Sense and Sensibility: Miguel Arteta

'Cedar Rapids' director discusses latest distinctive comedy


iguel Arteta’s films have a specific sensibility, a whimsical yet grounded tone and feel that sets them apart from most everything else on the current cinematic landscape.

The 45-year-old director’s work — from Star Maps (1997) and Chuck & Buck (2000) to The Good Girl (2002) and Youth in Revolt (2010) —is no doubt informed by his status as a Puerto Rican-born U.S. immigrant who moved here to finish his education (first at Harvard, then Wesleyan University) more than 25 years ago. Arteta’s awkward protagonists inevitably yearn to find their place in an often perplexing world. His film’s are also marked by detail-rich settings and a distinctive sense of humor that mixes subtle pathos and character-driven comedy with sometimes uncomfortable but never cruel results. Think a less caustic Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), a like-minded filmmaker who just happens to be a producer of Arteta’s latest, Cedar Rapids.

Yet another unique genre hybrid, Cedar Rapids centers itself on the unlikely coming-of-age story of Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, who’s both affecting and hilarious), an alarmingly naive but perpetually good-natured 34-year-old insurance salesman who’s never been outside his tiny hometown of Brown Valley, Wisc. Lippe’s life is turned upside down when he has to represent his company at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he meets a trio of colleagues that will forever alter his once-narrow worldview: Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boisterous party animal with ethically dubious intentions; Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a low-key, by-the-book guy who can’t hide his love for the HBO program The Wire; and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a sexy redhead who never fails to make the most of the yearly convention.

CityBeat recently phoned Arteta to discuss Cedar Rapids’ stellar cast, the film's parallels to The Wizard of Oz and his inability to sell out.


How did you become involved with Cedar Rapids?

Miguel Arteta:

As a small child growing up in Puerto Rico I always dreamt of making a comedy about the Midwest (laughs). I’m kidding you. It’s kind of absurd. I was very lucky Ed Helms and the producer, Alexander Payne, were fans of my movies. I literally went for a job interview with them and the writer, Phil Johnston, and got the job. I think Ed responded to the movie I made with Michael Cera last year, Youth in Revolt. He really liked it.


What drew you to this particular story?


There were two things that really drew me. As a director, you always want to get scripts that have fun with the characters but never make fun of them, one that has genuine affection for the characters. Phil Johnston’s script had that. You can even tell by the way he named these characters how much affection he had for them. The other thing that really drew me about it was that it was a story about unlikely friendships. This is kind of like The Wizard of Oz of insurance. Tim Lippy goes to the big Emerald city of Cedar Rapids and meets this motley crew of characters, and I love that aspect of it.


The cast has such great chemistry, which is really necessary in this type of character-driven piece. Why did you think of Anne Heche for this role?


That was key to making this work. It’s always hard. You roll the casting dice and hope for magic and it’s doesn’t always happen. It was fun to cast because they had to be very different in order for you to be surprised at the end that they end up being such good friends. The characters were written as very different types, so we just took our best hunch. I was thinking, “Who can make Ed Helms kind of uncomfortable?” And I thought, “Anne Heche!” There is such a like electric energy to her. I just had a hunch that it would be funny to see them together.


The other big challenge in translating this type of material — a comedy that also has dramatic elements — from page to screen is getting the tone right. So many directors make the mistake of broadening the comedy, or they have trouble meshing the different tones.


It is the biggest challenge, but it’s also the biggest treat, the thing that I welcome the most. I think that when things make too much sense, they’re not as fun to watch. I like movies that are contradictions,even contradictions in tone, because that’s how life is. Things don’t make sense in life, and they shouldn’t make sense in movies. There should be unexpected twists and turns.


The screenplay does a nice job of introducing what initially seem like stereotypical characters and then slightly subverting expectation — none more obvious than Reilly’s character, who goes from being this annoying blowhard to someone a little more layered.


I love all the little dramatic elements that Reilly snuck in there. Like looking at the picture of his (character’s) wife — he’s complaining about their divorce the whole time, but clearly he’s still thinking about her. I think he managed to make that come from a real place of pain, and I think that’s what’s so successful about his performance. Of course, John C. Reilly, he’s like a national treasure. He can do drama, he can do comedy and he can do improv like no one else. He was a volcano of improv. He’s tremendous. It was a real treat to make the movie with him.


I noticed that you studied in Harvard’s documentary program for a time. How did that impact your style as a director? Your visual approach is pretty understated.


That’s an interesting observation. Studying documentaries and doing documentaries made me develop a visual style that’s very simple and hopefully invisible. I don’t like movies that show off visually. There’s every kind of movie, but that’s not my cup of tea. I like movies where the characters and the writing are at the forefront. In documentaries you’re forced to find the heart of people and the heart of situations.


All of your films are intimate, relatively low-budget comedies —some quite dark, others not as much —about people trying to fit into society in some way. Why are you interested in telling these types of small-scale stories?


I’ve been trying to sell out, honest to god, very hard (laughs). Every time I get an offer on a script I usually cannot finish them, and I honestly can’t tell somebody, “Let me direct a movie that I can’t even finish the script for.” It’s just that the material is not that good usually. I’m attracted to movies about people who have certain emotional wounds and are brave enough to lead with that emotional damage. And then, ironically or comically, they get to a better place because they have the courage to move forward with whatever thing that makes them complicated.

Opens March 4 at AMC Newport and Esquire Theatre. Read tt stern-enzi's review here.
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