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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Science Fiction Writer Ted Chiang (Arrival) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Arrival is one of the most impressive science fiction films of the last decade. A masterfully produced film that impresses with its performances, production values and the ideas at the core of the story. And those ideas, that seed themselves throughout the film and reveal their true nature as the film begins to close, appeals to the mind and to the heart. A feat rare in cinema. Arrival was adapted from a short story (‘Story of Your Life’) by Nebula and Hugo Award winning writer Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is one of the most gifted science fiction story writers and has risen to strong acclaim with a comparatively small body of work. Born in Port Jefferson, New York to parents who fled China during the communist revolution (heading to Taiwan before immigrating to the U.S.). Ted has won coveted Hugo and Nebula awards and, as a testament to the rising level of his influence, has been featured in The New Yorker, NPR, The Guardian and other high-profile publications. He spoke to Home Theater Forum in support of the release of Arrival on Blu-ray, 4K UHD, DVD and Digital.

Arrival is available today, available now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.

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HTF: It's a genuine pleasure to talk to you. The broadening embrace of science fiction over the last maybe 5 or 10 years, has that widened your gaze when you think about concepts? I know you've spoken in other interviews that the ideas don't come that often to you. And you write, probably, as fast as you can so you're not going to get any more prolific. But I wonder if the embrace of science fiction, or at least the elevation of respect for that "genre", has that widened the kinds of stories or the kinds of ways you might tell stories if any? Or have you always just done what's come into your mind that's appealed to you regardless of its commercial viability?

Ted Chiang: No, it hasn't really changed the types of ideas that I'm interested in, or the types of stories that I'm trying to write. Actually, when you say sort of a broadening of the possible ideas, in some ways, I think, a response would be to maybe narrow the kind of ideas that would be available. Because one might be tempted to write stories that are maybe more entry-level ideas. Ideas that are more easily accessible to people who haven't read a lot of science fiction. And there would sort of be this exclusion of ideas that require more of a familiarity with science fiction. But I have not made any sort of movements in that direction. The ideas that I get, I think, some of them will remain kind of inaccessible to general audiences. And I'm okay with that [laughter].

HTF: And I read that you were surprised anybody would want to adapt this particular story into a film thinking that this isn't the kind of story that either would find appeal or would find financing. So after that initial surprise, and the positive critical and commercial response the response to the film – does that give you hope?


“I hope that it makes Hollywood Studios a little more open to the idea of sort of mid-budget, non-franchise science fiction movies, which they have really moved away from in recent years. But also, I hope that it changes audiences' conceptions about what a science fiction movie looks like…”


Ted Chiang: It does! It's definitely been enormously gratifying that the film has been so well-received, both by critics and by general audiences. And I hope that it makes Hollywood Studios a little more open to the idea of sort of mid-budget, non-franchise science fiction movies, which they have really moved away from in recent years. But also, I hope that it changes audiences' conceptions about what a science fiction movie looks like. That a science fiction movie doesn't have to be a big-budget, special effects-driven, blockbuster. That science fiction movies can be more modest in scale but thought-provoking and dealing with more personal issues. And yeah, the success of Arrival definitely sort of makes me hopeful that we might see sort of an opening of people's ideas, their conceptions about what science fiction can be.

HTF: And tell me about letting go of your work, putting it in the hands of someone else to treat it with respect and adapt it. Of course, cinema's a massively collaborative system. A writer writes. You have an editor that provides checks and balances. But by and large, what you create is what ultimately ends up in readers' hands. But a movie is many moving parts, and it's all these different creative forces coming together to try and tell a story. But you've handed your story over to this team of people to go do something with it. Was that a nerve-wracking or challenging experience?


“A screenplay is only the beginning of the movie-making process. And so that collaboration, that's an intrinsic part of being a screenwriter. And I don't know that I could be comfortable with that. So I'm much happier to write my stories…”


Ted Chiang: Well, I completely agree with you about the differences between writing fiction and the film-making process. And for me, that is why I'm not a screenwriter. Because when I write fiction, I can write the story on my own terms. And it gets published, and it gets published mostly the way I wanted it. But if I were a screenwriter, you write a screenplay. And a screenplay by itself, it is not complete. It does not stand alone. A screenplay is only the beginning of the movie-making process. And so that collaboration, that's an intrinsic part of being a screenwriter. And I don't know that I could be comfortable with that. So I'm much happier to write my stories, and because of that, I guess I could always take solace in the fact that I got the story the way I wanted it. No matter how the movie-- whatever form the movie actually winds up taking, however it turns out, that's someone else's creation. And it's separate from mine, and because of that I think it was not as nerve-wracking. I don't want to say that I was perfectly calm, or I had no fears at all, but I was able to sort of take consolation in the fact that my story is out there. It's not going away. People who want to read the original story would always be able to find it. And many authors have said that a bad movie, it doesn't ruin the original, because the original is still there.

HTF: Right.

