Keynote speaker at Auckland’s Big Screen Symposium, writer and director Guillermo Arriaga shares thoughts on his film craft and collaborators.
“Amores Perros in Spanish means: a very tough, profound, intense kind of love. You grab someone [grabs throat], you fight for it. That is Amores Perros, what it means for us. It was badly translated into English as Love’s a Bitch.”
Guillermo Arriaga is a great cinematic reinventer. After his fractured, dynamic scripts for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, his writing for Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was similarly luminous and resonant. “He’s so charismatic!” the Roman actress Alexia Murray (Gangs of New York’s Topsy) tells me at Arriaga’s rousing Big Screen Symposium keynote address. Writing, the Mexican filmmaker testifies, is an act of life over death. (At home the 55 -year-old tells himself: “Work, work, work.”) Earlier, in an incongruously insipid, Auckland University Business mini-lecture theatre, he shook my hand firmly, and we discussed Gael García Bernal, amore, hunting, and why screenwriting has no rules. Despite significant jetlag, he’s a commanding presence, whose perceptive answers are peppered with bursts of passionate intensity and gesture. Photography by James Black.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Amores Perros is such an exciting, visceral film, as urgent as a bullet to the throat.
GUILLERMO ARRIAGA: Amores Perros in Spanish means: a very tough, profound, intense kind of love. You grab someone [grabs throat], you fight for it. That is Amores Perros, what it means for us. It was badly translated into English as Love’s a Bitch. Amores Perros is people fighting for love, in one way or the other.
AB: During your writing lecture earlier today, I laughed out loud at your romantic fantasy exercise (as an earthy media studies professor), where all the guys desired threesomes.
GA: The sex fantasy, not romantic fantasy [laughs].
AB: As you said, it shows the clichés good writers are fighting against, even for such personal, intimate things. I have to say, I’m part of the five percent. The idea of a twosome is still exciting for me.
GA: Sometimes one woman can be two thousand women.
AB: Can you draw an overarching idea you want people to take from your work?
GA: The importance of love.
AB: The importance of love has come through very strongly since Amores Perros.
GA: Every one of the stories I have written has to do with love. It’s not only romantic love, it’s love for your family, love for your woman, even love for your dog.
AB: Love for your collaborators?
GA: Love for a friend, in the case of The Three Burials; love that damages and hurts, because love can be a bullet.
AB: Joe Pantoliano told me The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Best Screenplay winner at Cannes), captures the deep-rooted humanity of Tommy Lee Jones, and is his best film.
GA: When I planned to work with Tommy Lee Jones, I knew that I could write anything for the character because if I asked Tommy Lee to become a dog, he will become a dog. He’s such a good actor that he can be whatever he wants to be. And his persona, he’s like a very tough guy. But once you know him there are some fragile parts of him that can be used to develop a character on screen. So I knew I can put everything into the bag and he will pull out everything.
AB: What makes Gael García Bernal special to work with?
GA: That was a decision of Alejandro [Iñárritu], I have to acknowledge. Gael’s a cinematic animal! He has a very good presence. Everything he has to do for me is with the eyes, how much he can tell with his eyes. He has gravity.
AB: You won’t work with Iñárritu again?
GA: I will not work with Iñárritu again.
AB: I don’t believe directors are unique, singular gods; like you I believe in the essential importance of writers.
GA: We are creating the bones of the story; the bones and the blood of the story. We have the structure [from] where everything’s going to be built. If we have a bad bone structure everything will crumble done. It will be a corpse falling down.
AB: In your 2011 England talk you jibed wittily about bourgeois cinema: you know, nothing really happens, boring routine, people sometimes have sex—with themselves. The complete opposite to your work, which has an invigorating rawness.
GA: Well thank you.
AB: You’ve judged a variety of film festivals, Venice for example. How did you find it?
GA: I’ve been a juror at two main festivals: San Sebastian and Venice. The great thing is that you are seeing a panorama of what’s going on in world cinema. And you are discussing it with people you respect a lot, like Quentin Tarantino.
GA: It’s very enjoyable. It’s what I call beautiful fights. I’ve been part of juries where there are real fights. Real, real fights like [mimes people hitting each other] “fuck you…”—
AB: In Mexico?
GA: No [laughs]. I was once in Venezuela on a jury.
