“It’s Not Funny if It’s Not Bright”: Greg Mottola on Confess, Fletch
I read Confess, Fletch for the first time in high school and, ever since, it’s remained a personal favorite. That often surprises people when I tell them that, not least because the name “Fletch” is less associated with Gregory Mcdonald’s genuinely funny novels than Chevy Chase’s considerably goofier incarnation of the journalist-sleuth in 1985’s Fletch and 1988’s Fletch Lives. The original Fletch adaptation essentially retains the structure and basics of Mcdonald’s original but changes the tone to better suit Chase. For better and worse, Mcdonald’s books string together often hilarious dialogue exchanges with aspirationally Hemingway-esque connective prose; they work better when the emphasis is on the former rather than the latter, and Confess, Fletch is at the top of the list.
Attempts at making a new Fletch film haven’t worked out for years (this extremely detailed Entertainment Weekly article from 2010 breaks down that torturous history). When I heard that Greg Mottola and Jon Hamm were teaming to adapt this material, I was obviously excited to see something I’ve read dozens of times come to life. Mottola’s adaptation (he rewrote a draft initially penned by Zev Borow) is in some ways faithful to the original text, beginning with the same abrupt situation: Fletch checks into his Boston lodgings only to find a dead girl’s body and calls the police department rather than 911. Here, Fletch’s sparring-partner-turned-friend, the Irish cop Flynn, has (for reasons of necessity Mottola explains below) been turned into Detective Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.). It’s one of many changes—excisions (the gender politics of a very ’70s lesbian plotline wouldn’t scan well today), condensations and character overhauls—that smartly keep the bones of the book for a smart comedy that’s faithful to the source while cleverly delivering it into the present. As a longtime fan of the source material, I’m probably a little too close to judge properly, but it was a pleasure to see the book come to life.
I spoke to Mottola about Confess, Fletch, which opens in theaters and on PVOD this Friday before premiering on Showtime on October 28.
Filmmaker: My understanding is that when you came in, Jon Hamm had been developing this film with Zev Borow. I’m curious what preexisting relationship to the Fletch books, if any, you had before joining the project.
Mottola: Jon came to me with it. Miramax had optioned all but the first book—I don’t know if anyone owns that—and he said, “What do you think of this idea?” I knew of the books but hadn’t read them, so I went off, read the first five to get a sense and loved them. I had a feeling I would, and I don’t know why I never got around to them: I love detective stories and crime fiction, I love comedy, and they’re very funny. But they had qualities that I did not know about—Gregory McDonald’s interested in social commentary in addition to making us laugh.
Zev was working on a draft,and it was very funny. It was not exactly the tone that Jon and I were talking about. It honestly felt like it would’ve been a great Fletch 3, more in the tone of the movies, and did not use that much of the book. Jon and I talked about it for a while and I decided to take a stab at it, went back to the book and put a lot of things back in. Of course, changing it from 1970s to 2020s required a lot of changes, the biggest one being not having the rights to the Flynn character.
Filmmaker: Oh, are those separate?
Mottola: The estate separated those rights, because they’re hoping that someone will make the Flynn books. I’m sure there’s a number Miramax could’ve paid to get the rights to the Flynn character, but they were not willing to. That was one of a few junctures at which Jon and I said, “Hm, okay. Should we proceed?”
Filmmaker: That is a major change. Looking at the book again before we talked, which I thought I knew very well, I forgot how much of it you chose to exclude. Like, the lesbian plotline would not be a thrilling addition at this time. One of the big choices of the adaptation is to actually start where the book starts, with Fletch arriving at his rental and immediately encountering the dead body. There’s no opening 15 minutes where you get to know Fletch. In the book, obviously, it was a sequel to a bestseller, so there wasn’t any need to.
Mottola: We showed the script at various points to people who love the Fletch books, and one of them was Neil Gaiman, who Jon knows well from the TV show Good Omens. I originally had the scene of Fletch finding the body, then [flashing back] to Italy. And Neil Gaiman said, “I think you should put in his phone call to the police, because it immediately says something about what an unconventional guy he is. He calls the wrong phone number, and he’s nonchalant.” And when I tried that, I thought, “Well, why not stay with him and the police, then flashback?” It was really a feeling about the book, liking how that felt.
Filmmaker: Was there ever a possibility of this being a period movie?
Mottola: I think we never would’ve gotten the budget for that. It’s also something of a question of a discussion about social mores, which goes back to the lesbian character. Reading the book, I didn’t feel anything problematic when I was considering the time period, then I thought [that] how that would play distilled in a movie would not necessarily work. It could be construed as a negative portrayal. And we decided not to put in the housekeeper—I tried to think through how to keep the character, but it was hard to give her any real connection to the plot. And his Lothario standing in the book was, perhaps sadly, toned down to address the times we live in and Jon’s age. I mean, he’s the first one to say it. Jon’s older than Fletch is in the book.
