Pretty, Funny: Miguel Arteta’s Like a Boss Brings Comedy to the World of Cosmetics

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Miguel Arteta hopes to brighten up a truly dreary January. The director’s Like a Boss, in theaters from Paramount this Friday, assembles the comedy dream duo of Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish, playing best friends who also own cosmetics a business together. There’s no tension; their business doesn’t get in the way of their friendship in any way; and the movie’s over in 10 minutes. Orrrr…. a cosmetics maven, played by Salma Hayek, swoops in to buy their company, leading to conflicts both personal and professional as our two leads try and save their business and their friendship. Sums up Arteta: “This is a studio making a mainstream comedy about three powerful women who are not defined by their relationship with men.”

As a director, Arteta has had experience with studio movies and non-studio movies; comedies both mainstream and not; and both movies and television. Like a Boss represents his second time directing Hayek, who starred in his 2017 dark comedy/drama Beatriz at Dinner; he also directed an episode of “Ugly Betty,” on which Hayek served as executive producer. Here, Arteta discusses modern comedy, keeping cool on-set, and working with the always-amazing Billy Porter.

Congrats on the film. It’s definitely the time of year when people need a good, fun comedy.

I hope people will go to see the movie and feel like they’re able to laugh for a little while. We’re certainly in serious times.

It’s a funny film, but there’s also an empowerment message. It’s nice to feel hopeful and positive and powerful after 2019.

I totally get where you’re coming from. It’s what attracted me to this script. When I read it, I said, “This is a studio making a mainstream comedy about three powerful women who are not defined by their relationship with men. It has a positive message about beauty. And also it has African-American and Caucasian best friends who have chosen each other as family.” I found all those elements to be really positive and refreshing.

I didn’t even really realize until after the movie was over: “Oh, yeah, there wasn’t a romance shoehorned into this.” It was really refreshing.

I love that about the script. I was almost wondering whether anyone would want to make that change. I asked Paramount when I interviewed for the job, and it was so great to hear the executives say, “No, no, no, no, no. This is why we love it. It’s great. We feel like this is like what the world needs right now.”

They were also fantastic about being open to casting Salma Hayek. That character wasn’t written as a Latina. I thought Salma would be perfect for it. On top of being a movie star, she’s an entrepreneur herself. She produced “Ugly Betty.” She had her own cosmetics company at one point. She’s a very entrepreneurial person. I thought she fit that character really well. And she’s so funny. The three of them are so funny in different ways. It’s a movie that’s all about formidable women, and it was great to have such different but also formidable performers.

I’m so happy that we got Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish as best friends in a movie.

I feel very lucky. I was hoping for that great chemistry. As a director, you just have to trust your hunch and hope that it happens. You don’t always get lucky. But they loved each other. They have great chemistry. Once we started shooting, after the first week, I realized, “Oh my God, we’re going to be able to record this friendship as it’s happening in real time.” And I think it’s part of why the movie is funny and feels a little more authentic and enjoyable than your typical comedy.

You feel their deep friendship. Obviously they’re friends, and they love each other. But close friends are the ones who know each other’s flaws.

It’s difficult when you’re working with your friends. It can become very complicated. I related to the idea of having the movie be about a friendship that is almost more than a friendship. The movie is really kind of a love story between two friends. I come from a different country, and I’ve had to rely on my friends. I feel like I have chosen a new family in my friends.

The characters played by Haddish and Byrne and Jennifer Coolidge and Billy Porter make up such a great found family. I just wanted to hang out with them.

That was what we were hoping for. I love the fact that you’re using that expression, “found family.” That’s really what the movie was about.

How was working with Billy Porter? It seems like it would be so fun.

Oh my God. First of all, he’s such a positive and energetic person. He’s filled with joy. And he enjoyed himself so much and brought so much to it. It was a true honor and a joy. There’s a scene in the movie where Salma forces them to fire him. What he does with that scene, without words–I’ve seen the movie with audiences quite a few times, and he gets six big laughs without saying one word, just [from] the way he’s walking out of the room. He’s a great performer. I’m a huge fan of “Pose.” And he does great dramatic acting work there. But he can really do broad comedy, too. He’s so funny.

I guess maybe that comes from the theater backgroundthe physicality of his acting.

I think you’re right. He knows how to move around the room. In theater, the way you block a scene and you move on the stage, your gestures are really speaking to an audience. That little walk that he does when he gets fired, it’s very theatrical. It’s sort of a master class in comedy. He’s something else. I would love to work with him again.

I know that, as a director, you don’t want to put a whole bunch of extra stuff in your movie that doesn’t need to be there. But was that tough with Billy Porter? Were you ever like, “I want to add five more scenes with this character?

