'Bird Box' Screenwriter Eric Heisserer On Building A Mysterious Post-Apocalypse And Working With Netflix [Interview]

Bird Box is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the exact cause of the apocalypse is never shown. Something out there causes people to kill themselves when they look at it, and much of the world commits suicide in the first days. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) ends up in a stranger's house where a group of survivors covers the windows, and the audience never sees the monstrous forces in Bird Box.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted Bird Box from the novel by Josh Malerman. He previously adapted Arrival from Ted Chiang's story The Story Of Your Life (and received an Oscar nomination), and made his directorial debut with his original script Hours, starring Paul Walker.

Heisserer spoke with /Film about adapting Bird Box, some of his upcoming screenplays, and his memories of Walker. Bird Box is available to stream on Netflix right now.

Hours is very well represented in the documentary I Am Paul Walker.

Fantastic. I was unavailable during the production side of that thing but I gave them as many resources as I could.

Oh, I wasn't questioning why you weren't interviewed but I was glad they acknowledged what a turning point that would have been for him.

At the press event for that, he told me about all the amazing job offers that he'd gotten based on people that had seen the screening. He was like, "I'm finally in the direction I want to go."

So Bird Box falls into my favorite genre of post-apocalyptic survival. Is it one of yours too?

Absolutely. The novel certainly is. I was just trying to do it justice.

Each of these are unique because whatever the apocalypse is, people have to adapt to the new world. Are there infinite possibilities depending on the cause of each apocalypse?

Certainly that could be explored. What I liked about the novel and what I tried to represent in the adaptation was that the biggest hurdle for us, the cause of the apocalypse is really our need to know. Our innate curiosity as humans, our struggle to understand why or who or what, that is of course our demise in this. The moment we surrender to decide to see what it is, then we failed.

Was a lot of the coping mechanisms – hanging strings, covering the windows, going out blindfolded – dictated by the book?

Some of it was and some of it I came up with as a cinematic expression of that. The coiled string that Malorie uses.

What are some differences between the world of the book and the world of the film?

They're going to bleed through in my brain because I started on that in July of 2013, nine months before the book actually got published because I was given early galleys of it. I started a pretty strong working relationship with the author where I would start pitching him ideas. Every now and then he would say, "That should go in the book. Is that all right?" I'd be like, "Well, take it." We had a pretty strong relationship that led into not only the publication of the book, but developing the script.

My favorite part of this genre is when they go looking for supplies. So was the supermarket scene in the book?

Yeah, with the vampire car.

Were you able to elaborate on it?

Sure, that was an idea of mine that Josh Malerman found really evocative when we walked through how to be as smart as possible with that. Even down to making sure that someone taped over the rearview camera for instance. It harkened back to one of my favorite moments in The Hunt For Red October. There's a Russian navigator in the Red October who talks about how if you gave him a stopwatch and a map of the Grand Canyon, he could fly a plane with no windows through it. That's essentially what we did with the car here where they had to rely entirely on GPS.

Is the entity ever described in the book?

No. There was a moment in the screenplay where we decided to try and have our cake and eat it too in which Malorie is confronted in sort of a home invasion by one of the creatures and she sees it. Then she wakes up and we realize it's a nightmare. It's about what people imagine it is.

Does that go back to what was made most famous in Jaws, that what you imagine is scarier than anything you can describe or show?

Right, that's the corner we painted ourselves into. We realized the moment that one of us started talking about even small features of what the monster might be, or the antagonist, down to a specific silhouette of a shadow or an appendage that entered the frame somewhere, there was always someone else in the room who would say, "Well, that isn't scary to me." So it defeated the purpose. We kept pulling back.

Did the book come with a clear set of rules for how this thing works?

Not inasmuch, no, because it's kept confined to the POV of the characters involved. They have very limited information. Now and then, from maybe some isolated radio DJ you'd get a little bit more about the world and the rules. Again, that was filtered information from one person so you didn't know if you could trust it. It allowed everybody to come up with their own belief system or their own theory about what the unknown is.

