Guillermo Arriaga: The FRONTRUNNER Interview

For those who didn’t know, Guillermo Arriaga wants you to know that he is a hunter. Bow and arrow in hand, he hunts for his quarry in the borderlands and surrounding his home in Mexico. Occasionally, he writes prize-winning novels, Oscar-nominated screenplays, and directs films, too. Arriaga was born in Mexico City in 1958. He received his BA in Communications and an MA in Psychology at the Ibero-American University, where he met future film director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Their first project together was Amores Perros (2000), which received an Academy Award nomination, a BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, and multiple prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. From there, celebrated films such as 21 Grams (2003), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Babel (2006), The Burning Plain (2008), and From Afar (2015) would follow. A multinational film project in 2011 entitled Heartbeat of the World, saw producers Arriaga, Alex Garcia, and Lucas Akoskin commission four films (made up of ten collaborative shorts) tackling topics including religion, sexuality, politics and drug addiction.

He has authored eight novels since 1991, which includes the most recent Alfaguara de Novela Prize-winning epic Salvar el Fuego (2020). Arriaga continues to foster a new generation of writers and filmmakers teaching at Ibero-American University and acting as a patron for the renowned DreamAgo nonprofit screenwriting programme in Sierre, Switzerland.

In the first of a two-part series, FRONTRUNNER speaks to Arriaga from quarantine. The second is a Q&A with Mónica Cortina Mariscal, producer of his latest film No One Left Behind (2019) which premiered out of competition at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.


I wanted to ask about your path as a novelist. I know that you’ve referred to yourself in the past as a writer, not one thing or another – because no one likes to be pigeonholed and there’s no room for it. What was your development like, in the written word?

Well, first of all, I was a very shy kid (not anymore!) and I was absolutely crazy for girls. I didn’t have this thing that many kids have like they reject girls. I was like, “What?!” So I’d be writing letters to them. I began feeling more comfortable writing and expressing myself. Then I realized, when I wanted to explain something I would tell stories, not ideas. For the most complex things, I would try to bring a story to to explain it. I had very severe ADD when I was a kid. I have no logic, no sense of logic. Stories are more into intuition than logic. So, that’s how I began [becoming] a writer. The first thing I wrote when trying to become a professional was when I was fourteen. I wrote a theatre piece, a play.


Your latest novel, Salvar el Fuego, is an environment where linear logic would hamper the whole nature and authenticity of your message and of the storytelling that you communicate. Was this a result of your ADD or absence of logic, which you then had to cultivate over time? Was that a conscious process?

No, no, because when you when you have severe ADD like myself, you first you think that you understand nothing. A teacher tries to explain something and you say, “I have no idea what it’s like.” It was kind of a nightmare, but slowly I developed another tool to understand. What strongest with [those with] ADD is the confidence in themselves. It’s an advantage because you think you’re the most stupid in the class. Happens with a lot of people who has ADD. But you begin to compensate with other mental processes, which was my case. It’s not the right way to cultivate, it’s a survival tool. You are a natural because you say, “I don’t understand how.” So your mind begins by compensating itself.


Salvar el fuego (2020)
Photo credit: Alfaguara/Pengiun Random House Grupo Editorial


So, it’s more reactive.

It’s reactive, exactly, because it’s surviving and that’s why it happened to me. Then I began to use this tool for school and I began putting together things. The other day I said to my daughter, “I always feel like I am distracted,” and she says, “You never pay attention to me.” So I think, “Yeah, you went with your friend, and then you came back, and you went here.” You listen, you listen, but it seems I am completely distracted. But I am listening. I am processing what you’re saying. She was surprised that her father, which she always thought was not paying attention, was actually paying attention.


There was so much madness in the relationship between every single character and Fernando, as one. It seemed brimming with madness. That’s one element I read in a lot of your characters: half side of the head is brimming with passion, half is brimming with madness of a very destructive kind. It’s often said that love can be destructive. But as you say, empathy is not.

Empathy is not destructive. And this is a book about empathy. It’s how I can understand who the other people are. The other one is. But it’s not it is not something I did in purpose. When I wrote No One Left Behind or The Three Burials, I was trying to tell a story of things I had seen in life. Of course, I am a porous being and things will infiltrate. That’s what I told my students. Because if not you become pretentious. You just try to tell the story as well as you can.


My father processes information in a way where he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention, but it’s all processing in the background. Eventually, you come forward and say, “Did you hear what I said?” My dad would say, “I heard absolutely everything you said. Now, tell me the next thing. Go on.”

