Wednesday 14 March 2012

GREG MOTTOLA - Film Director Interview

GREG MOTTOLA wrote and directed "ADVENTURELAND", which anyone who reads this blog will know is one of my favourite movies. He also directed the fantastic "SUPERBAD" and last year's "PAUL". His other credits as a director include Judd Apatow's "UNDECLARED" and the hilarious "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT". He recently shot the pilot for the Aaron Sorkin penned HBO series "THE NEWSROOM", as well as numerous additional episodes.

This conversation gives us some fascinating insights into the production of "THE NEWSROOM", the difficulty of getting films made in the Hollywood system, and the struggle to find time to write when you're raising three children. Enjoy!

You've been working on 'The Newsroom' recently, is there anything you can tell us about that? It's all a little mysterious so far.

I can't wait for people to see it. It's an hour long show and it's very much -- it's much more comedic than 'The West Wing', it's a real comedy-drama. I mean, some of the drama is very serious but there's a ton of comedy. Every episode it goes through major tonal shifts, which I find really interesting.

When I first read the script I was really excited about the chance of working on it. I think Aaron Sorkin post-'The Social Network'; I think his writing has changed slightly. I think he's branching out, he's flexing different muscles. There are people who, y'know, will say he's doing what he does, which is write speeches and making characters exceedingly clever but, y'know, that's a lot of the fun of his writing and I'd hate to see him stop doing that.

It's an amazing cast -- it's sort of a mixture of people that you would have heard of like Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, Emily Mortimer.

There are two generations in the cast, there's an older generation and then the younger people are largely indie film and theatre actors. There's this guy John Gallagher Jr who's been in a few indie films, who's fantastic, and Alison Pill who's in 'Scott Pilgrim' is one of the leads, and she's unbelievably funny.

I'd done a lot of TV back when I first met Judd Apatow, and it's fun. But for a director, with television, you always feel like the writers and producers are having more fun than the directors, it's really their medium.

I wanted to ask a question about that exact thing. Something I always find interesting about directing for television -- you've been with this one since the pilot, but with something like 'Arrested Development' where you're coming in, and the characters are already set, and the visual style; and the actors know what they're doing -- I'm always curious about what the role of the director actually is.

It's a very specific kind of skillset. There are a lot of directors I'm quite impressed by, who work a lot, who do a lot of the HBO shows for instance. They'll move around to different shows that have very different styles,  and the fact they can work so efficiently in different styles is kind of amazing to me.

For this show, it was fun, because we were doing the pilot and we were really trying to create a very specific style for the show. I hired the English DP Barry Ackroyd to shoot it. Barry comes from documentaries and Ken Loach movies, and he did 'The Hurt Locker'. His way of shooting and his eye is very documentary and multi-camera style, and it would be very different from 'The West Wing', for instance. And it was kind of a style I was interested in for this show and Barry does that extraordinarily well, so getting him involved, we approached it differently to other shows of Aaron's.

Well that's the thing -- Aaron's shows have had such a distinct visual style, if you look at 'Sports Night', 'The West Wing' and 'Studio 60' they all had that certain style. So do you think that this is perhaps a departure from that?

I think so. There are hints of it, because Aaron's writing is very romantic, and there are times when you do want to have camera moves and beautiful lighting. But at the same time I wanted it to play against it, -- it's so beautifully written, so I wanted to play against it, so it feels a little bit like you are there. Part of that is the style that Barry employs; you get far back from the actors with long lenses, and you don't have to be super precise about marks, it doesn't get so technical, it becomes about the scene -- so maybe it'll be handheld, maybe it'll be on dollies that are all moving at the same time, depending on the feeling of the scene. We'd watch the scene first. I had a sense of what I thought the shooting style might be but I really let the scenes and the acting dictate. It was a good way to break out of what I've sometimes felt TV would be, which is that you have to adhere to a formula. But you know, when I worked on 'Undeclared' with Judd Apatow I was also a little spoiled, because Judd didn't care if every episode matched the style of the last episode. He really let us come in and do our own thing. He let the directors really be involved with the writers, re-writing episodes and it was extremely creative.

