Feature Guillermo Arriaga discusses his directorial debut The Burning Plain, premiered to much praise at the Venice Film Festival.
Over the borderline
When you think about Los Angeles and you think about the Mexicans who live there, it's easy for images of illegal immigrants and a two-tier society to arise as those who don't speak English struggle to make ends meet in the land of opportunity. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are over 1.6 million Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles County (this does not include those living there illegally). For the illegals, their narrative is familiar: coming to the promised land, through deserts and rivers or in the back of a crowded lorry, dealing with the prejudices of a society that needs them but isn't willing to admit it.
However, against the more seductive backdrop of Los Angeles sunshine and swimming pools is one exceptional Mexican who has carved out a different type of border journey. This man is Guillermo Arriaga, the novelist, screenwriter and director, who is behind some of the most serious Hollywood art cinema to be made over the past decade. Recently, I visited Los Angeles and, over dinner, I asked him about his exalted role in Hollywood.
"By chance I recently met a screenwriter who said that he wrote screenplays for himself, for his own art, but they couldn't sell. He couldn't make a living so he had to write commercial things to pay the rent," Arriaga said, leaning over a plate of food, his tall, lean frame hulking over the table. "As we talked, he asked me who I was, and he told me that he knew my work. I told him that I was able to write stories that I loved and they seemed to work. And he said, 'Yes, that's because you are a Mexican. You are exotic.' And then I said to him, 'How many Mexicans are writing screenplays today?' The guy shook his head. That's because I'm the only one."
It's easy to be captivated by Arriaga's seriousness. He is charming and impressive in equal measures, able to switch between a loving father and a filmmaker whose work relentlessly searches for seriousness. His directorial debut, The Burning Plain, stars the Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. It is the story of a catastrophic fire in a story about mothers and daughters, and about finding love in the most impossible places. It premiered at this week's Venice Film Festival and could also be an early front-runner for the Oscars.
At 50 years of age, Arriaga's rise from novelist to director has been breathtaking. In the run up to the 1984 Olympics in LA, Arriaga tried his hand at boxing. "I thought I could be a heavyweight because there were no heavyweights in Mexico; there aren't many people of my height and size in Mexico. I thought I'd go to LA and lose my first fight, but at least I could say I was in the Olympics." But Arriaga's training was cut short as his heart became inflamed. A doctor said he was not sure Arriaga could survive. It was in those dark days that Arriaga decided to start working on a collection of short stories, Retorno 201 (the address of the house where he grew up in Mexico City). Arriaga was only 25.
After writing novels, more novels and working as a high profile university professor, Arriaga wrote a screenplay that caught the eye of an ambitious Mexican radio DJ who wanted to become a filmmaker. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu directed the Arriaga scripted Amores Perros (2000), featuring dog fighting, a hit man and a brutal car crash, and the birth of the Mexican new wave was born. So also were the Hollywood careers of Iñárritu, the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and the screenwriter Arriaga. Next up was 21 Grams (2003), starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro (two out of three Academy Award winners). The film was nominated for two Oscars. Then came Babel (2006), again scripted by Arriaga and directed by Iñárritu, starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and García Bernal, which led the Academy Awards that year with seven nominations, including Best Picture. Arriaga has also written a screenplay for Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, for which Arriaga won best screenplay at Cannes in 2005.
One of the first things you notice about Arriaga (apart from his tall frame and his green eyes, which are unusual for a Mexican) is how generous in spirit he is. This is not about offering to pay for the dinner bill, which he does, but this is more about introducing you to everyone on his team. He'll play shadowbox with his assistants and seems to treat everyone as an equal. His charming jokes contradict his serious nature. A friend who has been with him throughout production told me, "Guillermo talked to everyone on set when we were filming, treated them equally. One of the guys who was a grip, he'd been doing this for 20 years and he told Guillermo that he was the first director who had talked to him. Guillermo thought it was incredible that directors are so insulated."
A few days later I asked Arriaga how he reconciled being a Mexican working in America, able to find the American dream when it seemed to be a concept that has died for so many others coming to the United States to find a better life. "First of all, I think it's a shame that my country is not able to retain it's own citizens and allow them to live decently in Mexico. Secondly, I am happy because many of these people have come to me and said that they feel that they are inspired by what I've done here. That's good, you know? And third, my work makes an effort to overcome this barrier. The Three Burials tried to make these problems human, that these people come here to work, not to steal or kill. They come here to work because Americans need them."
