When talking about success in Hollywood, luck often comes up. And while the whims of the universe certainly have a lot of sway over everything, there is simply no substitution for good, old fashioned hard work. So if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, pay attention to Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer. His is a classical, head down, put in the work, kind of success story.
Before 2016, Heisserer was king of the horror reboot thanks to the hat trick of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, and The Thing. That also made him the king of seeing what happens when you hand in your pages and then step away from a production. So starting with 2013’s Hours, which he also directed, Heisserer started taking more control over projects that originated with him (AKA spec scripts), and while the results may have taken a few years to come to fruition, they’re hard to argue with.
Lights Out, which he wrote and produced, was a smashing box office success. As was Arrival, which not only been a hit, but has earned a raft of awards gold and nominations, including Heisserer’s first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. It hits Blu-ray and DVD this week, which afforded us the opportunity to chat with Heisserer about his road from a desk job to Oscar nomination. Check it out.
Movies.com: What were you doing fifteen years ago?
Eric Heisserer: Fifteen years ago I was working in Houston at an energy company. We were basically across the street from Enron and I was there the day they laid off like 4,500 employees. I rode the commuter bus back with these people and thought, ‘God, I have got to get out of here.’ I would work 40 or 50 hours a week, so every day I’d come home exhausted but start working on another script.
Movies.com: What were you doing ten years ago?
Heisserer: Ten years ago I had moved out here. I had recently gotten a spec sale that broke me into the business, and I was in that sort of hamster wheel of paid gigs that never saw the light of day but would at least pay the rent for a while.
Movies.com: And what about five years ago?
Heisserer: I was prepping to shoot Hours. I was gearing up to direct my first feature.
Movies.com: During your Fantastic Fest Q&A, you mentioned what number script Arrival was for you. It was around fifty. Do you remember what it was?
Heisserer: I want to say it was fifty one.
Movies.com: So in case it wasn’t already clear, you are a writer who really, really puts in the work. That seems to be embodied by these writing challenges you issue on Twitter. Do you always use similar challenges when writing?
Heisserer: I tend to need writing exercises and prompts in order to help me through spec work more than other work. If the only engine to getting work done is me, if there’s no agent waiting for it or no deadline…oof. So some of these came about over the year I that I wrote this on spec, and then a few of the challenges came about once we had it sold and Denis had a number of questions he wanted addressed to make it as real and grounded as possible.
Day 12 of my ARRIVAL exercises.
TODAY’S CHALLENGE: Craft an outline of your story where each beat begins with “[Character] DECIDES…”
— Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer) February 8, 2017
Movies.com: 2016 saw you having enormous success with two different specs – Lights Out and Arrival. Are you always working on at least one spec? What is your day-to-day writing like?
Heisserer: Sometimes it comes down ‘two for them, one for me,’ or, really, ‘one for them, none for me,’ so I’d made a vow to myself about five years ago, after I’d finally got rolling to direct Hours, that I would write a feature screenplay on spec once a year no matter what was going on. Part of that was to make sure I was in touch with my own voice and that I was pursuing projects that I was passionate about no matter what their odds were. That made me realize the only way to really break out of whatever trap you’ve built for yourself in this career is to do stuff on your own, to be the captain of your own ship. That’s how I got to make Hours after I’d just been sent one bad horror script after another. Honestly, that’s how I made Arrival. So many of my out of the ordinary successes came from spec work.
Movies.com: So spec work helps keep you sane in the industry?
Heisserer: Yes, that’s a better way of putting it.
Movies.com: Both Arrival and Lights Out were your first producing credits. Was that a coincidence?
Heisserer: I began pursuing a more active role as a producer on my projects, especially stuff that I write on spec where I have a better chance of getting a producer credit or producer involvement. I have really come to appreciate the value of having the writer on set during production. Some of that really came from my own experience on Hours, where I realized how things change and why they do, and how they can change for the better if you have someone who is carrying the whole DNA of the movie around in their head. A writer can change or sidestep problems, but they can’t do that if you don’t have them on set with you. So that was kind of a bold demand that I made with Lights Out, with the leverage I had for writing it on spec. No one blinked when I asked for it on Arrival. They were like, ‘Well, of course you are a producer! Come on!’ Arrival has been a bunch of unicorn experiences for me,where this has never happened elsewhere.
The hazmat suits were clunky and heavy. This is as close as I got to wearing one. pic.twitter.com/62vTIHBklQ
— Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer) January 5, 2017
Movies.com: When are you going to direct again?
Heisserer: I’m really picky about that, because it takes at least a year of your life away from you, if not more. I have my eye on one or two things right now, but I’m going to be cautious before I talk about it.
Movies.com: Are you going to work with 21 Laps again? Are you going to make a Lights Out 2? What’s your future looking like?
Heisserer: I am definitely flirting with 21 Laps again to see if we can go out on a date. There is talk of Lights Out 2, so that may come to fruition in the next couple of months. Both of those are on the horizon, and I’m finishing up a new spec.
Arrival is out this week on Blu-ray, DVD and DigitalHD.
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