And I was lucky with 'Arrested Development' because I was one of the first directors in, so the show was still figuring out what it was, so I at least felt like I was a fly on the wall to watch Mitch Hurwitz and his writing staff -- and of course, all the actors were developing the voice of the characters. I mean it was, y'know, that show was so unique.

It really was something special. There's all this talk of it coming back, I don't know what you know about that. They're doing something with it aren't they?

It sounds like it's definitely happening. Just as a fan, I can't wait to see it.

You've worked with all these really strong, unique writers, but what I find also interesting is that, with 'Superbad' and 'Paul' you directed films that have been written by cast members. I'd imagine that can be difficult. Was there ever conflict or disagreements?

It can be tricky but what I like about it, and because I also write -- writers get treated so poorly in feature films, and they get sort of kicked out the door, and uh-- the writing doesn't get the attention it deserves often. So when you have the writer on the set you can; if the scene's not working, or you come up against a problem--- like on 'Paul' we just had to constantly change our plans. Even though it was the biggest budget I'd ever worked with, we had a ton of limitations-- the CGI was very expensive, and that made our actual production budget challenging. We were shooting in New Mexico and it turned out to be the rainiest season they'd had in a decade and we were constantly having to stop and I'd have to throw shots away every day because we were being rained out. And we'd have to think, 'how do we get this?' -- It wasn't the kind of movie where they'd let us do an 'Apocolypse Now', a hundred days over schedule. [Laughs] -- no-no, you're not gonna get an extra day. So with having Simon and Nick there, we'd get to figure it out.

I have to talk to you about 'Adventureland'. It's one of my favourite movies -- and I watched again last night to remind myself of it again before talking to you-- and it's just, I don't know -- I think it's a rare kind of movie. First of all, what made you first sit down to write it, where did it come from? Did you do it for yourself or did you have a chance to make it?

I started a version of it when I was working on 'Undeclared' actually. I'd had a heartbreaking experience after I made my first super-low budget indie film 'The Daytrippers', I wrote a script called 'Life Of The Party' that got set up at Sony Pictures, and I thought I was going to get to be one of those really lucky filmmakers that gets to, y'know, go straight from indies to a personal movie at a studio.

It was a very personal movie, it was about intervention and it was a black comedy. The basic premise was, a group of friends find out their old buddy's a raving alcoholic, and living in the South of France. They all go their to save him, but they're all as fucked up as he is.

We had cast it, John Cusack and Steve Zahn were the leads and we had an ensemble around them, it had a greenlight. And then Sony decided, y'know, that the film's a little risky, a little dark. They just sort of changed their mind after a few years of pushing the boulder up the hill. While I was trying to figure out what to do, I decided to do some TV for a while because I was just dying to direct. I wasn't sure what to write next, and working on 'Undeclared' with all these young actors, writers---- and Seth Rogen was so young when we were doing that show. I started getting to thinking about writing something about young people and about that period in my life.

There was a version of it where they were high school age. And then 'Superbad' came up. Ironically it came up the week I was about to send out the script of 'Adventureland' to try and get it set up and see if anyone was interested in making it. So I just kind of put it on the back-burner and made 'Superbad'.

After 'Superbad' I changed the characters into college age, because I didn't want it to overlap too much.


Y'know, they were still extraordinarily immature, I mean I was still immature even after I came out of college. But I think I wanted to have this feeling that---- I hoped it would be interesting to some people to make a movie about young people, that wasn't just an out and out mainstream teen comedy thing. I mean, I loved making 'Superbad', I'm very proud of it, but I wanted to do something different. Something that I could treat more like an intimate drama.

