Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interview with Guillermo Arriaga (writer-director of The Burning Plain) - March 4th, 2009

Promoting: The Burning Plain
Venue: The Sanderson Hotel
Interview type: One-on-one

ViewLondon (VL): Could you briefly explain the premise of the film?

Guillermo Arriaga (GA): This is a film that wants to explore the mystery of a very damaged woman. Charlize Theron plays a woman who you can see has something growing inside her, something very intense and strong. And through several other stories, you begin to understand this woman. It's a movie about love and the hope that love can bring with it.

VL: Where did the idea for the film come from?

GA: It comes from several ideas and moments. It's not like there's only one idea. There were several stories that I couldn't see as a whole, until I got the concept of the four elements and giving each story one element: the element of water, the element of fire and then earth and wind. So that allowed me to unify the different stories and make the story as a whole.

VL: I read that you used two different cinematographers for the scenes in Portland with Charlize and the scenes in the desert. How did that come about?

GA: First of all, the photographer of the film is Robert Elswitt, because I planned the whole film with him. We planned the concept of the film and the kind of compositions we wanted and I can tell you that I admire Robert Elswitt like no-one else, because he's a great talent and a great worker. But unfortunately, he had to go and work on another movie – he thought it was going to be pushed, but it wasn't pushed – so he said, “I have this contractual problem, I have to leave, but I have a great substitute, who is John Toll”. And, as you know, John Toll won two Oscars, back to back. So Robert, John and I prepped the whole Oregon sequence and John photographed all of the water story. And I think I was blessed to work with two of the greatest cinematographers of history.

VL: I think it really pays off, the contrast between the two.

GA: Yeah, absolutely. And that's what Robert said, you know? “First of all, I think I'm bringing someone who is a legend, John Toll. Second, I think this is another story that will benefit from having another view.”

VL: Can you say a little about the casting? How did Charlize Theron get involved?

GA: I come from Mexico, so you never imagine you'll get to work with the best actress in the world. It's always a dream. So when the producers asked me who I would like, I said Charlize. They said, 'Well, let's see. Let's send her the script.' So we sent it to her and they called me and said she wanted to have lunch with me. I was like, 'Wow! Really?' So we had lunch and we got along very well immediately, we were making jokes and we were spending hours at lunch. And finally I said 'Okay, girl, you will not leave this table until you say yes to the project'. And she said 'I can't – I have other projects', so I said, 'Okay, let's stay here.' And she said, 'I have to go to work, I have an ADR...' I said, 'Say yes and you can go.' So she said, 'Okay, Mexican! YES!' So it was great. She's a very nice, intelligent woman. And when she got involved, everything became much easier, the financing and everything. The difficult thing is that she's so talented that I needed to surround her with talented people. And she also raised the beauty bar. We had to have a beautiful mother and a beautiful daughter.

VL: Was it Charlize that suggested Kim Basinger for the mother?

GA: Yes, we were talking about several actresses that could play the role, who were talented and who could really become the flesh and bone of the character. And Charlize said, 'What do you think about Kim?' And I said, 'Great, let me talk to her to see if she's interested.' And Kim said, 'If you want me in, I'm in' and I said, 'Of course I want you in!' and so she came on board.

VL: I thought she was fantastic, actually – possibly the best performance she's ever given.

GA: I think that she's like a precision machine. She delivers wonderfully and she was very patient and very committed to the character. It wasn't easy to do what she did. For example, it's not easy to repeat a scene over and over again because the little kids in the family were failing to deliver their lines. And she was like, 'Okay, no problem' and then that important scene, it was a very delicate moment. It's not easy.

VL: How did you find the child actors, particularly the teenagers?

GA: You know, this is something that I'm very happy that I found. First of all, I must acknowledge that I have one of the best casting directors in the world, Debra Zane. Debbie Zane has great taste and she sent me the tapes of the first day. She said, 'This is what I think is the cream of the crop of the first day' – she sent three girls and three guys. And it was funny – the second girl and the second guy, on the very first day I said, 'I want her and I want him'. 'Do you want to see them? 'No. They're going to be in the movie.' 'This is your first day! Guillermo, are you crazy? There are many other actors you have to see.' 'No, no, no, no. This one and this one.' And the producers were like, 'No, no, no, Guillermo. This is not the way it works. You have to see several people.' And I kept saying, 'No, no, no. This and this.' And Debbie said, 'You must meet them in person', so I brought both actors together, they played the scene, they improvised and Debbie Zane was crying and I said, 'Look, if they made you cry in a casting session, imagine them in the cinema!'