Yes, it was. We had three days of reshoots, and we brought him back for the scene at the end when they all get together. We wanted to have one more beat with that found family, when they were successful together. It was hard, because he was directing a play, and we had to work on the weekend to get it done. But I needed Billy there.

I want to do a movie with him, for sure. I left feeling that way about everybody in the movie. The three lead women are so formidable and funny in different ways. And the supporting cast: Jennifer Coolidge, Billy, Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell, Ari Graynor. There’s a lot of comedy dynamos in this movie, and it was hard not to have more time. People have asked me, “What’s the hardest thing about making the movie?” It’s exactly the question you’re asking. I wish we had more time to have fun with everybody.

Personally, I don’t feel like there are enough 90 minute movies nowadays. That’s my soapbox. I appreciate that this movie knew what it was, and it was tight and didn’t get over-indulgent.

I feel, as a filmmaker, that you need to justify every minute that you demand of the audience. I’ve always tried to make my movies very lean. I don’t like it when a movie is assuming my attention. I feel like a movie needs to earn your attention. You’re giving it your time. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, you need to be respectful of that. People are giving you their time. There’s nothing more precious than that.

I feel like that was a strength with Beatriz at Dinner, too. It was very tense and very focused.

That movie was a slow burn, and we had to be very mindful of how we built and to never let the audience get ahead of us. I feel like a lot of movies have great premises and have great casts, and they’re undone in the editing room. It’s almost like you created a great dish, and you haven’t fully cooked it in the oven. I feel like a lot of movies are 80% cooked. It makes a big difference. You don’t want to eat your apple pie slightly undone.

I find that to be the case so often with comedies, especially. You almost feel the director on-set thinking, “I’m having so much fun. I’m riffing with these hilarious people. I’m just going to leave it all in.”

The story [is most important], at the end of the day. A good comedy has to tell a good story. You need to know how to have fun along the way. But you can’t just drop the story. Even with a comedy, we’re sitting down and watching because they’re telling us a story. When you lose sight of that, the audience gets impatient. Jonathan Demme was my mentor. He was a mentor to many young filmmakers. And one of the things that he always tried to impart was, “It’s much better for the audience to be 30 seconds behind you than two minutes ahead of you.” You need to stay ahead of them at every moment.

You don’t want to lose visual storytelling, either. The line between standup comedy and movies gets blurred.

I think young people are, maybe because of the rise ofYouTube and Instagram, watching things in small segments. And the art of standup works very well for that. But you can’t just string 40 of those together and have a movie. When you demand people’s attention for more than 10 minutes, you have to tell them a story.

You’ve directed so many projects, both film and TV. Have you reached the point where you walk on set think, “I’m calm. I’m not stressed. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

The answer is no. It’s a really cumbersome thing. A lot of money is being spent. You have usually 60 to over 100 people looking at you, saying “What are we doing right now?” It’s a collaboration between so many different people. Just the management aspect of making a movie is very stressful. Some people have the personality where they never sweat that. But I find that I still work on that. It’s gotten a little easier in terms of having more confidence that I can find what I need to find in the moment. But it’s a stressful job. Because of money and the amount of people that you’re working with.

That said, I don’t want to ever think of anyone feeling in any way sorry for anyone who’s directing a movie! It’s the greatest job in the world. You’re telling a story for a living. It’s such an honor and such a pleasure. And I love actors. I adore them. I am in awe of what they do. And my job is never boring, to have a front-row seat to watch what they do. It’s an amazing job. .

It’s a lot of responsibility!

I’m a film geek, and I watch a lot of interviews with directors and things like that. Early on, I remember watching an interview with Martin Scorsese, where he says: “Movies cost millions of dollars to make. And the first thing you have to do as a director is forget about it. Because if you think about it, you’re going to be paralyzed. You have to walk onto the set and just forget the fact that this is costing millions of dollars to make. And just try to bring joy to it.” And I think that is the job. No matter what the pressure–time pressure, financial pressure–your job is to protect your joy and to bring great energy. And a create a safer environment for the actors, for them to also forget all that pressure and bring a contagious energy that’s going to be transmitted to the audience.

Is the on-set vibe for something like Like a Boss, which is a more fun movie, different compared to a Beatriz at Dinner, which is more serious and intense?

Yeah, definitely. For sure. The major difference is with a script like Beatriz, there was no improvisation. It was very architectural. We were sticking to the script. With Like a Boss, you have these amazing performers, and you have to find a way to let them go. We would shoot the movie as written and then start having fun and try to find things in the moment. Improvisation was a big key to finding a lot of the joy that we have in it. There’s a scene in the movie where Salma gives Tiffany and Rose a hard time and forces them to repeat the word “fierce” over and over and over. And that was all improvised. It was such a joy to watch that. Tiffany and Rose fell right in, as if it has been written. With a movie like this, you find so many fun moments on the day. It’s a lot of fun.