Thursday, June 15, 2006

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA—Balboa Theater Intro and Q&A

After talking with Guillermo at his hotel, I caught transit to the Balboa Theater, killing time in the late afternoon windswept sun with a freshly-inscribed copy of The Night Buffalo, which is indeed a pageturner, and astute in its portrayal of the manipulative hold exerted on the living by the dead.

Gary Meyer, the Director of Programming at the Balboa, introduced Arriaga to his enthusiastic audience. "Tonight," he said, "we are thrilled to have a special guest whose films 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and tonight's film that we're showing, Three Burials, are films that I love and I know that a lot of our customers loved when we showed them originally." Gary detailed that Arriaga won best screenplay at Cannes last year for Three Burials, was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay for 21 Grams, and Babel—his last project with Iñárritu—won multiple prizes at this year's Cannes film festival. Babel is due to be released this fall.

"He's most famous in the United States for his films," Gary continued, "but he is first and foremost a novelist. The Night Buffalo is the first of his books to be translated into English and sold in America in English. …His insight into human foibles and emotions are very clear in every story he writes. His works are both universal and the themes that they explore are unique in the style of the setting of his native Mexico." Gary then invited Arriaga to the front of the theater to speak.

"Hello," he began, "Thank you very much for being here. My parents taught me since I was very young to be thankful. So I am very thankful to Gary Meyer for his invitation. Gary, thank you very much. And, of course, thank you for being here to listen to me and watch the movie. I want to talk about two things: my novel and this film you're going to see.

"I was known first in Mexico as a novelist and all my books were published long before I wrote screenplays. Many critics say, 'In Guillermo Arriaga's books there's a cinematic influence because of his screenplays.' No. What I have been trying to do is to give a literary flavor to the screenplays. To make them more like literature.

"It's a pity that the Nobel prize is not given to screenwriters. That would be great. Of course, not for me. There are people who have written screenplays which I admire, like that great playwright Mr. Sam Shepard. He's one of the best writers around. When I was in Cannes a journalist said, 'I'm going to interview Sam Shepard.' So I said, 'Would you mind if I write a little note for Sam?' Which was like a 50-page love letter. I said, 'I'm sure, Sam, you don't have any idea who I am. And I'm sure you haven't seen my work. But I'm a huge fan and I would love to meet you someday.' That night Sam Shepard went to dinner after Three Burials and introduced himself so I met the man himself.

"The Night Buffalo is a story of a young man called Gregorio. Gregorio is a schizophrenic. He has teenage schizophrenia which you know is very hard. And he has two great loves: his girlfriend, with whom he is madly in love, and his best friend, who he trusts a lot. While he's in and out of the mental asylums, his best friend (whose name is Manuel) begins a relationship with Tania, until they fall in love, and this moment when they say, "Well, we're in love. Ciao." Gregorio knows that when he's inside the psychiatric hospital so it's a great blow to him. Some time later Manuel tries to reconcile with Gregorio and—though it looks like they're going to reconcile—Gregorio, two days after they meet, kills himself. This is page two of the novel. [Laughter.] Really!

"This is told from the point of view of Manuel, which after the suicide of his friend, he becomes a castaway and he wanders around the rainy Mexico City. Mexico City, if you haven't been there, it's high in the mountains, it's cold. The other day an American friend came to visit me in the City and he said, 'Where's the beach?' I said it's like a hundred miles to the West so if you want to go, it's a long walk. But Mexico is a very rainy city from moreorless the end of April to September. And the rain is almost like London.

