DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Our next guest is a writer and director, Greg Mottola. He directed the hit teen comedy "Superbad" and he wrote and directed two critically-acclaimed films, "Daytrippers," released in 1996, and the 2009 film, "Adventureland" set in an amusement park in the '80s and starring Jesse Eisenberg. Mottola also directed several episodes of the TV series "Arrested Development," "Undeclared" and "The Comeback."
Mottolas latest film "Paul" is now out on DVD. It's written by and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the English duo best known for the comedies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz." In Paul, they play a pair of English science fiction buffs who are touring UFO sites in the American West when they encounter a real alien named Paul, who ends up traveling with them in their rented RV. The creature is a computer-generated graphic but has the voice and attitude of Seth Rogen.
In this scene, Pegg's character is driving the RV and the alien Paul is up front eating pistachios. Frost's character, who passed out upon meeting Paul, wakes up in the middle of the scene and attacks the alien.
(Soundbite of movie, "Paul") (Soundbite of music)
Mr. SETH ROGEN (Actor; Writer): (as Paul) I love pistachios. Alien can eat a closed one, right?
Mr. SIMON PEGG (Actor; Writer): (as Graeme Willy) I usually just bite them.
Mr. ROGEN: (as Paul) No. You don't do that at all. There's nothing on there anyway.
Mr. PEGG: (as Graeme Willy) Throw them away. I like mussels.
Mr. ROGEN: (as Paul) No, I like pistachios.
(Soundbite of screaming, fighting)
Mr. PEGG: (as Graeme Willy) Nick, stop. He's okay. He's actually friendly. His name is Paul.
(Soundbite of coughing, heavy breathing)
Mr. PEGG: (as Graeme Willy) An alien called Paul.
Mr. NICK FROST (Actor; Writer): (as Clive Gollings) With that Klingon? You psychotic nerd.
Mr. PEGG: (as Graeme Willy) Listen, Paul is from a small M Class planet in northern spiral arm of the Andromeda galaxy.
Mr. ROGEN: (as Paul) Thank you.
Mr. FROST: (as Clive Gollings) He looks too obvious.
Mr. ROGEN: (as Paul) There's a reason for that, Clive. Over the last 60 years the human race has been dripped-fed images of my face on lunch boxes and T-shirts. In case our species do meet, you don't have a spaz attack.
Mr. FROST: (as Clive Gollings) I do not have a spaz attack.
Mr. PEGG: (as Graeme Willy) Don't do it again.
DAVIES: Well Greg Mottola, welcome to FRESH AIR. This film is a weird road trip with an alien, and it doesn't work if the alien doesn't work visually and isn't funny. Talk a little bit about creating Paul, the alien, his look, his personality.
Mr. GREG MOTTOLA (Director): Well, that was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film because I liked the challenge of making a CGI character that gave a kind of naturalistic comedy performance. We've seen CGI characters do a lot of things, but not so much that. You might see that in an all CG film but not so much in a mixed live-action CG character who's photo real and has to have a kind of, you know, consistent, believable psychology.
In the beginning, when we decided we wanted to Seth to do this, one of the caveats was that Seth would not be available for the actual filming. He was going to go make "The Green Hornet," so we knew we wouldn't have him on set. Hence, the lead actors Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig would be acting to a stick with ping-pong balls for eyes and a script supervisor reading lines. And I thought well, that's problematic.
DAVIES: Yeah. That's one of the first things I wondered because in the film, I mean the alien, it totally works. You totally believe he's in the RV with them and everywhere and I'm sitting there thinking how do you act if this is blank space?
Mr. MOTTOLA: You know, I went back and looked at "ET." Obviously, I studied a lot of Spielberg films and other sci-fi films from the period because they're referenced throughout the movie. So I was watching "ET" and I was thinking well, you know, a big part of what sells this are the performances of those kids. You know, Drew Barrymore really makes you think she's meeting an alien for the first time. The creature design is amazing in "ET" but, you know, I knew the actors had to sell it.
So I turned to one of the costars in the film, Joe Lo Truglio, who plays O'Reilly. He and Bill Hader have paired up as these two ridiculous, comical federal agents who are in pursuit of Paul, and I asked him if he'd be the voice of Paul during the filming and he said yes. And thank God, and he was - he took it very seriously. He would study tapes of Seth Rogen rehearsing the character so he could see what Seth was doing with it. And then he'd bring his own improvisations to the actual filming, which, I think, just made an enormous difference for Simon and Nick and Kristen.
And to have someone they could play against, someone they could improvise with. And then later, in post production, Seth recreated some of Joe's ideas and lines and improvs and, you know, its this very strange theater troupe's, you know, vibe, where people are trading the character back and forth. It's like the - you know, sometimes there will be a play where two different actors play the same part on different nights of the week.
