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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter


by screenwriter Eric Heisserer

For years I had been a fervent fan of Ted Chiang’s science fiction. His writing pulls the rare magic trick in that it appeals to both the mind and the heart. I would go so far as to say he is our generation’s Asimov, and yet he seems to be the genre’s best-kept secret. In every producer meeting from 2008 to 2010, I brought in my dog-eared copy of his anthology and pled my case for adapting his “Story of Your Life”—a new spin on the usual first contact narrative.

After two years of polite rejection, I was exhausted. Producers usually made it clear this story was impossible. A few would take the chance if only I would make the lead a man, or get rid of “all the intellectual science stuff,” or transform it into an “action-packed franchise starter.”

I was nearly ready to give up. But on my fortieth meeting late in 2010, I found a pair of fans who loved Ted’s story the way I did. Dan Levine and Dan Cohen at 21 Laps hadn’t ever made a film like this, but I had never written one like it either, so we were all sailing into the uncharted, hoping we could find a buyer for our vision of the film adaptation.

Every studio said no.

Typically that is the end of the road. The buyers in town have said they don’t want it, and have given plenty of reasons, the most insidious among them being: It’s execution dependent. That’s typically code for, “You need a brilliant director.” The Dans sent the short story to Denis Villeneuve, who loved it, but confessed, “I don’t know how you make this a film.” So I did the only thing I could: I wrote the adaptation on spec.

The process took me a year and several drafts, with periodic help from Ted Chiang who would offer a course correction if my science got sloppy or I misrepresented linguistic relativity. Now with proof of its execution, we sent out the screenplay for buyers.

Again, every studio said no.

But this time, independent financiers stepped up, and we found our champions at FilmNation and Lava Bear. Soon after, Denis Villeneuve read the screenplay and agreed to meet me to discuss it. He had a million ideas, all of them perfectly paired with the DNA of the script. He wanted to make the same movie we did. We all had the same commitment: To showcase the cerebral, emotional world of a Ted Chiang story.

We all had the same commitment: To tell a story for the head and the heart.

So now, six years later, we arrive at this film. Hopefully it makes you think and feel, but if there is anything we wish to leave with you, it's a sense of hope in humanity. We could all use a little more of that.

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