As he took the podium before more than 100 fans and aspiring writers at the University of North Texas on Saturday, the author of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel was surprised by the turnout. "Wow," said Guillermo Arriaga, surveying the packed room at UNT's Gateway Center. "When they told me 9 a.m. Saturday, I thought it was going to be a couple of people and myself."
The throng was treated to a three-hour tutorial that dispensed with "the three acts, blah, blah blah" and instead moved from the use of light and space to the particular challenges of multi-linear narratives and the storytelling value of masturbation (yes, you read that right). His Saturday appearance was the culmination of three days' worth of lectures the Oscar-nominated screenwriter gave on the UNT campus at the end of last week.
"Art is standing at the edge of an abyss and trying to see something no one's ever seen before," said Arriaga, "then bringing it back to share with people."
As a screenwriter, he explained, that first and foremost means sitting down and doing the work. The Mexico City native and former professor is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential writers working in cinema, and he still writes every day from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- "including Sundays." When he gets tired, he looks around his studio at his collection of Mexican kitsch skulls and imagines them encouraging him to continue: Arriaga, the skulls tell him, you're going to die. Just as he pulled from Hemingway and Faulkner at various points in his talk, here he drew on Kafka.
"Writing is my struggle against death," he said.
He talked about being acutely aware of light and how he used it as an organizing principle for the structure of 21 Grams. He recommended, to many students' horror, never writing a piece of dialogue longer than two lines and never writing a scene longer than one page. He emphasized the importance of staying true to a specific concept and/or one-word theme in each piece of work.
In his directorial debut -- The Burning Plain, to be screened at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival next month --the concept is the four elements: water, air, earth and fire. In 21 Grams, the theme is redemption; in Amores Perros, the theme is love, while the organizing concept is the use of narrative parallels between human beings and dogs. Amores Perros also wound up exploring the three stages of a man confronting love and relationships, though that realization came only after writing the story.
"It's a discovery," the writer said, adding that he never outlines and often declines to tell producers how a particular script will end. "If I know everything about my characters, how are they going to surprise me?"
Arriaga dedicated a chunk of time to the impact of weather and landscape on characters. To illustrate the effect of the environment, he played key scenes from Babel (mostly the ones filmed in Morocco) and Tommy Lee Jones's Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Here's where masturbation comes in.
Both films show a male character masturbating alone amid a vast desert expanse. In Babel, it's the young Moroccan boy who winds up shooting a tourist. In Three Burials, it's the border patrol agent who's poring over Hustler when a gunshot ricochets against the hillside.
"I'm not saying masturbation is the best way to spend your time," he said with a chuckle. "What I'm saying is masturbation is a metaphor for isolation."
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Among a handful of other tips, Arriaga also told students to work only with people who share similar tastes. When Tommy Lee Jones first suggested collaborating, Arriaga said he agreed only after discovering Jones's favorite author, painter and moviemaker (Cormac McCarthy, Edward Hopper and Akira Kurosawa, respectively). He took a number of questions from the audience, answering most candidly -- with the exception of the inevitable query about his famous split with director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Instead of addressing the spat, he spoke abstractly of an African tribal belief that there's a light soul and a heavy soul, and that the light soul leaves the body during sleep and writing only to, eventually, guide the heavy soul to the border between life and death.
"I personally think this story's more interesting than my fight with Alejandro," he said. So, why did he take time from writing sessions and movie sets to travel from Mexico City and speak to bestow some wisdom on a group of local students on Valentine's Day?
"I come from a family that thinks education is the key to change things," he told Unfair Park. "The only way to change things is to create dialogue, especially with young people."