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Capone discusses the dark corners of comedy with CEDAR RAPIDS director Miguel Arteta!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

I just dig the way Puerto Rico-born director Miguel Arteta tells a story and handles dark humor. You can trace his evolution beginning with his micro-budget indie feature debut STAR MAP and continuing on to CHUCK & BUCK, THE GOOD GIRL, and last year's YOUTH IN REVOLT. In between his features, he managed to squeeze in directing episodes of "Freaks & Geeks," "Six Feet Under," "Ugly Betty," and "The Office," which is where he met Ed Helms, the star of his newest feature CEDAR RAPIDS.

I'll let Arteta give you the details at the end of this interview, but you'll next see his work directing several of the 10 episodes of the upcoming HBO series "Englightened," starring Laura Dern and written entirely by Mike White, who wrote and co-starred in CHUCK & BUCK and THE GOOD GIRL. Artenta and Ed Helms were recently in Chicago, and I got a chance to talk to him about being a stranger in a strange land (much like CEDAR RAPIDS lead character Tim Lippe), his proclivity for featuring strange sexual pairings in his films, crystal meth, and his favorite awkward comedy, THE KING OF COMEDY. He was a treat to talk to, and please enjoy my conversation with Miguel Arteta.

I should warn those of you who haven't seen the film yet or don't live in a city where it has opened yet, there are spoilers scattered throughout.

Capone: Hello, again.

Miguel Arteta: It’s nice to see you.

Capone: I think I was in this same room yesterday for other interviews.

MA: Who were you interviewing yesterday?

Capone: Topher Grace and Demitri Martin.

MA: Demitri Martin is an interesting guy.

Capone: He’s great. Actually, I was nervous about meeting him actually, because I’m a big fan of his.

MA: His stuff is so cool.

Capone: Yeah, I agree and even the small bits of acting that I have seen him do are pretty great. Maybe even more so than any of the sort of R-rated comedies that have been coming out in the last five or ten years, having Tim as the central character has really just made it one of the sweetest films I have ever seen and not without being sickeningly so. You kind of just see Tim bring out the best in people and grow a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the film?

MA: There is sort of a bit of a throwback here to Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon comedies. This is a very simple arc about a sweet person who is kind and must remain kind, but learn how to not be kind and not a chump. I love that. That’s a challenge I have in my life. I like making movies about things that are actually difficult for me, and even though it feels like such a simple story, it’s something that I find really relatable. I like that it’s not “super hip terrain,” because if I see another movie set in L.A., I’m going to shoot myself. I’m so tired of that. I don’t know, the country is in a dismal place, and it seemed like it’s the right thing to maybe make a movie that is funny but also sweet.

Capone: Alexander Payne is a producer on this film. How much did his treatment of characters from the Midwest in his films influence your approach to these characters?

MA: He definitely, very cleverly had an influence on us. He went over the dialog very carefully. Phil Johnston is an amazing writer. He could write as many colloquial little delicious bits as possible, but Alexander went through the script and said, “Here’s too much and here’s too much and here’s too much.” He’s very good at riding that line of having fun with characters, but not making fun of them. He made us change the location. They went to a restaurant, The Olive Garden, in the script and Phil fought. He said “You know, I’m from Wisconsin, and people in Wisconsin go to The Olive Garden.” He was defending his choice of The Olive Garden, saying like “I know it sounds stereotypical, but it’s true.” Alexander was like, “Do me a favor. There are sushi restaurants in the Midwest. That’s a better way to go.”

Capone: Not that I’m surprised there is a sushi restaurant in Iowa, but it was an interesting choice, because it was not where you would expect them to go. Olive Garden would be more along the lines of what someone from those small towns might think is fine dining, but I remember very specifically going “Wow, sushi. That’s unexpected."

MA: That’s part of Alexander’s brilliance. His details ring so true, and they are so unexpected.

Capone: Where do your comic sensibilities from? You sort of trend toward the darker, I’ve seen in the past--and there are definitely dark corners here for sure. But where does that come from, and how would you define that?

MA: My favorite comedy is THE KING OF COMEDY, which is not a well-known film, and it’s kind of like an incredible experiment in embarrassment and I love it. We are all damaged people. It seems like parents have a God-given right to screw up their kids, and I think it’s a thing that we all share in common. We come at to the world with a lot of emotional handicaps, and everybody has them, and to me that’s what I find interesting in stories, people who are working out their emotional handicaps in a way that seems braver than usual. And I think sometimes along the way creepy and dark things happen when you are trying to work out an emotional wound.

Capone: You mentioned last night in talking about John C. Reilly and the way that he improvises, not just to go for the laugh, but to go for more of the truth in a moment. Was he good about dialing it back when you thought it was better to do that?