Filmmaker: Some tonal softening happens along the way. The alcoholic neighbor character is much less devastating. In the book, she’s overtly lonely.
Mottola: My first passes on those scenes were probably a little sadder to try and capture the tone. One thing I like in the books that you see after you read a few of them is, Fletch has a real affection for outsiders and weirdos. He’s sort of a Holden Caulfield: he respects authentic people, and he’ll fuck with any phony. There was something sweet in how he treated that character, even though she was on his suspect list and he was investigating her. But for the sake of the movie, we obviously pushed in a more comical direction with Annie Mumolo. I tried to retain the idea that he genuinely is fond of her. He doesn’t want to find out she’s the killer.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the adaptation process in terms of going through the whole thing, rethinking the structure, retaining favorite lines of dialogue and discarding others?
Mottola: Part of it was going through the book and underlining lines that I felt deserve a place in the movie. There’s obviously some lines directly from the book in the movie. We changed who he suspects is the murderer—in the book, he’s wrong about it. There is an equivalent character for the ex-wife that Lucy Punch plays. Also in the book, Flynn tells him the whole explanation of who the murderer is in a car. Everything happens offstage. Reading the book, it didn’t bother me at all, but in turning it into a movie, I thought [of a different ending]. I wasn’t intentionally trying to make that end scene mirror the finale of the first Fletch movie, but it does. That scene has, I think, the only line we directly quote from the first Fletch movie, changed slightly. I don’t know how well you remember the first Fletch movie.
Filmmaker: One of the things about the original is that it’s a super LA movie. You stuck with the original location and I think that’s important. Earlier this year I read a Gregory McDonald journalism collection, and one thing I learned from it is that he came from a pretty well-off background. He talks about remembering hanging out with John Kennedy when they were kids together. And Fletch is very comfortable with rich people, because he himself comes from a background that’s at least adjacent to wealth, so he’s unafraid of rich people and can take them on on their own turf, which is why he’s successful in this scenario. So, the New England setting does actually matter, and you actually have the movie located there.
Mottola: [In] one of the interviews I read with Gregory McDonald that was helpful, he talked about writing the second book. He created a problem in the first book, which is that Fletch runs off with a lot of money. So, he’s got a lot of money at the beginning of the next book and is living in the Italian Mediterranean. And he thought, “Have I screwed myself ? This guy theoretically has his problem solved by all this money.” He decided, this guy doesn’t really care about money. That’s not what makes him get up in the morning. And I thought about that a lot, as I was imagining how this would all play out, and what strange motivation drives this guy to do the things he does, and tell all the lies he tells, and decide who to deceive and who to tell the truth to.
The yacht club obviously wasn’t an element in the book, but it seemed like a good world that he could comfortably move through. It being 2021 when we made this, I also wanted to, in some ways, address the white privilege of that all, make that not entirely tone deaf. Fletch can do that and traverse through that world. This Airbnb he’s in is very nice, the person who owns it comes from money, his girlfriend comes from money—it’s all a part of it. And he likes fucking with people who have money but don’t have any perspective, who are tone deaf to their wealth. There was some discussion early on of, do we set it in New York? Because New York is a big city and contrasts [with] LA. Ultimately, that decision was moot because we ran the numbers and it was going to be cheaper in Boston and I thought, “Great. It was set in Boston. Let’s do Boston.”
Filmmaker: I’ve read that rounding up yachts can be a bit of a production challenge, especially if you’re trying to get really big ones.
Mottola: That was not so easy. We ultimately did something sneaky, which is, we picked a location that was a private home next to a yacht club, so there’d be a lot of yachts that other people own in the back of our shot. For the main boat, that was a deal, to get a big sailboat like that. There was a belief that you can’t shoot in a space that small, but we didn’t have a lot of money to build a fake sailboat interior. So I said, “Yes, you can shoot in a space that small, and I’ll show you how.”
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about blocking and timing. You tweeted about how making comedies doesn’t give you enough shooting days to develop blocking and do all the stuff you wanted to do.
Mottola: When you’re working fast, you often don’t have time to work out the blocking and rehearse enough so that you can play things in longer takes. Having worked in the Judd Apatow world a lot, there’s a style of comedy that forces cuts often, because people are adlibbing and changing the lines, or often saying their line three or four times in a row to get different variations in. That’s not something we did a lot of on this. This was more a case of, I couldn’t give the actors enough takes to make sure that we got everything we needed without a hiccup. We did some longer takes that are in the movie, but the amount of time it takes to elegantly block and get all the angles you need is a little more than we often could pull off. There’s also something about the nature of a detective story. This book in particular has that quality of a Chandler novel. Fletch goes to [someone’s] apartment, to their place of work. They sit and talk and leave. It’s a very Philip Marlowe thing for all of those scenes, trying to get to the bottom of it. I decided to accept that and, in a way, stay true to the old fashioned nature of that.