DAVIES: Yeah. I'm picturing you doing this job of directing and, you know, and directing it's an artistic endeavor, but it's also this huge management thing, because you have production schedules and big crews and budgets and all that. And so you've got this, you know, you've got this pre-recorded lines of Seth Rogen. You're trying to simulate with this computer-generated guy is going to look like on the set, manage all the other actors, not to mention the fact that this movie also includes bar fights, explosions, car crashes. Gosh. That's a lot to manage isn't it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOTTOLA: Well, and it was done on a budget. There are comedies where people are just sitting around a restaurant, talking, that have bigger budgets than this film. You know, there were places where the limitations were frustrating for sure. For instance, we had action scenes, car chases and explosions and we had no second unit which, you know, for the listener, most action films tend to have a second unit where a stunt coordinator is off simultaneously shooting the action bits so the main production can be focusing on acting and so forth. We just had to kind of work it into our schedule and cram it in somehow. And I guess the fun part of that is I got to run around in the little car that goes super fast and has a camera strapped to it, although I feared for my life a few times.
You know, it's, I started out in indie films. This is quite different than shooting a 16 millimeter film in 15 days like I did way back in the mid-90s on my first film "The Daytrippers." And I also, you know, my heroes are people like Woody Allen. I kind of thought I would only work exclusively in the world of naturalistic comedy drama, but there is this side of me that also loves Hollywood and I wanted to see what that felt like. I wanted to see what it felt like to do special effects and I don't think I'm going to dive right into a special effects movie next. My agents have asked me that. I said I think I need two people sitting in a restaurant talking. But I certainly learned a lot.
DAVIES: You've done a lot of sort of character driven stuff. I mean your earlier film "Daytrippers" was, you know, it was this relationships among family members, and here you've got this sophisticated computer-generated alien. Kind of interesting that you're directing that kind of film.
Mr. MOTTOLA: Well, when I read a script I always - the first question I ask myself is, is there something that I could bring to it that maybe the next guy wouldn't. Because I've read a lot of very good scripts and thought there are people who could do this better than I. What I liked about this challenge was that in my mind, Paul should give a naturalistic comedy performance. So I felt that it needed to be played like a real actor would play it. He is a character in a road movie. He is Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces." He just happens to be one of these people in the car.
In fact, Simon said to me when I - I asked him point blank when we first met on this, are you sure I'm somebody you'd want to have do this? And he said, look, I saw your first film "Daytrippers" in London in a theater, and in a way, this could be like that in places. It could be people driving around in a car and one of them just happens to be an alien.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: An extraterrestrial.
Mr. MOTTOLA: Yeah, just happens to be. You know, we've all had that experience.
DAVIES: You had a big success with "Superbad," the film with Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and others. And I thought we'd listen to a clip here. I mean this is folks who saw the film will remember this. This is three high school seniors played by Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and their buddy Fogell who is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. And they want to get booze and in this scene Fogell, their nerdy friend, has gotten a fake just made. It happens to be a Hawaiian driver's license and they're discussing whether it will work. Let's listen Okay.
(Soundbite of movie, "Superbad")
Mr. MICHAEL CERA (Actor): (as Evan) All right, that's good. That's hard to trace, I guess. Wait. You changed your name to McLovin?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE (Actor): (as Fogell) Yeah.
Mr. CERA: (as Evan) McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What, are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Naw, they let you pick any name you want when you get down there.
Mr. JONAH HILL (Actor, Writer): (as Seth) And you landed on McLovin...
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Yeah. It was between that or Muhammed.
Mr. HILL: (as Seth) Why don't you just pick a common name like a normal person?
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Muhammed is the most commonly used name on Earth.
Mr. CERA: (as Evan) Fogell, have you actually ever met anyone named Muhammed?
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Have you actually ever met anyone named McLovin?
Mr. HILL: (as Seth) No, that's why you picked a dumb (bleep) name.
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Gimme that.
Mr. HILL: (as Seth) All right, you look like a future pedophile in this picture, number one. Number two: it doesn't even have a first name, it just says McLovin.
Mr. CERA: (as Evan) What? One name? One name? Who are you? Seal?
Mr. HILL: (as Seth) Fogell, this ID says that you're 25 years old. Why wouldn't you just put 21, man?
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) Seth, Seth, Seth. Listen up, (bleep). Every day, hundreds of kids go into the liquor store with fake IDs, and every single one says they're 21. How many 21-year-olds do you think there are in this town?
Mr. CERA: (as Evan) Let's stay calm, okay? Let's not lose our heads. It's a fine ID; it'll, it's going to work. It's passable, okay? This isn't terrible. I mean, it's up to you, Fogell. This guy is either going to think here's another kid with a fake ID or here's McLovin, a 25 year-old Hawaiian organ donor. Okay? So what's it going to be?
