'Babel' beginnings as life-changing day story


"Babel" beginnings: Of the five best picture Oscar nominees, only two have managed to hit the trifecta of best directing, screenwriting and film editing nominations that many Hollywood handicappers consider to be the mark of a frontrunner.

Both Paramount Vantage's "Babel" and Warner Bros.' "The Departed" have noms in all three key categories as well as in the best picture race. Moreover, "Babel" screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and "Departed" screenwriter William Monahan are both competing for Writers Guild of America awards this Sunday -- although Arriaga's up for best original screenplay and Monahan's nominated for best adapted screenplay, just as they are in the Oscars.

As for the other best picture contenders, Miramax's "The Queen" and Warner Bros.' "Letters From Iwo Jima" both have directing and writing nods, but aren't up for editing. And Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" has a writing nom, but nothing for directing or editing.

In the case of "Babel," which made my top 10 list in December, the film's screenwriting nomination is for Arriaga's original screenplay, which is based on an idea by Arriaga and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film's director. With several years of work having gone into the screenplay, I was happy to be able to catch up recently with Arriaga to talk about "Babel's" beginnings.

"I had an old concept I wanted to explore," he told me, "which is the concept of the last thing of something, the last day of something. For example, the last day of innocence. I have always been obsessed with that precise moment when everything changes for someone and that day amounts to a huge change of your life. So with that concept, the last day, I began thinking (of) stories that would be narrated in 24 hours, no more than 24 hours. I had old stories in my head that I began to put together to have this sense of the last day. The complexity for me of this work was that I needed to have four stories that would be narrated in the round and, at the same time, (that would) fulfill the concept of the last day.

"Basically, all writers have like 120 pages to create characters, to create dramatic tension. I have only 30 pages for each one of the stories. So I need to make it very tight and try to choose the right words and the right scenes that will express this. On the other hand, I also want to continue what I had begun with 'Amores Perros,' which is to tell stories of consequences and how an accident can put together different people around the world. So this is how I had this concept."

Arriaga was thinking about writing such a film going back to 2000 and 2001: "I had this (idea) in my head so I needed the stories that would make it (work). The original title was 'The Last Day' and I worked with the draft of that name until (in 2005) Gus Van Sant released a movie called "Last Days,' which pushed us to change the title. So Alejandro, who is very good with titles, came up with the 'Babel' title."

Asked about the idea for the film, which is credited to Gonzalez Inarritu and Arriaga, he said, "It is credited to him because I had this story first placed only in two countries. He asked to have it in four and that's why he has the 'idea by' credit. Mexico and the United States (were the first two countries Arriaga selected). I wasn't sure if I would have it in Spain and another country or Mexico and the United States. I wanted a relationship between the Third World and the First World. I'm kind of upset with borders."

Was the idea of setting "Babel's" two other stories in Morocco and Japan from Gonzalez Inarritu? "No, he said put it wherever you want," Arriaga replied. "First I put it in Tunisia. It was set in Morocco because of the logistics and facilities. But I had it in the south of Tunisia. That was where the original screenplay had it. When we were scouting locations, Jon Kilik (who produced 'Babel' with Steve Golin and Gonzalez Inarritu) had just made a film in Morocco, 'Alexander,' and said it was a great place to shoot because there were (very good) accommodations and everything. The story of the Japanese girl was first placed in Spain and I had to say, 'You know, it will look a lot like Mexico, let's look for some other country.' And I said, 'What about Shanghai?'"

Arriaga's idea of China evolved into setting the girl's story in Japan. "I had never been either to Shanghai or Japan and I have never been to Morocco," he noted. "I wrote this without being there. I didn't encounter any kind of problems (from not having been there). I tried to be authentic, trying to create the most human stories possible in those setting and trying to avoid cartoonish cliches of nationalities."

In "21 Grams," the 2003 drama that Gonzalez Inarritu directed and that Arriaga wrote (for which he received a BAFTA nomination), there also were multiple interconnecting storylines. "You know, I have been trying to bring literary structures to screenplays," Arriaga explained. "The basis of my work is a lot of William Faulkner. For example, 'Amores Perros' had the kind of structure of 'The Sound and the Fury.' When I read 'The Sound and the Fury' when I was 19 I said I would love to (write) a film with this kind of structure. So I have been exploring these narrative structures. I think that in real life we have very sophisticated and complex narrations. We never go linear when we tell stories in real life. We deal with, as I said, very complex structures. So I tried to bring those kind of literary structures and narration structures to cinema."

When he's writing, Arriaga doesn't post note cards with details of scenes on a bulletin board the way many screenwriters do. "I never write notes," he told me. "I don't have cards. I don't even write outlines. I don't do any kind of research. I try to be guided by intuition. For example, in 'Babel' I wrote 36 pages of the Moroccan story and (at that point) I felt by intuition that I needed a cut -- 'Now I need to cut here because here we have a tense dramatic moment.' So I began writing the other story. And when I felt it was okay, I cut and then I moved to the other story. So I was writing the screenplay more or less as you see it on the screen, trying to have the right cuts in the narration so the dramatic tension will grow in the audience. It's not that I wrote them linear and then chopped it. I wrote it in the fashion it's seen as it unfolds."

As for how he actually does his writing, he said, "Now I write on a computer, but I think I was the last writer to use a computer. I began using it in 2001. 'Amores Perros' I wrote on a typewriter. I use Movie Magic Screenwriter and I like it a lot, let me tell you. I'm very happy with that software. Everyone in my company is using it."

