It begins as a comedy of manners and turns quickly into a battle of ideas with a great deal at stake.
Exploring the widening gulf between the world’s haves and havenots with fierce insight and unexpected humor, from economic inequality and conservation to the necessity of simple human kindness. At an elegant dinner party in a swanky hilltop home, conversation between a soft-spoken holistic healer and a hard-nosed businessman explodes into a bitter clash of cultures.
Beatriz at Dinner , the latest provocative film from director by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck) from a script by Mike White (The Good Girl, Enlightened).
Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a self-effacing and spiritual immigrant from Mexico, has spent her adult life caring for the sick while neglecting herself. When her car breaks down and she is stranded at a client’s luxurious Newport Beach home overnight, her well-meaning employer Kathy (Connie Britton) insists she join them for a dinner party that evening. At an intimate and sumptuous celebration of her husband’s latest business venture, Beatriz is introduced to Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a ruthless billionaire real-estate developer. She listens uncomfortably while Doug brags about his aggressive business tactics, but when he boasts about shooting a rhino in Africa, she can no longer hold her tongue. As opposing worldviews collide over a dinner table, Beatriz’s pent up outrage spills out in a way that surprises even herself.
Beatriz at Dinner continues the longtime collaboration between director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White that began when they met through what White calls “the codependent alumni network” of Wesleyan University.
From their first feature together, 2000’s surprisingly tender stalker comedy Chuck & Buck, to the indie favorite The Good Girl and acclaimed HBO series “Enlightened,” White and Arteta have explored the lives of vulnerable misfits with sympathy and respect.
Mike White is an award-winning screenwriter, director, actor and producer.His writing credits range from the dark indie comedies Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Year of the Dog to mainstream comedy hits School of Rock, Orange County and Nacho Libre. His TV credits include the short-lived but critically praised “Freaks and Geeks” and “Pasadena.”
White created and co-starred with Laura Dern in the critically acclaimed HBO series “Enlightened,” writing every episode for the Golden Globe-winning show. He has just completed principal photography on his original script Brad’s Status, starring Ben Stiller and Michael Sheen. Along with appearing in many of his films, White is known for twice competing in the Emmy-winning reality series “The Amazing Race” with his father, Mel.
Miguel Artera is a Puerto Rican filmmaker currently living in Los Angeles. He won an Independent Spirit Award for his first feature, Chuck & Buck (2000), written by Mike White. It premiered and found distribution at the Sundance Film Festival, as did Star Maps (1997) and The Good Girl (2002).
He then helmed Youth in Revolt (2009), with Michael Cera; Cedar Rapids (2011), with Ed Helms and John C. Reilly; and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, with Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. Arteta’s TV work includes “Freaks and Geeks,” “The Office,” “Six Feet Under,” “Enlightened,” “New Girl,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Big C,” “American Horror Story” and “Getting On.” The director studied film with Jeanine Basinger at the Wesleyan Film Program.
He has taught at the Sundance Institute’s Directors Labs and at the Middle Eastern Film Lab in Jordan.
White’s most vividly drawn characters have always been outsiders by nature.
In Beatriz at Dinner he has created two vastly different outliers — altruistic healer Beatriz and self-satisfied real-estate developer Doug Strutt — who represent opposite ends of the American spectrum.
“They stand for ‘winners’ vs. ‘losers’ if you will,” says White. “The rich vs. the poor, hunters vs. healers, male vs. female. I put two people with opposite beliefs in conflict in a very relatable and everyday type of situation — a dinner party. It begins as a comedy of manners and turns quickly into a battle of ideas with a great deal at stake.”
The project began when White, an outspoken supporter of animal rights and a committed vegan, was outraged by the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe.
What, he wondered, would he do if he were ever to meet that man? He began to build a script around that idea. Before he had a single scene on paper, White knew that his friend and colleague Arteta would be an ideal director for the project.
“I’m very particular about the people who interpret my writing,” he says. “Miguel is so respectful of the contribution of the writer. He has a humanistic impulse and comes at things from a heartfelt and hopeful place. My work can be read as satirical and acidic. His empathy enriches stories that in the hands of someone else could fall into a darker hole. I am always confident he’ll get great performances and be protective of the script.”