MA: Definitely. He said to me, “There’s nothing worse as an actor than to sit in an audience and see yourself going too far.” So, that definitely helped me, and he knew I would. We had developed a good relationship from THE GOOD GIRL, so we had a good environment of trust, but you know I think he’s one of the best improvisers there is. He’s thinking about the totality of the story at all times, and it’s very rare that he will through in an improv that is off point. He’s really writing at all times.

Capone: I asked Ed this question, but I’ll ask you too, because I have a feeling you might have a different answer. With the improvisations, do you remember a particular scene where it was at its looses, where everyone was just throwing in unscripted things that you ended up using?

MA: Well in the pool sequence, which is one of my favorite sequences, the whole R2-D2 thing was completely improvised, and it was such a delight. The thing about that scene is that Ed is about to be seduced by Anne Heche, and so actually bringing in this really silly improv made the seduction feel like it came out of left field even more, and it was really great. I also really adore the a moment in the film where John C. Reilly is giving a hard time to Kurtwood Smith saying, “Just joshing you.”

Capone: Oh that, where he tells him, "You're not the pope!”

MA: That was improvised, and I love it when he turns back to them and said “I got him, twice.” [laughs]

Capone: Anne Heche is really good in this. Her character is a very morally ambiguous one in a lot of ways. She's someone that we like a great deal and Tim does too, but then we find out she’s married with kids, and that kind of taints it a little bit.

MA: Yeah, I think that’s something that attracted me about the script, that it had things that I find are true to life. Anne’s character cheats once a year at this convention, but she’s allowed to make her case for why you might not like it, but you might understand it. It’s human to have those kinds of pressures where you might have to blow off some steam, and it might be wrong but it is human. She makes her case really well. I’m glad you liked her in the film.

Capone: I really did. Really, I’ve always liked her. Other than this and what she does on "Hung," I’ve never really seen her play anything quite like those characters.

MA: She was awesome. When Tim tells her “Let’s cuddle” and “You're so special, Joan.” She’s dong nothing. There’s no dialog, but you can read in her face that she hasn’t heard those words in years.

Capone: She doesn’t even look comfortable hearing them. I mean it’s a little hard to read whether she’s okay with that, because almost a little too intimate for her.

MA: Yeah, it’s always the sign of a great actor that can elicit so many things out of you without a word of dialog.

Capone: With Tim, you really do avoid stereotyping him as this fish-out-of-water character and yet, there’s some great language in the film that he uses or some of his ideas are wonderful, especially the idea that he can’t “have sex” with a woman, he has to “make love.” And the use of the word “philanderer.” I was impressed in the script with things like that or like when Kurtwood Smith calls a sofa a “davenport.” That’s so Midwestern, and I’m glad you didn’t take those things out, because they really do tell you about something with those people with just a word or two.

MA: I know, they add so much flavor. Phil Johnston, I think from his experience being a news reporter and weatherman in Iowa, he really soaked in the flavor of it and then we cast these great people. These actors were all dying to show their love for the Midwest given the opportunity. Isiah Whitlock Jr. told me, “Nobody know that I come from Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ve been dying to have an opportunity to show that.”

Capone: For years, I thought he was a local Baltimore actor that I saw on "The Wire" every couple of episodes, yeah. This film is about the death of this one character’s idealism about the world, but at the same time he’s branching out, he’s growing, he’s becoming a little more of a realist than an idealist.

MA: I think, yeah, he opens his eye. He has to become smarter at being able to read people and he realizes you’ve got to look a little deeper to see what people’s priorities are in order to read them. But he remains like a kind person throughout it. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing trying to figure out what people’s priorities are is where it’s at. Look at what people value the most, and you know who the person is. I think Tim is just a little naïve about that, but he ends up being able to see into these really different people and become friends with them, and that’s the fun of the film. The fun of the film is to have a group that you could never imagine becoming dear friends, and you watch it happen in front of you.

Capone: Last night, the first question had to do with the excessive drug use. That does seem to come out of nowhere. Tim's had a few drinks and he’s not really much of a drinker and he’s had a few drinks, and then suddenly he’s doing what he’s doing in that truck. Have you gotten that reaction like that it takes that left turn into hell?

MA: Yeah, people have mentioned like, “You know, it’s a little weird that he’s suddenly indulging in crystal meth.” I like movies that change their tone radically. SOMETHING WILD by Jonathon Demme is a movie that really made me fall in love with making movies, and that movie has an incredible tone shift at the end, like it goes from being a rollicking satire to all of a sudden a dead-serious thriller. I love that. Or PSYCHO is a really interesting movie where you align yourself to one character, and then halfway through the movie they are dead, and you have to put your alliances somewhere else. I don’t know, do you think it’s a problem?

