Miguel Arteta lived the stereotypical “struggling indie filmmaker” life early in his career, paying for his first film, 1997’s Star Maps, with credit cards while living in a garage. He continued to fit the template when Star Maps became a critical hit at Sundance, putting him on the industry’s radar seemingly overnight. It paid off with frequent television work (Homicide: Life On The Street, Freaks And Geeks, Six Feet Under) and several well-received indie films, such as Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and most recently, Youth In Revolt. Arteta’s knack for subtlety may seem ill-fitting for Cedar Rapids, the new film starring Ed Helms as an insurance-selling naïf whose morals are tested at a convention in the city. At first, the film looks like it could be aiming for easy jokes at the expense of Midwestern caricatures, but the film (written by former Iowan Phil Johnston) thankfully avoids that trap. Instead, it’s a warm-hearted comedy with genuine affection for four characters—Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.—who come to care for each other while cutting loose in Cedar Rapids. In that case, it’s right up Arteta’s alley. Just before the film opened, the director spoke to The A.V. Club about Cedar Rapids’ Depression-era mentality, why he hated Vera Farmiga’s character in Up In The Air, and why Ed Helms is like Jack Lemmon.
The A.V. Club: You had a brief interaction with Ed Helms when you directed the “Diwali” episode of The Office. Did you have a chance to form any impressions of him?
Miguel Arteta: Not at all. I think that was his second episode, or very early on. We only shot him for one afternoon, and there was no indication that the Andy Bernard storyline would fly the way it has. But I did remark to Greg Daniels that what struck me about Ed was that he was such a good actor. I didn’t place him from The Daily Show. I was like, “They found a guy to play Andy who was just Andy,” because Ed kind of stayed in character between the takes. I didn’t realize he was kinda putting me on a bit. He fooled me. He’s a good actor.
AVC: You keep citing Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon when talking about him in this role. Are there any performances that you think of when saying that?
MA: Definitely. For Jimmy Stewart, it’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. He’s so sheltered and so naïve, and what I like about stories about people that are so innocent—it actually takes more bravery from a character like that to do the right thing than it does for other people, because they don’t understand what they’re up against. And for Jack Lemmon—Ed Helms really reminds me of Jack Lemmon—he had that quality of being an everyday guy, a wholesome guy, but still having a comic edge. He’d be satiric in his roles. You could believe Jack at an insurance agency. Same thing with Ed. He has this physical ability… I see two other comics who have sweetness, who are able to do comedy not coming from a mean place, and that’s Steve Carell and Will Ferrell, but those guys are not like Jack Lemmon. They don’t disappear in their roles. They’re too unique-looking. Ed can really be an everyday man.
AVC: You’ve said it was important for this film for the comedy not to come from a mean place. Why? What kind of sensibility were you trying for?
MA: It’s tough times out there. I think we need comedies that are sweet. We need to enforce priorities that are actually important. When our country’s in a state of chaos, I think it’s important to serve up something that says “People, don’t forget, if you have good priorities, you’re good.” You don’t need to be a chump, but you don’t need to lose your values. It’s really an old-fashioned, Depression-era mentality that drove me to want to make this movie.
AVC: There are certainly some signifiers that initially makes it seem like the movie doesn’t have those kinds of values. Tim gets into drugs, and you have a woman who’s married getting something on the side. How do you keep those characters empathetic?
MA: That’s what I liked about the script. It was wholesome, it was sweet, but then it had these things that were true to life, and didn’t use the typical treatment that Hollywood gives these things. Anne Heche’s character cheats once a year, but in most Hollywood movies, she would have been made to be the slut or have been punished for it, and in this script, they end up friends the next day. Anne gets to make a great case of why you should have some understanding or compassion for somebody who does that. That’s different, and to me, that feels true to life. To me, this movie is quietly subversive. It’s not like the typical comedies out there that are wham-bam trying to hit you over the head with jokes, or trying to shock you, or trying to make you feel hip that you’re in on the joke. I think there’s a subtlety in it that is really smart and not apparent. For example, Anne Heche’s character. I find that really interesting. Think about Vera Farmiga’s character in Up In The Air. I hated that character. [Up In The Air spoilers ahead. —ed.] She lies—she doesn’t tell him she has a family. It’s just an excuse for Clooney to run at the end of the movie and have a shocking surprise. Here, Anne is playing a character that has a heart to lead with the truth, telling him, “I have a family. You can either do this, or not do this,” and the movie doesn’t judge her for it. I think that’s great. The script impressed me.
