In an interview, Miguel Arteta once characterized his film The Good Girl (2002) as a prison escape story. The Retail Rodeo, the fictional big-box store that serves as the setting for the film, is the metaphorical prison, and its employees are the inmates. Some of them turn to religion to survive, some revolt, and one duo looks to break out. “It’s a great metaphor,” Arteta said, “because everyone feels trapped.” This is how many of Arteta’s films function: he finds an unexpected vehicle through which he can express a universal human experience. He gives agency and humanity to those whose work lives are seen, by many, to be less than heroic.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1965, Miguel Arteta moved to Costa Rica at a young age. After getting kicked out of school there, his parents sent him to the US, where he attended a boarding school, and later matriculated to Harvard. He left Harvard for Wesleyan University, where he studied film under Professor Jeanine Basinger, and also met future collaborator Mike White. Arteta’s breakthrough came with Star Maps (1997), which tells the story of a Latino teen trying to make it in Hollywood by selling maps of famous people’s homes. He found further success with classic of indie cinema Chuck & Buck (2000) and Cedar Rapids (2011). He directed Salma Hayek in one of her most poignant roles in the acclaimed Beatriz at Dinner (2017). Hayek plays the maid to a wealthy couple, who in an act of condescension, invite her to dinner with their wealthy friends. What ensues is both farcical and deeply spiritual, and, like much of Arteta’s work, begins by examining American class issues but eventually transcends them.
He is interviewed here by Aubrey Plaza, whom he met in 2006, when he was staging a reading of Lucas Moodysson’s movie Together (Arteta was considering an English-language version). Plaza is well known for her role on Parks and Recreation, and has starred in many independent films, including Ingrid Goes West (2017), Emily the Criminal (2022), and Black Bear (2020), which she and Arteta discuss in this interview. Plaza began her career in improv, and this is often evidenced through her deadpan stage presence, which was on full display when she accepted her 2012 Young Hollywood Award by saying, “Fuck you, old people. Old people can go fuck themselves. I’m going to live forever.”
I. “I, Miguel”
THE BELIEVER: OK, first of all, and I know this is an interview, so it doesn’t matter visually what’s going on, but I noticed the shirt you’re wearing.
MIGUEL ARTETA: I figured it was appropriate for this interview.
BLVR: Does it have something to do with Jonathan Richman?
MA: It does. For my fiftieth birthday, my wife, Justine, and a few friends made a T-shirt based on Jonathan Richman’s album I, Jonathan. But they put my face on it instead, with a lot of things I love, like Justine and anteaters and things like that. And whales.
BLVR: OK, so just to be clear for our readers, you’re wearing a T-shirt that has all these things.
MA: Yeah. It says I, MIGUEL. Figured it would be, uh, you know—being interviewed takes a certain amount of hubris. So I figured I’d wear this shirt.
BLVR: That’s a perfect start, because I was gonna say that I never feel qualified to be an interviewer, and especially to interview someone like you, who I see as like a mentor and a hero and all these things.
MA: No, I really respect the way you deal with your work and the way you love your work. You’re having an incredible career, and I can almost see the rest of your career in my mind. So I’m interested to learn from you about how to be so focused and passionate.
BLVR: All right. Well, this isn’t about me. I know what you’re trying to do, and I’m not gonna let you do it. Let’s start with your mentors—who do you consider your mentors?
MA: I was very lucky to meet Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan University. Through her, I fell in love with the golden age of Hollywood. But my first love of movies was European movies, like Fellini and Buñuel and Kurosawa. I was very pretentiously in love with all those movies in high school. Seeing Juliet of the Spirits made me realize: Oh, this is just filming your dreams. And I was like, That’s a fun job. I want that job.
BLVR: Was this in Costa Rica?
MA: Yeah, I was born in Puerto Rico, and then my father retired early and moved us to Costa Rica for high school. And I hated it there. I got myself thrown out of high school.
BLVR: Why were you kicked out?
