When a screenwriter sits down to write a script, he or she is probably considering the audience. A top priority is ensuring that moviegoers can follow the story and understand the characters’ situations. Guillermo Arriaga approaches film in a completely different manner. People don’t tell their stories in a chronological manner, so why should a screenwriter?
After sitting down and talking with Arriaga about his latest film, The Burning Plain, I couldn’t speak to anyone without examining the way I conveyed my information. Sure enough, Arriaga is right. I didn’t tell my friend I went to interview an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter then ran back to my apartment before meeting her for coffee. I had to throw in that I ran back to my apartment because I went out the night before and left my wallet in a different bag. We expect out movies to be told linearly when, in fact, most of life happens non-linearly.
That’s the approach Arriaga is known for taking with his work. It started with Amores Perros and went on to 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Babel for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and now to his latest The Burning Plain. All the details come together for the audience, but it’s baffling that one man can sort out so many elements to attain that effect.
The Burning Plain didn’t just come to you out of thin air. Can you tell me about how the screenplay developed?
Look, most of the stories I have written are aging in my mind for many many years. All of the stories I’ve written have something to do with something I have seen, experienced or happened to someone close to me. In this case, the thing that really shocked me when I was nine, 10-years-old, someone said there was fire in the neighborhood, a kid. We were, you know, watching the fire, ‘Look at the fire.’ And suddenly someone said that people was burning inside alive. So for a 9-year-old kid watching the fire and imagining that, that people are burning alive shocked me. Even though the firemen told us there was no one inside, we never knew if it was real or not. And that haunted me. Then I knew a girl who basically have sex with anyone that crossed her path. She even once boasted that she had sex with 10 guys in a nightclub. There, there in that place. She was like, ferociously having sex. Furiously having sex. So you end up with all these things together and what allowed me to understand it and make it cohesive and coherent was the concept of the four elements. Once I had a concept everything began to come together.
Was it a similar process for your previous work?
Absolutely. For example, in Babel it was the last day of something, the last day of fear, the last day of innocence. There’s a light of day in the life of someone where everything changes and is never going to be back, is never going to be as it was before.
You’re known for your multi-narrative approach to screening writing. Is there a reason you always go with this format?
Chekhov used to say ‘you write what you can, not what you want’ and, you know, first I have ADD, which is more or less the way I think. Second, telling stories in a disorderly way is the way we tell stories, naturally. I don’t know why some critics in their ridiculous way say that this is artificial. I have never in my life, never, listened to someone tell his story in real life in three acts.
What’s your ultimate goal with a format like that? What kind of reaction are you trying to get that a typical narrative can’t achieve?
I’m trying to achieve a more natural way of telling stories, a more emotional way of relating to the audience. My goal is always to move the audience to have an emotional experience.
The non-linear screenplay is what you’re trademark now. Do you plan to stick with it?
No, no because if the story needs to be told linearly I will do so, but if the story pushes to be told that way. I’m not attached to any kind of structure.
What was the casting process like? Did you have people in mind?
You know, casting was one of the most enjoyable – everything was very enjoyable, but casting I loved doing casting. It’s so wonderful when you’re into it and you find the right person and say ‘Yes! This is it!’ It happened with Jennifer Lawrence and JD Pardo. I picked them up the first day of casting. My casting director brought them to the film. She sent me three tapes, two tapes with three girls and another tape with three guys. The very first day of casting I say ‘I want her and him!’ People were like ‘Hey, you have three weeks of casting.’ I say ‘No, I know what I’m doing.’ I can tell you that, I know how to recognize good acting.
What about Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger? Did you have to reach out to them?
I, of course, was hunting both of them. First of all, you need to seduce them through the material. If they like the material, 90% is already there and then you meet with them and you feel that you’re on the same page. With Charlize I had [snap], this connection, like [snap] in one minute she was my best friend.
Yes, I heard you two had a very long first meeting together.
Yeah! You know the agents told me one hour and you know this is very – she has work to do and I have a flight at five so they say ‘Perfect. You have lunch from one to two’ [then] I go to the hotel and pick my things up and head to the airport. We met at one, we left the restaurant at like 6:30. Of course I lost my flight. The work of the other film are calling her and they’re like ‘Where are you? Where are you?’ Well, she was kidnapped until she was going to say ‘Yes, I’m going to be in this film,’ she couldn’t go.
How did she wind up being the film’s executive producer?
I think she has to answer that question but I think that she liked it and she told me that she wanted to protect the film, to be a protector of it.
The Burning Plain marked your directorial debut. What compelled you to direct?
I always wanted to do it. Always. I always thought that I was going to lack the technological knowledge to do it. When I was once in Cancun, there was this t-shirt with a cartoon of Einstein with a quote of him that says ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I said, well, I’m going to try it and I’m very happy with the results.
Do you plan to continue working behind the lens?
If producers and financers are, they will keep plusing me, I will keep doing it. I have the bug. I think I will not stop directing and I will not stop writing and I will not stop producing but directing is a very enjoyable thing.
Would you direct another writer’s screenplay?
I don’t know. I certainly don’t know. They have sent me some screenplays to direct but I feel like weird. But I don’t know, you never know. You can never say no.
Do you think that had a significant impact on the film, having directed your own work?
You know, when I was shooting this film since my work permit wasn’t coming out and they didn’t allow me to prep the film, so I had very little time to prep. But the good thing was that since I wrote it I had it very clear in my mind. It was very strong for example with the locations, they were ‘No, this is the most convenient location because the crew lives in,’ Albuquerque for example, ‘the crew lives here, we have catering here.’ ‘No, I want to go far away.’ Until I got what I wanted and I had very clear and say ‘No, No, No’ and I say ‘Yes,’ but the yes was very far away.
In terms of the film, why’d you go with those locations? Why not put Sylvia in New York instead of Portland?
Because I wanted – since the four elements is what was giving me coherence, I wanted a place the will give us a sense of water and I think that there’s no better place than Oregon to have this sense of water.
There was certainly a lot of water in that portion of the film.
It rains a lot! It was raining every single moment of the day. Every one of them. I wanted that kind of place, I imagined it when I was writing it; I’d say I want that. I had never even been to Oregon, I don’t even know if, that it was going to be that kind of place that the restaurant on the cliffs. In my head I suppose it was going to exist. I travel miles and miles to find it. New York has been seen in such many movies.
Do you have anything in the works?
I’m trying to have as much people as possible watching this film, that’s my priority. You know, a film doesn’t exist without an audience. So right now my project is to win as much people as possible.