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CIFF41: 'There is no rule to film writing': Oscar nominee Guillermo Arriaga at Cairo master class

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga held a master class titled 'Nonlinear, Linear And Multiple Storytelling' during the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November)

Eslam Omar , Wednesday 27 Nov 2019
Arriaga
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga during the master-class held in Cairo (Photo: courtesy of Cairo International Film Festival)
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Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga spoke about his experience and techniques at a master-class entitled 'Nonlinear, Linear And Multiple Storytelling' on Tuesday during the 41st Cairo International Film Festival, which is running until 29 November.

"The most important rule in writing is, there is no rule," the Oscar-nominated screenwriter-director said during the lecture at the Hanager Theater at the Cairo Opera House to an almost full hall of experienced writers, filmmakers, critics and actors.

The screenwriter of notable films such as Three Burials, Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, criticised the 'how-to-write' type of books, saying they "could be useful for some, but writing really should be driven from personal experience."

"Someone wrote a book called 'How to Write a Film in 18 days.' I wonder why he/she doesn't write films in this way. Writing is not that easy. You cannot just say I will start writing a masterpiece, best seller, or a 3 billion British pound novel or film like Harry Potter," Arriaga said, stressing the importance of writing several drafts.

Arriaga
Audience at the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga's master-class in Cairo (Photo: courtesy of CIFF)

The veteran novelist also recounted personal experiences, including a severe accident that damaged his face and his rehabilitation, pointing out that these type of experiences inspired his writing, especially in terms of rhythm, time and narrative point of view.

Arriaga also praised William Shakespeare, saying he considers him the best narrator ever, and stressed the importance of research before writing, despite describing himself as "too lazy to research."

"[British film writer] Peter Morgan, the writer of The Queen and The Crown, says that research is everything in writing. But this is applicable in his type of work, not mine," Arriaga said.

He also noted the importance of knowing the inner feeling of the characters by relating them to people the author knows, and not necessarily through direct knowledge or deep study.

"When I wrote Chieko Wataya, the rebellious Japanese teenage character in Babel, my reference was my daughter. All teenage emotions unite somehow. Same as the Moroccan characters. I had never been to Morocco before I wrote Babel, but I was relating to similar characters I know and it worked very well."

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel is a 2006 production that won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay nominations. The film starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

"One word to describe Babel is miscommunication, and that's why it's called Babel."

Babel
Still from film Babel (2006), written by Guillermo Arriaga and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. (Photo: IMDb)

Arriaga also spoke about the technicalities of writing dialogue, saying that "almost nobody is talented in writing dialogue."

"Make it short. Describe each scene in a word and each line in a word, and when you write this word, delete it and let the actors portray it. They will thank you eventually."

"The writer needs to know the tone of the line and the distance between characters. It's a narrative task, not the director's," Arriaga said.

"We always see cafeteria scenes in Hollywood movies where characters tell important parts of the story in a cafeteria. I hate these scenes. Why not have them do this exposition while walking or doing some task?"

With Mexico being the country in focus at the 41st CIFF, the Cannes' Palme D'or winner for Best screenplay Arriaga participated in several panel discussions and master classes, and received a special honouring from the festival on Monday.

The current edition of the CIFF, which concludes on Friday, is named after its late artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, with a number of activities being held, including the screening of 153 films from 63 countries.

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