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 OutThe 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!

INTERVIEW: Phil Clarke

Interview by Tom Sheffield

Here at JUMPCUT ONLINE we have been fortunate enough to interview a number of people who have worked in all different areas across the film industry. Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Clarke, a screenwriter and script consultant who has worked in the film industry for the best part of 20 years. Phil has worked on films such as ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars’, and with the likes of Danny Boyle, Tim Burton, and George Lucas.

We wanted to talk to Phil about his time in the industry, learn some of his favourite aspects of the work he’s done and his current script consulting, and also see if he could share some helpful tips for any budding writers who may be reading this.


TS: Hi Phil, thank you taking time to talk to us. For those who may not be aware of your work, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers.

PC:  Would love to! I’m a freelance script consultant, a role I’ve been doing full-time for well over a decade now through my own company: PHILMSCRIBE.COM. This followed many years working in film on the sets and in the production offices of some major motion pictures, TV shows, music videos and commercials. I have also written for the screen – having a number of projects optioned –  and for the page, with several books published over the years.

TS: Can you remember what it was in particular that first piqued your interest in becoming a screenwriter?

PC: Honestly, I think it was a combination of things. Falling in love with visual storytelling through watching movies was a key factor. I have always enjoyed the physical process of writing. The look, shape, sound and meaning of words. Creative writing classes at school. Writing essays… This led to looking for jobs I wanted to do in the industry and writing was an obvious focus. This focus was further developed after being fortunate enough to work closely with established screenwriters: Chris Columbus, Steve Kloves etc. Reading about how Andrew Kevin Walker was working at Tower Records when he sold one of his first scripts. This gave me heart as I was working at Tower around the same time. And to quote the Mamet-written film ‘The Edge’, I thought “What one man can do, another can do.”

TS: What was the first film you worked on, and how did you find your first experience working on a film set?

PC: The first film I worked on was ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ back in ’97. Was strange as not three months earlier I had taken my mum to see ‘Return of the Jedi: Special Edition’ at the cinema, having just been made redundant. I’d have laughed in your face if you’d told me I’d be working on the first prequel that summer. Must admit: back then it was hard not to be a wide-eyed fanboy. A lot of it was a blur. My first time on set was for a scene in the vast Theed Hangar with all the sleek, shiny Naboo starfighters lined up. It was surreal. I was in awe. It really did feel like I was in a galaxy far, far away!

TS: What’re your top 3 films you’ve worked on and what about them makes them top 3 material?

PC: Hmm… tough one. ‘Sleepy Hollow’ would probably have to be #1. It was the first film I was involved in from the very start on early pre-production to final wrap. And I wasn’t quite so starstruck so I could really take it all in and learn. I was the studio’s Production Liaison so I was able to see and understand how every department worked and even after my shift was over, I’d stay behind and observe on set. Not a bad education watching Tim Burton, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Scott Rudin, Colleen Atwood and co work their magic.

‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ is a very close second. By this time I was freelance crew, working for the AD (Assistant Director) department. And it wasn’t long before I then became Chris Columbus’ on-set PA. If I thought ‘Sleepy Hollow’ provided me the perfect film education, this role would change my thinking. On top of my set duties, I had the enviable job of accompanying Chris to all other departments. I would even get to watch the previous day’s rushes with him and the producers – not something afforded to many.

My third choice would be ‘Enigma’. While not my first film, this was my first ever screen credit. This allowed me to experience film-making on a comparatively smaller scale, especially after my time on ‘Star Wars’. I found myself in the hub of the film-making process: the Production Office. Getting to work with some legends of the British film-making scene on a film adaptation of Robert Harris’ period spy novel was a fantastic experience.

TS: Can you tell us how you got into the script consultant game? What do you find most enjoyable about reading other people’s screenplays?

PC: I started reading other people’s screenplays during my film crew days. Then this developed into reading in-house for several production companies before deciding to go it alone and open up to those – how should one put it? –  outside the inner circle. I felt I could provide more help to writers this way. Provide a more personal service. Talk to writers directly and get to the crux of a story. Also, I was enjoying this side of things. I discovered I didn’t just have a passion for it, I was actually pretty damn good (if I am allowed to blow my own trumpet!) It does take a certain skill-set to be a good script consultant.

What’s most enjoyable about reading scripts? Well, I count myself fortunate to get to read stories every day in all different genres. Something not to be sniffed at. But specifically regarding my role, I love being able to help writers. More often than not writers find themselves too close to their work and are unable to pinpoint what might be holding their script back from fulfilling its true potential. I get huge satisfaction from providing writers of all levels with guidance, objective insights, benefits of my experience, heuristic advice that allows them to discover how to improve their drafts so they stand a better chance of success.

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TS: What’s the best piece of advice you ever received in regards to your writing? 

PC: The best piece of advice was the simplest I’ve ever been given. It was while working as Chris Columbus’ on-set PA on the the first ‘Harry Potter’ film, which also coincided with my self-education in screenwriting. I was reading every book under the sun on the craft at that time. I remember finishing one of Syd Field’s many books on the subject where he pushes the importance of his 3-act story structure paradigm with accompanying plot points and pinches. And one day while walking back to set with Chris – writer of such movies as ‘Gremlins’ and ‘The Goonies’ – I asked him what he made of Field’s focus on this paradigm and he looked at me and said:

“Just write an entertaining story.”

This helped me to realise I shouldn’t get too bogged down on these kind of details. Screenwriters are storytellers first and foremost and I was running the risk of forgetting this. Newbie screenwriters often become dependent on these writing books as they tend to always suggest there is a formula one can follow. This is comforting for the greenhorn scribe groping away in the darkness, but every screenwriter should always keep in the forefront of their mind the fact they are telling a story and if it engages and entertains, then it’s working. Simple.

