How The 'Arrival' Screenwriter’s ‘Frustrating’ Adolescence Inspired His New Superhero Comic
People in Hollywood have a tendency of reminding us that they were once geeks, social outcasts, and nerds who persevered through awkward adolescence and came out just fine on the other side. But for Oscar-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer — who still considers himself a geek — his teen frustrations have fueled some of his most ambitious work, including his forthcoming project, Secret Weapons.
The Arrival screenwriter is teaming with Valiant Comics to release Secret Weapons, a four-part miniseries that will spotlight a secondary Harbinger character named Amanda McKee, known as Livewire, as she aims to right her former mentor's wrongs. It begins with the terrible discovery that her corrupt mentor had cast aside a group of young psiots (superpowered beings) in an isolated facility due to their seemingly benign powers.
There's Nikki, a pink-haired girl who can talk to birds, and Owen, an Asian-American psiot who can conjure things — the only problem being that he has no control over what he conjures. With a little help and encouragement from Livewire, however, maybe this ragtag group of superpowered misfits can do something meaningful together.
MTV News chatted with Heisserer on the day after his Writers Guild Awards win for Arrival — so he was slightly hungover — about the project, compassionate heroines, and how a Champions character he created when he was a frustrated 16-year-old inspired the characters of Secret Weapons.
Congratulations on your Writers Guild Award!
Eric Heisserer: Thank you! Hopefully I am fully over my hangover by now. This morning I was pretty bad.
It was nice to see you and Barry Jenkins both win in your respective categories, which is something that technically can't happen at the Oscars because Moonlight is also up for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Heisserer: It's weird. But honestly, I loved that script, and I'm really excited for him. I'm rooting for him to win.
I know you got the idea for Secret Weapons while working on the Harbinger screenplay for Sony, but what was it about Amanda that made you want to tell her story?
Heisserer: It's really the way she made me feel about the way she felt about the world that I couldn't shake loose. Here's a character who had a troubled upbringing, who came into the fold when Harada discovered her. He instilled in her a set of values and a worldview that was all about seeing the best in people and seeing the best in humanity. That gave her a strong moral compass. So often we find a character like that, where their mentor goes corrupt and makes all the wrong choices, and the student either collapses or turns dark, or ends up on a self-destructive path. But not Amanda. Amanda held on to what she knew, what was undeniably good. She wanted to make sure that anyone who had been collateral damage of her boss's actions could find solace or could be helped.
She's such a compassionate character, and you see that when she first meets Nikki and Owen. I feel like her compassion is her greatest strength, so how does she take to a leadership role?
Heisserer: The trick will be to have her earn the trust of these kids, who have felt betrayed by Harada's organization. They have their own baggage to deal with, coming back into the fold with someone who was obviously a part of that same company that decided to make them outcasts. Amanda also has to work decidedly differently from her previous team assignment. Here, she's the matron of this group of kids, and if she puts on the superhero costume around them, it carries with it the stigma of being part of this corporation. So we get to see Amanda in street clothes a lot more in this title.
You've created some new characters in the Valiant universe. They're this group of misfits who don't fit in with normal people because they've got these powers, but they also don't fit in with the other psiots because their powers have been deemed useless. Where did the inspiration for this come from?
Heisserer: When I was a teenager, I had to cope with some pretty debilitating asthma that excluded me from sports, and in Oklahoma that was just about it as far as social activities go for a teen. So I found my own set of outcasts and other-ized people who had physical problems of their own, and that's how I got into tabletop gaming. The game that we played wasn't [Dungeons & Dragons]; it was Champions, which was a superhero game where we had to make our own heroes. Some of the characters that we made to express our frustrations in real life are characters like this. The one that I plucked from my childhood was this character called The Conjurer. Finally, years and years later, here he is now in a book. I made him up when I was 16, and now I get to explore him again in this story.
I like how you described Nikki as Stevie Nicks meets The Cure.
Heisserer: She is! She's punk. There's something already punk-rock about the characters in the Valiant universe, and I just wanted to lean into that a little bit more.
You're telling a self-contained, grounded story.
Heisserer: It's very character-focused, but it also starts on such an epic scope, as most Valiant titles do. I like it being smaller. I feel like this is the Valiant version of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, where we're still dealing with some fascinating characters, but it's brought down to a more local level and it's more intimate.
You've finished the screenplay for the first film in the Valiant Comics Cinematic Universe. As we've seen from some of the other cinematic universes, sometimes a studio's vision clashes with a screenwriter's and there's a lot of back and forth. Has that happened with Sony at all?
Heisserer: We've mainly been developing this in a vacuum, where the studio doesn't have much input until we're happy with it ourselves. We take a long development time to get the script to a place where we're all really excited about it, and then we deliver it to them with the expectation and the hope that they'll take it and run with it. It's us saying, "Here, this is the movie we want to make. Can we go make this?" Hopefully, that will bear fruit soon, and we'll be able to keep the characters and the vision and the strange, punk attitude that's in the DNA of the characters in the film. Studios are mercurial kind of creatures. A lot of the times getting a movie out can be as much luck as anything else.
Will Livewire have a presence in these films? A lot of fans would love to see her onscreen.
Heisserer: I would love to see her onscreen as well. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
One of the things I loved about Arrival was its worldview. It's a hopeful film. Louise used her compassion and intuition to solve a problem, which is not unlike what Amanda is doing in Secret Weapons. I feel like we need these kinds of stories now more than ever, given the current state of our democracy. Does that weigh on you when you go to write and influence the kinds of stories you want to tell?
Heisserer: What I need more in my culture and in my life right now is hope, and so I tend to write to that. I'll always end up bending more toward optimism because it's what I'm lacking in my current diet in terms of my pop-culture intake. That's not to say compelling dystopian stories aren't going to be out there and that people won't flock to them — I could imagine that happens more now than ever. But as my contribution as an artist and a storyteller, I have to have some hope. I have to have some beacon of good at the end of it.