Even though theoretically a movie about people working in an amusement park over the summer --and y'know, that's unfortunately kind of how they sold the movie, y'know, the rollicking 'Meatballs 2' comedy. And I wanted to do something that was somewhere between a teenage Woody Allen movie and an indie film, all that kind of stuff.

I think the marketing of that film is really interesting. Even when I recommend it to friends, and they ask 'what is it about?' -- whenever I describe it, it doesn't excite them. It's just one of those films I think that you have to sit down and watch to 'get' really.

Well it's hard to, y'know-- the truth is, I like things that are melancholy, I like things that are character based and episodic. I mean, I love comedies but I don't only want to make those. Especially, in a culture of giant tentpole movies it's hard to convince people to see it.

But what's been nice about 'Adventureland' is that it's had a life after its theatrical release, more-so than anything else I've ever made. I've had people tell me they saw it after the fact and were surprised by how much they liked it. Because I think people do hear that premise or see the trailer for it and think 'oh that's kids stuff', or --

--Well I remember it was just a film that I'd had on my rental list and I'd looked forward to seeing but, y'know, when it eventually came around and I got to see it I was blown away by it. I just think it's one of those films that has to find it's audience.


The films I've always loved and been most passionate about, tend to be by writer-directors with a unique voice, like Chaplin, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder. With 'Adventureland', I get that sense of a unique voice, of knowing the filmmaker a bit. And I wonder, does that interest you? Ideally, would you be writing and directing more features of your own, or do you think that's harder to do now?

My wife and I get to socialise with Woody, we'll go out to dinner or lunch with them a couple of times a year (Greg's wife used to be Woody Allen's assistant). And I asked him the question, just to see what he would say. I said, "do you think if you were coming up today you'd have had the same career?" - and he said "absolutely not". He thinks he was very lucky, and he thinks it's not, well, the world has changed too much. I mean, he has an unprecedented deal--- from the beginning, basically entire creative control, it's in his contract-- he won't work unless he has this control. He has more creative control than anyone outside of maybe James Cameron.

I started out just wanting to be a writer-director, but the truth is I'm a slow writer and there's a lot of things I wanted to try and I was very stubborn and turned down some potential movies after my film fell apart at Sony Pictures. And then when Judd came through with 'Superbad' I really felt that I knew how to make that movie, and I had a possibly unique perspective on it. And the script was great-- and I thought, if we get the right kids for this movie we can make something good. So my approach now, when I get sent material -- is do I have something to bring to this, that the other guy wouldn't?

I don't want to have a production company, I don't want to produce other people's movies, y'know. I don't care that much about box office, except that box office success allows you to keep working and gives you more leverage. So I just look for things that I would be good at. Of course, there are the practical realities of trying to pay the bills and -- but so far, I haven't done anything that I didn't want to do. And I've certainly passed on movies that would have made me a lot richer.

Yeah definitely.

That's not to say that I'm so great or anything. I just know it would be a mistake for me to do something that I didn't really like, because I'd probably screw it up.

But what's been the challenge, I mean, I've been dying to get back to my own writing but it's hard because now I'm a Dad with three little kids. And it's hard to carve out any time--

Are you good with the discipline of writing? I know that you're writing something at the moment -- how are you with the writing process?

Um, I'm pretty good at, yeah-- the problem I have as a writer is that I am extremely hard on myself, so I lose faith constantly. So it's just a matter of-- the only way I can do it and feel good about it is just put in a lot of hours. I'm quite jealous of people who write very quickly and churn out things that they love immediately. But I think everyone has their own path.

Greg On the set of 'PAUL'

I don't know how true this is, but a friend of mine had a long chat with Joel Coen - of the Coen Brothers, last year. And he said they spend six months locked in a room, working every day, nine hours a day, and that's what it takes for them to get a screenplay they're happy with. That actually cheered me up. When you get hired to write a script in Hollywood they give you eight weeks to write it. And I can't write a script in eight weeks, not when I'm also taking my son to school and y'know--

With my writing I actually write extremely fast -- just simply because it keeps the self-criticism away. I try and get all the writing done before I allow myself the chance to be self-critical-- does that make sense?