"So this is the story. Gregorio who is a very intelligent man leaves a box to Manuel with a lot of secret messages, and photographs and letters and notes. While Manuel begins to open this box, he begins to discover a lot of things that he didn't know so he slowly begins to go close to the edge of madness. It's a love story. It's a story of friendship. It's a story of people who don't know where to go, who have no direction. I have been a college professor now for 27 years and the more I have contact with young people, the more I see they have this sense of [being] castaways. Many of them are the children of the first divorced parents who didn't know how to divorce. So, you know—"The fucking mother you have" and "your dad is an alcoholic"—you know these fights? They have [wounded] a whole generation. So they are afraid of falling in love. They think falling in love can be something bad. Religion doesn't give the right answers now for many of them. They have no jobs. There's no social utopia, like for some of them it was communism or even being a hippie. There's nothing. It's like we're now in the jungle of the free market. It is cold and these people are really terrified so they have the sensation of [being] castaways. And I wanted that kind of sensation in this novel.

"It's funny but in Mexico—I hope this will not happen in the States—but people younger than 30 really like the novel, older than 30 say, 'I don't like it.' I hope in the States they will say people older than 100 years will not like it. [Laughter.] So if you make me the honor of buying my novel, I hope you will enjoy it. I spent almost five years writing it every day. I consider writing a profession. I'm not like, 'I'm not inspired today, I will not write.' I cannot imagine a banker telling his boss, 'Y'know, I'm not inspired.' So I spent every night from 10:00 to 5:00 in the morning trying to write and I spent four or five years writing this novel, just before writing Amores Perros.

"And now this film you are going to see; I'm going to talk something about it. I was once writing when my cell phone rang. So I answered and there was a voice in Spanish who said, 'Ola. Soy Tommy Lee Jones. Habla Ingles?' I thought to myself, 'What's going on?' but I said, 'Yes!' because like two weeks before someone called and said that very important people in Hollywood called, and say this and this, and I said, 'You go to your mother and blah blah blah.' He was a man and so he was profoundly offended by my remarks about his mother. So I [thought], 'Maybe this is Tommy Lee Jones.' So I said, 'Hi, Tommy!' Cool. Tommy says, 'Hi. You know I've seen Amores Perros and I like it a lot.'

" 'Yeah? Okay. I've seen your movies and I also like you as an actor a lot.'

" 'What are you doing?'

" 'I'm in L.A.'

" 'I'm in L.A. also. Why don't we have dinner?' [he said] with this slightly Texan accent that he has. So we get together. It was the first time … I had only written one thing, Amores Perros, a Mexican thing, so I'm not used to having phone calls from movie stars, I don't know about you? It was very strange. We had dinner and I [thought], 'What kind of man would Tommy Lee Jones be?' So I asked him three questions to see if we were on the same planet. 'Which is your favorite living writer, Tommy?' If he said John Grisholm or Sidney Sheldon or something like that I could say, 'Excuse me, sir….' He said Cormac McCarthy. And I said, 'You know, that's also my favorite author. Who's your favorite American painter?' If he says Norman Rockwell, we are done. And he says Edward Hopper. Then I have some things in common with him. And then I ask him, 'Who's your favorite filmmaker?' 'Akira Kurosawa.' YES!! This is a man I want to work with. And then we have the same interests: he likes the border, he likes the desert, and he likes trailer homes, which I love. He loves to hunt like I do. I know a lot of people when I say that I hunt they boo me. It's hard to explain but hunting is at least for me the only thing that puts me in the deepest frontier of death and life, of beauty and cruelty, something very difficult to explain, even to myself. I always feel guilty and feel bad for the animals I kill but I don't know why I can. …Both Tommy Lee and I have a passion for hunting and we went hunting together, and while we were hunting at his huge, immensely beautiful ranch which you're going to see a lot here, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to make a movie together. So he said, 'Guillermo write whatever you want.'

"This is a story of friendship, of deep friendship, and it's a story of justice. This is not—I would like you from the very beginning to understand that this is not a story of revenge, in any way it is not a story of revenge. It's a story of a man who has a very primitive sense of justice and for him justice is to be in the shoes of the man you have damaged. I want to make that point very clear because many people think it's—what's the word in English?—about [vengeance]. It's not a film about death, even though it has a corpse as a character, that's why he's buried three times. It's not a film about death. It's a film deeply rooted in life. It's a film about the relationship between people of different countries and I have learned through the years that globalization has taught us that we have much more things in common than differences. And it's terrible that now the world has made us suspicious one of the other. It's terrible. Now what's foreign to you is a threat. It's not only for Americans, it's for everyone. I can tell you, I don't know if I have the face of a terrorist, but I have been singled out in airports several times, and taken to private rooms where they check my luggage and question me strongly. It's not funny to be [suspected]. Once I was with my son, who was nine at that time, and he had these Lego blocks that he built into a starship and the guy destroyed it to see if there was a bomb, asking a nine-year-old kid if he was a terrorist or not. My son was completely terrified.