Yeah. So that’s how my mind is working. I have no understanding of logic. For example, if you give me instructions to assemble something, I have no idea how to do it. If [I had to] disarm a machine, I would not be capable of putting it back together. But I can write going back and forth and not getting lost because I know how to put together things not in a conscious way, as you say, but in the back of my mind. Something is putting together all this mess.


In the novel, there are incredibly intimate scenes of violence. This book, your films, all have allusions to close-up and unforgiving scenes of human conflict. What kind of role or what kind of reaction has violence been for you? Not just creatively, but for yourself and having to translate that?

Well, I must tell you something. I come from a very loving family. I do not come from a dysfunctional family. But I came from the hood. You get out of the hood, but the hood doesn’t get out of you. So, I was subject of extreme violence since I was a kid. Not in my family. I didn’t have an abusive father, didn’t have an alcoholic mom. Nothing like that. But the hood was the hood. And things happened to me. I have no no trauma about it. It’s not like I am stuck in the past and I have all these demons worrying me. No. I am thankful that I lived through these things because it made me tougher. It gave me some material subject to talk about. But beyond violence, I think that my work is always about love. It’s always about love.


The core elements of No One Left Behind are acts of love and sacrifice. I think the two things go hand in hand.

In No One Left Behind, I think there are two families that come together. Your unit is a kind of family for soldiers. That story, you know where I got it from? New Mexico. I was scouting for The Burning Plain, and I was looking for a home. So I scouted many houses and the closest was, basically, inspiring. No doubt. It’s a little bit from Albuquerque North. Albuquerque South is basically Mexico. It’s still Mexico. But I went to many houses scouting locations and one of them was from illegal alien families. Many of them have a little altar with a photograph of their dead son or daughter, and they were Mexicans (legal Mexicans) that in order to get a green card from their family, they fought. Some of them were deported. So the story comes from New Mexico. I think that when you are in war, soldiers stop feeling that the guy is different from you. He’s your brother-in-arms, and you give your life for him and he gives your life for you. You defend whoever is on your side, if it’s a Mexican or Chinese or a black guy, you’re fighting with them. I think that these guys didn’t allow your brother-in-arms to betray them. The current betrayal is to allow him to be reported without any reason.


I think that the message of these brothers-in-arms, about the willingness to fight, shoulder to shoulder, is really quite poignant. Especially at a time when the human melody is in such discord. There’s a lot of dissonance right now in the way that we relate to one another. But there are so many walls to try and jump over, break through, go under. Do those walls really exist for you? Or do you feel that your work just sees no wall?

No, I think there are a lot of walls in life. I’m a hunter. So as a hunter, I hunt with bow and arrow and it’s an observation of nature. I’m gonna give you an example. I was hunting for wild turkey, [of] which there are a lot in Pennsylvania. I was crawling with the bow. You know, it’s very difficult to run with one bow because of the moment you pull the string. There were two male turkeys. I scared them and they flew toward another flock, thinking it was their flock. The moment they landed, they were attacked by the flock. Killed them. Because they were not part of that flock.


Danny Huston as ‘Lieutenant Colonel Smith’ (L) and Jorge A. Jimenez (R) as ‘Santiago’
No One Left Behind (2019)
Dir. Guillermo Arriaga
Photo credit: Follow the Wolf/Itaca Films


They still recognized the intruders.

They recognize intruders. They do not belong. There were male, young males. There was a big guy and he’s like, “You have no place here.” They killed him.


Rivals recognize one another.

And so nature, also in our nature, there are a lot of roles that are there with us. We have a sense of territory, of group, of belonging. Civilization tries to break these walls, and it’s not always capable of doing it. I made a film that didn’t come out, in Venice, called Words Of Gods. I’m an atheist. But I’m obsessed with those walls and I think that religion is one of those walls. So I made this this film about religions. We were nine directors, talking about the religions. Either they were religious, or it was a religion they were closer to. I went to Israel with Amos Gitai, I went with Emir Kusturica to Serbia.


Is this the Heartbeat of the World project?

That’s correct. Yeah, I wanted to study these walls. Race is a wall. Politics is a wall. Even a football team is a wall. People kill each other because you belong to another team. It’s ridiculous. What is the biggest wall now? England is suffering. Brexit? Why are you leaving? Because I don’t like foreigners. It’s a wall. So, I think that our job as artists is not to bring down the walls, but just to make people see them.


To have people recognize what those obstacles are before we can break them.

