Incredible Duo Shares Their Vision: Guillermo Arriaga and Janusz Kaminski


As part of its Contemporary Tendencies programme, the Küstendorf festival screened a short film, Broken Night. The scriptwriter and director, Guillermo Arriaga, and the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, then held a discussion with students and other guests of the festival. Friendly relations, humor and smooth interaction of the tandem established a flow of incredible energy during this workshop.

The conversation started with questions about the film. Arriaga first noted that he treated short films as equally valuable to long feature films, and he then talked about the shooting of the film, which had taken two days, about a fawn which refused cooperation with the film crew as well as a work with non-actors and child-actors.

Kaminski spoke about technical details of the shooting using a digital camera. He said that the best part of such shooting was the size of the camera that could be easily mounted on the set wherever you wanted. Arriaga added that he had set up a rule for himself never to use digital technologies in the shooting process but this was a principle which he had to give up.

Both authors elegantly avoided to answer a repeated question from the floor asking them to interpret the story of Broken Night and its strange ending.

The duo was then asked to comment on their experience in the United States, given that they were both foreigners who had made impressive careers in Hollywood. Arriaga said:

There is meritocracy in the US, which is a good thing. Everyone has always treated me with respect and I have never felt discriminated because I am a Mexican. As far as movies are concerned, American movies are screened across the world, and so my films abroad had a bigger box-office than in the US.

Answering the same question, Kaminski, among other things, said:

You can start there either from the top or from the bottom. It is the middle area which is actually most crowded. America is different than Europe… [In Hollywood] They expect you to be able to communicate with Americans. They love you because of your talent but also expect you to make money for them. All in all, this is a great place for shooting movies, but it is difficult to fight for a position to do that.

Arriaga explained that he always wrote exclusively on the basis of his personal experience. He revealed that he had gotten the inspiration for Amores Perros thinking about a traffic accident which he had together with his dog named Kofi. The film 21 grams is inspired by Arriaga’s own close encounter with death. The Mexican screenwriter described this event in brief, in a story whose motifs are boxing, preparations for the Olympics and an infection of the heart muscle.

Asked about how they chose their associates, Kaminski said that the most important thing was to work with people who you like and respect, adding that it was ideal to work with friends.

You don’t want to be in a situation in which you go to work and shoot with a director whose personality you can’t stand.

Arriaga agreed, adding that it was also important for the tastes to be shared.

Answering a question about his cinematographic approach in particular scenes of Saving Private Ryan, Janusz Kaminski responded in a way which gave this workshop a quality of a stage performance. The sparkling Pole lowered his head and assumed a shaman-like position. What followed was an inimitable ten-minute-long monologue in which he meticulously described some of the techniques used in the film shot almost twenty years ago. It would be lacking in taste to try to retell recipes from a master’s workshop. He said:

Photography is a chemical process. Photography is life itself.

Students asked Arriaga to explain the way in which he wrote scripts and which language he used:

I always write in Spanish and then I send the script to a translator. Then I make changes in the English version… I have two rules which I follow: Never to write dialogues more than two lines long and I never use more than one page for a scene. I once told Quentin Tarantino that he did a lot of damage to cinematography. His scripts are based on dialogues and most people don’t have Quentin’s talent for writing dialogues… Also, shorter dialogues are easier to translate.

Arriaga added that he never researched his topics or developed characters. He also said that the usual rules of scriptwriting taught at film schools did not work for him. When he starts writing, he doesn’t want to know anything about characters and story he is writing. Arriaga also referred to the kind of writing in line with a well-established story as “boring”.

This event, which was something in between a stand-up comedy and a workshop, ended with a standing ovation by students, thrilled to have seen Kaminski and Arriaga in such an entertaining and direct manner.

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