Bright Lights Film Journal

Writing (and Filming) the Memories: An Interview with Guillermo Arriaga on The Burning Plain

“Arriaga’s use of eroticism and semi-incest between respective children of the two illicit lovers is more than a pastiche; it’s an organic outgrowth from an idea.”

How sad it is when controversy overwhelms art, especially when it applies to someone like novelist/screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. His first turn as director was, for too many, overshadowed by his fight with former collaborator Alejandro González Iñárritu. The filmgoing community’s distress over the breakup is understandable, since the two minds realized a run of fine, multilayered films, including Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. The bulk of reviews of The Burning Plain, written and directed by Arriaga and now on DVD, overemphasize the controversy, and come perhaps from “auteur worship,” as if a script is only as good as the name of the director attached to it.

“I knew from the beginning that it would be tough,” Arriaga said from his home in Mexico City, during a recent phone interview. “The expectations [for my new film] would be high. And the movie ended up being received in the context of [my fight with Iñárritu].” Arriaga, who sounds humble yet probing, notes that he didn’t make their split public, though Iñárritu did. “When [my film] was shown in Venice, the very first reviews came from England, Spain, and Italy, and they were great. And then came a review from Variety, which really destroyed the movie. So it was confusing.”

The other factor is the weight and power of Arriaga’s tale, which, like much of his work, proves to be too much for a broad audience. Working off an eponymous centerpiece — a mobile home burning down in the middle of a plain — the film tells a multigenerational, multilayered story of suffering and healing. The theme and style is very Arriaga, which misreading critics have argued was influenced by Tarantino. Yet the literary viewer notes Arriaga’s true predecessor.

“From the very beginning, [William] Faulkner has been an influence for me, since Amores Perros,” Arriaga said. “I consider myself a serious reader of Faulkner — I’ve read everything [by him], including his letters.” His reflection is sound, since The Burning Plain’s central motif reflects the one in The Sound and the Furythe moment when Quentin Compson sees his sister Caddy’s “muddy drawers,” which spins out multiple facets of a tragedy. Arriaga’s use of eroticism and semi-incest between respective children of the two illicit lovers is more than a pastiche; it’s an organic outgrowth from an idea.

The tale grew from a memory, as nearly all of Arriaga’s fiction and movies have. “All of the movies I have written have to do with personal experiences that happened to me many years ago,” Arriaga said. “They stay in my head for years and years, and they begin growing. [The Burning Plain] came from a fire I saw when I was a kid [in Mexico]. I was around 9 or 10, and we were playing in the streets. Someone said there was a house burning in the neighborhood. We went to see it, looking and being curious. Then a man told us, ‘You know something? There’s a family inside burning alive.’ And [his words] changed everything.”

Arriaga speaks of these memories as if they still haunt him, as if transforming them into a narrative has not quelled his own fear. He spoke of another memory that inspired The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones), which serves as further proof of the author’s power beyond Iñárritu: “When I was young, my cousin told me about a little kid who had a fight with his father, because of his school grades. So [the kid] went to the desert. After a three-day search, they didn’t find him. But my cousin did, and the little boy was already dead. The ants were already eating his eyes — I kept that image in mind.”

“Also, a man who fought in the Mexican revolution told me about seeing a pile of corpses of horses and men,” said Arriaga. “He saw this, and was badly wounded. Coyotes were eating the dead bodies, and one even tried to eat him — it was biting his neck [when he was lying down]. These images together brought the idea for [Three Burials].”

To Arriaga, the inspirations are clear, yet the stories’ way of growing seems mysterious even to him. “Every story has its own way to — how do you say it in English? — to mature,” Arriaga said. “I let it take time to develop in my head.” His narratives’ intricate plots and characters leave many viewers blind to the subtleties between his different works. “I don’t think that any of my stories have the same structure. If you see The Three Burials, it has nothing to do with Amores Perros, [and] the structure to The Burning Plain is very different from the structure of 21 Grams. Each story has a different way to be told — a great lesson by Faulkner.”

The detail in Arriaga’s writing would leave many guessing that he always wrote with the cinema in mind. Although, at the age of ten, he told his parents he would one day be a writer and director — and Arriaga notes their constant support — he contextualizes his approach differently. “I belong to a tradition where the action makes the character,” Arriaga said. “The Bible, for example, has a lot to do with images — also in works like Homer. I belong to the tradition where a lot of things happen. Right now the trend is to have a simple story where nothing happens. But, with Faulkner, a lot of things happen in the life of the characters, just like with Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies — things always happen. It can be seen as cinematic, but it has been since 2,000 years ago.”

Arriaga welcomes the chance to add visual detail as a director. For this novelist/longtime college professor, working behind the camera on The Burning Plain has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life, aside from the confused reception.

“I sold the screenplay,” said Arriaga, “and [the producers] began to pitch it to different directors. Some of them I really respected and admired, but from their work I had seen, I knew they wouldn’t get [my script]. It has a different taste. So I asked the producers if I could direct, and they agreed.

“So then, they agreed to my choice for the lead, Charlize [Theron], since I had always thought of her. Fortunately, she said yes, and she makes things easy. When I say she makes things easy, it’s not only because she helped me get resources easily, but she defended the material, and she’s such an amazing actor and person — nice, intelligent, comedic. She takes risks, and that’s something I appreciate from an actress. She can go from being in Hancock to The Burning Plain, and keeps her acting integrity in both.”

For Arriaga, the joys of directing outweigh the problems, and he is eager to realize more of his scripts. Yet he remains primarily a writer, bringing to life stories in whatever structure or format they will take. “Right now, I’ve been trying to write a screenplay, and it’s not working as a screenplay. So it’s turning into a novel. Amores Perros is a combination of two failed novels, and 21 Grams is also a novel I rewrote as a script.”

The Burning Plain came from memory and headed straight for the screen. Like Faulkner’s early works, the film is a misunderstood triumph.