Miguel Arteta began his feature film directing career in 1997 with “Star Maps,” which was nominated for the Independent Spirit’s Best First Feature Award. He followed with a series of critically acclaimed independent hits, including “Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl,” “Youth in Revolt,” and “Cedar Rapids.” Also an established television director, his small screen credits include “Freaks & Geeks,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Office,” “Enlightened,” and “American Horror Story.” His new film is a bit of a departure–a children’s film and a studio comedy. “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” stars Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner and based on Judith Viorst’s beloved children’s book, hits theaters Oct. 10.What attracted you to this film?
In the first place, Steve Carell, who I just adore. I had a chance to work with him on “The Office,” and he was attached when I came in. And then I read the book and the script, and I’d been looking to find a studio movie to be involved with, one that I could put my heart in, and it’s been not an easy process throughout the years, and ironically, this family movie ended up being something I felt I could be really sincere about. It’s a story about learning to appreciate your family, and I guess as I’ve gotten older that’s become more important to me.
On the surface at least, this film is very different from your past movies. What was interesting for you in this film in that it was so different from past films?
There’s more joy. I’m recently married, I met my wife five years ago, and it’s had great affect in helping me appreciate my family, who I think I kind of took them a little bit for granted earlier in my life. The movie to me, it’s about making you believe this family and root for them. That was a real attraction to me.
One of the things that really draws you into the book as a kid is this feeling that Alexander has that sort of the whole world is against him, this day can’t go any worse because the whole world is coming down on him. How do you translate that feeling from a short children’s book onto the big screen, and make it in a way that kids can recognize it and identify with it, but still laugh at it?
It’s a clever book because there’s something honest about it. When you’re having things not go your way, it can feel like destiny pointing the finger at you, just you. It’s like, “You. I’m not going to let anything go your way.” And the book is lovely because it says you don’t have to be a good sport all the time. You can be upset about it for a moment, and I think there’s something really relatable about that. What I love about what (screenwriter) Rob Lieber did in terms adapting the book is he continued the story and included the family and made it about really appreciating your family when things are not going your way. I thought that was a clever way to do it. In the book it’s just Alexander and his bad day, and we started posing the question what would happen if Alexander was like, “The family really doesn’t get it, I hope they have a terrible day.” And we get this day from hell and so he feels guilty and wants to turn it around. I thought there was something very sweet about that, especially the ending of the movie, you have a kid that’s going to turn 12 be able to able to empathize that much with his family, to me that was the most important and sweetest part it.
How did you use the visual look of the book in how you shot the movie?
Yeah I tried to be a little more sparing with close ups. It’s the first time I shot a movie in wide screen, because it was all about making you believe this family. In the book it doesn’t go into close ups too heavily, and there’s something very direct and straightforward about the graphics of the book. We tried to have some of that. We’re thinking this needs to be a movie that is really appealing in the way it’s lit, but it needs to be kind of simple in the way that it frames people. We talked a lot about having light in the actors’ eyes. That was really important to me.
You’ve worked very successfully in both film and television, how does that television directing experience on shows like “The Office” or “Freaks & Geeks” help in making a movie that appeals to both kids and their parents?
For one thing, in this movie we had a challenge from a physical point of view. We had not only kids and animals, we had screaming babies and car accidents and fire, and just trying to get all that done in 40 days, I think a lot of what I learned in television helped in terms of the speed in which I can work. I love television because … you’re really collaborating with some of the best writers. I had the privilege of working on “Freaks & Geeks,” “6 Feet Under,” “Enlightened” and more recently I’m working on getting on an HBO show. The people who are writing those shows are just amazing visionaries, and it’s a lot of fun as a director to work with that caliber of writing. It’s good to find stories that you relate to from writers who are really talented. It’s becoming like an invisible line, I feel.
In the book and the movie, Alexander has this desire to escape to Australia, which I think is a feeling that a lot of kids have, that anywhere is better than where they are right now. Is that something that you related to in your own childhood? And how did you use that feeling to get kids to identify with Alexander?
I like the randomness of his obsession. I think when we’re growing up we all struggle to have an identity. I remember when I was a kid I was obsessed with origami, for no particular good reason. I always had these weird hobbies that my parents couldn’t understand, I remember my dad not being able to understand that at all. There’s something about how he just randomly chooses Australia that I could relate to at that age where you’re trying to assert your own personality and define yourself, that’s awesome. I liked the randomness of it.
What does someone like Steve Carell bring to a movie like this that’s unique or special that you wouldn’t see otherwise?
His brand of comedy is absolutely difficult to pull off. He’s one of those rare comics who doesn’t have to go into darkness or sarcasm in order to funny. He can make funny out of niceness and being a nice guy, and that is extremely difficult. He does it effortlessly. So he was perfect for a movie like this where the parents have to be people that you love and that you believe are a good family, but he can do that and be very funny. It’s tougher than one would think.
One of the things you see a lot in your movies is small bits of sweetness sprinkled in with a lot of frustration, but in this movie the sweetness of the movie really is at the forefront. Looking forward, do you find yourself more interested in exploring more of the themes of family and happiness or do you see yourself going back towards that frustration?
I’m definitely happier in my life. I definitely see the importance of bringing brightness into the world. It’s easy to complain about things. It’s much harder to try to bring some joy, and I’m definitely more committed to that. That said, I became a director because truly my inspiration was the golden era of Hollywood. I’m a film geek, and I still watch three or four black and white movies every week. I love that model of directors where people like Howard Hawks would be called to do a musical one day, a drama the next, a western the next, a screwball comedy, all in one year. My hope with this movie is that people will embrace it, will laugh and will be moved, and that I will have an opportunity to do a different kind of genre and try to excel in it.