With its four storylines told in multiple languages across far-flung settings, “Babel” looks like a complex writing task.
Indeed it was, says screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, but not for the obvious reasons: “To have these different parts working on their own and working in the whole, that was the most difficult part of writing this.”
Each piece, he explains, had to make its own sense, but move the overall story forward.
That meant he couldn’t write them separately, like separate short films that could be edited together.
“It’s not cut-and-paste,” he says. “You have to feel the way the drama advances. You have to feel when to cut, the dramatic moment to cut, to capture the interest of the audience.”
So he wrote the scenes in sequence, rather than scripting each storyline independently.
“I didn’t write four different stories, I wrote a screenplay,” he says. “And I wrote it in the way people watch it.”
Another challenge, he says, was to create the entire world of each story, with its own separate cast, in a short time.
“When most people have a whole hour and a half or two hours, I have only 30 minutes to create this world of these characters, which is extremely difficult.”
A subtler task, invisible to the audience, was that each story takes place within 24 hours.
“I have always been obsessed through all my life with what is the particular day, the special day that makes you different, (so) that you will never be the same from that point.”
So important was that concept, says Arriaga, that the original script carried the title “The Last Day.” It was changed to avoid a conflict with Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film “Last Days.”
For the story of the Moroccan boys who shoot at a bus, he says, “That, for example, was the last day of innocence.”
For the Japanese girl played by Rinko Kikuchi, it’s “the last day of a sense of loss.”
Of the Mexican nanny who comes to grief at the border, he says, “I can call it the last day of substitution. She substituted her family with this other family. Now she realizes that’s not her country, that’s not her family, that’s not her identity.”
Lastly, for the San Diego couple played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it’s the last day of resentment between them.
“They recover love, they recover themselves,” he says.
Each storyline ends with the characters finding refuge in family, as if only family can provide relief from a world full of miscommunication.
“With someone who’s different, there’s a chance to communicate,” says Arriaga, “but this is also a story of love. What we are trying to explore is that we can have dialogue and we can have communication, we can be open and listen to others, but it’s not a substitute for love.We can only be who we are through the other who loves me.”