp ideas, that get just the right amount of Craft applied to them in order to make them accessible to the audience, without dumbing them down.
We have profound primal emotional needs and emotional themes driving our characters, that Meditative Writing, which then get shaped by Craft into a form that we can understand.
And we have a unique structure for the main character’s journey, a structure that we have not seen exactly this way in sci-fi films before. A structure where even the normal, relatable elements get played out in an entirely different way.
We have a story that was worth telling for Eric, even if he had to tell it for free. That was worth getting made for Eric even if he had to do it for very little money.
And most importantly, we have an expression something very real about Eric. We have an expression of something that Eric feels very deeply. And what’s beautiful about that, is that feeling moves us, too.
The structure of your character’s journey is really not much different than the structure of your journey as a writer.
The structure of the journey of your character simply begins with something the character wants really badly. Something that the character wants so badly that they’d be willing to do it even if they didn’t know how. Even it was never going to pay off. Even if the journey, in fact, were the destination. Something that is so important that it would be worth pursuing even if there was very little chance of getting it.
And this is the process of writing a film, as well. It doesn’t begin with the formula, it begins with a question that is haunting you, an image that is recurring in your dreams, an emotional need that is driving you, a part of your personality you don’t understand, a fear that terrifies you. It begins with taking something that you feel, something real about you, and putting it on the page. And sometimes that takes an obviously commercial form. And sometimes that takes a form that is not obviously commercial. But it’s about passing that feeling on to the character. And through your character to the audience.
Structure does not get built from outside, with outside plot points, in somebody else’s formula. Structure grows from the question you are asking yourself. And without giving anything away about the many twists and turns of Arrival, you can see, if you’ve seen the film, how that structure grows out of the question Amy Adam’s character is asking herself; out of the nature of that character’s journey and that character’s change.
We write movies–at least those of us who are really successful at writing movies– we write movies not to make money. We write movies to learn about ourselves through these people that we call our characters. These parts of ourselves that we breathe life into on the page. We do this by taking them on journeys that change us, even if those journeys take hundreds of drafts, and don’t always lead us to where we want to go.
I’m going to hold off on any major spoilers until the very end of this podcast, and will warn you first, but please do be aware that there will be a few details in the next couple of minutes that give away elements from the very beginning of the film.
Arrival begins with a beautiful monologue, in which Amy Adams’ character says she doesn’t think about time the same way anymore. That she thought she was at the beginning, but she’s not.
And what follows is an absolutely devastating sequence, that reminds me a bit of the beginning of Up–this 3 to 5 minute sequence that brings you from the birth to the death of a child, through all these beautiful moments of this mother’s life, and this crushingly painful loss.
We’re watching that story unfold in a version of a flashback, bouncing back and forth between the arrival of the aliens and these strange and painful memories. And you can see structurally that there is a parallel here between two similar events– two life changing events that seem to happen for no discernible reason, events that don’t seem to make sense, events that change everything: the death of a child, the appearance of these aliens.
Then, as Amy Adams interacts with these aliens, what she discovers is a language. A language that does not look at time the same way that we do. And in trying to understand that language, she comes to understand something about the nature of time, about the nature of language, and the nature of loss.
She comes to understand that time, like language, and like screenwriting, is not linear. That all the parts are interconnected.
Early on in the movie she tries to help others understand that the language we speak does not just directly translate into words, but also changes the nature of our interaction and our assumptions about others.
The metaphor she uses for this is the metaphor of chess. There are 12 pods scattered throughout the world, the Chinese are interacting with their pod using mah-jong, and she thinks that this is a terrible idea, because the object of a game is winning.
She believes that if the conversation begins through the metaphor of a competitive game, that in fact it will change the nature of that conversation.
It’s my belief that the same thing is true for writing. That both things influence each other. That the language that we are using with ourselves, the stories that we are telling ourselves as we sit down to write, affect what actually ends up coming out the page.
If we are telling ourselves the story of “I’m going to sell this for a lot of money”, it actually changes the nature of our communication with ourselves.
Whereas if we we tell ourselves “I’m going to go on a journey of understanding,” we allow ourselves to experience the true process of writing. Which starts with letting go of our goals for a moment, and instead recognizing that this is an early draft, recognizing that I may not yet understand the meaning of my own language, that in early phases the characters I’m communicating with may appear more like shadowy ghosts behind a glass wall, things that I can’t quite wrap my head around, than like the clear characters they will ultimately become when I can step into them and understand clearly and see the world through their eyes.
