The Star Maps Hustle

Interview With Filmmaker Miguel Arteta

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Perhaps the first thing you notice about Miguel Arteta is his voice. It's subdued in tone, restrained and boyish, but Arteta himself is quick to laugh at his good fortune and seemingly eager to tell his story to yet another journalist over one more decaf at the fourth Four Seasons in as many days. Obviously, the grueling road marathon that is the publicity trail hasn't yet worn him down. "Are you kidding? he says. "It's great."

The 32-year-old filmmaker from Los Angeles is crossing the country courtesy of Fox Searchlight, and genially sitting for interviews and various press functions in an effort to drum up business for his debut feature Star Maps. Judging from much of the advance buzz on the film, the tour is an unnecessary tribulation at best: A recent drubbing from New Yorker's notoriously fickle Terrence Rafferty aside, Star Maps has received almost unanimous praise, not only from press quarters, but also from viewers at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival where Arteta's film was an audience favorite.

Star Maps follows the travails of Carlos (Douglas Spain), a youthful Mexican immigrant who pursues his dream of Hollywood stardom while working as a bisexual prostitute for a vicious, domineering, and thoroughly psychotic pimp who just happens to be his father (Efrain Figueroa). Against this sordid backstory, Arteta weaves elements of comedy alongside fantastical, dreamlike moments in a purely Latino fashion, creating an entirely new beast in the process. Down and Out in Beverly Hills it's not, but Arteta's film is far more hopeful than this brief summation allows, and as such, it's an important step forward for Chicano/Latino filmmakers everywhere.

I caught up with Arteta during his recent visit to Austin and spoke with the director about his film, the pressures of making a first-time feature with a cast of unknowns, and the future of Latino filmmaking in what is generally considered to be an Anglo society. And, oh yeah, Marilyn Manson, too.

Austin Chronicle: Your press materials mention that it took roughly four years to bring Star Maps to the screen. Why such a long road?

Miguel Arteta: I'm proud to say at least I started in the Nineties, you know? It took a long time for several reasons, though. It was my first script, which always takes a while, and it was my first feature-length film. I'd done some short films before, but nothing nearly this long. It also had nine main characters, 40 locations, and we were trying to do this thing where we were going from comedy to drama to fantasy, and it took a while for me to figure out how to do that. I lived with all these scene cards tacked to my wall, in my room, for over a year.

AC: Did that help you out or drive you crazy?

MA: It was nice, because you can wake up in the middle of the night, and the thing is right there in front of you -- you can go "Oh, this should go here, that should go there," and it gives you a chance to live and dream the film. For me, it was helpful, because, you know, I have done short films, and I can keep a short film in my mind, but a feature is, I don't know, 142 scenes sometimes, and how do you keep that straight in your mind? It's too much. Even when I was editing, it took a long time before I was able to sense the whole. But back to your original question, one of the other reasons it took so long was because raising the money was also very hard.

AC: How did you go about the process of securing funding?

MA: Neither the producers nor I had family that could help us with that aspect of the film, so we just went around to people with our script and repeated the words "high risk/high return" over and over again. I think we met with about 113 people before we got our first piece of money. We hit up anybody that we thought might have interest in that kind of unusual Latino project. It was hard, because we were approaching people and saying, "Listen, we're really committed to casting unknown Latino actors, and it's very challenging subject matter. What do you think?" And, of course, people would be like, "I think that I'll never see my money." Eventually we were able to find the money after much looking, but we always had to prioritize the various aspects of the film. We didn't have a script supervisor; we didn't have a costumer; we had a very lean, lean crew so we could spend money in other places.

AC: Once you secured funding, how long did you end up shooting? I know you were working with a modest budget, but the film really looks good, you know? It has that solid, "feature" look to it.

MA: It took a long time. We shot for five weeks and then we edited for a long time. We went through the same situation where it was a complicated story, a lot of tone shifts, and after 11 months of editing, I came to the conclusion that this was really not going to work unless we reshot about one-fourth of the movie, which was an incredible thing to feel after editing for a year. Our investors and my friends were like, "You know, maybe you should get into therapy and learn to move on," you know?

As it turned out, Matthew [Greenfield, Star Maps producer] and I raised about $80,000 and a year later reshot that one-fourth of the movie that needed it. We brought everybody back, and it gave us a chance to get closer to the actors, the characters, and to improve our writing as well. I'm really glad we did it, because after that we edited for another two months and then got into Sundance based on that. And then, well, it was a race against time to get it into Sundance at all, because we had to have another $100,000 to be able to have a print for the festival. We were going to the sound houses and saying, "You see this check? We're going to put it in the bank and you're going to get your money." And it was a bogus check. [laughing] We finished just in the nick of time.

AC: Obviously you ended up with a terrific crew, small though it may have been. How did you manage that?

MA: We were very lucky. We ran into great people, like Chuy Chavez, the cinematographer. This guy is like a filmmaking machine, you know? He grew up in a filmmaking family in Mexico. His father's a cinematographer, and when Chuy was nine, he was already working on feature films. He's just amazing.

AC: What else has he worked on?

MA: He's worked on a lot of independent films in Mexico. He won [the Ariel Award, the Mexican equivalent of] the Academy Award for best cinematographer, the year that we asked him to join us. He did Bienvenido Welcome and another one called El Bulto (The Lump). These are big independent films in Mexico, and I had seen those movies, and I could see that, to Chuy, the story was in the actors' faces. If there was going to be a fancy camera movement or some fancy lighting, it had to come out of the performances. And that's a key thing when you're working with a cinematographer.

