Author Ted Chiang discusses his style and inspiration for Denis Villeneuve’ Arrival (interview)

The DVD and Blu-ray release of the phenomenal sci-fi event of last year, Arrival, is drawing closer. Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, the film follows the journey of linguistics professor Louise Banks, as she is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors. The film garnered wide attention and acclaim from fans and critics, obtaining a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Arrival was an incredible mix of outstanding direction from director Denis Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s breathtaking score, which brought a transcendent experience that blew many moviegoers away. But another aspect that drew fans to this film was the exquisite work that this film is based on; Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story, Story of Your Life. A part of an anthology, Chiang created an emotional journey that would eventually lead to the birthing of the international hit that has swept the world, making Ted Chiang a household name. He, however, is very modest about the attention. Nerd Reactor had an opportunity to catch up with Chiang and see how his brain is able to construct the tales that he’s produces.

Nerd Reactor: In terms of your writing, you have a very stand-alone style of Science Fiction that not many people are accustomed to. What inspires you to write in the style that you do?

Ted Chiang: I didn’t deliberately set out to write in a different style, or with a different approach than anyone else. I’m just writing the stories that I want to write, in the only style that I know how to write them.

Nerd Reactor: A lot of your ideals and mindsets in your works are in a totally different era altogether. There’s a sense of spiritualism tied into your Science Fiction, and usually those are on the opposite sides of the spectrum, but you make them cohabitate  in a lot of your stories. They seem to go hand in hand.

Ted Chiang: Hmm that’s very interesting. I think there is a tradition of searching for either a kind of religious or non-religious transcendence in science fiction. I think a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s work has this theme of transcending beyond typical human experience and reaching a kind of god-hood. So I think that there is ample precedent for that.

But I will say that I don’t think that science and religion are necessarily opposed as they are often thought to be in modern times. In the past, many of the scientists were deeply religious, and they considered their work to be completely compatible with their faith. And I do think that there is this commonality between science and religion, inasmuch as that an important aspect of both of them is the feeling of awe. When Newton discovered things about the universe, he felt an awe that he associated with religious awe. He thought that he was illuminating the greater glory of God. So I think that there is that commonality between the two, which has sort of been forgotten more recently. And again, I do think there’s a similar impulse in science fiction, like when I mentioned Arthur C. Clarke’s work and his quest for transcendence.

Author Arthur C. Clarke

NR: With Story of Your Life, the short story that would later be adapted into the film, Arrival, what were your inspirations when you created it back in 1998?

TC: Well, I originally got the idea for the story several years earlier, in the early ’90s. I knew that I wanted to write a story about a person who could see the future, who knew the future could not be changed and that both great joy and great pain lay ahead, and about how would that person cope with that. I didn’t know very much else about the story. Over time, I sort of settled on various aspects of it. One of the big questions I had was, how does my character gain this knowledge of the future? I thought about having my character undergo some sort of meditative practice, or take a mind-altering drug, but neither of those seemed particularly interesting to me, in terms of generating a story. Then I thought of having my character learn a language that would reshape their thoughts. That seemed interesting to me, so that was how I decided my protagonist would be a linguist. I figured it had to be an alien language, because I didn’t think that it really made sense for any undiscovered human language to have this property, so that mean the linguist was engaged in a first-contact scenario.

NR: The short story deals with a lot of complex math, do you have a background in the type of math that you were using?

TC: Actually, when I originally got the idea for the story, what I wanted was to write a story that used the variational principles in physics to illuminate this story about a person who could see the future. I’d first read about variational principles in high school, and later I took a couple of years of physics when I was in college, and I learned more about variational principles there. So really, the story started with the physics side of it. The linguistics didn’t come until after I had figured out a way for my protagonist to gain knowledge of the future. It was the physics that was the original inspiration.

NR: When you found out that your story was going to be picked up to be made into a film, what was the experience like?

TC: Well, it’s not as if someone just calls you and tells you that your story is going to be made into a movie. What typically happens is that some producers will call you and say, “We’d like permission to try and develop your story into a movie.” (Laughs) It’s a very unlikely thing, and generally, no one is going to guarantee that a movie is going to get made. They’re basically saying, “We’d like to begin this long and arduous journey that might ultimately end with a movie getting made. Are you game for that?” It’s a situation where they’re asking, are you willing to take a chance? That’s more how it goes.

NR: Were you hesitant or reluctant of the idea of taking your work and seeing if these people could translate it on the big screen?

TC: Well, the story is clearly not an obvious candidate for adapting into film. It’s a very internal story; most of it takes place inside the protagonist’s head, and the rest of it is just conversation. It’s not what anyone would think of when they think of a surefire movie. So the fact that these producers had chosen this story made me curious to see what they had in mind.

They said that there was this new filmmaker who they thought might be a good fit for it, and they sent me a DVD of his. That was the director Denis Villeneuve, and it was his film, Incendies, which was a French language film that he had made. That was a really interesting movie, but it was also a very unexpected choice for a director of a science fiction film. If they had sent me a DVD of the latest Transformers film, I probably would’ve said no thanks. But they sent me this very atypical movie, so I thought, these guys aren’t wanting to do something conventional. That made me more willing to hear them out.

NR: Were you a part of any of the beginning writing process for the film?

TC: No, I was not. That was all done by the screenwriter of the film, Eric Heisserer. He was the one who first pitched the idea of the story to the producers. It all started with him. When the producers got in touch with me, what they wanted from me was my permission to have Eric write a first draft of the screenplay. He was willing to do that on spec, meaning he would write a draft of the screenplay for no money upfront. That was also a real strong indicator to me of his passion for the project, because at that point, he had already had screenplays made into movies; he didn’t have to do anything on spec if he didn’t want to. While he and I did exchange email, he came up with the whole approach for the film himself. He was the one who really cracked the problem of how to adapt the story for the screen.

NR: Well, the film was a smash hit in theaters, and to be able to chat with the creator of the story that developed into the film is an honor.

TC: (Laughs) Well, thank you. I’ll take credit for the original story, but I think Eric Heisserer deserves the lion’s share of the credit for seeing that it could be made into a film, and of course Denis Villenueve, he deserves the credit for actually turning it into a film and making it look as good as it does.

NR: Do you have any other works that may be getting the silver screen treatment?

TC: There are some other stories under option, but the odds of anything optioned making it to the screen are always very slim. An incredible amount of stuff gets optioned, and only a very tiny fraction of it ever gets made into movies. (Laughs) So while there is some interest, I’m not holding my breath that we’ll actually see another movie get made. It would be great, but I know that the odds are against it.

Arrival will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in stores February 14th, and you can find all of Ted Chiang’s anthologies on Amazon.

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