Director Greg Mottola had great luck: his first stable TV gig was helming six episodes of Undeclared, the 2001-2002 sitcom that gave shelter and nurturing to Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel after the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks. Before then, Mottola was best-known for The Daytrippers, a small indie film that went to Cannes in 1996 on the strength of stars Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis. But Undeclared begat Superbad, and suddenly Mottola became the comedy director everyone wanted to hire. With the opening of his latest movie, Paul, an alien road trip adventure starring Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg and Nick Frost plus the voice of Seth Rogen as an intergalactic stoner, Mottola's in position to talk about what gets geeks to theaters—and is there geek life on other planets?
I heard that Simon Pegg wanted you because you're an American director.
I am the only American director. Simon's a very sheltered person.
As an American, what were you able to bring to capture the feeling of a road trip in New Mexico?
That's a good question. Obviously, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have a real British quality to them. They depict life in London and in small British towns in such a hilarious way. Simon and Nick were doing something different here. Not that I am any expert on the American southwest, but I suppose I did bring to it my experience with the other comedy actors in the movie—and, for better or worse, an American sensibility. What was Simon thinking when he hired me? Honestly, I met him the day Superbad was opening. He had just finished shooting a movie in New York. He shot all night long and I was very anxious because my first studio film was opening and meeting was a great distraction, I think, for both of us. He hadn't even seen Superbad yet, but he had seen this tiny indie film I had done called The Daytrippers in London and liked it. He just said, "I want this movie to not feel the same as the stuff I do with Edgar. I'm not looking for somebody who's going to replicate his style." What I like about Daytrippers was this kind of low budget, car trip, claustrophobic feel and he said, "I just kept seeing Paul as Little Miss Sunshine with an alien in it." I think he just liked the idea of a movie that at least starts off as a more contained indie vibe and it grows into a Hollywood movie by the end-and has a character in the middle of it who just so happens to be a very expensive special effect.
As a team, Simon and Nick Frost are so used to working with director Edgar Wright. Was there an adjustment period when you guys had to learn each other's language on the set?
Definitely. I mean, I was very intimidated. I felt like I was in a no-win situation with certain people because those movies are so loved and have a really devoted following, and myself I'm a huge admirer of Edgar's prestigious gifts. And I thought, "Well, I'm just going to get slammed when this comes out." In some quarters I have been, but Simon and Nick made it very clear right away that they weren't looking for me to be like Edgar. They were letting me find my way doing a bunch of things that I hadn't done before, like car chases and CGI main characters. I feel like it didn't take very long before we were clicking. We did do this one test scene from the movie very, very early—long before we got a green light on the film—to try and figure out how we were going to pull off the CGI with the company that we wanted to hire in the UK. It was the first time we were getting to know each other and I realized that Simon and Nick don't necessarily work the same way as my friends I had met through Judd Apatow. They're not as likely to start improvisinng the same way that everyone who has come though "Judd School" does. That's as much about Judd's approach as theirs—and once I realized that they wanted to stick pretty close to the script and really focus on the structure of things, the adjustment was pretty easy for me because I like both disciplines: being really open to things, but also trying to hone in on what I want to say and be specific and have a point of view. The director's job is to go back and forth between those things constantly.
The tone of this feels so early Steven Spielberg—not just E.T. and Close Encounters, but there's some Duel in there, too.
Well, I started obviously reacquainting myself with Close Encounters and E.T., then I thought, "This movie does take place in the desert a lot," so I re-watched Duel and Sugarland Express. We actually weren't working with a huge budget—this is kind of at the budget of an I Love You, Man, Get Him to the Greek—type comedy, plus practically a third of our budget was going into just building Paul and the effects roles—so we were not even that far off from Superbad. I knew that we couldn't do a big spectacle movie, it couldn't be a super duper action film. We didn't have a second unit or anything like that, but I thought there was something really lovely about the way Spielberg shot all that stuff without money back when he was working without much in the way of means. He did also have Vilmos Zsigmond shoot Sugarland Express, who is one of the greatest DPs to ever live. I hope some of it rubbed off. I tried not to shoot the whole thing as just master shots and over-the-shoulder shots the way most comedies are. At the end of the day, a comedy is about making it funny. But since this was trying to satisfy the genre of fantasy, I felt it had to open up a bit. It was fun for me because I've been dying to do something a little more visual, to get out in the desert. And I had a really good DP, this guy Larry Sher who shot The Hangover and Garden State—he's very visual. Even though we had to work really fast—and it was constantly raining or hailing in the middle of summer, which is bizarre—we did get to have some real degree of fun. I hope at the end of the movie, it's turned into a more classic Hollywood feel and shed it's raggedy, indie spirit.
Although it has such a cozy '80s feel that you could have almost gotten away with bad special effects, like Mac and Me.
