Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga talks about making his directing debut, his cast and future projects

Within a relatively short amount of time, Guillermo Arriaga has written some amazing films that push the envelope of the traditional screenplay structure. Arriaga's films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel (all directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) along with the Tommy Lee Jones-directed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, all take innovative and groundbreaking routes to tell their stories. Arriaga's latest film, The Burning Plain, which was just recently released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 12, is no exception, but the main difference is Arriaga directed the film himself in his directorial debut. I recently had the chance to speak with Arriaga over the phone, and here's what the filmmaker had to say.

I read in the production notes that you said you had to wait until the story was mature enough to tell it. Can you talk about the inception of this story of The Burning Plain and how it came to be?

Guillermo Arriaga: You know, it comes from different sources in life. Several things came together and made this a whole story. The very very beginning of The Burning Plain was when I was eight or nine years old, I was playing soccer in the streets with my friends and another kid came on his bicycle and said there was a fire in the neighborhood. So we all went and were watching the fire and then we were told there people burning alive inside the house. That struck me, even then. I even wrote another film about a house on fire, 20 years ago, a film that hasn't been produced yet. It really hit me.

There's such a wonderful cast here with Charlize (Theron) and even young Jennifer Lawrence. She really impressed me in this film and she'll definitely be a talent to watch out for. Can you talk a bit about finding all this talent for the film?

Guillermo Arriaga: I think that I was very fortunate to work with these actors, not only Oscar-winning actresses like Charlize and Kim (Basinger), but to also discover new talent like Jennifer (Lawrence) or J.D. Pardo. It was their first time on cinema and they are young, but I really think they're really good actors. One of the things of an actor is they are collaborating, when they are not acting, they are asking questions. What I love about this cast is they never took a direction for granted, they questioned it. It was a great collaboration both ways.

You've written some amazing films in the past. What was the first realization you had to make your directorial debut with this film?

Guillermo Arriaga: I've always wanted to direct, many many years ago. The producers began pitching some directors for this project, and I said that I thought I knew this film better than them, so I proposed myself, I offered my services as a director. I put together ideal cast, locations and I worked hard to get the job done and fortunately they gave it to me.

I was rather surprised to see Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald as producers here. You don't really see them associated with smaller fare like this. They're usually producing really big-budget movies. What was your first interactions with Walter and Laurie like and how did you like collaborating with them on this film?

Guillermo Arriaga: They're brilliant producers. I can tell you that they have good taste, they are intelligent and they are great human beings. I don't know other directors who have worked with them, but my experience in working with them is they are one person. I consider them now close friends, my family considers them close friends also and I was really very lucky to have them as producers.

I read that you guys had to do some covert work with Charlize's opening nude scene. I heard you filmed it at dawn so the paparazzi wouldn't get in there. How did that all play out?

Guillermo Arriaga: It's always a very delicate issue. Charlize is a very committed actress and she's not afraid of anything. Anything. It wasn't that she wasn't comfortable being naked. She was not concerned about being nude for the paparazzi, but how they would reveal it. That was the concern about the paparazzi. The way we did it was very early in the morning, very low-key.

Since this was your first directing gig, what was the thing that surprised you the most about directing in your debut?

Guillermo Arriaga: What surprised me about directing? How enjoyable it is (Laughs). I thought I was going to be anxious all the time and it wasn't really problematic for me. We were always in a good mood. One of the great things is if you don't know what to do, you can go someone and ask, 'Can you help me?' There was always someone willing to help you, even someone from the cast. That's the beauty of directing. Many people ask me if directing is about control. It's not about control, it's about collaboration. You can see in the making-of on the DVD, we acknowledged these collaborations. The making-of is about the people who made the film, not about the film.

Would you say that directing is fairly addicting? Will you be directing everything else that you write from now on?

Guillermo Arriaga: (Laughs) Not everything I write, but it is pretty addicting. I hope more producers like Walter and Laurie will give me a chance to direct again.

Is there anything that you're currently working on or writing that you can talk to us about?

Guillermo Arriaga: I'm writing a couple of screenplays that I'm not directing, one of them I'm producing. I'm also producing the works of some friends whose work I admire. I have approached them and said 'If you need a producer, I will help in any way I can.' I'm very lucky to work with directors I admire.

Is there anything you can tell us about the storylines of the screenplays that you're writing right now?

Guillermo Arriaga: Um, no I can't (Laughs). I can't right now, but I know people who like it. I hope people will enjoy it.

So what stage of the process are you at with those now? Are you still writing them or pitching them around?

Guillermo Arriaga: I'm finishing the second draft of something I'm writing and producing, sometime next week. I'm also writing the third draft of the other project. They'll attract good people. You'll see.

Finally, for those who missed The Burning Plain in theaters, what would you say to those people about why they should pick this up on DVD?

Guillermo Arriaga: You know, it's a movie about hope. It's a movie about how anyone, no matter how dark life has gotten, there's always a sense of hope and redemption.

Well, that's about all I have for you, Guillermo. Thanks so much for your time and I really enjoyed the film and I'm looking forward to your new projects.

Guillermo Arriaga: Thank you, man. Thank you for the interview.

You can watch Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger and two wonderful newcomers in Jennifer Lawrence and J.D. Pardo in Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain, which is available on DVD and Blu-ray right now.

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