Three Imaginary Girls

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The world famous Sundance Film Festival took place in Park City, Utah last week. For the second year in a row, the festival had a satellite event where films and directors fanned out to nine US cities to screen their films on Jan 27th. Seattle was slighted/skipped last year, but got the respect we deserve in 2011 with a special screening of Cedar Rapids at the Egyptian theater. We'll be back with a review closer to the film's opening in mid-February, but I had a chance to sit down with the film's director Miguel Arteta ahead of Thursday night's screening.

Arteta kicked off his directing career with Star Maps in 1997, followed by Chuck & Buck in 2000. He's done a diverse number of TV shows and most recently (before Cedar Rapids) directed Youth in Revolt. The following interview does contain some mild spoilers. Miguel arrived in Seattle via Sundance where Cedar Rapids Premiered on Jan 23d. We talked about his Sundance experiences, this film, Jimmy Stewart smoking crack cocaine, and about why everyone should see the new documentary out of Sundance dealing with the wider than you'd expect legacy of Harry Belafonte.

TIG: How was Sundance for you?

Miguel Arteta: It was great. It's a bit of a home for me.

Yes, I've read that.

MA: I went through their writer's labs. It's been my fourth or fifth year there, it was great!

Did you get to see other things? Or were you just focused on your film the whole time?

MA: I did, they let me watch three films.  

Anything I should check out later in the year?

MA: I really loved the Harry Belafonte documentary, Sing your Song, it was awesome. And Win Win was quite good too.

Two out of three, that's pretty good. I'll be diplomatic and won't ask you the third one. Being out here with your film and also being out here as part of this really cool Sundance reach out across America, what do you feel your role is as part of this program that might be different than just promoting the film itself?

MA: I'm a big advocate of Sundance. I think it's brilliant what they do. I have a real respect for what Robert Redford has done. In the late 1970's there were no independent movies – he looked at the arthouses that he saw people were jam-packing to see foreign movies; Fellini movies, Kurosawa movies. And he was saying – it's not only the sex they're seeing in those movie, it's got to be something interesting going on. He realized we don't have American filmmakers making stuff with that personal voice.  We have to do something about it. And kind of single-handedly he brought independent movies here.  Mostly by promoting these writers lab and director's lab. People know about the festival but don't know so much about those.

I'd like to ask you about your experience about that, as I don't know that much about that part of Sundance.

MA: It's kind of like an artist's colony for filmmakers. What he [Redford] has understood really well is that in film, almost more than in any other art, you have to step out with your absolute best foot forward the first time. Because otherwise you're not going to have a second chance, it's so expensive. So, they find you – when you're doing a short film, they'll find you. If you've done a short film that's interesting…

I got this call and thought, "How the heck do you know who I am?" Because they're out there looking at people who may have an interesting voice and then they want to support them. It's all free; it's like an artists' colony. They'll take you into the mountains to the institute in the summer and they'll hook you up with people that understand your type of writing, your type of directing. They'll let you direct scenes and really help you get your project to that place where it's it's best. That's why it's so successful. Quentin Tarantino went there, and Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne – there have been so many voices that have come out of there. And then the festival is a place once those films are finished to showcase them and bring them out to the world. Now, independent films win Academy awards.  

The film itself…when I saw the trailer, I enjoyed it, it looked good. But when I saw the film one of the surprises was that it has real sense of heart going throughout – to the extent that in the middle I scribbled something in my notes about how it seemed to be going towards a "It's a Wonderful Life"-like ending. I'm curious, for you – beyond just the comedy, what was the theme that you intend people to take away?

MA: Well…I did want to make a good-natured comedy that was funny and that was honest. In the end, it's kind of like a sweet film with a lot of foul language. I wanted to bring something that was uplifting, I wanted to bring something that brings joy to the world. I think I'm happier in my life and I want to do that and I also think it's the right thing for the times. This was the perfect vehicle. The reason I loved the script is because it had so much affection for the characters. Phil Johnston [the film's writer] was a weather reporter in Iowa, and I think he really got to fall in love with that region and I think you can really feel the affection for the characters. It has fun with them, but we really didn't ever want to cross that line to make fun of them.