AB: Shakespeare style, you like to put your characters on the edge of the abyss?
GA: Love it. Because I think that once you put people on the edge of the abyss the character is going to reveal.
AB: Words with Gods sounds like it does that? Tell me the idea of your short in the nine-film collaboration you are producing? Also featuring Serbia’s Emir Kusturica (Underground), Japan’s Hideo Nakata (Dark Water), and Australia’s Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah)?
GA: Words with Gods is to do with religion. I created the project, it’s almost done. My short has to do with atheism, I’m an atheist. It’s very strange, and Mario Vargas Llosa [Nobel Laureate creative consultant] decided it was going to be the closing short film, because he made a story thinking of which was the first religion to the last way of dealing with God. And he says the last way of living with God is atheism.
AB: Warwick Thornton’s film is strong?
GA: Yes, of course. He’s a good friend of mine from years ago. I was an advisor on his film Samson and Delilah.
AB: That’s my favourite Australian film of the last decade.
GA: Warwick’s a very strong guy, handsome.
AB: Very eloquent.
GA: Yeah [laughs]. He plays the tough guy, but he’s not that tough.
AB: Peter Gabriel, Words with Gods composer, notably scored Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
GA: It’s a privilege working with him. He’s a great musician and a great human being. I love working with him.
AB: Tokyo featured memorably in Babel. How’s it working with Hideo Nakata?
GA: A great guy to work with, also. I have Hideo, I have Emir, I have Bahman [Ghobadi, Rhino Season], Hector [Babenco, Carandiru], Amos [Gitai, Ana Arabia]; Alexander, directors I have always admired are in this project.
AB: So, from Babel, the global interconnectedness of humanity: that’s quite a philosophy of yours, isn’t it?
GA: Yes, I would like to push for that. Because, for example, now we are interconnected. We are meeting each other. Life brought us to this exact point.
AB: Amores Perros was one of the first films that truly inspired me as a young critic. Now, I’m talking to you.
GA: Thank you very much. This is the very point.
AB: 21 Grams was inspired by your former health problems, the past possibility of needing a heart transplant. Forgive me for such a personal question, but you’re okay at the moment?
GA: Absolutely. Do I look bad?
AB: You look very well, particularly for a man who’s just flown halfway around the world. 21 Grams was very powerful. You still see that doctor who said to you, “I have good news. You’re not a hypochondriac”?
GA: He was great. He’s still my doctor. I still see him.
AB: Even for someone who has an interconnected global philosophy, there’s something to be said for staying based working from your home, isn’t there?
GA: I think most of my work has to do with my culture and my country, the contradictions and the products of my country so I want to be fed by it, you know? The nutrition that comes from living there.
AB: What is it like living in Mexico City these days?
GA: It’s the best place in the world. It’s a very interesting city. It’s a very beautiful city. When Tarantino went there, because I begged him to stay at my place, he thought of Mexico City like Mumbai—goats and cows on the street. It’s not like that. It’s a beautiful city. It’s a cold city. It’s not a warm city, in terms of climate, cause we’re up in the mountains. It’s more or less the weather for Auckland [at the (winter) time of interview], and many people think they are going to a tropical island.
AB: What happened when Tarantino stayed with you in Mexico?
GA: That’s a secret.
AB: You’re self-described as a “hunter that works as a writer.” What’s the connection between hunting and writing?
GA: When you are hunting you are looking for something, when you are writing you are looking for something. For my writing it’s important because hunting allows me to go to the very edge of life and death, and I like to write about life and death.
AB: Is hunting also relaxation from the stresses of writing?
GA: No, writing is not stressful. Stressful would be being a bank teller. Stressful would be a guy who works doing something, a job, he doesn’t like.
AB: Everyday it’s exciting, we get up and we’re doing something we want to do.
GA: It’s a privilege, man! It’s not stressful.
AB: You’re right.
GA: So, I will never get stressed because I’m producing; I’m excited because I’m producing. I’m excited because I’m going to shoot a film. I’m excited because I’m writing a novel. I’m not going to be stressed. This is very enjoyable.
AB: It must have been very enjoyable hunting with Tommy Lee Jones?
GA: It was very enjoyable hunting with him. We only hunted once together because the way we hunt is, he goes to one place and I go to another place. We scatter and then we come together. There was only once when we were in the same truck, and I killed a deer.
