Exclusive: Director Miguel Arteta on Youth in Revolt

As hard as it is developing and adapting a cult novel to the big screen, director Miguel Arteta at least had a great partner in actor Michael Cera when he decided to take on C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt (subtitled: “The Journals of Nick Twist”).

If you haven’t figured it out, the young star of Superbad and Juno plays Twisp, an intelligent but awkward virgin who falls in love with Portia Doubleday’s Sheeni Saunders while on a family vacation, and proceeds to succumb to her bad influence, as she manipulates him into doing worse and worse deeds in order to win her heart. It’s a very funny and quirky comedy that plays up to Cera’s strengths but also offers more than a few surprises, like the evil alter-ego Nick develops who is very different than the characters we normally see Cera play. (The movie also has a great supporting cast including Jean Smart, Justin Long, Zack Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi and more.)

Since making the critically-lauded The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston in 2002, Arteta has mainly been working with other filmmakers while directing episodes of various popular television series, so Youth in Revolt is a welcome return for the indie filmmaker. ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to him in Toronto where his film premiered at the annual film festival and is finally coming out on Friday, January 8 after being shifted around the release schedule for a year.

ComingSoon.net: This movie has kind of been a long time coming in many ways – not just because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie from you, but also because it seems like you’ve been working on this for a while.
Miguel Arteta: Yeah, well, we shot it last summer and we finished it this spring.

CS: Had Michael shot “Year One” yet because I feel like when I talked to him last March (that’s 2008), he had already filmed this.
Arteta: Michael was shooting “Year One” when I met him. I went to meet him in Shreveport to work on the script, that was the first time I met him.

CS: This movie would certainly seem like it would be very collaborative between the two of you…
Arteta: Very much so.

CS: Was he actually attached to do this before you came on board?
Arteta: Yeah, he was attached for a couple of years I think before I came on, and they were looking for a director and there were some false starts, and I think it took a while to get it together. When I came on, Bob Weinstein was, “Okay, I’m making this movie. I’m shooting it in May, are you in or are you out?” He was very passionate and decisive, and I think his energy was really awesome to get it done.

CS: So there already was a script and it was ready to go at that time you came on board?
Arteta: There was a script by Gustin Nash, and it was alright, but me and Michael Cera rewrote it. This is really a love song to Michael Cera, this movie, and he’s playing three characters really, when you include Carlotta, and I saw it like one of these early Peter Sellers movies where he played many different characters. It needed really to be a big collaboration to make him comfortable. It was his favorite book and he’s an incredibly talented writer. It was odd, because I was like, “I’m putting my future in your 19-year-old hands, let’s rewrite it together!” It was a really beautiful collaboration. He was deeply involved with the casting of the movie, every part, and deeply involved with every aspect of making the movie. I was trying to enable him to really do what I hoped would be an amazing performance… or performances.

CS: What’s interesting is that while a lot of people like Michael, they do tend to say that he’s only good at doing one thing in a lot of his movies, and I think this proves that he can do something different, which I think is really surprising. Were you already familiar with the book when Bob contacted you?
Arteta: No, I had perused the book years before, but when I heard Michael was involved, I read the book, and I loved it. It’s an amazing book. It’s one of the only books I’ve seen that doesn’t condescend to teenagers in anyway. Like the teenagers don’t even sound like a teenager, they sound like an adult, and it’s so dark and nutty, I fell in love with it.

CS: Did either of you have any contact with the author and did he get involved at all?
Arteta: I think Michael and C.D. Payne had Emailed each other and Michael was very much involved. He had that communication and then C.D. Payne came and he’s in the movie. Right before the opening credits, they’re driving to Clear Lake and Jean Smart waves and says, “We’re going on vacation!” and there’s a person reading a paper who doesn’t even look up, that’s C.D. Payne.

CS: That’s pretty cool. I’m not sure if anyone would ever have known.
Arteta: I think he’s a very private guy.

CS: I would say so. What was involved with your rewrite when you got involved? Did you have to go back to the book and bring things in that weren’t in the script?
Arteta: Michael had read the book like five times and he knew it intimately, and he wanted to… for example, Mr. Ferguson’s character wasn’t in there and Dwayne’s character was in, and he felt like Ferguson was a really sweet character, so we took Dwayne’s character out and we put more Mr. Ferguson. There were many scenes from the book that Michael really loved that we tried to use verbatim. We just kind of took our favorite parts from the book and tried to find a way to make a story that would have to be a little bit different from the book obviously, out of those favorite moments. In essence, if you do know the book very well, you will notice that the dialogue, there’s a lot of lifting from the book directly. Even though it’s a 500-page book where a million different things happen, so the plot looks nothing like the book. I would say more than half of the scenes that the dialogue comes verbatim from the book.

CS: How hard is it to do that? To adapt a book and use things directly from it? I always hear when people adapt books that they have to do things different because things that work in books don’t work in movies, so how hard did you find it? I haven’t read the book but your movie seems to work as a movie.
Arteta: I think it’s very difficult, because you have to betray the way the story is told, but then be true to the essence of the characters, but I dunno. It worked really well with this one. It evolved, and it was a beautiful process of evolving while we were shooting and realizing how we were going to do it. I feel very happy that we captured some of the excitement of the book. You can’t really… I mean, the book would be Triple X if you shot it, but I feel like the spirit of Nick Twisp in the film.

CS: What about the animation? Where did that come from? Did that just come out while you were trying to figure out how to adapt the book?
Arteta: The original writer had written a little bit of animation and we picked up from there, and then we realized, “Maybe we should do a different type of animation so that we can let the audience know that you can never know what to expect from this movie.” It is kind of a picaresque novel. He meets just ten minutes with a character and then that character will be gone in ten minutes and then another character comes in, so we realize that this was a good audience know that, “You know what? Things are going to constantly be changing. Let’s have a different kind of animation every ten minutes.” So we went and found Peter Sluszka who is so funny and so talented, and his sensibilities were a perfect match for the film.

CS: I noticed that Michael and Charlyne Yi did some music, too, so these were original songs he had?
Arteta: Yeah, he wrote them for the movie, most of them. I think there was one song with Charlyne that they had written together, but yeah, he’s an amazing musician. As you know, he did the soundtrack to “Paper Heart,” which is just gorgeous, and we had him know… John Swihart was very collaborative. “Let’s invite Michael Cera to do as much as he can.” Michael really had a pulse on this movie, he’s really the co-creator of it.

CS: There’s always some collaboration on all movies but if you talk to anyone, especially actors, they always say that films are a director’s medium and it’s always the director’s vision, so one assumes that at some point Michael had to go off and make another movie and then you had to finish it. How is that like as a director to give that sort of control to your actor and then have to take over when it come to editing and finish the movie?
Arteta: I had a little practice because Mike White I think is one of the most original writers out there, and we cast him in “Chuck and Buck” and he’s in every shot of that movie, and yet he wrote it, and talk about a very unique story, you know? I had that kind of collaboration where my job is to support the writing and the performance and help this person really realize their vision, and I loved it. So I had done that. I feel like I can only do that with people who I think are extraordinary, who have an amazing, unique vision, and who are really truthfully great actors. I guess I’m very lucky cause Mike White and Michael Cera are totally unique. When you think about Michael Cera’s talent, it’s really unique. Here’s an actor that is very, very subtle and yet, a wide commercial audience totally gets what’s going through his mind and can totally relate to him.

CS: I’m not sure if people really know all that he can do, but I think this is a good movie because it does take him to another level where you can see him as someone who can completely embody a character which I don’t think we’ve seen. I’m sure a lot of people are asking you this, but it’s obviously been a long time since “The Good Girl.” Has it been that long since you found a script you liked that you wanted to spend time directing it?
Arteta: Yeah, I mean I helped produce Miranda July’s movie – I didn’t get credit on it, but we were dating at the time and I spent a year working on it.

CS: “Me and You and Everyone You Know”? I love that movie.
Arteta: Thank you. We worked really hard on it, and that was like the most perfect mentoring decision. I was her mentor at Sundance and then we dated and then we spent a year-and-a-half making that movie. Then I also produced a movie from another Sundance guy, Michael Kang, called “The Motel.” It was good for me, and it was rejuvenating to go and help younger filmmakers make their movies. I think after “The Good Girl,” a lot of opportunities were opened for doing commercial movies and I couldn’t find one that I loved, so I went and helped these two filmmakers make their under-$1 million movies and I think that was rejuvenating for me, and I wrote a couple scripts that hopefully I’ll make at some point. While I was pursuing that, this came to be, but yeah, it was a long time. It was hard not to be able to generate material that I loved. I felt that I was getting in the way. Most of the time, filmmakers are like, “I know what I want to do but I can’t get the financing.”

CS: That’s always the challenge. Unless you want to direct movies for a studio and do what they say (more or less) or spend years trying to raise money…
Arteta: So yeah, it was a tough ride, six years.

