“What I want to show is that everything is connected,” Guillermo Arriaga said of his intricate, multi-story scripts (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”). But he not only wrote “The Burning Plain,” which he brought to the AFI Dallas Film Festival, but directed it as well—his first time in that role.
“When you write a story—a novel or a screenplay—in my case there are several stories that came up, and you…organize them,” Arriaga explained in an interview.
“Among the stories that I had is that many years ago I was hunting, and there was a trailer in the middle of a field, and two American hunters used to go there to hunt and have an affair—two married men. They were hiding out there to have their affair, way down in Mexico.
“Then, when I was ten, I witnessed a house on fire, and someone told me that there were people inside. And I was shocked by that.
“Another one was that I was going to have, myself, an accident with a crop duster. I was riding in my truck in a field, and I didn’t tell anybody that I was going to be there, and when [the plane] was coming down, we almost had a crash.
“So all of these different stories began to make sense when I had the concept—and the concept was the four elements. I wanted one story to deal with water, one with earth, one with fire and another with wind.”
How did Arriaga compose such a multi-faceted piece? “All of my work was written the way you see it,” he said. “You cannot write in a linear way and then cut it, because these are works where you have dramatic questions, and you must deal with it as a dramatic question. You must leave each story in a question that the others will move. At least that’s what I try to do—you have to feel how it’s moving on.
“It takes me there. When I was pitching the story to the studio, several producers said, ‘How’s it going to end?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea. How do I know how it’s going end when I haven’t written it?’ And they were very worried. But I said, ‘Don’t worry, it will be good.’ But you never know—you have to discover the story.”
And how did experience of directing his script go? “What surprised me was that I never thought it was going to be so interesting,” Arriaga said. “I was happy all the time. Because writing is a very long process, and you cannot turn to anyone and say, ‘And now?’ Here you can turn to 150 people and say, ‘And now?’
“And really, I was surprised at how calm I was. The first fifteen minutes I was a little confused, but then I said, I’m going to assume the consequences of my decisions; if it is wrong, it was my decision, and I will live with it. I tried to create the best ambiance on the set so that the actors will feel welcome and free and respected and easy-going. I’ve been on sets that were a nightmare. I was on one set where the director was so neurotic, angry all the time…nobody wanted to be on the set. I banned the words ‘my film’—it’s ‘our film.’ And every day when we finished, I’d try to go to everyone and say thank you. For me it was a democracy.”
Joaquim de Almeida, one of the large ensemble cast, accompanied Arriaga to Dallas. He plays most of his scenes—some very intimate—with Kim Basinger, and explained, “Kim came first [in the casting]. I think I was one of the very last to come on.”
“Yes, his character was very difficult to cast,” Arriaga interjected. “I needed the woman, Gina, cast first, and then to find someone that would match her so it would feel organic. They proposed [to] me several actors, until someone mentioned Joaquim, and somebody said he’s working on a film. And I said, just ask him. So they asked him.”
De Almeida took up the story: “Well, I was working on a film, but we able to finish on Friday, and I took the plane and started shooting on Monday. Kim was able to schedule that part [of her plot line] for last, and we were able to do it—thank God. I’d never worked with her before. I met her the Sunday before we started shooting, and she said, ‘Hey, we’re professionals. There’s nothing to talk about. We’ll go there tomorrow and do it.’
“There was a beautiful ambiance on the set. They all knew how difficult it was, and Kim especially was a bit nervous about it.”
But, De Almeida said, Arriaga’s script and directorial method helped enormously.
“I’m used to working with writer-directors in Europe,” he said. “A professional screenwriter who writes scripts to be directed by others was until recently very uncommon in Europe. They really communicate to you how they thought the character out. A lot of first-time directors are so preoccupied with the lenses and how things should look, that they forget the actors. With Guillermo, it’s the other way around. He was more preoccupied with the actors.
“He talked to us about the emotions, about the feelings, and we had our own ideas from reading the script.
“I learned the lines when I was rehearsing, because they felt so true. They made sense.”