"So I think that one of the purposes of art is not giving answers, but allowing you to make questions. And I hope that this film will raise questions if it's worth being suspicious [of each] other; if it's not a moment to overcome prejudices of race, ethnicity, class, etc., etc. I think that we need it badly. It's a very stressed world now. This stress is the ideal place to have totalitarian regimes and repressive systems. So it's in our hands to avoid that, to understand. This is what this film is about. So I hope you will enjoy it."

Arriaga then opened himself up to questions. One guy expressed his delight in having another chance to see the film—he saw it when it came out at a megaplex—so seeing it at the Balboa was terrific and he thanked Gary for that chance. "I wanted to ask you," he addressed Arriaga, "if you had seen the film Lone Star and if it had affected you … in the making of Three Burials?"

"I love Lone Star and think John Sayles is a great writer/director," Arriaga answered, "but, it's not an influence on this film. I have always said that the major influence on my work is life itself. Melquiades Estrada is a real friend of mine, he's still alive. He's living in Wisconsin. And I wanted to pay him an homage for our great friendship. He's a very poor Mexican peasant, I've been hunting with him and his brothers, Pedro and Lucio. Melquiades Estrada is even in another one of my novels. In 1994 I wrote a novel called The Sweet Scent of Death. He's one of the characters in that novel. Because I really love those guys. You cannot imagine how warm and friendly Mexican peasants are. Every time I go to their place they leave me their bed and they sleep on the floor and they feel profoundly offended if I do not accept the bed. Of course I have to, to get [away from] Lucio's snoring, which is huge. But they are very warm.

"It's a very strong experience for a Mexican coming here, to cross the river and be illegal and criminal and be chased by the authorities with a different language and different weather. Imagine, these guys live in Tomalitas. It must be like 32 centigrades in Wisconsin in the winter. It's a shock. So based on the experience of Melquiades and his brothers and how painful it [has been] for them to come here without knowing the language and imagine someone from Tomalitas going off to Wisconsin trying to go through all the border patrols and all the authorities.

"And I want to say something about immigration, by the way. I think the United States has all the right to build whatever walls they need to protect its borders. They can send the whole U.S. Army to protect the border and I think it's all right. But it's a shame that my country doesn't have the capacity of building jobs for its citizens. That's [more] shameful than all the walls built by the Bush administration. But we have to realize something. The United States needs the labor force to keep running the economy. This is a reality. Mexico doesn't have the capacity to create jobs and the United States needs [laborers]. So instead of putting walls and putting these warm, great people in danger of death, why don't we make a profound dialogue between our countries and find the best way to resolve this?" That comment brought him a handsome round of applause.

A woman asked what process Arriaga goes through to select a translator for his novel? "I find that a lot of the novels that touch me most were originated in a language other than English," she said, "I think it's got to be a profound choice."

"Yes, it's a profound choice," Arriaga agreed, "but I have the huge luck to be translated by a very young poet from New York and Mexico City, Alan Page, who is now 27 and it's good because I know this kid from the very day he was born because he's my sister's son. [Laughter.] He has a Ph.D. in English literature from NYU and he has been studying hard and he lives half his life in New York and half his life in Mexico City. He knows me and he knows what I want and this is real: I have spent with him like nine hours on the phone going through his translation. Every day I phone him for hours and hours, 'Why you put this word? I don't like how it sounds.'

" 'That's the way we say it in English….'

" 'I don't care, I don't like it.'

