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How Arrival's screenwriter turned sentence structure into suspense

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In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.

Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer spent years trying to convince Hollywood that a movie about communication could be thrilling, suspenseful, and ultimately moving. His script, originally called The Story of Your Life after the Ted Chiang short story on which it’s based, first appeared in the Black List of the year’s best unproduced screenplays in 2012, and finally came to fruition last year as Arrival.

The sci-fi film follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert who is tasked with communicating with aliens who have landed in Montana. From the outsider perspective, her task is simple: find an answer to the question “What is your purpose on Earth?” But as Louise explains in the scene below, expressing an idea is a trickier proposition than they first imagined.

This scene started as something else. My first draft of the script came out of some of the ideas in Ted’s short story, where he dove into process and just showed process and procedure when it comes to something along the lines of trying to find a common language or even teaching language to a foreign race. The earlier version of this scene was a series of shots or a series of moments that I had written of Louise teaching very basic vocabulary to the heptapods and Ian demonstrating some of those words and actions.

I delivered the first draft to the producers, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, really their first note was, “Eric, we’ve read a lot of material over the years, these two pages of her teaching basic words are the probably the least sexy we’ve seen ever. We don’t know why it’s here. We don’t know why we need it. Tell me why.” So I went up to their board, and I wrote out that question, “What is your purpose on Earth?” I said, “This is where you want to go. Here’s why these scenes are important.” I broke out and diagrammed the sentence for them, and I realized about the material that they were right. It was quite boring. At the end of that, the producers stared at me and said, “Eric, that’s the scene.”

The Pulaski was something I searched for to find a smart example. I knew that I wanted to find a tool because the definition of tool and weapon are often interchangeable, so I wanted to make sure I used that particular type of example, but I had no idea what a Pulaski was until I found out.

I arrived at that question fairly quickly, the specific wording of it, because I had written other versions, like “Why are you here?” That is a question left open to interpretation. It’s too vague a sentiment. “What is your purpose on Earth?” is the kind of question you craft if you have a wish with the monkey’s paw. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not screwing yourself over in the asking of the question. That’s the delicate nature of asking a question and getting the answer that you’re looking for and not an answer that just confuses you more.

I took a few passes at this. The first was finding a structure for her monologue. The question itself gave me that. She could start with the first word of the question and explain what it takes to define and teach each of those words. After I did a very long, verbose scientific version of that, I had someone who hadn’t written it speak it out loud and realized what a treacherous kind of speech that was. Then I had to make it work for an actor to actually say it. Then it was seeing if there was a more poetic way to get there.

I had tried some quirkier names than Joe Alien that were just sort of odd-ball that inadvertently made me chuckle whenever I heard someone read the monologue out loud, like Abraham or Zachary. Alliteration in particular made me chuckle. I thought, “That was fun and entertaining, but I need to get back to what would be one of the most common names I could find.” It was John Q. Alien for a while.

I’ve learned the hard way that info dumps don’t work if they’re merely exposition, if they’re one character explaining to the audience rather vacantly what’s going on. The reason I felt more confident about this scene of Louise is that it stems really from an argument. She’s being challenged. Her approach and her expertise are being challenged. This speech is in the sense of her idea and her careers. To a certain extent, it’s in defense of critical thinking. The emotional subtext for that scene is “If I can’t defend this, then I may lose this job, and we, as humanity, may lose much more.”

This moment finds its way into the scene because the other purpose of this scene, particularly at the end, is to continue to slowly develop the relationship between Ian and Louise and to show how they might be falling for each other. Her impassioned speech here really kind of turns Ian on a bit. It kind of makes him all the more for her. Part of that is respect and admiration, of course.

At some point in time, once I have a draft in some cohesive structure, I remove all of the slug lines from my script, and I just focus on the relationship of the scenes. I look at the transition. I look at the last image of one scene and the first image of the next. Or I try to find some other way to form those chain links that allow me to understand why these two scenes are related. Sometimes it’s a sound that gets me from one to the next. Sometimes it’s matching on a visual.