Eric Heisserer talks about the many, many drafts he had to write just to get into the thought processes of the aliens “Abbott” and “Costello”– just to understand who they were as characters. And this is the process of all writers.
Oftentimes, we start off really connected to one character, and it ends up taking a real journey and many drafts to connect to the full cast of characters in our piece. Because these characters don’t come from somewhere outside of us– from a book or a concept or development notes– they actually come from inside of us. The actually are us.
In a way, the entire appearance of the aliens is just a metaphorical projection of the internal problem of Amy Adam’s character. It’s simply a metaphor, another event in which everything changes: another event that opens the opportunity to make sense of a bunch of images and ideas that the main character does not yet understand, of characters that she is not yet able to sort. A story that has not yet evolved into an order that is palatable for an audience.
In order to get there, she has to apply a couple of different ideas. She has to apply Meditative Writing– that is she has to apply art. Doing it her own way. Taking off her spacesuit. Trusting her instincts. Stepping into her metaphors. Examining her dreams. Looking for the meaning, rather than trying to define it. Recognizing and accepting that their word “weapon” might not be her word “weapon.” Recognizing that, at the beginning, before the vocabulary of the story is built, things may be murky or unclear. Tapping into the things that are most resonant and letting go of the ones that seem forced or imposed or suggested by voices outside, all those other arguing voices in the room.
The second part she has to apply is Craft. She has apply her mastery of the tools of her trade. Looking closely– looking more and more and more and more closely at the images and the metaphors. Coming up with unique ways to apply her craft to this specific problem.
And the last piece she has to put in place in order to take herself on this journey is the part called structure. She has to take all these disparate elements that don’t seem to make sense, that are not, to use the language of the film, yet communicating with each other, and keep on pushing on them. Not to impose order, but to discover the order that is already there.
The journey of Amy Adam’s character is the journey of a screenwriter, using language to look at questions to which we don’t yet know the answer, and then looking for a way to present those ideas to an audience, that can take them on a journey as well, that can actually change who they are through the nature of the language that we use.
Our language, and the metaphors of our films, have the power to change us.
They change us as writers and they change us as audience members. They shape the conversation and the way we see our world. They shape our trust in our institutions or our distrust of them. They shape the way that we see heroism and the way that we see cowardice. They shape the way we see inclusion or exclusion, the way we deal with our fears and open our curiosity.
The language that we use as screenwriters changes our audience. And the wider the audience for your movie, the more people you have the ability to affect. That’s why we as screenwriters, particularly if we are writing movies with mass appeal. If we are writing action movies, horror movies, thrillers, sci-fi’s, fantasies, romantic comedies, and of course television, we have such a responsibility, because the language that we use as we write changes us. And the language that we present to our audience changes them.
Our movies teach people how to live and how to interact with the unknowns of their lives.
In this way every movie is a political movie.
We’re finding ourselves in times right now, in which people are not talking to each other. Just like the characters in Arrival, we’re living in times in which people with opposing viewpoints are cutting each other off from their Twitter feeds and their Facebook accounts, rather than finding ways to have a dialogue.
Rather than asking the question of “what don’t I understand?,” we are moving towards a society where everyone assumes they have the only answer. Where we believe that our language is linear and stable, rather than circular and ever-changing like the language in Arrival.
As screenwriters, we have a responsibility to open the dialogue.
If we write big-budget movies with simplistic themes and easy answers, we shape our audiences to expect simplistic themes and easy answers.
If we build movies that demonize people who are not like us– if we build movies that demonize the “other” and suggest that the good guys are one hundred percent good– we teach people to fail to look for the flaws in themselves and to fear those who are different.
We have the ability as writers to shape the world, because we have the ability as writers to shape the dialogue, the language which is used, the metaphors which shape our lives.
Even if you’re not into all this political stuff, the language that you use shapes you.
If you start with a question rather than an answer, if you start with something you want to explore rather than a moral, if you start by looking for the things you don’t understand rather than controlling the things that you do, the process of writing is going to take you on a journey.
I’ve avoided spoilers up to now, but I have to warn you that there are finally spoilers ahead. So if you haven’t already seen Arrival, you may want to pause the podcast here and come back after you’ve seen the movie.
