Interview: Miguel Arteta on 'Beatriz at Dinner'
The remedy for stagnation has always been progression. It’s an obvious sentiment—basic arithmetic. And yet, it’s something Miguel Arteta has had to repeatedly remind himself over the past six years. While the soft-spoken and talent director remained productive in television (he helmed episodes of Enlightened, House of Lies, Nurse Jackie, and more), he couldn’t help but feel lost. “I couldn’t find the right thing to say,” he admitted. In time, Arteta rediscovered his voice. His hiatus from feature films (his last project was Cedar Rapids, in 2011) has come to a close with the arrival of Beatriz at Dinner.
Salma Hayek stars in the titular role as Beatriz, a massage therapist who unwittingly finds herself in the middle of a comically bourgeois dinner party. As the night unfolds, each of the guests—including Beatriz—begin to reveal their true colors.
At heart, Arteta is making a movie about the current moment: the increasing economic gap between the 1% and everyone else, the xenophobia of white Americans, the absence of empathy, and the fear of living in a country that looks to exclude rather than include. Arteta cleverly uses the dinner table as a surrogate for the classical forum, in that each character is allowed space to voice their positions, however backward they may be.
When I spoke with the director, we attempted to unpack how his upbringing sparked his interest in telling a story like “Beatriz”. We also dive into his experiences with the late Jonathan Demme, his advice for young filmmakers, and how he approaches storytelling as a resident outsider.
I want to start in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Your father was a Chrysler auto salesman, which forced you to bounce around Latin America as a kid. How do you think this upbringing in the ‘70s affects how you approach telling a story like “Beatriz”?
I have always been an outsider. My father was from Peru, my mother was from Spain, but I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I didn’t have a Puerto Rican accent and my culture wasn’t from Puerto Rico so from the moment I was born I was viewed as a foreigner…as an other. When we were fourteen my father retired and moved to Costa Rica. Suddenly, I was not seen as a Costa Rican. At sixteen I got myself thrown out of high school so I could come to America, and I was not seen as an American. I have always been on the outside looking in, and I think that’s a good position for a filmmaker. It’s particularly helpful for a film like Beatriz, which is a story about what it feels like to be an immigrant. It’s a story about what it feels like to not be seen, not be appreciated: People not seeing your potential.
Did you ever feel alienated like Beatriz?
Oh, definitely. I have felt that in the three different cultures that I lived. Beatriz is smart, she’s hardworking, she’s not afraid to tell the truth, but she has no skills at chitchat or at light conversation. I feel like I share that with her completely. Everybody can relate to being at a dinner party stuck with somebody you don’t want to talk to. I’ve been that person in a dinner conversation where everybody’s trying to have the charming banter, and I just can’t do it.
The sort of polite small talk…
I’m atrocious at it. It’s not even in Beatriz’s vocabulary. Here are six people trying to have a light, charming time and this woman can only see the fact that they are talking about horrible things.
It’s interesting…you talk about the heaviness in your daily life, and yet your films tend to have this light touch to them.
It’s because I’m unaware of the tragedy and the comedy of life. When I’m making a movie I’m trying to have people play it realistically, and be honest and never over-the-top. Never reach for a joke. Never reach for a tear. If something happens to be funny, so be it. If it happens to be moving, so be it.
In “Beatriz” especially, you’re using that honesty. When you were in your twenties, studying in that Harvard documentary program, did you feel like people were candid, or did you feel the artificiality of a dinner party?
I probably was very interested in trying to tell the truth, but in that time I was probably obnoxious and full of self-importance. I remember being very annoying. My documentary class wanted to make a movie about the costumes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, put on by the Boston ballet, and I was like, “That’s bullshit! We need to make a movie about this rehab center where the kids learn to rap and get better! You guys are afraid to take the subway.” I really had a chip on my shoulder.
When did the chip fade away?
I’ve been very blessed to work with really good writers, even in television, people like Mike White and Alan Ball and Paul Fieg and Judd Apatow, people who find different ways of dealing with the truth. I’ve been lucky to glean from them that you’ve got to be honest with your feelings and that means having the humility to know that everybody can relate to the way you feel if you try to portray it, but no one wants to be told a message. It’s that thing that Lou Reed used to say, like, “You give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue.” I don’t want to make those kinds of movies.
Do you feel like people relate to the things you struggle with?
I feel so. I went through a period after The Good Girl where I felt creatively lost, and I feel like I’m invigorated again. I’ve been teaching at Sundance Labs, which is incredible. You get so much out of seeing younger people discovering their first projects.
What does “creatively lost” look like for you?