When White brought the idea to Arteta, he also suggested an actress they both had been wanting to work with to play Beatriz: Salma Hayek. “Envisioning her in this role was very clever on Mike’s part,” says Arteta, who counts the actress as a good friend. “She’s a real animal lover and a very political person. She is also extremely empathic, like the character. It’s a different kind of role for her and she loved the idea from the beginning.”
Hayek and White sat down together for an initial meeting that convinced the actress that this was a role she was born to play.
“People have said this character is so different from the way they see me, but it’s really the closest one to myself that I’ve ever played,” she explains. “The script was so original in a simple relatable way. Everybody’s been to a dinner that goes crazy at some point in their lives.”
After spending time with White and Arteta to discuss the film, the actress says she would have done whatever it took to work with them. During his initial meetings with Hayek, White didn’t share much about the film’s story and that was fine with her. “I was already a huge fan,” she says. “We had such a great time talking that it didn’t matter. He did spend some time picking my brain about the character. He asked a lot of questions and watched my body language for clues as to who Beatriz should be.”
In the end, the script White came up with explored far more issues than hunting. One of the ideas Hayek shared with him is the profound sense of displacement felt by many immigrants.
“Beatriz grew up in poverty but she still dreams of the mangroves of her childhood,” he says. “They don’t exist anymore but she can go back to them in her mind as a symbol of a young, innocent time when the world had not yet been plundered.”
“Salma, in many ways, inspired the voice of Beatriz,” he says. “She is a deeply engaged and intelligent artist. And I wanted to write a fun character for her to play. The cliché is that Salma is ‘fiery,’ so I liked the idea of her playing someone who is very compassionate but also subdued, a deeply intelligent and spiritual person who becomes more and more outraged by what she’s hearing.”
Hayek’s enthusiasm for the role inspired her to become even more involved in getting the film made, bringing in producer and financier Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios, with whom she had worked on the comedy Drunk Parents.
Both the script and the director’s vision for it impressed Gilbert so much that he signed on immediately.
“Miguel spoke so eloquently about his vision for the film,” he says. “And I knew it would be an incredible role for Salma. The combination of the two was a one-two punch for us.
“Mike White had crafted a screenplay with wonderful humor and subtlety,” he continues. “He has a way with dialogue that I rarely see and a gift for authenticity in crazy situations. That makes the collision between Beatriz and this billionaire who pillages the world for his own benefit smart and exciting. This is a smaller film but it’s huge in terms of themes and ideas.”
Producer Pamela Koffler of acclaimed indie production company Killer Films was attracted to the way White’s script fused believable characters, compelling ideas and complex themes with great storytelling.
“Mike understands that there are people in the world who are attuned to suffering,” she says. “They are put on earth to heal. That is the essence of Beatriz, but he created a character so fully realized that you never feel she is a symbol for something rather than a human being.
“No matter what he’s writing about, Mike’s work is emotionally and narratively accessible,” Koffler adds. “His characters are able to say and do things that are offbeat, unpredictable and unorthodox without seeming arch or unreal. He and Miguel have found a creative synergy that is unique. Their work together is tonally specific and idiosyncratic in such an interesting way that we couldn’t say no.”
Arteta believes he and White have complementary approaches to storytelling that add up to more than the sum of their parts. “We are definitely an interesting duo,” the director acknowledges.
“Mike is my favorite writer,” says Arteta, “He has a piercing eye into human nature. I try my best to respect his words and it’s always a pleasure to see how actors bring them to life.”
The collision course between the two opposing viewpoints will leave audiences having to choose sides for themselves, Arteta hopes.
“I love that about Mike’s work. He is not really guiding what your response should be, but raising questions in a smart way. It would be very easy to dismiss Doug as crass and materialistic. But we all love our possessions, we all love a good life. There are two sides to human nature.”
Transformed physically from a glamorous global screen icon to a dowdy massage therapist, Hayek delivers a tour-de-force performance, finding the strength and the vulnerability in a woman who feels the weight of the world’s problems on her shoulders.
Hayek and her character share several key qualities, according to the director: “They both rescue all kinds of animals,” he says. “They both rely heavily on intuition, which played a big part in Salma’s performance. I love when a performer can make the audience lean toward them. I think she did that beautifully.”
As a holistic healer at a cancer center, Beatriz regularly treats terminally ill patients. Burnt out by a lifetime of caring for others, Beatriz’s quiet dignity hides the fact that she has become overwhelmed by the emotional toll her work takes on her.
