Miguel Arteta doesn’t seem significantly changed since he visited Washington to publicize his first feature, Star Maps, five years ago. He’s wearing tan pants and a dark-gray T-shirt, without ascot, cowboy boots, or monogrammed jewelry. Yet the director of such un-Spielbergian fare as Chuck & Buck has gone Hollywood, if only subtly.
He now says things like, “I love actors. I try to make them feel as if they can do no wrong.” Indeed, these days Arteta seems to love just about everybody and everything, from collaborator Mike White—who scripted Chuck & Buck and the director’s new film, The Good Girl—to the Sundance Institute. Asked how Sundance compares with the American Film Institute—where he got an MFA, and which he candidly disparaged the last time he was doing interviews here—Arteta simply ignores the question.
After a childhood spent mostly in Puerto Rico and Latin America, Arteta seemed to have found a home in L.A., where he has been able to make films, like Star Maps, that investigate the city’s large Latino community. But he’s subsequently directed two White scripts about outsiders who happen to have blond hair: White himself played the central role in Chuck & Buck, the tale of an emotionally arrested man who stalks his adolescent masturbation partner, and Jennifer Aniston is The Good Girl, a stultified (and married) retail clerk who begins an affair with an immature younger man.
“I made a short at AFI about a woman in Wisconsin at the turn of the century who was obsessed with her tuba,” Arteta says. “People were confused. ‘You’re a Latino director. Why are you making a period piece about a woman in Wisconsin?’ I’m like, ‘Why not?’ I was real happy when the Hughes brothers did From Hell.”
If they’re not about Latinos, Arteta says that White’s scripts are nonetheless “as personal as I can get. I’m a very obsessive person, and I’ve been in obsessive relationships. When he gave me Chuck & Buck, I told him, ‘Maybe I’m not the right person for this. I don’t know how to work my way out of an obsession.’ He said, ‘That might make you actually really qualified. Let’s try it.’ It was scary, because it captured within me something that I kind of ignore. But he made it exciting to get to the set every day and set the thing in motion. It kind of worked out like free therapy for me. I think I’m less obsessive after making that movie.
“The Good Girl, too, is very, very personal,” he continues. “It’s kind of like a comedic ode to depression. It’s when you feel trapped and you want to escape. To me, depression is a really intense topic, and I feel like I learned a lot from making this movie, too. It’s cheaper than a therapist.”
Arteta and White attended Connecticut’s Wesleyan University at the same time but didn’t meet until they both switched coasts. The director cast White as a TV writer in Star Maps, and, he says, “we became friends. So he’s acted in every one of my movies. He’s a great actor, too.”
Making the controversial Chuck & Buck was something of a bonding experience. “Everyone that we gave the script to was like, ‘This is career suicide, guys. Don’t do this,’” Arteta recalls. “We put it down for over a year, because there was such a unanimous response. After a year and a half of looking into other projects, we said, ‘We’re crazy not to make Chuck & Buck. It’s such a wonderful script.’ Thank God we did it. If I learned something from making these movies, it’s that you don’t need to listen to anybody. You’ve got to please yourself and then just hope that some people get something out of it. It’s the best way to take the pressure away. Don’t think about the financiers, and the actors, and the audience. That’s too scary to think about. Screw that. Just think about whether I can make it work for myself.
“Working in low-budget is pretty helpful for that,” he adds. “It’s so fast and you’re so tired, you have no time to second-guess yourself. It gives you really quick access to your intuition. It’s just like, OK, here’s what we gotta do, because we need to shoot the next shot. I think if I had more time to think about it, it might be harder.”
Of course, financiers do have some power over the process. Arteta says he’s currently writing several “really unmarketable scripts” but that he thinks he may be able to make one of them. “It’s about a Colombian woman who comes to the United States and tries to assimilate, but ends up working for money launderers. It’s a weird movie, too, but at least there’s a thriller context.”
While developing such scripts, Arteta doesn’t have to live from one quirky little movie to the next. He’s become a successful TV director, with credits on Homicide: Life on the Street, Freaks and Geeks, and Six Feet Under. Making low-budget movies is good preparation for television, he notes: “When you can do 20- to 40-something setups a day, the producers in TV are pretty happy. But it’s easy because the actors really know the characters. They can experiment and find what you’re looking for really quickly. It’s a great training ground for everybody.”
The director is particularly happy about Six Feet Under’s success. “It’s nice when you really love something and everybody else likes it. It doesn’t usually work that way with me,” he laughs.
Though Chuck & Buck was made with unknown and unprofessional actors, The Good Girl features such indie-film regulars as John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jake Gyllenhaal, all in parts that revolve around Aniston’s central role. “I know it seems like an odd choice,” says Arteta of his leading lady. “But she’s a great actor. I knew she could do it. We were looking at the typical sort of dark, independent-film actresses, and Mike said, ‘Wait a second. Let’s take it a whole ‘nother way. How about Jennifer Aniston? Let’s put America’s sweetheart in this movie and have her do all this really screwed-up stuff.’ It seemed kind of mischievous. And intuitively it felt right.”
Selling the part to Aniston wasn’t hard, the director says. “She was ready. She’s at the point in her career, after eight years of Friends, that she was looking for a script she could really believe in and throw herself into. She read it and called me the next day. People in Hollywood don’t do that. She was like, ‘I love this script. Are sure you got the right address?’ It was Mary Tyler Moore and Ordinary People. She’d been waiting for something like this.”
Once filming began, “there was a lot of emotional stuff,” says Arteta. “Jennifer had never done a sex scene before. And here she was doing three, with three very different kinds of actors.” Aniston also began shooting the film while Friends was still in production, so for the first three weeks she was working seven days a week. “It really wore her out, which was great for the part,” the director notes. “She was like, ‘Miguel, I’m coming undone,’ and I would be like, ‘Yes! Terrific! Use it!’”
Arteta is used to shooting fast, but he admits to taking a long time in the editing room. “I’m a firm believer that shorter is better. My three movies, without the credits, are under 90 minutes. I think that’s enough time to get the point across. So we work really hard to get that. For me, movies have to really work for an audience, even if you’re getting a really personal message across. I really labor over that.”
Arteta had his definitive editing lesson at the Sundance Institute, when still struggling with his first feature. “I was going there for a different script, but I was editing Star Maps,” he recalls. “And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’d been editing it for 12 months, and I just couldn’t make it work. [Feature Film Program Director] Michelle Satter had me show a cut at the lab with all the other students, and they helped me figure out how to rewrite the movie. I re-shot a third of it after that. And then it started to work.
“So I definitely owe Michelle my career,” Arteta adds. “If I hadn’t happened to be there at that time, I probably would have just wrapped it up, that movie would never have gone to a festival, and I would have 16 credit cards maxed out—and I would have never tried it again.” —Mark Jenkins