AWFJ Women On Film – Guillermo Arriaga on “The Burning Plain” and Creative Process – Jennifer Merin interviews

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In The Burning Plain, Oscar-winning screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga makes his narrative feature directorial debut with a scenario of his own creation. The script — like Babel and Amores Perros before it — presents a complex universe of interwoven storielines. The auteur talks about the process of creating his fragmented world and the core-value characters who inhabit it, and how directing opens new horizons for him.

JENNIFER MERIN: The fragmentation you use in your work makes me think of the writings of the American author, John Dos Passos, who, in works like U.S.A. Trilogy, for example, fragmented and interwove several storylines. Thereby, he, as the author, became a presence in the work without writing himself into it, and he presented a work that was more than the sum of its parts. These qualities pertain to your work, as well. Are you familiar with Dos Passos’ work, and has it had an influence on you?

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA: I’m very familiar with the work of John Dos Passos, and what he was calling the ‘collage writing.’ He belongs to a generation of writers I appreciate a lot. Among this generation is William Faulkner, who is the real influence behind my work. That’s one influence. But there is another influence, too, and that is life itself.

I never tell stories in a linear way because in real life, we always go from once place to another when we tell stories. I have never heard someone talk about his life in a linear way. Memory goes back and forth in time and space. In Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce and John Dos Passos and writers who were expressing themselves in English have this kind of approach for their literary work. Since I come from literature — I was previously a novelist — this is what influences me.

I remember when I wrote Amores Perros, I wanted a screenplay that would resemble the structure of The Sound and The Fury. So that’s where it comes from. Dos Passos isn’t the direct influence, Faulkner is. But I think all that generation has influenced each other.

MERIN: And, how have you been influenced by your Mexican roots? My understanding of Mexican culture is that it’s extraordinarily rich and complex, baroque and full of embellishment. How has that very distinctive way of thinking influenced your work?

ARRIAGA: What happens in Mexican society is unique. First of all it has a particular culture that’s a product of the clash of two strong cultures — the native cultures and the Spanish. And second, in Mexican society, I think the condition is more raw. It has less filters than in other countries. The contradictions are much more profound than in other countries, so I think I have been feeling my work with that kind of influence. I cannot deny that I am a man from my culture.

MERIN: what are some of those contradictions?

ARRIAGA: Well for example you can go in Mexico city and see poor and rich within one high end of the city — just wall to wall to the other. Or you can see how we venerate the Indian kings, but they insult people by calling them Indian. And how TV ads promote the blond and blue eyed kind of models when 90 percent of the people is not like that. That kind of contradictions.

MERIN: When we speak about Dos Passos, and contradictions — and also because Mexican culture is very intellectual and very self aware — not self conscious, but self aware — I think of the dialectic way of thinking, the Marxist way of analyzing history, or presenting ‘story,‘ through thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I glimpse that approach within fragmented structure you use in your work. Is that your intention and, if so, where does synthesis occur in your work?

ARRIAGA: You know you have got to two very interesting points and I am amazed by your interview. Your intelligence and culture is beyond what I’ve heard in many interviews…

MERIN: That’s very kind on you…

ARRIAGA: Well, no one has noticed it before. My generation in Latin America grew up with the Marxist ideology, and I don’t come from a religious background. I don’t have a religion at all, and I don’t come from a religious family. Neither religious schools. What they taught us is to think dialectically. Its nothing that I’m doing on purpose. It was on purpose in amores perros, no doubt. That’s the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. And I have write that way in my scenes also. One character has a dramatic objective, another character has a different dramatic objective — and both clash and they have a synthesis that becomes a dramatic objective in itself. And then it’s not always a conscious process. It’s a way of thinking that I have inside me and yes, its’ out of dialectic thought. A lot of it.

MERIN: That’s very interesting because in dialectic thinking there are two ideas, positions or elements — or storylines — that clash against each other, then together transform into a third idea — or storyline — and so forth. But, in your films and storytelling, there are more than two storylines that clash against each other, and there’s an ongoing interweaving and synthesis of the multiple stories you present. So, how do you, then, when you’re structuring the piece, choose the moments when storylines intersect, clash and synthesize? I’ve heard you say that you sit for a long time with your stories, and they reveal themselves to you little by little. But there’s a moment at which you must decide on the sequencing of your stories — so, what is that process for you?

ARRIAGA: I’m sure you read Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan,” and Don Juan says to the main character, “Float. Walk in the desert like floating and you will begin to understand the desert and the mysteries of the dessert, more than if you’re focusing on them.” And, that’s more of the kind of attitude I have for writing. I have no plan, no previous structure in my head. I’m just writing and when I have an instinctual feeling, not a logical feeling, that I must go to another place, that’s when I change.

People have been asking me whether I write linearly and then cut and paste — impossible to write like that. This script cannot be written like that. Because you need the feeling of how it comes to you. And it’s not a conscious process. When was writing this film, after page 50 I began realizing it was in lots of six. I didn’t have it in mind to write in lots of six because that would be unnatural, and artificial. I like it when things are beginning to work themselves out, so I have no sketches at all. I work directly from the story to the page.

MERIN: And the story is just kind of, as you say, floating…?

ARRIAGA: It evolves itself. When I pitched the story to Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, and they asked how’s it going to end. I said. “I have no idea. How can I know if I haven’t written it?”

