Filmmaker Miguel Arteta is nothing like the zealous albeit misguided characters portrayed in most of his movies. In Arteta’s first film, 1997’s “Star Maps,” Carlos (played by Douglas Spain) is a teenager who allows his father to act as his pimp because he thinks it might lead to an acting job. In 2000’s “Chuck & Buck,” Chuck (played by Mike White) creepily stalks his childhood friend hoping his advances will lead to love. In 2002’s “The Good Girl,” Justine (played by Jennifer Aniston) has an affair with a younger co-worker to break the monotony of her dead-end marriage and job.
While it might be said all these characters are passionate about what they want in life, they also possess flawed views of how to pursue their desires. The same cannot be said about Arteta. Since breaking onto the scene in the late ’90s, Arteta, whose most recent film “Youth in Revolt” hits theaters in January, has never strayed from the rational plans that have led him to success thus far.
“Making movies for me was always about fulfilling my dreams,” Arteta, 45, says via phone from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is shooting his next film, “Cedar Rapids,” starring Ed Helms and Sigourney Weaver. “I’ve been very lucky to have found that niche early on.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Costa Rica by a Spanish mother and Peruvian father, Arteta moved to the U.S. in 1980 at the age of 16. Because he was going through what he calls a “rebellious teenage phase,” he joined his sister in Boston where he attended the Cambridge School of Weston. It was then that Arteta discovered a passion for film.
“I would watch a lot of foreign films—[Federico] Felini movies and [Akira] Kurosawa movies,” he says. “They made me realize what an amazing job directing could be. That’s when I picked up a camera.”
After two years of studying at Harvard University’s film center, Arteta took two years off and immersed himself in cinema by spending entire afternoons at local movie houses watching American films. This is when Arteta learned about the Golden Age of Hollywood.
“I became really obsessed with movies of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “I would go watch two old movies every day. I had a girlfriend who would pay for my movie addiction. She would give me $20 every day as long as I would cook her breakfast and drive her to work.”
Arteta says he was like a “kid in a candy shop” when he started attending Wesleyan University after his time off. In his freshman year, he made his first short film, a musical called “Every Day is a Beautiful Day,” which won a student Academy Award. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in film from Wesleyan in 1989, Arteta gained hands-on experience working on set with acclaimed directors Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) and Sidney Lumet (“Network”) on separate projects. He then went on to earn his MFA from the American Film Institute, a school he admits he “didn’t love,” but one that introduced him to Matthew Greenfield, who would later become a producer on most of his movies.
“[Matthew and I] made a pact to make our first [feature] film together,” Arteta says. “We ended up making [“Star Maps”] out of my basement. It took four years to make and 17 maxed out credit cards. When I finished it I wanted to re-shoot some scenes. We had been working on it so long my investors were like, ‘We’ll give you money to go to therapy, but not to finish your movie.’”
“Star Maps” opened many doors for Arteta after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight Pictures bought it. The film received special recognition that year by the National Board of Review and earned Arteta nominations in directing and writing at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as his first Alma Award nomination. Accolades continued to pour in for his next two films, “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl.”
Arteta’s fourth and most recent feature, “Youth in Revolt” stars Michael Cera, (“Juno”), and is based on writer C.D. Payne’s epistolary novel “Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp.” Cera plays Nick, a cynical 16-year-old who creates a French alter-ego named François when he finds out the girl he likes does not share his feelings.
“A producer showed me the book about five years ago … but it didn’t seem like the right time to make it,” Arteta says. “A few months ago, he showed me the script and told me Michael Cera was involved. I just adore Michael, so I got on the phone with him and realized I had to make this movie. It ended up being the best, most amazing creative collaboration I’ve ever had with an actor.”
The character of Nick is someone Arteta says he and Cera connect with because both have had to find their way in the world and come to terms with who they are, even though they are quite different. “I relate to all of that,” he says. “Nick is a sweet, innocent guy. François is a real troublemaker. I’m a pretty ordinary guy … but a little mischief is always good thing.”
As published in Hispanic Magazine, Jan/Feb 2010 issue