Yeah I mean I've actually gone more in that direction where I write and write and write, and then go back and say 'okay, what's any good here?' That can be a little frustrating when you go back and read it and realise only 20% of it is any good.

Everyone's different, but I do believe in re-writing. I think what's hard when you work in the Hollywood system is that there's a lot of impatience, people don't have faith in the process, and so they want to see stuff before it's ready to be seen, so that's always a bit of a battle.

Going back to 'Adventureland', there are so many subtle moments in it and little lines -- and you almost don't notice them. And I find that so rare in Hollywood movies. And that's the thing I think I crave, as a viewer, more than anything. I like when I'm not force fed something. Whenever there's a film like 'Adventureland', I guess I'm just surprised that it managed to get made and happen, with all these subtle moments left in it.

Yeah. I tend to write with a real eye towards some ambiguity and dryness, and there's no clear villains or heroes. There's protagonists but y'know the protagonist will often be as flawed as the antagonist. And not surprisingly when people read my scripts they seem confused--- they don't understand that there's an actual plan behind it.

My first film, 'The Daytrippers', some people, when they read the script they just shrugged and didn't get it. But some of those same people came back when they saw the movie and said they really liked it, they just didn't see it on the page. And I had the exact same reaction on 'Adventureland'.

I tried to raise the money for it in this window in between the time 'Superbad' was done, but people were hearing about it and heard good things. And I felt maybe this would help me get some money for this other thing. I got a lot of confused reactions, people would just say things like, "well we liked the secondary characters, but I don't really care about the main characters" -- or they would say "we'd consider making this but it needs to be a lot funnier, it needs to be contemporary, why is it set in the eighties?" I just decided, y'know, I'm going to make this my way or not make it at all.

That's what I find amazing, I think, is that it got made in that way, you can sense it when you watch it. When I watched it last night, what I noticed more than ever before--- I watched it almost from the perspective of Joel's character.. there's something quietly hilarious about him the whole way through. He seems to be in love with Kristen's character, or maybe he's jealous of them (of Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg's characters; Em and James). It was these little subtle relationship things that, yeah-- it's just great that you got to keep them in.

That was something that I talked about with Martin Starr, but never really made explicit in the writing. That's the kind of texture of life that I remember, as opposed to turning it into melodrama.

I get disappointed that a lot of movies-- frankly a lot of movies that I'm told are great movies and get nominated for Oscars, often fall into the world of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. That's fine, that can be tremendous fun -- it's just not that interesting to me. I prefer a movie like 'Win Win'.

That's a great movie.

It had very very flawed characters and that was interesting.

Looking back at your first movie, 'The Daytrippers' - what are you most happy about?

It was a bit of an experiment, in form, in some way. The idea was to take this very simple premise -- a wife is looking for her husband -- and then have all these interruptions and digressions throughout, that relate to issues of familial love or romantic love. It's kind of like, theme and variation. Some worked better than others. The movie was shot in 14 days for $60,000, it's as low-budget as you get.

But I feel like, y'know, some of those ideas of people who are in denial being confronted with their reality in a very stark way comes through. I think it's a movie that gets better as it goes along.

When I was in film school we didn't have digital video, so we didn't even get to shoot that much. So, I was learning on the job. I feel like there are some ideas in it that really still work. Now to me it's a curiosity, because it's like New York City pre-internet, like y'know, people often didn't even have cellphones back then. It seems like a hundred years ago.

I haven't watched it in a long long time, but the rights are reverting back to me and the producers, including Steven Soderbergh, so we're going to try and make a decent transfer of it finally.

Do you have anything else you can add onto it -- like footage or behind the scenes?

I'll probably get the cast together and interview them all. We'll have a little reminiscence about it, they've all gone on to do really interesting things. Campbell Scott and I-- we've spent a million years working on it, but we wrote a script together that I may try to get made in the next year.

You mentioned the lack of digital technology when you began working in film. I think now, although there's great opportunities for directors because of equipment, the other problem is that, y'know, independent filmmaking is flooded with a gazillion writers, directors and actors. How do you see the next generation of filmmakers standing out?

A movie like 'Daytrippers' got a very specialised release, there were only a handful of prints made and it would show from city to city, but it finally got to an audience that was hungry for indie films. I mean, it was a small audience but the right audience.

Now, it's true, it's very hard. As someone who loves movies and has very little free time, I can't figure out which fucking mumblecore movie to see.

Exactly, yeah!

A lot of them sound interesting but some are gonna be great and some are not. Someone who's talented might have like four really good movies and one not so good movie, and I see the lesser one and it turns me off.

But it's true, there is a glut. Like you, I do love personal movies and writer-directors. I do believe in auteurs, people telling their own stories or stories that are important to them. I can feel the difference.

With this technology, there are going to be a lot of people who want to get into movies just because it's such a great job, an interesting job. And there'll be a lot of competent people. But to rise above and be the next Woody or something -- it's really hard.

I think it's tricky. When I was thinking of whether or not to do 'Superbad', I was thinking, "Will I then only be seen as a studio director?" Not that I was like crazy about film festivals and Oscars or anything like that. But when I do something that's different, will they not see it? Will they not take it seriously?

I was offered various things after 'Superbad' but I thought I have to do 'Adventureland' - for me, for my own sanity, but also to kind of say: I do this too.

I'm interested in getting your perspective, linked to what we've been talking about, on something I always blog about. For me, I guess I kind of preach this idea that it's about putting in the work, like the 10,000 hour theory. Like when you look at Woody Allen and the level of work he put in when he was younger. So y'know, it's not so much just about having talent or luck, it's about that journey you have to take.

Woody has a quote. It's something like, 80% of success is showing up. I think really what he's saying is just about doing it. People I know who are really successful are pretty much the hardest working people.

For me, like I said, my writing is slow. I just have to make the hours and do it. And say no to things I'd like to do.

Before you go -- is there anything else that you're working on that you can tell us about?

The only other thing that I'm officially working on is the adaptation of a book, that I'm writing for Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman to star in. And we'll see where it goes. I know that it's a long shot that Brad will actually ever do it.

Is this for you to direct?

It's potentially for me to direct and it's for his production company. There may be a version of it where it's Natalie and someone else. It's a book she optioned. It's been hard because of time, but it's been really interesting.

Does that add a pressure, if you think you're writing for Brad Pitt, is it better to write cluelessly and just get on with it?

It's a little bit of a psych-out, because he's so insanely famous. And I feel the pressure of wanting to write something that would interest him. But I'm not letting it color it too much because I think I'd just---

Go insane.


You can see my articles about 'ADVENTURELAND' HERE, HERE, and HERE. You may also be interested to read my interview with LAWRENCE SHER, who was Director of Photography on "PAUL", which Greg directed.

Care to share?


  1. I started reading this last night after I got your email. This is a great interview. Superbad is one of my favorite comedies and it reminds me of my group of friends in high school so much. I watched "Adventureland" once after seeing you blog about it but I'll have to re-visit it.

    It's interesting to hear the different takes on working on TV compared to film. I forgot he worked on Arrested Development, as many times as I've re-watched those DVDs, that's weird.

    I don't know how you got this interview but great job with it! I'm sure you were ecstatic! This is very inspiring to read. I love the part about doing a movie the way he wants to, (ie Adventureland) or not doing it at all. I respect that.

    Once again, great job on this one Kid!

  2. awesome interview. Read it fully while trying to multi task facebook. Then i quit fb for this :P