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The University of Hartford

An Interview with Miguel Arteta
Director of The Good Girl
By Kevin O'Toole

On Culture Dogs (your weekly video and movie news and review program, every Sunday night from UH Radio), I spoke to Miguel Arteta this summer, the Independent Spirit award winner for Chuck and Buck, about his film, The Good Girl. It was his latest collaboration with his Chuck and Buck partner, screenwriter Mike White, which starred Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal. We talked about comic odes to depression and other bits of diverse perversity (or is it perverse diversity?)…

You went to Wesleyan University, right?
I did, yeah. I have a lot of friends there. Yup, I went there for two years.
Where did you grow up? In the Hartford area?
I grew up in Puerto Rico and via Costa Rica I went to Boston where I lived six years. I dropped out of school in Boston and eventually ended up at Wesleyan for my last two years.
So now you’re in Boston. You’ve been doing the (press) junket circuit (for The Good Girl), huh?
Yup. (pause) It’s been good…
Hmm…(chuckles)
It has been good. This is a nice part of the process. I get to be flown around and talk to people about my movie, it’s been really… great.
Yeah… there was something not mentioned in some of the bios I’ve read about you… what about the musical you made?
Uh, yeah, I made a musical at Wesleyan… where I was studying “American Cinema” with (Professor) Jeanine Basinger. The musical was a parody of self-improvement groups like EST. It’s called Every Day Is A Beautiful Day. It was about a world where everybody sings and dances at the drop of a hat, that’s just the way the world works, and this one guy is really embarrassed to sing and dance. He’s wondering what the heck is wrong with him, so he joins a self-improvement group to try to improve that. I felt really lucky. I asked a guy who was hanging around campus, a rocker, if he would do the music and he did an incredible job. Turned out to be the guy who went on to do the music for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Steven Trask…
Oh! O.K….
…who, by the way, lives (with) his boyfriend (who) works at Yale University…in New Haven… so I really lucked out to have great music. I would love to do a feature musical someday.
(Hearing about that) I thought of one of the darker musicals of recent years, Dancer in the Dark…
I think the darker you go with a musical, the better, because we’ve seen all the bright shiny musicals we could stand by now. It’s interesting to do something that’s dark. I would love to do something that follows in the footsteps of Tommy and The Wall, kind of a gothic rock movie would be fun.
So, right now you’re on the road in Boston promoting The Good Girl…
Yup, I’m in the middle of a press tour for it. Making this movie has been a dream for four years. Mike White wrote these two scripts, Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl . They were both passion projects for him, and he showed me both and I wanted to do the Good Girl first, but he wouldn’t let me (laughs).