Ted Chiang: So to some extent I think that makes it a little easier. If I were a screenwriter, a bad movie made of your screenplay, no one will ever see how good your original screenplay was. Or I mean, audiences will never know. Only people within the industry might have some idea of what the original screenplay looked like. But yeah, you won't have had the opportunity to sort of communicate with audiences your vision. And so I think that's much harder, I think, for a creator to have to accept. And it's not something that I think I would be comfortable with.

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HTF: I'm reading the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown at the moment. It's an escapist read and works well. And when I was younger, I read a lot of short stories by Ray Bradbury. And still to this day, I think, my favorite short story of all time is “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl.” Which if you've not read it, I highly recommend. But watching Arrival struck me in a way that only a few science fiction stories and films have, Blade Runner being one of them, Alien Nation being another, Primer, a very low-budget time travel tale, being another…

Ted Chiang: Oh, yes. I know Primer very well

HTF: Then Children of Men, and finally Arrival genuinely struck me. And they struck me because they were so wonderfully produced and at their core, there was a fascinating idea being explored and expressed. They tended to have a practical reality about the worlds in which these stories were taking place; a grit and reality that really struck me. As a result, I was always eager to go find anything I could about the filmmakers, or the original story author. And that’s exactly what I did after I saw Arrival. Seeing that it was based on your short story, Story of Your life, I picked up your short story collection (Story of Your Life and Others). I actually read your first short story, Tower of Babylon last night, which was very, very good, by the way

Ted Chiang: Thanks

HTF: So I am wondering, who do you think has the best ideas today? Who really is capturing that sort of vivid ground of fertile concepts or ideas that really spark your interest, either in the author field or maybe even filmmakers? I'm just curious to know what satiates your desire for, if it's anything like mine, great artists telling great stories in great ways?


“I remember the year, 1999, I thought was a great year for cinema. That was the year that ‘The Sixth Sense’ came out, ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Being John Malkovich,’ ‘Run Lola Run.’ There were all these movies coming out in the theater, and I remember thinking, something really interesting is happening in movies…”


Ted Chiang: Well, this is a very predictable answer, but William Gibson. I've been a fan of William Gibson's work for a long time. And I think that when he started writing science fiction, he was showing us something that we hadn't really seen in science fiction before. And even with his more recent novels, which up until the last one-- his prior three novels weren't conventionally science fiction. But I think they were all clearly the result of a very sort of specific vision, a very specific way of looking at the modern world, and the way technology sort of shapes us. So I certainly admire his work immensely. And it would be wonderful if a film could capture that. But I think we know that adaptations don't always succeed in that way. Among filmmakers, well, this is going back a ways, but I remember the year, 1999, I thought was a great year for cinema. That was the year that The Sixth Sense came out, The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Run Lola Run. There were all these movies coming out in the theater, and I remember thinking, something really interesting is happening in movies because so many films were doing things which I had not seen before. The use of some sort of effects and camera movement in Fight Club, it was really eye-opening. The way Run Lola Run sort of did its sort of non-chronological storytelling. And of course, The Matrix, which I think changed the way we think about action movies. Those were all great films. And I remember thinking that it seemed like cinema was going to become really, really interesting. Unfortunately, that trend didn't persist. I think we sort of walked the ground a few years after that. And movie making became much more conventional. But, yeah, 1999 was I think an exceptional year for film.

HTF: I agree. I haven't seen Run Lola Run in a few years but that’s a great piece of cinema. Let me ask you about your process when you write. When I write, I tend to listen to film score, which may influence how I write or what I write, and I do the same thing when I'm reading. So I'm wondering, is there a room that you go to that you're most productive? Is there a routine that you have? Is there music that you listen to, or do you require absolute silence? Or can you type away your stories at a Starbucks and it doesn't really matter what's going on in the world around you?

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Ted Chiang: Well, I don't listen to music. And I generally prefer quiet. I'm not good at writing in coffee shops or other noisy environments. So yeah, I like it quiet. I have an office that I work in. I guess I don't have a real interesting process, I think, kind of mundane [laughter].

HTF: Well, I really appreciate talking to you today. I've got to say, you're one of the most interesting voices that I've read of late. I was reading a piece, in the New Yorker I think, where were asked a question about the secret to your success, or why you thought you had become so popular, and you threw your arms up because you had no clue. But I think, sometimes someone comes along with the voice that we were looking for and perhaps didn't know we wanted, or with the voice that we needed, and I think you're one of those voices. Just like I think the director of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve is one the cinematic voices that we need right now. I love your work. I thought the film was an excellent adaptation, even though it left out quite a bit of the physics. But I think it got the core of your story on screen and is one of the most successful adaptations that I've seen.

Ted Chiang: I agree! I agree!

HTF: That's a win in and of itself. I can't wait to see what you come out with next. All the very best to you.

Ted Chiang: Thank you. Thank you very much.
 

Josh Steinberg

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Thanks, Neil, another great interview! You always do a really great job of asking questions that haven't been gotten to yet by every single other publication, which I really enjoy.
 

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