Eric Heisserer: The Life Of A Screenwriter

Interviewed by Jakob Lewis Barnes & Nick Deal

We’re ecstatic to share our interview with academy-award nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer as he talks about the life of a screenwriter and his experience working in the film industry. Heisserer’s well deserved Oscar nomination was for his screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 hit Arrival, for which he was also an Executive Producer. Heisserer is also known for his writing for Lights Out,  The Thing (2010), and Final Destination 5, and is attached to some exciting future projects, including Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, which stars Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, and John Malkovich.


 

Hi Eric, would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?

I’m a screenwriter, producer, and director. I’ve been in the business for about eighteen years, most of that time I lived in LA, but I got my break while I was in Houston. 

Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a screenwriter? Is writing something you’ve always enjoyed or was it an interest that developed later in life?

I’ve been writing creatively since high school. In my early twenties, I really wanted to be a pro writer for tabletop gaming. I even had some published work for the Cyberpunk 2020 game, back in the day. But I’m an autodidact, and I’m a bit stubborn, so I like to learn things on my own and I often can’t tell the difference between a challenge and a warning. So when I submitted a proposal for a scenario for a game publisher and was sent a polite rejection letter with the comment, “This is too linear for a game story, this is a movie,” I decided to make it a movie. That first feature screenplay took me several months to write, and at the end of the day it was terrible, but by then I knew I wanted to plunge into screenwriting and make it a career if I could.

I wrote screenplays in different forms. Pilots, spec TV episodes, features… I’d write just to keep my daily page count. My ninth screenplay garnered some attention from a studio and they optioned it. But I wanted another victory before moving to LA for good, so I kept writing. Script number eleven found a home with some independent financiers, and so I drove west on I-10 that summer and got a tiny apartment in LA. It was a long uphill slog for six years after that before I landed a studio assignment that would actually make it to screen.

What is it about storytelling that you love? If you even love it at all, feel free to tell us why you hate it if you want.

I love the potential storytelling has for reproducing specific emotions. I may have a personal experience that left me heartbroken, or nostalgic, or enraged or full of hope. To be able to repackage that feeling and have it connect with others is a feat I think separates ‘reporting the events of a character’ and actual storytelling.

Every writer is looking for that “big break” moment to get into the industry. What would you say was your breakthrough moment? And is there any particular method or route that you see as the go-to for aspiring writers?

My breakthrough moment was realizing I was always the one to get the work in this business. I had thought having an agent or manager meant I had “made it” and they would find work for me, promote my material, etc. But while they will take those swings, the real job offers never come from that. They happen when I make a move on my own — to write on spec, or to get a meeting with someone, or work up a pitch for a project in limbo at a studio somewhere, or even to get the rights to a novel and pursue it.

Would it be fair to assume that your Oscar nomination for the adapted screenplay of ‘Arrival’ is the highlight of your screenwriting career to date (feel free to tell us otherwise)? Can you tell us a little about how that felt to find out you were nominated?

Awards recognition isn’t really a metric I consider. It was fun meeting the other writers that year on the awards circuit, and getting dressed up for the various shows, but the achievement I hold close to my heart is that I’ve written 70 scripts to date, and I continue to learn something new about the craft with every project.

You adapted ‘Arrival’ from the novella ‘Story of Your Life’. How did you approach the adaptation process from turning such a short story into a feature length screenplay? How much creative license do you get when adapting a story like this?

I’d been obsessed with that story for years. I carried around a dog-eared copy of Ted Chiang’s collection in my car. Took me a long time to find producers crazy enough to take a swing at that adaptation with me. We pitched it around town, and for the pitch (as with the final film) I had to take a lot of liberties in order to make it into a filmic story, but Ted was understanding and insightful throughout the process. Which was a relief because we didn’t sell the pitch, and so I wrote that screenplay on spec, and then we nearly didn’t sell that spec either, until independent companies got involved. The whole thing was a 7-8-year process.

You also did a similar job with ‘Lights Out’, adapting a YouTube short into a feature length script. Would you say you prefer adapting stories, or creating original screenplays? And why?