I really do love all the characters. I love the idea of working with Ed Helms in a story like this. I think Ed Helms is one of the few comics who has the ability to be good-natured, but very insightful and funny. Most comics nowadays come from a sarcastic or mean place. He reminds me of Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart. I kind of wanted to go back and make one of those movies but with some honest details to them. It's like if Jimmy Stewart could swear and smoke crack cocaine and sleep with a married woman.

The movie is about friendship for me. That's the thing I loved the most, when I read the script – you go on a trip and you never know when you're going to make a lifelong friend, and it's pretty incredible when that happens. The first three or four days of connecting with someone like that there's something funny and magical and unforgettable about that. To me, that was the heart of the movie.  

In the trailer, one of the parts where I couldn't stop laughing at, and I also couldn't stop laughing during the film was was with Isiah Whitlock Jr. doing an Omar impersonation. Being a huge fan of The Wire – I was wondering if that bit was written in originally, or added when he joined. How did that come about? [referring to scene where Isiah Whitlock Jr. quotes Omar Little, a character from The Wire in order to get them out of a tough jam]

MA: That was always originally in the script before we ran into Isiah. In fact, we all thought maybe we'd have to take this reference to The Wire out because it would look out of place with Senator Clay Davis, it was going to be too weird. But he does it so good.

I think it works because it is Clay Davis.

MA: It's a lot of fun- people who are fans of show get a kick out of it, and people who don't know anything about The Wire also get a kick out of it. But he was my biggest delight and surprise about the whole thing. He's not as well known, and this is a story of friendship – kind of like The Wizard of Oz of Insurance. Ed Helms is Dorothy on his way to the big city Cedar Rapids, and along the way he meets these three motley crew characters that all need each other. For those four to become a real foursome with chemistry was really important, and it doesn't always happen.  

Oh yes, I totally know…

MA: You use your best hunch and you hope for casting magic. Isiah was I think a big part of the reason for those four guys to get along so well. I think he grounded them, he's so real. He's from the midwest and he was just they guy. When we saw the audition we said, "This is the Ron-imal" as he appeared to us. He was kind of like the Ringo Starr of our foursome, he kept everything together.  

The casting of the group does really click perfectly – I can't picture it with different people in those roles. I think the film works because you have the balance between those guys.

MA: It was fun because it was a script that had delineated these four very different characters that are supposed to fall in love with each other and so the character types were in opposition to each other. They're really well delineated so it was fun to cast people. Ed Helms once said, "If you'd told me five years ago we're going to have a movie with Ed Helms, Anne Heche, and John C. Reilly, and we'd be selling insurance – I'd tell you, what the heck are you doing?" Yet, that's the beauty of it, they're so different from each other.

It seemed that John C. Reilly was just having a ball with the role.

MA: Yes…it's hard to get John C. Reilly to get excited about a part because he's done so many great things. But he gave me a great compliment – I was really happy – he said, "I've played a lot of dumb characters, but this is the dumbest". 

I realized after the fact, embarrassingly enough, that you'd also directed Youth in Revolt. I was curious if it's easier or harder to direct something like that where there's this built-in audience – I'm guessing a pretty fervent audience – vs. something like this that is fairly green field material. No one comes to it with an expectation.

MA: I think a lot has been laid onto Michael Cera and I wish it wasn't there, because I think people would appreciate Youth in Revolt more if you didn't get all the baggage that people are putting onto him. I think it would be easier to appreciate. I love that movie – I wish more people had seen it. It's doing pretty well now in DVD so I'm happy about that. But with Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms is a very particular type of comic that we haven't had in a long time. I noticed that in The Hangover, it's a very broad comedy, but I thought with his arc, he made it very thoughtful and relatable. So I was excited – this is the first movie where he has a starring role and I think we're going to see great things from him. He really cared about this one, he developed this from the start with Phil Johnston.  

