Wednesday, June 14, 2006
The Night Buffalo—The Evening Class Interview With Guillermo Arriaga
I recently met Guillermo Arriaga in the lobby of the Monaco Hotel where he was lodged while promoting his new novel in San Francisco. After introducing myself, he asked where my family was from, and my family name, and queried whether I knew that I shared the name Guillén with the Subcomandante Marcos. Of course, I smiled, my friends always wonder where I go when I'm missing for weeks at a time. He laughed. Our brief conversation was engaging and a bit unnerving as Guillermo never once averted his gaze. He has a shaman's piercing stare.
The Evening Class: Guillermo, thank you for meeting with me; I really appreciate that.
GA: Don't think about it.
EC: I understand that you're in town to promote the Simon and Schuster publication of The Night Buffalo ….
GA: Yeah, that's right.
EC: … and also to help Gary Meyer introduce The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada out at the Balboa this evening. I will be out there this evening as well.
GA: Okay. Thank you.
EC: I'm going to focus on the novel because I think that's what you're primarily here for ….
EC: … but before I do, I want to congratulate you on your wins at Cannes, last year for the screenplay of Three Burials, and then this year for Babel; I understand it did very well.
GA: Thank you very much.
EC: The Night Buffalo. This is the first novel you are publishing here in the United States?
GA: Yes, it's my first novel.
EC: But it's actually the third novel you've written?
GA: Yes, it's my third novel and I wrote all of my books before writing screenplays.
EC: The first two novels are also going to be published?
GA: Yes. One of them's published in English but in England and all the English territories, well, former English territories.
EC: Can you synopsize The Night Buffalo?
GA: This is the story of a man who has a very good friend who's called Gregorio. Gregorio is a schizophrenic young man and he has a great love for his girlfriend Tania and a great trust and love for his best friend Manuel. These are the people he trusts the most. But while he's going in and out of the mental asylums, his girl friend and his best friend begin having a relationship until they fall in love. Obviously the relationship between Gregorio and his girlfriend is broken and the friendship is broken. When these friends seem to reconcile, Gregorio kills himself, and he leaves Manuel a box with secret messages after being dead, with letters, photographs, tapes, and slowly Manuel begins to get into the spiral of madness that his friend has been living. So this is a story of madness, of love, of a sense of being lost, of guilt, and how in the end you have to realize and assume the consequences of your acts and the valued importance of love.
EC: "Consequences" is a term I see applied to your writing a lot. Mainly I know your writing through your screenplays and it strikes me as a blend between quantum physics and eastern metaphysics. [Guillermo chuckles.] In physics they say every action has a reaction, but with you it seems more like it's a richocheted reaction, more of an indirect reaction. Why the interest so much in consequences? Or culpability?
GA: Because we have been very superficial in many [ways], even in the news, no one cares about human life. In the movies right now the hero kills, everyone has accidents and no one cares … it's not about moral consequences. It's like having some gravity on human acts. Having some substance with what's going on with the human condition. Assuming that your decisions have consequences is part of the human condition. The existentialistas—the existential philosophers—were always very aware of these things. Your life is defined by the decisions you [take] and you are your decisions. I am obsessed with this way of thinking.
EC: I commend you for wanting to add that depth to human understanding because I agree with you there is a lack of understanding. Another aspect of that blend between Eastern metaphysics and quantum physics is the term tat tvam asi—thou are that—which means that we are not separated at all. Separation is an illusion that physics and metaphysics discount. What I see in your writing is a lot of that quality, that you strive to profile the connections between people even if they're not aware that there are connections, but moreso to show that the separations are false, the politics are false, the obvious is false, and you make a viewer strive to understand what's deeper in human interaction.
GA: My basic themes and concerns are the human substances. Other people are more into style, or more into the structures, but I'm trying always to write everything into the service of trying to understand humanity, especially contradictions in human conditions. My teachers told me in literature and cinema that I must create loveable characters and I am against that. I must create interesting characters. And the way for me to create interesting characters is to portray the contradictions of humanity.
EC: Your narrative style—speaking of style—is what poet Gary Snyder might call a riprap style, a backtracking narrative overlap style. How did that develop? Why did that become a narrative tool for you?
GA: First of all, I have ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, so I jump from one place to another. Second, I am very influenced by Juan Rulfo and William Faulkner who say each story has a way to be told. And third I'm influenced by the way we tell stories. In our daily basis we never go linear.
EC: That's true.
GA: You tell me my parents come from Michoacan, or maybe they come from France, and now you know I have a girlfriend in France, and that's the way we tell stories. So that's the three reasons I write—riprop, you say?