Well, I didn’t make a feature for seven years. I couldn’t find the right thing to say, but I kept busy. I helped Miranda July make her first movie, and then I just put my butt in the chair and wrote. I wrote some scripts that I didn’t make but that were great experiences. I came to New York for one month and then I stayed for two years. I got reinvigorated, and I think that took the pressure off. I also did a lot of yoga.
What kind of advice are you giving burgeoning filmmakers?
It’s different if you’re a writer or director or a writer/director. The hardest thing in the world is to write, to have something to say about the nature of humans. You have to have a really perceptive eye. My advice is to write down every little f*cked up peripheral thought that you have during the day that you’re like, “That’s too f*cked up to think. Why am I even thinking that?” Write that down. Those are your weapon to tell stories with, those weird little thoughts that you have every day as you notice how people behave. And in terms of directing —just do it. If you want to direct, direct a short every month without fail, whether it’s good, long, short, bad, it doesn’t matter. I gave that advice to an old assistant of mine, Ruben Fleischer, and he did it. He was like, “But I don’t know what to write about!” I was like, “Do a music video about your dog.” Twelve months later he came with twelve films. One of them was a little music video of his Dalmatian walking around Echo Park. He was like, “I don’t need any help now; people are hiring me to do music videos and commercials.” Within a year he did Zombieland.
Do you have a notebook that you carry around with you?
I should. I have a movie I’m making with Alia Shawkat and the Duplass brothers, and I did do that in order to write that movie. I co-wrote it with Alia Shawkat, and we both wrote a lot of things about why heartbreak hurts so much.
You have fairly varied filmography. Cedar Rapids is this clever comedy. Youth in Revolt has a rebellious kind of spirit. Beatriz is a dark satire of sorts. Have you made the films you wanted to make in your career?
You know, you work very hard to cross the line of not embarrassing yourself. Howard Hawks had a great definition of a great movie. He said, “A great movie is three great scenes and then no bad ones.” Having the other eighty scenes in your movie not be bad? That is hard, man. I don’t know if I’ve made great movies, but I think I’ve had a few great scenes here and there and I try very hard to pass the “not embarrassing” line on all my other scenes. I’m very proud of them and this movie certainly makes me feel privileged thing to be able to make a movie about what it feels like to be an immigrant: A movie that laments how our values have gotten so rotten that compassion and empathy almost have no place in this world.
As an immigrant, do you feel less wanted now than maybe twenty years ago?
No, and I feel like there’s more opportunity now than twenty years ago, but racism and fear of “the Other” is a very insidious thing that happens in big ways and in small ways all the time. That divisiveness is bullshit. We’re all on this planet together, and the planet is getting smaller and more f*cked every day. Something I really love about Beatriz is that line where Beatriz says, “You think because you’re wealthy and powerful you can hide behind these walls and these houses and you’re going to be safe? No, it’s going to touch you. It’s coming to get you.” That’s how I feel when I see all this divisiveness. It’s like, where are you going to hide? It’s really high time that we start realizing that fighting each other and not giving each other a fair share is not going to behoove anybody. Theirs is a very small little spaceship.
Hiding behind walls seems to be a mantra in Hollywood.
I definitely feel like there’s a lot of bullshit in the status game—in the film industry. Life is a great equalizer and time is a great equalizer. We’re all headed to the same place. I was telling my wife, “You know, I think 200 years from now humanity’s going to be a beautiful thing.” I got to meet one of the guys who went on the Apollo 11 mission, Michael Collins. He flew them there and then flew around the moon. He was called the loneliest guy in the universe because he was orbiting around the moon when they were walking on the moon. I loved him in a documentary called In the Shadow of the Moon. He’s like a poet, by God. I contacted NASA and I said, “Can I have him as an actor for Youth in Revolt?” I got to hang out with him, and he has such an interesting perspective. He was like, “When you’re in a little tin can with three other men, so far away from the earth, there are no arguments. Everybody gets along beautifully,” because your environment is so precarious. You want everything to go great. He says there was no more loving an environment than that little tin can out there. Imagine if that’s all gone…all the dark instincts of men. I feel like eventually, humanity is going to be as small as that little tin can. We’re all going to be getting along and saying, “Let’s just be awesome with each other and protect this little world that we live in.”
Jonathan Demme seemed like that kind of person, someone who spent his days just being good to people. You worked with him early in your career. Have you been thinking about anything he taught you recently?
He taught me that directing is not about controlling, but responding. It’s kind of the same thing but it’s different, and in that small difference lies, to me, the kind of storytelling that I love. A director is not telling you, “I know everything about this world,” but in fact they’re just saying, “Come along with me in this exploration. We’ll explore it… together.”