The Good Girl
Being a foreigner is great
Interview with Migual Arteta
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 9 August 2002

Miguel 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.

Arteta 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.

Born 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 uncertain. 

Retail 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 recognizable.

Cynthia Fuchs: Did you make adjustments in your thinking, with a girl protagonist?

Miguel Arteta: You 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 depression."

It 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."

When 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?

CF: Another thing that's different in this film from your others is the narration. It's a different way to organize access to the character.

MA: Mike 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.

CF: And, 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.

MA: Yes, 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.

CF: It 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.

MA: It's 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.

But 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 it.

CF: [laughs] You wore him down.

MA: [laughs] 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 right, Mike."

CF: Do you guys talk a lot?

MA: Actually, 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.

CF: His character, the security guard Corny, deals with his alienation through Bible study. The other characters recognize themselves as alienated, while he doesn't seem to.

MA: It's 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.

CF: Oh no: Return to the Retail Rodeo!

MA: Exactly. 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]

CF: Alienation is such a familiar theme in movies, but as you say, it usually is treated so it doesn't look like our lives.

MA: We're 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.

CF: The look of the film speaks to that mix too, the beauty and the depression. I understand that you underexposed the film.

MA: Yes, 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.

CF: How hard is that to gauge as you're shooting?

MA: We 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.

CF: In that context, Holden is dicey: he could easily have been a caricature.

MA: Jake 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 it."

CF: I love the phrase he and Justine use to describe it, that they feel they've finally "been gotten."

MA: There 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.

Also, 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.

CF: And it's a class issue too.

MA: Right. 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 and experiences.

CF: How did you think about the sets, to get that "spare" effect?

MA: Well, 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.

CF: In line with this pared-down aesthetic, the editing is sharp, like you're expecting viewers to keep up.

MA: I've 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 spare movie.

CF: Does that mean you knew what you wanted on the set?

MA: No. [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.

CF: So you're asking actors to trust you pretty completely.

MA: Oh 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.

CF: I 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.

  • Read the Interview with Migual Arteta.
  • Read the Review.
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