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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 18, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 07
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The SGN sits down with Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The SGN sits down with Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Cedar Rapids
Opening February 18


For Sara Michelle Fetters' review of Cedar Rapids, visit www.sgn.org.

Since his 1997 debut Star Maps, director Miguel Arteta has spent the past decade making some of the best, most provocative, and highly original independent comedies that the majority of audiences haven't taken the time to see. From Chuck and Buck to The Good Girl to Youth in Revolt, he's fearlessly gone places that are both uncomfortable and hysterical, creating character-driven comedies with intriguing and complicated storylines that tickle the funny bone and excite the mind.

His latest, Cedar Rapids, recently debuting at January's Sundance Film Festival and opening this week in Seattle, might just be Arteta's best work yet. The fresh, lively, and extremely funny take on small-town life and what happens when insurance salesmen get together en masse respects its characters, while at the same time has a blast poking some much-needed fun at them. Anchored by a star-making performance by The Hangover scene-stealer Ed Helms and sporting award-worthy supporting turns by John C. Reilly and Anne Heche, the movie has a great deal going for it. This might be the breakout hit its director has deserved for so long.

'Thank you for saying that,' commented Arteta. 'I'm quite proud of this film, and audience reactions have been great. While I'm always hopeful that my projects will do well, it's always nice to hear someone else feels the same.'

Sitting down with him during his recent trip to Seattle, we spoke at length about Cedar Rapids, his luck with working with actors, how he picks his scripts, and what he sees as the state of comedy today. In regards to this film, his excitement when talking about writer Phil Johnston's original screenplay was palpable, and it was easy to see why he chose this one as his follow-up to last January's Youth in Revolt.

'The script had a lot of affection for the characters,' stated Arteta. 'I really loved that; it was something about Phil's writing I was drawn to. I think I'm just getting happier in my life and I wanted to make a movie about friendship, a movie that could be a love letter, in some ways, to the world.'

Which is interesting considering just how downright filthy some of what happens in Cedar Rapids can be. The film more than lives up to its R rating. But as the film goes on, as its main character descends further and further down into his big-city rabbit hole, it never loses its affection for its characters, as all of them are treated with an honesty and respect that is rare for comedies of this type.

'There's something really amazing and beautiful when you go on a trip,' explains the director. 'You don't know when it is going to happen, you don't know how it is going to happen, but the potential is there that you just might make a lifelong friend. When you look back on those [relationships], those first few days with that lifelong friend are hilarious and they're magical and they're entirely unexpected.'

'There's something beautiful about finding those people in your life, and that's one of the other things that I loved so much about [the script]. Our main character was so sheltered and so naïve and ends up going on an adventure and finding these people that will be in his life forever. It is just this sweet, simple story about friendship, but it is also wild and crazy and so much that is unexpected keeps happening. It's like the Wizard of Oz of insurance movies: our Dorothy has to go to the Emerald City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and along the way he meets this motley crew of people who need him and he needs them and they all end up helping each other out.'

The Dorothy he's talking about in this case is played by Ed Helms and is named Tim Lippe. He's a sheltered Wisconsin insurance salesman who's never flown on a plane or stayed in a hotel, and his first and only girlfriend (wonderfully played by Sigourney Weaver) is his former sixth-grade teacher who he's had a crush on his entire life. Sent to Cedar Rapids by his boss to save the firm, Tim is bum-rushed by sights and sounds he's never before experienced, not the least of which is a foul-mouthed fellow salesman (Reilly) who seems to have no self-control whatsoever.

'[Ed Helms] has a special talent,' says Arteta. 'He's the type of comedian we haven't seen in a while. It can be easy to do comedy if all you are is mean or you are sarcastic like so many of the comics - many of whom I love - of today are. But to do comedy from a good-natured place is really difficult. Ed has the ability to do that, and I haven't seen that from an actor since Jack Lemmon, in my opinion.'

