Interview Date: 02/90/2011
Run Date: 02/15/2011
After spending not nearly enough time chatting with “Cedar Rapids” star Ed Helms, we online pressers are escorted to another room so we can chat with the film’s director Miguel Arteta. After a few comments about who makes the best deep dish pizza in Chicago (our vote: Geno’s East), Arteta surprises everyone in the room when he throws out some comments that make our chat with Helms seem positively quaint. He also describes his love for the world that’s familiar but alien, the many talents of John C. Reilly, and the tendency for all comedies to take place in L.A. Warning: the plot to “Cedar Rapids” is discussed in detail, so let this serve as your official SPOILER ALERT.
Locke Peterseim (Redbox): We just talked to Ed [Helms] and how he was involved with this project from the very start. Can you tell us about how you got involved, and what drew you to it?
Miguel Arteta: Well, as a small child growing up in Puerto Rico, I had a dream of making a Midwestern comedy. (Note: this sends everyone into hysterics.) I think Ed really liked "Youth in Revolt," which I made with Michael Cera years ago. I know he interviewed a bunch of people [for the job], and I was lucky enough to get invited.
Redbox: In terms of your films, like "Chuck and Buck" and "Youth in Revolt," how would you describe your comedy style or the tone of your films that you think drew [Helms] to "Cedar Rapids"?
MA: I like to do movies that go between comedy and drama as effortlessly as possible. The big concern was to show affection for the characters. If you can make a stalker a compassionate character, that could come in here.
Rachel Gillman (Cheeky Chicago): Which character in the film do you relate to the most?
MA: I try to make movies about things that I have a hard time with in my life. If you are an expert [on a subject] in a movie, it's going to be boring for you and for the audience. So it's nice to have a movie where the characters have an emotional challenge. And Tim [Lippe, Ed Helms' character], he's a kind person that needs to remain kind and not be a chump. That's something that, as I get older, I'm struggling for and aiming for more. There are some interesting emotional things happening in the movie. If you can be true to your kindness but not be a chump, then you'll be better at seeing people’s priorities for what they are. And that's the moral of the story - he's able to see, even though John C. Reilly's character is foul-mouthed, he actually shares the same values and priorities as Tim. And he's able to see that because he rises to that challenge. There's also something beautiful and magical about a story about unexpected friendships, you know? When you go on a trip, you never know when all of a sudden you're going to make a connection with someone who will be a friend for life. And in those first three days, there is magic, and insanity that is so memorable, and the script had an opportunity to try and capture that. So this "Wizard of Oz" aspect of the story was something that really enticed me.
Cheeky Chicago: And John C. Reilly was in "The Good Girl." How was it working with him in two very different films in very different roles?
MA: It was fun. It's hard to find something for John C. Reilly to get really excited about, because he's done so many different things. What was great is that he understood in Deanzie, he was a big party guy, but it all came from a place of bitterness and hurt from his divorce. Who can say the line about his wife, "She's an asshole," and have it be heartbreaking? And you can understand how much he still cares about her. And he very astutely brings everything back from that place of painful humanity. When he tells Tim, "Now you're my friend," you understand how much of a need he has to make that connection with somebody else. And he improvised about a third of those lines, too.
Bullz-Eye: I was going to ask you about that.
MA: He's a great improviser.
BE: He seems like a line-o-rama kind of guy.
MA: He's incredible. And he improvises not only things that are funny, but also things that are just true. Not all of his improvisations are zingers. He's always writing [in his head]. Plus he can also be as outrageous as anybody. I really loved R2D2 in the pool.
Nick Allen (Scorecard Report): Looking at this film and "Youth in Revolt," there seems to be this interest in skewering the suburban moral compass. Thomas Lennon's character looks perfect, only to find that he kills himself from auto-erotic asphyxiation. I was wondering what your interest is with that.
MA: Well, I think that things are never what they appear. And I like movies where people feel like they're in an alien world. That's the way I experience life. I was always from somewhere else. I was born in Puerto Rico, but my father is Peruvian and my mother is Spanish, so people didn't see me as a Puerto Rican kid. They were like, "There's that Peruvian kid." So I was a foreigner from when I was born. I'd spend time in Spain, and they were like, "There's that Puerto Rican kid." And then I moved to Costa Rica, and they were like, "There's that guy from Spain." And then I'd move to the United States, and people were like, "There's that guy from south of the border." I've never really had a home, so I like movies that are from an alien world.