Mr. MINTZ-PLASSE: (as Fogell) I am McLovin.
DAVIES: And that's from the film "Superbad," directed by our guest Greg Mottola.
Mr. MOTTOLA: Yeah, there weren't that many bleeps. I was wondering how many...
DAVIES: Yeah. I will be going to do that on the radio, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Right. These characters are, you know, decent adolescent guys but they are completely assessed with getting some sexual experience and getting alcohol as a route to getting sexual experience. How much like these guys were you when you were in high school?
Mr. MOTTOLA: I'm gauging the likelihood my parents are listening to this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOTTOLA: When I read the script I thought I completely relate to them. They are entirely inept. They don't know anything about women. It's rather sad. And I thought that's, you know, if we can make this feel real and psychologically accurate maybe this movie will have some life to it. Yeah, I was a bit like those guys. I was an art student. I was kind of like; I became the forger of IDs because I had the best art skills so I was like Donald Pleasence in "The Great Escape." I was always making fake IDs for people, which is, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that, but...
DAVIES: I think the statute of limitations has expired. This was the '80s you were making fake IDs?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOTTOLA: Yeah. Yeah. So, yes, I had some of my moments like that.
DAVIES: Greg Mottola's latest film "Paul" is now out on DVD.
More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our next guest is a writer and director Greg Mottola, who directed the films, "Daytrippers," "Adventureland" and "Superbad." His latest called "Paul" is now out on DVD.
Well, I want to talk about "Daytrippers," which is I think a terrific film and it was worth preparing for this interview just to be able to watch it again. And let me just kind of mention the plot and we'll listen to a clip. It's about a family that lives in the suburbs. They are two grown daughters, one played by Hope Davis at home has found a romantic note on the floor which might have been meant for her husband Louis who works in New York City. This is a suburb of New York and Louis works in the publishing world. He's already headed off for work and she sits down with members of her family. They say, oh my gosh, what does this note to mean? Is he having an affair? And they all decide to pile into the family station wagon for a trip into New York to ask Louis about it. And there begins a remarkable road trip movie. And what we're going to hear here is some conversation along the road to New York.
One of the sisters played by Parker Posey has her boyfriend along. He's sort of a pseudo-intellectual named Carl and he gets into a conversation about his work that also brings an Anne Meara who plays the mom of the family. Let's listen. It begins with Parker Posey
(Soundbite of movie, "Daytrippers")
Ms. PARKER POSEY (Actor): (as Jo Malone) Carl, tell mom and dad about your novel. Carl wrote a novel everyone. It's great. It's, it's this far out. It's brilliant.
Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (as Louis D'Amico) I don't think your parents want to hear my novel.
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) Mom and dad, you want to hear about Carl's novel?
Ms. Anne MEARA (Actor): (as Rita Malone) Oh, yeah. Sure, Carl.
Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) Well, Rita, it's an allegory about spiritual survival in the contemporary world. The main character is this freak of nature. He's this man who doesn't have a normal head. He was born with the dog's head.
Ms. MEARA: (as Rita Malone) A dog's head?
Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) Yeah. You know, sort of a fantastical story.
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) It's like a fable.
Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) Yeah. Like "Master and Margarita" or...
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) "Animal Farm." Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) "Animal" - yeah. Exactly. Very Kafka-esque.
Ms. MEARA: (as Rita Malone) Carl, I'm not an educated woman.
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) It's Dr. Seuss for adults, mom.
Ms. MEARA: (as Rita Malone) Oh. Oh, yeah.
Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) So, everyone else will look as normal, except for the man with the dog's head, who really only wants...
Mr. PAT MCNAMARA (Actor): (as Jim Malone): What kind of dog?
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) Dad, it's not important.
Mr. TUCCI: (as Louis D'Amico) No, no. No, no, no, no. It is important. Actually, that's very important. It's a German Shorthaired Pointer. You see, it's actually especially important that it's a Pointer, because that's a crucial metaphor. Because in the book, he's sort of a visionary, you know? You know - pointing the way to salvation?
Ms. MEARA: (as Rita Malone) Jo loves dogs. Remember Pepper? We had to put him to sleep.
Ms. POSEY: (as Jo Malone) Mother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: And that is from "Daytrippers," written and directed by our guest Greg Mottola. Fun to hear that again, isn't it?
Mr. MOTTOLA: I have not watched the film in over a decade, so it's -yeah. A lot comes back.
DAVIES: Right. You know, as I read about this, it's amazing that you got - and, I mean, this is an impressive cast, you know, Liev Schreiber, Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Anne Meara, Campbell Scott and Marcia Gay Harden. And from what I've read it, it sounds like you paid them, like, tortilla chips and subway tokens. I mean, how did you get -I mean, these people were better known later than they are - now than they are then. But how did you get a cast like that with such a miniscule budget?