I’m just as excited by either, it’s just easier in this market to get adaptations made, I think because studios are so scared of taking risks on original films. I have written as many original scripts as I have adaptations, but most of my original work has never made the distance.

When looking at your filmography and upcoming projects, ‘Arrival’ was a bit of a detour from your usual horror habits. Is there a reason you gravitate towards horror projects more often than others? Would you say screenwriters are susceptible to being tied to a particular genre, just as actors and directors can be?

Oof, yeah. So I’ve written proportionally very few horror screenplays, if I look at the spectrum of genre and dramatic work in my files. It just happens to be the kind of genre that gets made more easily than most, I think in part because horror isn’t cast dependent, meaning you don’t need a big star to get the film made, and if you’re clever you can do it on a smaller budget. Believe me, I’ve been out there swinging for action, science fiction, thriller, drama, and adventure projects for years. I hope some of those eventually make it to screen — a fun action/adventure I just wrote is one of my favorite scripts to date. But they’re also more complicated.

Screenwriting seems to be a self-confessed unglamorous job. What does the average weekly (monthly/yearly) routine look like for a Hollywood screenwriter?

If you’re a TV writer, you at least get two things that the feature writer doesn’t: a social experience, and a concrete structure. You’re in a room with other writers, with the showrunner (or you are the showrunner) and you engage with that group as you make your show. The writer’s room gives you a schedule, and that overlaps with a production schedule, and you have deadlines to meet as enforced by the network or streamer. The feature writer has to have a ton of self-discipline. No one else is around to make sure they’re getting pages done. And it can be an isolating life, too. That’s the unglamorous part.

With various projects on the go, what do you find the best approach to managing your time between each script? 

Know what needs to get done first, and knock that out. If you’re juggling several projects — and everyone will eventually have to, to have any sort of success — train your brain to shift gears as smoothly as possible. Maybe that means having a lunch break between two different projects, or devoting full days to each, or whatever. I have been using a brain hack recently of writing on something until it starts to feel like work, then I shift to whatever I consider is “play time” away from the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Eventually my muse realizes I’m simply working on something else, and I can bounce back to the first project again.

Narrowing down on your process of writing, how do you go from blank page to first draft? Are you a meticulous planner or more of an instinctive, go-with-the-flow writer? Do you lock yourself away or surround yourself with other creatives?

Outlines save my life. I have to have one before I go to script. I also collect a bunch of flotsam and jetsam on a project — specific details, visuals, dialogue, even location or costuming ideas — and that can bolster an otherwise dry outline. Eventually I reach a sort of “critical mass” of information that lets me know I can bang out a rough first draft. It will be terrible, but it gives me a foundation.

I think it’s fair to say that most writers hit a wall at some point along the road. What is your worst case of “writer’s block” and how did you overcome this?

Ha! A ton of things. The self-critic voice used to lock me up for weeks. I then began inventing little exercises and tricks for myself to bypass that voice. I collected those exercises in a little e-book I put on Amazon a few years back, called “150 Screenwriting Challenges,” in case anyone’s curious. It’s just a series of “try this and see if it shakes anything loose” writing challenges.

What does the future hold for Eric Heisserer – can you tell us anything about any of your upcoming projects? 

I’m currently working on multiple projects and yet I can’t talk about any of them, how sad is that? I also have no idea if any of them will see the light of day. But I love them all.

Do you have any passion projects or a kind of writing bucket list that you’d like to take on one day? Perhaps certain characters, worlds or topics you’d like to put your own spin on?

I would love to adapt the characters I made for the limited series Secret Weapons, the comic book I wrote for Valiant Comics. I adore those characters and I miss writing them.

What would be the best advice you could offer to aspiring screenwriters hoping to make it to Hollywood?

The obvious advice that people love to dismiss: Write. Write a ton. A sale isn’t the finish line, it’s the first day at work. So work those muscles. The more, and the faster, you can write, the better you’ll do. You’ll outlast so many others.