MA: I had an American girlfriend, and it was a very conservative environment in the ’70s in Costa Rica. And, um, we were making out a lot. And we kind of wanted to get kicked out. And we were making out on the lawn—
MA: —and all the other students got very riled up. There were meetings about us. And my parents got a letter from the headmaster saying, “For having horizontal affection on campus premises, we must dismiss Miguel.”
BLVR: Oh my god.
MA: It was a great day ’cause I knew my parents would then send me to boarding school in America. And when I landed in Miami at sixteen—they still had those steps down from the plane—I stopped the whole line so the first things that touched America were my lips. I kissed the ground.
II. Wild Luck
BLVR: How did your relationship to movies develop in boarding school?
MA: I think having the language barrier was very important. When you don’t have command of the language, going to the movie theater becomes a source of comfort ’cause you’re understanding most of what’s going on. In your daily life, you’re not able to communicate quite as well. So I think that’s why I started to go to the movies a lot at that time. And eventually I fell in love with the golden age of Hollywood, which has been my passion. Me and my wife still watch Turner Classic Movies. To me, it’s the most inspiring kind of filmmaking because those people are not trying to show off. They’re not going to point the finger at themselves and say, Look. Look how clever I am. Look how much style I am adding. They’re actually trying to make you think deeply. And tell you how people are. And get you to be an active participant in the story. Their style is a little bit, you know, hidden inside the seams. And that has been my style and the style of the filmmakers I really love, like Jonathan Demme, who is a modern-day inspiration for me.
BLVR: What was the first movie you saw of his?
MA: I saw Something Wild, which is—
BLVR: I love that movie.
MA: Ray Liotta, Melanie Griffith, 1986. The joy of the filmmaking and the irreverence of it all were so contagious. It was a crystallizing moment where I was like: I have to be a filmmaker. You know, something I thought about when I knew you were gonna interview me is luck. Luck plays such an important part in all our lives. I really think luck is the primary reason we end up having something interesting to say. Or end up in a position to be heard. Luck has played such an important role in my life. Like, I was born with parents who could afford to send me to college. Then Something Wild blew my mind, and I was like, This is what I wanna do. Jonathan Demme had not done The Silence of the Lambs yet; he was not a famous director at the time. And I happened to give a short movie of mine to my car mechanic. And then he called me back, after I moved to New York, and was like, “I’ve given your short movie to this director, Jonathan Demme.”
BLVR: No shit.
MA: Um, and my car mechanic was somebody who was, you know, unstable—
BLVR: Emotionally, or?
MA: Yeah, very unstable. A little bit out-there. He would fix my car for free if I talked to him about Central America. And a year after I moved to New York, I got a call from him [mimicking voice], “I finally tracked your number! Jonathan Demme!” And I was like, “Whoa, you know who he is? I love him.” And he says, “Listen, my ex-wife is married to his cousin, who is an incredible minister in Harlem [Robert W. Castle]. And Jonathan is making a documentary about that cousin. It’s called Cousin Bobby.” ’Cause, you know, this is a guy who fought with the Black Panthers. “Anyhow,” he tells me, “I’ve given him the tape. They want you to go there this Sunday. Jonathan’s gonna come and sit down and watch the movie with you.”
BLVR: From your—your car mechanic? Your emotionally unstable car mechanic? OK, so I just have to say this. Something that I wanna say about you—that I have always felt from the day I met you, and that everybody who knows you feels—is how open and kind you are. And you can describe it as “luck.” I think luck is one way to describe it. But I think it’s more than luck, because I think things like that happen because of how you are as a person. Like, if you weren’t somebody that was willing or open to talking to your car mechanic about whatever the fuck you were talking about… to me, that’s everything. And that’s something I don’t think people realize—especially when they’re younger—but you never know what will lead to what. And it’s not even about trying to make those connections happen. It’s really just about the nature of who you are. And, like, yes, you’re lucky. But I think it’s more like you’re curious about another human being, and then you make a connection. Then something beautiful happens.
