‘Alexander’ Interview: Miguel Arteta on Penis Jokes & Disney Movies
Miguel Arteta doesn’t make Disney movies by trade. He’s better known for hard-hitting indies like Star Maps, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. So the House of Mouse made an interesting choice by enlisting him to adapt the classic children’s story Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The book was about a little boy named Alexander just trying to navigating a rough 24 hours. The movie is about how Alexander wishes a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on his whole family, each of whose lives disintegrate one what should have been the best day ever.
It’s a premise that usually yields cynical, twisted comedies like Quick Change and After Hours, but Miguel Arteta explains in this CraveOnline interview why he took the material in a different direction, and how he attempted to make a classic Disney movie in the vein of Freaky Friday. He also explains the risks he took adding some more mature humor like penis jokes into the movie, the importance of avoiding the lamer clichés of the family movie genre and how Dick Van Dyke wound up getting involved in the production.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day opens in theaters on October 10, 2014.
CraveOnline: I remember finding out that this was going to be turned into a movie, and wondering, “What’s the movie there? Kid Has Bad Day: The Movie?” I think they had already done some work on it before you came aboard, but what was developing it into a feature like?
Miguel Arteta: You would think [that], because the book is just like 20 pages or something like that, but Rob Lieber, the writer, had some up with a great idea. What if the kid feels so bad about his day, he wishes his family would have a bad day so they would understand? So that opened it up into turning the whole thing into one of those classic Disney family movies, live-action movies, like they used to make in the ‘60s.
Freaky Friday, that kind of thing.
There’s a whole subgenre of “really bad day” movies, like Quick Change or After Hours.
Oh yeah, you’re right.
I love those. It’s interesting, there’s an air of positivity about this film that a lot of those movies about bad days don’t have. A lot them are existential nightmares about how these things keep happening to one person, but you keep it very positive. Obviously that’s a Disney thing, they didn’t want you to turn it dark, but…
The movie to me is about family, you know? To me, really, what’s the core of it is when you’re growing up as a family, there’s an ebb and flow of taking your family for granted and not appreciating them, and then you saw a reason to appreciate them. That’s the way life goes. When you’re very young you have those moments where it’s like, “My family just doesn’t get it at all.” But then some events happen and you get to appreciate them again. To me that’s what the movie really was. A movie about how it’s impossible to appreciate the people who are here for you all the time, but how nice it is every time you’re reminded that, “Oh my god, there’s a reason why I love these people.” So it wasn’t meant to be that dark. It’s also a family movie for Disney, so we wanted to make… As a filmmaker who is a little older, I wanted to make a tribute to those movies. There was a lot of movies with Dick Van Dyke in the ‘60s…
Fred MacMurray was in a lot of them.
Fred MacMurray. A lot of these movie stars have a lot of lightness to them. Fred and Dick [Van Dyke] could make comedy out of being a nice person and being lovely. And Steve Carell is very much in that tradition. He’s not the kind of comic that has to be extremely cynical to get his jokes. So it felt like there’s a chance to be a little bit of a throwback [to] sweet and bright family movies.
It does seem like, for a Disney comedy, there are a couple of jokes where you’re gently pushing the envelope. I don’t think I’ve heard the word “penis” as many times in a Disney movie before.
Was any push back on that? “Cut out a couple of penises? That’s too many penises?” Was there anything they were nervous about?
There were concerns from the beginning. How was this stuff going to feel in the context of the movie? Is it going to be in the spirit of fun? But we had such an incredibly lovely cast. When Jennifer Garner uses the word “penis” in the context of saying, “I’m a mother, I’ve seen everybody’s penis in this car,” it’s so innocent and funny that there wasn’t any concern. But you’re absolutely right. I’m glad it’s there. It’s 2014. It’s nice to have something like that.
One thing I noticed is a difference between the movie and the trailer. In the movie, Alexander’s head gets photoshopped onto scantily clad women’s bodies, and in the trailer it’s on the body of a clown. So I guess in context it’s okay in the movie, but in the trailer it’s not?
If I remember, I think the problem was there were a couple of body image jokes in the trailer right next to each other, so it was like, “Let’s try to keep it out different things because the jokes were all too squished together.” So we’re making fun of that, and they were like, “Why don’t we turn it into something else for the trailer?”
I’m a fan of yours since Star Maps and Chuck & Buck…
Oh, thank you so much.
Chuck & Buck is one of my favorites. I would love to see Chuck & Buck as a double feature with this.
It’s the different sides of you looking at childhood trauma, and the way the people respond to it and turn it into something positive or negative. You do a lot of TV as well, but has that ever been an impediment to doing family or mainstream types of films?
