Miguel Arteta is rapidly emerging as one of the most interesting and personal directors of his generation. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to a Peruvian father and Spanish mother, the would-be director grew up all over Latin America due to his father's itinerant existence as a Chrysler auto parts salesman. He went to high school in Costa Rica, but was expelled, and went to live with his sister in Boston, Massachusetts, graduating from The Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts. He then attended Harvard University's documentary program where he learned filmmaking. He eventually left for Wesleyan University, where he met future collaborators Matthew Greenfield and Mike White.
After graduating in 1989, his student film Every Day is a Beautiful Day won a Student Academy Award, which got him a job as a second assistant camera to Jonathan Demme on Cousin Bobby. Demme then recommended him to the American Film Institute, and Arteta received his MFA there in 1993.
His first film, Star Maps, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a critical hit, receiving five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. He then turned to directing television shows, helming episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, Freaks and Geeks, and Six Feet Under. He has also since directed episodes of The Office and Ugly Betty.
Arteta won a 2001 Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature Under $500,000 for Chuck & Buck, which teamed him up with Greenfield (producer) and White (screenwriter and star). The trio worked together once more on 2002's The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston.
Miguel's latest project, Youth in Revolt, the film adaptation of C.D. Payne's first book in a series of best-selling satirical novels of the same name, casts Michael Cera as Nick Twisp, a cynical, sex-obsessed, loveable 16 year-old loser with mature tastes in music, film and women. While on vacation to the ‘Restless Axels’ trailer park with his dysfunctional and desperately middle-aged mother (Jean Smart) and truck-driving unlawful boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), he meets the girl of his dreams, the intelligent, sophisticated and sexually forward Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) and Nick falls deeply in love.
Arteta has also completed shooting "Cedar Rapids", starring Sigourney Weaver, Ed Helms and John C.Reilly, with Alexander Payne producing.
Following the world premiere of Youth in Revolt during last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Dark Horizons correspondent Melissa Algaze sat down with the director to discuss the film, which finally will unspool to US audiences in early January.
Question: How did you first become aware of the C.D. Payne novels, and what drew you to film the first one?
Arteta: David Permut sent me the book then when I heard Michael Cera was involved – I’m a huge fan of his – I read it. I had heard that it was his favorite book, so I was excited to read it, but I was really blown away by it. Talk about a book that does not condescend to teenagers. It was such a naughty and smart voice for a teenaged kid. He basically doesn't talk like a teenager does, in all the novels or movies. So, that drew me in right away.
Question: What were the biggest challenges in getting this film made?
Arteta: Technically, it was hard – when you’re doing a person acting with himself, the ulterior ego coming into life, is hard technically. You have to film a person, time it, they have to hear it, and they have to have the conversation perfectly right. It was technically difficult.
Question: How did Michael (Cera) deal with that?
Arteta: He’s a musician, and he has perfect timing, so we were very lucky and we were able to do a lot, in the short amount of time we had. But I think he loved stepping into the role of Francois, it was something that was a delight for him.
Question: The film uses animated vignettes to tie together different parts of the story and move along the narrative, where did the inspiration for the animations came from?
Arteta: You know, the original script was written by Gustin Nash, and he had written some of that stuff into it. Then Michael and I wrote the script and we took it from there. The book is so eclectic, and just goes from one character to the next, so we thought it’d be interesting to have different kinds of animation, so that the audience starts getting the idea that things are never the same in this movie. They just keep jumping around, changing, so we just tried to find an animator that really got the tone, and we’re lucky to get this guy, Peter Sluszka, who is so talented, and so funny. It was a really perfect match for the movie.
Question: As you got to know Michael – I guess it sounds like you worked with him in writing, and then as a director. What surprised you the most about him?
Arteta: He has this incredible ability of making the creative process fun. It’s scary, when you’re making movies, because there’s a lot of money and a lot of pressure to be creative on the spot, you know? But when you’re around Michael, you don’t worry about any of those things. He has an amazing ability to just relax you, and make you feel like – okay, now’s the time. Not now. Okay. Let’s come up with something now. It’d be fun. So, he’s sort of fearless and present, and has a contagious energy, that makes you realize, “This is an opportunity, not a problem, ahead of us.”
Question: Tell me a little bit about casting Portia Doubleday. Was it challenging to find somebody? Did you want to find someone who was unknown?