Did you come up with a bible of the rules?

Yeah, I had to do a fairly deep dive on that. It's interesting writing a lot of supplementary information that doesn't necessarily go into the script but is just there as reference.

Are there any cool reference materials that didn't make it into the film?

Well, there was a character who didn't make it into the final cut. He was an older man, Edgar. He was also in an early version of the novel that got pulled from the novel, and I thought maybe he would survive through the film as well. He showed up at the same time as Olympia. He acted as if he had encountered one of these already. He seemed a little unstable but he didn't seem crazy. The fun reveal we had later on was that he has early onset Alzheimer's so he had forgotten what the thing looked like, which saved his life.

Did you get some of the graphic ways people kill themselves from the book, or invent some of your own?

Some of that was new to me even. Obviously things change during shooting so they came up with some other ideas during production. I would say I tried to base as much of my script on the novel as possible because I think that was the space where Josh Malerman was particularly horrific. Especially in the double childbirth scene.

You've been a studio screenwriter. Was working for Netflix the same as doing films for Warner Bros., New Line and Universal?

No. It seemed like Netflix is fairly hands off. I didn't get to experience much of that because so much of the script had been developed under Universal that by the time Netflix acquired it, they were going to go off and shoot it. Even then, I will say Netflix seemed to want it simply because they didn't want to mess with it.

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Did Sandra Bullock have some good ideas when she came on?

Yes, definitely about her character, about Malorie and her motives. I feel like she had some personal experiences to draw upon that made it emotionally resonant for her. It was my job just to reinterpret that character for her. I think it made it better. Her performance is amazing.

Was the structure of present day and five years earlier in the book that way?

It was definitely there. My job was just to try and link those two timelines as much as possible in terms of transitions.

Did you write the Van Helsing script for Dark Universe or was that only announced?

I did that several years ago, yes.

Since we'll probably never see it now, what was your take on Van Helsing?

Oh, man. I want to talk about it and yet I hope that maybe someday someone will come in there and excavate it and be able to do some version of it. Rather than jinx it, I'm going to hold off.

Is there any movement on Lights Out 2?

There is a little but until someone's deal is closed I can't talk about that either.

So you haven't started writing.

Oh, no, I have a finished draft. I feel like that script is better than Lights Out, the first movie, in a lot of ways. I'm really proud of it.

Where were you able to go with a sequel?

I expanded.

Is Bloodshot your next film in production?

Let's see. They're aiming for February 2020 release date on that. I don't know if anything's going to sneak in before then. So probably. That was an assignment and I think I was the second write on. Jeff Wadlow did a lot of heavy lifting earlier on. I came in and stuck with it for quite a while. It's based on the Valiant comic book title.

What else are you working on?

Oh my goodness. I'm developing two pilots right now. I'm hoping to hear today on one of them. Of course, I'm now in a more producorial role. I've partnered up with Lawrence Grey and we're producing projects together. I'm still working on the Your Name adaptation, the anime adaptation for Bad Robot and Paramount. I have two other features that I've written that are currently top secret that I wish I could talk about.

Would you direct either of the pilots?

Not the pilots but I'm really gearing to direct at least one or two of the episodes during the season.

Is the Your Name adaptation a tough one to crack?

Oh sure, but I love that movie. I've found it an interesting challenge what the Japanese rights holders wanted in an adaptation.

What are they asking for?

You have to find the best iteration of that story based on the fact that they want an American live-action version of the film. They stated if they wanted a Japanese live-action version, they would just do it themselves. But they want to see it through the lens of a western viewpoint.

And the hubub over the Ghost in the Shell movie didn't scare them off from Americanizing it?

Well, I think I was one of 20 or 30 people that pitched them a version of the adaptation. So they had a lot of choices. I can say that mine was not a Ghost in the Shell-like version.