It was a circuitous, conflict-ridden journey that brought Guillermo Arriaga from Mexico City to Portland—which is appropriate, considering his writing. The screenwriter of Amores Perros , 21 Grams and Babel made his name with interlocking stories punctuated by coincidence and violence. (Think Crash , except not lame.) Then, in 2006, Arriaga had a collision of his own, feuding so fiercely with Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu—who directed all three of Arriaga's scripts—that their partnership disintegrated.
Which is how Arriaga has found himself directing a movie of his own, The Burning Plain , with actress Charlize Theron as one of the leads. It's another fragmented storyline, this time with four locations representing the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Portland, somewhat inevitably, is playing the role of water.
Arriaga, Theron and the Burning Plain crew have wrapped up a week of shooting in Portland, and are now filming in Lincoln City. But last Friday, Arriaga was on location at the Palms Motel on North Interstate Avenue, shooting a scene where Theron's character, Sylvia, is introduced to her long-lost daughter. In between takes, as Theron smoked a cigarette on the Palms balcony and the technicians set up lights for the next shot, Arriaga stepped aside to talk with WW about symbolic weather, striking out on his own, and the injustice of Oregon hunting laws.
WW : So I understand that you've chosen Portland [as a shooting location] at least in part because it's going to represent water in your movie.
Guillermo Arriaga: Yes, that's right. What I like is to have a contrast with the desert in New Mexico, and to have a green environment, a gray environment—a water environment is what's important for me. And also a vibrant urban city.
Are you going to make us look all rainy and cold again?
I don't want to make you nothing. It's the way it is. [Laughs.] I cannot bring the sunshine, man. If I could, I would bring it. I was trying to shoot in August, September, when it was beautiful, but it's how it is. I don't want to show Portland as rainy—it's just how it is, by the way. [Gestures into the motel parking lot where, yes, it is raining.] I don't want to portray the city as rainy, but it helps the film, because it will be the sense, as I'm telling you, of contrast between the desert and the sun against the clouds and the water.
You spent Christmas here, right? Doing location searches?
Yes, sir, and prepping the movie.
What did you do for Christmas in Portland?
I have a beautiful dinner with my family—my wife, my son and my daughter—in my apartment, which is in downtown.
One of the things that's striking about your screenwriting is that you do a lot of parallel storylines. Is that part of a sense you have of the world, or has it just been the way that you've found it easiest to write?
It has to do with both things. I have ADD, so I think that's a way [to write]. Also, I think it's a more natural way to tell stories. We never tell stories in a linear fashion in real life. We always go back and forth. And if you want to tell me your history as a journalist, you will never begin, "I came out of college the sixth of December, blah." You'll say, "I've been here, I lived here," then you will tell me the story of your grandfather, you know? That's the way with those stories. So I wanted to bring that to cinema.
What sensibility do you think you bring to cinema that's different from what we've seen before?
I don't know. That's...
That's a terrible question. Sorry.
[Laughs.] That's something you have to tell me . I cannot judge my own work. What I can tell you is, my major concern is to tell a story the best way possible, and to involve human feelings and human emotions for me is the most important thing. Beyond the visuals, for me, are the actors and the characters and what's going on in the human lives. That interests me.
What have you discovered about Charlize, working with her?
You know, it's terrible, man. She doesn't follow directions, she's, you know...[grins.] No, it's really a pleasure working with her.... If I am directing again, I would hope to work with her again, because she is really an amazing actress and an amazing person. You cannot imagine how amazing she is. She has none of these diva poses. She makes line to have lunch with everyone; she's not like, "bring me my stuff to my trailer." She makes line, she sits with everyone, she plays coach. She's really nice.
And what aspects of the character have you and she discovered together?
What Charlize had brought to the character is a sense of pain, and deepness, that has been good for Sylvia, who she's portraying. And I'm happy for all the ups and downs she's bringing to her character to make her work like a real person.
In your first three films, you worked in partnership with Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. What's it like going out on your own?
It's great. I love it. I am enjoying directing as one of the most overwhelming and happy experiences of my life. It's great that I can now tell the stories I want with my own perspective. And I feel happy working with a lot of people. I'm refusing to say that this is my film; I have always said to everyone, "this is our film. Everyone, this is our film."
I know that your split with Alejandro was acrimonious. Do you feel that this is a moment to make a statement on your own?
I don't want to make any statement of anything. I just want to direct a film. And I think this was a good opportunity, and I liked the screenplay, and I decided to direct.
Do you have a certain fondness for small motels? I know they play a role in a lot of your movies.
Absolutely. You will always find in my movies: motels, hospitals, and characters behaving like hunters.
Why is that?
Because I am a hunter.
Like, you actually go out and shoot?
What do you hunt?
I hunt geese, ducks, quails, doves, deer, javelina.
Have you had a chance to go hunting outside of Portland at all?
I wanted to go hunting, man! I wanted to go geese hunting, but they say I have to have some school for hunters. I've been hunting geese all my life, and I have to go to a school to get a license?
is scheduled to arrive in theaters sometime in 2009.