Director Miguel Arteta charmed the pants off an already fawning crowd following the Sundance screening of “Cedar Rapids,” his new comedy starring Ed Helms as a hopeless poindexter who gets caught in the bright lights of the big city.
“Thank you, Buenos Dias,” said Arteta as he took the podium at the Eccles Theater. “Thank you for coming out this early, and I'd love to hear any thoughts, questions…"
"Awesome!" came a shout from the balcony.
Watching the film, it’s easy to be reminded of Helms’ work in “The Hangover,” another film that found him swallowed whole by a city teeming with temptation. But Helms was a part of developing this project before “The Hangover" even opened.
“It all started with Phil Johnston the writer, he's a first-time writer he had this idea. He actually contact Ed Helms even before 'The Hangover,' he had Ed Helms in mind. And he contacted him before he wrote and said, ‘I have this idea about this guy who's terrified to go to the big city of Cedar Rapids. Ed loved it, he said, ‘Let's develop it together, I’m in.’ So there was a lot of love in the development of it, they came up with the script together and then they contacted the King of Midwest Films, Mr. Alexander Payne, and he loved it, and his wonderful producing team got involved. And then they said, OK, who can bring our Midwestern vision to life?" and they said, ‘A Puerto Rican.’"
But what’s up with Helms and hookers?
“Well, you know, when you look at the hookers he's falling in love with (Alia Shawkat and Heather Graham), it's pretty hard to resist,” answered Arteta. “But that's a very good question, I'm going to ask him--where is he now?”
Supporting Helms is John C. Reilly, who goes all out as Dean Ziegler, a disgusting overgrown frat boy who likes to make cracks about “eating canned tuna from the bottom shelf”; Anne Heche as one of the film’s two femme fatales; and Isiah Whitlock Jr., best know for has role as corrupt politician State Sen. R. Clayton 'Clay' Davis on “The Wire.”
Whitlock’s character, Ronald Wilkes, is a huge fan of “The Wire,” something that was already in the script before Whitlock got involved.
“What's amazing is the ‘Wire’ lines preceded him being in the cast. Phil wrote those ‘Wire’ lines and then we had the absurdity of watching a guy from "The Wire" audition, and we were like, "I guess we're going to have to change that, it's gonna be too meta and then we were like, "Aw, screw it, it's great, let's just have it."
At one point a self-identified “Cedar Rapidian” asked how it was that her hometown became the setting for the film.
“This is, by the way, the first response I've gotten from a native,” began Arteta. "It’s the Quaker capitol of the world. I actually think Iowa is the insurance capitol of the world, all insurance companies have their home base there, that’s' probably why it was set up there. Our writer is from Wisconsin, and he used to do the weather in Iowa, actually. He was a weather reporter for a long time and I think he had a lot of affection for Cedar Rapids.”
A flurry of questions followed about the setting, the location and other matters of geography, forcing Arteta to finally surrender any depth of knowledge on the subject.
“I'm from Puerto Rico, and it was all the Midwest to me,” the director shrugged.
Arteta is another Sundance veteran, whose relationship with the festival has progressed from unknown hoping to make to an established talent returning to premiere a studio film.
“It was a beautiful experience for me as a filmmaker, because I was here one year ago with a movie I made from my garage with credit cards, you know, it was one of the many Sundance stories of somebody that comes out and they pick up your movie and sell it at the festival. And I sold it to the people that made this movie, and they're all still there at Fox Searchlight. It was very gratifying for me to work with the people who bought my first film.”
“What was your first film?” came a shout.
“It was called ‘Star Maps'," said Arteta, who then saw a chance for a plug. “And you can download it on iTunes.”
What about a sequel?
“For this? Cedar Rapids 2: Bugaloo? It's coming up, it's gonna be all about the future of Top Notch Insurance.
There’s a very brief scene, maybe four seconds, in the film with a Jack Nicholson impersonator doing a lounge act, but some poor soul in the audience mistook him for the genuine article and asked Arteta how on Earth he got Jack to take such a small role. You could argue that his answer was either very kind or very cruel. Either way, it was a pretty amusing bit of deadpan.
"Well, you know, Alexander work with Jack on About Schmidt, so we were able to pull him in and come and do that loge act for us."
“Do you do stand-up, too?” came one last shout.
“No. My dogs love hearing all my material.”
"Cedar Rapids" is showing as one of the Sundance Premieres, the film comes out Feb. 11