Arteta: Yeah. I mean, that was our hope. We thought it would be great to believe this person from the world. You know, that she was a real person. And – but we were open to actresses with experience, too. But it was hard. We saw over 160 girls before Michael and I hit upon Portia, and felt like, “Oh my God. She has”—it’s a difficult mixture of feeling like somebody who’s aspiring at being so lofty, and – sophisticated, but yet you need to believe them as, they’re really coming from this trailer park. As – she’s just a 16-year-old girl with religious parents. So, it was a fine balance. Because you couldn't play the sophistication just completely for real. But you had to be able to do it without betraying the fact that she had something that felt very real. So, it was a very specific quality, and we were very lucky
Question: One of the things I really kind of picked up on from really early on, when you’re introducing these characters is – they’re very worldly. Or at least, they seek to portray themselves as very worldly. Do you think that’s something that has happened to younger people, as the world has gotten smaller, and communication has gotten easier?
Arteta: I’m not sure. I sometimes think that the Internet has made people more insular, and less curious, because it’s just that information’s so available, that I see young people as not being that much more curious. I think this novel was written in 1991, when the internet wasn’t really happening and I think that when I was growing up, in that case, it was more exciting to find things, because you’d find albums you had to seek out, and you really felt like they were your discovery. Or you went and got books out, and It was more of owning your discovery. So right now, it’s just so easy.
Question: Do you encourage improvisation with this film?
Arteta: No. I don’t like improvisation too much, but I do like – and this is something, actually, that Michael Cera brought to it, from – having learned from Arrested Development, which is to have the confidence to find the scene on the set. To not stick to the script – you know, completely. But I think you can find it, and then set it, and do it. But I think that improvising every take is nothing that – something that hasn’t really worked out for me.
Question: With this film more specifically, or all of your films?
Arteta: With all of my films. I don’t particularly like improvising.
Question: I want to talk a little bit about your career, your path to filmmaking. When did you know that was what you wanted to do, and what drew you to it?
Arteta: I was 17, and I had moved to the United States when I was 16. I think the language barrier had something to do with my loving being in a movie theater, because it’s a visual medium, no matter how you slice it. It’s easier to watch a movie that to read, or talk. So I got into movies a lot, then a friend of mine in high school had a video camera, and we decided to make a movie, because we were such movie fanatics. I feel very lucky, because the moment I stepped into that position, on that set, I felt at home. So, I feel very lucky, because I think it’s hard to find something that you feel is your niche. But at 17, to have felt like – “Okay. You know, for one reason or another”— I’m a shy person in real life and very neurotic. But, when I step into that position, I somehow know what to do.
Question: So when you’re on the set, is that your alter ego?
Arteta: Yeah, it is. That is kind of the right – yes.
Question: Who are some of your influences, and how they shaped you as a filmmaker?
Arteta: I love Pedro Almodovar, Hal Ashby and I love movies – Sam Fuller is not very well known, a B-movie director from the ‘50s. I like movies in which the characters are very damaged, but there’s a lot of tenderness and empathy for them. And I think all those three directors had that. I also like Nicholas Ray, who did Rebel Without a Cause. I think that’s the quality of directors I like – people who deal with people who are very – they’re damaged goods, but their approach to the filmmaking really has empathy. And I like finding that, as a way of working things out with movies.
Question: How do you think your ethnicity has influenced your choices in terms of filmmaking? Has not being a native-born American affected what you’ve decided to do in terms of your films?
Arteta: Well, it’s a lot harder for people to understand what I’m saying, I think. But I mean, being an outsider is definitely helpful, as a director, because you’re able to notice things that people don’t notice. You know, when you’re always in the same environment, you kind of don’t see things that somebody that’s stepping into that environment can see. I think it’s been helpful that way. Also, I think that – as I said before, movies are a visual language and I think performances are a visual language. So, I think a common mistake, I think, from young filmmakers, is they pay a lot of attention to how the dialogue is being said. How it sounds. Which is insanely important. But if you’re only paying attention to that, then you’re not getting the core of a performance. And I think not knowing the language well makes it so I have to pay attention to what a person is saying in other ways.
Question: How does Youth in Revolt sort of fit into the sensibility of your other films? The independent quirkiness? It seems to be less independent than your others.