Halfway through this film, both our main character, and we, the audience, start to realize that we don’t actually understand the story we’ve been witnessing. That, just like the Army and the interpreters and the scientists all over the world, we don’t actually know the story we’re telling. That instead, we’re trying to figure it out.
Oftentimes, when we have a movie with a trick ending (and “Arrival” certainly has couple) we hold off on that trick ending until the very end. We become so concerned about manipulating our audience and holding off on the big surprise, that we forget to step honestly into the character.
But, Eric Heisserer does something really brave in this film; he starts letting the cat out of the bag right around halfway through the movie.
We’ve been watching the main character have these flashbacks and we think these are flashbacks of the past. These flashbacks are hard to understand, because they have imagery that relates to the imagery she’s seeing in the present, and we’re trying to understand: is this present some kind of manifestation of her past? Do the answers to this present somehow lie in the past? Is the experience she had losing her child, somehow going to be the key to unlocking this story with the aliens?
We are seeing the movie through her eyes, and piecing it together just as she is piecing it together.
Because nothing in this movie is built the way we expect. Because, if it had been built in the way we expect, it would’ve been a lot less exciting and a lot less moving. It works because it’s not following the same formula that we’ve come to understand from other movies in the genre.
Halfway through Arrival, this child that we’ve been seeing all these flashbacks about– this beautiful, painful, and sad relationship, this terrible loss that we’ve believed our main character is grieving– halfway through the movie, our main character asks “who is this child?”
And we start to realize she doesn’t know!
A little later on, she has another flashback in which her child tells her, after the divorce, that her father doesn’t look at her the same way anymore. Amy Adams’ character explains to her daughter that there was something that she knew that the father didn’t, something about a terrible disease.
And we realize that Amy Adams knew from the beginning that this girl was going to die, and chose to have the baby anyway.
The daughter’s response is even more devastating. She confides to her mother that her father said her mother made the wrong choice.
Amy Adam’s character comes out of that flashback– and again we still think that this is a flashback from the past– she comes out of her flashback and she says “I just figured out why my husband left me…”
And we start to wonder, why didn’t she know it before? Because we’re thinking this conversation has already happened.
So you can see what’s happening structurally.
Structurally, this surprise does not exist to surprise the audience, this surprise exists to surprise the character.
It’s not a trick ending being set up for an audience to experience; it’s a journey that the character’s undertaking herself. She’s trying to piece together two things at the same time: these flashbacks about the loss of a child, and the story of her present day relationship with these aliens, and the language which seems to defy time.
It’s not until the end of the movie that we realize that this child did not die in the past– that this child has not yet been born. That this child is, in fact, the child that she has in the future with Jeremy Renner’s character, Ian, after all this alien stuff is over.
That she makes the decision to have the child, even knowing that the child is going to die. Even knowing that it’s going to cost her her relationship with Ian. Even knowing that one day he is going to leave her.
It’s a journey about fate and freewill happening at the same: about the past, present, and future influencing each other. It’s a movie about the journey of a writer.
As screenwriters, our movies do not always unfold to us linearly and they don’t always unfold to us in an orderly way.
If we’re actually allowing our instincts to guide us, if we’re actually recording the things we see, feel, and hear, if we’re actually doing this dance between Meditative Writing, Craft, and Structure, our movies don’t always present themselves in a linear order and they don’t always make sense.
Oftentimes our urge, like the urge of the CIA director or the army Colonel played by Forest Whitaker, is to force order onto the chaos: to make the thing that came to us conform to what we expect it to be, to make it conform to what we’ve seen in the past.
But the real journey of a great screenwriter is like the journey of Amy Adams’ character: to accept that this may not be coming in the order that we expect. That what we think is the past might be the present, what we think is a present might be the future. That we are looking for the elements through which we discover our structure, rather than controlling and plopping our characters into a plot that we’ve developed for ourselves.
Sometimes this leads to beautiful screenplays, and sometimes this leads to beautiful careers, and sometimes this leads to screenplays that die along the way. To characters that enter our lives and leave them too early, that don’t ever get the chance to fully bloom.
But if you, as a screenwriter, are writing from a question that matters to you, and taking yourself on a journey as a writer that gives meaning to your life, it’s going to be worth it to take the journey. Even if there is pain along the way.