Arteta's hotel room is booming with music. I'm reminded of the first time I met
him, back in 1998, when he was promoting his remarkable first feature, Star
Maps. Then, his room was filled with rock en Español, from that film's
soundtrack, and he was eager to play bits of various songs, just because he was
so proud and excited.
is again nodding his head to the music. He stands to turn down the cd player and
shake my hand: polite and passionate. The thirty-two-year-old filmmaker has come
a long way since the teeny-budgeted Star Maps. He's made two more
critically acclaimed films, Chuck & Buck and now, The Good Girl,
both with writer-actor Mike White, and directed some TV, including episodes of
the sadly-cancelled Pasadena, Freaks and Geeks, and Six Feet
Under. But he's the same, too. Still earnest, attentive, and precise about
what he says, still sincerely appreciative of his collaborators, and still
distinctly quick on his feet.
in Puerto Rico to a Peruvian father and Spanish mother, Arteta graduated from
Wesleyan University in 1989 (where he worked with film scholar Janine Basinger
and met Mike White), and earned an MFA from the American Film Institute in 1993.
Long interested in movies as broadly cultural texts, at once urgent political
observations and wry entertainments, Arteta takes -- and delivers -- his comedy
seriously. His films, always smart and incisive, are also increasingly pointed
and subtle. The new movie again focuses on characters who feel alienated and
Rodeo cashier Justine (Jennifer Aniston), her housepainter husband Phil (John C.
Reilly), his snidely buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), and her angst-ridden lover,
Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) are confused by their ordinary, mostly depressing
lives, unable to talk to one another or parse their own emotions. While the film
doesn't grant them any happy endings, it does respect them, so that their
efforts to deal with weird, disturbing, and often amusing situations are also
you make adjustments in your thinking, with a girl protagonist?
know, I was very excited to make a movie about a woman, because it doesn't
happen that often. Especially one that is meant to be realistic, in the choices
she's making -- we're meant to take them seriously, even though the tone is
comedic. With all the labels for different things I've dealt with in my movies,
I don't really try to think about them -- women, gay, Latino. I think that
what's common is much bigger than what's different between people. I look for
movies where characters are going through something that is personal to me,
something I have a hard time with. In The Good Girl, Justine is feeling
trapped, fed up with her life; in a few words, it's a "comedic ode to
was fun to do it, and fun to find an actress like Jennifer Aniston, who really
dug deep to get into it. She worked physically; she wore ankle weights and wrist
weights for three weeks before we started shooting. And she would sit on her
hands in between takes. She worked out that little Chaplinesque walk. She really
transformed herself physically, and the emotions followed. She was really game.
I'm very proud of her. She has tremendous potential, and I knew she could do it
because of Office Space, which hardly anyone has seen. I hope people can
take a real look at her, and get past the "brand name."
you make a movie about something you have a hard time with, it can be scary,
because you're not the authority on what the movie's about. You wake up every
morning going, "I don't know how someone works her way out of a
depression." But at the same time, that makes it exciting, because you
can't always anticipate how a scene is going to play out. What are the actors
going to contribute? How is it going to work?
thing that's different in this film from your others is the narration. It's a
different way to organize access to the character.
really liked a couple of movies, [Todd Haynes'] Safe and [Terrence
Malick's] Badlands. And in some ways -- we're not the first to do this --
this is an homage to the voice-over in Badlands. You needed to go inside
her head, so you can see the jail she lives in. And in the store where she
works, you've got the warden, the religious counselor, and the two inmates who
are plotting to get out. Also, Mike likes to be very subjective in his scripts;
it's hard on the person who stars in his films. In Chuck & Buck, he
was in every scene. And it was a lot for Jennifer, who was doing Friends
at the same time: out of 210 scenes, she was in 190 of them. She had to work
sixteen hours a day. But, as we're trying to create a strong alliance with her,
the voice-over seemed the best way.
not unlike Chuck & Buck, there's an edge to the tone, as though you
could fall off into condescension to the characters. And the voice helps
maintain that edge.
absolutely, I like movies with tricky tones. Almodóvar has been a big influence
on me. I like it when a character is irrational, when a character does
contradictory things. I feel like it wakes you up, because you're trying to
connect the dots. When movies make too much sense, I get bored.
is an accomplishment, I think, that when she gets to the stoplight near the end,
you're really not sure what she's going to do.
important. My biggest idol in film was Sam Fuller. And he died like three years
ago, but I got to meet him about ten years ago. And it was so amazing. He tried
to install as much wisdom as he could in me, in the two hours we were talking.