And now the most important question of them all – pineapple on a pizza, yay or nay?

I haven’t had pineapple on pizza in years. My tastebuds have been shifting recently, so maybe I should try it again and see! The worst thing we can do for our palate is never change our minds about food.


Once again we’d like to say a huge thank you to Eric for taking the time to talk to us, and you can keep up with Eric over on Twitter!

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The 89th Academy Award Winners List In Full

Jimmy Kimmel hosted the 89th Academy Awards last night where ‘Moonlight’ won 3 awards, including the biggest prize of the night for ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Supporting Actor’. Director Damien Chazelle not only won an incredible six Oscar wins for ‘La La Land’, but also became the youngest filmmaker to win an Oscar at 32 years old! . ‘Zootopia’ scooped up the award for ‘Best Animated Feature’ and ‘Jungle Book’ walked away with ‘Best Visual Effects’. 

Full list of winners:

Best Picture: Moonlight

Best Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Actor: Casey Affleck  (Manchester by the Sea)

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis  (Fences)

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali  (Moonlight)

Best Director: La La Land – Damien Chazelle

Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea 

Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight – Barry Jenkins and Alvin McCraney

Best Original Score: La La Land – Justin Hurwitz

Best Original Song: La La Land – City of Stars 

Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Best Cinematography: La La Land

Best Costume Design: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling: Suicide Squad

Best Film Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia

Best Production Design: La La Land

Best Documentary Feature: OJ: Made in America

Best Sound Editing: Arrival

Best Sound Mixing: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Animated Short: Piper

Best Documentary Short: The White Helmets

Best Live Action Short: Sing

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman 

 

How many of your Oscar guesses came true? Did any of the winners come as a surprise to you?

Written by Tom Sheffield

A Beginners’ Guide To Awards Season

Written by Chris Gelderd

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to write my first ever article for JumpCut UK, and what better place to start, at this time of the year, than with a Beginners’ Guide to Awards Season.

Now, Hollywood runs to a pretty tight calendar. Spring usually offers up plenty of family-friendly films; Summer is all about the big-budget blockbusters; Autumn gives us the horrors and thrillers, whilst winter signals the start of awards season, when studios battle it out with their carefully selected productions, aiming to surprise and move audiences, with one eye firmly placed on adding some gold statues to their trophy cabinets. There are awards-skeptics who now regard all of this as simply over-the-top, politically and racially motived, Hollywood excess, whilst others can’t wait to delve into the treasures that studios have been saving for this time of year. Lastly, there are those who are new to the whole awards season buzz. If you fit into this category, then hopefully you’ll find this simple guide to be a helpful introduction to the glitz and glamour of awards season.

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La La Land Leads EE BAFTA Nominations

This year’s EE BAFTA nominations have been announced this morning via a  live Facebook video, which was presented by Sophie Turner and Dominic Cooper.

After it’s record breaking 7 wins at the Golden Globes at the weekend, ‘La La Land’ leads the nominations with a total of 11, followed closely behind by both ‘Arrival’ and ‘Nocturnal Animals’ which each with 9 nods. Also receiving nominations is the likes of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, and ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

The nominees for ‘EE Rising Star Award’ were announced last week and the voting is now open to the public on EE’s Website. Check out the nominations below and be sure to vote for your favourite. 

EE Rising Star Award 
Anya Taylor-Joy
Laia Costa
Lucase Hedges
Ruth Negga
Tom Holland

The full list of BAFTA nominations is as follows: 

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Writers’ Top 10 of 2016

A few surprises in the JumpCut UK writers’ top 10 of 2016

The festive season is over and the new year is here, and with the new year comes plenty of “best films of 2016” lists. Not one to miss out, the team here at JumpCut UK decided to pool together our individual top 10 of the year and create a Writers’ Top 10 of 2016. All of our writers were asked to name their personal top 10 films of the year, and they weren’t given any criteria about what kinds of film to choose (i.e they didn’t necessarily have to be films that would get film lecturers excited).

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