dogs and salt

February 6, 2012

Arriaga Masterclass



Script writing courses aren’t me. I did the Robert McKee course many years ago and while I found it energising – and him formidable – it also blocked me. Stories seemed to have to behave themselves in the face of McKee; characters never quite broke free of the plan. The problem was mine: I am too analytical and, within a rigorously defined structure, my brain loses its left side and starts just filling in boxes. McKee is brilliant, just not my man…

However, a couple of years ago, I wrote an adaptation of a novel by George Simenon. The Blue Room is the story of a murderous affair told, in part, through the lens of a murder investigation. The novel – which is a minor masterpiece – jumps between the affair and investigation in a way that makes it an intense and thrilling read. There had been previous attempts to adapt the novel but they had tried to give this weird story of lust, guilt and obsession a linear order and failed.

So when I began working on it, I returned to as many films as I could think of that were non-linear – that didn’t feel they needed to start at the beginning of a story, go to the middle and come to a tidy ending. Inevitably, the work of the Mexican film writer-maker Guillermo Arriaga was high on the list: Amores Peres, 21 Grams, the Burning Plain and Babel all tell their stories in a non-linear way. While all are very different from The Blue Room, they excited and inspired me.

Then, late last year, I was feeling twitchy. Development Hell (of which more in another blog). For all kinds of reasons, the Blue Room script, now written and much liked, rumbled along the runway but…Other scripts were finished, or being re-written. The weather was getting cold.

And, I discovered, Arriaga was doing a masterclass. I hate committing myself to things but signed up.

Arriaga really does build films differently. They aren’t linear. They are suffused with life and energy but they take the audience – me, certainly – to places of dread. Amores Peres and 21 Grams both revolve around a car crash. Babel spins off from a premise of arbitrary accident: two boys, given a rifle to keep their goats safe, shoot a tourist. Arriaga’s films don’t flinch and don’t give way to easy answers. However, they are films that really confront what it is to be alive and, as such, are life affirming.

Saturday morning. Late January. In a lecture hall in Regent’s Park, there’s that moment: wow, a lot of people are screenwriters, or at least have the energy and resources to throw their weekend at a master class. And some familiar faces. What often feels like a very private activity, done very alone, is out in the light. It was hard not to blink.

Arriaga is immediately charming. Shaved head, almost a boxer’s stance, he’s sharp, funny, and profoundly not-McKee. Almost the first thing he says is “there are no rules”.  You can almost feel the room get uneasy.  What we want is maps, guides – anything that will make the route from the blank page to triumph at Cannes straightforward. Without rules, we could go anywhere and those who have been around more than half a block know how easy it is to get lost.

Let me just divert here a second. All writing is tricky and making up stories is not a fool’s game. What looks effortless is the result of intense work. Screenwriting is particularly focussed. A good screenplay will, in a hundred or so pages, tell a story (or stories); it will create believable characters and it will be the bedrock of the movie. It is not a thing in itself but it has to sell the idea, it has to stimulate the reader’s conviction that the film is worth making; it has to have characters that actors will want to play. And it is very condensed. A novel can take time to describe emotions; a screenplay has to generate them from a series of events because there is no space – and point – in describing what the film’s effect will be. It is also very different from theatre writing. A play, too, can’t describe emotions but plays tend to obey a more unified sense of time and place. A movie can go anywhere; and often the best effect in a screenplay is created by the collision between one event, or space, and another. Mise en scène. To achieve real, accumulating effects and emotions is three-dimensional chess.

There are sure-fire ways of killing off a screenplay. Characters can’t join a scene and explain what is going on; events need to be happening – rarely can a screenplay be effective when action is described. The camera doesn’t like a lot of words. Show, don’t tell.

So when Arriaga begins his master class by saying there aren’t rules, he is asking us to jump from safety.

What Arriaga focuses on instead is substance. What are we really writing about? It seems simple enough: decide, he says, on the one word that describes what you are writing your movie about. Babel is, for him, about MISUNDERSTANDING, Amores Peres about LOVE.

The more I thought about this, the more important it became. We want ‘structure’ in preparing screenplays because it is so easy to get lost. If you remove the structure safety net and replace it with a real sense of what you are obsessing about, you are freeing your imagination but giving yourself a sense of direction.

But, but, but… I’ve known what I am writing about and still got lost. I worked for a long time on a screenplay based on a novel about a man having a nervous breakdown. It seemed the simplest book in the world to adapt and while I hadn’t heard Arriaga, I knew the key idea of the novel was that the hero falls through the net of things that keeps his life together – job, money, marriage, even friends – and ends up unraveling. The one word would have been FALLING. The trouble was that, after a bit, I wanted the story to have more drama, be higher definition. The novel was sexy, funny, violent – a brilliant read – but too many of its delights were descriptions of what characters were thinking. Much as I knew what – in Arriaga speak – the screenplay was ‘about’, I felt the need to add to the story – to inflate it. And I think I got lost. Gradually, the sense of unity left the screenplay. It was very hard to work out whether an event was calibrated correctly. Was it too large, was it ‘true’? It was like suddenly being in the middle of telling a joke and losing confidence in the punchline.

Where Arriaga took us next would have helped me. First, he talked about rigour (eighty-six drafts was not unusual). Always question your choices, your decisions. Again, it seemed like a statement of the obvious but not quite. He wasn’t talking about working hard: he was talking about thinking hard and distilling what you do. Post-Arriaga, I might not have ladled more and more onto the FALLING script but would have dug into the characters more.