"And sometimes I invent expressions. In 21 Grams I invented a lot of them. Benicio goes, 'That's not the way we speak in English. So you must change that.'

"And I say, 'I can't.'

"And Benicio says, 'Why?'

"I'm incapable of mutilating a classic." [Laughter.]

As luck would have it, Diane Weipert was in the audience. She's the screenwriter for Carlos Bolado's Sólo Dios Sabe. She commented, "I haven't seen your film Three Burials yet but, when you were talking about the cadaver being a main character and having to bury him three times, it reminded me of a short I saw in Mexico City last month in the house of a friend of mine who's a filmmaker and then I realized that I think you're the one who wrote it. Did you write a film about a guy that they bury and then he keeps coming back and he keeps turning up in people's houses? Is that something that you wrote?"

"It's something that I wrote and that I directed," Arriaga smiled.

"That's what I thought," Diane confirmed, "It was a wonderful wonderful short. And I wondered if that was an idea that resonates with you, and obviously there's the idea of not wanting to be dead, this cadaver coming back, he keeps turning up at his aunt's house, and the kids would go into the bathroom and their uncle would be shaving in the bathroom. It was wonderful, it was very funny, and his friend was narrating it. And in the end his friend goes to—he has his last drinking session at the gravesite, and they sit on the car, and they get drunk and they talk about old times and then the friend says, 'That was the last time that I ever saw him because that night I was hit by a car and my wife had the gall to have me cremated.' It was fantastic. I wonder if you could talk about your idea of not wanting to stay dead and if that's an idea that you wanted to expand in a longer film?"

"Okay," Arriaga began, accepting the challenge, "I'm going to tell you a story about this short film that I wrote and directed and it's based on a small short story that I wrote a long time ago. I was 26 when I wrote it. This has to do with a personal story of myself. I had a roommate. He was going to the Olympic games on the rowing team. I was so envious. 'He's going to the Olympics and I'm not going. What am I good at? Fights! I fought all the time when I was young. So I'm going to go into boxing. I'm going to box and fight and go to the Olympics as a middleweight.'

"So I began to train to be a boxer when I suddenly began to have a pain in my chest. This pain was too much for me so I went to the doctor and he said, 'You have a strained muscle. Don't worry. Keep on training.' I trained that day and I felt I was going to die. That night it felt like I had a cat inside my left arm. I decided to go to a cardiologist. A very funny cardiologist, Dr. Watberg. He said, 'I have good news and bad news.' Okay, [what's] the good news? 'You're not a hypochondriac.' [Laughter.]

" 'What's the bad news?'

" 'You have a heart infection and your heart is very swollen and this is an infection that nothing happens if you stay calm, but you were boxing so you are on the verge of having a heart attack and maybe you will die tonight.'


" 'There's nothing we can do except give you some medicine to bring down the swelling.'

"That night," Arriaga described, "I remember watching my hands and [thinking], 'Maybe tomorrow these are going to be the hands of a corpse.' That's what happens! Your hands, all of your hands, are going to the hands of a corpse sooner or later. 'I have to do something with these hands. I have to caress. I have to beat the guys I haven't yet beat. And I have to do something that will go beyond my life.' That's why I decided to be a writer. I think that night if I died I would get out of my tomb and say, 'I'm not dead' and I would go around and that's where that story came from. That's why I write. I think writing is a way of fighting death. That's what Kafka says. For the pygmies you are not dead until your name is not pronounced. Whenever your name is pronounced, you are still alive."

With that, Arriaga had to end the questions in order to catch a flight to Los Angeles, but he thanked us very much for showing up to hear him speak.

The experience of watching The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada afterwards was noticeably heightened, especially the sequence where Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) and Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) come across the hunters watching the familiar soap opera on their t.v. Arriaga plays Juan, the man who offers Pete some fresh kill. Now knowing of their hunting history, this now seemed wonderfully apt. Further, realizing that Arriaga's friend Melquiades Estrada plays the actor Julio Cedillo who, in turn, plays Melquiades Estrada, felt whimsical and warm.