“If you are trying to heal and make this world better, imagine how beaten down you could become,” says Arteta. “Beatriz is unable to glide along the surface of life. The other characters are a menu of the ways in which we deny the awfulness of the world and ourselves. She will have nothing to do with denial, which makes her more vulnerable than most other people.”
In portraying the character, Hayek says she focused on Beatriz’s capacity for love and empathy. “There’s something incredibly pure about her,” says the actress. “Everything is meaningful. It’s not that she doesn’t have a sense of humor — she’s not dense — but she is profound. While I feel like I have a lot of things in common with this character, in truth I think I was playing Mike.”
Hayek says Arteta explained his vision for her character more eloquently than any director she has worked with ever has. “He told me that Beatriz’s inner life had to be so complex that it would be mysterious to everyone around her. Even though we know the general things that she’s thinking, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on in her head at any time. She feels deeply, but it could never show on my face. He was very strict about that. Sometimes, even though I wasn’t moving a muscle, he would know exactly what I was thinking and we would have to start again.” To find the stillness the part required, Hayek made daily meditation a part of her preparation. “The good news was I didn’t have to do makeup, so I could use that time,” she notes. “I needed to get to a quiet space in my head for my body to move a certain way. Miguel encouraged me to do it. We even chose the music together for the meditation.”
Most importantly, says Arteta, Hayek trusted the material and gave herself over to the character. “Her intelligence and empathy shine through at all times,” he observes. “I’m so grateful to her for having the courage to share things that she cares deeply about through this character. Salma got so much across with the simplest and most beautifully nuanced looks.”
The film presents strong arguments on both sides of the debate between the values of Doug Strutt and Beatriz, says Hayek, who believes that allowing viewers to make up their own minds is crucial to the film’s success.
“Audiences won’t feel like they are being manipulated or preached to. I do hope it sparks conversation about connection and communication. America is filled with deep-seated and diverse views of life right now. What’s important is that we are able to communicate and learn from each other. Both of these people are very clear in their point of view. Even if you believe that Doug is a bad guy, there will be other people who think he’s in the right.”
Kathy and Grant’s party is a celebration of a huge new business deal masterminded by Doug, a notoriously successful and cold-blooded developer of high-end resorts and shopping centers.
Veteran actor John Lithgow plays Doug with an unassailable confidence that makes him almost irresistible.
“What I appreciate about Doug is that he is a kind of philosopher king,” says White. “He lives by his own beliefs, as Beatriz does. The others at the party are not fully conscious of why they want what they want and do what they do. He and Beatriz could not be more different in their jobs and their values and their approaches to life, but they are similar in the strength of their convictions. That’s why they make such powerful adversaries. Their conversation begins like a dance and quickly builds to a cage fight.”
Lithgow brings a presence to the character that is as effortlessly seductive as his words are repellant. “It was amazing to watch him become Doug during rehearsal,” says Arteta. “He makes it easy to understand views that I normally can’t stomach. Every time I watch the film I find myself wondering if maybe he has a point.” White too admits he has moments when he almost buys into some of Doug’s declarations. “Miguel was smart to cast an actor so intelligent and dignified rather than a monstrous cretin,” says the screenwriter. “John brings a distinguished elegance and appeal that softens Doug. He gets the crassness, but fills it out with some dimensions that are not on the page.”
Knowing that Arteta and White were involved and that Hayek would be playing Beatriz made accepting the role an easy decision for the actor. “The character I play is wonderfully written and although the story was not nearly as timely when we started this project as it seems now, it dramatizes the gulf between rich and poor in an ingenious way,” he says.
Arteta’s encouragement to make Doug charming and affable was the right choice, Lithgow believes. “It was too obvious for him to be unlikable. Miguel talked a lot to me about how much Doug loves his life. He is very comfortable with who he is, so he is not threatened or defensive with Beatriz. Doug is very appealing — if you’re not completely on the other side of the fence. His attitude is, sure, you can have your opinions — but I’m successful and happy and you’re not.”
One piece of dialogue in particular has stuck with the actor. “The most alarming lines in the movie are when he says something to Beatriz like, ‘Why do you have to be unhappy? The world is dying. We won’t be around much longer. There’s nothing we can do.’ It’s all the more terrifying because he delivers it with amiability and a generous spirit. Why not just relax and enjoy yourself? It’s typical of Mike’s subversive and almost perverse honesty.”