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SXSW: Capone spaces out with PAUL director Greg Mottola!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, continuing both my SXSW Film Festival coverage and my look at the very funny film PAUL, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The director of the film is extremely reliable Greg Mottola, who also helmed such wonderful movies as DAYTRIPPER, SUPERBAD, and ADVENTURLAND (he also did many episodes of "Undeclared"). With PAUL, Mottola is entering unknown territory, combining both science-fiction elements with a great road-trip story, two types of stories that Mottola has never tackled before.

One of Mottola's greatest strengths as a storyteller has always been making us believe the friendships among his characters, and PAUL is no exception. He takes time out of a fairly crowded story to let the characters exist together without concern for moving the plot forward every second. It's called character development; maybe you've heard of it. And it actually makes us care about these people and one alien, and made me love the movie. So, here is my conversation with Mottola, which will be followed later to day with a fairly lengthy sit down with Pegg and Frost, which took place inside the actual RV used in the movie. Both are very fun interviews. Enjoy Greg Mottola…

Greg Mottola: How has the festival been for you so far?

Capone: Yeah, my day is about half over after this [said at about 3pm], still have three more movies to see.

GM: I’m sure.

Capone: Today is maybe one of the busiest days for me.

[Mottola begins flipping through photos on his phone.]

GM: I’m not being rude, I'm pulling up a photograph I want to show you just because it’s really embarrassing. Not that I’m assuming you are going to ask me a question that has come up with some people: “Why are you directing his movie?”

Capone: I already asked Simon and Nick that. “Why did you entrust your vision to HIM?!”

GM: But I have been asked “Are you a fanboy?” kind of questions and this is the best proof I could have of some maybe fanboy credibility, which is essentially that this something I drew when I was an art student at Carnegie Mellon [University] back in 1982. I was 18 years old, and it was right at the beginning of school and they said, “Draw yourself with your hero,” and I had very bad '80s hair, which subsequently fell out a year later, because of alopecia, which is a shame because I’ve never had a good haircut. But this is the dorkiest thing I've ever done in my life.

[Capone looks at the picture, which is a hand-drawn image of a young Greg fighting alongside C3P0.]

Capone: Wow!

GM: It is fucking dorky.

Capone: It doesn’t get much dorkier, that’s great.

GM: Yeah, but I drew a pretty good C3PO.

Capone: That’s good, I didn’t know you were an artist at one point.

GM: I used to draw a lot. I don’t have time for it anymore, but it looks a little like C3PO is being entered from behind, but he’s always kind of had that.

Capone: I wasn’t going to ask you that question, but what I was going to say was that the most recent films you've done were either based on someone else’s story--like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on SUPERBAD--or based on a version of what you went through, as in ADVENTURELAND…

GM: What’s surprising is that some of the stuff in SUPERBAD that’s the most outrageous actually did happen, like the story of someone dancing with a woman at a party and ending up with a stain on their leg actually happened, not to Seth and Evan, but it happened to a friend of theirs at a high school dance. So yes there was a basis in reality. Whereas, Simon and Nick have not met an alien.

Capone: Right. Obviously, your geek credibility lends itself to a film about guys looking for alien locations, but it wasn’t a story based in reality. Did that require you to flex a different muscle for you telling that kind of story?

GM: Yeah, I was definitely very intimidated to do it on a number of levels, one is that Simon and Nick had this amazing collaboration with Edgar. I think Edgar is a phenomenal director and I knew going into it that the last thing I could do was try to emulate his style. I would really be screwed if I tried to truly emulate his style and his way of moving the camera and his fast cutting. There was no way I could do what he does. So I was nervous about that, and I was nervous about doing a CG main character, and I was nervous about the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time and money, because a CG main character costs so much that we had to move really fast.