VL: Was it a deliberate decision not to go with well known actors for the teenagers?

GA: With the teenagers? I don't know who at that age is well known.

VL: But there must have been a list of suggested up and coming younger stars?

GA: Yes, there was, but they were not, like, that big, and I will not sacrifice the talent of these two kids in order to give it to lesser actors.

VL: So there was never any pressure to do that then?

GA: There was. They told me, 'We have this up-and-coming actor, he was in this film and blah blah blah', and I said, 'But I like these two. These are the ones.' And I think that they are great in the film. They carry a lot of the weight of the film, so they had to be good. Even in my first meeting with Charlize [who eventually co-produced the film] she said, 'Man, if you don't choose correctly, this will be a mess.' And I'm happy that I chose correctly. A very subtle actress.

VL: Do you have a favourite scene in the film?

GA: I love, for example, the scene where the teenagers make love in her parents' room. I think it's beautiful and perverted at the same time. It's like a metaphor for the relationship between their own parents. And I love the scene of Charlize looking through the window naked and the way she – what's going on in her head, it's very powerful.

VL: Was there anything cut out of the film that you hated to lose?

GA: Yeah, there were things that I hated to lose because of the weather. I will not say which one, but there was a scene that was completely planned in another way but the weather really spoiled it. It was very dangerous to do it, so I cancelled it. And the substitution of that scene was really much lesser than it should have been, but you can't risk anyone's life.

VL: The weather's my next question, actually. All the rain in the film, was that real rain that you had to wait for or was it fake rain?

GA: In Oregon? In Oregon it rained all day, every day, except the day I needed rain! One scene, it's fake rain. I won't say which scene. But the rest of the movie, it was raining every single second. Really, it was depressing.

VL: I'm a huge fan of your other scripts, particularly Amores Perros and 21 Grams. When writing a story that has a central puzzle like that, do you have to write backwards? What kind of approach do you take?

GA: I write the way you watched it. Everything you have watched from me is written that way. It's not that I write linear and then cut it or that I write the stories separately – you can't. You can't write these kinds of stories without writing them in order.

VL: So you have the revelation moment in your head?

GA: No, I have no idea – it just comes out! And it's difficult because you begin writing one story and then another story and then another story and you're like, 'What was going on in the other story?' (laughs)

VL: So you don't have it all mapped out?

GA: No, I have no maps. I discover it while I'm writing it. I don't write outlines or any kind of maps. I'm not an organised person, I have no logic. But for example, when I'm hunting in the desert, I take no maps. And if you get lost in the desert, you die. But I can walk for miles and know perfectly where I am. I can walk from here to here and I can make a mental map of where I am. So it's something I have in my head.

VL: So we shouldn't expect any kind of linear, A to B scrips from you in the near future?

GA: No, no. Since I was a kid, my teachers thought I was retarded, because I have ADD. So I was incapable of following a maths lesson, for example. Really, it's not a joke – school was torture for me, when I was a kid. I didn't understand anything.

VL: Do you have any films or directors that have influenced you?

GA: More than directors, I have been influenced by literature. I have been trying to bring literature to the cinema. William Faulkner, for example. Shakespeare. Those are the writers that have really influenced me, more than film-makers.

VL: Borges?

GA: Of course. Borges is there. And also life – I have always said that life is the main thing that influences my work.

VL: Is there anyone you'd particularly like to work with in the future?

GA: Actors? I have always said I would love to work with Penelope Cruz. We have been trying to find the right project. I would love to work with Javier Bardem. And of course I would work again and again and again with Charlize Theron. I always say that if Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio, I would like to have Charlize Theron. Of course, I would also like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio. I'd also like to work with Daniel Craig – he has this -- he's a man that looks like a man. By the way, I would love to work again with all the actors on this film. Jennifer Lawrence! Now that I've brought her into the world, I would like to take hold of her and say 'No-one else works with her!' And JD Pardo, also. Because I learned in my previous films that a real cast is not only your major roles. If you cast a secondary role badly, even a small part, the movie is gone. Brett Cullen, for example, who plays Kim's husband, he's a really great actor. In fact, I wanted him in the role so badly that I ran after him into the parking lot to tell him he had the part after his audition!

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