“PAUL” DIRECTOR GREG MOTTOLA
Writer-director Greg Mottola won himself a lot of fans with his smart, witty debut movie The Daytrippers, and then promptly disappeared from the indie scene for the best part of a decade, working in television while he tried to get his sophomore feature off the ground. In 2007, he returned to the big screen fray with Superbad, the Judd Apatow-produced teen comedy, which was a number one box office hit and made him a hot commodity once again. Going back to his indie roots, Mottola followed up the success of Superbad with Adventureland, a beautifully nuanced coming-of-age dramedy about a recent college graduate who gets a summer job working at a theme park.
Mottola’s work is always a potent mixture of the indie and the mainstream. In his career so far, he has alternated between self-penned, smaller scale indie movies with above average crossover potential and bigger budgeted commercial movies with a pronounced independent sensibility, and that trend continues with his fourth film as a director: Paul. Written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the U.K. comedy duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both directed by their longtime collaborator Edgar Wright), Paul is about two sci-fi British nerds, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), who make a pilgrimage to the U.S. to attend Comic-Con, and then rent an R.V. so they can go visit UFO hotspots like Area 51, the Black Mailbox and Roswell. Along the way, however, the BFFs cross paths with a profane, fun-loving alien called Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who is being pursued by dogged F.B.I. operative Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), and their road trip suddenly becomes a high octane affair. Simultaneously parodying and paying homage to a slew of sci-fi movies, Paul is a markedly warm-hearted and affectionate film that is centered around the sweet and very un-macho relationship between Pegg and Frost’s characters, essentially oversized teens seeing the world for the first time. Mottola once again shows his deft touch at working with comic actors, drawing very enjoyable performances from not only leads Pegg, Frost and Rogen, but also supporting cast members Bateman, Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio
Filmmaker sat down with Mottola to talk about bigger budget movies, filling Edgar Wright’s shoes, and combining fatherhood with filmmaking.
Filmmaker: It’s been a couple of years since we spoke, and in the meantime I know that you and your wife had twins. I saw the pictures of them that you were posting on Facebook around the time that you were commuting to Los Angeles and London for Paul. That must have been an exhausting time for you.
Mottola: It was definitely the hardest year or so of my life purely from a physical standpoint. This movie wasn’t made on a huge budget, it was really just barely enough money to pull off something with a CGI main character. By doing postproduction in the U.K., we were getting big rebates which were the only way for us to be on budget. So once I found out my wife was pregnant, I asked if we could move post to New York City, or even Los Angeles. And they said no, so I had to commute. I was flying to London every week: I’d fly out on a Monday night and come back on the Friday. I was Zombie Dad. But I guess that’s the only kind of newborn dad there is.
Filmmaker: You brought up the issue of the budget. With all the CGI, plus car chases and explosions, this seems like it’s definitely the biggest budget you’ve ever worked with.
Mottola: I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure that our budget was smaller than, say, a movie like Role Models. Which is partly because you’d be surprised how much Role Models cost. [laughs] By Hollywood standards, this could be considered a small to medium comedy budget. Hollywood standards, of course, are completely inflated and perverse. We had under $50 million, and a third of our budget was just the cost of the CGI. So the actual production budget was… not enough. It was hard. It was more than I’ve ever had – Superbad was a $20 million budget to shoot the film, but then Superbad didn’t have car chases and CGI characters to shoot around. We only had about 8 more days of shooting on Paul than we did on Superbad. I have to tell myself not to be boring about the subject, because the truth is that someone pays the same amount money for a film no matter what it is. It’s not fair to complain or make a big deal about it. I bring it up just because sometimes the expectations on a genre film like this where there’s a little bit of action, and I’ve seen it compared to films that I know had three times the amount of money. As far as the action being not as exciting, it’s like, “Well, we didn’t have a second unit.” It wasn’t so different than shooting Daytrippers.
Filmmaker: This is not only a step up in budget, but it also feels like your bid to prove that you can make bigger, more immediately accessible mainstream movies.
Mottola: There’s no question in my mind that this is the most mainstream thing that I’ve done. In terms of the approach of it, when I first met Simon [Pegg] I asked him point blank, “Why are you meeting with me?” He’d even seen Daytrippers when it came out in London and he said, “I’d like this film to have something of an indie feel to it, that it’s Little Miss Sunshine – except that instead of Alan Arkin, we have an alien.” The driving scenes were, weirdly, a flashback to shooting Daytrippers, to have all these scenes contained in a car, and the claustrophobic nature of that. Obviously, an RV is bigger, but it’s not that big. Ironically, the scenes featuring the very expensive CGI of Paul are relatively straightforward and prosaic, handheld and thrown away and more like an indie film, and the movie starts to open up into something larger when the villains enter the film, and they’re more the kind of villains you’d see in a film that Simon and Nick’s characters imagine in their heads. The indie film and the Hollywood film slowly start to merge by the end. I didn’t shoot it in such a disparate way that it jumps back and forth between film stocks or anything like that, but it is a slightly subtle feeling – the music is a little bigger like in a Hollywood movie in the scenes with the villains, and those two worlds merge near the end of the second act and it becomes a more proper Hollywood romp.
Filmmaker: I think it’s really interesting that all of your films are a mixture of indie and mainstream, but each time in a different way. Is that at all conscious for you?
