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‘Babel’s’ Guillermo Arriaga on Screenwriting, His Novel, Returning to Directing

LONDON — Mexican writer, producer and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga brings the Raindance Film Festival to a close this weekend with a masterclass on scriptwriting. Now 57, Arriaga came to international attention in Cannes with the 2000 Critics’ Week hit “Amores Perros.” The first in a trilogy made in collaboration with fellow Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film was followed by Venice and Cannes hits “21 Grams” and “Babel” in 2004 and 2006 respectively, and established Arriaga’s trademark non-linear, multiple-character writing style. After working with Tommy Lee Jones on the U.S. neo-western “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” in 2005, Arriaga made his directing debut in 2008 with “The Burning Plain,” an English-language domestic drama that starred Charlize Theron and gave an early platform to Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence.

Is it true that you don’t like the word “screenwriter”?
No, I have a problem with the word in Spanish. “Screenwriter” is the correct word in English because it says you write for the screen. The word “guionista” in Spanish means that you make just a blueprint. There’s not a piece of work — you are a very thin part of the movie. So it’s not a problem with the word “screenwriter.” It’s the Spanish word, which means that I am just making a guide.

Are you often called upon to give masterclasses?
Yes. I’ve been doing this around the world. This is the second time I’ve come here [to London] for this masterclass. I’ve been to Australia, New York, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Chile… Many, many places. I basically give the same masterclass, with very small variations. For example, I gave one to people making documentaries. But it is basically the same. What I want to share is my process of writing and how I structure my projects. Because I’m not only a writer, I’m a producer and director. And where I’m different from Robert McKee, for example, is that I use my own work to show my mistakes — what I did right and what I did wrong.

What’s your most crucial piece of advice?
My first thing I say is, the first rule in film is that there are no rules. What many people say in their seminars is that there are these rules that you have to follow. It’s not true. It’s not true. It’s a creative process. Cinema is still young and we’re still finding the language of cinema. It’s a 100-year-old medium. We have to find the language.

Has anything changed with the introduction of digital filmmaking?
I don’t think so. I promised myself that I would never shoot digital, and I have shot things in digital. But it hasn’t changed my habits. I don’t think it’s easier. It’s easier if you grab a little camera, but if you do shoot a film as cinema, then it’s basically the same thing. It’s actually a bit more difficult because of the lighting. Because digital still doesn’t have the quality of film – you have to be very careful with how you use the lenses and how you use the light.

How would you describe your process?
I do things that were never taught to me. For example, I don’t write outlines. I have no idea of the ending. I have no backgrounds of the characters. I do no research at all. Many writers think that without the ending you can’t write a word, but that’s not true. It’s about the content. How are you gonna work around the content? It’s the content that makes the structure and not vice versa. Some critics ask me why I don’t write naturally. But linear storytelling is not natural. In daily life we never tell linear stories. We always go back and forth.

So you don’t like rules?
Personally? No. I like the story to be as free as it has to be, because this is a process of discovery. You cannot be certain. But a sense of orientation is important for a writer. Many people get lost. Writing is the process of organizing a world. Myself, I can go outside in London without a map and I know exactly where I am. But that’s not something everyone has.

Do you write differently on a project that you know you will direct yourself?
No. My commitment is to the story, not to the director, not to the producer, not to myself. [Laughs] Even myself! I wrote a segment of “Words With Gods” [2014], a film I produced, and it was very difficult to produce and direct. But I, as a writer, have no concern for the director — even if it’s me.

You haven’t directed a film in nearly 10 years. Why not?
I was writing a novel, that’s why I stopped. I don’t multi-task. So I focused on that. It was almost four years in the writing, and I’m just finishing it now. I never imagined it would take me so long. And it’s long, almost 700 pages. It’s about a teenager in Mexico in the 60s. It has some aspects of the things I’ve lived and experienced, but it’s not an autobiography. Like “Amores Perros,” it’s very close to my experiences but it’s not my autobiography.

Talking of “Amores Perros,” do you have any plans to work with Inarritu again?
No. Right now, I am interested in directed what I write. I want to enjoy the fun part of writing, which is directing. I have two stories that I’m going to write now I’ve finished this novel. One is about capitalism. And one is about survival.

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