Oklahoman takes winding path to Hollywood success
Screenwriter/producer/director Eric Heisserer's path from Oklahoma to Hollywood took him to outer space. Well, almost.
The Norman native, who wrote the screenplay for the film "Lights Out," in theaters Friday, moved to Houston after high school to take a job at Space Industries. There, he used his self-taught programming skills to develop and design layouts for proposals for various high-tech equipment for astronauts to use.
"The fun part about that was, of course, you're surrounded by geniuses, like astrophysicists," Heisserer said. "I'd always been interested in storytelling, and hanging around these incredibly smart people gave me the itch, so I began writing first for tabletop games."
A rejection in that field inadvertently moved him into a new career.
"I got a rejection that said my idea for one game was way too linear ... it was more like a movie. So I took that rejection as a dare and moved on to screenwriting," he said.
Still living in Houston, Heisserer began writing screenplays that he wasn't proud of. But he continued plugging along, writing 13 film or TV screenplays before getting his first option.
"It was arduous. It was a tough one," he said. "There weren't too many peer groups in Houston at the time."
But eventually Heisserer connected with a group of writers whose feedback he valued, many of whom have since advanced in the industry. Heisserer's "shotgun approach" to getting his work seen eventually paid off.
"Eventually, I got one in the hands of someone who had some connections in L.A.," Heisserer said, and it led to his first option. A second option convinced him it was time to move to Los Angeles.
"You can always keep writing, no matter what level of success or rejection you're at," Heisserer said. "You can always go back to it."
A new direction
Since landing in Los Angeles, Heisserer has written multiple screenplays as well as two comic book series. He made his directorial debut with 2013's "Hours" and parlayed some of that experience into his work as a writer and producer on "Lights Out," where he was frequently on set with first-time director David Sandberg.
Heisserer had seen the short film Sandberg made, also called "Lights Out," and was impressed with it. But he wasn't sure if it would make a good feature.
"I was reluctant to have a commitment to this project until I sat down with David," he said. "When David talked about what he saw for the film, I got very excited. Not only did David have characters and a basic architecture for what the movie would be, he also grounded this monster in a thematic core that I could rely on anytime I felt like it got lost."
Having that theme helped tie the project together.
"When you have a theme that can course through your story, it just makes a lot of the other hard work a bit easier," Heisserer said. "Because you know where to connect all your scares, and where to tie all your drama. And that theme was about clinical depression and mental illness, and how so much of our culture, not only American but European, tends to keep that in the dark. So what better
way to represent that than a creature that exists solely in the dark?"
Heisserer has several more projects in the works. He wrote the screenplay and is an executive producer for the Amy Adams-starring sci-fi thriller "The Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. The film is set to open in November.
"It's based on the award-winning science-fiction story by Ted Chiang, called 'Story of Your Life.' I'm very excited about that."
He's worked with Valiant Entertainment on its superhero properties, including "Bloodshot" and "Harbinger," each in development as films. "Harbinger" features superpowered teenagers, and Heisserer said finding the right tone was a big challenge, as well as finding a way to separate the property from the well-known Marvel and DC brands.
"That was the biggest question to tackle by far, to find the tone that was right for it," he said. "And we struggled on that for the better part of a year, really. And we finally figured out some awesome, awesome approaches to the characters that I think the fans will get really excited about. It may not be something verbatim from one of the drafts, but it's still true to the characters and just a whole lot of fun, really."
He's also been in contact with best-selling novelist Neil Gaiman, creator of the award-winning graphic novel series "Sandman," that's long been in development as a film. Heisserer signed on as screenwriter earlier this year.
"It's early days," he said. "I had a long conversation with Neil about how to tackle this. I did my best to get all those notes together to capitalize on what will make a 'Sandman' adaptation successful, but we're still early in that process."