Miguel Arteta on Cedar Rapids and the Bullying of Michael Cera
If there's one thing to be said for Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta, it's that he defends his actors. If you come after one of the stars of his films -- say, Michael Cera in last year's criminally underrated Youth in Revolt -- you're going to hear about it, which Movieline did during this interview. The Puerto Rican-born Arteta is also apt to defend is his own bona fides: While he readily admits that he's not the first person you would think of to direct Cedar Rapids -- a film about a fish-out-of-water Midwesterner -- he knows what it's like to be a new person in a strange land.
Cedar Rapids -- which co-stars Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (of The Wire fame) and Sigourney Weaver -- tells the story of a mild-mannered insurance agent named Tim Lippe (Helms) who leaves the safe confines of his Wisconsin hometown to face the mean streets of Cedar Rapids during insurance convention. Movieline spoke to Arteta about the film's religious undertones, preventing Tim Lippe from coming off as a racist, and the question of why Youth in Revolt was a box-office bust.
It's always nice to hear Mathew Wilder's "Break My Stride" as I walk out of a theater. Why did you go with that song?
I had used it in a short that I had did years ago. I just like the triumphant feeling of it. "Nobody's gonna break my stride." It feels like something that Tim Lippe could really relate to.
The trailer for Cedar Rapids almost presents the film as "crazy guy gets non-crazy guy to do crazy things." Is that good marketing?
Well, I think the trailer is pretty fair to the promise about the friendship of these four people. I see the movie as like The Wizard of Oz of insurance. Ed is Dorothy trying to get to Cedar Rapids, and along the way he meets this motley crew of characters that need him and he needs them and they all help each other and they become friends. And that becomes the point, rather than getting to the Emerald City. That's the biggest surprise for me in any movie, in any trip, you never know what's going to happen. You might make a lifelong friend. You might meet that person and have a connection. The first few days when you connect with somebody whose going to be a friend for life is amazing and that's what I wanted to capture.
Is Orin Oz?
[Laughs] I think so!
I know the hotel scenes were filmed in Michigan, but what did the city of Cedar Rapids itself bring to this movie?
You know, Iowa is actually the insurance capital of the world. Most of the insurance companies in the United States are home based in Iowa. So that's part of the reason. And they're based out of Des Moines but I think we just wanted to say that they are being spiffy and taking a trip to the "wild" city of Cedar Rapids. Our writer, Phil Johnston, was a weather reporter in Des Moines and he would do little comedy segments from around Iowa. I think he grew a real affection to Cedar Rapids and that's why the film was placed there.
Were you intimidated about making a movie about the American heartland?
I did wonder why Alexander Payne wanted a Puerto Rican to make a movie about the Midwest. When you first read the script, you have two things that you want as a director: You have fun with the characters, but never make fun of them. He had a genuine affection to his characters and I love that. Also, by the way, being an immigrant, the whole story of Tim Lippe being this naïve guy who goes to a convention and doesn't know who to trust -- who's good and bad -- that's the story of being an immigrant and coming to this country. It's like a big convention, you don't know who is who or what is what. So I could relate to it on that level.
If you live in the Midwest will you like this movie?
I'm hoping you would. And, so far, knock on wood, the response has been very good from people from the Midwest. John C. Reilly said it best, we are making a movie about these people, we are not making fun of these people. We are making a comedy about them.
There is one scene, when Tim meets Isiah Whitlock's character for the first time, he's nervous that an "Afro-American" is in his hotel room. People might roll their eyes at that and think, "We wouldn't do that." Was that a tricky scene to do without making Tim look racist?
Yeah, I had concerns about that one when I started. But Phil, who had been reporting around and came from Wisconsin, he said, "Believe me, towns of 500 or 1000 people in northern Wisconsin, some of the people have not seen, other than television or at the mall. They're not that used to it. And there is a conceit in the film for how extremely naïve Tim is and that is part of the premise that you have to buy into. I find it kind of beautiful. I'm attracted to characters like that. What I find very wonderful is in the script and in the way Ed Helms did it is that he's initially shocked and he also uses the respectful phrase "Afro American gentleman." But then he immediately is like right there, "Oh, this is a friend."
This movie makes a statement on religion. Do you think religion define this area of the country? Iowa is an interesting place, gay marriage is addressed in the movie, too.
It's a pretty progressive place. The voted for Obama first, before anybody else. They had gay marriage -- they just repealed it, unfortunately -- but they had gay marriage before California. The Midwest is not what people think and Iowa is particularly progressive. I feel it defies stereotypes; people there are self thinkers. That's what I would say the most from my experiences in Iowa. They stand on their own two feet to make judgments, I think that's why they picked Obama. It wasn't because they are super liberals. It was because they were standing in their room and they said, "I think for myself and this guy makes more sense."
As far as the religious aspects, how far did you want to go with that? It seems to be an underlying theme heavily at the beginning but tails off by the end.
I like how the movie establishes Christian values without calling them Christians. Tim is all about kindness. Orin, who is talking about God all of the time, ends up being corrupt. I think there is no correlation between values and religion. I think most churches do tremendous community work and, certainly, we were not trying to take a [shot] at religion in this movie. But there is corruption in non-religious circles and there is corruption in religious circles. I thought that it was true to live that one person in this organization would be using that as a bit of a smoke screen.
As religious as Orin is, he still encourages that the group have drinks. Is that accurate?
People have pointed out that inconsistency, that the head of the convention talking about commitment to God giving drink tickets. But that was our way to point out that, perhaps, dropping a hint, that there is something quite not as upstanding as we claims to be.
Were you concerned that a direct reference to The Wire was too meta?
I never watched it. Ed was more concerned. And he brought it up and he was fighting to take it out. I was just looking at the way Isiah says the line and the way he read it was fantastic -- always mentioning the word "program" in conjunction to The Wire. It was really very clever and very funny. And so I was like let's not take it away from him.
One movie I really enjoyed from last year was Youth In Revolt.
Oh my God, bless you. I love that movie, I'm so proud of it. I love Michael Cera and my heart is broken that not more people saw it.
I don't know. I think the fact that the Year One didn't do that much business hurt us. Perhaps if it had come on the heals of Superbad it would have done better. I, personally, didn't like the poster and I fought Bob Weinstein on it. I thought it was a throwback. It was not relevant to kids, you know? And I think those things deterred it. Things are very fickle. I'm glad you liked it and I'm hearing a lot of people finding some love for the movie on DVD and that makes me very happy. I'm really proud of the movie and really proud of Michael Cera's work in it.
Do you think Year One is what hurt Scott Pilgrim, too?
My theory is people like Seth Rogen and a lot of those people are coming up in movies, they claim to be the underdog. But they're really kind of like "guy's guys" -- disguising themselves as slacker underdogs. But Michael Cera is really an underdog. A true underdog. He's not your typical masculine guy and, honestly, I think there is a little bit of bullying. Like mass bullying going on where they see someone weak and they're going after him. Personally, I really think that's what's going on.
And you're talking about real life.
In real life. People are saying, "Oh, that guy, he's always playing the same guy." They can rough him up. You know, Seth Rogen's always playing the same guy! And nobody is beating him up about it.
If you direct Michael again, would you take a different approach?
No, to me Michael Cera is like a little Peter Sellers in the making, and I think he will have many, many faces. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg.