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CEDAR RAPIDS

Entering Cedar Rapids
"It's like I came to Barbados or somewhere.” -- Tim Lippe

When Wisconsin native Phil Johnston began writing a comedy about a Midwestern man who has never left his hometown and is suddenly thrust into the chaos of the world, he had one actor in mind for the part: Ed Helms. Helms, who emerged as a master of awkward comedy in the role of a bachelor facing the consequences of a terrible bender in the runaway hit THE HANGOVER, seemed almost born to play a man whose innocence is both his funniest flaw and his most astonishing asset.

Helms fell in love with Johnston's concept and with the unique character he'd come up with: Tim Lippe (as in "don't get lippy with me”). A sheltered and innocent Tim is unleashed for the first time in what for him is the overwhelmingly big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Home of the annual insurance ASMI convention with the quest to bring home the coveted Two Diamonds prize for his company, Tim is thrust into an ultra competitive world. With his eyes on the prize, the events turn into the craziest and most important adventure of his life. "As soon as I began meeting with Phil, CEDAR RAPIDS became a very personal project, very near and dear to me,” explains Helms.

Helms committed fully to the project long before the backing for the film was even a glimmer in the producers' eyes. He and screenwriter Johnston collaborated closely, developing early drafts of the script and deepening the character, as Helms became increasingly excited about tackling the role. He was thrilled to play a man who has absolutely zero pretensions, and even fewer clues as to how to cheat, lie and do the typical, yet clearly outrageous, things it can take to get ahead.

"What I really love about Tim Lippe is that the man doesn't have a drop of cynicism,” comments Helms. "I think cynicism comes with worldliness and Tim starts out as the polar opposite of worldly. He's never been on a plane, he's never even checked into a hotel or heard of a credit card imprint. Yet, he approaches every situation, no matter how shocking and absurd to him, with hope and optimism, which is an exciting challenge as an actor.”

He goes on, "The most important thing to Phil and to me and as soon as he joined us, Miguel Arteta, was that CEDAR RAPIDS not become a broad comedy. It could easily have been done that way, but what we all wanted most of all is to make these people feel very real. These characters are funny and charming in their flaws, but hopefully, you believe in them. Phil wrote a wonderful, ingenious script that made me really proud to be a part of it.”

As a huge fan of Alexander Payne's films and the unabashedly human and distinctly Midwestern comic sensibility that's woven through each of them, Helms sought out the filmmaker's Ad Hominem Enterprises, where Payne is partnered with Jim Burke and Jim Taylor, as a potential home for CEDAR RAPIDS.

Burke was instantly taken with the story. "It was laugh-out loud funny and it was also the kind of movie we like to do – human movies that are all about the characters,” he says.

Payne was also enchanted by the witty concept, but what made him passionate about it was seeing Ed Helms in THE HANGOVER and realizing he could make Tim Lippe's dilemmas and disasters feel as real as they are hilariously different from the norm. "I had no idea that Ed was such a gifted comedic actor,” says Payne. "Sure, I loved him from ‘The Daily Show' and all that. But then I saw THE HANGOVER and it really showed off his comic abilities. The way Ed approached Tim Lippe reminds me of a 21st Century version of Harold Lloyd; the innocent who's trying to get ahead and maybe get the girl, but keeps slipping up. You really, really want to root for him.”

With the lead role set, the next big task was finding a director who could navigate the razor's edge of the story's distinctly folksy but never mocking comic tone. "This was absolutely key,” says Payne. "The script was extremely clever in its construction but we knew it was going to be a bit of a high wire act to keep it feeling real and not going too far. We needed a director who could bring an undercurrent of humanity to it,” he says, "who could elevate the humor, bring out the heart, and then twist it into something we haven't seen before.”

That director turned out to be Miguel Arteta, who has become renowned for a love of quirky and contemporary characters that set his films apart. Burke says of Arteta, "After a lot of searching, it was clear that Miguel was the perfect person for this job. It was important to us that the movie be very funny but it was equally important to us that the characters be treated with respect and affection, and Miguel is a guy who can do that. He's funny but he cares deeply about people, and on top of that, he's an awesome filmmaker who directs with authority and precision.”

For his part, Arteta was thrilled to team up with Ad Hominem and quickly developed his own personal vision for the film, "The inspiration for CEDAR RAPIDS was in many ways the tone of Alexander Payne's Midwestern-based comedies,” the director explains. "But the bend for me was that it's about a man who is discovering the world as a full-grown adult. Since I came to the U.S. from another country, I really relate to this kind of fish-out-of-water story. That feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is something I poured into this.”

Arteta goes on, "My strategy for CEDAR RAPIDS is that the story should be painful for the characters yet funny for us. It's a very delicate thing to make a comedy that is not based solely on broad jokes. You have to get the audience involved emotionally at every beat while also giving them something to laugh at, and that's what we tried to do.”

"At the heart of it all,” says Arteta, "is Tim Lippe's willingness to keep trying new things that unnerve and sometimes upend him, all while trying to hang on to who he is at his core. Ultimately, this might be both the best weekend of Tim Lippe's life and the worst, but he's coming to terms with something we all have to confront: how to be yourself any place you go.”

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