In next week’s Arrival, aliens mysteriously appear across the globe, and it’s up to Amy Adams as linguist and Jeremy Renner as mathematician to figure out a way to communicate with the visitors and learn their intentions before less patient forces get the OK to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s a steep challenge, given that the creatures featured in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama neither speak nor understand any human tongue. And in a new feature about the production, the filmmakers explain that, in order to truly sell the authenticity of their aliens’ method of communication, they had to create an entirely original, unique language for them.
In an article by Jordan Zakarin for Inverse, screenwriter Eric Heisserer details the difficult process of even describing, in his script, the language of the movie’s extraterrestrials (known as “heptapods”):
“It was a long, arduous process for me. I started trying to describe the language textually in the script, but I was dissatisfied with my own descriptions. I was complaining to my wife about that at dinner, and she challenged me to draw for her what it looked like. So I drew a circular symbol to connote the nonlinear orthography of the heptapods, and I added some accents and circles around the symbols. It was the first time I put visual things in a screenplay.”
A lot of fine-tuning followed that breakthrough, as written symbols had to convey sentiments in a completely novel way. Collaborating with Villeneuve and others, Heisserer finally found a method for his own artistic madness.
“There are some blobs, and if you mix them together, if you put them in a circle, it’s like writing a language. It’s not easy to understand, but at one point, after looking at them, looking at the individual portions, you start to see what’s repeated in another logogram. You put two and two together and start making sense of them. These logograms represent words, they represent sentences, and feelings. It’s a total universe within each.
“We created a dictionary, a logogram bible. There’s 71 used in the final version of the movie, but we created over 100. They all make sense.”
That hard work certainly pays off in Arrival, as the heptapods’ communications — though completely foreign to the human eye (and mind) — consistently feel like a genuine method of verbal and written expression and interaction. You can read more about Heisserer’s astounding dedication to crafting this alien language at Inverse, and see Arrival in theaters beginning Nov. 11.
‘Arrival’: Watch a trailer: