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Paul - Greg Mottola interview

Greg Mottola

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GREG Mottola talks about making the leap from films such as Superbad and Adventureland to Paul and being asked to direct Steven Spielberg.

He also talks about working with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and why he feels that creationists are fair game for the butt of some of the movie’s jokes.

Q. How did you decide to give the alien a human element?
Greg Mottola: We did experiment with giving him alien teeth and an alien tongue. He always had a human mouth, but I guess I wanted Paul to feel like he was what we will evolve into in 500 billion years. His species was human once. Obviously, we wanted him to be relatable. One of the things I kept telling the special effects people was that they kept putting all these skin tones on him to make him look alien – splotches and stuff that made him look as though he was suffering from melanomas… and I thought: “That does make him look like more of an organic alien; that’s what people expect from an alien.”

But ultimately he’s the lead in the movie and he’s got to be kind of appealing to look at. It took away some of their tricks for making a CG character, but it was also my sneaky way of getting them to worker harder on giving him more skin wrinkles and all the things that make him feel kind of there – the stuff that happens in your peripheral vision with a CG character. It took a long time to get Paul. He did not look good for a long time and I was pleased at a certain point with how he looked. When Simon [Pegg] first told me the idea for this – before he’d even written it – he said that it should feel like Little Miss Sunshine and instead of Alan Arkin it’s an alien. I’m stealing his joke there, of course! But I come from the world of indie films, we shot a lot of the scenes hand-held, we wanted it to feel like funny ensemble characters stuck in a car and one of them happens to be an incredibly expensive special effect!

Q. How did you come to be involved with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the first place?
Greg Mottola: It was a lot of faith on the part of Simon really. Simon and I met for the first time… he was starting the script with Nick. My agent called me and said that Simon wanted to talk to me about a project. It was just before my movie Superbad came out. We met the day that Superbad was opening in the United States and Simon had just finished shooting all night long on How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. So, he’d been up all night, I was having my first studio film ever come out, he was out of it and I was extremely anxious and it was such a nice distraction to be talking about another project. Simon then pitched me the concept and then said: “I’ll go off and see your movie…”

He’d seen my little tiny indie film, Daytrippers, that I’d made a long time ago when it played in London. He liked it for what it was and I think he liked the idea that it was this kind of slightly rough around the edges indie film and that style might therefore be an interesting way to go for parts of Paul. He then saw Superbad, wrote his script and thankfully called me six months later and said: “OK, we’ve got a script, do you want to read it?” It was always understood that Edgar [Wright] would not be available to do this one.


Q. Did you ever hesitate?
Greg Mottola: If I hesitated at all, it was only because I thought: “Oh shit, I’m going to get destroyed for just stepping into Edgar’s shoes… because I can’t direct action and sci-fi the way Edgar would be able to!” I know I don’t have the skill set he has for that kind of filmmaking. He’s one of a kind. But I thought for better or worse, I’d bring something different and that would maybe bring something interesting.

Q. How hard was it to work with them to begin with?
Greg Mottola: I think there was a certain amount of us trying to make sure we were making the same movie but they gave me a lot of room. I’ve said in other interviews, we had an enormous amount of fun making this film to the extent that I was really worried it would be unrelease-able because we were having so much fun! We all really got along. It was a few months of extreme silliness. And the movie is a very light film. I don’t have any illusions that we’ve made the next Battleship Potemkin. But having said that it was exciting for me to try things I’ve never done before, certainly CGI. The big challenge was… Paul was actually the most well rounded character on the page and I thought that’s the challenge. If we can make him an interesting person to watch, someone you actually gave a shit about, who has some different qualities to his personality so that he’s not just a running visual gag and actually is a character, and do that with CG, which I don’t even particularly like…

Q. But it’s the only way of doing it?
Greg Mottola: Well, we did make an animatronic version of Paul because every time we could use a robot Paul we would save a lot of money in post-production. Needless to say, there’s only actually two shots of it in the whole movie and they usually have digital enhancements! But in this day and age people won’t accept that – not with something that has to be on the screen so much and have to act. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again but I’ve learned an enormous amount. I think they trusted me enough to think I could possibly pull off the idea of directing animators to get the type of a performance out of a CG character that I would get out of a human.

Q. How daunting was it directing Steven Spielberg?
Greg Mottola: It was very daunting. The Spielberg scene was Spielberg’s idea. Simon will tell you that when they were working on Tintin they were telling him the whole premise of Paul and Spielberg said: “Oh, I should just do a cameo of myself talking to Paul on the phone.” So, one day we were going to shoot it and we just did it live with Seth and Spielberg in a recording studio just interrupting each other and talking over each other. Because we had a bunch of cameras on Seth for the animators I had to wait until all the cameras were up and running and I could call ‘action’.

But I was so nervous that I missed the sign from the camera people that we were u0 and rolling. We were all just sitting there and time was passing and no one was calling ‘action’. I had Spielberg look at me and say: “Can I begin?” So, I f**ked up my one chance of directing Spielberg! But then he asked me for some direction and I thought [looks sceptical]: “OK, I can direct Steven Spielberg, I can do this…” And I gave him some direction and he took it and I got better. So, I thought: “I’ve now directed Steven Spielberg! I can check that off!” [Laughs] But he couldn’t have been nicer.


