Michael Cera hopes that movie captures the heart of the book

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Politics may make strange bedfellows, but there is nothing like a movie to attract an Apollo 11 astronaut, an author with a devoted following and the man known as Dr. Death.

Actor Michael Cera was so stunned by the sight that he cannot recall what they talked about, but he remembers writer C.D. Payne visiting the "Youth in Revolt" set the day Michigan resident Jack Kevorkian wandered by and astronaut Michael Collins filmed a bit part as a man selling a broken-down trailer.

"I was just so baffled that it was happening," Cera said of the conversational convergence.

Kevorkian, who made physician-assisted suicide a national issue and himself a household name, lived nearby while Collins had been offered a small role in "Youth" after director Miguel Arteta watched "In the Shadow of the Moon."

The 2007 documentary blends the stories of surviving crew members from every Apollo space mission with archival NASA material to paint a portrait of America's space program in its early years.

"It was amazing being around him," Cera said of command module pilot Collins. "I didn't have the nerve to ask him anything."

Of course Cera had his hands full, playing lovesick teenager Nick Twisp and his suave alter ego, Francois, who sports a mustache, wears an ascot and smokes cigarettes. He emerges after Nick meets the free-spirited Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) on vacation and schemes to win her over.

The movie allows Cera, 21, to be both the shy and awkward teen of such movies as "Juno" and "Superbad" and a sophisticated adult. Or a teen's idea of a sophisticated adult.

Sitting down for an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, Cera talked about the adaptation of Payne's "Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp." He arrived in a hotel interview room alone, with no entourage or hovering publicist and his usual backpack and sense of Canadian courtesy.

He knows fans of the franchise may be buoyed and bothered by changes to the 500-page book.

"I think they'll be hopefully delighted by the amount of scenes that are pretty verbatim from the book; we tried to do that whenever we could. The language and the tone of the book is so funny, we really wanted to infuse the movie with that.

"I think they may be disappointed by certain characters that they will not get to see. I wish we could have made a seven-part miniseries of the book, so that we could do everything in it but it's just such a massive book that it's just impossible to fit it all into a movie. Hopefully we captured the heart of the book."

Cera discovered the novel at age 16 and could relate to Nick's plight.

"I connected with the agony that he was going through -- in being so far away from this girl and not having any idea of what was going on or if she was as committed to him as he as to her. And just the torment of that. ... "

"She's written so well, Sheeni. I thought he wrote her beautifully."

Arteta, who followed his feature directing debut of "Star Maps" with "Chuck & Buck," featuring Mike White, and "The Good Girl," starring Jennifer Aniston, considered hundreds of young women before narrowing the Sheeni field to five.

Cera then read with Doubleday, a newcomer and college freshman. "It felt right. I'd read the book a few times, and I was totally convinced it was her."

It had been Cera who suggested Jean Smart as his character's mother, Estelle Twisp. "I think she was kind of who I was picturing subconsciously reading the book. She's just so capable of really making herself look ridiculous in the best way."

To allow Nick and Francois to share a single scene, the production turned to visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall, who worked on "Adaptation."

"He did the two Nicolas Cages. He is so talented and he helped us with the trickery of it. What you do is shoot one side of it -- say we shoot Nick's side -- and then Miguel has to commit to a take that he likes on set."

The cameras would be locked while Cera hustled off to change clothes, have his hair restyled and a mustache applied and get a lit cigarette to cradle.

After that, "We do the other side and time it out with that take and try and find the rhythm and just keep doing it until you get a take that clicks and it seems like we're interacting."

Screenwriter Gustin Nash wrote the separate characters into the script along with animated sequences supervised by Peter Sluszka.

"Miguel found him, this guy was so talented and had great ideas and made all these little moments into real beats that are really funny. ... They really kind of break up the film and let people know that anything could happen."

Cera had done some voice work when younger, but this was the first time he inspired an animated character in his likeness.

Although the movie is set in California, it was filmed in Michigan (with some reshoots in Shreveport, La.) to take advantage of the state's lucrative tax incentive for filmmakers. But Michigan couldn't easily supply one natural resource that Pittsburgh has at every turn in the road.

"There's a Berkeley fire scene, and we needed a hill and we could not find a hill anywhere. I mean not 'we' but the location coordinator and Miguel ... and then we finally found this one hill in Ann Arbor."

One jaw-dropping scene that survives from the novel involves the juxtaposition of a car and a house, and it was done for real -- no computer-generated magic.

"I was really blown away by that. It was amazing the house was able to support it. They removed a whole face of the house basically, the back wall, and rebuilt it, and then afterward they built French doors for the family that lived there, as part of the deal."

For those moviegoers who wish Cera would grow up -- on screen -- he soon will be seen as a bass guitarist for a garage band in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." He plays a 22-year-old who has met his dream girl, but her seven evil ex-boyfriends are coming to kill him.

It's based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley and directed by Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz"). It is scheduled to arrive in theaters some time later this year.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. First Published January 8, 2010 5:00 AM


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