I know! We thought about that because Paul's CGI was so expensive that it was eating into our budget a lot, but we just felt he should be state of the art. I felt one of the advantages of shooting a lot of stuff handheld is that people wouldn't be thinking about it so much. It wasn't like one of the special effects things where we it's like, "Look at this cool thing we made!" It's just like, "Hey, that just happens to be an alien and it can't possibly be a guy in a suit." Literally, we discussed versions where it was a kid wearing prosthetic hands and we'd CGI a head on him—and that would have been such a disaster and the film would have probably never gotten made. It probably would have been closer to Mac and Me.
Did you ever consider casting a less recognizable voice or did you always know you wanted Seth Rogen?
Honestly, the studio wanted somebody that they would recognize. I think my only hesitation with Seth was his age because Paul has supposedly been on the planet for 60-some odd years and is quite cantankerous. But knowing Seth as well as I do, he's always been like a middle-age guy trapped in a young person's body, so it didn't worry me that much. I think Seth's vitality is really good for the character because as Seth said best after reading script the first time, "He's kind of like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop or Ferris Bueller." It's just one of those characters that doesn't change over the course of the movie but has a subtle effect on the people around him, gets them all to lighten up a little bit, which was actually very helpful for me thinking about how to put the movie together. He's one of those of unapologetic aliens who just tells people, "Be who you are. It doesn't matter what other people think." I think there's something quite fun about that and Seth can just pull that off.
And there's a lot of geek pride, too. Do geeks even need more pride? Especially on the internet, it feels like they're ruling the world.
It's interesting, the rise of the geek. I get asked sometimes by the hardcore fanboy blogs, "So are you one of us?" And the truth is, I'm someone who when I was seven my parents took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in the movie theaters and it blew my mind, I was twelve when Star Wars came out and I collected comic books and I read science fiction novels, but back then there wasn't this geek culture. I didn't find a lot of other like-minded people, so as time went on I became friends with people with other interests. I sort of put it aside. And I go see sci-fi movies and watch my favorites but I'm not someone who still collects comics, besides graphic novels and stuff. Having said that, I feel like I'm a different generation to some extent. Of course Simon is still completely wrapped up in that stuff because he's an über geek, he's an overlord of geekdom.
I think he does rule the geeks. I think he could snap his fingers and they would all obey him.
Yeah, Comic-Con if you are out and about with Simon, you just feel like you're with Mick Jagger circa 1971. It's insane. But I have a lot of affection. I understand why they love it, I love it a lot and I still do. I still re-watch those movies and I would never begrudge some who really, really loved something positive and imaginative and great. If I had more time and fewer kids, I would probably get back into it, but fucking babies. There were so many kids born on Paul. Simon had a baby right in the middle of shooting; my wife and I had twin girls two weeks after we wrapped shooting.
I saw that. Congratulations.
Thank you. I don't know if we'll have any time for comic books right now. There's definitely going to be with this movie going to be geek factions that will not like it because the references will be deemed too obvious or overdone or from 30 years ago-and it's all fair. It's not an invalid point to say that Star Wars and Close Encounters and Alien, part of the reason that they've so deeply affected people of a certain generation-including me and Simon, who's a bit younger than me, and Nick, who says Close Encounters is his favorite film—is that movies just changed after 2001 through the '70s and '80s. You could show creatures and worlds that had never been shown on screen before. It was completely fit-for-fantasy film making; it was just a completely different new thing. For us, we're stuck in the past a little bit because those things went straight into our bloodstream. It's interesting. I really tried hard not to make a film that would have people feeling left out if they didn't get the references. My sister-in-law just saw it and said that it's by far the favorite film of anything I've ever made. She knows nothing about science fiction. She's never seen Star Wars.
Is that possible?
She's got to be one of like seven people in America. I think she just liked Paul as a silly adventure story, comedy. She liked the jokes and she's a Christian and wasn't offended.
Let's talk about the religious aspect, because it's pretty bold. You have Kristen Wiig playing a fundamentalist who gets upended when Paul comes to her trailer park.
It's interesting. It'll be interesting to see how that plays here. It certainly made me laugh when I read it. Particularly because it's about creationists and I just find it a little hard to believe that in this day and age, that's a discussion on any kind of national level, but it comes up. I thought it was funny the first time I read it. It occurred to me before in fantasy movies anything like The Omen where there's proof that the devil exists, no one ever stops and says, "Well, the good news is there's God." So I know it sucks that this guy is chopping off people's heads but there's a bright side of the line. No one ever stops to have those discussions in movies, and I thought it was really funny that in an alien film they stopped to have a discussion about, "Well if he exists, then this one world theology stuff can't be true." It's very much like Simon and Nick to go down that strange path. I think if anyone were to be offended by it, my answer would be, "Look, Paul is just basically trying to open people's eyes up and say, ‘Make sure you don't miss the world around you.'" In the case of Graeme and Clive, Simon and Nick's characters, they're timid and not really living. In the case of the religious characters, they're so wrapped up in their dogma they don't see the other possibilities for happiness around them. I think it's interesting from the time the script was written till now, it's become an even hotter topic so who knows if that's going to get any attention?