MA: I think you’re right. The element of curiosity is important because art is about feeling like you are being seen. Why do we like a performance? It’s because we can see ourselves in it, you know? So I think having a willingness to see people is important. I don’t think you can succeed as an artist unless you have some element of that.
BLVR: So going back to Jonathan Demme: He gets your short film and then what happens?
MA: He watches it. He likes it. And he says, “Listen, I’m making this documentary called Cousin Bobby. We’re shooting with this Super 16 camera—do you know how to change the reels? We need a loader.” And I said, “Yes.” And he could tell I was lying and started laughing and said, “We’ll teach you how to do it. Stick with us.” So I got to work with him on and off for a year—the year he was preparing The Silence of the Lambs. And we got to travel to where Cousin Bobby had a house, in northern Vermont. And we went and spent a few days there. Cousin Bobby was obsessed with Jonathan’s movies. So I got to watch Jonathan’s movies with the two of them and, you know, got a great education. Jonathan was very generous to many young filmmakers. He’s stayed my mentor and taught me so much about the transference of energy that is filmmaking.
BLVR: What do you mean by that?
MA: He said that directing wasn’t about controlling—it was about responding. If you try to be all controlling as a director, your movies will be boring. You need to be discovering something as you’re telling the story, so the audience is invited to be part of the discovery. If you are like, I know everything about this character, about this world, you might end up making the kinds of movies that feel closed off.
BLVR: Right—like something’s off about them. Movies have to evolve.
MA: Yes. He said, “You gotta respond to how you’re feeling that morning, how the actors are feeling, what the location feels like on that day in particular.” If you just force your vision on all these things, it’s not gonna go right. I’m not sure if I’m recording his words exactly, but he said it’s like there’s a highway and you’re the person that’s telling the highway: That’s the destination way over there, we think. But there’s many different routes to get there. And you need to be very open, you know? Like sometimes you think you’re gonna go one direction the whole time, but somebody makes you think better of it.
BLVR: What are your memories of Puerto Rico? At what ages were you on the island?
MA: From the time I was born till I was thirteen. And my memories were, um, of being an awkward kid. My fondest memories were of going snorkeling with my dad. I liked being underwater and looking at the fish. I was, like, a hobby-oriented kid. I would make rockets and go fly them. You know those Estes Rockets? Model rockets? I was obsessed with those. And then I was obsessed with origami. I was very proficient in origami. And then I was obsessed with fish tanks. I made my own fish tanks. And we would go get saltwater fish while we were snorkeling and I was very obsessed with that. So, um, I think hub- hobbies saved my life.
BLVR: What is “hubbies”?
MA: It’s a mispronunciation of the word hobbies.
BLVR: [quietly] Hubbies… Oh, hobbies! Sorry. Sorry. Hobbies.
MA: I still have a funny accent.
BLVR: Your hobbies in Puerto Rico. Got it.
MA: Yeah. You know, I rejected Latin America so, so strongly when I left. There was something about the machismo. And probably conflicts with my dad. And I think I have had this sick accent for forty-something years because of that active rejection—my subconscious is, like, fucking with me.
BLVR: I love your accent. It’s the most fun when we play Balderdash. Um, so is it true that you ripped people off by reading their palms? And did that start at a young age?
MA: That happened in Boston. At the Cambridge School of Weston. When I was sixteen and seventeen, I had the mystique of being from another country. So I was able to use that to my advantage at parties and say, “Listen, if you give me a dollar, I will read your palm.” And I could make up to sixty dollars in one night. I said that, you know, a shaman lady had trained me in Costa Rica. That definitely made me realize how suggestible people are.
BLVR: Yes, we are.
MA: I think that’s the strongest drive. Even stronger than procreation or self-preservation. I think it’s the thing that drives humans the most.
BLVR: What do you mean? Just wanting to believe in something?
MA: Yes. You know, it’s like how if you go to a dinner where three people are drinking a lot, then most people will drink a lot more. There’s a reason why we have countries and religions and tribalism—because at our core, we are desperate to believe in something.