And as you said, it was also not a movie where I could sort of draw on my interest in movies that are based in reality and it wasn’t a naturalistic film. But I thought, “I do want to have other experiences as a filmmaker. I do want to try other things and see what that feels like and what I can bring to it.” I guess in the same way when I read SUPERBAD, I wasn’t necessarily chasing after teen comedies, but I really did feel, “I get something about this movie that I think maybe qualifies me to direct it. I think I have a perspective on these characters and how to tell the story that might give it some life that I could do a good job with.”

When I read PAUL I thought, “I’m not the obvious choice for this,” but I felt I had some ideas, besides I love all of those movies and knew that the nostalgia trip aspect of it would be really fun. A big part of it was like I wanted to direct a kind of naturalistic, low-key CGI performance. I feel like that’s not what you see CGI characters doing most of the time. They tend to be, especially in a live-action movie, they tend to be monsters, comic relief, supporting players. There are not that many in the lead who are fulfilling the needs of a real comedy, giving a funny performance. You know it’s heightened, because the whole movie is heightened, but it’s not THE MASK. It’s not ROGER RABBIT. He is living a photo-real place, and there’s a lot of me saying “Less is more” to the animators.

Capone: When I went in to see this film, I didn’t realize that it was going to be this love letter to Steven Spielberg and not just the alien films Spielberg, but all of his films. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS parallels are probably the most obvious by the end. That feels like something that you might have brought in more than those guys did.

GM: I think that’s probably true, because I always loved SUGARLAND EXPRESS. I had a lot of affection for that movie. Again, it’s one of those movies that after I saw JAWS, I tracked it down and rented it on VHS or something, and I watched whenever it came on TV. We didn’t have the kind of budget, and I didn’t see this movie as being a spectacle film. It’s not going to compete with giant tent-pole Hollywood movies. So, I thought, “Okay, I’ve never shot anything in the desert. I’ve barely ever shot anything outside during the day.” If it’s outside, it’s usually at night, and we shot landscapes.

Vilmos Zsigmond shot SUGARLAND EXPRESS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and those films are beautifully shot movies. The conversation about how JAWS and STAR WARS ruined the great run of '70s filmmaking, I think “Yes, maybe those movies brought people back to the theater for a kind of shared, different kind of pop culture experience that was similar to what it was like during the studio system.” Maybe that brought a wave of movies back, but you can’t look at CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and SUGARLAND EXPRESS and say that Spielberg wasn’t up there with his peers crafting these amazing character movies. For what people remember of the suspense and the magic of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, it is also a great fucking character film. And not a tidy one. The guy is left by his wife and family, and it’s intense. So yeah, I went back and I watched DUEL, because DUEL was just so low budget, and the stories of how he actually made that film…

Capone: The documentary on the DVD is really informative.

GM: Right, it's phenomenal. Like how he plotted out and put cameras along a road, and how he could get all of the coverage and figure out how he could get all of the coverage he needed and shot it in like seven days.

Capone: It was a very short amount of road.

GM: Yeah, obviously there’s no one like him and I have no allusion that I come like within a 100,000 light years of Spielberg in my filmmaking, but I hoped to have my cake and eat it too a little bit insofar as to evoke a kind of tempo and style of storytelling, even though it has to satisfy the needs of comedy. This is not a naturalistic film, so the jokes need to keep coming at a certain pace, but I did want it to not only be a slave to the joke machine; I wanted it to also hopefully work on a level of enjoyable fun and ridiculous yarn that sneaks in a few emotional moments and a little bit of magic maybe at the end that, if nothing else, makes one nostalgic for when films stopped a bit more for character and emotion as opposed to: “Let’s get to the next giant set piece.”

Capone: That certainly brings up the road trip aspect, which is exactly what those films tend to do as well as be naturalistic and leave room for talking and character development. The barbecue scene seems like a nod to EASY RIDER.

GM: But no one gets bludgeoned. [laughs]

Capone: That’s right. But if they had, how cool would that have been?

GM: It’d be funny if someone came in and killed Paul with a bat and then the credits roll.