Q. You’ve said the film is a bit of a love letter to the ‘70s and films like ET and Close Encounters. Your first two films, Superbad and Adventureland, also contain a heavy sense of nostalgia. How do you feel about the past? Is there a sense of tragedy that these times have past?
Greg Mottola: I think there’s certainly a danger in it because nostalgia in of itself is lazy. But unfortunately I am very drawn by it. But it’s obvious that Simon and Nick’s love of those movies is very sincere. When I grew up in the suburbs I wasn’t exposed to weird or more interesting films. I never got to see foreign films very much. So, when I was in college I started to fall in love with classic ‘50s and ‘60s cinema from around the world. I was already obsessed with Woody Allen and knew those people were his influences.

So, I very much went in the direction of wanting to do naturalistic comedy drama stuff. I’d never thought I would do a sci-fi movie. But I was seven-years-old when my parents took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in theatres and it completely blew my mind. I was 12 when Star Wars came out and, like many people, completely fell in love with it. It went straight into my DNA. I’ve read a lot of science fiction as a kid, a lot of comic books, and there just wasn’t that culture back then. There just wasn’t the world of graphic novels, so it didn’t stay part of my life. It really stopped in my teenage years and I moved onto other things like trying to get girls – which didn’t work out so well for a while!

So, I have the same sort of feelings about those movies. But I think it’s not just nostalgic because part of the reason those movies are so important to cinema is that the technology changed. 2001 couldn’t have been made in the ‘50s, although there are great movies like Forbidden Planet. But special effects changed and it opened up a new kind of movie that could be made. And even though Star Wars in itself is very nostalgic for serial films and swashbuckler movies, it’s a kind of film that couldn’t have been made on that scale before. Even a film like Alien, the look and feel of that movie, you couldn’t have made it a decade prior. So, it’s a certain kind of magical cinema because that’s the beginning of something that’s carried on. So, I understand the love for it and I still have those feelings about those movies. I don’t have any experience in it, so it was all a huge learning curve.

Q. There are a lot of references in Paul. So what is your favourite science fiction film? And are you afraid it might just turn into a film for geeks?
Greg Mottola: Well, for me 2001 remains one of my favourite films ever. And for pure entertainment and my romantic side, The Empire Strikes Back is still one of my favourite films ever. I have those feelings about Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is mixed up with youth and nostalgia but it’s also connected to my love of movies. My dad, in particular, exposed me to a lot of classic Hollywood – Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, the golden age of Hollywood movies – so I have strong feelings about that stuff. As far as the sci-fi and all the geek references, the Spielberg and Star Wars and Alien references, I tried to design it in a way that hopefully the movie keeps going.

So, if people don’t get it… We haven’t screened it that much because it’s hard to show with unfinished effects, but we did show it to people in London and LA and there were young people who had never seen ET or Close Encounters and they didn’t get it. So, I was really curious to see if it ruined the movie for them. But when we did little focus groups it seemed that they were OK with that. They would hear people laughing around them and they wouldn’t know why but we didn’t linger on it so much that it didn’t feel so in-joke. But we only use films that are very famous and a lot of people have seen them. And I think we then also run the risk that certain parts of the geek community will not like it because the references aren’t obscure enough and are too mainstream.


But when I read the script I felt it was a little bit like what hip-hop musicians do with sampling. I mean, we’re sort of stealing from other movies, and taking concepts that were written by other people and saying: “Paul can heal someone like ET can.” It is very much built into the movie that it’s cultural references that we’re appropriating. At the same time, it’s coming from such a sincere place of love for that stuff, so maybe… plus making fun of a certain kind of Christians. So, maybe it’ll have a freshness much in the same way as sometimes I’ll experience a hip-hop song and think… in the beginning when De La Soul came along, I thought: “Oh, that’s a Steely Dan song. So, do I like the fact that they’re sampling a Steely Dan song and putting it into a hip hop song? I do! Is it a good thing? I don’t know!” So, to me it’s a little bit of an experiment but hopefully it doesn’t just play on the cheesy level of Scary Movie 5. I hope the movie has its own energy and momentum that allows it work differently for different people depending on their cultural references. Much like Spaced.

Q. Has the reaction differed between American and UK audiences?
Greg Mottola: It’s interesting in both cases there was always a couple of people who were offended by the Christian jokes. Some people just criticised it because they thought it was too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I personally feel that, as an American, I have a strong feeling… not that this is a political film but when I read it, it made me laugh because I’m someone who believes in the separation of church and state and I’m just really sick of that portion of America that’s trying to drag Christianity into every discussion. I think America has a lot of problems that are not going to be solved by one religious group enforcing their beliefs on the rest of the country. But we’re talking about creationists here, and they’re crazy because they don’t believe in science and I think they’re fair game. It’s like: “If that’s your belief system, then fine, but if you’re going to enforce that on me I’m going to push back and laugh at it because I think it’s crazy.”

Q. But there do seem to be a lot of them?
Greg Mottola: Well, they’re in government now. There are a whole bunch of party candidates who are creationists who will go on TV and say that they really believe that the Earth is 4,000 years old and… but they’re just dumbing down the dialogue in my country in a way that’s just wasting a lot of people’s time. It’s not helping the country. But if America’s wasting its time on that stupidity then it’s not helping the world either because America could be doing better things. Obviously, America’s done a lot of bad things but…. I do feel a lot more people laugh at the America bashing here than they do over there, but at the same time there are a lot of people who feel the same way I do in America, who are happy to make fun of small mindedness. I just hope that none of you are creationists [laughs].

Read our review of Paul

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