Redbox: It makes the credits seem poignant that at the end, he finds a home not in a cabin in Canada, but with two other people.
MA: I love movies about people that have a lot of emotional baggage but are able to make a new and better family for themselves.
BE: You planted an interesting clue about one of the characters’ true nature; whenever they showed his wife, she never smiled, not even on her daughter’s wedding day.
MA: You're talking about Stephen Root?
BE: I am.
MA: He's so amazing. It also feels true to life with what people are thinking about. It's really easy to lose track of what is really happening along the ride, how you could spend the wedding of your daughter totally consumed by a business deal, and miss the best parts of life.
Cheeky Chicago: It's one of those things where you want to laugh with the character but not at the character. How do you handle the tone so that people enjoy what he's going through, but it's not mocking?
MA: That's a fine line to ride, and the script had that even from the way the characters are named. The name of Stephen Root's character is amazing: Bill Krogstad. They had names you could not imagine. Joan Ostrowski-Fox...you could feel the affection that Phil [Johnstone], the writer, had for the characters, and having Alexander Payne, from Omaha, Nebraska, and kind of the king of Midwestern comedies [as a producer] really helped. We were going to have [Tim and Joan] have a dinner at Olive Garden, and he was like, "No no no, make it a sushi restaurant. We're doing a comedy about the Midwest; we cannot put them in an Olive Garden." It also helped that the people we 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 (Note: he's actually from South Bend, Indiana) – and he was dying to show affection for where he came from. John C. Reilly, of course, is from Chicago, Anne Heche is from Ohio and spent a lot of time in Chicago, Stephen Root is Midwestern, and Kurtwood Smith is one million percent Midwestern. We took a lot of care in having people that could get away with riding that line.
Cheeky Chicago: I'm from Minnesota, and Olive Garden is actually extremely popular.
MA: That's what Phil was trying to argue. And it's good! The endless bread sticks are amazing. But I think Alexander had a good point. He said, 'While that may be true, it's also true that we have sushi places in the mall."
Redbox: You mention Alexander Payne, which made me think of "Election." One of the things I liked so much about the film is that it has this gray, drab kind of feel. It takes place in the late fall, or early spring, there are no leaves. And it's nice to see a comedy that isn't all sunny, bright and beautiful.
MA: Thank you! Our cinematographer is from Mexico City, and in coming up here, he said, "The color palette is very important." And he did some interesting things for Ed, kind of subliminal. For example, when Tim comes to the hotel, everything is so amazing to him that he says, "Let's put a strong spotlight in his eyes, so his eyes are sparkling." And then when he does the bribe to the head of the convention, he said, "Let's take that light, and let it just die in his eyes." And for the rest of the movie, you don't have that spotlight. And you can see the audience feeling that the light in him is going away, and it doesn't come back until he starts calling his customers. He did a lot with the color palettes, the browns and the yellows. If I see another comedy set in Los Angeles, I'm going to shoot myself.
Bullz-Eye: There’s my pull quote.
Studio rep: One more.
Scorecard Report: Since you've ruled out Los Angeles, what other parts of America interest you for a comedy?
MA: I'm not sure. I don't have a thing that I'm focusing on to do. I did work on a TV show last year with Mike White, who wrote two of my movies ["Chuck and Buck" and "The Good Girl"], and he did an HBO show that's going to start airing in December called "Enlightened," and it's set in Riverside, about five miles away from Los Angeles, and it's not Los Angeles. And it has that feel of someone who feels like an alien in their own office space. He grew up in Pasadena, which is also outside of Los Angeles, so you have to be careful. I'm tired of hip comedies. I'm tired of comedies that rely on shock or don't make you feel as hip. But it's a tough battle, because a lot of kids really want movies that have shock value to them.
BE: I can't tell you how happy I am to hear you say that. I hope it catches on.
MA: I hope so, too. I hope this movie is my "Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Cheeky Chicago: I'm sorry, but I have to ask you this: what is the cheekiest thing you've done lately?
MA: Let's see...well, I talked about how Sigourney Weaver claimed never to have had an onscreen orgasm before. And Ed Helms, I think he'd been thinking about her since "Ghostbusters." But she had never done an orgasm onscreen, which is interesting because she's done 50 films. She said she came close with Mel Brooks in "The Year of Living Dangerously," but no.(As we turn off our recorders and say goodbye, we politely point out that it was Mel Gibson, not Mel Brooks, who starred in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” which prompts many jokes about Mel Brooks sex scenes.)