Yeah. Freud said that the self tries to save as much energy as possible. One way of saving energies is the cliché. The cliché helps me. “Black guys, they are lazy,” and, “Blonde girls are stupid.” You know, all these clichés make me save energy. We are also into commonplaces, because of this. It’s easier to say Mexicans are responsible for the Americans [who] do not have jobs. Polish and Portuguese workers are responsible that [there are] no jobs here in England, or these black guys, or the Muslims, you know? We begin to be suspicious of each other. But we have to acknowledge that walls exist.


I won’t pay lip service to your film Babel, but one of the more potent takeaways for me was the idea that it’s not the language itself that became the enemy for people. It’s our own hubris that generated savagery from God (in the Biblical story), and that anger at our hubris and our pride. The word Babel, I think, does carry unhealthy clichés. Your film scratched a little bit further into the problem of pride. What are your feelings on pride in terms of how it affects our communicative abilities?

Well, first of all, I think that my role is to break clichés. For example, in No One Left Behind, we’re always in Mexico. Think of the US Army like the mean guys who are killing machines. They are the imperialist forces that they go to everywhere where they are not called to, to create a mess. But they respond to policies not to themselves. So in No One Left Behind I wanted to humanize. Imagine being in your town in the middle of nowhere in Mexico and suddenly these trucks come and guys in uniform get down. What is this, you know? They began to interact and see this humanity. What happened with Words Of Gods, the film from the Heartbeat of the World project and one of our religion, the director didn’t know what the other one was doing. For example, the Japanese story is exactly the same as the Brazilian story. The same. How religion can soothe the pain or the loss of someone you love? Many of the stories of that film touches on the issue. For example, Amos Gitai (the Israeli director) made The Book of Famous. It’s like, “You, Palestinians, I hate you!” and the Palestinians, “You, Israelis, we will destroy you!” This was 3,000 years ago, and we’re incapable of bringing together people who are basically the same genetic roots.


As a teenager, I spent a summer in Israel with our synagogue group. We went into the village of Ramallah, in the year 2000. We were introduced to Arab Palestinians in that village who invited young Jewish-American women and men into their homes. We’d never seen such hospitality and such openness among the people there. Two months later, Ramallah was practically wiped out. You look at a story like No One Left Behind, and religion pointedly isn’t the motivator in terms of soothing those wounds.

You know, I’m obsessed with the Jewish culture. I said yesterday in a live stream, “So you’re complaining about being in your houses as isolated. Imagine how kids and Jewish teenagers felt when they have to be in the basement. Without any light. In the middle of the winter. Completely dark, with little food, they cannot talk because they would be killed. So please don’t complain.” Don’t complain because many people has lived like that for centuries. They have to be hiding themselves because of their background. The US has the biggest walls. If something happens to the world, “Oh, there’s a conspiracy from the Jews.” I personally get offended. I played football soccer with a group of Jewish friends. I was the only one who had no Bar Mitzvah [laughs]. I remember a guy said, “Get the fuck out of my country, you fucking Jew[ish].” He was calm, I was not. So, try to bring down those walls. But, it if we did not understand they exist, we will never bring them down. I don’t think that political correctness is the way.

Political correctness is only hiding the problem, not addressing the problem. So as you say the thing you have with the Arabs, that the enemy was really not an enemy. When you begin having this conversation, deeper conversation, I think that things begin to be understood. That’s what I tried to do with No One Left Behind. This begins a conversation. Let’s not say, “The Americans are bad, the Mexicans are bad.” Here in Mexico, we still have a big wound, which is what we consider when [they were] stealing half of our territory. Pearls were stolen. It was not bought. Americans may say, “We bought you the land.” Yeah, but you put a gun in my in my head and said, “I give you $1 for your car.”


It was ransoming land that was already yours.

Yeah, like you have the gun here. There’s this feeling of betrayal because the Mexican government invited Americans to Mexico so they will be farmers, [so] they will become Mexican someday. More Texans. They had this thing like, “Guys, but we invited you.” Every American in Mexico is always suspected of having double intentions. You know, “Why is he here? What does he want here?” So I also want to raise that, and in Mexico we have to close that wound that’s very open, by the way. The United States is still a very racist country.


Film still
No One Left Behind (2019)
Dir. Guillermo Arriaga
Photo credit: Follow the Wolf/Itaca Films


I lived in New Mexico as an infant. A Mexican woman looked after me until I was four. My parents taught me from Day One that this was the most important person in our house. This sort of absence of walls can be taught. How do you institute that thought process in people that are so seemingly unwilling to break through, as you’ve seen in the United States?

