Takeaways on the Advantages of Being Stubborn: An Interview with ARRIVAL Screenwriter Eric Heisserer

by Rebecca Norris on February 2, 2018

Many creatives have unique ways in which they carve their paths into the entertainment industry, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Hours, A Nightmare on Elm Street) is no exception! This fantastic interview with the Basic Brainheart podcast details Eric’s entry into screenwriting after years of working in art and design in the space and gaming industries straight out of high school. He also discusses how his self-proclaimed stubbornness led to breakthroughs in his career.

Below are some tidbits from the interview, but be sure to listen to the whole thing to gain more insight into Eric’s valuable experience. If you’re in the Atlanta area this April 13-16, you can also hear Eric speak at the upcoming Screencraft Writers Summit at the Atlanta Film Festival!

On getting his game scenario rejected, being told it was too linear (like a movie) and then diving into screenwriting:

Because I was stubborn and young, I was like "Well, all right then, it’s a movie—fine!" Having never read a screenplay or thought about what it takes to write a movie, I went out and bought some screenwriting software, and I picked up a couple copies of what scripts looked like. One was a William Goldman—I got Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—and I got Star Wars. And they could not be two more diversely... like the structure and formatting was all different, and I’m like, "what, is there no standard? I don’t get this!" But I used all of that and sat down and I wrote my first screenplay, and it was so terrible. It was bad. But I did it and it gave me that fever; it gave me that itch to keep doing it. I knew immediately—holy cow, this is actually what I want to do with my life.

On delaying a move from Houston to Los Angeles until he felt comfortable that he was on his way:

It took twelve screenplays for me to finally get two in a row that got a little bit of money, a little bit of heat. I thought—"OK, with two in a row here, I need to head out."

On joining writing and critique groups:

You learn a lot about the craft by trying to be a good critic of other people’s work.

On getting your material into the right hands:

If you write something really good, and you don’t share it with anybody, obviously, nobody’s going to be able to find you. If you write something really, really good, and you submit it to 6-10 screenwriting competitions… you’re going to have professional readers who will recognize something really, really good right away. And if you get to be a finalist or a winner... then you’re dealing with a group of industry professionals that show up to read the finalists, and that gives you access to the people that you need to know.

On professional networking:

I find that that’s [contest placements and wins] not really enough these days, so the best thing you can do is build a peer group of people who are trying to break in. People think "I should be friends with someone who’s already made it in the biz, so they can give me a leg up", but the truth is, if you befriend the people who are trying to break in, the first person who does is gonna leave the door open for others.

Eric’s favorite life hack for writing at the moment:

Write the absolute worst version of the scene. Get it out of your system, be as horrible as possible. It shuts up the voice in the head that says "That isn’t any good." Good, because it shouldn’t be!

On being stubborn about putting the Heptapod illustrations in the script for Arrival:

I doodled out something, and I said, "This is really what it is," and she, my wife, says, "Okay, well, can you just put that in there?" And I was like, "You can’t insert graphics, can you?" And the answer was no—no software at the time allowed graphics. But remember, I’m stubborn, so I was like, ‘\"Well, I’ll find my own way." And I wound up just putting a bunch of blank spaces in the script, and when I exported it to PDF, I edited that PDF by inserting the Heptapod.

For Eric Heisserer’s full interview, listen below! Or check out the Atlanta Writers Summit to hear Eric speak in person this April.

Rebecca Norris is a producer, writer, and filmmaker with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Her recent award-winning feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, has been distributed on Amazon Streaming and DVD. Rebecca is also a script analyst and consultant who has read for many companies, including Sundance, ScreenCraft, Bluecat, and the International Emmys, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Rebecca blogs for Screencraft, The Script Lab, WeScreenplay and Script Magazine, exploring the film writing and production process and encouraging writers to produce their own work. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!

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