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Cheerfully perverting the Hollywood "buddy film," Miguel Arteta's new comedy Chuck & Buck is both an offbeat tale of sexual obsession as well as an observant allegory of independent filmmaking. Hollywood screenwriter Mike White, known for his work on NBC's "Freaks and Geeks" and high-profile writing assignments for Tim Burton and Adam Sandler, wrote a script witty enough to excite indies but creepy enough to scare off everyone else. Going back to his no-budget roots, Arteta boldly decided to shoot on digital, cast White in the lead and fill the supporting roles with writers and directors like American Pie's Paul and Chris Weitz. Peter Bowen talks with Arteta and White.

Mike White in Chuck & Buck. Photo by Stephanie Allespach.

Buck (Mike White), an emotionally retarded man still living in the candy-colored walls of his childhood, is suddenly forced to grow up when his mother unexpectedly dies. At her funeral, however, his childhood returns in the guise of his boyhood pal Chuck (Chris Weitz), a successful record executive living with his fiancée in Los Angeles. As the film progresses and Buck’s frustration at Chuck’s unwillingness to resume their childhood sexual game-playing becomes more obsessive, Arteta follows this odd-couple premise to creepy new heights. For as Buck pursues Chuck’s affections – going so far as to finance and stage a play, "Hank and Frank," loosely based on their relationship, at a children’s theater directly opposite Chuck’s office building – Chuck’s reticence to acknowledge his past, to confront the reality of what transpired between them, begins to smack of classic Freudian repression.

The Hollywood allegory contained within the plot (Buck, whose dysfunctional character is right out of an independent film, tries to woo Chuck, an entertainment-industry insider) is mirrored by the film’s production history. This small comedy, which had a difficult time finding funding because of its oddball script, stars a cast of successful Hollywood screenwriters. Mike White (Buck) wrote Dead Man on Campus, as well as such television shows as "Dawson’s Creek" and "Freaks and Geeks," and is currently at work on scripts for Tim Burton and Adam Sandler. Chris Weitz (Chuck) is half of the brother team (along with Paul, also cast in the film) who wrote Antz and directed the teen-sex hit American Pie. At Sundance audience reactions seemed to belie the inherently false dichotomy of independent and Hollywood, as the same people who championed an independent film like Chuck & Buck could disparage American Pie as Hollywood masturbation. But neither Arteta nor White are interested in railing against the contradictions of contemporary social relations. The film, like its production, is ultimately a happy story.

Shot on digital video, the filmmakers embraced this technical direction for the freedom it offered their actors and for its aesthetic potential. After its premiere at Sundance, Artisan bought the film, making it the third chapter in an Artisan-Sundance trilogy that also includes Pi and The Blair Witch Project. Given the company’s track record with those films, Arteta and White are quite rightly looking forward to a happy ending themselves.

Filmmaker: For most filmmakers the journey from script to film is inevitably complicated. Where did Chuck & Buck begin?

White: The original nugget came from a scene early in the film where my character Buck grabs Chuck’s balls. I thought it would be a real uncomfortable thing to start a movie off with – a scene of a guy grabbing another guy’s dick. Totally unrepentantly. Not like in your typical Dumb-and-Dumber-type comedy or an earnest gay movie. From that idea I started to ask myself, "What situation would lead to this?"

Filmmaker: Before this you were writing studio projects and television?

White: When I graduated from Wesleyan, Zak Penn, who wrote The Last Action Hero and PCU, asked me to write with him. So it was an easy transition. I started writing right after I got out of school. I wrote with Zak for two years, and he has a very commercial sensibility.

Filmmaker: What sort of projects did you work on?

White: We wrote two movies that never saw the light of day. One was a sort of Die Hard [spinoff] – mom in a mall saves her kids from terrorists – for Roseanne Barr. It was very unfulfilling, but we were very well compensated. When Zak and I broke up I became this sort of hermit, and I had to generate my own writing samples. I worked for two years on "Dawson’s Creek" – I was the only member of the original "Dawson’s Creek" staff that wasn’t fired – and a year on "Freaks and Geeks".

Filmmaker: Miguel, how did you hook up with Mike?

Director Miguel Arteta. Photo by Richard Kern
Arteta: I had known about him at Wesleyan University, though he was much younger than me. Then he was this hot writer working the Hollywood system. I cast him and his partner Zak in small parts in Star Maps. When I was casting the film, however, Mike didn’t have a job, so he helped me with casting. And that’s how we became friends. When he gave me [the screenplay for] Chuck & Buck I was really honored.

Filmmaker: What happened after you got the script?

Arteta: It took a little over two years to get made. After Fox Searchlight bought Star Maps they had a first-look deal, but passed on the script. When I couldn’t initially raise the money after Sundance, we got very serious, setting up offices in [producer] Matthew Greenfield’s house, transforming it into a production company. We were planning to do it on film. We were thinking of names – not big stars, but names.

Filmmaker: Like who?