Then he went onto taste. This again resonated. He wasn’t on about what we liked or disliked but something deeper: where we came from, what our culture was, what traditions we belong to all make up our taste.  Arriaga constantly referred to literature. Shakespeare, Garcia Marquez, Faulkner, Rulfo. From Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet  – he extracted the clarity of structure (yes!), from Garcia Marquez the impact – and simplicity – of starting in the middle, or near the crisis of your story. The point was – and this is still rare when talking about filmmaking – he connected our craft to the highest forms of literature and showed us that good storytelling had tropes. They just may not be as schematic as a three-act structure.

Arriaga’s master class wasn’t particularly focused. He didn’t have any of the fire-in-the-belly of McKee and in fact there was something almost lackadaisical about him. His video excerpts seemed to be in chaos and he told some shit jokes. (And a couple of good ones.) However, he kept talking and while he was going to talk about non-linear story telling, where I got most excited was his discussion of character.

Again, he started with the obvious. Characters need dramatic objectives: they need to want something and to work in a dramatic piece, that ‘want’ has to be translated into action. What they do to fulfil their objective – their ‘want’ – is drama.

But who are they? Who is your character? Here, Arriaga – for me – was at his most interesting. Holding a slightly yellowing notebook, he dug into something about kinds of personality. First, he pointed out his distinction between personality and character. Personality is the person’s general sense of self (more below); character is what they do faced with change (or drama).

He told an anecdote about a student of his in Mexico City – a fragile young woman who, in a times of pretty terrifying violence, surprised everyone by taking on a very dangerous mugger. Her personality, he said, was timid but in duress, her character was brave and fiery.

At another point, he talked about working with people with disabilities and how big the gap between what they were and the way the world saw them could be.  Talking about a handicapped women, he described how relieved, excited, she was for him to encourage her to make a film about her sexual desire. In other words, one of the key things that is most ignored about her was something that was extremely central to her being. That she was handicapped didn’t stop her desiring to be touched, it just tended to stop it happening. Her breakthrough in declaring her desires (and one suspects, Arriaga was saying, those desires being fulfilled) has an example of her character busting thru’.

Then he moved into an area that attempted to understand personality types. He talked about polymorphic and endomorphic characters. His shorthand was sexual but, if I understood him correctly, these types applied to all behaviour and, he felt, divided the world. Polymorphics were promiscuous in their relationships. Lightening-fast seducers, they got their energy from multiple partners. They couldn’t be relied on for life or even a weekend but they made it thrilling and lively when you were in contact with them. Endomorphics are in for the long run – less immediate, they are more reliable.

It was pretty interesting seeing around the room those who were clearly Endo and, when it came to a coffee break, the Polys amongst us.

Arriaga then went on. If our personalities were predominantly Poly or Endomorphic, he could also discern character motivations. He didn’t use the word ‘tropes’ but it’s the best I can come up with. For example, he described – and remember character is what emerges in conflict – a character that was governed by TRADITION. She or he would react in a situation based on what they had already experienced. It may not be sufficient, or it may have exactly the desired result, but it was the way they were. Another character might react to a situation by welcoming, perhaps even enhancing, their own sense of PAIN. This character would feel alive feeling pain so faced with crisis, pain would be a place to be. Others go to EXTREMES. Extremes of behaviour might include drinking too much, taking drugs, screwing around… even suicide or morbidity.

Arriaga’s list was long and subtle. It wasn’t – perhaps couldn’t ever be – all-embracing but he gave us thirty or so different tropes from which he built character. By thinking hard about how to discover character and by having shaken it down to something that loosely resembled a scheme, he could then start his stories from character.

When, for example, he was starting out on the script that became 21 Grams, he made Bernicio Del Toro’s character an extremely wealthy businessman. In the movie, that character is responsible for a serious car crash. What Arriaga described was how he knew he wanted the character to have a huge sense of guilt for what he does so he made him religious instead of rich. With religion, he had a character with a belief system that would, inevitably, be put under tremendous strain because of what he does. A rich man who kills a family in a hit-and-run accident is one thing; a man with great religious conviction and one who has turned to God after pre-story crisis is quite another. It doesn’t take a scriptwriter to sense just how much more blood and life and energy the religious version of the story has.

Arriaga may have freed us from structural obsessions but he replaced them with something much more energetic. Characters who are highly defined, characters who are flawed, characters utterly wrongly equipped for the situations you throw them into will be inevitably more exciting to write and to watch than characters who have a major reversal in act one or whatever other orthodoxy they are straight-jacketed by.

Weirdly, I had thought that Arriaga must have had some kind of religious point in 21 Grams. He was adamant not. Indeed, he was adamant that he had no point to make – no message – other than the lives of his characters. And when you watch the film again, you see this is true. There is no message in the writing other than the character’s struggles to live. I’m not even sure they have a discerning morality – or immorality – for us to either condone of condemn. They just do what they do. And he leaves us to make our judgments.

There was a great deal else. Arriaga is a man who has thought a lot about what he does and works hard at it. There was nothing easy about him except his gentle charm, wit and grace. What I mean is that he made it clear that this ‘trying to write’ business isn’t for the weak hearted.  I got back on both nights and watched his films on DVDs again. They are powerful, almost bizarre. Bits of them hurt to watch: the very notion that Sean Penn is waiting for a donor heart is audacious and inspiring. The fact that the heart he ends up with obsesses him is one of those flashes of poetical genius that make great writing. Same with a Japanese deaf-and-dumb girl desperate for someone to touch her. Same with Gael Garcia Bernal being utterly in love with his violent brother’s wife.

I went to Arriaga’s master class because, like a tired dog, I knew I needed something and wasn’t sure what it was. Listening to Arriaga, I discovered I was looking for salt. And I came away feeling refreshed and ready for the next draft…

6 February 2012