I have to discover the ending through the process. And I wrote the script without knowing what was the end. Most writers, and most screen writers, write an outline. That, I don’t do — to know everything about your characters. I know very little about them so they can advise me. And, other writers do a lot of research, but I don’t do research because it think that would be an obstacle to what I write. So, that’s actually the process.

MERIN: I think of research as a tool for emersion. It’s not just about finding facts, it’s a way of entering into the world and investigating the world, and you accumulate a certain mass of knowledge and that pushes you until suddenly you have a moment or kind of field of understanding. If you‘re not doing research to find out about the world you’re entering in to, how do you find out? What defines that world? Is it a kind of human psychology? Or what?

ARRIAGA: You know, first of all, many writers write about subjects they don’t know about. Most — not most — all that a writer writes has to do with personal experiences. on the characters, I may not know them, but do I know enough about them, am I enough in touch with them to be able to write them. and that’s what I’m trying to write about the world that I know. that’s why I never write about other peoples’ ideas. I’ve never done that. to adapt novels, I can’t. but when I’ve done that, it has been very bad. so I don’t know that work. once I have the need to research, I am on unknown territory and I don’t feel comfortable writing it.

You know, there’s these two completely different approaches to literature. Hemingway embraces the vitalist life-oriented kind of literature — I think that I belong to that tradition. There are other people who are more intellectual. Authors who write about other authors, or Quentin Tarantino who writes his films like an homage to other films. I try to bring everything from my own experience.

MERIN: The stories are very character-based and psychological, and your characters are not so much what they show in their outer skin, but who they are at their inner core. There’s a core value to each character. How do you get to know them. Do you start with their core, their essence and allow the knowledge of them to filter into you? I don’t mean to sound overly new age here, but do you feel that you’re in some way? Do you envision them, or hear them? Do they enter and fill you so that you become the actor of them?

ARRIAGA: I think so. Do you remember this novel by Miguel Unamuno? A novel about a character who begins to rebel against the author…

MERIN: Oh, yes…

ARRIAGA: Well, it’s a bit like that. In a certain way, when you’re writing fiction, the characters begin to have a life of their own. There’s an unconscious process where someone is dictating to you. Many writers — Faulkner…Faulkner used to say, “I’m a farmer who grew up in a little town, why am I writing this?” There’s basically no way to understand the basis for how you create a character. Milan Kundera used to say that a character comes from an image, from a pain in your stomach, you don’t know. And it evolves. That’s why I try to have just little knowledge of my characters. I remember that one of these screenwriting gurus when I attended a screenwriting seminar said you must know even the brand of underwear your character uses, and I say I don’t need that.

I’m not criticizing that process. Every process is different. They say write 30 pages on the history of your characters. I say no. I have no idea. No idea at all. All I have is more or less how he looks, and his dramatic objective. Not more than that. And I begin feeling it while I’m writing it. Maybe I am wrong in the process. But I cannot do it differently.

MERIN: How do you know when you’re done?

ARRIAGA: In the writing? As a novelist? As a screenwriter?

MERIN: Yes.

ARRIAGA: When the book is already published. In cinema, when it opens in the theaters. Because in the meantime, you can always make changes. I tried to make changes to the movie even when it was finished. But they said, “No, no, no, you can’t. You’re crazy, this is too much.” But I still see things, so the movie will be finished when it opens in theaters.

MERIN: In your mind, it will finally be finished. And, then you move on to other things…?

ARRIAGA: I have to move on. There was a writer who was famous in Mexico who said thank God we can publish things because if not we would still be working on them. You know Flaubert, every edition of Madame Bovary was changed. Every one of them. Nineteenth edition, Flaubert changed again. So, I like to move on. So that’s the process. It’s finished when the audience gets in touch with it.

MERIN: This is the first time you’re directing. What’s it like to direct, and to be responsible for the images as well as for the scario? How has that opened up possibilities, and where does it take you in your artistic process?

ARRIAGA: Writing is a very solitary job. You cannot ask anyone is this good or not. But when you’re directing, you can turn to someone and say I don’t know, and then people can help you. That’s the beauty of directing — that you work with a team. That’s a process I enjoy a lot. I enjoy working with actors and being on set. I’ve been on sets that are a nightmare, where the vibe is very bad because the director is completely distant. And I try to create a bond with everyone. First of all I refuse to let anyone say it is my film. All the cast and crew have to say it’s our film. And I strongly believe that.

MERIN: Since you’re an author who more-or-less channels your characters, or writes them from a very personal place, when you direct, you’re sort of giving the actors yourself to interpret. That’s an unusual relationship. Do you think they understand that?

ARRIAGA: Absolutely. You know, I’ve been a professor for many years and that has allowed me to learn how to express myself and communicate and understand that every person is different. When you teach, you understand quickly that people have different talents. Your job as a teacher is helping them to discover their talents.

MERIN: Who they are as artists?

ARRIAGA: Yes, who they are. And it think that’s my job as a director. to make the actor understand who they are in terms of the character, and what their being can give to the character. And it’s a very interesting process. A truly interesting process. And I thoroughly enjoy it.

MERIN: It is an amazing process, I agree. And the way in which you describe your work is amazing. As well. Thanks for your generosity in sharing it with us.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).