Arteta: We were looking at people like Jon Favreau or Frank Whaley for Chuck, but we couldn’t even get to them. We got really frustrated and closed the production office; we told Mike, "You know what, this is heartbreaking, but we can’t do it. We can’t find money to do it." We were developing some projects on our own. And then we talked to Jason [Kliot] and Joana [Vicente] about a year and a half ago when they were thinking of opening Blow Up Pictures. We suggested the script to them. Two months later they called us back and told us, "If you want to make Chuck & Buck on video, we can raise the money."

Filmmaker: What made digital video attractive to you – other than that you could get the money to make the movie?

Arteta: After seeing The Celebration my interest in doing it on video got very serious. We could have probably done it in film eventually. But our choice to do video was, in the end, an artistic one. Chuck & Buck is ultimately an intimate story – it’s all about the performances – and that was something digital video could [afford] it.

Filmmaker: In going digital, how did your sense of the production change?

Arteta: The production design ended up being about the same size as Star Maps, but, of course, that was already very small. The camera department completely changed, because you don’t need the a.c., you don’t need the loader. Literally the camera department became just one person, the cinematographer, and there was one other person who assisted him.

Filmmaker: People often talk about digital as a financial, rather than aesthetic, consideration. What was the aesthetic advantage for you?

Arteta: Because there were two cameras that could go on at any moment, I wasn’t ever worrying about what the cinematographer was doing. I would just turn [to him] every now and then and say, "Something new." He would lift the camera and the actors wouldn’t lose any momentum.

Filmmaker: In addition to mobility of the camera, what were you looking for in the image by using digital?

Arteta: We knew, for example, that primary colors, the blue and the reds, bleed differently in the transfer.

Filmmaker: And the red bleeds a lot more violently.

Arteta: Yes. So when Buck propositions Chuck, we lit it red to create an intimate feel that is sort of silky, and even more silky in the transfer to film.

Filmmaker: And the opposite of that is the metaphysical blue of video.

Arteta: When Buck makes a pass at Sam [Chuck’s doppleganger in "Hank and Frank," the play within the film, played by Paul Weitz], we lit his room with one blue lightbulb. And it made the room very sad. The transfer has a very gentle quality to it. The story is about a guy who is misguided; his problem is making himself feel better and connecting to people. He doesn’t hurt anybody, his obsession doesn’t lead to violence – it leads to a peaceful resolution. So we wanted the film to be gentle, almost fluffy. And video has that kind of fluffy feeling.

Filmmaker: That infectious joyousness is in some ways the most radical thing about the film. It’s so unapologetic about being happy.

Arteta: I think that’s part of the reason the film works. Because our generation is very fixated on not growing up. You have all these people who have more than ever accepted the idea of staying childish, or admiring things from the ’70s. Why is that happening? Why do you have all these CEOs walking around in tennis shoes? I think the movie took an interesting look at that. And the added element of sexuality always intrigues people.

Filmmaker: The film’s sexuality, as in your Star Maps, defies conventional categorizations. It’s neither gay nor straight. In Chuck & Buck, the attraction is prepubescent.

Arteta: The words "gay" or "straight" are never mentioned in the movie. It’s not the discourse of the movie. The discourse of the movie is, Can I get over this obsession? Or, What is the root of my obsession?

Filmmaker: What interested you about the psychology of the film and the character?

Arteta: Here is this guy who was in tremendous pain and doesn’t understand why. In the end he follows his passion. He was like, "I’m obsessed, so I will try to be with the person that I’m obsessed with." And in doing that, he became extremely creative, writing his play "Hank and Frank." I just find his pursuit to be so earnest; I find it endearing. I can really relate to it. I have been obsessive all my life – I’ve been obsessive about filmmaking, I’ve been obsessive with people when I’ve been in love with them.

Filmmaker: But what does Chuck get from this whole relationship?

Arteta: Well, I think that Chuck has been running away from that relationship just as much as Buck has been staying in it. In some ways it’s the same thing, only with an opposite approach. Clearly, he was very much in love as a kid. So they both have the same amount of work to do to acknowledge the fact that this thing they had as kids wasn’t all that simple. There was an element of it that was inappropriate, an element that was perhaps at times abusive. No doubt at some point one of them pushed the line of consent too far. But with every dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship, there are always two sides.

Filmmaker: The film’s psychology, however, seems to go beyond contemporary concepts of dysfunction to revive an almost Fruedian theory of repression.

Arteta: It does kind of follow the process of therapy.

White: I never read any psychology when I was in college; I thought I had all the answers. But then, as an adult, when I wasn’t working I just read, read, read – especially Freud. What I love about Freud is that he was such a reductionist. There was something so pure about how he was able to reduce everything to a system. What’s cool about Buck’s character is that he is also very reductionist: everything in his life – whether it’s a popsicle or his play – becomes a metaphor, or substitution, for what he really wants, which is to get back the object of his desire. And his work, from his collages to the play, also provides a Freudian definition of art.

Filmmaker: The focus on writing, the casting of actual writers, the general metaphor of re-writing one’s own life makes the film a virtual allegory of writing. First, how did you come to cast Hollywood writers in the film? Was Mike White always assigned to this role?

