Miguel Arteta knows a thing or two about being out of place. After all, he's a man of Puerto Rican descent that has made Cedar Rapids, a film that lives and breathes the Midwest. In the film, Ed Helms plays a man from a small town moving up to the "big city" of that Iowa town. And the concept of being alien isn't foreign to Arteta, who also has movies like The Good Girl and Youth In Revolt in his filmography. I sat down with Arteta in a roundtable interview to discuss Cedar Rapids, the film's Midwestern pride, the tone of his movie, and how his past has directly informed his taste for moviemaking.
Can you tell us what drew you to the project?
Well, as a small child growing up in Puerto Rico, I had a dream of making a Midwestern comedy. [Laughs] I think Ed [Helms] really liked Youth In Revolt, a film I made with Michael Cera two years ago. I think that’s what probably did it. He interviewed a bunch of people and I was lucky enough to get invited.
How would you describe your comedy style, the one that drew Ed in for Cedar Rapids?
I like to do movies that go between comedy and drama as fluidly as possible. I think he liked that. What their big concern was to show the affection for the characters. If you can make a stalker and have an affectionate picture towards someone like that, they felt like that could come in handy.
Which character in the film do you relate to?
The arc of Tim Lippe’s character … I try to make movies about things that I have a hard time with in my life. If you’re an expert on your movie, it’s going to be boring for you and the audience. It’s nice to have movies where the characters have an emotional challenge. And actually, Tim’s challenge, which is – he’s the kind of person who needs to remain kind but not be a chump, is something that as I get older, I’m struggling and aiming for. There’s actually really interesting things happening emotionally in the movie. It seems to be, if you can be true to your kindness, but not be a chump, then you’re better at seeing what people’s priorities are. That’s the moral of the story. He can see that even though John C. Reilly’s character has a foul mouth, he actually shares the same priorities as Tim. He can see that, because he rises to that challenge. I think that there is also something beautiful about a story about unexpected friendships. When you go on a trip, you never know when all of the sudden you’re going to make a connection with someone who is going to be a friend for life. And in those first three days, magic and insanity, they’re so memorable, and the script tried to capture that. A sort of “Wizard of Oz” aspect of the story, was something that really enticed me to it.
How was it working with John C. Reilly in two different films, [the other being The Good Girl], in two different roles?
It was fun. It’s hard to find something for John C. Reilly to get excited about because he has so many things. But he liked this. He understood in Dean Z. that his foul mouth and party guy came from bitterness and hurt. Who can say the line about his wife, “She’s an a**hole,” and be kind of heartbreaking, and you can understand how much she cares about her. He very astutely brings everything back from that place of pain and humanity. When he tells Tim, “Now you’re my friend,” you understand how much of a need he has in making a connection with someone else.
He had the best lines in the film too.
He improvised about a third of those lines. He’s a great improviser. He’s incredible. He improvises things that are not also funny, but true. He’s kind of always writing. Plus, he can be as outrageous as anyone else. It’s incredible. I really loved the R2-D2 thing he did.
Looking at this film and Youth In Revolt, there seems to be an interest in skewering the suburban moral compass. What is your interest with that subject matter?
Well, I think that things are never what they appear. And I like movies where people feel like they are in an alien world. That’s the way I experienced life. Coming from a different culture, I was always from somewhere else. I was born in Puerto Rico, but my father’s Peruvian and my mother’s Spanish. People didn’t see as a Puerto Rican kid, they said, “There’s that Peruvian kid.” I was a foreigner since I was born. Then I spent time in Spain and they were like, “There’s that Puerto Rican kid.” Then I moved to Puerto Rico, and they said, “There’s that guy from Spain!” Then I’d go to the United States, and they’d say, “There’s that guy from south of the border.” I never really have a home. I like characters that feel like they’re in an alien world, one way or the other. In that constant state of culture shock.
In the end credits, he finds a home, but with two other people.
Yes, I love movies about people who have a lot of emotional damage and are able to make a new and better family in themselves.
How do you handle the tone of the film, so that people enjoy what [Tim Lippe] is going through, but it’s not mocking?
That’s a fine line to ride, and the script had that effect. Even from the way that the characters are named, like Bill Crockstead is the name of Stephen Root’s character. You could not imagine those names. You can feel the affection that the writer had for the characters, that helped a lot. Having Alexander Payne from Omaha, Nebraska, kind of the king of Midwestern comedies, really helped. For example, we had something that wouldn’t have been good. We were going to have them eat at Olive Garden. He said, “No, no, no – make it a sushi restaurant. We’re making a comedy about the Midwest, you can not put them in an Olive Garden.” He also watched over us. It also helped that the cast all had Midwestern roots and were dying to show that love. Isiah Whitlock Jr. spent a lot of time in Minneapolis, I think he’s from Madison. But he said, “I’ve been dying to have an opportunity to show affection for where I come from.” John C. Reilly from Chicago, of course, knew what was going on. Ed Helms spent time in Oberlin, Anne Heche comes from Ohio, and spent a lot of time in Chicago, Stephen Root is Midwestern, Kurtwood Smith is one-million percent Midwestern. We took a lot of care in having the people who could get away with riding that line.
I’m from Minnesota, and Olive Garden is pretty popular …
That’s what Phil [Johnston, the writer] was trying to argue. He said, “Listen, they would go to the Olive Garden.” And it’s good. The breadsticks are amazing. But I think Alexander had a good point. He said, “While that might be true, it is also true that we have sushi places in the mall.”
One thing I liked about the film is that it has this gray, kind of drab … it takes place in late fall, there’s no leaves. It’s nice to see a comedy that isn’t all sunny and bright.
Our cinematography is from Mexican City. Coming out here, he said, “This is interesting.” Color palette is very important. He took a lot of care to do interesting things. Subliminal things. For example, when Tim comes to the hotel, everything is so amazing to him, he said, “Let’s put really strong spotlights in his eyes, so his eyes are just sparkling.” And then when Tim does the bribe to the head of the convention, he said, “Let’s just take that light … it will just die.” And for the rest of the movie, he doesn’t have that spotlight. You can feel the audience seeing that the life in him is going away, and it doesn’t come back until he starts calling his customers. But he did a lot with the color palettes with the browns and the yellows. If I see another comedy set in Los Angeles, I am going to shoot myself. I am glad to feel like we’ve captured a bit of the ambiance.
What other parts of America are you interested in focusing on next?
I’m not sure. I don’t have a thing that I’m focusing on to do. I did do a TV show with Mike White last year, an HBO show that’s gonna start airing this summer. It’s set in Riverside, which is twenty five miles away from Los Angeles, and it’s not Los Angeles. And it’s an interesting environment, with Laura Dern and Luke Wilson. The story has a little bit of that feel, someone who feels like an alien in their own office space, and there is something just sad that they’re in Riverside. But White grew up in Pasadena. … You have to be careful. I’m tired of hip comedies. I’m tired of comedies that rely on shock and on making you feel that you’re as hip if you like them. I think it’s a tough battle because I think kids really want a movie that has a shock value to them. I hope this movie will be the My Big Fat Greek Wedding of comedies.