Winter 2009

Greg Mottola
Comedy Auteur

Superbad's Greg Mottola is serious about making funny movies, but that doesn't mean he's pretentious about it.


STAND-UP GUY: It took Mottola 10 years to get his second feature
made. "I was very stubborn," he says. (Photo Credit: Mark Mahaney)

"You know, there's still a part of me that thinks there's more purity to, say, what Woody Allen does, than in being a for-hire guy," muses Greg Mottola, contemplating the career twists and turns that have put him somewhere in between those two categories. "Still, once I got over my own pretentious, earnest desire to be nothing but an 'auteur,' I've had an awful lot of fun."

Mottola's desire—pretentious and earnest or not—to be an auteur is one of the things that explains the over 10-year gap between his first theatrical feature, 1996's acerbic, beautifully observed dysfunctional family comedy The Daytrippers, and his second, the somewhat broader but still discomfortingly acute teen comedy, Superbad, one of 2007's funniest summer hits.

Growing up on Long Island, Mottola recalls his interest in cinema getting kick-started by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on the one hand, and a double feature of Play It Again, Sam and Bananas on the other. Having tried to get a few scripts made after taking graduate classes at Columbia with Sidney Lumet, David Mamet, and George Roy Hill, and feeling "thwarted," Mottola just sat down and wrote Daytrippers quickly.

"I designed it to take place in locations that wouldn't cost us money so we could shoot for nothing," Mottola recalls. The picture follows Eliza (Hope Davis), her controlling mom (Anne Meara), and a few other motley family members as they trek from Long Island to Manhattan to discover if Eliza's husband is cheating on her. "We got the film in the can for 7,000 bucks," says Mottola. "And there was a wave around the time Daytrippers came out; some indie directors were getting to step up and do a studio film—films that were in an indie style, but with studio financing." So Mottola struck a deal with Columbia to do another one of his scripts, something that was very much in the spirit of Daytrippers. A year of rewriting and casting, followed by three months of preproduction, and the studio got cold feet.

Rather than move on, Mottola literally spent years trying to set the project up elsewhere. "I was very stubborn," he recalls.

The need to make a living intervened. Mottola wound up doing something he never envisioned: television. Judd Apatow—then a fairly successful purveyor of comic goods in TV and film but hardly the juggernaut he is today—tapped Mottola to direct episodes of the series Undeclared. A stint on the first season of the cult phenom Arrested Development followed.

"Doing Undeclared was, as Judd said it would be, comedy boot camp. I mean it really was working with actors whose strength with comedy was what made them stand out. But the challenge was trying to keep the episodes grounded—not to make them feel like it was nothing but one joke after another. While at the same time, within the telling pace of a 20-minute television show, trying to put in as many jokes as you can."

For all its hilarity, Undeclared hewed to a fairly linear sitcom structure—which was certainly not the case with Arrested Development. "The show had this brilliant stylistic concept of it being a sort of fake documentary, an almost reality-show mode. The obligation to remain grounded just wasn't there."

YOUNG AND RESTLESS: Mottola (left) directs Christopher
Mintz-Plasse as the super nerdy Fogell (aka McLovin) in
Superbad. (Credit: Melissa Moseley/Sony Pictures)

When Mottola first encountered the script for Superbad at a table reading, he saw some affinities between that and Daytrippers. Like the Daytrippers' characters, the horny teens of Superbad are on a short-term but urgent quest. "Daytrippers ostensibly takes place in a 24-hour period, and Superbad is about the same. What I like about movies that take place over a short amount of time—like American Graffiti—is that you can dispense with a lot of boring exposition. The pressure of compressed time allows you to work in a much more naturalistic way, and still have a sense of suspense that justifies the story. And if the writing is good and the characters are really well-drawn and psychologically true, you can stop and slow down moments. You can spend time on trivial things and they get magnified and are much funnier."

Working with long takes which, Mottola notes, is also Apatow's favored mode in directing, "gives a lot more freedom to the actors than, say, doing ten different setups for five lines of dialogue and having the actors stick to the script every time. That's a completely valid way of working in comedy. But I found on Superbad having a fluid camera and just letting the actors go can really help them find their way to something honest and real, which I thought was crucial for the picture."

Mottola had been working on one of his own scripts when producer Apatow called asking him to direct Superbad, and he immediately agreed. "I think my agents might have been slightly surprised. I was still getting offered things and passing on everything because they just weren't interesting to me. It surprised them that this ostensible teen comedy was the one I really wanted to make. But anyone who knows Judd's work and looks at the actual writing, they'll see that the script is really well written. And it's very smart."

Superbad was shot for $29 million on video, a format Mottola's still not wholly reconciled to. "I didn't really want to shoot digital video but [Superbad's producer and distributor] Sony makes a lot of the software and hardware; they have a lot invested in everything switching over to digital. It saved a little bit of money—not much. But as a personal preference, I think the colors are never as beautiful, you don't have as much range there."

These days Mottola is getting hired more frequently, and the gaps between his features are getting shorter. He recently completed—in 35 mm—his next film, Adventureland. A somewhat autobiographical piece set in the '80s, it chronicles a teenager's (The Squid and the Whale's Jesse Eisenberg) professional and romantic travails one summer working at a dilapidated amusement park. Lest anyone think that Mottola is exclusively going the teen-picture route, he notes that Adventureland was the script he had been working on when Apatow called with Superbad.

Mottola's next project, Paul, sounds like another foray into extended adolescence. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost wrote and star as two full-grown British comic book fans trekking across the USA. "It's a tremendous amount of fun," says Mottola. "You know, comedy people are complicated. But I like complicated people, I like dark people, I like fucked-up people, I like neurotic people. And also, these guys, and pretty much everyone who works in Judd's world, are really menschy.

Mottola is excited and appalled that he will have maybe 60 days to shoot Paul. "Filmmaking is maddening because you can never be perfect, and I still feel like I never have enough time. Even though Superbad was a $29 million dollar film it didn't feel like it. Weirdly, everything I've done has practically felt like Daytrippers. You're shooting a scene and you get one take with the actors and move on."

Well, perhaps the larger budget will be reflected in, say, improved craft services?

Not necessarily. "My mom made pasta for the Daytrippers shoot," says Mottola, "and it was great."

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