Chuck, Buck and Miguel; Director Arteta as DV Renegade
by Anthony Kaufman
“Do I have a future? Am I going to be able to survive?” said Miguel Arteta in one of indieWIRE‘s first filmmaker interviews back in Sundance 1997 when his debut “Star Maps” screened in the American Spectrum sidebar. It’s now over three years later and Arteta has survived — that is, he’s managed to make a second film, the accomplished, delightful and very unnerving “Chuck and Buck,” another Sundance favorite that opens today with the sort of positive (and well-deserved) word-of-mouth that distributor Artisan is just the type to take and run with.
Written by and starring Mike White (a former Supervising Producer for “Dawson’s Creek” and “Freaks and Geeks“) and produced by Blow Up Pictures (Open City’s digital vision), this wryly comic and psychologically dead-on DV feature takes us into the minds of two men: one who repressed his past (Chris Weitz‘s Chuck) and another who never left it (White’s lollipop-sucking Buck). Also included in the cast is Chris’ brother Paul, the two siblings notable not just for their debut performances here, but their own Hollywood careers — they wrote “Antz,” among others, and directed and produced “American Pie.”
Arteta has also had his share of time in Los Angeles; since “Star Maps,” he’s directed episodes of “Homicide,” “Snoops,” “Freaks and Geeks” and a pilot for Martin Scorsese called “Elizabeth Street” where the uber-director taught Arteta the difference between banter and dialogue (“one is a throwaway, the other you’re supposed to listen to, but you can’t have one without the other.”) Arteta continues to survive; his next project will likely be another collaboration with White called “The Good Girl” and after that, a film called “Stealing Christmas” is set up at USA Films.
Over lunch at the Regency Hotel in New York’s swanky upper east side, Arteta seems new to luxury, wearing a T-shirt and sucking a lollipop (per the film’s ads). In between bites of a Chef’s Salad, Arteta spoke to indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about shooting digital, his non-professional cast, working in TV and obsession.
indieWIRE: So I noticed that you and Mike White and many of the people involved with “Chuck and Buck” all went to Wesleyan University. Is that where you first met?
Arteta: Yeah. Wesleyan has an amazing film program, run by a woman named Janine Basinger. She’s such an incredible teacher; she has a lot of passionate people and inspires them. Janine’s emphasis is that every great filmmaker defines film on their own terms. That’s the kind of mode of the program. So people are kind of fearless coming out of that department, and they’re not trying to imitate other people’s work.
iW: So that helped maintain an independent spirit in approaching your work?
Arteta: Yeah, I’m really lucky. My film there was a musical with singing and dancing; it was a satire of self-improvement groups like EST.
iW: How did you get the script for “Chuck and Buck”?
Arteta: I read it before I went to Sundance while I was editing “Star Maps” and I wanted to do it. Then, after Sundance, I hedged for a while; I thought I should write and then I couldn’t get the script out of my mind. A year later, I told my producer Matthew Greenfield, we have to do this script. And we approached Mike and the script was still available. But it took a long time to find the right kind of money, so we could cast whomever we wanted. Just like any indie movie, it’s more about a personal voice, so it’s hard to find people to give you the money so you can do whatever the heck you want.
iW: When did Blow Up get involved?
Arteta: We looked around, and Blow Up was in the mix from the beginning, but they were able to offer the best deal in terms of creative freedom.
iW: How did DV initially come into play?
Arteta: We saw this movie “The Celebration” and that changed our minds. That really worked for me. Also, the new transfers from digital to film looked good. There was something intimate about it, something immediate. And I knew that it would make for a far more intimate set and working environment. Since I thought that the emphasis should be on the performances, I thought it would be the right way to go.
iW: Your use of the DV also reminded me of Super 8 — it has this home movie quality.
Arteta: We pushed the colors, because we wanted to have a nostalgic look to it. Also, this is really a twisted tale, but in the end, he’s able to work out his obsession without hurting himself or anyone. So it has a really hopeful ending, which is unusual for an indie movie. That is not to say that it’s fluffy; it’s an intense, challenging film, but it has a hopeful message, so we thought it should be brighter.
iW: Were there things about shooting DV that you didn’t expect?
Arteta: One good thing about the so-called digital revolution is that all indie filmmakers are talking to each other, much more than they were before. First of all, since the entry price for making a movie has gone way down, people are not so guarded. People are much more generous with their time; a sense of community is building just because people need the information from each other. I talked to Tom Noonan‘s people, Hal Harley‘s people, Harmony Korine‘s people. Even by the time we were filming, there were other filmmakers going after us who were talking to us. So, a network has started of people sharing information, so I think there’s a sense of community among indie filmmakers, and it’s making for better product, too. People are less intimidated with each other.
iW: How long did you shoot?
Arteta: We shot four, 6-day weeks, and then a few months later, we did 3 days of reshoots. 27 days in all.
iW: You must have shot a lot of footage?
