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AFI Dallas: Where the Screenplays Come From


by Stephen Becker 31 Mar 2009

The opening image of Monday night’s centerpiece film, The Burning Plain, shows am Airstream-like trailer engulfed in flames in the middle of an open field. As the story unfolds, we learn who’s in that trailer, why they are there and how that fire got started. But what was it about a fire, as opposed to […]

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The opening image of Monday night’s centerpiece film, The Burning Plain, shows am Airstream-like trailer engulfed in flames in the middle of an open field. As the story unfolds, we learn who’s in that trailer, why they are there and how that fire got started. But what was it about a fire, as opposed to any other disaster, that interested Burning Plain writer and director Guillermo Arriaga?

“When I was 10, there was a fire in the neighborhood. There was a huge blaze, and someone told us that there were people inside,” Arriaga said during a Q&A following his film. “Fortunately, there was no one inside, but just the thought that there could be was terrifying.”

The Burning Plain is littered with images burned inside Arriaga’s brain that serve as jumping off points for his story. To say much about the plot of Burning Plain is to say too much, but the basic structure alternates between two stories – one in Las Cruces, N.M., near the Mexican border and one in Portland, Ore. The viewer spends the bulk of the movie trying to piece together how these two stories fit together.

As Arriaga spoke on Tuesday night, he mentioned other plot devices that come from his own experience. In the film, a cropdusting plane crashes, setting off a chain of events; Arriaga once almost crashed into a cropduster with his car. He also said that there was a trailer home near the place where he used to hunt that other hunters would use to carry on extra-marital affairs (hint, hint). Heck, the two main younger characters, Santiago and Marianna, share names with Arriaga’s kids.

Where do the facts in Arriaga’s mind end and the fictional story begin? Only the writer knows for sure.

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