CS: I want to talk about the casting and you talked about it a little bit where you have all these characters coming in and out. It’s a very eclectic cast and you kind of got lucky because you got Zack Galifianakis in the movie, which can’t be better timing to have him in your movie. I guess Fred Willard you worked with before, right?
Arteta: Yeah, he was in my short film at the American Film Institute. He had come in as a favor and been in my movie, but that was a long time ago, 19 years ago.

CS: How long did it take to cast everyone around Michael once you finished the script?
Arteta: Things went pretty fast. Bob Weinstein is an amazing movie studio head, because he’s so decisive and so willing to enter into a negotiation and a dialogue creatively, so the casting process was fun. You know, like Jean Smart came on and Bob said, “Are you sure she’s the right person?” and I said, “Wait, I’ll bring Jean this weekend and I’ll show you.” The moment he saw her, he was like “Oh my God, she’s the one. Hire her!” The next day she was hired. He makes very fast (decisions) so we were able to do it and do it well. Michael Cera had a huge amount of input in the casting. Jean Smart was a person in the first phone call that I talked to him, and he was like, “how about Jean Smart for Estelle?” And he got people he had worked with in “Nick & Norah,” Jonathan B. Wright and Ari Graynor, they were both in “Nick & Norah” and they’re great. Erik Knudsen who is a local Toronto actor.

CS: Did you shoot the movie up here?
Arteta: No, we shot the movie in Michigan, but you know, the casting was a lot of fun and also we were really lucky. It’s a dream cast.

CS: Let’s talk about Portia… how important was it to get someone completely new and unknown face like Portia to play that character?
Arteta: That was our hope. We read like 160 actresses, some of them well known, but nobody seemed to be able to capture… it’s a difficult character to play, Sheeni, because she has all these aspirations to be super-elegant and super-worldly, but yet she’s coming from a trailer park from these ultra-religious parents, so you needed somebody who could own those aspirations but not betray the world that she came from. She needs to feel real, she needs to feel like she walked out of that trailer park, and yet, she’s very sophisticated. So how do you get a sophisticated 16-year-old who also seems like who could really fit into that world? So being a new face helped, because I think it helps the audience be like, “Okay, well who’s this? It’s just somebody who’s there.” I think she’s amazingly real in the film and I’m very proud of that.

CS: Did you have any time to do any kind of rehearsals for this movie besides working with Michael? Especially since you have so many different actors from different placesÂ…
Arteta: We did Portia and Michael, they rehearsed with me in my office a little bit, but I don’t love doing rehearsals. I think it makes actors nervous. I think that when you’re making a movie, when they find it for the first time, you want to have cameras rolling to capture it, so I don’t like rehearsing. I think it makes actors really nervous, because you’re in a rehearsal and they’ll see in your face when they hit something. They’ll see, “Okay, Miguel’s thinking that’s it,” so rather than being prescient when they’re making the movie, all they’re thinking about it is “Oh, what was that thing I did? How do I get back to it?” That’s not what I want them to be thinking. What I want to be is like, “Let’s find it now. Let’s record it as you find it.” It goes to that thing I feel like a movie star is somebody who has a face that appears like they’re putting things together for the first time right now, and I think you need to help that process along by not rehearsing and being like, “That’s it!”

CS: There’s also something to say about actors who can figure something out and do it every time. For instance, I spoke to Michael Sheen this morning about performing “Frost/Nixon” so many times on stage before filming it and he felt it allowed him to really explore the character and perfect it. With that in mind, doesn’t the filming process end up taking more time when you don’t have that sort of time to develop what you want beforehand?
Arteta: Theater actors are amazing in that ability, like eight times a week they find it every time. There’s people who do that, but Sydney Pollack told me one time that you shouldn’t rehearse because every piece of film needs to feel like a brand new performance. Personally, I think some theater actors get tripped up when they come to movies. There’s a lot of theater actors who are amazing but they don’t become movie stars. Like Laurence Olivier was probably one of the greatest actors that ever lived but he wasn’t a movie star. It’s not because the acting is not amazing, but I do think that to be a movie star, you have to have an ability to stand in front of a camera and invite the audience in to your process by having some expression on your face that tells them, “I’m figuring things out and putting it all together for the first time now as you’re watching me.” Think about Clint Eastwood’s little frown, think about Tom Cruise’s intensity. He feels like he’s putting it all together right now, and Michael Cera has that. When you see him come up (with something), he’s always seeing an opportunity for naughtiness that he’s discovering right in front of you, and that’s a lot of the pleasure of watching him perform is that you see his face… he’s not doing anything but you can see, “Oh my God,” he now knows how to take the piss out of this person and it just came to him how to do it.