I was just working on this side project that Steven Soderbergh’s doing that I’m a co-producer on. I’ve known Steven since Sex, Lies & Videotape, and it was the first time I ever actually watched him work. It was really interesting to see how he would tackle some of those problems. He did a lot of shooting exactly the lines he wanted in a certain camera angle, then moving on to a new angle. He was shooting on iPhones without changing the lights very much, so he was moving insanely fast. That’s the John Ford school of, I’m going to do exactly what I want in the shot and nothing more, nothing less. And we did a certain amount of that. Certainly someone like Edgar Wright does that times 100, because he’ll do a line in a moving camera shot that cuts to another line from a completely different angle.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about setting the look of the film and general principles that you established with your DP, Sam Levy?
Mottola: We decided we didn’t want it to look bright and comedy-ish, then we got into the DI and dialed in this warm, slightly limited color range. I didn’t want it to become totally desaturated—there’s a lot of color in it—but the range is limited to some extent. I think it was all trying to make it feel like its own thing, not like a mainstream comedy. I could find out in a week’s time that was a big mistake, but we shall see.
Filmmaker: If my memory is correct, this is your first theatrical feature that was not shot on 35mm?
Mottola: I actually shot Superbad on the Genesis camera.
Filmmaker: I didn’t know that. In terms of working with a digital image, you’re fine with it at this point?
Mottola: I mean, I’d still rather shoot film, but you can definitely work faster with digital. And Sam’s got a really great eye. The thing that definitely happens with digital is because it doesn’t need as much light, everything in digital movies is getting less lit, which isn’t always great. But I mean, the last movie I did on film, there were so many problems, because there’s no support system for shooting 35 anymore. The best people at the labs who did 35 all moved to digital. You really have to be Christopher Nolan to get it done right.
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?
Mottola: We shot for 30 days in Boston and one day in Italy.
Filmmaker: One day in Italy?
Mottola: Yeah, one day of dialogue scenes. We had one day of second unit [and] did the moped shots on the second day. Originally Miramax wanted to do the whole thing in 27 days, and at that point Jon and I felt like, “This film’s going to get judged against the original”—which I’m sure was a decent-sized movie for its time, adjusting for inflation, and we were concerned we wouldn’t be able to pull it off for that. Jon ended up giving back a huge chunk of his salary, I gave back a smaller chunk of my salary and we got a few more shooting days. So, it was fast. But you know, Bill Block, who runs Miramax now, [was] super supportive. They were just like, “Do it for this number, and we will support you guys.” And they really let us make the creative decisions, they didn’t force stuff on us. I’ve been mostly lucky in my career, but I’ve had things forced on me that I’ve regretted, and that didn’t happen in this case. So, how this movie goes over, you could pretty much blame me. We worked fast. I did not do a lot of takes for the most part. I just relied on the gifts of my cast. We didn’t get a lot of rehearsal time or anything like that. We did Boston first, Italy at the end, and were editing through the fall, basically. We had the movie finished in January, pretty much.
I could be wrong, but I think that this kind of smaller comedy, which doesn’t overtly pursue a younger audience, is considered not terribly commercial, especially theatrically. Because a lot of people have heard of the original, there’s an expectation that this is going to be something bigger than it is. I think that’s part of the reason why no one’s been able to do a Fletch sequel, because there’s only so much companies are willing to risk on something like this. So, Jon and I just said, “Shit, we’re going to try and break the curse, do it at a number and hope they let us do another one.”
Filmmaker: This is a space that you’ve been working in for a very long time, comedies that don’t necessarily look like comedies. I kind of know what you mean, but I’m curious to hear you articulate what you think a “comedy” look is.
Mottola: A comedy look is often very bright and flat, and it’s because there’s a belief that you need to see the performers’ faces completely at all times, and that it’s not funny if it’s not bright. I mean, I’ve had studio executives say that to me as a criticism of dailies: “Dark is not funny.” If we had more time, Sam and I would’ve leaned maybe a little bit more into the crime movie style a bit, but I’m not 100% sure, because the problem with film noir and a lot of attempts to revive detective stories is that you can get the look of it really right, especially in period pieces, but it’s very hard to get the feeling right, to capture what makes those movies so endlessly rewatchable. Basically what I’m saying is, we did not attempt to. We just attempted to make it its own thing and give it its own look and not to try and make it look like Chinatown or The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, or any other great classic of any decade.