INTERVIEW: Eric Heisserer On The Life Of A Screenwriter
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!