BLVR: Yeah. Did you grow up religious at all? Or do you consider yourself spiritual?
MA: Um, I worship the sun. I like the sun. I think the sun is the source of everything. But the sun is just a lot of gravity. A lot of matter, throwing off energy. So I guess I believe in energy.
IV. Bathroom Critics
BLVR: Have you always felt like a confident person? Especially in terms of trying to become a filmmaker? Or do you suffer from, um, deep insecurities and anxiety, and doubt yourself every step of the way?
MA: I am very insecure in life, and, you know, I joke all the time that I’m fragile like a little flower.
BLVR: Are you sensitive?
MA: I am very sensitive with people. I don’t have the personality of a film director. But something magical happened when I started to make my pretentious little movies at sixteen. There was something that just immediately fit. And a lot of confidence became accessible to me. And I remember that first day, saying, This is it, like, I have found my niche. There is something about the element of taking a camera and trying to tell a story with it. I think it’s the feeling of being a spectator—watching an actor get into the zone is like watching human beings fly, you know? And it is such an amazing thing to be a part of it. Like, to help propel someone else to just levitate and fly, and to have the front-row seat.
BLVR: I love that. I wonder if most directors have that feeling. I don’t know if they do. Like, what do you really think of actors? ’Cause I’ve met a lot of directors in my life that—whether they say it out loud or not—it’s almost like they don’t actually respect the process of acting or something.
MA: I think a lot of directors are jealous of actors because they have this ability to go into a zone that is just so beautiful. It’s a superpower. I’m constantly shocked by how disrespected and mistreated actors are. You know, when they become very famous, everybody’s mostly blowing smoke up their butts. And so they don’t have any idea who to trust. And that’s a difficult position to be in.
BLVR: Do you think directors always secretly pick favorite actors when they shoot movies? And that they secretly have a favorite one? And do you do that?
MA: Yes. Yes.
BLVR: Do you fall in love with your actors when you work with them?
MA: I do. If the movie’s gonna turn out well, you want to fall in love with more than one in the film, you know.
BLVR: With all of them.
MA: With as many as possible. There’s usually, in stories, one point of view, and then there’s the object of what that person’s pursuing. Which tends to be another person. So you wanna try and fall in love with those two people in most movies. And I definitely do.
BLVR: Did you ever wanna be an actor?
MA: I wish I could do it. You know, I’ve taken classes from Sundance, and worked with this teacher named Joan Darling. She was one of the first female directors on TV. She’s wonderful. I took her class just to see what it was like. And she thought I was great, wanted to cast me [laughs] in a feature that she was—
BLVR: I heard that you starred in a movie called In Good Company. Is that true?
MA: [Laughs] I get a residual check for In Good Company, for about seventeen cents, every couple years, yes.
BLVR: What was your role in In Good Company?
MA: I was the AV guy that tells Clark Gregg that it’s OK to move the furniture.
BLVR: He was in that? I don’t remember that. He played my dad one time.
MA: The truth is that when friends have asked me to be in films, they always end up cutting my lines down to, like, one little grunt or something.
BLVR: What about rituals? Do you have any superstitious things you do when you make a movie?
MA: My favorite part of making movies is something that doesn’t happen that much anymore, which is sitting down in a dark movie theater and watching it with an audience. Especially if the audience doesn’t even know I’m there. I used to go see the finished movies in the theater, on the opening weekend. I would look around like: Are they having fun? Did it work? Did this go well? And then I used to go into the bathroom right after and I would stay in that stall for, like, fifteen minutes, because that’s where you get the best criticism. It’s amazing how people open up in the bathroom. They would just be like, “Oh man, fuck, [the lead actor] was so bad. I can’t believe this movie. The ending was so stupid.”
V. The Gnarly Truth
BLVR: What’s the worst criticism you’ve ever gotten?
MA: I was very hurt about—I made a movie with Alia Shawkat, which we wrote together, called Duck Butter.
BLVR: I love this movie. I love Duck Butter.