He'd get up with his cigar and get right into my face, to make a point that I'd
never forget. And one thing I do remember is that he had seen my short film, and
he said, "I really like that I couldn't tell what the next scene was going
to be." and that's important. When I read a book, I'll put it down, and
say, "Let me guess what the next sentence is." And if I guess it, I
throw the book out. That always stuck with me. You should never be able to guess
what's going to happen.
for Justine's decision, whether to go with her young lover or stay with her
husband -- I feel really lucky, because this is an incredibly strong script.
Mike is dealing with issues that are so complex, yet he really simplifies it for
you. If you accept her "American conformity," to stay with her husband
and that job, it's a death sentence. You feel like you're in jail forever. If
you go with the lover, which is an equally American idea, of "American
rebelliousness," then there is no place for you in society. So, you're
screwed either way. I think the hidden story is that this world kills her
imagination; she doesn't imagine a third option. Although it's very cool that
the script doesn't have her just run off into the sunset and leave the two
behind, because that's a silly romantic idea. Mike felt it was his best script.
He wanted to direct it, and it took four years to convince him to let me have
You wore him down.
I did! But right before we were shooting, I would have these random calls in the
middle of the night: "This is the best script I have ever written. It's the
best script I will ever write. Don't f*ck it up!" I was like, "All
you guys talk a lot?
we don't. [laughs] He's a very private person. But I love his scripts and his
characters, so we usually have an hour-long discussion, and then there's no more
talking. For Chuck & Buck, he was in every scene, so every once in a
while he would find a very respectful way to take me aside and say, "Let me
put my writer's hat on, and I think this." But during The Good Girl,
he wasn't around, he was working on Orange County and [his TV series] Pasadena.
And he would literally come on his lunch break, run with his security guard
outfit, jump into a scene, and then get out. We agree, so there's very little
talking to be done, which is great. At the end, during the editing process, he
really doesn't like watching cuts. He only watches it one time. So, I have to
make decisions, and only bring him in when I'm almost really done. And he
watches one time, and we get a lot of good notes from him: he's a fresh pair of
eyes that stay really fresh, because he's not that involved. I feel flattered,
because his scripts are extremely profound and heartfelt, yet they're funny,
with strong characters and stories that move fast. They're not your typical
"independent" movie that sort of meanders.
character, the security guard Corny, deals with his alienation through Bible
study. The other characters recognize themselves as alienated, while he doesn't
funny, because he thinks he's connecting with everybody, jumping in everybody's
faces, insulting them as he tries to get them to come to Bible study. But he's a
very lonely guy, no doubt, revealed when you find out that he's been watching
the "security" tapes all this time. There's another script that Mike
wrote, based on the same store and same characters.
no: Return to the Retail Rodeo!
And that one is based on Corny. It's called The Soft Man, and in it,
Corny loses his faith and decides to join the Men's Movement, to get in touch.
So he goes off to be in masturbation circles out in the woods. [laughs]
is such a familiar theme in movies, but as you say, it usually is treated so it
doesn't look like our lives.
very comfortable talking about alienation as long as it's romantic and "out
there," as long as the character is not us. But when it becomes personal
and intimate, it makes us uncomfortable. But humor is the best way to open
yourself up to things that are scary. And there is a lot of funny stuff going on
in Justine's life. The moment she steps outside of her comfort zone, all hell
breaks lose, a spiraling that is kind of funny. I find that final scene between
her and her husband very touching, when they're sitting in the bedroom and have
been crying all night. He says, "I gotta get stoned, because I need to
escape. Did you ever feel that way?" And you realize that everybody --
someone sitting right next to you -- feels that way. You're not the only one.
There's something very beautiful without being bogus, I feel, that goes on at
the end of the script. And I think that's what made it too challenging for
studios to get near this.
look of the film speaks to that mix too, the beauty and the depression. I
understand that you underexposed the film.
we pushed the exposure two stops throughout the film. It opens up the grain but
it also affects the colors, so there's sort of a fluorescent feel to it.
hard is that to gauge as you're shooting?
were very fortunate that all the actors have wonderful, intense blue eyes.
