Of the many moviemakers whose artistic development is inextricably linked to the Sundance Film Festival, Miguel Arteta may be the highest profile Latino storyteller to emerge from Robert Redford’s venerable organization. The Puerto Rican director found almost immediate success after his first feature, Star Maps – which tells the story of a young Latino who dreams of becoming an actor in Hollywood – debuted in Park City in 1997 and was picked up by Fox Searchlight. From that point on Arteta has remained an influential force in the independent scene while also pursuing studio projects.
Returning to more dramatic and thematically challenging content after comedies such as Cedar Rapids, Youth in Revolt, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, his newest completed project, Beatriz at Dinner, is an unquestionably timely window into white privilege, racism, and extreme conservative ideologies seen through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles.
Beatriz, the title character, is brought to life by Salma Hayek in one of the best performances of her career, and by far the most consequential. Fighting bigotry with empathy becomes her dilemma when she is reluctantly invited to stay over for dinner at a wealthy client’s home. What ensues is a series of tense confrontations between a person who is in touch with both nature and other people’s suffering, and a billionaire who values rampant capitalism above all and who exudes complete disregard for the people affected by his selfish acts. As the evening unfolds and the offenses accumulate, Beatriz is faced with her own humanity, which temps her to take justice into her own hands.
During a panel titled, Storytelling Unbound, organized by Univision, Arteta discussed the role of the Sundance Institute in his journey, how his mechanic was instrumental in him getting his first break, and the way Salma Hayek left behind her signature glamour and embraced a markedly unpretentious role. Also on the panel were actress Geena Davis, actor and writer Danny Strong, Charles King of Macro,and Christian Gabela from Univision’s Story House. Here are some of the juiciest and most enlightening tidbits from Arteta’s talk.
On How His Mechanic Helped Him Break Into Hollywood
I got to Hollywood with the help of my car mechanic. I did a short film, back them with VHS, and I was very nervous to give a copy to my mechanic because it cost $2 to make each of them, but he was such a nice guy. He would fix my car and if I talked about Latin American politics, since he was an old hippie, he would fix the car for free. I thought, “I got let go of one of my tapes.” He introduced me to Jonathan Demme, who mentored me. [Demme] introduced me to the American Film Institute and has been my mentor ever since. So be kind to your mechanics!
On Returning to Sundance 20 Years After Premiering His Debut Film There
This is my 20th anniversary [at Sundance]. My film Beatriz at Dinner will premiere exactly 20 years, to the day, after my first movie Star Maps. This is a festival of discovery. Robert Redford started this festival and the institute, and the labs that are so important, because he realized in the late 70s people that wanted to see honest content and interesting movies were going to the art houses to see foreign movies and he thought, “Where are our artists? We have to promote that.” It’s amazing how quickly it took off and how it still works every year. Somebody who made their movie out of their garage is going to get discovered and have a great career this week. It’s so exciting.
That was my story 20 years ago. I couldn’t believe that I got into Sundance. My producer and I had worked on our movie for four years. We lived in our garage. I had 13 credit cards maxed out, and I had to get another to be able to come to Sundance. We hadn’t even thought that it could be sold at the time, and overnight it sold to Fox Searchlight and those credit cards went away. It’s really touching and remarkable that you could get so much validation. This festival gives an opportunity to people. If you do the work you can come here and really your career can just get started overnight literally.
On How Sundance Nurtures Talent from Around the Globe
I really want to stress the importance of the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, and all the other labs they do. I’ve done some teaching at them and I went to Screenwriter Lab with my film, which was kind of broken at the time. They help me fix it and get it here. Those labs started from the beginning; the festival and the labs began at the same time. It’s kind of like the idea of an artist colony where they bring in screenwriters and directors and you don’t pay anything. For three weeks they help you craft your script. It’s a remarkable thing and you’d be surprised about how many of the movies that you are watching this week actually came out through that program. I could cry thinking about it. It’s unbelievable how effective it has been.