EC: Riprap. Which, if you're backpacking or hiking, it's the way you zigzag up or down the mountain. Even as I was reading the first chapter of The Night Buffalo, when you were describing the gun Gregorio uses to kill himself and he summons the image or memory of how he stole it from a convenience store police man, I could already see how you might film that memory, because in your past films you often flash back to some earlier, important moment to deepen and amplify the plot. I agree with you that we operate on many levels at the same time.
GA: And we never get lost. We're telling stories and we go back and forth but we never get lost.
EC: I think because the storytelling is genuine. That's probably why people are relating to it so much and why you're doing so well. The next two novels, what are they going to be about? Are they related to The Night Buffalo?
GA: They are related thematically but the settings are completely different. The Sweet Scent of Death is set in rural Mexico and also has to do with the importance of death, especially of the survivors, as in this one. And the other is The Guillotine Squad, it's a story of the guillotine in the Mexican Revolution. There was no guillotine in the Mexican Revolution. I made everything up.
EC: That's your right as a writer.
GA: That's a comedy, by the way, it's black humor all the way along.
EC: Speaking of black humor, here in San Francisco our local film critic Mick LaSalle took offense by Three Burials because he said it had too much corpse violation humor. Now, I'm a Chicano, and I understand the role of death in Three Burials, but how would you defend yourself against a statement such as LaSalle's?
GA: I will tell you something. When I was young at high school we had a skeleton, a real human skeleton in the classroom, in high school. I grew up with a skeleton. And no one seemed bothered by the skeleton. You can put a skeleton here and people will say, "Ah, a skeleton." But if I put a corpse, it becomes threatening because it reminds us of where are we going? And how we are going to transform ourselves. The body is going to be devoured by worms. I wanted to take the danger of [the] corpse and make it more real, more close, more like a friend, the corpse being a character. To take out the threatening parts of it and make some humor about it. I know that some people get offended because of the presence of a corpse but that means that they are threatened by the presence of death. In a society where they are taking our sense of death, they are also taking our sense of life. If you don't have thoughts about death, you won't have thoughts about life. It becomes a bland substance, like a gelatina, a gel, so I think confronting yourself with death makes you reconsider your life. That's the purpose.
EC: The decaying of the body is mentally challenging. The skeleton, the bone, the hueso—the word is the same for a bone and the seed of an avocado—it's something that's actually living, a bone can bloom. But a decaying body is something different, it challenges the mind.
GA: Challenges, yes, it's threatening.
EC: What I appreciated about Three Burials was the love he had for his friend. He was able to get over and basically accompany that decaying corpse to its rightful place of burial. That was a powerful, beautiful image.
GA: I think, as all of my work, this is a story of love. Friendship is a manifestation of love.
EC: Babel, which did so well this year at Cannes, referencing its Biblical origin, are you trying to say that people are not as disconnected as we think we are?
GA: Something that globalization has taught us is that human beings have much more in common than differences. We have essential things in common—love, power, death, hate, fear—it's the same in every culture. That's a little bit why it's about Babel. At some point it seems we are suspicious, one of the other, but in the end we have the same worries, and the same concerns. Now in a world where everyone is suspected of being a terrorist, y'know?—everyone is suspicious—we have to get closer and understand that we have much more things in common. That's what is running beneath Babel, the movie.
EC: The Night Buffalo is going to be turned into a movie?
GA: It's already turned into a movie; it's in post-production.
EC: Oh it is already? Did you do it with Iñárritu?
GA: No, no, I produced it myself.
EC: Great! Did you direct it?
GA: No, I co-wrote but I was very close to the process. I have been on the set and in the editing room. It's directed by a great director Jorge Hernandez Aldana, a first-time director I hired and I'm very happy. With Iñárritu Babel is our last collaboration together.
EC: Oh it is? You did a trilogy with him?
GA: A trilogy, yes. A trilogy I envisioned a long time ago. I always write by trilogies and this was a trilogy I envisioned. But now we have three films and I think that's enough for now.
EC: Time to move on.
GA: Yeah. We have different interests.
EC: In terms of the filming of The Night Buffalo, can you say who you've cast?
GA: Diego Luna. He's the anchor of the film and he's surrounded by newcomers who have never been in a film before.
EC: That's great. I like new faces myself. I just saw Diego in Sólo Dios Sabe.
GA: How was it?
EC: I enjoyed it very much, but primarily because of Alice Braga who I've been watching, I think she's a promising young actress.
GA: From City of God, she was good, yeah.