Arteta: When he gave me the script Mike told me very diplomatically, "I would love to play this character, but it’s not a requirement for you to make the movie. You can read me or not; I don’t want to do it unless you have confidence in me." We loved his performance in Star Maps and always felt he would be great. We considered a few other people, and there were producers who said, "I might get you money if you can talk to this person." But I wasn’t happy; I wanted him to do it. So we just fought for total control in casting, we got it and he got the part.

Filmmaker: And what about the Weitz brothers?

Arteta: When we started making the film we told ourselves that we would cast people who we really thought would be right for the role, even if they were not actors. We wanted a fresh approach to it – people who would bring something different to their performance.

Filmmaker: Mike, how did you feel about the casting, both of yourself and the others?

White: I never thought that he would get the money together. And then when he did I thought, I’ve been down the independent road enough to know funding is dependent on the actors you get. So, I thought, no way would they ever use me. But then when I heard that he had approached the Weitz brothers to act, I said, "Fuck it! If they’re going to be in it, I am not going to stand around while they get all the glory in my movie."

Arteta: Overall the casting seemed to be so right for the story. They were all writers, and the movie talked about this person fixing himself through writing, which was great. But also they were all big players in the Hollywood arena. Hollywood writers. And the movie has this dichotomy – Chuck could be looked at as Hollywood and Buck as independent film.

Filmmaker: The allegories pile on top of each other.

Arteta: So it seems to be very appropriate that Chris and Paul came from that world.

Filmmaker: Had their success hit at the time that you were making the movie? Had they done American Pie?

Arteta: They had finished shooting American Pie. Antz had already been out and been a big success. They are immensely talented and are highly in demand in Hollywood. But I knew that they had this incredible mischievous and dark side to them and that this might be the kind of movie they’d want to be associated with. And they have the courage to work in both worlds.

Filmmaker: Were any other writers involved in the movie?

Arteta: Some other minor characters were also very big Hollywood writers as well. Zak Penn, who plays one of Chuck’s friends at the party, is a big Hollywood writer. There’s another writer, Marc Hyman, who’s writing Osmosis Jones. There were also people from the music industry. Smoky Hormel, who plays a promoter in the movie, is Beck’s guitarist in real life.

Filmmaker: The casting of established Hollywood writers reflects your own odd relationship with Hollywood. Here is a quirky comedy that no one would originally finance but is chock full of some of the most successful comedy writers in Hollywood. Have you ever wanted to work within the industry?

Arteta: After Star Maps people approached me, not so much with scripts or offers, but for "interest." For example, The Mod Squad people approached my agent about me. I read 50 pages of the script, and I was like, "I don’t think I could do it." I’m not opposed to The Mod Squad or the idea of turning a TV show into a film. I think it can be done brilliantly and it can be done terribly. I could tell from the script that I would not be able to do a good job. The people who did American Beauty also asked for me. I read the script, and it was so awesome, I said, "Can I come in today?" I’m really sad they didn’t pick me. And I went for some other projects I wanted and didn’t get. And then there were quite a few projects that were offered to me that I didn’t follow up on. You know, a feature film is so hard to make, I can’t do it cynically. And I was very lucky that I was also offered "Homicide" and TV shows I relate to.

Filmmaker: What kind of TV do you like?

Arteta: "Freaks and Geeks" and "Homicide" I like a lot. I like "Law and Order," but "Freaks and Geeks" is my favorite right now. "Malcolm in the Middle" is kind of interesting. But one of my favorite shows, "Northern Exposure," is off the air.

Filmmaker: Do you enjoy working in more commercial venues, or is there no distinction for you between independent film and television work?

Arteta: We all have to do our best for primetime America at one point or another. So it’s a way to support my dirty habit of ultralow- budget filmmaking, and in a very lucky way it’s very lucrative, and I get to practice my craft.

Filmmaker: Do you find it just as enjoyable or rewarding, or do you make those distinctions for yourself between personal fulfillment and Hollywood careerism?

Arteta: When I work for TV I’m a gun for hire. In TV the writers are king. So when I’m hired for TV work I go up to the writer and say, "You and I both know I’m here to basically serve you and make your vision come to life. I’ll have my opinions but I’ll put them immediately aside to make sure that we’re getting your vision into this." And it’s much harder, and of course I don’t like it as much, but you get to work with very creative people. So sometimes you’re serving people like Mike White, who is writing "Freaks and Geeks." Or I just did a TV show for Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman who created "Party of Five" – they are fabulous writers. And right now I’m working with Jim Yoshimura, who was one of the writers on "Homicide," an amazing writer. It’s a great collaboration. TV is a place many independent directors can go – but they are not my babies. Look at all the pilots being made. The guy who did The Myth of Fingerprints [Bart Freundlich] is doing a pilot this season. And Kiss Me Guido’s Tony Vitale is doing a pilot. All of us in the indie world are doing pilots. I plan to do a pilot next year, too, I hope.

Filmmaker: For the past couple of years, Artisan has picked one odd film from Sundance (Pi, The Blair Witch Project) and made a financial success of it. Chuck & Buck was the one film Artisan picked up at Sundance this year. Does that create a sense of pressure and expectation for you?

Arteta: Well, we’re going to have to make $300 to 400 million at the box office. And you know, we will!


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