Two Days With Guillermo Arriaga

Alison McMahan and Guillermo ArriagaAlison McMahan and Guillermo Arriaga

If you've seen Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Burning Plain, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or The Night Buffalo, or read the novels The Sweet Smell of Death, The Burning Plain, The Guillotine Squad, or The Night Buffalo, then you are familiar with the work of Oscar-nominated (best Original screenplay) screenwriter and novelist Guillermo Arriaga. Last weekend I had the absolutely AMAZING privilege to spend two days in Arriaga's company.

Arriaga rarely teaches, but last weekend he offered a two day screenwriting course in New York. One thing that was amazing about the class was that it seemed that most of us flew in from somewhere else: Uruguay, The Netherlands, Santo Domingo, Colombia, Florida, Virginia, DC, Boston, and those were just the handful of people I happened to ask. 

Some of us were there to worship at the master's feet, but many were there on the assumption that there was a magic formula to non-linear storytelling that Arriaga could hand to us on a silver platter. The assumption was that a non-linear storyteller works out separate multiple plotlines and then cuts and pastes them together following some golden rule for complex screenwriting.

We were all in for a big surprise.

Arriaga never outlines. He certainly doesn't  write to hit certain film events by a certain page of the screenplay (in fact the mere suggestion of that seemed to make him almost physically ill). 

He doesn't do research, because all of his stories come from his own life experiences. 

He doesn't write character bios and makes fun of those screenwriting prescriptions that say you have to know everything about the character, down to the change in his pockets.

He doesn't come up with logliness and he doesn't write synopses. He doesn't know the end of the story until he gets there. 

So what does he do?

He  writes his nonlinear stories in a linear manner, that is, he doesn't write out three plots and then intercut them, he writes the movie out as an audience will experience it, non-sequentially, jumping from one plot to another in the order that they will screen. Arriaga says he is trying to match the way we tell each other stories in real life.

As he starts the writing process, he searches for a single word that for him, sums up the core feeling of the story. The word for Amores Perros was "love," for Babel, "redemption."

Instead of outlining he has a concept that helps him keep the story threads organized. Amores Perros was inspired by a horrific car accident he experienced as a child; the story is structured by what happened before the accident, during the accident, and after the accident. Burning Plain is structured around the four elements: water, fire, earth, wind.

Instead of a character bio or profile, he asks himself what were the key turning points in that character's life, both internal and external, the points where character - what a person is truly made of -  supercedes personality.  Personally, I found this the single most useful and most challenging of his methods, because in order to understand those turning points for a character, you need to first understand those points in your own life.

One of the great pleasures of the class came from Arriaga screening clips from his own work and discussing decisions he made. He also screened some shorts he had produced, written or directed, such as:

Elephants never forget (Los Elefantes Nunca Olvidan)

Available here in Spanish with English Subtitles:


El Pozo

this version is shorter than the original, in Spanish, no subtitles, but you hardly need them:

If you are a screenwriter or novelist and get a chance to take a class with Arriaga, go for it!