Mr. MOTTOLA: Well, one of the advantages of being in New York City and trying to get a career off the ground is that you're in a city filled with some very creative, talented people, and I got to meet some of them socially. I became friends with Campbell Scott, and he introduced me to Hope Davis. Another friend of mine from school had worked on a movie, "Dazed and Confused," and knew Parker Posey, and Parker introduced me to Liev. And I just did a lot of begging.
You know, the truth is, good actors are always looking to do something different. They are dying to play slightly odder characters or work on movies that aren't straight down the middle. So I took advantage of that, and, you know, we designed the film in a way that if it ever got sold, we'd pay everyone back. So the upfront costs were incredibly low. We shot the whole thing for about 60,000 bucks. And, you know, in a weird way - because no one was telling me what to do - of course, it's an experience I want to recreate again, because it's a little trickier when you're - you know, when someone else is footing the bill and millions of dollars are at stake.
DAVIES: Yeah. What were some of the obstacles that you faced in shooting this thing in what, like, 16, 17 days?
Mr. MOTTOLA: There are scenes in the film where there's just one single take on every person, where we didn't even get to do a take two because we had, you know, 12 pages of dialogue to do in one day. The first day of shooting, our camera had been stolen. We were unloading the truck, and we had no camera. So by the time we scrambled and found one, we had two hours left. So, you know, I shot everything I needed from that location - because it was a location we couldn't come back to - in two hours. It was, you know, not ideal, but in a way, it taught me something about resourcefulness.
DAVIES: Right. And the scene that we heard was inside a car. And it occurred to me as I watched it that it seems the camera was actually inside the car, as opposed to, you know, traveling next to it with - on a mount, or something.
Mr. MOTTOLA: Yeah. I mean, that was one of the things we had to resort to, to do it. I'm actually hiding in the back of the station wagon underneath a blanket with the sound man in all those scenes. Actually, the set - in that particular scene, the sound was so bad because of the Long Island Expressway, we had to loop the entire scene. Everyone's voice had been replaced, which, as a filmmaker, as I listen to it, I can tell. But I think we got away with it. It was - that was very challenging. But, you know, it taught me some technical skills.
DAVIES: Yeah. You did a lot of directing in television for some really great shows - I mean, "Undeclared" and "Arrested Development." You want to just tell us a little how you got into that and what that experience was like?
Mr. MOTTOLA: Well, when I came out of film school, I was hoping to emulate heroes of mine like Woody Allen, and kind of write and direct my own small movies. And then I realized that that's actually quite hard to do. It's very hard to be Woody Allen. And I realized I just need to be working, and I just need to work with good people. And Judd Apatow called me and asked me if I wanted to direct an episode of his second television series "Undeclared." And I think before he finished the sentence, I yelled yes several times...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOTTOLA: ...and essentially moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles immediately, because I was dying to get experience. And it was one of the better decisions I've made in my life.
DAVIES: Is there an episode or a particular moment that you really treasure?
Mr. MOTTOLA: Well, working with Judd is kind of like comedy boot camp. He does have an amazing comedy mind, and, you know, Judd was one of the first people who told me: You know, if a joke is funny, but it's not moving the story forward, you have to cut it. You have to be disciplined. You have to - you know, or if a joke is counter to the character's psychology, you have to cut it. He has a real aesthetic about storytelling and trying to balance comedy and psychology and storytelling and plot, and all those things. So I took a lot away from that.
Judd also has a great kind of Mike Leigh, Cassavetes version of comedy where -part of the reason he loves improv so much is that it puts the actors in a position where they don't know what the other actor's going to do. You can kind of - you can get lightning in a bottle with that technique, because an actor's waiting for a line sometimes, if it's in the script, and something else comes, and they have to be on their toes. And it elicits, often, a response that's quite surprising. And if your actor's really in the moment and very inventive, surprising, funny, wonderful things happen.
And I really admire Judd's techniques in that regard. In TV, you know, the director is - it's not an auteur medium for directors. It really is the producer-writer's medium. As such, it takes a lot of the heat off of you, so you get to try things that are harder to try in features because there's so much pressure and so much money at stake. It was quite freeing to do television for a few years.
DAVIES: Well, Greg Mottola, it's been fun. Thanks so much.
Mr. MOTTOLA: Oh, thank you so much, Dave.
DAVIES: Greg Mottola directed the films, "Daytrippers," "Superbad" and "Adventureland." His latest film "Paul" is now out on DVD.
Coming up, John Powers considers the cultural impact of the Al Pacino film "Scarface" as a new Blu-ray version is released.