Chuck & Buck, I’m so flattered that you like it, it’s kind of a movie that blew my mind when I made it. I didn’t know it was going to have such an impact, on me even. It was something I did very much under the radar with my friends, there were no movie stars in it, and I’m so pleased that people like it. But it’s been a while. I think right after that movie came out the answer would have been “yes.” People were like, “Wow, that’s a very odd movie.” So I think there was some more trepidation about using me in some movies. But having moved into television, I’ve done all kinds of things in television, it’s nice to be a moving target. I’ve done things for “American Horror Story” and “Six Feet Under,” to “New Girl” and things that are more fun. So I think people have been more open to me doing something, and I have noticed as I’m getting older, that I think what I do is naturally try to bring brightness and sweetness to darker material. Like Chuck & Buck could have been a very, very…
That could have been oppressive, yeah.
And I think that people see that as a motif. Disney wanted a little more of an authentic, than typical [movie]. You know, they had Lisa Cholodenko [to direct Alexander] before me…
That was an interesting choice. They could have gone the obvious route.
And it’s really nice. Alan Horn is new at Disney, and he was like, “I want the cast to have a warmth, and I want this to feel authentic in way that is actually relatable to families. Raising kids is a hectic mania, and I don’t want to do the Hollywood version, completely, of that. I want it to be grounded a little bit.” And I think that’s why I was there.
When you’re talking about making a movie that relates to families, are they trusting you to go off your experiences or are they focusing testing the hell out of it?
There wasn’t anything like that. I think they felt they had something great with this book, and they liked the script, and things just started to flood in. Steve Carell was a really good choice for it, and Jen Garner, making a really wholesome, lovely family. They did two tests after the movie was finished, and they went well. I think this regime at Disney is trying to find a way to bring things to feel just a little more authentic.
It is a genre, and when you get into a genre you get into tropes. A lot of movies about families tend to focus on parents having a big presentation. They have a big presentation and if it fails they’re screwed, but they have kids and there are problems. When you look at a script and you see a familiar plot device, do you say to yourself that it’s there for a reason, or are you thinking, “How do we jazz that up?”
One of my pet peeves is actually, funnily enough, the promotion device. When I read scripts and I see a promotion, a red flag goes on. I usually know that if it’s going to be the whole of the movie, that’s going to be difficult to swallow. But if it’s a small part, like in this case, where it’s one out of six characters… Also, my instinct is to downplay it. It seems like not the most real way to create stakes for an audience. So my instinct is always to have it be a little more tongue in cheek. Hopefully we were able to do that with Jennifer Garner’s storyline, where she’s trying to get ahead, and it’s just funny that she has a wacky, mean boss than like, “If I don’t get that, my life is going to be destroyed.”
Was Dick Van Dyke always in the script, or was it written as somebody else originally?
No, no. It was like, “Insert cameo here.” Shawn Levy, who’s a producer, had the idea of saying… He had worked with Dick Van Dyke on the Night at the Museum movies, and had loved him…
It’s Dick Van Dyke.
It’s Dick Van Dyke. It’s Disney. Immediately we were all like, “Oh my god, if you could call him and have him do this.” Fortunately for us he was game. It was an incredible thrill for me. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of my favorite movies growing up.
It’s so great. Although the human doll sequence still freaks me out.
It’s so crazy. [Laughs.]
It’s so nuts! I’m actually amazed no one’s remade that. Like a Tim Burton “dark” version.
Oh my god, that would be fun.
You should do that.
I might very well pitch that, because I was obsessed as a kid. I loved it. I was literally tongue tied and couldn’t believe that I was sitting down on a bench, talking to Dick Van Dyke about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He was offering stories, I was so happy.
What did you ask him about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? What do you ask celebrities when you meet them?
“Did you have any idea what you were doing when you were doing it? That it would have this impact?” He said that he was incredulous of its success at that time. Because Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came one right after another. So he said he kind of couldn’t believe it, what was happening to him. “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” he said, “Never felt like work.” He said that one of the reasons that show was successful was that, “We really, literally, all of us, couldn’t wait to get to the set for five years. We were loving it so much. It was fun.” He said he tried to take that spirit to the movie, of being like, “Let’s not be uptight and try to keep things light.” That’s his thing. He’s a very lighthearted, nice person. I think it’s a true genius to do that, because it’s really hard to make comedy out of being a nice person. There’s no go-to, easy thing. It takes talent to be bright and lovely and have loveliness turn into something funny is really hard.
A lot of that is the responsibility of the filmmaker. You have to challenge that niceness at every turn. That’s something you do in this film. Was there a sequence you cut out, in pre-production or whatever, because it was too much?
No. I had asked the screenwriter and he said, four years ago there was a moment where the whole city had a bad day. [Laughs.]
Everyone’s running around, screaming, hair on fire? That’s actually really funny. There’s your sequel!
There you go. It could be Alexander and the City’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day.