Oprah Knows Best: Director Miguel Arteta on Going the Studio Route

Director Miguel Arteta, known for indie hits Star Maps, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids, makes his big studio debut with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, the Disney movie is a light-hearted comedy that’s a lot more family-friendly than Arteta’s previous work. In the footsteps of recent indie-to-studio converts like Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man), Rian Johnson (Star Wars), and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic Park), Arteta tries to make sense of the transition – with a little help from Oprah.

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Ever since my first indie feature film, Star Maps, was released in 1997, I’ve looked for the opportunity to do a bigger studio film. It’s not that I wasn’t happy making indie movies. I do. I love it! However, the idea of working on the proverbial “larger canvas” was something I was hoping and striving to pursue for many years. Sometimes it made me miserable. Sometimes it drove me truly nuts, and when it finally did happen, it was in an unexpected and wonderful way. Last year, I directed a sweet and funny feature for Disney called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

So, how does one go from an indie film about a father who prostitutes his own son to a Disney movie about a family that gives their son the loveliest support and the greatest birthday party ever?

The irony is that Star Maps was also about a boy that dreams of being in Hollywood and is willing to do almost anything to get there. It had a typical rough and long road to the screen that so many indie films have: four years total, 113 rejections from potential investors (yes, I counted them), 13 maxed out credit cards, heartache, and a very bad therapist. However, in the end, I was very, very, and I mean very lucky to have the happiest of endings to that adventure. It premiered at Sundance and was acquired by Fox Searchlight. The jackpot.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

That created an opportunity for me to keep making indie movies, start working in television and, best of all, get paid to do what I love, which is the best reward any filmmaker can hope for. It also gave me the privilege of getting an agent and have them share with me when an appropriate feature script from a studio appeared gettable. So, a “side program” to my career began and continued for 15 years. It was a search that I pursued along with the work I was doing in indies and TV, and basically entailed reading scripts that studios (and producers who worked for studios) had enough interest to show me. I was going on meetings for a percentage of those scripts that were shown to me that I could picture myself doing, and sometimes even getting as far as developing a few of them, but none came to fruition.

Looking back, I can see that I didn’t serve myself well by pursuing this two-pronged strategy. Many times I overwhelmed myself by splitting my attention between the work I was doing and the search for a studio film. I found myself so busy, but not moving forward. I lost track of some of the most important things and habits any good storyteller should always be nurturing: basic and indispensable things like noticing and engaging the world and cataloging my observations of the way I see people and how we behave.

I isolated my interests and stopped nurturing my curiosity with the excuse that the only things that mattered were to keep working and searching for bigger jobs. It was a cycle that made me unhappy, and when you do that, inspiration starts to run low. As I examine those years, I realize that probably at the bottom of it was a fear of engaging with the world. Why I was scared to look around is probably something that the therapist I saw during Star Maps could answer with less than five words, as well as most people that have seen the film. To spare you the psychobabble, let me just say that, eventually, I left L.A. and escaped to New York for two years, returning as a happier man.

So, here’s the advice I can give you if you’re trying to get your first studio job. Let me use the cheesiest quotes from either way too famous people, way too cool people, or way too obscure people to encapsulate it. You can decide which is the right category of person your soul can afford to respond to.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

First and foremost, listen to Oprah. Yes, Oprah. She says things that are surprisingly useful to filmmakers struggling to find the right projects for themselves. She says: “The most important thing in life is to know exactly what you want, that’s where everything stems from” (I heard her say it to Lindsay Lohan in her documentary). Like Lindsay, the basic obsessive filmmakers, would greatly benefit from taking this quote seriously.  Spend some time and reflect to really know what you want to do and pursue nothing else. That way you’ll end up only doing what you should be doing; like focusing on the one indie idea you love instead of reading piles of studio scripts. Or stop making the indie film you don’t entirely stand behind and only search for that bigger studio film that will get your rocks off.

Then, we have Bob Dylan’s advice which is very similar to Oprah’s, but just sounds way cooler. He says: “The secret to success is knowing how to conserve your energy” (I read it in his book Chronicles; where he dispenses lots of other great advice like, “If you’re gonna lie, keep it short”).  So, if you cannot listen to Oprah without feeling “uncool,” then listen to Dylan. Learn to conserve your energy. For example, don’t pursue too many things at once. His advice is interesting within the context of his book because he spends most of his time telling you how damn curious he was about so many things like old folk artists, old newspaper clippings, history of the world, and the best way to order eggs at a diner. He writes very twangy and preaches to feed yourself with all that fascinates you, but save your energy to create only what really matters to you.

Finally, if your ego can only afford to take advice from the fringes of culture, we can go with the advice from a wonderful, but mostly unknown, man named Tobias Schneebaum. Tobias, a Fullbright scholar and a Manhattan painter who in 1955 spent seven months in the Amazon with a cannibal tribe called the Harakambut, gives us his advice in a very special documentary called Keep The River On The Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. You’ll have to watch the doc to know how bad he really felt when he realized he had eaten human meat, but he said: “When I see young people struggling and measuring what would be their next best choice for them to do, I feel like telling them all that matters is whether you can put your heart in it. If you can put your heart in an endeavor, nothing wrong can result from it.”

If Oprah and Dylan were too mainstream for you, hopefully this long and obscure quote can be your guiding light (Think about how rarefied, cool, and wise you’ll sound when you explain where you got it from at your next cocktail party!) All kidding aside, Tobias is 100 percent right, and he really wants you to take away all that pressure, calculation, and insensible desire to manage and control your career. There is no wrong answer if you can put your heart in it. When you look at it that way, you can strip away the prejudices we attach to our choices, which are basically fears (is this script too uncool, not elegant enough, is it too commercial, is it too cynical, is it not cynical enough?) and simply make a decision because you want to move towards something you can love purely, instead of moving away from things out of fear that they may be too much one way or another. You don’t have to become a cannibal to follow this advice.

I hope that is a bit helpful to you if you’re trying to do everything at once in getting to the bigger canvas. After 15 years of not taking Oprah, Dylan, nor Tobias Schneebaum seriously, I was a bit happier, surprising myself by making a Disney film that my old self might have been too afraid to do for fear of being not cool enough, dark enough, or awards material enough. When I was able to no longer “do almost anything to get there,” I found my lovely wife. I realized how much I had not appreciated my wonderful parents. A dog came into my life (that surprised my friends more than anything) and a children’s book that showed that it was OK to have bad days won my heart. So, I turned it into a movie that I hope you will love. MM

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day opens in theaters on October 10, 2014.

Pictures courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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