Capone: Not a problem. Whenever a film can surprise me, I’m all for that. I don’t care how they do it. If I think I know where something’s going and then suddenly it goes in a totally unexpected direction, I'm in heaven. I see so many movies in a year that anyone of them that surprises me immediately I embrace.

MA: You know, Sam Fuller, who talked to me about casting, also told me the way he reads books is the way he wants to make movies. He said, “When I read a book, I often put it down and if I can guess more or less what the first sentence of the next thing it, I throw the book out.” He said, “The next scene should always be like I could have never imagined that that’s what it was going to be, yet it works out.”

Capone: I’m like that with films. If I know where it’s going, I start to lose interest. I tune out a little bit. You told that wonderful story last night about meeting Sam Fuller and what he told you about casting. Can you tell that again on record?

MA: Oh my God. When I heard it, I didn’t know how important it was. I met him in the early '90s, and he had his chewed up cigar and he comes up right to my face and tried to give me advice about things to do, and he told me, “Cast on hunch. Cast the biggest movie star in the world or cast your neighbor, but just cast on hunch.” Now I understand. Literally, the people in CEDAR RAPIDS wouldn’t have been cast if Sam’s face wasn’t engrained in my memory saying, “Cast on hunch!” Talking about casting is the worst. I hate it. When producers start to argue, “Well, he has a certain…”

Capone: “International appeal?” Stuff like that?

MA: Or even when they try to get into the individual appeal of a certain actor. "Ed Helms has certain qualities…" No amount of talking or using your brain should be used in casting. It should literally be a silent process that is just done with hunches.

Capone: In just about all of your films--maybe all of them--there’s always some strange sexual pairings that don’t always seem right and sometimes are very uncomfortable.

MA: After you bringing that up last night, I was talking to my girlfriend about that question this morning saying, “What do you think is going on with that?” I think sex is totally irrational, and it speaks to the truth of our lives you know. No one can make heads or tales of what turns you on, and I think that there’s something very beautiful and honest about the most primal way in which people want to connect with each other, and I think it’s interesting to explore it and to do it in a surprising way. John Waters has an amazing quote where he says, “If you can make an audience feel like they are seeing sex or violence in a way they have never seen it before, you will win an Oscar,” which might be true for Darren Aronofsky this year. [laughs]

And it’s really true. People are so excited to be able to see a sex scene in a way that they have never seen it before, but I think it’s interesting why our curiosity is to feel like we are seeing something new with sex or violence.


Capone: Can you tell us about what you’ve got coming up on HBO? I’m really looking forward to that.

MA: I’m very excited. Mike White, who wrote two of my films, created this show with Laura Dern called "Enlightened," and Luke Wilson and Diane Ladd in the movie, and Robin Wright has a big arc. And we got to hire amazing directors. I got to hire my mentor, Jonathon Demme. We sent him the pilot, and he said “I love it, let me do two of them.” So, he directed two episodes. Mike White directed the pilot and another episode. Nicole [FRIENDS WITH MONEY, PLEASE GIVE] Holofcener did one and Phil [JUNEBUG] Morrison did one, and I did four. So it’s an interesting group of directors, and Mike wrote every episode. It’s the first time in HBO history, they said, where every word was written before they even got started. There was no writer’s room. Everything was just Mike walked in and said, “Here’s 10 episodes. Do you like them? Want to make them? Let’s go make them.”

Capone: Miguel thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun.

MA: It was really nice to meet you.

Capone: It was great to meet you, too.

MA: I hope I see you with the next one.

Capone: Like I said, we had a lot of fun when Michael Cera and Portia Doubleday when they came to town with YOUTH IN REVOLT.

MA: Thank you. It’s hard to fight the forces of the Weinsteins sometimes. They get in their way a lot. That poster was a throwback to like late-80s comedies, and it was hard to recommend my friends to go see the movie based on the poster. I was like, “The movie’s excellent, but if you don't want to go because of the poster, I understand.”

Capone: I remember that screening especially, because Michael and I were standing outside of the theater when it was ending and Roger Ebert was at that screening. And I told Michael this, and he got really nervous and excited about that. So when Roger came out, I introduced him, and Michael was just in heaven. He was so excited to have met him.

MA: Michael is a real movie lover, and he’s read some of his books. Right now, he’s a sponge absorbing everything. I introduced him to Kurosawa, now he’s an expert on Kurosawa. Yeah, but thanks for promoting that movie. And thanks for these screenings. This is awesome. We need all of the help we can get. It’s not easy to get a comedy that doesn’t follow the Judd Apatow formula out there.

-- Capone capone@aintitcool.com
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