Greg Mottola, Superbad
It’s a sign of Hollywood’s wrongheadedness that it’s been a decade since Greg Mottola last made a movie. In 1996, Mottola arrived on the scene with his debut, The Daytrippers, a funny and poignant indie that recalled the classy Hollywood comedies of the ’60s and ’70s. Though the film led to Mottola becoming friends with Woody Allen — unquestionably an influence on Daytrippers — his next two projects failed to come to fruition, so he turned his focus to television. Mottola’s work in TV has been exemplary: he has directed Arrested Development, The Comeback, Mike White’s Cracking Up, and no less than six episodes of Judd Apatow’s criminally underrated follow-up to Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared. And it was Mottola’s connection with Apatow and his protégé Seth Rogen that lead to the director’s return to moviemaking.
For years, Apatow had been trying to get funding to make Superbad, a script Rogen had written with writing partner Evan Goldberg while both were still in their teens, but it only got greenlit after the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Though Mottola is a surprising choice to direct a high school comedy, he does a brilliant job with the material. Not only is the film hilariously and unrelentingly funny, but the central relationships — between Seth (Jonah Hill) and his best friend Evan (Michael Cera), and geeky tagalong Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) who take him under their wing — are sensitively and realistically drawn, something totally alien to the genre. Indeed the film is such a crowd-pleaser that it not only consolidates Rogen and Apatow’s places at the top of Hollywood’s hot list, but makes a strong case for Mottola joining them there.
Filmmaker spoke to Mottola about his sabbatical from film, why he’s the natural replacement for Sidney Lumet, and making zombie vomit for George A. Romero.
Filmmaker: You’ve basically been away from films for 10 years.
Mottola: Yep. There’s been a couple of near-films in between. The most heartbreaking one was a movie I wrote right after Daytrippers that was ironically set up at Columbia Pictures, the same place Superbad was made. We actually got as far as casting and preproduction on it, but then there was a similar-themed movie that they were also developing simultaneously that they decided was a better commercial bet, and they killed mine. It kept almost coming back to life and may yet still be made. It was a dark comedy about an intervention.
Filmmaker: Which film did it get shelved because of?
Mottola: 28 Days was the movie that got made in lieu of it. It was about rehab and mine was about an intervention, so they’re both alcoholic movies. I think we were just trumped because she [Sandra Bullock] was an especially big star at that moment.
Filmmaker: During the period your film projects were faltering, you worked as a TV director on some really great shows.
Mottola: I probably spent too much time trying to revive that project, and then when I realized I just needed to be working it was hard to feel like I hadn’t blown my little window after Daytrippers. I had talked to Judd Apatow about doing Freaks and Geeks at the time that I thought my movie was happening, and then [later] I heard Judd was doing another show. Right around that time, he contacted me and before he could finish asking me if I would do it, I was on an airplane. I was lucky in that I got to work on shows that don’t suck.
Filmmaker: Undeclared, Arrested Development and Mike White’s Cracking Up, three great shows you worked on, all got canceled frustratingly early by their networks.
Mottola: Yeah, it was kind of heartbreaking. It’s just really hard to keep shows going, and once the ratings start to slip people lose their fight anyway, because it’s just so hard. I distinctly remember Mike White being in a completely schizophrenic place of fighting for his life to keep the show alive, and praying for it to end. It’s tough, and it did suck because those were really fun jobs. I would almost start to feel guilty that I was not challenging myself enough because it was so enjoyable to do.
Filmmaker: You worked closely with Judd on Undeclared, but at what stage did he first talk to you about Superbad?
Mottola: We did a table read of a version of the script in 2001 or 2002 with all the people from Undeclared. Seth Rogen was reading the lead, and Jason Segel the other lead. I’ve always had a hard time wanting to direct other people’s writing, but this was one of the scripts that I immediately heard and said, “If you guys get this going, think of me as the director.” So I stayed in touch with Judd and we talked about the project over the years. Then one day last spring, Judd called me here in New York and said, “Do you remember Superbad? I think Sony is interested in making it. Would you still want to do it?” I started to launch into a kind of pretentious explanation as to why I thought I was the perfect director for it, and why it really suited me, and Judd was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway, OK, we’re going to fly you to L.A. next week.” We went through some rewriting hoops to make the studio happy, and then we were going, and by and large left alone by them. Well, supported but not really hassled.
Filmmaker: Was it your decision to bring Michael Cera from Arrested Development on board as one of the leads?
Mottola: Yeah, he was the first person I thought of. I worked on Arrested Development at the very beginning, so I met Michael when he was 15. I was already a huge fan of Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Jason Bateman, and I was like, “Who’s this kid who’s not only keeping up with them but sometimes is the funniest person in the room, and has the best improvs here?” I was just really amazed by his strange Bob-Newhart-trapped-in-a-15-year-old’s-body vibe, which was so incredibly dry. He just had his own thing.
Filmmaker: Was the chemistry in the Michael Cera-Jonah Hill double act instantly there, or did you have to work to create it?
Mottola: I wouldn’t read Jonah right away because I was being a real stickler about casting actors who were under 21 — and Jonah was all of 22. I resisted him only because of that reason. He did one of our early readings doing a number of other parts and was just amazing, and I knew I wanted him in the movie somewhere. So we cast Michael and had him read with a lot of people, and there was the unfortunate effect that the supposed straight man in the scene was much funnier than the supposed funny guy. So we were getting depressed, we couldn’t find anyone who could match him or keep up with him. Judd was shooting Knocked Up, and one day we asked Jonah to read for us, and it was clear that he was incredible. We basically cast him without ever reading the two of them together, we just felt, “They’re both so good, it’s got to work.” Then we immediately had them read together with potential other guys for the third friend, the McLuvin character, and luckily the chemistry was immediately there. We made them hang out a lot so there would be a shorthand with each other, and that clicked really quickly.