MA: Thank you. The critic that had praised Chuck & Buck (which is a movie I did with Mike White, twenty years before), who had named it Movie of the Year in Entertainment Weekly, and really got my career going—that same critic went on to just say the meanest things about me and the movie [Duck Butter]. How “paper-thin” it was and how it didn’t have any insight into human beings. It was hard.
BLVR: Oh, wow. Well, fuck that guy. That guy’s wrong. I love Duck Butter. Of all your films, what would you say you’re most proud of?
MA: I think Duck Butter and Beatriz at Dinner are, like, sweetest in my heart. Making them was such a pleasure, and I adore them. But I do think that Chuck & Buck is probably the best movie I’ve made. I met Mike White when he was very young and he was starting to write. And I put him in my first movie with this other writer, Zak Penn. Mike and Zak were a writing team at that time. This was like in the early ’90s, and I cast them as racist writers ’cause I knew they were both very funny. Mike rewrote every word of dialogue but didn’t tell me about it. Zak came in and said, “Listen, Mike has rewritten our whole thing. I think it’s much better. And I think you should do it this way.” I took a minute to read it and I said, “Holy shit. I wish he had rewritten my whole fucking script.”
Mike and I just had a nice connection. He had written both Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. And I wanted to try to do them both. But Chuck & Buck had a difficult birth. We were trying to find traditional ways of financing it, and eventually we were like, “Let’s just start making it.” ’Cause that’s the way you actually get funding, when people feel the train has left the station. And after deciding this and getting everybody riled up like that, I just had a moment of tremendous fear. Like: This is a movie about a gay man. And I am not gay. You know, maybe I’m not the right person to make this movie. So I tried to get other filmmakers to do the movie, like my friend Ira Sachs. Eventually, somebody else was gonna make it—a friend of Mike’s. But the characters kept floating in my head—I was obsessed with them. I had knee surgery around that time, and I remember having a delirious moment in Kentucky—at a film festival there—where I couldn’t sleep all night, ’cause this character Buck was haunting me. And I called Mike and said, “Let’s just make it in video and make it for no money. And let’s not even worry. I need to make it.”
BLVR: You were possessed by it.
MA: Yeah. So we went and made it. We cast my friend Chris Weitz, and then I was like, Well, his brother, Paul Weitz—you know, they’re a filmmaking team—could play a role too. And I told Mike that, and he was like, “Well, if you’re casting your friends, then you need to cast me as Buck.” And so it felt like we weren’t making a movie for the world. It was a movie that we were making with our friends, on a little three-chip camera. I really loved making it and watching Mike White perform.
BLVR: He’s incredible in that movie.
MA: Yeah, he put his heart into it. When he had to cry in a scene, he would cry in every single take. Even if it was a wide shot. He couldn’t help it. I think he felt that story so deeply.
BLVR: Before that you had done Star Maps, right?
MA: Star Maps was my first film. Matthew Greenfield helped me write the story. And we begged for money from strange people in Los Angeles. We made our first movie difficult. It was around the time that Clerks came out, and everybody was like, That’s the way to make a movie: two characters in one location. And instead, we shot it on thirty-five-millimeter film at, like, forty locations, with eight main characters. It was an act of stupidity. But there was something fun about that. When you make your first movie, you have a unique opportunity. ’Cause you don’t know what you’re doing, you know? It only happens once and it’s a very delicious thing.
BLVR: And that movie went to Sundance, right?
MA: It went to Sundance, yes.
BLVR: That’s like a dream come true—your first film getting into Sundance. Do you still believe in independent films? I just think of that era of movies—there was something so magical about someone making a movie like Star Maps and then taking it to Sundance. And having it, like, break through the noise.
MA: I think, you know—going back to luck—I hit Sundance at that time when there was an appetite to have independent movies in theaters. And they were starting to win awards and you could get paid for them. So that was very lucky. And I’ve been wondering where that has gone. Where has the mumblecore scene gone? It’s difficult—there’s not a market for these movies. But, you know, there’s always somebody breaking through, which is incredible. You know the filmmaker that did a movie called Waves [Trey Edward Shults]?
