When filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga was 10 and living in Mexico City, a friend burst through his front door to tell him there was a house on fire in their neighborhood. They ran to the site and stood, enraptured, watching the flames. Arriaga's feelings of exhilaration quickly turned to horror when someone told him there were people trapped inside.
"Just imagining that was beyond shocking," the soft-spoken Arriaga remembers. "Later, a fireman said, 'There was no one inside, really.' I'm not sure if they told us that to calm us. It didn't matter. The idea had already worked into my imagination."
That image of a flame-engulfed structure opens Arriaga's new movie, "The Burning Plain," which, like his three collaborations with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and "Babel"), jumps between time and stories, weaving seemingly unrelated plot threads into weighty examinations of life's big-ticket issues. The movie, which opened Friday, marks Arriaga's debut as a feature director.
"The Burning Plain" leisurely tracks the ties between the fire and the unhappy life of a Portland, Ore., restaurant manager (Charlize Theron) who's using sex as a way to avoid the demons of her past. There's also a New Mexico border-town housewife (Kim Basinger) finding new life in another man's arms, much to the displeasure of her teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence). Arriaga connects the three women, using the elevated tension inherent in his trademark multi-narrative style to devastating effect.
"I love all the different ways Guillermo shows how we see love and need love and how other people judge us for that very primal need," Theron says.
A running theme throughout Arriaga's work is the universal need for connection and the fragile and fleeting nature of the bonds people make. With "The Burning Plain," he continues to explore the misunderstandings between husbands and wives, parents and children and the fallout from these communication breakdowns -- guilt, anxiety and more guilt.
Arriaga, 51, has had no such trouble maintaining close ties in his own life. He peppers his writing with nods to his wife, Eugenia, and their two children, 18-year-old Mariana and 16-year-old Santiago. Arriaga has been with his wife for 25 years, which is, he notes, "a lot of time."
"But she is so gorgeous," he says, laughing, "and such a nice woman."
In conversation, Arriaga laughs a lot. "I can be funny sometimes," he offers. That kind of statement, usually spoken by self-serious men, often rings hollow, but with him it's true, though it helps if you appreciate humor on the dry side.
"My first novel was a comedy," Arriaga says, waiting a beat. "It was called 'The Guillotine Squad.' "
OK, David Letterman he's not. But he is a man possessing a clear, passionate focus. Theron calls Arriaga "one of the sincerest people" she's ever met, an "incredibly gentle soul who never runs out of conversation." That conversation would not take place at a bar, though. Arriaga says he has never had alcohol, smoked a cigarette or taken drugs.
"When I grew up, in order to be a man you had to drink, do drugs, all of that," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to be a man without any of that.' And that was it. It wasn't for moral reasons. Exactly the contrary. It was about rebellion."
Contrary to widespread reports, Arriaga did not come of age in a violent Mexico City neighborhood ("I can't tell you how many times I've changed that on Wikipedia," he says, "only for it to be changed back a half-hour later"), though he did, in fact, lose his sense of smell at 13 in a street brawl.
"When you're a kid and you have ADD, you're very impulsive, so I got into a lot of fights," Arriaga says. He adds that he's obsessed with smell in the same manner that Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges became fixated with mirrors after losing his eyesight.
"Odors are very important in my work," he says. "In 'Amores Perros,' there are scenes where they're cooking and you can almost smell it. In cinema, it's a sense you can almost perceive if it's well done."
Arriaga is in complete control of such execution these days. After collaborating throughout the shooting of "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," director Inarritu barred him from the set of "Babel," leading to a well-chronicled parting of the ways between the two men. ("It had to come to an end," Arriaga says. "But I still respect him.") Directing put Arriaga in the center of his favorite running obsession: human connection.
"Writing is a very lonely activity," Arriaga says. "You cannot turn to anyone and ask, 'Where should I go now?' When you are directing, you can always turn to your director of photography and say, 'I have no idea. Help me.' Having all those people with that energy, everyone fighting to make the best film possible, is something to enjoy."