Four years after working with Golden Globe-winning actress Jennifer Garner on the film adaptation o f Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Puerto Rican director Miguel Arteta received another phone call from one of his “most beloved collaborators” in early 2019.
This time, Garner had a new idea for a film that had a special resonance with her own family. “She’d been doing these ‘yes days’ with her family and found it [was] not only a super fun tool to do, but there was also something beautiful about giving your attention to your kids and them doing it back to you,” Arteta explains.
“She just wanted to share the concept with the world, which is always the best reason for a movie star to make a movie. I was like, ‘Yes Day? Yes, yes, yes!’ We developed it throughout the year, and my mission was to bring that loveliness that this activity can do for families.”
Inspired by late author Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s book of the same name, Yes Day follows a whirlwind day in the life of the Torres family where Allison (Garner) and Carlos (Édgar Ramírez in his comedic debut) decide to say yes to everything that their kids choose to do for 24 hours.
In a recent phone interview with Observer, Arteta reflects on his second collaboration with Garner, his decision to diversify the family in Yes Day, and his fondest memories of shooting a feel-good film that can be enjoyed by families of all ages.
Observer: How invaluable was Jennifer Garner in the process of making this movie, both as an actor and a producer?
Miguel Arteta: She was fantastic. She really worked hard as a producer; she was involved with every outline. She came and pitched the project to Netflix with us and was involved from pre-production to the last cut of the film. Her contributions as a producer were probably most invaluable, in that she has lived [through] eight days with her family, and she knew exactly why she wanted to share this.
At the end of the film, [the family] ends up in a tent, playing dominoes in their backyard and that’s something that came from one of her real-life “yes days.” [Garner] wanted to capture how something so simple can become such a cherished memory. At every turn, she was kind of our “yes day” expert that we could turn to and say, “How would this really go?”
I really wanted to see if we could have a Latino husband for Jennifer [Garner]’s character, and she, the producers and Netflix were immediately like, “Yes!”
One of the many things that I loved about this movie was the fact that it features a multiracial and bilingual family.
Thank you, Max. I’m so, so happy that you said that.
Thank you for bringing that kind of representation to the screen. Was that something that was established early on or was that something that you strongly advocated for when you first joined the project?
I really wanted to see if we could have a Latino husband for Jennifer’s character, and she, the producers and Netflix were immediately like, “Yes!” I fulfilled my lifelong dream of working with Édgar Ramírez, and I knew that I would also have the incredible opportunity to go find three Latino kids to put on-screen. (The film also stars Jenna Ortega as Katie, Julian Lerner as Evan and Everly Carganilla as Ellie.) It was a real joy for me to do that.
Why was that such an important part of your vision for this film?
The reason that diversity is important [to me] is because I am a Latino that comes from many different areas. I just want to show the world that we are at a place where we don’t even need to necessarily discuss the issue of race every time. You can just cast people that look differently, and that’s something that I was really proud of with Yes Day. This is a mixed family with wonderful Latino kids in it, and it’s just normal.
There are so many scenes that I want to ask you about because it must have been an absolute joy to walk onto the set every day.
Yeah, we shot for two months and it was like we lived a “yes day” that lasted that long.
Let’s start with the scene where the Torres family goes to a restaurant and eats a huge ice cream bowl for breakfast for the “Gut Buster” challenge. It must have initially been a childhood dream come true, but after a few days, it was probably a nightmare to shoot. How much of that scene was method acting from the actors?
Édgar’s character, Carlos, is the person that really saves the day. Everybody gets full and he has to keep going heroically to finish the bowl, so it was Édgar who ate the most amount of ice cream. It was shot during three days, and I think Édgar was new to comedy and he was like, “I’m not using a spitbucket! I’m method all the way. I want to eat all of this!” (Laughs.) He claimed that he was a professional ice cream eater because it’s something that he absolutely loves, and I’d never see an actor do that before. I don’t recommend it, but he did an incredible job. I helped as much as I could. I would take those bowls of ice cream and eat them when I could.
I didn’t realize that the big Kablowey game in the film, which is a mixture of paintball and capture-the-flag, isn’t even a real game. How did you guys come up with that?