Robert Redford goes and teaches every year and keeps changing things. 10 years ago when we were teaching at the lab and he said, “You know, I’ve realized that American independent filmmakers are doing great and wining Oscars, but are a little bit spoiled. They don’t have a sense of perspective about the world. We need to have more global influence.” He expanded World Cinema sections at the festival and he demanded that some of the students at the lab came from different countries. The next year I went to teach and there was a Palestinian and an Israeli filmmakers who nearly got physical with each other, but at the end of this lab they agreed to make a movie together, which ended up being quite successful.
On Always Going with Your Gut
To have authenticity is the key to all of it. I think it’s really important as artists to know that you just have to connect with your passion, with something that you react to that is totally real in you and you run with that. That’s how things happen. The trouble comes when you start doing something because you think you are going to get a message across or to manage a situation. It has to come from that gut place. Everything else is BS. That’s how I feel.
On How Cecil the Lion Inspired the Story
I worked with Mike White, who is a fabulous writer. It was born because at the time that Cecil the lion was shot by that dentist. Mike was so enraged he was like, “I think I could literally kill somebody,” and I laughed. Then he said, “No, you are not hearing. I think I could somebody, like really kill him. There are 200 rhinos left and there are so many people. Which life is more valuable?”
“We wanted to create this story about how we are on a collision course of two forces in this world that can’t talk to each other.”
He started to think how divided the political discourse is and we wanted to create this story about how we are on a collision course of two forces in this world that can’t talk to each other. He very cleverly put it in a very casual context of a dinner party. That’s how he came up with the story for Beatriz, which is about a Mexican immigrant that becomes a holistic healer. She is all about empathy. She gets caught up in a Republican people’s dinner party where they are honoring a self-satisfied billionaire. The two of them have extreme convictions of the way they see the world and it becomes a cage fight between them.
On Getting Salma Hayek on Board
It was born out of that passion. He thought it would be a great idea to have these polar opposites together: a Latina woman and a White man, an empathetic person and person that is drawn to greed, which are two of the biggest extremes. He said, “It would be a nice thing to get the most famous Mexican actress to play this holistic healer who is going to be completely out of control at this party. Do you think Salma Hayek would be interested?” Salma had been very kind and approached me after seeing my movie Star Maps and for a long time we’ve been looking for something to do together.
She took my call, we went to her house to pitch her the story, and she said yes right away. We were very lucky. Then she was working with Aaron Gilbert and Brenda Gilbert on a film and they financed our movie. They were brave enough to take this on. Salma told them very passionately how much she believed in the story. The story does put you in a place of what it’s like to be an outsider in a place of power. We’ve all been in situations like that. When Mike wrote it he said, “I’ve been in rooms where I just can’t believe how insidious the racism and the disregard for people is among these really wealthy and entitled people. If I wrote it like I heard it, we could not shoot it.” He did try to write very realistically in terms of what it’s like to be an outsider in a place like that.
On Art Imitating Life
John Lithgow who was amazing portraying –I won’t name anyone by name (Trump!) He is not playing exactly that character, but he is playing a self-satisfied billionaire who aggressively believes in the power of greed and that we, as the dominant species, are allow to just rape and pillage this world, treat each other unkindly, and take advantage of other people.
On Giving Salma Hayek Ugly Bangs
Salma was remarkable coming into this. First of all she wore the worst pants I could have ever found. She very gladly put them on. Then I gave her the worst bangs that you could ever give anybody, and then I told her there would be no makeup and she was game. She said, “You can do with me as you will!” [Laughs]
She was very courageous and trusted me enough to don’t do much and just be there as an observer. I love how much she does internally. I’m really proud of her. I love how simple she was willing to go. What was really interesting is that she is a very commanding person, she is tiny but she is a huge presence in any room, and he very bright, full of great ideas, and very political; but when she became this character everybody started ignoring her on set because she really became like a complete different person throughout the movie. It’s amazing what context would do for a person.