Because when you do this, all the blues get intensified. It kind of makes them
look like they're characters inside a fish tank. Also, one of the struggles was
to de-glamorize Jennifer -- we all know her as Rachel. Opening up the grain and
part of the visual design helped to place her in a different world right off the
bat. I like to have an intimate feel in my films. If you take out some of the
"slickness" or "hipness" that we're used to, it makes you
feel like this is a little more "real." It has a subconscious effect,
situates the characters outside of the Hollywood realm.
that context, Holden is dicey: he could easily have been a caricature.
Gyllenhaal is an amazing actor. We saw more than 100 actors in a
two-and-a-half-month period. The part of Holden is difficult, because you have
to reveal it layer by layer: by the end of the film, he's an open wound, a
deranged alcoholic. Jake is an incredibly smart actor and he has incredible
energy: he was bouncing off the walls. He reined that in, and then he let it go,
like a racehorse that you're holding in, that's about to explode any moment. But
that helped, when he's sitting in his room, when Justine first comes in: you
believe his sadness but you also believe that there is something that never
stops inside his head. You can see behind his eyes. When you look at the movie
from his point of view, it's about that feeling of having your first crush, the
first time you think, "Okay, there's nothing else. This romance is
love the phrase he and Justine use to describe it, that they feel they've
finally "been gotten."
are so many ways they play with that phrase. I like it when he says, "After
years of never getting got." [laughs] I think I have an advantage as a
foreigner, because I can appreciate the irony of the language. Being a foreigner
is great. While the dialogue is extremely important as a roadmap, what's going
on in the actors' faces is crucial. I'm always struggling to understand what
people are saying, though body language as much as what they say.
Mike lived in Texas for a few summers, and he fell in love with the language. I
tried to be careful about the degrees of "Texan-ness" in the accents.
The actors had different dialect coaches, because the characters came from
different parts of Texas. And [laughs] there are no cowboy hats and no SUVs in
the movie, part of a secret political agenda.
it's a class issue too.
But everyone in the crew had SUVs, so to fill up the frames with other cars was
really hard. And the embarrassing thing was that the producer Matthew Greenfield
and I were the only ones with beat-up old Hondas, so our cars are in a lot of
shots. As to the class question, I look for unlikely heroes. The idea is that
when you walk into a discount store in the middle of nowhere, usually you get
your candy bar and get out of there, without wondering what their lives are
like. It's so nice to see a whole world that's going on, to see their desires
did you think about the sets, to get that "spare" effect?
there is not a lot of business at the Retail Rodeo. My assistant director was so
frustrated, because she wanted to use four or five extras in the store, and
always wanted to keep it empty, just one person with a cart in the background.
Mike had these descriptions in the script: "Shoppers walk like sleepwalkers
in the aisles." But I kept it sparse. You make your environment specific
and hopefully it will work in a more universal way.
line with this pared-down aesthetic, the editing is sharp, like you're expecting
viewers to keep up.
worked with the same editor, Jeff Betancourt, on all three films, and he's
wonderful. I pride myself on the fact that the movies are not long: without
credits, none is more than ninety minutes. I feel like you can make your point,
and the audience is fast. We get stuff, you don't need to tell us three times. I
remember this Jonathan Demme quote, that it's much better that your audience be
two minutes behind you rather than thirty seconds ahead of you. So, I always err
on the side of being short. The movie doesn't move "fast," but it is a
that mean you knew what you wanted on the set?
[laughs] I try not to have set ideas. This is an exploration for me, so it's
like we have a topic and we're responding. The actors don't improvise, but I let
them emotionally improvise. We get takes that are radically different,
emotionally. And that makes the editing a horribly long puzzle.
you're asking actors to trust you pretty completely.
yes! I always tell them, "If you don't have the feeling that you're jumping
into an empty pool chest first, there's something wrong." [laughs] It's
meant to be scary. If an actor doesn’t stick her neck out, doesn't risk
something, we're not going to care, watching it.
remember when we spoke about Star Maps, you were talking about
"truth," as a goal in your work. Have you refined or changed that goal
at all? Do you know it when you see it?
MA: No. [laughs] I think as an audience member, if you think the actors and the director are in earnest, trying to be truthful, then that's all you need.