Former Microsoft worker Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” is the source for the new film “Arrival.”
At the heart of local author Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story “Story of Your Life” is the idea of translation: A linguist learns a new language as she attempts to communicate with an alien race that has suddenly appeared on Earth. And now, “Story of Your Life” itself has been translated: It’s the source for a major new film, “Arrival,” coming to theaters Nov. 11.
Chiang, a native of Port Jefferson, N.Y., has lived in the Seattle area since 1989, when he moved here after college to work as a technical writer at Microsoft. He and I were co-workers there, but our paths hadn’t crossed for a couple of decades when we reconnected this fall, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (where “Arrival” screened) and later at his Bellevue home for an interview. (I remember young Ted as a great colleague and a smart guy with a ready smile and a thoughtful, measured way of speaking. For the record, he doesn’t appear to have changed much.)
Back in those Microsoft days, Chiang, now 49, was already a published science-fiction writer (he won his first Nebula Award in 1990) and was at work on the research that would lead to “Story of Your Life.” He was looking to use the variational principles of physics, which fascinated him, in a story.
Opens Nov. 11 at several theaters. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
“I saw how I could use them to tell a story about a person who can see the future,” he said, “and knows that there will be both great joy and great pain lying ahead.” That person, he decided, would be a linguist — “if my protagonist learns a language that sort of changes their perception, that would be a way to grant this awareness.” He then spent years reading books about linguistics in his spare time, until, “eventually I felt like I was ready to give the story a try.”
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Initially published in the “Starlight 2” anthology in 1998, the story later became the centerpiece of Chiang’s first published collection, “Stories Of Your Life and Others,” in 2002, and won the Nebula Award for best novella in 1999. Chiang has won four Nebulas, as well as four Hugo Awards and various other honors, and the “Stories of Your Life” collection has been translated into 10 languages — in short, he’s a rock star in the science-fiction world. But he wasn’t quite prepared for an email that arrived in 2011.
“I was contacted by a couple of producers, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen,” remembered Chiang. “They said that a screenwriter had pitched them this idea of adapting the story, and they wanted to get permission for him to actually proceed.” It seemed, initially to Chiang, an unusual choice. The story, he said, is “mostly people sitting in a room talking. I had a hard time picturing it as a movie.”
But the producers took an unusual step: They sent Chiang a DVD of the 2010 French-Canadian film “Incendies,” directed by Denis Villeneuve. “They said, ‘this is sort of what we have in mind,’ ” Chiang said. He watched the film — which, like “Story of Your Life,” involves non-chronological storytelling — and was intrigued.
“I thought, this is a very interesting choice,” Chiang said. “If they had sent me a DVD of a typical Hollywood science-fiction film, I probably would have said, no, this doesn’t make any sense.” His interest piqued, Chiang agreed to what he described as a “shopping agreement” — giving the producers and screenwriter the right to develop and shop the project, but not (yet) to make a movie from it.
And so began several years of waiting. Though Chiang was encouraged by a phone call with the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer (“he pitched what he envisioned to me, and I thought, yeah, I can see that as a movie”), the process was a long one. Heisserer’s screenplay landed on Hollywood’s Black List of 2012 — a list of the industry’s most highly regarded screenplays that aren’t yet produced — but the studios initially showed little interest. Eventually, director Villeneuve signed on, as did Amy Adams to play the lead role. Finally, a major distribution deal was struck at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and “Story of Your Life” — soon to be renamed “Arrival” — went before the cameras in 2015.
“I think he was sort of pushing a boulder up a hill for six years,” said Chiang, of Heisserer. “He was the one who initially came up with the idea to adapt it, he was the one who pitched it all over town. Over the course of that, a lot of other people eventually wound up helping him push that boulder, but initially it was just him.”
Chiang enjoyed visiting the Montreal set that summer (and experiencing firsthand the glacial pace of movie filming), and attending the movie’s Toronto premiere a year later. He’ll next attend the Los Angeles red-carpet premiere Nov. 6, followed by a fundraising screening in San Diego, to benefit the Clarion Writers Workshop. (That program, which he attended in 1989, “had an enormous impact on me as a writer.”)
And is he happy with the end result of “Arrival”? Yes. “I think it’s a good movie and a good adaptation,” Chiang said. “I know how rare that is.” Hollywood’s track record for adapting written science-fiction works, he said, is “not a pretty picture” (though he points to “Blade Runner,” “A Scanner Darkly” and the recent “Predestination” as examples of good adaptations).
It’s been a long, strange journey from Chiang’s imagination to a multiplex screen — from one language, you might say, to another. Though Chiang’s clearly still processing the experience, he seems content with it. “I realize,” he said, “that I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that it actually turned out well.”