The Great Guillermo Arriaga, On Writing, Directing And What He Wants Houstonians To Do

Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada -- all these movies have one thing in common: Mexican author, screenwriter, director and producer Guillermo Arriaga. He's in Houston this week and you'll have two chances to meet him and check out his films at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, which started yesterday.

Arriaga will be introducing tonight's showing of his Oscar-nominated Amores Perros at Angelika Film Center (9:45 p.m.) If you miss him tonight, you'll have another chance to meet him Friday (3 p.m.) as he takes part of the festival's Meet the Makers film talks at the Alabama Theatre.

Even if you miss meeting Arriaga in person, you can still check out The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which received the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Screenplay, on Friday at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Hair Balls had a chance to talk with acclaimed writer Arriaga before he landed in Houston today to get some of his thoughts about literature and writing:

Hair Balls: If you're forced to pick, what do you call yourself first and foremost?
Guillermo Arriaga: I consider myself plainly a writer. Even now that I've directed a film, I still consider myself a writer. I think that writing screenplays is also literature. I consider it as important as writing a novel or writing a short story. For me, everything is literature.

You're part of the vanguard creating different work. Your novels are stand-alone but also contribute something distinct to the films. You have some powerful images, powerful metaphors but it's still held back. You don't have this lush prose.
I think that I belong to a tradition of storytelling. It's direct, moral and that tradition goes very far back. For example, the bible, it is very direct and very visual. The Odyssey with Homer also is very direct. It's almost like the action for the characters is what...explores humanity, not the lushness of the prose. You want to be direct. I like that tradition. Very direct and what matters more in this kind of tradition is the humanity. You like the beauty of the prose of course; we are writers and we are very careful about it, but we don't want it to overshadow what is going on between the relationships with humans.

And I think that's why your work lends itself to film because you've got that basis for strong characterizations that an actor can then interpret them. That's it then, you're essentially a storyteller and you've got these different mediums. So what do you think the relationship is between both?
Of course they are different, but at the same time the storytelling remains the same. I have tried to bring novelistic structures to cinema. [For many years], literature has been trying to explore ways to telling stories -- Juan Rulfo, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce among them. So what I was trying to do is bring that novelistic quality to cinema. The novel is something that has a very close relationship with the reader. While screenwriting is something that's going to be shown in an image but also includes theater, music and architecture. So there's a difference but in the core of it, for me, it's basically the same.

So it sounds like, if someone wants to get into filmmaking, they should read books and write novels. That's got to go a long way for a director, right?
I think so. There's people [who say] that the book form is going to end because of the new mediums -- the Internet, cinema, television and those. And I don't think so. I think that this generation has been writing and reading more than the previous generations. Because of e-mails, text messages, and everything, kids are writing and reading. So, they are more aware of the written word.

That's a great point too. Novels such as Frankenstein evolved out of the epistolary form. So maybe the new epistolary novel will be text messages or e-mails....At some point, you must have struggled to get your stories to the right people. What are some of the struggles it took to get where you have made it right now?
A rule is that "write is right." It can sound a little bit silly but it's true. I know many people that say, "I'm a writer." And I ask, "What are you doing?" "Well, I'm preparing a novel." Don't prepare anything, go and write it.

If you commit yourself to write and have your books, if the book has legs, the book is going to walk by itself but you can never know that if you don't write it. Before having my first published work, I had like four short-story books that will never see the light and like a couple of novels that will never see the light. They were not good enough.

Some of them were aborted but they were a film. I wrote original screenplays based on those aborted novels. One was Amores Perros and the other was 21 Grams. They began as novels and didn't work as novels so I decided to make them screenplays. The only way to make things work is working and writing and believing in your work. And many, many writers are very harsh to themselves...so harsh that they never finish anything because they say it's not worth it. The thing is, you cannot decide if your work is worth it or not. You have to finish it.

Any last words you'd like to tell Houstonians?
If you miss this film festival be sure to come out to see the new film I wrote and directed -- The Burning Plain opening in Houston next week.

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