I asked Arriaga if The Burning Plain represented a new, borderless relationship between the US and Mexico. "Every film or book on the border always talks about immigration and I just wanted to touch on the theme of love," he said over coffee in the post-production suite where he was overseeing the finalisation of some digital effects. "There are thousands and thousands of love stories between Mexicans and Americans. I was in this bar two or three years ago when we were shooting Three Burials and it was the Mexican people and the American people. One hour of Mexican music and one hour of American music. The American cowboys were dancing with the Mexican girls and the Mexican cowboys dancing with the American girls. So it's not a black and white reality."
With so many Academy Award winning actresses around, I asked Arriaga how he went about casting the film. "When I was writing the screenplay I thought I needed a great actress and Charlize was always coming in and out of my head. I'm very proud of what she did because she really opened herself up to the role with all the personal wounds she has, she opened them to the character." And what about Kim Bassinger, who won her Oscar for best supporting actress for L.A. Confidential? "With Kim, there is always this stupid cliché of a sex symbol. She is so much more than that. We overcame it by making her a vulnerable, fragile woman who is suffering and is need of love. I think that Kim got the sense of the character really well."
Arriaga was smart enough to not only surround himself with a talented cast, but also with a talented crew. The film is shot by Robert Elswit, who recently won an Oscar for his work on the Paul Thomas Anderson film, There Will Be Blood (2007). I asked Arriaga about how he felt about having so many talented people working around him and the doors that have opened for him in Hollywood. "I have been received by a very generous group of filmmakers here. I'm astounded and sometimes overwhelmed by the generosity of these people. I've been seeing these people working to death on The Burning Plain. They don't care where I'm from. I can only say good things about this community. One of the great things about the United States is that they open doors to people who they think deserve it. It's a meritocracy. I can't have any complaints about this."
But why direct? It's very uncommon for novelists to become directors. The recently deceased American giant Norman Mailer tried it a few times but with little success. The esteemed Paul Auster has directed four films, his most recent, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, received a relatively chilly reception in his native New York when it was released in 2007. Why would Arriaga, who is a highly pursued screenwriter and whose novels are published in more than 15 languages, bother directing one of his screenplays?
"I always wanted to direct. I wrote Amores Perros to direct myself," he said, with his characteristic intensity. "I've always had this thing for directing and now it was not only a screenplay that I liked the most, it was also the right moment to direct. It was a chance for me as a writer to see my ideas complete on the screen, without anyone else changing them. It's now my vision, it's not in doubt." I asked Arriaga how he knew his instincts were right. "You never know if your instincts are right. But all you can do is trust your instincts."
At the post production session, Arriaga presided over the screen with a red laser, pointing out shots that needed to be retouched. A slow pan of grey skies and dark rain, a shot of a crop duster that needed to be airbrushed. Later we went for dinner at a cafe near the Beverly Center. On the way there, Arriaga told me that directing a film was like being on the biggest playground in the world. "I was surprised by how much fun it was. Being on that set was one of the happiest experiences of my life. It was like returning to your childhood when a jungle gym was the most incredible thing you could climb and your imagination was sky high. Just going out to the desert and having the privilege to be a spectator to such great actors ? it was amazing."
One of the things that came at a high price in directing his first film for Arriaga was spending time away from his family. Arriaga is proud to live in Mexico City and remain based there. He told me that directing has meant that he's been away from home for more than a year. His wife and two children, Santiago and Mariana, lived with Arriaga when he was filming in Portland, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest. "They hated it," he said. "It was in the winter and it was cold and always raining." So Arriaga was hoping to get back to Mexico City in time for his son's graduation party. "He loves Jimi Henrix. Santiago is great on the guitar." His family have asked that he doesn't direct again. They miss spending time with him.
When we finished our meal, I asked Arriaga what he would rather do as he picked up the bill: write a novel or direct another movie? Arriaga started laughing, as if I'd caught him out. "I'd direct another one that I wrote. In my heart and in my soul I am a writer. I behave on the set like I'm a writer ? I don't know. I directed this film without really knowing how to do it. I have no formal education as a director. I invented my own techniques. I was reading a book on how to direct actors a few weeks before we started shooting. I thought I couldn't do it. So I started to improvise and use my own technique. I think it worked. The key thing is that I knew what I wanted. And since I am a writer, I knew how to express it verbally."