The time of day that he writes, however, depends on what the demands on him happen to be: "When I don't have any kind of pressure, I write from 10 p.m. to like 4 or 5 a.m. But when I have pressure, when I have deadlines, I write in airplanes, I write in trains, I write in hotel rooms, I write in restaurants, I write wherever I can (and whenever possible)."

Why is he happiest writing in the dead of night? "I don't know," he replied. "Since I was a kid I always loved (being) a night person. Now I have a teenage daughter. She's 15. She sleeps in the afternoon and then you see her working at 1 or 2 in the morning. We're like ghosts! While my son and my wife are sleeping, she and I like working at that time. I think it's in the personality. I don't know where it comes from, but since I was a little kid I've always liked more to work at night than during the day. It may have to do with (the fact that) I have ADD (attention deficit disorder) so at night things are more calm and relaxing (making it easier to concentrate on working)."

In terms of how he works with Gonzalez Inarritu, he explained, "I write the screenplay and I give it to him and he gives me notes. We have one agreement that I will put in the screenplay whatever I think is necessary. It's not like (him saying), 'I need this and you should put it (in).' It's like he gives me notes and I consider if they are appropriate for the screenplay or not."

Was "Babel" shot pretty close to how Arriaga wrote it? "Yes," he replied. "Very pretty close. I have been fortunate that the movies I have been involved with have been (shot) pretty close to the screenplays."

Although Arriaga wasn't on the set during filming, virtually nothing was changed from what he had written in his screenplay: "Alejandro had asked for a scene, but I didn't think the scene was necessary. It's a little take, just one take of the nanny (played by Adriana Barraza, a best supporting actress Oscar nominee for her performance) kissing an old man in the wedding (scene). That wasn't in the script. But it's the only thing that was added (during shooting)."

When I brought up the recent mini-controversy about how many minutes of English language dialogue are in "Babel" versus how many minutes of dialogue are spoken in other languages, Arriaga replied by asking, "Have you ever been to a restaurant here in L.A.? It's a mixture (of languages just as 'Babel' is). It's amazing. Basically, I have no need to speak English sometimes here in L.A. I can go through life speaking only Spanish. You know, this is something that doesn't concern me, doesn't worry me, that the movie's about languages. I think that right now the world is about languages. I think that the United States is now realizing (the effect of) all this globalization. You can see it in the nominees (who are a very international group this year). So things are changing."

While writing the film's screenplay he said he had "no idea" as to who would be cast to play the roles that ultimately went to Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. "I never write with anyone in mind," he observed, "except for 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,' which I wrote knowing that Tommy Lee Jones was going to be the main character. And he directed it. I'm very proud of that film."

Looking ahead, he told me, "I have just finished one screenplay, 'The Burning Plain' -- like landscape, the plain. It sounds like a burning airplane, but it's playing with words. And I have another project I'm just finishing that is called 'The Jealousy Project.'"

Are these also multiple storyline films? "One them is -- 'The Burning Plain,'" he said. "The other one is small. It's switching the point of views, but it's basically one story. They are original screenplays. I've pitched the idea to producers and they acquired them. I only write originals. I don't write adaptations. First of all because it's very difficult for me to develop other people's ideas or stories. I want to tell original stories, so if I can do good ones I will try to be an original screenplay writer. The only novels I have been adapting have been my own, which hasn't been easy, I can tell you."

That's not only because it's hard to have to cut out material from your own novels, he agreed, but also because, "My novels are very introspective. They look very visual, but they are very introspective. It's basically what's going on inside the mind and hearts of the characters so it's very difficult to put them into images. I have adapted two of them. One has just been shot. I produced a Mexican film (in 2006) based on one of my novels, 'The Night Buffalo.' 'A Sweet Scene of Death' was adapted to a film (made in Mexico and released abroad in 1999). I only sold the rights. I wasn't writing screenplays at that moment of my life, so I only sold the rights to the novel. It's a film I don't like. And 'The Guillotine Squad,' that's an adaptation and still unproduced."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 16, 1989's column: "As titles go, 20th Century Fox's 'Gleaming the Cube,' which is opened Friday, is one that truly tests your familiarity with the contemporary English language. Having absolutely no idea myself what it might mean, I consulted the production notes for the translation -- a term used by skateboarders that refers to achieving the ultimate.

"How did the project come about? 'Michael Tolkin, the writer of 'Gleaming the Cube,' pitched me the story and I love coming of age stories,' Lawrence Turman, who co-produced 'Cube' with David Foster, told me Sunday when h was my guest on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable TV program...

"Having Turman on the show presented an opportunity for me to ask him to tell a story about 'The Graduate' (the classic 1967 hit comedy drama that Turman produced) that he'd told me over lunch several years ago and that's always seemed to me to be a Hollywood classic. To appreciate the tale you need to know that 'The Graduate,' which generated domestic film rentals of more than $43 million, had not been an easy project to get made. In fact, according to Turman, every studio in town had turned it down at least once before it was finally greenlighted at the old Avco Embassy Pictures.

"After 'The Graduate' was a big hit, Turman was walking down the street and ran into one of the studio heads who had turned the picture down. 'Larry,' he said, 'why didn't you make me make 'The Graduate?' Turman recalls with a laugh that reflects his having tried unsuccessfully to do just that. 'I said, 'I happen to have another script that I like. Can I make you make that one?' And the answer was 'No!'..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.