AVC: Your films typically don’t have that “wham-bam” comedic style. Is subtlety what usually attracts you to scripts?
MA: I’m definitely looking for movies that ride an edge, where you’re having fun with the character but you’re not making fun of them, and that’s a difficult line to ride. I like movies about people who have emotional challenges that are important to myself, because when you are directing, you want to have a reason to get up every morning and see what the actors are doing, and I like them to be going through something that I find relevant to myself. In Cedar Rapids, Tim Lippe is a kind person that needs to remain kind but learn not to be a chump without losing his kindness. That’s very relevant to me and my life today. That’s something I aspire to.
AVC: You’ve said that the editing was the hardest part of this film. How so?
MA: Well, we shot a lot, and we have great improvisers like John C. Reilly and Ed Helms, so it was hard to pick through what to keep and what not to keep, and to keep the drive of the story forward. There’s always that temptation to have the scenes that would end up feeling extraneous, but you would fall in love in them, and there were a lot of those scenes. I had a two-and-a-half-hour cut that I liked.
AVC: How long was the final cut?
MA: It’s very short—it’s 86 minutes.
AVC: Were there a lot of scenes that you filmed that you were close to that you couldn’t fit in?
MA: There’s stuff that’s really special. There’s one scene where Ed sprays Stephen Root with a fire extinguisher in the face and pushes him into the pool, and starts going crazy after he’s done drugs, and baptizing him in the pool. If we left it in the film, the confrontation that he has with Stephen Root at the end would have been moot. But we’ll put it on the DVD extras.
AVC: A lot’s been made of your background, since you grew up in Puerto Rico, which is basically the opposite of Cedar Rapids. How much time have you spent in the Midwest, or with Midwestern people?
MA: I shot Youth In Revolt in Michigan two years ago, and I had a really nice time making that movie. But I liked the specificity of a story of someone coming from a tiny town being terrified to go to really what is also a pretty small town, so the Midwest was a good place to set that story. But the real reason I signed on to this movie was because Phil Johnston, who wrote the script and is from the Midwest, had genuine affection toward the character. You can tell in the way the characters are named: Tim Lippe, Dean Ziegler, Joan Ostrowski-Fox. I mean, it’s hard to make up those names.
AVC: It also seems like the story itself, a person going from a small town to the closest “metropolis” isn’t unique to the Midwest.
MA: What he goes through is universal. Certainly being from Puerto Rico and coming to the big country of the United States—Tim is in culture shock when he gets to the convention, he doesn’t know who to trust, and I felt that way coming to this country. Most Americans have moved, and I think people can relate to that. Also, most people have been at a wedding or convention or some such event, in which there is a license to not be yourself because you’re away for a certain amount of time. So I think that it is a love letter to Midwest insurance agents, but it is also a story about unexpected friendships and a story about knowing how to become wiser without losing your good values.
AVC: What do you have in the pipeline?
MA: I spent the last year working with Mike White, who wrote two of my films, and he created an HBO show called Enlightened, with Laura Dern and Luke Wilson. We shot 10 episodes—I directed four out of the 10. It’s coming out at the end of the summer.
AVC: The IMDB says you’re attached to a film adaptation of You Shall Know Our Velocity!
MA: I developed a script on Dave Eggers’ book years ago, and I’m no longer attached. I think the idea I had for that was too crazy and complicated to pull off, even though it was exciting. It would have involved celebrities staging their own deaths for a while. It was too difficult.
AVC: It seems like it would be very difficult to make a film out of that book.
MA: There’s something very fun about the idea of two guys giving away $35,000 in seven days. But maybe one day I’ll come back to it.