EC: And then she did Sólo Dios Sabe and Lower City, both of which I got to see a few months ago….
GA: Cidade Baixa. Portuguese.
EC: Exactly. So … influences? You were saying earlier you were influenced by Rulfo and Faulkner about narrative structure. Who else has influenced you?
GA: First of all I must say that my major influence is life itself. I'm not a derivative author who takes from other [writers]. Basically, my stories come from my own life, from what I have experienced directly. I'm not like I write something where I want to be like that. I live something and I want to put it into [words], express it. Life is my basic influence. If this is going to be other writers' influence I would put Juan Rulfo also and Faulkner and Villarojas and Martinez Guzman.
EC: Faulkner I know, of course, but the others I've not read. Thanks for the tips. My main influences are Miguel Angel Asturias and Julio Cortazar, of course, because of his narrative devices, I love his narrative structures. So what's in the future? You said you worked very closely with the editing of The Night Buffalo, do you want to direct yourself?
GA: Yes, I want to direct myself. I'm writing another film about the border now and then I am going to write another one which I want to direct.
EC: I'm very glad to hear that because I think a screenwriter is often the most misunderstood agent in an artistic production, they're almost invisible. I know it irritated me whenever I read reviews of Babel how they kept saying it was Iñárritu's film. I didn't think of it that way.
GA: I agree with you. [Smiling.]
EC: I think it's the writing, or at least the teamwork, the collaboration, that makes a film. We have a celebrity culture that puts too much emphasis on the auteur theory of directorship, saying the director is doing everything.
GA: I have a disagreement with Alejandro myself. I don't think it's an auteur film, it's auteurs, it's an authors thing, not an author.
EC: All the more reason that it's great that you won best screenplay at Cannes last year for Three Burials. I loved The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada!
GA: Thank you.
EC: Such an intriguing story. One of the best things Tommy Lee Jones has ever done in terms of his acting. The new film that you're doing, what will it be about?
GA: I want to explore the border. The border is not only immigration and drugs. There's also love stories between Mexicans and Americans. You must have witnessed this?
EC: I owe my life to it!
GA: I also want to explore that. The romantic and love exchanges between people from two sides of the border. Then I want to explore the death penalty. Now I am also involved in a project that is exploring jealousy.
EC: You're tackling all the great themes, the big mythic themes that humankind is dealing with. Your films are never easy. They require some work on the part of your audiences to understand how the story is developing and the quality in your work that I'm intrigued in as a writer is the forward-leaning momentum of your stories. Even when you don't exactly know what's going on, you know something is going to happen, some kind of resolution is going to happen. Do you think resolution is a thing we can really get in life?
GA: Yeah, but, I was born into Marxism and the Marxists have this dialectic way of thinking—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—which become the thesis for another antithesis. So, yeah, there's resolution but there comes the question of a new thing that has to be answered. Everywhere solution is part of a new triangle.
EC: In terms of the screenwriting, are there other screenwriters that you admire?
GA: Yes. Well, he's not a screenwriter, but he has written screenplays—Sam Shephard. Of course I think Sam Shephard is great. Almodovar I think is great. Bright!
EC: Did you see Volver at Cannes?
GA: No, I haven't seen it yet. I think Lars von Trier is a good writer also. I think Michael Haneke is a good writer.
EC: Are you a film maker who actually goes out to see other films? Some folks have mentioned to me that they don't watch other people's movies.
GA: Sometimes. It depends. For example, now with this film we were on the set and in the editing room for so long that I have very little time to see movies. But last year I was a juror in a film festival so I saw—and the Mexican Film Festival, it has the best films from around the world without any doubt, they have the winners from Berlin, Cannes, St. Sebastian, Venice….
EC: This is true?
GA: It's true.
EC: When is that held?
GA: In February. I saw great films like Head On, a great German film, Turtles Can Fly….
EC: I love Turtles Can Fly!
GA: This Thai movie [Guillermo snaps his fingers repeatedly to remember], the one where the man becomes a tiger…?
EC: Ah yes, Tropical Malady.
GA: With those three films—Head On, Turtles Can Fly, Tropical Malady—you have enough. It's great filmmaking.
EC: I got a chance to speak with Apichatpong Weerasethakul when he came to San Francisco. He did a residency at our Center for the Arts. Joe is brilliant. I think he has shoved the envelope of how a story can be told and rendered in film.
EC: Well, Guillermo, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I'll probably be seeing you this evening.
GA: I hope so and I hope you will enjoy the book to the very end.
EC: Could I get you to sign it by any chance?
GA: Yes, of course! Como le pongo? Miguel?