Miguel Arteta conquered the mountain of movie no-no’s with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. They say that you should never work with animals or babies. Not only did he have both of those in his live action Disney family film, but he also had to grapple with fires, car crashes and the challenge of creating a fast moving and fun film for an audience that was used to animation providing both.
We caught up with Arteta for an exclusive chat where he took us inside the making of a new Disney classic, starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, that has found audiences responding in droves, judging by the most recent weekend box office report!
Movie Fanatic: The live action family film from Disney we have not seen in some time and you have successfully brought it back. One, why was that important for you to direct, and two, beyond it being an entertainment piece for families, do you hope it starts a new trend over at the Mouse House?
Miguel Arteta: I grew up with those movies and I love them -- That Darn Cat, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For me, it was a throwback to those movies, but also the John Hughes movies that we all adore. I try to make movies about things that I put my heart into. On paper it may look a little weird – an independent filmmaker who made Chuck and Buck making a Disney family film. But, in real life I have come a long ways. I used to be a complicated guy in my twenties. I didn’t get along with my family. As I got older, I got married, I got a little bit happier and I realized that I didn’t have such a bad family. I’m trying to learn to appreciate them. When I read the script, I felt that I could be sincere about it.
Movie Fanatic: When I left the theater, I just wanted to call my parents.
Miguel Arteta: That’s the best compliment I could get. When I went to Disney, we got to make it fast and we have to make it funny because kids are used to animation. But, what I hope is that people come out of the theater with a new appreciation for their family. There was something lovely about this film.
Movie Fanatic: Much has to do with the script, but also much of the success has to do with the cast and them working well, and truly being believable as a family. When did you notice the connection with the cast?
Miguel Arteta: As a filmmaker, you create the environment for chemistry, hoping that it happens. It had to be a lovely family because the movie hinges on people rooting for this family to make it through this horrible day. We started with Steve Carell, the nicest, warmest guy in the world. Jen Garner is also very authentic and a very nice person. My mandate was to find kids who also had a generosity of heart who were just good people. My hope would be that they would like each other a lot [laughs]. Then, I would just run the camera. It became evident in the rehearsals. I was nervous because it was so do or die. A movie environment is chaotic, but a movie with fire and animals and car accidents and babies, it was chaotic enough that helped them bond. It was them against the elements making the movie. I count my blessings!
Movie Fanatic: There’s a pace there that is fast, as you mentioned it needed to be. And sure, there are beats for the emotion. But, how did you maintain that energy over the course of a several months-long shoot? It's even there in the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day trailer!
Miguel Arteta: It was a challenge. This was one of what I call those dominos scripts. One chip has to fall, so that the others can too. There were no scenes that we took out, and there usually are. We had to be prepared so that we started and it never let up until it ended. Directing it, I’ve done this a few times, you learn that if something feels at all slow when you’re shooting it, it is going to feel glacier slow when you’re watching it. I knew I had to bring a lot of energy to the proceedings.
Movie Fanatic: The title character had to work. And you have a one-in-a-million kid in Ed Oxenbould. When you saw him, how did you know he was Alexander?
Miguel Arteta: Me and my wife sat through 500 audition tapes over a period of a few months. When he came on there was something immediate. She said, “Stop. That’s him.” In retrospect, we were looking for a kid who had the ability to be happy for others. At 12, it’s tough. Many were self involved, how most of us were at that age. There’s something about Ed, he’s authentically curious about other people. To the credit of Disney, they were so behind him. He’s not your typical Hollywood kid. They thought he was exactly right.
Movie Fanatic: They always say don’t work with babies or animals. And you also have car crashes and fire in this movie. Was there one aspect of all of that that was especially hard to overcome?
Miguel Arteta: It worked pretty well. We had a great stunt coordinator, he did Avatar. He knew how to set things up so that they would happen and happen fast. He helped us get this in the can in a wonderful way. There was a lot of luck involved. But, getting that baby to put that marker on his face -- it was a dark mood at that time because it was taking forever. But this guy Jimmy, who worked in the costume department, developed a relationship with the baby. He came up with an idea and sat there and put green marker all over his face so aggressively. The baby thought it was hilarious and then started to do it! Her eyes lit up. It was like we had won the lottery.