I’ve seen the movie Arrival and it’s fantastic. I also know its screenwriter Eric Heisserer and his long journey to seeing the movie get produced. Here’s a good Business Insider article on the project and Eric’s decade-long involvement with it.
Around 2005, Heisserer read "Story of Your Life" and was completely taken by [Ted] Chiang's touching story of life and loss.
"The end of the story just had me balling and I knew at that point I wanted to share that feeling with the world," Heisserer said to Business Insider. "And I didn’t worry so much about the fact that it wasn’t inherently cinematic in its original form."
That's the biggest reason why it took so long for Heisserer to find producers who were interested. He was told meeting after meeting that he either needed a star or a name director to move forward, and he had neither.
What did Eric do? Even though he was a bankable writer with plenty of assignments, he wrote the script on spec.
Heisserer spent all of 2011 writing the script, which then got on the coveted Black List, an annual list of the best unproduced scripts in the business. That led to independent financiers FilmNation and LavaBear offering the money to finance the film in 2012 (Heisserer received the Writers Guild of America minimum fee, which at the time was around $ 100,000).
His writing process:
This systematic adaptation of Chiang's story started out with two simple elements: a cork board and magazines.
Heisserer used the board to separate the story into two sections. One column of the board was dedicated to the story's core structure while on the other side he posted images from magazines that evoked something from the story — like visuals for locations, dreams, even the cast.
"I find this so amazing, but the picture I put up on the board for the character of Louise was an Amy Adams photo," Heisserer said.
Read the whole article as it provides some good insight into the struggles of being a screenwriter and also some good lessons. Perhaps most important: Write what you’re passionate about. And this:
"I couldn’t need any bigger proof that it’s important for me to write what I’m passionate about on spec," he said, as "Arrival" and "Lights Out" were both done on spec. "It has reaffirmed my commitment that no matter what is going on in my career I will write one spec a year regardless."
Congratulations, Eric! You’re an inspiration for us all!