You know, it's weird – in these times, comedies are really shocking and I think we're doing something different here. It's not a guy showing his dick even though you have guys in underwear running around. The parts that are radical come from – we wanted to make a delightful comedy that had some things that felt honest. Anne Heche's character as opposed to Up in the Air, where the Vera Farmiga character doesn't tell George Clooney that she's married with kids – Anne Heche tells this person right off the bat, "I'm married and I have kids but this is what I do". In this film, as opposed to that other movie where you're asked to judge her for doing that, this movie is asking you not to judge her for doing that. I think that's a challenge for the film – I love that because it seems like a more compassionate way to make a movie. It's less hip.

I do think that's more honest than Up in the Air. I never really understood why she wouldn't have mentioned it more clearly. It seems Clooney wouldn't have cared…

MA: Well you couldn't have had George Clooney running.

Yeah, It's required for the plot (laughing) but not realistic perhaps. Coming back, it doesn't seem fair for anyone to put a negative view of the film on Michael Cera.  In fact, having read the book, I thought he fit that role quite well. I think people have to cut things either in or out of a film and it always seemed to me challenging for a filmmaker – you can't put everything in but people who love the original material are going to want something (you left out) to be there.

MA: It was a great challenge. You know, unofficially, Michael Cera wrote 3/4 of that script. He loves that book, it's his favorite book – so I think he did a beautiful job. To me the movie was a love poem to him; I adore him.  

I really liked the look of Cedar Rapids. A lot of comedies are well done, and everything is fine – but I found myself really looking visually at some of the scenes. How did you balance the visual design of the film vs. character development?

MA: I've worked with the same cinematographer, a mexican cinematographer, Chuy Chávez – this is our fourth film. He's very clever. I think the fact we're both foreigners helps us going to this world in the midwest to look at it with a fresh perspective.  

Are you saying you feel more "other" and therefore can look at it more objectively?

MA: I think so, like Chuy would tell me – the colors here, we've got to have a lot of browns and yellows, this is very important. He also wanted to make sure before he gets to the convention, that everything doesn't have much of a glint to it. And then when he gets to the convention, things have a little bit of a glint to it – except when he sells out to his boss. You see then – literally – the light goes out of his eyes. So Chuy is just terrific. I think being from another country helped him look at the texture of the midwest and capture something about it. Which I love; it looks different than other movies.  

Did anything come up during filming that was a huge surprise to you? Or anything you would change?

MA: I'm pretty pleased with it. I mean there are always little things you would want to change about the plot. We shot a scene a scene where Tim Lippe [Ed Helms] goes crazy and fires a fire extinguisher into his boss's face at the end of the movie. I'm going to put it in the DVDs, but it just made the rest of the thing not work.  

But to me the biggest surprise was Isiah Whitlock Jr.  – I adore him, it's amazing how well he blended with the well known actors. He's one of the four leads. We've been out promoting this moving, and no one has any question that he doesn't have the same standing as the other people. He really got in there and made it work. He's fantastic – I fought very hard to get him in the movie and I'm very proud how well he did.  

I'm very glad he's in there – because to me he's "Clay", I never viewed him as having lesser status than the other actors. It sounds like he'll continue to have more work which is great.

MA: I think so, people are digging him in the movie, which is awesome.

Since I'm sure you see a lot of movies, or talk to people about a lot of movies – I'd like to end with the question: Anything you've seen in the last year that really stood out for you? I'm carefully not asking for your favorite picture, but…

MA: Yeah, yeah…I really, really went for Mike Leigh's Another Year; I thought it was a wonderful film. Everyone gave an incredible performance. And also it's an interesting movie, because it examines someone who's completely an alcoholic and crazy and alone – it's just a pathetically depressing life. I've always wanted to do a character story like that, but I realized that 90 minutes of that and an audience could just not take it. But Mike Leigh found a really clever way to investigate that. Half of the movie centers around a very healthy, happy couple who have a lot of compassion towards this woman who keeps coming in and out of the movie in doses that we can take. So, I thought it was good. What was your favorite movie?

I think the favorite (?) –  maybe most memorable one was from Taiwan called Au Revoir Tapei. It's just a small little movie, nothing horrible happens and it's just delightful.

[We then go back and forth as Miguel attempts to understand my pathetic french pronunciation and write down the name on his phone…followed by my scattered description of one of the better films of the last year.]