So I got a hold of Chuy down in Mexico, and he was cool enough to say, "Well, I just won the Academy Award in Mexico, but I like your script enough to come sleep on your floor, with no generator, no money, and get the movie made."

The nice thing about him, also, was that he was the best-dressed person on the set. He dressed really nicely -- nice vest, hats, you know? The guy knew how to do it in style.

AC: Now, you came out of the American Film Institute, right? How did you get involved with that?

MA: It's kind of a funny story, actually. I gave my car mechanic a copy of my short film...

AC: What? Your car mechanic?!

MA: I had my short film done, a musical satire, and I kind of liked this mechanic, Jim, you know? He was like, "If you talk to me about Central America, I'll fix your car for free," and so I gave him a copy of this short film I had done, and six months later, he calls me in New York, after I had graduated from school. Nobody was giving me any jobs, none of my rich friends from Wesleyan University were hooking me up. So, Jim calls me and says, "I really like the movie, and I think that Jonathan Demme is going to like it, too."

I said, "That's great, I'm impressed you know who Jonathan Demme is." (This is before Silence of the Lambs.) So, it turns out that Jim's ex-wife is married to Demme's cousin Bobby, a very well-known, politically active priest in Harlem. So Jim sets up a breakfast with Jonathan and Bobby and me and I showed him my movie, and from that, I ended up working with Jonathan for a year, and he, in turn, recommended me to the AFI... which, I'm sure, is why I got in.

AC: One of the striking things about Star Maps is the fantasy elements that are interlaced throughout the film. Is that something that came out of your Latino upbringing? It's always struck me as a much more "fantastic" culture, in general.

MA: Yeah. I think that's true. One of the filmmakers who really influenced me growing up was Luis Buñuel. He lived in Mexico, he was from Spain, and talk about fantastic! His movies are so surreal, and wonderful.

I think that Latin Americans have kind of a very high level of escapism in our culture, for whatever reason. It tends to be something that reoccurs a lot in Latin American culture, and it's something that happens to me as well. I daydream all the time, you know, and somehow it seemed appropriate to have the character daydream too. Also the mother, she's such a tragic figure, we wanted to give her a daydream world that was, you know, "nice."

I've always loved [Mexican comedian] Cantinflas, so we gave her that kind of a fantasy, a place for her to go.

AC: Let's get back to Sundance. Did you expect Star Maps to be received as well as it was? Any inkling?

MA: You know, we were not in the competition. They have two sections, and we were not in the competition; we were in this other thing called "The American Spectrum." We were incredibly excited to be there, because, you know, it's awesome. We were blown away by what happened. It was incredible. People are really interested in independent films right now. Audiences are sick of huge movies, and, as a result, distributors are interested, and Sundance has provided this incredible environment where distributors can meet people like me who were literally working out of the basement for, like, four years without anyone knowing what I was doing with my work.

We were particularly lucky. We hooked up with Fox Searchlight via Lindsay Law, [who's been involved over the years in the production and distrubution of] El Norte, Stand and Deliver, Longtime Companion, Mi Familia -- the guy's been out there and opening doors for interesting new movies. Now Fox Searchlight hired him and asked him to do the same at Sundance, which is how we came into contact with him. I couldn't believe it, he was saying, "Yeah, your movie has no names, and it's really challenging, but I think people would like to see it, so let's buy it, let's put it in theatres." It's inspiring.

AC: Again, going into making Star Maps, did you feel you might have trouble securing financing and distribution for this "Latino" film in what is essentially an Anglo culture?

MA: It was scary, especially since we were trying to do something with a Latino film that was maybe kind of pushing the boundaries from what people might expect from a Latino film, you know? We made this movie about this really abusive family and there is this expectation that, because I'm Latino, that I'm telling the world that every Latino family is like this, which is wrong. We don't have the monopoly on dysfunction. This could have been any family.

That has been seen as a little controversial -- the fact that this movie, which was made by Latinos, has a really, really, really messed up family. I think we definitely had a concern about that. Are people going to get it, that it's okay for us to make this Latino family like this, or are people going to be like, "How dare you! You should be portraying every Latino family as good."?

Every minority artist has gone through this.

AC: Do you feel as though, with Star Maps, you're helping to open the door a little more for future Latino artists and filmmakers?

MA: Well, yes, but I'm not the first one to do this. Alfonso Arau [Like Water for Chocolate] has done a lot, I think. He has done a lot of really good work in Mexico, too. Robert Rodriguez has done a lot, and even someone like Victor Nunez, who doesn't cast Latinos in his movies, but with the success of Ulee's Gold, he's that much more formidable as a Latino filmmaker. I certainly hope that Star Maps is part of that trend.

AC: What are you going to be working on next? I know you're still busy publicizing Star Maps, but I'm curious to hear what's next on the agenda.

MA: I have like three or four things I want to do, but first I need to relax and take some time off. I have a script for a feature called Ball and Chain that I'd like to get to, and I have this crazy idea of doing the Lizzie Borden murders as a musical comedy. I was thinking maybe we could cast Marilyn Manson as Lizzie. I think it could be quite fun.

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