Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga on the Weight of Words

Michael Fox July 24, 2006

As debuts go, Guillermo Arriaga’s explosive screenplay for “Amores Perros” is hard to beat. “21 Grams,” his follow-up with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, provided more than enough emotional red meat for Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts to carve into Oscar nominations. For his next trick, Arriaga nabbed the prize for best screenplay at Cannes 2005 for “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” a modern Western about friendship, responsibility and the unintended effects of violence. “Babel,” which stars Brad Pitt and garnered the best director award for Iñárritu this year at Cannes, opens in the fall.

But long before he achieved an international rep as a screenwriter, Arriaga was a novelist, TV producer, and documentary maker. His 1999 novel “The Night Buffalo,” about a cocky Mexico City youth’s turmoil following a friend’s suicide, has just been published in English in the U.S. (Arriaga produced the film adaptation, which stars Diego Luna and is in postproduction.) The tall, bearded writer made a local stop last month during his abbreviated book tour, and we spoke a few hours before he headed out to the Balboa to introduce a screening of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

SF360: Is there a disadvantage in having ‘The Night Buffalo’ come out here after you’ve made a name as a screenwriter?

Arriaga: Many people have said, ‘It’s clear, your cinematic influence.’ (Laughs.) But I [finished] this a year before I began writing screenplays.

SF360: What’s the difference between writing novels and screenplays?

Arriaga: The only difference is that in the script you have to deal with more collaboration process. But I use the same language and structure and dialogue. These people that say I have cinematic influence in my novel, they are wrong. I have been putting literary influence in my screenplays.

SF360: I understand you’re a very hands-on producer on ‘The Night Buffalo,’ visiting the editing room every day. How does the director feel about that?

Arriaga: He feels OK. We have this [idea] like the director is the only one who has a work. I’m against that. When they say it’s an auteur film, I say auteurs film. I have always been against the “film by” credit on a movie. It’s a collaborative process and it deserves several authors.

SF360: Does Iñárritu adhere to that philosophy?

Arriaga: I don’t think so. (Laughs.) I don’t think so but I think it will be healthy to have a debate about it. Cinema is very young, and it’s finding its own language, it’s finding its own way to credit the authorship. For some time it was the producer who was the author of the film. In some countries, it was the writer. In some, the actor. I think the greatest crisis in cinema today is the crisis of stories, and one of the reasons is the figure of the writer hasn’t been fully respected. The word in Spanish implies the guy who …. “What’s your idea? OK, and now what?” I am a writer. I don’t write other people’s ideas. I only develop my own stories.

SF360: So you are the sole source of your ideas.

Arriaga: Yeah. I work with a director and a producer, I don’t work for a director or producer, which is a different way of approaching the writing process.

SF360: How much of the crosscutting between the stories in ‘Amores Perros’ and ’21 Grams’ was your devising?

Arriaga: You can read the screenplay. I spent a lot of time doing that kind of structure. When some of the scenes don’t work, you have to reshuffle. But I can tell you that 95 percent of the structure of ’21 Grams’ is in there. And almost 99 per cent of the structure of ‘Amores Perros.’

SF360: Yet there’s room for a director to bring his energy, shot selection and sense of composition.

Arriaga: I absolutely agree with you. But that doesn’t mean that that presence has to cancel the authorship of the writer.

SF360: No, but there are directors who’ll take a script and trim the dialogue and tell the story more visually.

Arriaga: It also happens in the theater and in music, and nobody ever questions Wagner and no one questions Shakespeare. You never say the Ninth Symphony by Luis Perez. You never say Hamlet by Marty Lupus. (Laughs.) Let’s consider ‘Paris, Texas.’ Who has the coherence of the themes, Sam Shepard or Wim Wenders? Whose world is in there? Or Charlie Kaufman. Who’s the one who has these ideas about the brain, Michel Gondry or Spike Jones or Charlie Kaufman? I do not want to take a single piece of the authority of the director, but it has to be shared.

SF360: Do you accept that your defining theme might be described as the tension between violence and morality?

Arriaga: Moral for me only means you have to assume the consequences of your acts. I think there are two kinds of writers, one who bases the work on [that] of other people and one who bases it on some life experience. I have seen the deep damage that violence can cause. Violence for me, it’s not funny. Violence for me, it has consequences. So in this world where violence is banalized, life is superficial, I want to recover the importance of every single human life.

SF360: I would submit that Quentin Tarantino, to cite one well-known example, trivializes violence and death.

Arriaga: I’m happy you brought [up] Tarantino. They say that I [am] influenced [by] Tarantino, so I had to go and rent Tarantino movies to see who was my influence. I think Tarantino belongs to the other kind of writers. It’s clear that he hasn’t suffered real violence in his life. I don’t have the sense of smell. I was cut by a knife before I was 14. So I know that violence is real. My cinema has nothing to do with Tarantino. You want to see one American influencing me? Go to William Faulkner.

SF360: Your films attract upscale arthouse audiences, but don’t they have the potential to make more of a difference with young people enmeshed in lives of violence?

Arriaga: I don’t think that’s the purpose. I’m just describing characters that are very close to who I am, with similar backgrounds and similar ways of seeing life. As Flaubert would say, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ I am my characters. It’s always my life experience that is behind my characters. Before [I was] 18, I was involved in, like, 500 fights. So you see, I can never make ‘Kill Bill.’

SF360: Do you get calls from Hollywood? I would imagine you’re pretty selective in who you work with.

Arriaga: I have been honored by great offers by people I respect a lot, but I only write originals. I’m not good writing other people’s ideas. I made the mistake of doing a rewrite (‘Dallas Buyers Club’) because I wanted to work with Marc Forster (‘Monster’s Ball’) and Brad Pitt. In the end, I ended [up] working with Brad Pitt without the need of doing a rewrite. He’s an actor who’s willing to take risks even though he’s a movie star. And now he has taken it in ‘Babel.’ He doesn’t look beautiful, he looks old.

SF360: Finally, in your view, what makes more of a difference, documentary or narrative?

Arriaga: For me, fiction is the crown of everything, because it’s a representation of the world from a very particular point of view. And that representation creates a new reality. Although documentaries give you the real sense of what’s happening and open a lot of doors that you cannot imagine, fiction is always beyond. I think that human beings would be incomplete without fiction. As Stendhal said, ‘The novel is a mirror on the road,’ so you can see things that you cannot see another way.