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!

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Decade Definers: 1980s – Birth Of The Action Hero

Written by Chris Gelderd

Like most things in life, it’s hard to pin-point the exact formation of something. A season. A movement. A trend. These things just seem to happen when every factor around it comes into alignment and all the signs point to go. Somethings just naturally work with the environment around them. The film industry also does this and has done for over 100 years

The 1980s saw the formation of many things that changed the industry forever. The emergence of special effects allowed film-makers to really let their imagination blossom. Risks were being taken across horror, sci-fi and comedy with franchises taking off left right and centre, content being pushed for teen audiences (the introduction of the US PG-13 rating for such an occasion) and talent was setting the bar high in their chosen genres, such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Jane Fonda and Eddie Murphy to name but a few.

Yet the 80s was a decade that discovered a new wave of acting and creative talent that changed the way we look at action movies and their heroes forever, and we can see that winning template is used in films today to cater to new generations.

The world needed heroes, and the right men – and women – came along at the right time to deliver. Not satisfied with your suave Brit Sir Roger Moore and his family friendly James Bond adventures, mature audiences wanted more. More action! More violence! More stars! More outrageous, exciting, balls-to-the-wall popcorn entertainment!

The studios listened. The creative talent put pen to paper. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 1980s and the birth of the action hero!

Ask any film fan to name 5 action stars and they will probably give the same names.  From just a rather small selection of big name stars throughout the 1980s, we certainly got a truckload of memorable and long-standing action films from them. Some spawned franchises that still are going strong today, others simply one off treasures. Either way, they helped shape a genre that inspired much of what we see today on the big (and small) screen.

Let’s take a look at some of the big names that came to be during the 1980s and how they helped shape the action movie itself.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger

One man proved you didn’t need to be the next Charlton Heston of the acting world in order to make shockwaves across Hollywood and the world. Sometimes all you needed was a thick, inimitable European accent, muscles the size of watermelons and the passion to chase the American dream. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ‘Austrian Oak’, did just that when he launched onto the scene during the 1980s with his imposing, unique frame as a bit player in cheaply produced movies before the studio execs took a risk and cast him in films where dialogue and plot were minimal, but action and iconography where high.

Arnie gave us 9 movies during the 1980s that became classics of the genre and his trademark style of witty one-liners, high violence, break-neck stunts and blending action into sci-fi, fantasy and comedy. From ‘Conan The Destroyer’ in 1982 that tested his boundaries for taking any role seriously and dishing out action in any form he was given, he soon was given movies such as ‘The Terminator’ in 1984, ‘Commando’ in 1985 and ‘Predator’ in 1987.

Each film was unique and different, letting Arnie win over fans and critics not with his acting, but with his ability to be an action hero across any genre who was tough talking, physically imposing and looked like a demi-God with his muscles and strong stance. He used any means at his disposal to eradicate bad guys – and sometimes good guys – and gave James Bond a run for his money with the one liners. Arnie became synonymous with action films and many of his 80s films stand strong today and shape franchise on the big and small screen in a career built on action that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

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Sylvester Stallone

Stallone gave us two big ‘R’s throughout the 70s and 80s…and 90s and 00s, all things considered. Rocky Balboa was his character for sport and drama, but Rambo was his character for action and excitement. From 1982 to 1988 (and 2008, but we’re not here for that), Stallone carved a new niche for his action ability in the form of John Rambo, a traumatized Vietnam veteran.

After a debut in ‘First Blood’ that actually gave us a grounded action film that used drama, humanity and tension as its main driving points, it’s two sequels “First Blood Part II” and “Rambo III” threw humanity out the window (literally) and cranked up the chaos to 10.

Muscles bulging as he waged war against the Vietnamese and Russians to save POWs and innocent people, Rambo became the invincible one-man army whom America and the world could count on.  Armed with  rocket launchers and sub-machine guns, bow and arrows and hunting knifes, Rambo proved Stallone could deliver the sort of story fuelled action audiences wanted, and it continued over his career with the likes ‘Tango & Cash’, ‘Demolition Man’ and ‘The Expendables’.