Through empathy. Through, “Look, this guy has the same problems that you have.” There was an article saying how this pandemic is gonna question the Republican point of view. They’re saying all the time, “Let’s put the wall, let’s have these Mexicans out of the country, these Guatemalans.” Now they are protected, because they’re the only ones who are picking up food, the only ones milking the cows, the only ones who are making clothes, the only ones still working. All the food industry depends on migrants. They have just realized that if you expel all of them, your food industry will collapse. And your construction. And everything. So these kind of things through empathy, which I tried to make in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is the idea of empathy. We artists have no way of getting answers and it’s not our job to give answers. Our job is to raise questions. That’s what I try to do in No One Left Behind. “Does this guy deserve honors, or does he deserve to be deported?”


Speaking of Melquiades Estrada: in the final scene of that film, Tommy Lee Jones’s character Perkins, practically shoots at Norton (played by Barry Pepper), forcing him to recant and ask forgiveness of the man he killed. Only at gunpoint did he break, though. I knew that that act of violence turned the key for Norton. I feel like in our deepest id: like artists, writers, we seek that sort of turnkey moment where someone like that is forced to reckon with redemption. How do you make that moment without violence?

I think this has to do with the size of the wall, and this guy understood that he was going to be killed, that he killed a Mexican. The journey of the Mexican the other way around. Right? The Mexican was illegal coming into the United States. He’s going illegally into Mexico. He’s going to get killed as illegal aliens are killed. Senselessly. So he understands that his life can be taken, the same way he took [it] away. It’s not violence. Many American critics ask me about The Three Burials; why I did a movie about revenge? It’s not about revenge. It’s about justice. The primitive way that the character of Tommy Lee Jones realizes that he can make justice is making the journey. The whole journey.


In the Western genre, redemption comes through personal melancholy paired with sacrifice. Justice is served on an individual level to create a platform for redemption. At the end of that film, redemption had to be triggered. All of a sudden, harmony is restored. Sometimes I feel, as artists, we’re so desperate for that moment. Where do you think we stand now? How far away are we?

We are very far away. Because the capitalist system controls the extreme even deeper. It’s funny that the two countries that push from globalization are now retreating. That’s already a war of the creators of these political orders. Along with John Paul II, the pope, they’re like, “Wow, what a mess we created.” Now, I am scared. Marx always felt that the left was gonna pick all the resentment of the working class. What’s happening now is the extreme right wing, we’re picking up their resentment. Funny. It’s exactly the opposite of Marx. It’s the nationalistic, racist, right wing is the one always cannabalizing their resentment.


Somehow they’re also cannibalizing themselves in the process because they’re so fragile. It’s such a it’s such a fragile mind frame.

Yeah. But now, this Brexit thing is like, “Well, you were the ones who were pushing for it.” Let’s open the borders for the products and the money. They didn’t realize that opening the borders also meant people. Migration. So right now we have the worst worlds. The worst of all. I think the United States is going through a very dark period. The United States was founded through very capital sins. Violence. Slavery. Genocide. Theft. They stole half of Mexican territory. They stole from black people, from Native Americans. The United States is contradictory. But [in] some parts of United States, they are the light, they are the way to follow their freedom. But they have a very dark side now. That dark side is coming out. So we have to be more careful with those rules, right now.


For a young writer, filmmaker, photographer, what are some tools that a young artist could utilize?

I always told my students, never try to write a political movie. Never try to be deep. Just write the story you want to tell. If it’s superficial, it’s because you are a superficial guy. If it’s a deep story, it’s because you are deep. If it’s a political story, it’s because you are political. But don’t try to put the burden on art. So I will ask young artists, writers, and filmmakers not try to be, not try to send any kind of message. Just write the story, just tell the story.


It sounds to me like you’re not a proponent of “auteurship.”

I must tell you, I’m a humble storyteller, and I try to do my best. I basically have no idea how my process works. I write my novels and what I write I just sit down and begin writing with no plan. I have no – like brilliant British writers like Peter Morgan, who make a ton of research and knows everything about the characters and plans everything – I have exactly the opposite method and just see them. No research. No idea of who the characters are, no idea of the ending. Personally I think that’s how we should do things. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Peter Morgan way or my way. You cannot put the burden of trying to keep up important message. Because that’s propaganda, not art.


To tell your stories when you’re in either on set or whether you’re in writing mode, is there a particular set of ambient circumstances that help you to enhance or to further your writing when you are working?

You know something, I am happy that I have been in places, so that helps me. Since I’m a hunter, the only act of hunting. It’s control, it’s a lot of paradoxes and contradictions. I go to the border, I’ve been going to the board since the age of twelve. I know the border pretty well. I have written several things about border: Three Burials, Burning Plain, Babel, No One Left Behind. My previous book also has to do with the border. So I’ve been in the border and I’ve been in the hood. I have heard stories around, I have witnessed stories. I think that’s an advantage I have.