Capone: That’s a dark movie. With the CGI, were you nervous about doing it without working in that environment, and now that you have done it, would you do it again? Would you jump at the chance, or run the other way?

GM: I would say there is an advantage to being ignorant, because if I had any idea how hard it was, I might have passed on the movie. I didn’t know until I was in postproduction that it was going to be a year and a half to finish it and I kind of feel like nobody really knew, even the special effects people. Even [special effects house] Double Negative, for the amazing work they do--most recently on films like INCEPTION, IRON MAN--they hadn’t quite done this.

There is a difference between effects and character work and full on animation. What Pixar does versus what ILM does is slightly different, it’s not always the same and we were in Pixar territory to a certain extent. Even then, it’s not quite the same, because Pixar can live in a hyper-real world, it doesn’t have to be photo real. They can behave like Looney Tunes characters, with a lot of exaggeration for effect, whereas Paul needed to feel like a human in his performance. So yeah I learned a lot. I’m not ready to go back to it yet, it was a little too hard, but once you see it starting to work, it’s quite exciting. I feel like if we had more money on the production end of it we could have done some more stuff, but the limitations give it a quality.

Capone: This didn’t look like a cheap film at all.

GM: I hope so. My strategy, a little bit, was that the driving stuff would be more grungy and handheld and smaller and claustrophobic, and then the movie would slowly turn into this Hollywood movie that Simon and Nick’s characters would imagine in their heads. Maybe with the introduction of, particularly, Jason Bateman’s character, Zoil, things get a little bit slicker, and the bad guys are a slightly different style and the two styles merge into like the last third of the movie.

Capone: I love the recreation of Comic-Con, what was the toughest part of the recreation. And no, I wasn’t there that day.

GM: I know, it's a shame we didn’t have you.

Capone: I firmly believe that if you can see yourself in that shot of the audience, then you should not be allowed to review the film. That’s just my own personal restriction. I remember when we spoke before with ADVENTURELAND, you were just sort of starting to figure out the dynamics of it, and how you were going to have to get all of these licensing approvals and you couldn’t show certain things. What did it end up being I guess?

GM: If Lucasfilm and Paramount with the Star Trek licensing had said “No,” I don’t know what we would have done. You can’t have just steam punks, you know? Then it’s a steam punk convention. So, that obviously was critical. Other people have tried to recreate Comic Con who maybe didn’t have friends in high places like Simon and Nick. We didn’t have as many extras as I would have liked, because as you know Comic Con is just a mass of people, but the sequence was short, so I thought we could Kind of cheat that a bit.

The other pieces of it we shot right after Comic Con finished, so we were able to make deals with various vendors who were very generous who came with their actual booths, so the set dressing looked real. It looked like the real thing and that’s the kind of stuff where you fall down where you run out of time and money and the production department ends up doing stuff that looks almost right. It’s not like watching a movie where people work on computers and the graphics don’t look right.

Capone: And you would hear about it, too, if it looked real enough. You would hear about it from people who go to Comic Con. (Laughs)

GM: Right, I know. And we really wanted it to be right for the people who do go to Comic Con.

Capone: Much like ADVENTURELAND, you've got another killer soundtrack. Anyone that has ELO on their soundtrack gets point from me.

GM: Well that’s good, because ELO was my choice. Not that Simon and Nick were against it, but they were like “Huh, that didn’t occur to us. Is that a good idea?” Then, the more we lived with it, the more we liked it, but I did have to write a letter to Jeff Lynne to ask if that was cool and he was really nice. I love ELO. They were bigger first in America than they were in the UK. Any band that tours with a giant spaceship seems like it had a place in this movie.

Capone: It was either them or George Clinton, so this one makes a little bit more sense.

GM: That's right.

Capone: Anyway, Greg it’s good to see you again.

GM: Good to see you.

Capone: Thanks a lot.

GM: Thanks and I hope you have a fantastic festival.

Capone: I will. Thanks.

-- Capone
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