Studio: Focus (release date: Nov. 21)
Storyline: A college professor (Sean Penn) undergoes a heart transplant, then becomes obsessed with finding out who donated the organ. He tracks down the donor’s wife (Naomi Watts), and learns that her husband and their two young children were killed by a hit-and-run driver (Benicio Del Toro). The professor embarks on a torrid affair with the widow and gets caught up in her quest to seek vengeance on the driver who wiped out her family.
About the screenplay: Arriaga cuts between the lives of the hit-and-run driver, the widow and the college professor, moving backward and forward in time to reveal how three lives are connected by a central tragedy and how the wounds from it are propelling them toward another catastrophe. “I tried to write this script in a way that would force the audience to be more active and participate with the story,” Arriaga says.
Biggest challenge: To find a way to bring together disparate events from Arriaga’s own life that had powerful emotional connections: a car crash that destroyed his nose and drove shards of bone into his brain; a heart infection that left him bedridden for months; and another car crash he came upon while driving home one night, late for his own birthday party. “There was a dead man lying beside the road. The police officer pulled out his wallet to see his ID. Beside the ID was a photograph of this guy smiling with a woman and a 2-year-old girl sitting on his lap. I realized this man (was) a father and husband who is never returning home. I imagined: What if I arrived late to my birthday party because I ran over someone?”
Breakthrough idea: “I had a dream while I was on a train in Spain,” Arriaga explains. “I woke up and said, ‘Yes, this is it! A dead man’s going to give his heart to another guy.’ That same night I called Alejandro (Gonzalez Inarritu, who directed ’21 Grams’). I woke him up and said, ‘I have a story. It’s a good one.’ ”
Favorite scene: “In the swimming pool, when Christina’s sister calls her,” Arriaga says. “She doesn’t know (that) at that same moment her family is being killed. It’s chilling because she’s smiling and just got out of the swimming pool and has no sense something’s gone wrong.”
Lines we love: “Life goes on, with or without God.” Says Arriaga: “It means you must care a lot about this life, because you don’t know for certain if you have another chance.”
Recognition to date: Venice Film Festival: best actor, Penn; Audience Awards for actress, Watts, and actor, Del Toro.
Writer’s bio: Arriaga, a native of Mexico, wrote the screenplay for “Amores perros” (2000), and is the author of three novels — “The Sweet Scent of Death,” “Guillotine Squad,” “Buffalo of the Night” — and a book of short stories, “Retorno 201.”