Arteta: DV shoots are becoming more unconventional. When people shoot DV, there’s maybe the whole crew for three weeks, but because the cameras are so cheap, the second unit photography goes on forever. It’s easy to grab the camera and grab a shot.
iW: What camera did you use?
Arteta: I think it was the VX-1000 and we used two of them. I tried to find out as little as possible about DV. I let the cinematographer and the producer deal with it; and I try to remove myself from the technical aspects. I’m going to treat this as a story we’re telling with images, I don’t even want to know what camera we’re using. Part of the drive to use DV was to have technology play less of a part in the making of the movie. I wanted the emphasis to be on the performances, character and story. And it was great to have these 5-pound plastic things on the set that no one took seriously because it did put the emphasis on the performances.
iW: It’s the greatest irony of the digital revolution that technology is enabling people to not be concerned with technology. So shooting with two cameras, is that something you’ve done before?
Arteta: It’s really fun. I had done it in television where they do it a lot and they want to speed things up. It also maintains the integrity of a performance. If an honest moment is really happening between the two actors, you don’t have to fabricate it in the editing room. I like it. When you look at the directors who use two cameras, they get the best performances. Robert Altman uses three cameras at one time. I think it disarms the actors. Because actors, they play to the camera. If you’re being hit from three directions, you have no choice but to be the character. They have to stop thinking about the fourth wall and always be in character from every side.
iW: You had all these people involved, from TV and Hollywood, was there this spirit on the set like, we need to get away from that world and do something different?
Arteta: It was definitely subversive. We were using big talent, writing talent and shooting a little subversive mini-DV picture; we felt like renegades. There are so many metaphors you can play with the film; you can equate Buck to independent filmmaking, and Chuck to mainstream Hollywood. Buck is like indie filmmaking — I got to say what I got to say, I don’t care if it’s inappropriate, I don’t care if it’s politically correct, I just got to do it — and Chuck is more mainstream — like I got to look good, I got to be appropriate and refined. So it was interesting to mix those two worlds together, even among the cast.
iW: It must have been an extra job for you to direct these non-actors. Or was it?
Arteta: I feel like it’s important to cast on hunch. The story seemed really original and unexpected. And we felt like it was good to have fresh faces, new faces, so that you’re feeling like you’re discovering the story, you’re not like; what is Ethan Hawke doing in this movie? So it’s like you’re discovering real characters. The story was the star, so we wanted to put fresh faces to go along with it. I get excited about casting, you get a gut feeling and then you go with it. I didn’t make these guys audition. When I offered the parts to Paul and Chris, they were like, oh, we’ll be happy to come read for you, and I was like, no, there’s no auditioning; we’re doing the movie. And they were shocked, but I like that kind of enthusiasm, it makes for better performances and a better environment. Also, they being writers and directors, they know what it’s about. They came prepared. In fact, they were the best-behaved actors I’ve ever worked with, because they know what it’s like to have a difficult actor.
iW: Did they improvise?
Arteta: Very little. Paul improvised a line at the end of the movie, when he says, “Hey can I borrow that jacket some time?” They are writers, so the impetus would come out, but also being writers, they respected Mike’s written word. So improvisation was kept to a minimum, but it was good when it happened.
iW: Was Mike contented with his script after the process had already begun?
Arteta: For someone who is supposed to play such an immature character, it was amazing how mature he was about being the writer and the star. Two weeks before shooting, he said, if you want the writer to rewrite something, you better do this in the next few days, because after that, I’m only your star. From then on, you’re going to have to re-write yourself, because I have to focus on acting in this movie.
iW: When you were doing TV for “Freaks and Geeks” and “Homicide,” was that helpful to your filmmaking?
Arteta: It was very helpful for my stomach. I was able to eat. It supports the dirty habit of filmmaking. It’s a wonderful way to do it, because I get to practice my craft. The good thing about TV is that the writers are king. The writers are the people that run the show and produce them, which means that the great writing talent is in television. That’s the excitement of TV that you’re working with a really high level of writing. The bummer is that you don’t have any say what’s going to happen as a director.
iW: Was there anything specific that you learned from making “Star Maps” to help you make this film?
Arteta: I learned the basics of telling a story in long form. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I made it. I just jumped off a cliff and hoped somebody would catch me. I reshot a 4th of the movie before I was done with it. I was really re-writing in the editing room. I learned the basics, from dealing with the actors, and the cinematographer, camera angles, to editing. My approach to indie filmmaking is trying to find characters that are challenged in a way that I’m challenged. That are dealing with something that I can’t handle, in the same way that I’m dealing with something that I can’t handle and don’t have the answers to. It’s free therapy.
iW: Not free, though. Costly.
Arteta: Costly therapy. In “Star Maps,” it was really an angry movie. I had a certain amount of anger towards my upbringing that I was working out in that film, and I didn’t know how to resolve it. And that’s what I think makes it exciting. “Chuck and Buck” was about obsession. And I’m very obsessive about movies, I’m a movie junky, and I’m also obsessive about people. When I started this project, I was in the middle of a very obsessive relationship and I didn