FOR MORE THAN 30 years, the horrifying image of a couple trapped inside a burning house in Mexico City has haunted screenwriter-turned-director Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga, best known for penning " Amores Perros," " 21 Grams" and"Babel," let his imagination run free, wondering who these people were; what their stories were. The story was the catalyst for Arriaga's directorial debut,"The Burning Plain." It's a romantic tragedy staring Oscar-winners Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron, who plays Sylvia, a restaurant manager by day, sex junkie by night and, later on, a mother. One singular tragic moment of a burning home propels this story of love between a mother and daughter in New Mexico, and the love of that daughter and her own little girl in Oregon. We talked to Arriaga about his latest project.» EXPRESS: How did you approach Charlize Theron about her role? » ARRIAGA: It didn't take too long to convince her to be in the movie. She told me, "In Hollywood, we're used to being likeable characters." This character is hard to like, at least in the beginning. But there's hope in this character, in that she has many layers and that she can improve her life. It's what drew Charlize to the project, and she's the first person that came to mind when writing this story. » EXPRESS: Have there been concepts in this film and in your previous works? » ARRIAGA: When I think of stories, I always think of a concept. In "Amores Perros," it was about the relationship between man and dog. In "Babel" it was the last day of something, the 24 hours that changed the life of someone. In "The Burning Plain," the concept was the four elements. The story of Sylvia was the story of water, and it's what held me to the location — in rainy, gloomy coastal Oregon. The story of earth was with Gina [Basinger] and Nick [Joaquim de Almeida, two lovers in the farmlands of rural New Mexico]. Air was represented by the farmers when they fly their crop dusters. And then there's fire, which is Mariana [Jennifer Lawrence] and Santiago [Danny Pino, the kids of Gina and Nick], with Jennifer Lawrence always making fire or playing with fire. It gave me coherence for stories I've been gathering in my mind for many, many years. » EXPRESS: Despite the very dark scenes throughout the movie, in the end, is this a love story? » ARRIAGA: This is a movie about love, but not the Valentine card kind of love. It's love in all its intensities. It's love in all of its destructiveness, redemption capacity, romantic love, love between mother and daughter. It's an exploration of love, through tragedy, an exploration of love through the hope that love can bring. » Area theaters, opens Fri.