CS: When you’re working on a movie as long as you have, and this one was probably more than a year, what would you like people to get out of seeing it? Do you want them to go back and read C.D. Payne’s book? Would you rather that your movie be a standalone experience?
Arteta: I think it’s a standalone experience. I love the book and I hope the book becomes more popular, because it really is a remarkable book and so fun, so honest, and so intelligent, but the goal is to have a great movie experience. To me is that if you can make the audience feel as if they have a role to play, like they’re really participating in the moviewatching experience, then it’s satisfying. My favorite part of making movies is sitting in a movie theater when they don’t know I’m there and watching the movie with them.

CS: The Weinsteins are really big on testing their movies with audiences, so did you sit in on a lot of them?
Arteta: Yeah, we did a few tests, I think we did three different sets of tests.

CS: Did it play differently in different places like New York or L.A.?
Arteta: Yeah, yeah. We did it in L.A. at first and then in New York. It was really helpful. At first I was nervous because I usually do those test screenings with acquaintances in a friend’s living room. I believe you’re making a movie for an audience, not to pander to that audience, so the audience has an essence of participation. I can’t finish a movie without having tested it, but I was very nervous to do it with the test scores and all of that. I thought that was going to trip us up, but then I realized that Bob is kind of doing the same thing I was doing in living rooms with people, it’s just on a grander scale. The scores varied but I do have to hand it to Bob Weinstein, too, that when he sees those tests, he’s not looking at those numbers so much as he’s looking at what’s going on…

CS: The reactions.
Arteta: Yeah, so it was good. He’s demanding, he wants the movie to work, but we had the same goal. He’s the only studio head I’ve met that’s been as demanding as I am of myself.

CS: Have you been in touch with Mike White at all in recent years? You two had such a good streak together. I know he directed his own movie but have you been in touch to do something else together?
Arteta: He helped us write the reshoots for this – we did some reshoots for “Youth in Revolt” and he came out. I would love to do something with him. He’s always helped me one way or another, either officially or unofficially. I think he’s going to do a TV series with Laura Dern which I think is going to be incredible, and I think they’re going to shoot it in December or January, and I hope as soon as I’m done this, I can go direct one episode of that, because I adore him.

CS: Have you been enjoying doing the TV work? Is that something you like because you can just go in for a week and there’s something cathartic about that?
Arteta: I’m very lucky that I get to survive doing that, because I get to practice my craft, and in TV, the writers are kings, so you get amazing writers. I worked with Alan Ball, did three episodes of “Six Feet Under.” That was such an incredible treat and I learned so much from him, so yeah, I’m very lucky to be able to move between the two worlds.

CS: I see you’re attached to a movie called “Cedar Rapids,” which I don’t know much about, but is that something that might be next?
Arteta: Yes, Fox Searchlight is making this movie in six weeks, I think, we’re shooting with Ed Helms.

CS: Is that from your own script?
Arteta: No, Ed Helms and this new writer, Phil Johnston, developed it for Ed Helms, and Alexander Payne’s company produced it, and it’s great. Ed Helms reminds me of early Jack Lemmon, and the movie is kind of a classic early Jack Lemmon movie of a guy who thinks that the appearance of purity is purity and he has to go find out it’s not like that, but that his moral compass was right to begin with, it’s that life is a little more complicated.

CS: What’s the general premise?
Arteta: He’s an insurance salesman from a town of 300 people who is called upon to represent his company at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids which he’s terrified of. To him, it’s like going to the big world, and has to learn the politics of how the world works out there.

CS: Are you going to approach the visuals of that very different? I don’t think you can put this and “The Good Girl” next to each other and someone will say they’re from the same director, so will you tackle that one differently as well?
Arteta: Well, the cinematographer I used in “Star Maps” and “Chuck and Buck” and Miranda’s movie, too, Chuy Chávez, shot this one, and I had a different cinematographer on “The Good Girl,” and I think that might have been part of the reason. He’s also doing (“Cedar Rapids”) so that will be my fourth film from him. Chuy is awesome, I love him. I hope I can make ever movie with him.

CS: He’s been really busy, too.
Arteta: Yeah, he works in Mexico all the time, so yeah, I’m very lucky to be working with him.

CS: Also working with Ed Helms should be great as he’s just coming off of “The Hangover.” It’s amazing to me that he can be doing all this great stuff on TV and then a movie comes along that breaks out and then suddenly, his next project will get greenlit with more money.
Arteta: An overnight success in Hollywood, it’s amazing how that stuff happens, but I’m super-excited. I think he’s a really thoughtful performer. When you think about his performance in “The Hangover,” it’s a really broad movie but Ed gives such a thoughtful arc to that character.

Youth in Revolt opens nationwide on Friday, January 8.

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