AB: What’s the longest time you’ve been out hunting?
GA: I think it was fifteen days, hunting deer in Mexico. I have always hunted in Mexico, basically. A bit in Texas, and just once in Argentina. This will be the fourth country I’m gonna hunt in my life.
AB: Where are you taking your bow and arrow here in New Zealand?
GA: Ngamatea, I’m going for deer, some venison if it’s possible.
AB: Do you have a burning question you’d ask Hemingway and Faulkner?
GA: Both were hunters. So I will ask William Faulkner “where shall we go hunting bears?” [laughs]. And Hemingway, I’ll ask him “where shall we go hunt pronghorns?”
AB: Hemingway didn’t flourish in the Hollywood environment as Faulkner did. Faulkner adapted Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, a magical Bogart/Bacall film.
GA: Yeah I know, the success of Hemingway was the way he sold himself, as an outsider man, as a macho guy, tough, and his way of writing was very modern at the time. He was breaking the rules. When most of the people were very baroque, he was very straightforward. He sold his persona himself, and that was a great thing.
AB: I liked what you said earlier about how it’s important not to compromise your integrity, be bland.
GA: Well I think that there’s an audience for everything. There’s people who want to be entertained, there’s people who want to be confronted, there’s people who want to just have a good time, there’s people who want to have a party in the cinema. But they like to be challenged. So we cannot have everyone in the same bag, not everyone is in the same bag.
AB: Any films you’ve seen this year that have been particularly must-sees?
GA: I have been working as a monk, writing a new novel, so I haven’t been to cinema, but Beasts of the Southern Wild, that would be my favourite of this year.
AB: What can films do that books can’t, and vice versa?
GA: Films tell stories in a way that it has to do with third person. Books more in first person. So it’s depending on… films can portray more of the circumstances, books more how the circumstances affects someone.
AB: You acknowledge complexity, you point out your friends who also wrote great films—Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries—they have a different philosophy on rules. But, I agree with your approach: the first rule of screenwriting is that there are no rules. It’s totally against the idea of creativity, to put things in the straightjacket of rules.
GA: I think so. But there are people like Jose Vieira who think putting creativity on rules make you be more creative.
AB: More principles than rules?
GA: No, no, he says rules! Rules, not principles. Rules. Rules. On page 30 exactly, you have to have a turning point. Those rules. He loves them.
AB: Who are some film writers you enjoy?
GA: I enjoy, for example, Sam Shepard, Charlie Kaufman, David Mamet. Or a Spanish guy called Rafael Azcona, who I’m sure you don’t know. He’s already dead. He was a friend of mine. But he was our greatest film writer. You should look for it: Rafael Azcona.
AB: I will. What about Roberto Balaño? He’s the South/Central flavour of the moment down here.
GA: I know Roberto is very, very popular. I once had dinner with him. I must confess I am not very much into what he writes about. I know he’s a good writer.
AB: Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is your favourite novel?
GA: Most of Faulkner, especially what he wrote between the age of 30-40.
AB: You’ve disproved that, your gallon of ink has gone well beyond 40.
GA: It’s running out I think. I shall keep it.
AB: Another interesting thing, unlike Faulkner you don’t drink?
GA: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’ve never done any kind of drugs.
AB: It’s a good way of being productive.
GA: It’s a good way of being alive! Of being aware of what’s happening.
IMAGES OF GUILLERMO ARRIAGA
© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.
Guillermo Arriaga delivered the 2013 Big Screen Symposium’s keynote address. This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Melinda Jackson and Aaron Caleb Bardo for some transcription assistance on this article.
 GA: What I think is the one trick pony is really the three act kind of structure. Why do we think that we have to put rules on storytelling? Just because a Greek philosopher said two thousand years ago it has to be. Who says that on page 30, page 60, page 90, we always have to follow the same structure?
I think that every story has a different way to be told; each one of them. And we have to realise that in real life, in our daily life, we use extremely sophisticated storytelling. We never go linear, we never structure with a first act, second act, and third act. We always use this back and forth kind of storytelling. So why do we have to go always with this kind of structure?
I already said that I have no education at all in screenwriting. But when I have read all these manuals of screenwriting, they say things that I will never follow. And I have learned that the first rule of screenwriting, or any art, is having no rules. Everyone has to find their own way of doing things.