MA: There’s just incredible people like him, figuring out how to do it. People are still doing it. I believe in personal storytelling. My dream is to make one more movie that is done very purely that way, just for the pleasure of involving the audience in a journey—where I’m going to learn something new that I need to learn. I’m very curious right now about the nature of humans and hope. How are humans having hope when the evidence suggests we should not have hope at all?
BLVR: Because the planet is dying?
MA: Yeah. The planet is dying. We are going backward in terms of, politically, how to deal with each other. Racism is coming back with a vengeance. Women’s rights are being destroyed. Russia is trying to just invade places. The advances in science and artificial intelligence are probably—you know, the world’s gonna have a computer that’s a dictator soon. It’s hard to think about somebody being born now. And yet people are finding hope still. So I’m very curious about how to do that. Where does that come from? And is it legitimate? Or is it—is it sad that we have to have hope? Or is it great?
BLVR: Yeah. For me, that’s the point of making movies, in a lot of ways—it’s hope. ’Cause it feels like movies that have hope, even if they’re really dark—that’s what makes me fall in love with them.
MA: You know, I was gonna ask you about the movie you made with Christopher Abbott.
BLVR: Black Bear.
MA: Black Bear. Where was the hope in that? What made you go there?
BLVR: Well, I think for me, that was an exercise in confronting the truth. And the black bear was a symbol of the truth, however gnarly it is. I think, I mean, it’s debatable what the end is in that movie, because the movie’s broken into two parts and it’s kind of unclear: Did the first part follow the second part? Or the second part follow the first? And are both parts not real? It’s kind of like the movie is a commentary on the creative exercise of writing. But for me, even though the end is so fucked up—even though she’s basically been confronted with her worst nightmare, which is this paranoid fantasy that she’s been having the whole time—she is eventually confronted with what’s true. Her worst nightmare is true, and she sees the bear. In my head, I mean, it cuts away so fast, but in the way it worked out for me, in my brain, was that she just lets the bear eat her alive. And, um, I guess that’s not really hopeful, is it? But the point is [laughter] that she found the truth.
MA: She surrenders.
BLVR: Yes, she surrenders to the truth of it. And, I don’t know, is that hopeful?
MA: It is. Any act of surrendering is an act of hope. A leap of faith. I think your performance in that film was like Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes movie. Raw. Just incredible. I think that performance is gonna be discovered and rediscovered many, many times. And, um, I’m in an introspective mood because I found out I have prostate cancer last week, which I think you know.
BLVR: I did know. I was not gonna bring that up in this interview. But you go for it. We haven’t even talked about this.
MA: You know, it changes, a little bit, the way you look at things. I’m hopeful everything’s gonna go well. The prognosis is pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. So hopefully when this interview comes out, I will be on the other side of it. And not as worried. But it does make you think a lot about what matters, and I feel very lucky ’cause this is a treatable form of cancer. By all accounts, we have found it early enough that I’m gonna be OK. But you can’t help but think about your life. I guess that’s why luck has been on my mind. You know, I was so rebellious against my parents when I was young. And then they lived long enough, and I lived long enough, to realize that they actually loved me. And gave me an incredibly privileged start in life. I’ve had so much love in my life, so many friends. And then I’ve had the luck of doing what I love to do, which is making movies. And I feel like—I’ve done ten films. And if that’s it, it was pretty great.
BLVR: Well, I don’t think that’s gonna be it. Don’t say things like that.
MA: Well, I feel blessed, and I hope I get to make ten more. But I definitely feel like transferring energy is really what’s on my mind. Since this thing has come into my life, what I think about is wanting to help people—encouraging everybody to seek engagement and be kind. And, you know, those are the seeds of trust, and within them are the seeds of love. And I think that, at the end, that’s the only thing that matters. I’m trying to look back, because I didn’t have this perspective when I made my films. But as I look back, I feel like some of the good ones express that.