The comedy Cedar Rapids, starring John C. Reilly and Ed Helms, will be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures on February 11.
Most of the action in CEDAR RAPIDS revolves around the Royal Cedar Suites hotel, the scene of Tim Lippe’s initiation into the mind-blowing realities of insurance conventions over one unforgettable weekend. Since Tim’s dazed and confused reactions to his new environs are so central to the comedy, creating those environs to a T was an absolute essential for Miguel Arteta. To do this, the director recruited an artistic team that includes his long-time director of photography Chuy Chavez, along with production designer Doug Meerdink and costume designer Hope Hanafin.
The creation of the Royal Cedar Suite began with a search for the quintessential Midwestern “holidome” hotel, that very specific style of heartland retreat featuring a swimming pool smack in the middle of the central atrium, perfuming the entire place with the tangy scent of chlorine. Ultimately, the filmmakers found what they were looking for not in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the local Clarion Hotel and Conference Center offered the characteristic architecture needed for the Royal Cedar. (Additional sequences were shot in Cedar Rapids to capture the flavor of Iowa’s second-largest city, rarely seen on film.)
“The hotel is the film’s anchor,” says Meerdink, who most recently designed the equally offbeat comedy THE INFORMANT! starring Matt Damon, “and we saw a lot of hotels that had maybe 40% of what we were looking for, but we needed that cohesive environment. We finally found the Clarion at the 11th hour and it had such interesting spaces and a great geometry to it. Then we came in and gave it a whole new personality.”
Meerdink and his team brought in new furnishings, light fixtures and even paint finishes, crafting an authentically Midwestern but decidedly comical world.
Working closely with Arteta, Meerdink contrasted the relatively flashy, frenetic world of the convention with Tim Lippe’s more sedate and static Wisconsin home. “Miguel impressed on me that he wanted to approach the character of Tim Lippe with a lot of respect and affection, so there was a lot of subtlety to what we did,” the designer explains. “Tim’s Wisconsin home is all about comfort and childlike colors and then, as we move to Cedar Rapids, everything becomes a bit more glitzy. We wanted it to be real, but also to get across that what might seem commonplace to us is this fantastic, incredible new world to Tim where everything really stands out.”
Meerdink says that the whole team worked in concert to make Tim’s journey feel like it could really be happening. “Chuy, our DP, Hope, our costume designer and Jeannette, our set decorator, and I all worked to develop a visual language that reinforces the tone of the film in every scene.”
Chuy Chavez, who has shot most of Arteta’s films, including the recent YOUTH IN REVOLT, says that the visual style had to ride a very thin line. “We wanted the look of the film to be very subtle and not distracting to the audience but also to become increasingly more alive,” he explains. “In the beginning, it’s all earth tones and very steady – there’s nothing shiny or flashy — but then in Cedar Rapids, there’s all these bright color and sparkly reflections.”
Chavez says he relates to the way Arteta makes movies. “He doesn’t care about being precious, or trying to do cool moves,” he says. “He’s not the kind of director. With Miguel, we never talk about real specific things. We talk about the feeling of the movie and about the story.”
Costume designer Hope Hanafin, who also designed the costumes for the innovative comedy-musical 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, worked in harmony with Chavez and Meerdink to mirror the seismic shifts Tim Lippe goes through in the course of the film. “I used a lot of soft-edged fabrics and clothes, corduroy, sweaters, all looks that are softer and not so crisp. Then, in Cedar Rapids, I moved to a cool palette, inspired by the Cedar Rapids skyline. It’s a blue-grey world of business suits, and that then progresses to the wedding Tim and his new friends crash, which is full of the boldest and brightest colors,” she says.
Hanafin dressed Ed Helms in baggy, slightly-too-big clothing to emphasize Tim Lippe’s feeling of being out of place, as well as his childlikeness, but says she always tried to keep it genuine.
“I really wanted to communicate the open-heartedness and lack of pretension in Midwestern clothing. But it had to be authentic. I didn’t want to make the clothing into a joke,” she explains.” We bought things from Sears, JC Penney’s, Men’s Warehouse and local shops. Even for Sigourney Weaver’s more artsy and sophisticated character we bought everything in Ann Arbor. I love her look, too, because it shows a whole other side of small-town America.”
Throughout the design of the film, Arteta wanted to emphasize the discombobulating nature of conventions – which, whether they are business conventions, political conventions or even film festivals, throw disparate people together for a few intense days.
“There’s something dangerous and exciting about going to a convention – it’s like going to camp,” Arteta muses. “You meet this whole bunch of strangers and you don’t know who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad, and this whole different world opens up to you. It’s something very real that a lot of people experience. I think there’s something very ancient and powerful about groups of people getting together to raise hell.”
Adds Jim Burke, “There are hundreds of conventions across America every day, and I think most people have experienced some kind of an event like this. It’s something that’s familiar to us, and yet it’s not familiar on the movie screen. I can’t think of any other movies centered around a business convention like this, so there’s something very original about the setting. There’s so much electricity in the air, and that’s what Tim Lippe walks into.”
For Tim, as well as for his new friends and partners, this singular insurance convention proves to not only be a riotous weekend but a down-right eye-opening one. Arteta hopes audiences experience something similar. “I hope people find humor in unexpected places in CEDAR RAPIDS,” he sums up. “We live in tough times and I hope this is a story that allows people to see that goodness and laughter sometimes come out of dark places.”