That was the screenwriter [Justin Malen] who came up with the idea of it. We thought, What would be a real fantasy for a kid if they could get 100 kids out to have the biggest balloon fight ever? That would be fantastic, and we decided to go for it. It’s obviously larger than life, but we figured it would be a lot of fun.
We were in a field shooting more than 55,000 water balloons, and we had experts throwing balloons behind the camera, so we could aim them wherever we wanted to. Even the crew, who’s usually seen everything, for that water balloon fight, they were like, “Okay, I don’t think we’ll ever do one this big ever again.” (Laughs.) Everybody was wet from head-to-toe for five days, and it was really fun. Jennifer was always saying that she was looking forward to that the most, and I think you can feel that when you watch the film. She was really into it, doing all her stunts.
Even if I’m doing a dark indie or a television show, I’m looking at the story and seeing if I can pour my heart into it.
Oh, she even did that big flip too right before she hit the kids in the film?
Oh, yeah. I think she summoned her Alias days and was like, “I still remember how to do this!” It was pretty incredible.
We can’t talk about this film without mentioning the Nerd Party scenes, which completely destroyed the interior of the Torres family home with all of that non-toxic foam. Do you have a particular memory that really sticks out from your days of shooting those scenes?
I remember how difficult it was when you put 25 11-year-olds in a house filled with foam and tell them to play with the foam. They don’t hear the word “cut!” The first day, I finally gave up and told the cameramen, “Just shoot! They’re not stopping.” They had a lot of fun with it. It was a hard thing to shoot because I loved the set that our production designer [Douglas J. Meerdink] and set decorator [Rosemary Bradenburg] had created, but in a matter of three days, they really managed to do a number on that house.
H.E.R. made an unexpected but really welcome cameo in this film. How did she get involved with this project?
It was our music supervisor who suggested that we go see her in 2019, and the moment she came on stage, [I realized] she has a whole different vibe than a lot of young music stars. Her positivity and unity, she kind of embodies a lot of what we wanted to say with this film. Even her band—she’s 22 and she’s been with them since she was 11—they’re like a family. We shot it at the beginning of 2020, right before the lockdown, and she was in town for the Grammys. We were very lucky to get her.
Did you always know that you wanted a major singer to make a cameo or was that something that just happened organically with the producing team?
We wanted a [big] cameo for that to make it believable for Katie Torres, the teen in the family. We wanted to make it somebody that a 14-year-old would want to go to see. It turns out that Jenna Ortega, who plays Katie, was a huge H.E.R. fan in her own right and her mind was blown when we told her that it was going to be H.E.R. She was definitely geeking out, meeting and working with her.
In a world with so much constant negativity, there is something inherently liberating about being able to say “yes!” to things that would otherwise scare us. What do you hope families are able to take away from this film?
I think the lovely thing about “yes day”—and it’s something that they’ve apparently done some research about with families that do “yes days”—is that kids tend to ask their parents to turn off their phones and computers. To think that there’s any activity that you can do with your kids where they want to get off their phones, it’s surprising and so hopeful. It just made me realize that we are in a place where [we should be] giving very lovely attention to each other—because we spend time with each other, but we don’t really give each other this kind of focus. I just hope that people realize that being really present and giving attention to the ones you love is such a worthy thing to do.
You’ve directed movies across all different types of genres for more than two decades. What attracts you to the projects that you choose to direct?
If I can put my heart into the story, then I do them. That’s why there’s so much variety to what I do. I think that’s the reason why, when I’ve done studio projects, they’ve been for family movies. There’s just something so simple and heartwarming about bringing a little bit of joy to the world.
Even if I’m doing a dark indie or a television show, I’m looking at the story and seeing if I can pour my heart into it. I’m a film geek. I came through the black-and-white movies of the Golden Era of Hollywood, and I still watch them religiously. The model of those directors that were journeymen—one day they had to do a comedy, the next day a drama, and the next day a musical—I think that affected me too because I’m a really big fan of that era. I never see myself as someone that just stays in one lane.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yes Day is available to stream on Netflix.