In his 13-year directing career, Miguel Arteta has made only four features.
He says he has to be in love with the material before he’ll get involved. And the stories he’s drawn to aren’t exactly guaranteed to warm the heart of a bean-counting studio exec.
His debut, “Star Maps” (1977), was about a male prostitute trying to break into Hollywood.
“Chuck and Buck” (2000), an uneasy comedy about a guy being stalked by a distant acquaintance from high school, became something of a cult fave but had no impact on the box office.
“The Good Girl” (2002) gave Jennifer Aniston her best role as a working-class wife yearning for romantic adventure. But in the minds of mainstream audiences its laughs couldn’t overcome its bleak vision of small-town life.
“I was so happy with ‘The Good Girl’ that I didn’t want to do something that would be a step back,” the director said. “So it took eight years for my next movie.”
That would be “Youth in Revolt,” which opened Friday and might just do the trick for the 44 -year-old, Puerto Rico-born director.
It’s a funny tale of a high school dweeb desperate to hook up with the girl of his dreams — a setup young audiences could go for.
It stars Michael Cera of “Juno” and “Superbad” fame; he’s Hollywood’s current go-to guy for teen geekiness.
And on top of that, it’s a smart movie, filled with literary and visual allusions that make it enjoyable even for grown-ups .
“We screened it last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, and the reception was awesome,” Arteta said recently from the L.A. airport, where he was boarding a plane for the movie’s premiere in New York. “We had more than 1,000 people there, and to hear that many voices laughing — that’s really great.”
Based on C.D. Payne’s novel, the film features Cera as Nick Twisp, who lives with his boozy, floozy mother (Jean Smart) and her assorted loser boyfriends (Zach Galifianakis, Ray Liotta). Nick falls for the perky daughter (Portia Doubleday) of religious conservatives. So strong is his lust/love that he follows her to an exclusive boarding school where she has been sent by her concerned parents.
Also, Nick develops an alter ego, a French lothario named Francois who has a little mustache, smokes unfiltered cigarettes and does all the things Nick wishes he was brave/crazy enough to attempt.
“I love the book. But what made this movie possible was Michael Cera,” Arteta said. “I had a lot of faith in him. This was one of his favorite novels, and he was very passionate about getting it right.”
Up to now Cera’s resume has been limited to insecure adolescents. Arteta says that’s about to change.
“For starters there’s his performance in this film as Francois. It’s a side of Michael we’ve never seen. The guys you’ve seen him play so far — that’s pretty much who he really is. It’s not like he goes through life trying to put on a different persona to the world.
“But within that there’s a lot going on. Michael is very funny and really enjoys laughing — something he rarely does on screen. And behind that shy smile there’s a lot of naughtiness. He’s so intelligent, so cheeky. It was really fun just to let him loose.
“When he starts getting more varied roles people will realize he’s a great actor. We’ve only seen the very tip of what he can do. I think he’s as talented as Peter Sellers.”
So how does a film director earn a living when he’s not making a film?
For one thing, Arteta teaches at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, a hands-on filmmaking school. That explains why so many independent films give him a special thanks in their credits.
And he directs for TV. Not just any TV, but the most prestigious shows: “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Office,” “Ugly Betty.”
“It’s all about the writing,” Arteta said. “On these shows you’ve often got great writers, and when that happens the work can be amazing. Very satisfying. Movies are a director’s medium, but TV is all about writers. They’re the ones with the vision, the humor, the big picture.”
Arteta said that being a Puerto Rican gave him an unusual window on American life. Like all Puerto Ricans, he’s a U.S. citizen. But because Puerto Rico is a territory, not a state, and because most of its residents speak Spanish, he has always felt more like an observer of America than a participant.
“In a way, that’s been a blessing. Being an outsider allows you to see the absurdities of American life with a clarity denied people who grow up in the middle of it. And there are plenty of absurdities.
“Plus I’ve found the language barrier was less a hindrance than a plus. When you don’t speak the language — or don’t speak it as well as the natives — you have to become an expert on appearances, watching people’s eyes and body language. And that’s a lot of what moviemaking is all about.
“A great film is more about images than words, and if you can recognize and capture on film the physical culture of a place, you’re way ahead.”