Filmmaker: Presumably when you did the table read in 2001, Seth Rogen was going to play the Seth character rather.
Mottola: Yeah, when I was desperate I was even thinking, “Is there any way we can make Seth look young enough?” — but Seth already looks like a 40-year-old man at the age of 24, so it’s hard.
Filmmaker: I think it’s really heartening that Seth Rogen has become a huge star.
Mottola: When I first talked to Judd about doing Freaks and Geeks, the person I most liked on that show was Seth. There’s something going on with him as an actor, this combination of sweetness and gruffness, anger and vulnerability, and he’s a person I really enjoy watching. His humor comes from behavior, and he has a really uncanny sense [of people] and is very observant. Even if he’s just acting in something, he’s always writing and rewriting his lines. He crafts lines in his scripts very intuitively, and he notices specifically how people reveal themselves by the way they talk. So he’s insanely smart.
Filmmaker: I believe he and Evan Goldberg were incredibly young when they wrote the first draft of Superbad.
Mottola: The two of them are disgusting because the writing comes easy to them and they started really young. They were literally 13 or 14 when they did the first draft. I think very little survived that first version, but I do know one of the first things they wrote was the name McLuvin. It’s perfect that that joke was written by a 13- or 14-year-old. People are already probably sick of McLuvin references; it’s already become like “Vote for Pedro” [from Napoleon Dynamite].
Filmmaker: I recently saw a “Fuck Pedro” t-shirt.
Mottola: I’m gonna go make some “Fuck McLuvin” shirts!
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider changing the title from Superbad, as it makes it an easy target for reviewers?
Mottola: Definitely a few times we looked at each other and said, “Do we really think this is a good idea?” There was one day I was driving with the crew going to the location and the teamster driver who was taking us was on the phone with a friend, and I overheard him saying, “I’m working on this movie. It’s called Superbad, and it is.” I thought, “This could have been a big mistake…”
Filmmaker: Are you a fan of high school and college movies, like Animal House or Porky’s?
Mottola: Well, certainly things like Animal House and Meatballs or any kind of Harold Ramis or even John Hughes movies. They all hold a special place in my youth. I don’t think I loved Porky’s that much, even though I probably saw it a couple of times. Even as a kid, I think I thought it was cheap. But I certainly had a lot of affection for the ones which had really funny comics in them, and the ones that have great acting in them, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s a more serious movie than Superbad, but we aspired to some of its sense of authenticity. I can’t really remember what happens in Porky’s, but I assume that there were scenes of topless girls in the shower, and I think quite frankly the studio would have been happy if we had more of that, instead of endless representations of human male sex organs. But that was intentional, we didn’t want to do the suddenly-her-top-flies-off stuff. We’d seen a lot of that over the years, and somehow it seemed funnier to just show a lot of dicks. Some kids will be like, “Why is there no female nudity in this?!”
Filmmaker: I believe you’re friends with Woody Allen. You’ve also had the honor of playing a director for him in Celebrity, and then an assistant director in Hollywood Ending.
Mottola: If he ever casts me again, I’ll be a P.A. — I’m slowly being demoted. Woody has been very kind to me and it came about because a mutual friend of ours — Doug McGrath, who co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway — showed Woody Daytrippers, and he really liked it. He was looking to cast a director in Celebrity, and originally it was going to be Sidney Lumet, but he had to leave to do a movie. So the natural next choice if you can’t get Sidney Lumet is to get me, because I also directed 12 classics during the ’70s… I came in and read for Woody, and since then have had the great pleasure of socializing with him on occasion. We’ve had dinner a few times, and he’s been very kind to me. In fact, I met my wife on the set of Hollywood Ending, because she was Woody’s assistant. To me, it’s amazing to hang out with Woody because he’s very open about answering any question about his movies, or any movie he’s ever loved or, apropos of this week, meeting Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni.
Filmmaker: Has he seen Superbad yet?
Mottola: He hasn’t. I’m not sure if it’s going to be his cup of tea, but I’ll try and describe it to him and give him the option whether he wants to watch it.
Filmmaker: And what about the future for you?
Mottola: I’ve been quietly writing scripts and have a few lined up that I want to make. Now that I have a kid, I hope to continue to make studio films but to checkerboard them with my stuff. I’ve written a film that Ted Hope is producing, and we hope to be shooting at the end of September. It’s a smaller, personal comedy drama, more like Daytrippers.
Filmmaker: What was the first film that made you interested in cinema?
Mottola: My parents took me to see 2001 when I was only seven years old, and I became obsessed with movies from there on in. I think my parents became bored silly, but I couldn’t stop talking about it, thinking about it. I’m going to try and arrange a screening for my son when he’s seven. We’ll see if he falls asleep.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst film you’ve seen the whole of on a plane?
Mottola: Let me think of one that made me cry that I didn’t want anyone to even know I saw… Probably that cheerleader one, Bring It On. That is pretty pitiful. It’s actually a very well-made film, but I’m still not supposed to cry at a cheerleader movie.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen, or had to do yourself, during your time in the film industry?
Mottola: I’d say it was my first job. I was in college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and my first ever gig was spending an entire day making zombie vomit for George Romero on Day of the Dead. It was an awesome intro to the film industry.