TS: What are 3 pieces of advice you’d give to any of our readers currently writing a screenplay? Are there any common mistakes they should avoid?

PC: Always happy to dish out some nuggets of educative gold. Though they’ll have to be rather broad as giving specific advice is best done in context on an individual’s script.

First up I’m going to repeat Chris’ advice to me some twenty years ago as it’s THAT important.  Never lose sight of the fact that your job is to write an entertaining story. This may seem a rather obvious statement, but you wouldn’t believe how many scripts I read that fail to entertain. Many writers get bogged down in other details; paradigms, scene structure, character arcs etc etc. Now all these elements are important, but if your focus is always on telling an engaging story, then you’re not going to go too far wrong.

Nugget #2: Don’t rush your script purely to meet a particular script contest deadline. Far too many writers fixate on a particular competition and end up submitting a poor draft. I always advise my clients to COMPLETE, then COMPETE. These contests are annual so there is always the following year. And if that’s too long to wait, submit it to one of the many other quality comps that run at other times of the year so it allows you the time to ensure your script is truly ready. And of course this advice extends to submitting to production companies. Make sure your script is pure gold before you even think about letting the powers-that-be see it. First impressions count and are never forgotten.

And my third and final nugget: Don’t be precious about your writing. If you’re lucky enough that you get your script sold and put into production, then this advice is key. Know that you’re giving your script up for adoption. To multiple parents! And they’ll make all sorts of changes. This is because film-making is a collaborative endeavour. Selling your idea is your goal. Do this and you’ve succeeded. So write with this intention. The same advice applies when dealing with people who are trying to help such as a script consultant. Be open to advice. You don’t need to take it, but if you’ve got yourself a practiced, skilled, knowledgeable one, then the likelihood is that their feedback is only going to improve your work.

And as for those common mistakes, where to start? The majority of screenplays I read, especially from those who are rather new to the craft, tend to feature the same flaws. Here are three that come to mind:

A large number of scripts I read make the mistake of not being a clear-enough story, lacking in a distinct reason for existence. The story ends up being one big shrug. It’s as if the writer doesn’t know why they are writing this particular tale. It’s essential to know what your story is truly about. You have to ask yourself: why this story above all others? It’s as if a writer thinks producers and companies are just twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do but wait for you to finish your script. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a highly competitive market. I’ve heard there are as many as a million scripts written each year. Certainly wouldn’t surprise me. So your spec script has to be F***ING BRILLIANT. (Excuse the language, but I felt it necessary!) It needs to hit all the right notes, be bulletproof or you’re running the risk of it being passed on and being resigned to the Recycle Bin.

Many make the mistake of choosing the easy option, the first thought. This tends to result in a predictable, over-familiar, hackneyed piece. Spec scripts need to bring something new, something fresh. Be inventive, creative.

Many scripts I read lack any clear, coherent theme. Or the writer ends up being too heavy-handed with their message. And then the script ends up sounding preachy. The best writers express their moral vision gradually, subtly and in distinct story-pertinent ways.

I’ll rattle some off quick-fire now: Protagonists aren’t fascinating enough or have no clear story goal. The scenes have little or no conflict. The script has too much dialogue or too much action. Poor formatting. A lack of attention to spelling and grammar.

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TS: As well as your screenwriting and script consulting, you’re also a published author. Is there anything in particular about true crime stories that makes you want to write about them?

PC: Not particularly. I was commissioned to write those titles. An author for hire.  But I did find I got really into the subject matter, grim and grisly as it was. I have always been fascinated by human behaviour; I think most good writers are. And researching and writing about serial killers certainly allows you to see the extreme end of that.

TS: With all the reading you must do every day, do you have any activities or hobbies you like to do in your downtime that doesn’t involve reading?

PC: Absolutely. And it’s imperative to get some balance to all that sitting and reading. I’ve always been a very active guy. If I have one thing I love as much as film, it’s football. I’m in my forties now but I still try and play as much as I can. In fact, I love most ball sports. Tennis, squash etc. I also go running regularly. There’s some gorgeous countryside around where I live and I have a number of different running routes I like to hit. I also go on a walking holiday at least once a year somewhere in the UK. This summer I’m returning to the Lakes and Dales to do some rambling.

TS: Do you have any screenplays or books in the works at the minute you can tell us about?

PC: Most of my time is taken up with the consulting, as you can imagine. But I’m always developing my own projects whenever I can. Being a private person, I tend to keep my cards fairly close to my chest (so being interviewed like this doesn’t come naturally!) I’m developing two thrillers, one with a time-travel bent, the other involving sport. That’s about all I want to say about them at this stage. I’d also like to return to stories for the page too. There are a few non-fiction titles I have itching away at the back of my brain that I am sure will insist upon being written at some point in the future.

TS: Our final, and probably most important question today – we know you must get asked what you favourite films are a lot, but we’d really like to know is… does pineapple belong on pizza?

PC: It can, yes, but there are caveats. So the Hawaiian – ham & pineapple – works. I’ve done extensive research on this – but I would balk at having pineapple on, say, a Meat Feast. That just feels wrong on a number of levels. It’s all about the combination. The ingredients need to complement one another. And some just don’t go together. I mean, can you imagine an Anchovy and Pineapple pizza?! (One could draw some clear parallels between this pizza topping query and screenwriting if one looked deep enough…)

TS: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Phil. We wish you the best of luck for future projects.

PC: Been an undiluted pleasure. If any of your readers wish to contact me and discuss their work and how I might be able to help them, then please let them know they can contact me anytime in a variety of ways.

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