Mottola: I don’t think it’s conscious, I just follow my instincts and they always lead me to a place that straddles the mainstream and indie sensibilities. I think some people watch films that I’ve made and wish they were more of one or of the other, but I personally like things that aren’t just one thing. Maybe I should be moving towards films that are more of a piece and very decidedly of one style, but I kind of like things that have variety to them and play off different things. I know it’s not my character to go off and make Antichrist – that would probably seem very inauthentic if I tried to make it.
Filmmaker: I wanted to talk about your working relationship with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, because this is the first time that they’ve collaborated on a film with someone other than Edgar Wright.
Mottola: I was definitely intimidated and I think it gave me a little bit of pause at the beginning because they had a collaboration that started all their careers. They came up together, and they’ve done great work. I knew, for instance, that it would be really stupid for me to try do Edgar’s style – I’m a big fan and I think he’s amazing at what he does and it’s so technically proficient, I could never do that as well as he could anyway. It would have been a disaster if I’d tried to shoot it the way that Edgar would. But there were times at the beginning where I’d look at certain gags that were written into the script and feel, “I have a sense of how Edgar would shoot this, but with my style it just isn’t going to work.” So Simon and Nick and I would talk it out, and we had to find a different way of doing it. Not to say that I wanted to take away Simon’s voice, but there is a kind of meta style to the pop culture mashup thing that Simon and Edgar have been doing from the start that’s slightly different here. Obviously, the movie is slicing and dicing the sci-fi classics of the 70s and early 80s, but we wanted to approach it from a slightly different angle. And I think we’ve pulled it off. What’s interesting to me is that the film is a decidedly uncool movie in a way that I’m quite pleased with. It’s sweet in its own way, and I think part of that is in the script. And maybe there’s a different tension that comes from Simon working with Edgar. There was the danger of it being pure nostalgia, but we wanted it to feel like and have the textures of movies that were made at that different time. Not like a Michael Bay-style film.
Filmmaker: I agree there’s something rather old-fashioned about the film, and particularly the affectionate central relationship between two straight men.
Mottola: That was kind of conscious, and some people will feel, “What the hell are they doing?” but it’s a deliberate reaction to what’s out there today. Really, it was so infused with the spirit of what it was like to watch the films from that time. Obviously, I’ve no illusion that I could ever be a visual savant like someone like Spielberg, but we tried to channel into innocence, and what it felt like to be young and watching a cross-genre action comedy adventure film… that’s actually not Mac and Me. [laughs] Obviously there are a lot of jokes that are more timely in it, but the vibe of it is much more naïve. So much was dictated by the reality of how we were going to pull off this non-existent main character on the budget we had. It just sort became clear to me that, at the end of the day, it was going to live or die completely on the relationships. The biggest challenge for me was making sure that Paul’s performance was a good performance, because Simon and Nick boldly turn the movie over to Paul at certain points, playing straight man to him. If Paul was just not funny or engaging – or the CGI just looked so terrible you didn’t want to watch it – there would be nothing.
Filmmaker: I really wanted to ask you about how you created the relationship between Seth Rogen’s Paul and Simon and Nick’s characters. I guess the choice was to have Seth there on set – even though he’s not on screen at all – or do it all in post.
Mottola: Well, the reality was that we wanted Seth to do it, but his schedule would not allow him to be on set because he was off doing The Green Hornet. We were so tight on the budget, we probably couldn’t even have afforded to pay him what it would have taken for him to be on set. So what we ended up doing was during preproduction we rehearsed the whole thing as if we were doing a play, like on a soundstage. The special effects guys came with cameras, they put Seth in a motion capture suit, and strapped a camera to his head that shoots back a wide angle view of his face, with little X marks all over it so that they could have facial reference, and we ran through the movie several times over the course of five days. The truth is the motion capture stuff really wasn’t that useful at the end of the day because the physicality of Paul was so different to Seth that it didn’t look right. They had to keyframe most of what Paul was doing. What was really useful was the face camera, and also just getting a performance out of Seth. What we ended up doing was I asked Joe Lo Truglio a gigantic favor, that in addition to playing the character of O’Reilly, one of the ridiculous federal agents, if he would be the voice of Paul when we were shooting. He agreed to take it on, took it very seriously and would study the tapes of Seth everyday he showed up to set, knowing the little improvs and embellishments Seth had brought to it during rehearsal. We’d run the scene with Joe there, then sit off-camera and read the lines, and it was enormously helpful because it gave Simon and Nick and Kristen Wiig another talented comedy actor to play against. If it had just been the script supervisor, then I think we’d have been screwed.
Filmmaker: I think it works really well. I just presumed Seth had been there on the set, because the dynamic between the three of them is great.
Mottola: I’m glad you feel that way. It was something I was terrified about from the beginning. It was something I had never done before, and we’ve all seen it done horribly. I think the one little “Eureka!” moment I had during preproduction was watching E.T. for the millionth time and saying, “OK, in this shot it looks like a rubber suit, and yet it works.” Part of it is the facial design of E.T. , which is so good, so effective, and made him a lovable thing. But so much of it was cutting back to those little kids, Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, and seeing the expressions on their faces – they really made you feel like they were talking to an alien. So it was like, “The only shot we have if things go wrong is getting the actors to feel like they’re there.” And the fact that Joe could improvise with them really helped – it just loosened everything up. And then we went back into post, and Seth would redo the lines and do what Joe did, and sometimes use Joe’s improvisations, so it was a very weird collaboration between a few actors to get there.