'In some ways, Cedar Rapids might have a lot of filthy language and sexual situations, but it's all pretty honest. Tim [does something illegal] and we don't punish him for it. Anne Heche is married and she has kids but she sleeps with somebody every year at this convention, but we don't hate her for it. John C. Reilly's language couldn't be more foul-mouthed or insensitive, but we don't hate him for it. Ultimately, that's why I think people enjoy the movie. It has both a comedic edge but it's mixed with a lot of thoughtfulness.'

One of the more intriguing things about the film is how it takes perceptions about a character or a situation and then slowly subverts them, twisting things in a way that is unexpected and original. There is a freshness to the characters that's a bit startling. Arteta and Johnston go out of their way to keep things moving in fresh and lively ways that continually captivate.

'Contradictions are what make life work,' proclaims the director. 'When you're watching a movie and you're seeing a character do something completely contradictory to convention or expectation, that's when you move to the edge of your seat [because] it's interesting. I think the worst thing that happens in Hollywood is that people who are not really artists are sitting there and think they're doing their job by taking all of the contradictions out of the script and making the writer explain everything. They say, 'At first she was like this, and now she's like that, and that doesn't make sense to us.'

'But that's sort of the point. People don't always make sense, and they don't always do things that you expect. That's how life is. Storytelling is flirting with an audience, that's all it is, and whether you're talking to somebody, writing a book, or making a movie, that's what you're doing. And what's a better way to flirt than to be completely contradictory and incomprehensible, to do things that keep them on their toes and keep them interested? It's comforting when you see or read something that doesn't make complete sense because that's how life is. It doesn't always make complete sense.'

Does this mean Arteta has no wish to work for a major studio, doesn't want to have his opportunity to swill at the big budget trough? Or is he content to keep working for relative peanuts in the world of independent cinema, free of people in suits looking over his shoulder and keeping track of the bottom line?

'I think you are probably right,' says the filmmaker. 'Not consciously, but probably I have avoided working for Hollywood for all those reasons. But I'm dying to sell out. Bring it on. Problem is, every time I read the scripts, I think they're so uncomplicated and so uninteresting I feel like I could never make them work. They would just feel bogus if I directed them. I want to make a big studio comedy, but I think I need to find that rare moment where the [script] feels somewhat interesting to me and that the studio will still allow me to make the film the way I feel it needs to be made. It's hard to find those kinds of projects.'

Thinking more about Hollywood and the state of comedy in general, I can't help but ask Arteta about the recent Academy Award nominations and the lack of the genre getting any real respect as far as Oscar is concerned. Why doesn't comedy get the same respect as drama? Why is it so hard for movies like Cyrus or Morning Glory or Greenberg or the director's own Youth in Revolt to get any award-season love? 'I think people just assume that comedy is easy,' says Arteta mournfully. 'The job of someone that is making you laugh is to relax you, and so you end up thinking it's easy, that it isn't Oscar-worthy. But the Academy is getting younger - I'm in the Academy, I was brought in as a young filmmaker [after Star Maps] - and you would think we'd be voting more of those types of films, films like Greenberg, for awards. Maybe we have to wait for the Academy to get even younger.' As for Cedar Rapids, based on his previous experiences at the box office, the director tries to remain practical in regards to its prospects. At the same time, it's easy to tell how much making the film has meant to him and how fond of it he truly is. 'I try to be realistic,' begins Arteta, 'but to be honest I'm really hoping that it catches on in the middle of the country. We made this as a love letter in many ways to the Midwest, and it's one of those unusual films that has the potential to not be a big hit film in New York or L.A., but that audiences in the heartland are just like, 'It's hilarious and it's honest and it brought some joy to me.' If that were to happen, that would make me extremely happy.' 'I'm really proud of it. I know that we made a good movie. I know people will have a good time and that it has a sweetness and an affection that rises above the vulgar stuff. It's what I want to see in a movie and it's why I as a director make movies. I hope that the general public catches on. I'm tired of hip, self-referential comedies, and I wanted to make a bit of a more tender comedy that I hope people can appreciate. If they do, that would be wonderful.'

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