After directing five movies over his 17-year career, all of which could be labeled as dark comedies, Puerto Rican filmmaker Miguel Arteta was looking for a change of pace. He found that in his first non-R-rated film Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, a PG-rated family movie adapted from a children’s book of the same name. In the film, 10-year-old Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), after having bad day and not getting the sympathy he was looking for from his family, wishes, they too, could experience what it’s like to have a day where nothing goes your way.
During an interview with the San Juan native, Arteta talked about what drew him to making a movie that is unlike anything he has ever tried before and why he thinks a film like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day will resonate with Latino audiences.
All your films in the past have had an edgier comedic tone from Star Maps to Cedar Rapids. Why did you want to try something completely different and make a family movie?
I think I’ve gotten a little happier over the years. I’ve gotten married, finally. I started to realize I didn’t appreciating my family as much as should have when I was young. The story of Alexander is about a kid that takes his family for granted and then realizes how lucky he is to have them. I realized I really could put my heart in this film. It was something I needed.
As a director, is it important for you to try different things like this? I mean, when you hear the word “typecast” most people just think of it as a problem for actors, but a director could just as easily fall into the same traps, right?
Yes, it’s easy for that to happen. I try to pick movies that are relevant to what’s going on with me emotionally. I think that my 20s were more turbulent, so that’s why those movies had that flavor. But I really do want to try and work in many different genres and find something personal in those genres.
So, I guess you’re saying we can expect some different things from you in the future just depending on what’s going on in your own life, yes?
I think so. To me, it’s always good to be challenged by doing something that is new to you. Really, it’s just been in the last few years where I realized that I didn’t appreciate my family and thought, “Oh my god. You’ve been such a brat, Miguel.” I really have such a good family. I am so lucky. Having that attitude is something I’ve been getting used to.
Well, I’m sure working in this industry makes it hard to balance your family and professional life. Was that part of it?
You know, I grew up in a family of four kids and I was the youngest. I think I felt misunderstood like Alexander. I left home and really didn’t look back. It took a while to realize how much my parents really did for me. They gave me an education. They were really there for me. I think I was a little too quick to leave home and not look back. Also, I don’t have kids, which is another reason I loved making this movie. I have a dog and two nieces, which is quite challenging. But I see what my friends are going through and the pandemonium it is to have a family. I grew up in a Latin family. The script really reminded me a lot of that. I wanted to get the chemistry of the family right and how it can feel so messy. I had to pay tribute to that.
Something different about you as a Latino director in comparison to others in the business has been that you don’t necessarily make movies specifically for Latino audiences or with Latino themes. Has that been a conscious decision on your part?
“I love the idea of blind casting. I think that is a wonderful thing to do in this day and age.”
Not really. You know, there have been times where I’ve been able to put Latinos in roles that are not written for them. I had the chance to put the great Lupe Ontiveros in my film Chuck and Buck. The part was actually written for a neurotic, Jewish girl in her 20s. Lupe, at that time, was in her 50s. I had been a big fan of hers. I remember when I gave her that script, she read the character’s name, which was Beverly, and she said, “I’m in Miguel!” I love the idea of blind casting. I think that is a wonderful thing to do in this day and age, especially since it can bring Latinos to parts that are not written for Latinos. I haven’t been able to do enough of it, but I hope to do more.
Do you feel that sometimes Latino directors think they have to make Latino-themed movies just to get a chance to make something?
It used to be more so when I started in the 90s. I think we’re getting to a place where people are accepting of all sorts of ethnicities in all kinds of worlds. Right now we have a lot of Latino directors behind the camera. When I started, there were movies like Stand and Deliver and American Me and La Bamba that were about the Latino experience and different aspects of it. They had this theme that said, “Let me tell you what it’s like to be a Latino in the United States.” I think it was important because you hadn’t seen enough Latinos in stories. It was important to say that. I made Star Maps in 1997 and came out thinking, “You know, I’m going to make a movie that doesn’t necessarily have a positive theme, but I think it’s time to start moving forward and show people that Latinos don’t have to be just one thing.” I wasn’t trying to say Latino families have a monopoly on dysfunction. Everyone has it. But I wanted to show what a dysfunctional Latino family looked like. The reaction to that film was interesting. If I put Star Maps out today, nobody would make any comments about it.
Do you think your new film would’ve been different if the main character was named Alejandro and we were watching a Latino family going through this horrible day?
“When I read the script it did remind me a lot of growing up in Puerto Rico.”
Well, I think a movie like that would make a lot of money because Latinos are a big part of the United States. But, you know, when I read the script it did remind me a lot of growing up in Puerto Rico. Even though this was an American family, I thought it would resonate with Latinos because it’s a somewhat large family – four kids, two parents. It’s something I thought Latinos might understand. Also, I think the idea of appreciating family is more important in the Latino community than it is in the American community.
Even though the family is American, you were still able to cast a couple of Latinos in one role. I saw the last name of the twins that play the baby is Vargas.
Yeah, the twins’ father is Latino. I also cast Bella Thorne (she plays Celia, the oldest son’s girlfriend), who is half-Latino. The twins (Elise and Zoey Vargas) were baby girls and they played one baby boy. They were adorable. I cast the girls even though we were looking for a boy because there was just something so undeniably present about them. Other filmmakers thought so, too. They were also the stars of the movie Neighbors. There’s something radiant in their eyes. I won’t be surprised if they end up in more movies.
Of course, small incidents like stubbing your toe or spilling juice on the floor can make for a bad day. Are you the kind of person that let’s those things affect the rest of your day or do you brush them off?
“I tend to be a pessimist in real life and an optimist when I’m directing.”
I tend to be a pessimist in real life and an optimist when I’m directing. I’m definitely the person that thinks destiny is pointing its finger at me and saying, “Nothing is going to go right for you today!” That’s one thing I’ve had trouble with in my life – seeing the glass half full. But my work has really helped because as a director you have to give good energy no matter what bad things happen on a film set. You have to give energy to your actors. It’s sort of a parental role I play as a director. It’s been very healthy for me.
In this film, you got the chance to work with Steve Carell during a very interesting point in his career. He has a lot of Oscar buzz on him right now for his dramatic turn in Foxcatcher, which comes out later this year. You’ve worked with comedians in the past who can jump back and forth from comedy to drama like John C. Reilly and Steve Buscemi. Do you think that is an easy thing to do? What does it say about those individuals?
It’s rare that someone can do what Steve Carell is doing. It’s very difficult for someone to make a swing like that. I’m attracted to people who can do comedy as if they were in a drama. Steve Carell does that and helped everyone on the set [of Alexander] understand that. He said to me and the rest of the cast, “I never think that I’m in a comedy.” He loves the kind of comedy where he has no idea he’s in a comedy. There is no winking at the camera whatsoever. That is my favorite kind of comedy. That is why I love actors like him and John C. Reilly.