Arteta: Oh, this is, I think, more of a wide audience – a film that will appeal to a bigger audience, just because it’s more of a rambunctious ride, you know what I’m saying? And also, it’s teenaged characters, which are the people that go to the movies. So. But – I don't know. Like, one of the main reasons for doing the movie, really, is a love song to Michael Cera. I really do adore his work. I think he’s literally one of my favourite actors, so, I am pinching myself every day, thinking it was a very beautiful thing. He definitely was, I would say, one of my top three: Bill Murray, Michael Cera. I mean, there’s like people that I just think are amazing. So, to get the call, and then to call him and immediately on the phone – I was like, within two minutes, you’re 19 years old, but I’m going to put my future in your hands. I want you to rewrite the script. I want you to write it. I want to collaborate with you completely. And I realize, because he’s playing three roles, really, in essence, including Carlotta – this was like an early Peter Sellers-type movie. And I realized that this needed to be a complete collaboration. That he needed to be part of the whole process, you know? And he had a large say in casting of the movie. And – I mean, every aspect of the movie. But it was very beautiful to have somebody who I respected so much, and whom I think has so much promise.
Question: So, since he was attached to it before you were, did he essentially handpick you?
Arteta: I don't know how that process worked. I know there had been discussions between Bob Weinstein and David Permut and Michael Cera of other directors, and there had been a couple of attempts with other people. But it clicked. It really did click. Like, five seconds into our first phone call, it was, I think, totally clear to me that this was going to be a unique experience. To know so profoundly that you and your actor want to put the same stamp on the movie, I think is very rare.
Question: Have any of your other films been that collaborative with your leads?
Arteta: No. No. I mean, all the leads of my movies have brought a lot; actually, I have to take that back, because I am really servicing Mike White whos vision is so original and strong. And in Chuck and Buck, he was in every scene of the movie, and he’s an amazing actor, so, it was very similar. Youth in Revolt was very similar to Chuck and Buck, in terms of collaborating with an actor and a writer, because Michael Cera did work as a writer-actor in this movie, the same way that Mike White did. But I love doing that. I mean, you find people who have a brilliant vision, and they are able to also act – and you’re there to facilitate it for them. I like playing that role.
Question: So, because his level of maturity is pretty off the charts, was it more like a camaraderie relationship than paternal, I would think, even though you’re older than him?
Arteta: Yeah he turned 20 when we were shooting, and I remember thinking – I was 43 at the time. I was like, “I’m the same age as his mother, and yet he’s a friend of mine. He’s like, a real friend of mine.” Yeah, it is remarkable. I think off the charts is a good word for putting his level of maturity.
Question: So, you seem to kind of move between television and features with relative ease. Do you find it’s possible in television to have a personal voice?
Arteta: If you’re the creator of the show. If you come on as a hired director for an episode, it’s – it’s the show-runners, the writer’s world that you have to fit into. You know. Some shows give you a little more leeway. Alan Ball, with Six Feet Under, always said, you know, “I see these as a little independent movie, each of these. And I want you to try to put your stamp, within reason.” And that’s something that was lovely about that show. I mean, I saw it took different forms throughout the five years it was on, a little bit. And it had a lot to do with the different directors that came in, and the trust that Alan put on those directors. But it’s usually not that way. Usually in TV the writer’s have a vision, and they sort of say, “I want you to deliver that, exactly.”
Question: So, any plans to do more television in the near future?
Arteta: You know, I would love to work with Mike White. He’s doing something with Laura Dern right now. I read the pilot, and it’s beautiful. Just amazing. So, HBO is going to film it in January. I would do anything to direct any of those shows. I love Mike White and Laura Dern, and the material is remarkable. I think it’s going to be the most original HBO series.
Question: Finally, what can you tell me about Cedar Rapids?
Arteta: This young writer wrote it, Phil Johnston, he wrote it for Ed Helms and they had the right attitude. He came to Ed and said, “Do you want to sell this, or should we just write it on spec?” And together they decided, “You know what? Let’s write it on spec, so we can sort of protect it. It’s like an early Jack Lemmon movie and I think Ed Helms is like a Jack Lemmon, so thoughtful, yet he can play an everyday guy who has purity. I thought his performance in The Hangover was so thoughtful. It was a really broad movie, but there was something. I’m really excited. I’m trying to make a little classic of that type of movie, of the pure, sheltered guy, who needs to come out of his shell without losing his purity.