apr 04 Publisert i non linear writing, manustips, manus, London, Kristian B. Walters, Guillermo Arriaga, Babel, 21 Grams av Walters
Non linear feature screenplay construction London, Regent’s College 28th-29th januar 2012. Guillermo has written Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. He has won best screenplay at Cannes and has been Oscar and Bafta nominated. He also wrote and directed The Burning Plain starring Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger in 2008.
After reading a great many screenwriting books and having attended several masterclasses I jumped at the chance to participate in Arriaga’s class because of his non linear approach to screenwriting. The only screenwriting book I’ve read where this is covered extensively is Linda Aronson’s excellent The 21st Century Screenplay.
Arriaga is a charming teacher with a devilish gleam in his eye and a penchant for really, really, nasty and/or rude jokes – by his own admission – and we got a few samples of that. He also ‘breaks the rules’ in his writing method and often contradicts most other books on the subject – which is great and felt like a breath of fresh air. When his big break came in 2003 with 21 Grams he was referred to as the Mexican Quentin Tarantino – which confused him because he had never heard of Quentin or seen his films. Now they are close friends and he considers Quentin a genius writer.
- Free yourself from any preconceived structure.
- He never researches (it’s his life, there is no need).
- He doesn’t write outlines (‘cos then he’d have to follow them).
- He NEVER knows the ending to the screenplay before he starts writing, and urges you shouldn’t either.
- He wants characters to surprise him so he wants to know as little as possible.
- He doesn’t even know what’s coming in the next scene until he’s actually writing it. He didn’t know 21 Grams was about a hit and run until the last possible moment.
- Look for ONE word to describe what your screenplay is about, this can be very useful when you get lost and need to know what the scene is about.
The word for Amores Perros was “love”, for Babel “misunderstanding/miscommunication”, for Three Burials “friendship.”
- Force everyone on the production to embrace and understand the one word/theme.
- Question everything. Constantly redo scenes in your head – How can I make this more dramatic?
- Never write a script chronologically and think you can juggle the scenes about afterwards to create a non linear script – it must be written that way to work.
- The concept of Amores Perros was that the dog represents the personality or the action happening to the character i.e. if the dog becomes a murderer, he becomes a murderer. But the theme is ‘love.’
- Don’t confuse concept with theme. Concept should serve theme and both should serve story.
- 21 Grams came from the vision of a man dying.
- The Burning Plain represents the four elements air, fire, earth, water.
- The concept of Babel was the last day of many things, including innocence and the turning point where everything changes. Almost every story takes place in 24 hours.
- Search for your story within the story.
- Audience members generally don’t pick up on themes or concepts and that’s okay – they are mainly tools for you to build a better story and not get lost. They bring you back to your original intention.
- The biggest problem for a writer is getting lost.
- ALWAYS work with people who have the same taste as you.
- NEVER try to be deep and profound, if you are deep and profound then your story will be so also.
- You can’t say to yourself I’m going to write a ‘deep’ story, understand which tradition you belong in.
- When he was on the jury at the Venice and San Sebastian film festivals 90% of the films were about how bored people are with their lives. This also resulted in boring film language. Lost In Translation=people bored.
- Arriaga likes narratives where things HAPPEN. Look to Shakespeare and ancient Greek plays – a LOT happens.
- Think ‘how would Shakespeare solve this?’
- The closer the characters the larger the conflict, i.e. Hamlet’s uncle killing Hamlet’s father.
- In Amores Perros boy meets pregnant girl who is married to his brother.
[ In the film the dog of the character played by Gael Garcia Bernal - runs off for a few hours and comes back covered in blood. It turns out the dog ended up in a fight with a champion pitbull fighter and killed him before returning home. This results in the wrath of the thug owner crashing down on the Gael character. The exact same thing happened to Arriaga – his dog killed a champion fighter and the owner demanded compensation.]
- A character and a dramatic objective HAS to relate into ACTION. I.e. NOT ‘to feel free’ but to get divorced.
- People don’t tell stories about their life in a linear fashion, they get side-tracked, go back and forth.
- Seduce with words. Don’t think of a screenplay as technical, consider it equal to litterature, NOT a minor way to express oneself in writing.
- Think of locations in terms of storytelling, as characters, not because they look ‘nice.’
- Always think ‘in medias res’ [into the middle of action] – you are raising a question for the audience, wanting them to ask ‘what happened?’
- ‘Personality’ is how we expect to behave, but your ‘character’ appears in extreme situations.
- Arriaga loves to reveal the character of his characters. When pushing them to the extreme are they brave or cowardly? The captain of the Costa Concordia probably didn’t know he was a coward until he was put in that extreme situation.
- A character that decides or is on the verge of deciding is much more interesting than one who simply obeys.
- Every decision you make weighs down the rest of your life – i.e. a man sitting in front of a woman, both trying to say something important to one another and not being able to.
- When you raise the dramatic conflict, that is when you cut.
- In the Hemingway short story Hills Like White Elephants he never uses the word ‘abortion’, though that is what is being discussed. Sometimes the word unpronounced has weight.
If a scene is not working, take out a key word, it can make it more interesting.
He gives an example of someone he knows killed in an accident. His parents never mentioned his name again, but they kept a place at the dinner table for him.
- If a scene is not working give the characters TOTALLY different objectives. In Amores Perros Gael Garcia's character is saying to his brother’s wife ‘Come away with me’ whilst she just wants to be listened to about her pregnancy dilemma.
- Try writing no scene longer than one page and no dialogue longer than two lines.
- Try and cut out the first ten pages of your script and/or try writing scenes with no dialogue.
- He doesn’t recommend actors improvise – “Why do they think they can do something better in five minutes that I have spent years on?” Also it can have a snowball effect and you can lose the intent of the scene.
Above is just a small example of the wealth of information Arriaga imparted in the masterclass. He went on to “reveal all my tricks” – of which there were many – here’s just five of them in closing:
1) Make characters lie. We see them say something and then find out it is untrue.
2) Create some questions that are not solved in the screenplay so that audiences can discuss them later.
3) Physical and emotional scars and illness is interesting, give your characters scars. Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain has had a double mastectomy. He cites Faulkner “Between pain and nothing I choose pain.”
4) POV – who’s story is it? Finish each scene on the person we should feel most attached to.
5) The dramatic question must be raised otherwise the audience will be lost in complex structures i.e. 21 Grams.
And finally – about Arriaga not doing research but taking stories from his life and people he knows. I’ve already mentioned Arriaga’s dog and the dog in Amores Perros, there’s also a terrible car crash in the film. Arriaga was in a terrible car crash too where his car went over a cliff. Parts of his face including his nose had to be completely reconstructed.
In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (my favourite Arriaga film, with 21 Grams a close second) there’s a wonderfully moving scene where an old blind man living alone in the desert feeds soup to the Tommy Lee Jones character (Jones also directs the film) and then asks him to shoot him. He says he is a religious man and doesn’t want to offend God. His son hasn’t been by with supplies for a long time and he’s probably not coming back. The Lee Jones character says he cannot, because he doesn’t want to offend God either. This is one of Arriaga’s favourite and most personal scenes. Arriaga has worked with many severely handicapped and sick people. He used to sit with a blind woman and explain soap operas to her while she listened. Her daughter died and the woman was all alone. She asked Arriaga to kill her.
The number one lesson is writers write every day. Arriaga writes from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day including most holidays.
For more info on Arriaga and his courses visit www.arriagafilm.com