Many writers, they come from a very protected environment. They go from their apartment in New York to school, from school to the apartment. Most of their sense of life comes from TV or books. I know people who are against hunting, and when I see them, I say to them, “Have you ever been in the wild? Have you ever even tried to hunt? Do you know where your food comes from?” They have no idea. I know the pain I cast to an animal to eat it. What death and pain means. I think that’s my advantage as a writer. Oh, I don’t think that all other writers or filmmakers are lesser because of that. Borges was a very protective kid. He worked until the age of 39. I don’t know if you have read Borges, and all of his work come from libraries, not from life, and he is a genius.


At FRONTRUNNER, we talk about all artists: filmmakers, writers, musicians, about their space. Are there a couple of things you feel are really important to have with you, even when you’re not working?

Well, it is not a physical thing, it’s a drive. If you come here to my studio, it’s full of objects that I have bought all around the world. It has nothing to do with minimalistic things. Marie Kondo would hate me. I have like 7,000 books here. 1,000 DVDs, and I guess 1,000 CD’s or more. Now I travel a lot and I have I learned to write wherever I was. I love writing in planes because you don’t have the distraction of internet or calls or anything. I learned to write in waiting rooms of production companies, in restaurants, in trains, in train stations, in airports. Everywhere I can, I write. In the beginning, I needed my space and my books and music, but what you need is the drive to write. That’s it.

Young writers ask me, “How can I become a writer?” It’s very simple. Write. I taught many years in university and the most talented students were scared, because rejection is very painful. But you have to be sure about it. Sometimes when I give a lecture, I say that I need five women and five men come up and get naked. “Like really?” “Really.” No one volunteers. Girls are more brave than men. They come up and say, “Well, okay, I’m not gonna get nude.” Just imagine that you make yourself naked and then I say, “Work through all the lengths, and people will call you, smell you, open, taste, touch. Then they will say, “Ugh, you are so disgusting, you stink, you’re fat, you have a small penis, you have your tits hanging.” Many people walk in and say, “I will never get naked.” The strongest are the ones who say, “I don’t mind. Someone will like it.” And that’s right. When you are completely naked, people like touching and seeing your entrails. They are tasting you. “Oh my God, I am completely naked.” Then people say like, “I hate your book. It’s so horrible.” If you’re not strong enough, you will be destroyed.


I think hostility can become a great motivator.

But sometimes the worst hostility come from within yourself. That’s the worst of them. Once you begin to have hostility against your own work, there’s no way you can overcome being an artist. So, my recommendation is to overcome your own hostility. Don’t castrate or emasculate yourself. Don’t cook your fallopian tubes.We say the first draft of everything is shit. Hemingway was right. It was shit. Yeah, it’s always going to be shit. It’s the rigor and the discipline that makes it good.


My own taste in films and different kinds of visual culture is very pedestrian. I grew up watching James Bond. I realised that James Bond wasn’t an interesting person, or this incredible hero. It was the man who wrote him and created him, Ian Fleming. He created a boring-as-hell character that interesting things happen to. You need to be able to put yourself into these situations and to put yourself into a mind frame of being able to viscerally experience things, otherwise, where does this come from?

But there’s something also very important. You can write, or make films about being very bored, or dumb – is also subject of masterpieces – Jane Austen…




They were people who were work. Sofia Coppola with Lost in Translation. It’s about boredom. So, being bored, many people think they need to have experiences of life and go to war, like Hemingway, but no. Maybe being bored in your computer every day with nothing happening can be a subject of a masterpiece.


Photo credit: Alfaguara


There are lots of young artists who feel this anxiety around boredom, especially during the pandemic. I think it’s true what you’re saying. I think we’re bored. We think we’re bored to death. And that’s what keeps us going.

I write basically never bored because to write Fuego has some thoughts about what it means when you have no chance in life, when you are imprisoned for life. That’s boredom, and how you can debate boredom. These guys began constructing stories in their heads. No paper to write [on], but always creating things in their head. I think that we should not devalue boredom. From boredom, people can create a lot of things. I am myself – not a bored person. I spend a lot of time in my house. I love being in my house. I do not go out. I never drank alcohol, I have never done any kind of drugs. Never in my life. Ever. But when I go out, I go out. I am in life. So, being in your apartment by yourself with nothing to lose is also life and a great artist is the one who can take any subject and make it a masterpiece.


To find out more about DreamAgo and how to apply for the screenwriting intensive Plume & Pellicule, go here. Scripts and submissions are accepted in English, French, and Spanish.

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