When I was 18, that was the first time I found out that some people didn't believe in evolution and it really caught me off guard.
When it started to become a national thing and I heard that there was a creationist museum, I thought, "This is like a hoax. The Onion wrote this. This can't possibly be happening." It's bizarre to me. I feel like Kristen's character is sweet and sweet-natured. Are people going to get offended by a cartoon alien talking about atheism? All the sort of patriotic types get all pissed off about stuff. They seem to always forget that our country was founded on the idea of separation of church and state.
Paul can import all of his wisdom into people with the touch of his hand. What do you think he's telling them? And if you had the option of learning everything that he knew, would you take it?
Yeah, I think I would. This is a very pretentious answer to your question, but I remember I was talking about the legend of Faust. I had never seen any version of it or read any book. What does Faust want from God? What he wants is ultimate knowledge. It's not riches or keys to heaven; he just wants to know everything that's knowable. So for a certain type of person that would be pretty hard to say no to. To have at least the knowledge of Paul, who's theoretically been around the universe and comes from a planet where they have access to a lot more information than we do. It really would screw you up, though.
Yeah, it really would.
Your friends would really think you're an asshole.
You couldn't just hang out anymore. You'd always have to be talking about the nature of man.
They would be like, "Alright. Shut up."
"I'm sick of hearing about the infinite greatness of the universe!" Do you think aliens exist?
I definitely am of the school of thought that there has to be intelligence somewhere else in the universe just by the law of averages. Whether or not they have actually come here and buzzed around our cornfields, I'm pretty skeptical about, but I like the idea of it. I think there's a reason why it's such great folklore and why there's so many movies that keep getting made about it. I think aliens are the ultimate other. They're just like us. Often, they are giant spiders that want to eat us, but a lot of times they are kind of like mankind, the classic alien. Obviously, Paul is not so different. We could have all invented that aliens don't need bodies as much and their brains get bigger and bigger. We turn green. It would be pretty awesome if the government said, "Okay. Yes. We have an alien in the deep freeze."
That's going to happen in our lifetime, right?
It would definitely help our box office. Do you believe?
I do. It just seems mathematically impossible that there wouldn't be other life. I was re-watching Cosmos and in the first episode, Carl Sagan takes you through a tour of how gigantic the universe is. The idea that there's not aliens within a relative pebble's throw of our solar system is completely ludicrous.
Yeah, I think you're right. I think it's just a question of what kind of technology would there be to travel to another galaxy, to another universe, to another solar system. We could do it, but we'd have to build an Arc and many generations later it'd get there. But it could be done.
It will be done. I just hope we'll be around to see it.
It'd be really cool. When I first saw Close Encounters, I was 12, 13 years old but it was completely like, "Yup. That's happening."
What I find so interesting is—even in how Paul's character is designed here—there's a general consensus about what aliens would look like if they did happen to exist: the big head and the big eyes. E.T. now seems so out of the box compared to the general alien template.
Yeah, the sort of Communion alien look, gray alien. I mean I do think that he's some sort of Jungian-like melted-down version of a human being. He's sort of a formless, weird, nude, de-gendered person, but I think that's what makes him creepy and really fascinating. It's one of those things where I really do believe different crazy people have said they've seen aliens and they've drawn the exact same thing that another crazy person drew on the other side of the planet. How did that happen? Why did they all pick the big head guy with the big olive shape eyes and the little body? I don't believe they saw someone else's alien drawing in the newspaper. I truly believe that people who have no contact came up with the same look. I think it's something in the unconscious. What's your theory?
The theory that I like is that they're humans from the future visiting us in time machines—I could totally see us evolving to look like that.
That was a joke here—it was never explicit, but in the back of my head I thought because there's so many human evolution jokes in Paul, Paul is like a human evolved but billions of years later. But unfortunately he's still as flawed and fucked up as we are—he's just a little but smarter and has some superpowers, yet it's not like he's that Christ-like figure, he's not super emotionally evolved. He's still childish and gets things wrong, thinks you can get sick from eating a closed pistachio.
Is Important Artifacts, the auction house romance with Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman, still on the table? I know Natalie Portman has been super busy this year, but is that next for you?
I am presently writing it and it would be fantastic if that were the next thing. I'm in the middle of the script and the book is a really hard thing to adapt. My joke answer is, "Yeah. Let's see if the screenwriter does a good job—oh shit, I'm the screenwriter." So yeah, I hope so. It's a really cool project. Yeah it's obviously a great time to be working with Ms. Portman, but I was always a fan.
By the way, did you know that somebody else owns GregMottola.com?
I don't think English is their first language. The quote that I liked was, "His most recent film is The Adventureland." It's all just a little bit off.
I'm going to look this up. That's hilarious.
Go Google yourself.
And then I should buy it from him and make it as equally inept. I think there's someone who just buys up the name of anyone who might be remotely ever somebody and slap together some crap and hope that someone comes in and says "Can I buy that from you?"
It's how you know you've made it in America.
It's a weird form of flattery.