Callous and/or deluded authority figures, insipid peers and a beguiling first love named Sheeni swirl about the bizarre world of Nick Twisp, an awkward yet determined teen terror sharply rendered by Michael Cera in Miguel Arteta’s hilarious new film, Youth in Revolt. Arteta carved out a name out for himself with his audacious low-budget debut Star Maps, before directing some of the decade’s best episodes of television on Freaks and Geeks and Six Feet Under. He also helmed two great films written by Mike White: The Good Girl, and the mind-blowing cult classic Chuck & Buck, one of the most extraordinarily awkward romances of all time.
Whether he’s telling the story of a Hollywood hustler, a frustrated midwestern woman or a pair of star-crossed teen lovers, the consistent throughline in Arteta’s body of work has always been the stellar performances he conjures from his actors. Youth in Revolt is no exception: it’s jam packed with brilliant performances—even in minor roles played to perfection by Steve Buscemi, Mary Kay Place, Zach Galifanakis and many more.
Arteta took time out on Youth In Revolt’s opening weekend to talk with We Love You So about making Michael Cera movies, animating the internal world of C.D. Payne’s beloved source material, and why acting should be like jumping into a swimming pool, chest first.
Youth in Revolt is a brilliantly original take on the teen romantic comedy genre. What did you want to avoid going in, and what films did you look to for inspiration?
You know, when we started to make the movie, I didn’t think of it as a genre piece, even though people kept telling me I was making a teen comedy. To me, I was approaching it more as a Michael Cera movie. I love him and I think he has his own brand, even though this is the first movie that he’s basically carrying on his own. I think he is going to have his own genre of movies like “a Woody Allen movie” – they might be romantic comedies, but they’re Woody Allen movies before they’re romantic comedies, you know?
I thought about it that way. I was like, “This is a Michael Cera movie, and how do we make the best Michael Cera movie?” So that was my approach: How do I make him shine? I love him. How can I showcase my love for him? So it was a love poem for him.
So, when you started this project, did you definitively know it would be starring Michael Cera?
The reason that I got involved was because Michael Cera was attached. My first question was, “Is he really attached?” And it turned out he was in love with this book, he’d read it five times, and really, really wanted to make it happen. I got a phone call from him, and we got along immediately. It was one of the most beautiful connections I’ve had in that way. I felt like he brought the best out in me.
It seems like in all of your films, there’s ample opportunity for actors to shine in their performances. From what you’re describing with Michael—it sounds like you have really strong connections with the people you work with. Is that where you start from as a director?
The kind of movies I like making are definitely performance-oriented films. I think you have to fall in love with your actors. If you don’t fall in love with your actors, the audience is not going to fall in love with them. Life is too short to get involved with somebody you’re not going to fall in love with.
My motto for actors is “If it doesn’t feel like you’re jumping into a pool chest first, there’s a problem.” You need to go for it. I think the worst thing an actor can do is have any fear when they’re working. When an actor comes to me and says, “I think I’ll look stupid doing this,” I stop everything and say, “Okay. Let’s get in there and do the stupid thing even more stupidly, please.” I will have none of this. No one wants to see a performance where someone’s trying to get away from something. We all want to see performances where people are running toward something.
Was it hard to find a studio or backers willing to get on board with an R-rated teen comedy that chooses literate, deadpan humor over lowest common denominator titillation?
I have to give credit to Bob Morrison, who hired me and Michael Cera. Ultimately, I think he would have a loved something that was more like American Pie, but he did realize that the best thing he could do was support what we do, and also the source material. He ended up falling in love with this movie, so we’re very lucky.
Also, Michael Cera has very good arguing power. He was involved almost as a producer, fighting and arguing and defending the movie at every step. We had come to a point where we would be having arguments with Bob until 3:00 in the morning the day before we were shooting. Michael was on those phone calls, even though he would have to get up at 6:00am to be on set. He’s quite remarkable.
Something I need to say about Michael is that he’s one of the most dedicated performers I’ve ever been involved with. It’s uncanny and surprising. When you give an actor a note, invariably—and this is a human reaction—they’ll be like, “Oh god, yes, oh shit, you’re right, how could I have done that?” They kind of feel bad about having done badly. Mike never does. You give him a note; he just smiles and says, “Really? Okay, watch this.” And he gives you another thing that’s great.
He sounds like the perfect person for you to collaborate with.
He’s fun. He loves to laugh and I think ultimately, he will be in a situation where he will be writing and directing himself, like Woody Allen. I feel very blessed to have gotten in early on. I don’t think there are going to be many more years where other people will be writing and directing him.
Was the decision to include animation at certain points throughout the film at all inspired by Savage Steve Holland’s classic John Cusack teen comedies, Better of Dead and One Crazy Summer?
I haven’t seen those, no, but I’ve heard that they’re amazing. No, this decision was inspired by the book, where you get to enter into the character’s mind. We found the animator Peter Sluzka, who’d worked with Michel Gondry, and he seemed to have the right naughty sensibility. We watched something he’d made where monkeys were having sex with sand, and we were like, “This is the guy for us.” He really is an amazing, amazing creative force.
The story is a picaresque tale, which means that our hero is meeting a new character every 10 minutes and leaving them behind, a little Don Quixote-inspired. Because the location keeps changing, Michael and I thought: let’s have five different kinds of animation, so the audience can never expect what the next animation is going to look like.
It’s definitely exciting when those sequences pop up.
Thank you, I fought hard for these things, you know?
Were there any other challenges you faced, getting the movie made? I heard that there were reshoots—what led up to that?
Well yes, there were reshoots. It relates to the challenge I was talking about, how in the story we meet people and they disappear soon after. It doesn’t have a normal follow-through and it needed a bit of refining. Once again I have to give credit to Bob Morrison that he allowed us to complete it, and that he hired my favorite writer, Mike White. Mike wrote the reshoots and really helped us take it from 80% to 100%.
I really think we perfected Sheeni’s story. The movie is about falling in love for the first time and how awful and difficult it can be, but how when you’re in it, you feel like it’s your whole world, and it’s worth doing everything and anything. So fine-tuning how Sheeni’s character worked was something that really had to be handled sensitively. First she needs to be manipulative and fun, but in the end in a clever way, you really need to believe that she loves him. So the reshoots improved upon that a lot. Also, Francois kind of became a bigger star in the reshoots.
In the wrong hands, Sheeni could have become an unrealistic Sphinx of a woman who acts merely as the placeholder for Nick’s obsession, but Portia Doubleday did a fantastic job of portraying Sheeni as a multi-faceted character.
She’s got an odd combination of somebody who can be sophisticated, but at the same time she feels terribly vulnerable and real and grounded, like a real person who lives in a trailer park with her religious parents, you know?
You mentioned Mike White, and I was wondering if you guys are going to collaborate on anything in the near future—or is he off working on his own things?
He’s doing a TV show with Laura Dern for HBO, called “Enlightened.” I read the pilot script and it’s amazing. I think it might be the most original HBO series. And he’s said that he’d love for me to come and direct an episode or two, so if I have time I’m definitely diving right in. I think that would be amazing.
Laura Dern was amazing in Year of the Dog, so I’m excited to see those two work together again.
She actually co-wrote the script with him. It’s a really wild role for her.
Youth In Revolt is in theaters now.