He insisted to do Chuck and Buck first?
Yup.
Well, it seemed to be a good move, since you won the Independent Spirit award (in 2001) for Best Feature (under $500, 000).
Yeah, it went far beyond our expectations. You know, a lot of people read that script for Chuck and Buck and said, “ Don’t do it! That’s career suicide!” I guess everybody was nervous about making a movie that makes you recognize the stalker in you… (laughs)
(Not unlike) say, the films of Todd Solondz (Storytelling, Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse)…
I love Todd. He’s hilarious. His movies are so funny. It’s good being perverse. I think it’s important in your life. (Chuckles) You gotta be perverse. The question is not to go over the line.
One interesting thing about The Good Girl… the casting of Jennifer Aniston. This is quite a different role for her from TV’s Friends or most of her feature films.
Yes, it was fun to cast her in this part. When we were first looking for Justine (Jennifer’s character), we were like, “well, where are the dark, independent actresses that could do this?” But suddenly, we were like, “Let’s go the other way! Jennifer Aniston! America’s Sweetheart!” (chuckle)
How were you able to hook up with Jennifer Aniston?
We were so excited to think about her, I mean, I think she’s a comic genius, and I think she’s done really good work. A little movie that she made called Office Space (directed and written by Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill)) convinced me that she could do this. And you know, it just would be fun to see her do all this morally ambiguous stuff. We gave her the script, and she was a fan of Chuck and Buck, so she read it. She read it overnight, which people in Hollywood never do, and she called us the next day and said, “I love it, I love it. I think this is a great script, but I just have one question: do you have the right address?”
(Laughs)
“Were you really thinking about me for this…?” But she was ready. After eight years of doing Friends, she wanted to do something that was different, and she had been looking. She said to me “I’d been looking for my Ordinary People.” You know, like Mary Tyler Moore did (in the movie that was her breakout feature film role)…
That’s interesting that she would be so conscious of her “America’s Sweetheart” status…
I think that she would be the first one to recognize that Friends has become almost a brand name and something that she has to play against. But she really believed in this script. You know, she knew what it was like to feel trapped…
(Laughs)
…and she worked her way up to stardom, and she physically gave herself to the role in a way that was amazing… ‘cause she’s a very animated, happy person…
Yeah, I was reading that she had to abandon certain gestures that she’d adapted for Rachel (on Friends), like getting rid of Rachel’s smile, and she worked with an acting coach…
Yeah, she wore ankle weights and wrist weights for three weeks before we made the movie to teach her body to slump. And there were many times on the set when I would look at her between takes and she was sitting on her hands. She really gave herself emotionally to the part. It was very different and very challenging. You know, she’d never had a sex scene on screen before? And here she was having sex with Jake Gyllenhaal, Tim Blake Nelson and John C. Reilly! And some of the sex was pretty outrageous, you know, Tim Blake Nelson’s character is blackmailing her… (laughs)
(Laughs) Yes, I was thinking of the Tim Blake Nelson scene in particular…
Yeah, and the dog is trying to jump in on the bed with them… It’s pretty outrageous, you know, and it’s all played for real and not for laughs…
But at the same time, that made it funnier in many ways and more poignant…
Thank you. I Iike films like that, that are not pushing a comedy agenda, or a drama agenda… they are just trying to just show you how embarrassing and how real it is to be alive.
Mmm (I’m thinking “WOW! WHAT A GREAT QUOTE!”)
Yeah, but his dog was great, wasn’t it?
Yeah. That couldn’t have been Tim Blake Nelson’s dog. Was it?
No, no. We had auditions for the dog. The dog was the best behaved actor on the whole set, I have to say…
Which considering that it had to behave very badly in the role…
Yeah, we had a tough day of auditions to get that dog. We had nine dogs that came in, and tried their best at taking a sheet off of someone’s body...
Uh, I didn’t know whether I wanted to spill that particular bit (I was thinking “spoiler”)…
Oh, no, yeah, there’s definitely nudity in this. (Laughs) There’s full frontal nudity in The Good Girl. If you can’t stomach that: Beware!
You would have met Jake Gyllenhaal at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival?
Two Sundances ago, when he had Donnie Darko up there at the festival…? I knew him from October Sky, which was a great performance and we wanted him, but he was really busy. He was doing Bubble Boy, and he was on his way to another set, and he just had a two week window, and we managed to make it work. He was funny. When he came to audition, we were at Mike White’s brand new home; he was really proud of his home and Jennifer was there reading with everybody, and he really got into the audition, so to the point that he picked up a chair and threw it at the wall and put a huge hole through Mike White’s new wall…
He does seem often that intense, on-screen anyway…
Mike was like,” He should definitely get the role, but he should definitely pay me for my wall, too.” (Laughs) It’s hard to play a character where you have to believe their sadness, and also believe that, suddenly, they have a manic ness, too. It’s a lot of range.
Jennifer and Jake play characters working in a place called “Retail Rodeo,” which is in West Texas, though you shot it in Simi Valley (CA)…?
(We shot) in other areas of L.A. (too), but mostly in Simi Valley (where) we found an empty storefront where we created this store called “The Retail Rodeo.” That’s where Jennifer’s character (Justine) worked, and where she was slowly dying. She just couldn’t take it, and she tries to find a way to escape. She meets Jake’s character (Holden) who’s a brand new employee, and… you know, the film works kind of like a prison escape film. This “Retail Rodeo” is kind of like a jail You have her boss, you know, the “warden,” who’s giving announcements and you have the “religious inmate” who’s surviving through religion, and you have the two inmates who are plotting to escape…
And Mike White (the screenwriter) plays the “religious inmate,” the security guard…
Yeah, the Bible-thumping security guard…
He didn’t originally intend to play that role, did he?
No, he didn’t plan to take a role in it, but I thought he would be really great. His parents are really religious, and I thought it would, um, be a… good thing to do…(chuckle)
I thought the store itself was fantastically realized as this very dumpy little retail outlet somewhere of “south of K-Mart.”
Yeah. I like stories about unlikely heroes, you know? I like this idea that if you were driving on the highway in Texas, and you got off and went and bought something at this discount store, and these are the people you might never give a second glance to, but here’s this story about how they’re dying inside and desperate to escape their lives.
Did John C. Reilly and Tim Blake Nelson become involved through enthusiasm for Chuck and Buck or your other work?
I had met Tim Blake Nelson at Sundance in ‘ 97. He had a movie, he’s a director as well, and he had a movie called, Eye of God, and we became friends. And when I saw him in O Brother Where Art Thou?, I was like, “Wow! This is Bubba! I gotta get him!” And JohnC. Reilly, of course, you know, Boogie Nights and Magnolia and… I had wanted to work with him for a long time. Turns out the both of them had spent eight months in Australia together living in a barrack, because they did The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick’s WWII film) and it took a long time to shoot, and they were sitting around for eight months together, so…
Presumably not on a couch getting stoned like in The Good Girl…
I can’t speak for them… I don’t know how much research they did for the part… (laughs)
But they’re awesome. John C. Reilly is an actor who really teaches you how to be economic, you know?. You don’t need to have too many lines with him. He walks in the room and his presence tells you what’s going on, and Tim is, like, fabulously dark. You know, that’s a difficult role, someone who’s blackmailing somebody for sex, but they believe it’s for their own salvation and… they kind of come through the other side, and at the end, you don’t feel they’re so creepy. I really have to give him credit…
When I first noticed this movie listing and the diverse names attached to it, I was intrigued and really wondered what to make of it…
…what kind of concoction is this?
Yeah. (Laughs)
Well, you know, it’s a very dark comedy about depression. (Laughs)
Yeah, but comedy should be underlined here.
I feel like that’s the key of it. It’s very funny, but I like comedies that have a dark side that is real, too. And there seems to be an audience for them, fortunately. You know, things like Election and Being John Malkovich and Rushmore…you know, these are not goofy comedies. They’re hilarious, and they have a sense of pace…
…and a sense of character…
…and they’re something you feel you can think about when you come out of the theater and we’re hoping to do that with this movie, too. There’s an interesting message. It’s about a woman in her 30’s and has felt that she has lost all her passion in her life and she’s dying to get it back, and a kid and that is twenty years old and is really screwed up by his parents and is sort of finding that if he falls in love that maybe everything could be well…
…and yet…
…and yet, it doesn’t turn out quite like that…


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The Good Girl should be out on video soon, or, hey, maybe we’ll get lucky and Fox Searchlight Pictures will re-release it for Oscar consideration. Fox Searchlight? You listening?
Anyway, it was one of our favorite movies of the year on Culture Dogs, and we think you should check it out when you get the chance. It’s rated R for sexuality, some language and drug content.
-Culture Dog Kevin

Copyright©WWUH: November / December Program Guide, 2002

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