“Cinema is the art of seduction,” proclaimed Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, opening his presentation.
With that statement, our Mexican guest was not referring just to the process that happens when a group of people sit together watching a film. He was referring to the manner in which a scriptwriter must first seduce a producer, a cinematographer, actors… But he also pretty proved to be a master at seducing an audience listening to a lecture. Unlike Park Chan-Wook, who sat almost slumped in his chair and appeared to be happy talking to himself rather than to his audience, showing no apparent desire to connect with that audience, Arriaga roamed constantly as far as the space would allow him – getting as close as practicable to people asking questions from the audience, for example. His desire to connect with us, to enthuse us, indeed to seduce us, was palpable from the very beginning. And seduce us he did.
About halfway through the session, he asked us if his English was okay. Clearly the audience was perfectly happy with his sometimes unusual way of expressing himself in English. A bonus with a passionate advocate speaking in his second language can be that he makes us listen more carefully, and think more than usual about what is being said.
With considerable pre-publicity as the screenwriter who has “quite literally changed the way motion pictures are made” (Walter Parkes, one of his producers), and as a writer who exemplifies non-linear script structure, it was clear before anyone arrived at the Big Screen Symposium that Arriaga would not be advocating anything remotely related to the conventional three or five-act structure for any film script.
His first enthusiastic statement, one he has made many times before and for which he is perhaps justly famous, is also one that he later contradicted a number of times: “The Most Important Rule is that there are No Rules!”
“Non-linear is natural!” he expounded. “Why does cinema need to be so constricted?”
He allowed that most people do indeed have a very structured life – breakfast, school or work, lunch, more work or school, dinner – but to Arriaga, a person’s internal life is anything but structured. And the most important part of scriptwriting is linking the outside experience to that inner life of a character. The ideal is when all the threads of a character and the various events in the character’s life come together in one moment – a writer has to be expert in moments.
Arriaga delighted in illustrating his points with anecdotes, usually in line with the theme of seduction. In Latin America, for example, he told us that 80% of women have as their favourite sexual fantasy one of being deposited on a desert isle or in a cabin in the forest and being seized by someone… with white wine (not red!); whereas a full 95% of Latin men have as their favourite sexual fantasy a threesome involving themselves and two women.
Some of Arriaga’s advice did fall within the standard parameters of scriptwriting convention; such as always defining the dramatic objective of a character, and translating that objective into action. A protagonist is infinitely more interesting to an audience if they act for themselves, rather than have other characters decide things for them.
Arriaga was keen to persuade us to trust our audience, as well as our own instincts though, of course, he reminded that we must question everything we write, all the way down the line.
When we write scenes with lots of dialogue, it’s because we’re not sure of the story we are telling, Arriaga asserts, so we ‘explain’ everything in the dialogue. The audience is much more intelligent than we realize – why do we think audiences are so stupid? After all, a seven-year-old can figure out a cellphone game in five minutes. Trust, he said. Trust! Trust!
Dialogue is hard to write, he admitted. His technique: write everything. Then if you finds you have any dialogue longer than two lines at any point, then start to get worried. If you have two lines – cut them down to one line. One line? Cut it to two words. Then to one word – and throw it out!
With dialogue, there are two rules. One. No piece of dialogue longer than two lines, Two. No scene longer than one page. So much for no rules!
In recounting how on 21 Grams he tried to be as radical as possible, he explained that when you take people away from logic, you take them toward emotion. The audience is making their own film in their heads, as they watch. That makes people more emotional. “The only way to understand is to acquire feeling.”
When writing in a non-linear form, Arriaga has no idea where the script is heading. He never does an outline, so that he never knows how it will end until it does. He never writes the background of a character, because he likes to be surprised. He never does any research, because he is writing from what he knows – or he invents!
The great advantage in writing in a non-linear form is that it is impossible to cut and paste, or to re-order or shuffle stuff in the editing – as it will only crumble.
A question from the floor asked how much he thought of his theme as he was writing. His response: “Never try to be profound – just tell the story.”
He was also asked how he chose directors and producers to work with. He talked of conciliation as opposed to competing – but at the same time asserted that one must never make concessions on the story. Choose directors to work with who have the same taste; get notes from other collaborators – “but I decide what’s in the screenplay. My name is on the credits.”
Reel Cinema in a Digital World
For his keynote, Arriaga eshewed the session’s title (Reel Cinema…), preferring to talk about death: “because Filmmaking is a matter of Life and Death. I will talk about why Death is important in storytelling.”
For Arriaga, the purpose of storytelling, of being a writer, is to reassure us of the predominance of life over death. For this atheist from Mexico, belief in an afterlife is an act of faith, and not reality. But, he noted, our writing will live after us. Regularly referencing literary figures, (such as Shakespeare and Chekhov, on whom he was brought up, plus Kundera, Freud, Hemingway and his favourite, Cormac McCarthy), here he quoted Kafka – “Art is a way of not dying.”
To be a good film (or a good book), it has to move Arriaga in a direction, to a place that he has never been, or seen, or imagined. Linked with this notion is his belief that every individual has a unique perspective – so why should anyone think that their own perspective is not important? He insisted that people who say that they have nothing to say are wrong. Everyone has something to say to their tribe, giving a perspective that no one else has.
And it’s for “my own tribe” that he writes – defining his tribe as “those who understand me”. If the tribe is big, good! Alienation from one’s tribe is for him the incapability to close circles, because something is missing. “Perhaps someone of my tribe gives back to me a piece of me that was missing. That is the purpose of creating art.”
”Death makes us angry.”
To illustrate this, Arriaga showed us two short films that he had both written and directed. In backgrounding the second one, titled Rogelio, he explored the African concept of light and heavy souls. A light soul is one that goes out of the body and returns – in times of dreaming or fainting, for example. The light soul that goes out and does not come back results in craziness. The heavy soul, on the other hand, goes out of the body only at death. Rogelio ended with the dedication: “To all who are dead who died too early.”
Once again he returned to the notions of gender and sexuality to illustrate our attitudes towards life and death. Women, he said, have between 300 and 600 possible lives inside them. And with menstruation, they constantly experience the possibility of both life and death. So women are in the state of grace, because they are experiencing life and death regularly, through a major portion of their life – through the pain, the blood, and so forth. Whereas men on the other hand, yield some 5 million possibilities of life at every sexual experience, but they have no understanding of the meaning, the significance of this – they don’t care.
Unless of course, that man is someone as enthusiastic and inspirational as Guillermo Arriaga – someone who clearly does care.