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Bruce Willis

An interesting case study indeed when you look at it. Out of all the action heroes of the 80s, Willis looked least likely. He wasn’t imposing to look at, not intimidating to hear talk and his career launched in the 1984 US comedy drama TV show ‘Moonlighting’ and the 1987 comedy romance film ‘Blind Date’.

Fox produced a film based on a 1979 novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, a sequel to the 1966 book ‘The Detective’, which was adapted into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra and allowed Sinatra to accept or decline to star in the new film. He declined. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined it as a sequel to ‘Commando’. Who was left to cast? Bruce Willis, obviously.

Now when you say the words ‘Die Hard’, it conjures up a film often agreed to be the greatest action film of the 1980s. A simple story about a New York cop saving hostages inside a skyscraper whilst taking down a small army of European terrorists was just what people wanted. Full of explosive action, snappy humour, a surprising world-weary and iconic portrayal by Willis of NYPD cop John McClane and a villain as dastardly and suave as them come in the guise of the late, great Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber.

‘Die Hard’ quickly became a template to base an action hero saving the day against the odds, and shaped the hero who could be an everyday cop in the wrong place at the wrong time, not just a muscle bound war hero or super soldier. It launched four sequels, video games and also Willis’s career into action orbit and also the greatest debate going in movies today – “Is Die Hard a Christmas film or not?”.

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Sigourney Weaver

The 80s action market was a place for men. Women had little chance to show they could do as much damage as the guys sadly, but one woman took a role, built it up over a franchise and proved that with the right support, it wasn’t just the men who could kick ass and save the world…or galaxy.

Sigourney Weaver has her niche in drama and comedy, but her action debut came in a little known sci-fi film in the late 1970s called ‘Alien’ that had her go up and survive against a deadly alien being in space, where nobody could hear her or her ill-fated male crew scream. The role of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley was a big boost to female talent at that time, and while Weaver continued her box-office draw in comedy with other classics such as ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Working Girl’, the 80s saw her return to the role of Ripley in 1986s ‘Aliens’.

This time, Weaver led a group of male supporting actors as space marines to return to and wipe out the colony of aliens and their queen to save the galaxy from extinction. Weaver gave just as good as she got in terms of attitude, action and ability. A fine actress of her generation, she carried over a humane side to her tough-talking and ass-kicking Ripley going up against the deadly aliens and held her own, much like John McClane in ‘Die Hard’, being an everyday person up against the odds but who handles weaponry and heavy machinery as easy as breathing. Weaver cemented a successful and iconic role in an already iconic franchise and is one of the few female actors to carve out a successful action hero over the years.

Now, sadly, I have to rein this piece in because I could go on exploring defining actors and their roles for many more pages, but you all have lives and I must let you get on with them.

I hope this small glimpse into what the 1980s gave us in terms of action resonates with you. A handful of international actors helped produced dozens of action films with the support of creative talent such as James Cameron and Joel Silver that would resonate for years to come and also help launch female talent in front of and behind the camera around the world. The 80s gave us simple pleasures without the need for extensive plots, complicated stories and bloated character development. The era is almost a golden age of simplicity and it’s that simplicity that makes it so easy to return to watch any action film of the time for nothing but entertainment and enjoyment.

There are many more stars out there I could have mentioned. I’ll leave you with a handful more here to explore in your own time as ones who also helped define the action decade:

  • Jackie Chan (‘Police Story’, ‘Project A’)
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme (‘Bloodsport’, ‘Kickboxer’)
  • Harrison Ford (‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’, ‘Blade Runner’)
  • Mel Gibson (‘Mad Max 2’, ‘Lethal Weapon’)
  • Chuck Norris (‘The Delta Force’, ‘Missing In Action’)
  • Kurt Russell (‘The Thing’, ‘Big Trouble In Little China’)

Yippie-ki-yay, mother f….