Talking to Greg Mottola, you might not realize that he’s just directed the funniest movie of the year, but Superbad can indeed lay claim to that title. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the movie is produced by man-of-the-moment Judd Apatow, who worked with Mottola on the short-lived show “Undeclared,” and that the movie is from a script by Apatow’s leading man Seth Rogen with his high school buddy Evan Goldberg. It’s likely that Mottola’s directorial prowess might get lost in the shuffle as so much focus is being put on the stars of this coming-of-age comedy, Apatow regular Jonah Hill, Michael Cera aka George Michael Bluth from the lamented “Arrested Development” (another show Mottola directed) and making his screen debut, Mr. Christopher Mintz-Plasse or as he may be forever known after this movie, “McLovin'”! The movie essentially shows what happens in a 24-hour period as these three unlikely high school friends try to score alcohol in order to score with the ladies.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Mottola about the ins and outs of the movie, which is likely to get some of his own scripted projects on the fast track much faster.
ComingSoon.net: I was lucky enough to catch the screening at Comic-Con last week.
Greg Mottola: Oh, you were at the Comic-Con. We’ll never have a kinder audience ever.
CS: It was pretty amazing. If you get that audience and multiply it by a million, you’ll be all set.
CS: I know you’ve worked with Judd for some time and that Evan and Seth had this script going for a long time, so when did the two things come together and you were asked to direct the guys’ movie?
Mottola: I went to a reading of “Superbad” while I was working on “Undeclared” and the minute it was over, I told Seth “Just please please keep me in mind if you ever get this off the ground.” I come from indie films and I kind of mostly wanted to direct my own writing, so there haven’t been that many scripts that I’ve heard or read that I felt I was absolutely the perfect guy to do. This I’m sure is a statement on my vast immaturity, but this was really one of the few that I thought, “I have to do that. I feel like I know how to make this movie and I really want to make this movie.” It was really years before I heard about it again. I knew that they would occasionally get some nibble from a studio that wanted to do it, and Judd would let me know what was going on, but it never seemed like it was going to happen. Nobody wanted to do an R-rated movie about teenagers with non-stars, and then I literally got a call a little over a year ago from Judd. I live in New York and my phone rang and Judd said, “Remember ‘Superbad’? You still want to do it?” and I said, “Of course, are you crazy?” I flew out to L.A. a week after that to meet with Amy Pascal and the Sony folks and Judd and to my amazement, they accepted me.
CS: Was this after “40-Year-Old Virgin” when the movie got interest again?
Mottola: Yeah, the way Judd tells it is that he’d go out with a script after each movie he was involved with, even after “40-Year-Old Virgin,” people still weren’t quite ready to do it, and after “Talladega Nights,” I may be wrong about this, but that might have been his first movie with Sony. They had such a great experience with Judd and the movie’s so funny. I think that’s the first time they read it, and they wanted to do it based on the script. They weren’t really making any casting demands, at least not huge casting demands. They just wanted to be working with Judd and they thought the script was hilarious, and that was finally the moment. And Judd’s obviously doing this amazing job where like “people are lining up to work with me and do my projects and I’m not going to waste this moment.”
CS: The reading you saw, would you say that was in 2001 or 2002, about six years ago?
Mottola: I can’t quite remember. We actually found a video tape of it we watched while we were in pre-production to see if there were any jokes we left out, and it might have been 2002 and Seth Rogen was reading the lead with Jason Segal. David Krumholtz and Kyle Gass from Tenacious D were reading the two cops and it was just everyone else from “Undeclared” reading the rest of the parts.
CS: At that point, you’d already done your movie “Daytrippers.” What made you think that this was the kind of movie you wanted to direct?
Mottola: It didn’t even occur to me later that like my first movie, it essentially takes place in a roughly 24-hour period, but I think what appeals to me so much about that is that you can’t really be very high concept in a movie that takes place in a really short period of time unless you’re making something totally unrealistic. I don’t like high concept movies very much, and the kind of scripts that I would occasionally get offered tended to be really high concept comedies or romantic comedies. I just don’t like it. I like much more realistic movies with actual psychology and behavior in them. I just felt Seth’s jokes really do come out of behavior more often than anything. He can write all the crazy rants that Jonah Hill has. I feel like they’re not that unbelievable. This is a guy covering this is his defense. There’s something behind it, there’s something the actors can play, something interesting, some actual nuance even though it’s a totally outrageous comedy, it’s the behavior that’s outrageous. There’s crazy things that happen in the movie that aren’t terribly realistic, like getting hit by cars and stuff, but I feel like we can get away with those because everyone’s playing it very, very real.
CS: Was this always called “Superbad” or was it called something different and then changed to “Superbad” warranting the ’70s funk soundtrack?
Mottola: I knew that there was some title that they won’t tell me what it was, ’cause they’re so embarrassed by it, but there were one or two other titles before “Superbad” but it’s been that for a long time. I think one day Seth and Evan were hanging out with David Krumholtz and that song was playing on someone’s stereo and I think David Krumholtz said, “You should just call your script that.” It’s so completely arbitrary, but I used it as a point of departure for putting in funk music and putting in little moments with those guys thinking they’re cool for a split second, because I think that’s very true to the adolescent experience, at least the one I remember vaguely. I really thought this is definitely a case of the filmmaker imposing his musical tastes from another generation onto a movie about today’s kids. But that stuff never leaves the culture and what’s my option? To put in Maroon 5 songs? I don’t know what else I could have done.
CS: Yeah, that would have been pretty awful. When you watch the opening title sequence, you assume it’s going to be a comedy set in the ’70s or ’80s, but it’s completely set in the modern day. Did you go to a lot of lengths to make sure that the time period is obvious?
Mottola: I don’t know if we gave it that much thought. I mean, those guys are a lot younger than me, but they still grew up watching on TV all the same kind of movies that I watched as a teenager, and they wrote “Superbad” and started it when they were teenagers, because this is the movie they craved to see that nobody was making anymore. There was definitely a point in the ’70s and ’80s when “Animal House” was happening. I grew up in a kind of Catholic, not terribly progressive family, and my parents didn’t really have a problem with me going to see “Animal House” when I was 14 or however old I was. We thought that kids today, yeah, some parents can decide that they shouldn’t see this, and I’m fine with that, but a lot of them I think, they live in an R-rated world. That’s the way they’re talking and that’s what they’re talking about, so I think they can handle it.
CS: Did you go and rewatch some of those movies for visual cues or just to get the feel, whether it be “Porky’s” or “Heathers” or anything else?
Mottola: The two I watched were “American Graffiti” because that all takes place in one day. There’s also a lot of night stuff, so I wanted to look at how it was shot. Even though it’s not obviously a broad comedy, it is the grandfather of all great teen movies in my life. I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” again, because the whole milieu of the suburbs, I wanted to see how that was handled. I hadn’t seen it in a while and it’s such a great movie. Once again, it’s a more serious film, there’s more serious things that happen, like Jennifer Jason Leigh getting an abortion, but those movies do not talk down to their characters. We were probably making a sillier movie, but I dunno, we just wanted to make it feel as real as we could and maintain a pace of funniness. I didn’t rewatch “Porky’s.” I probably saw it five times when I was a kid, and I haven’t seen it since. I’m really now curious, because it keeps coming up. I’m curious how that holds up.
CS: I’m not sure if it really was ever a very good movie, but it was pretty risqué and out there for the times in terms of humor.
Mottola: Yeah, people just couldn’t believe they were doing that, penises going through holes I remember.
CS: When Sony came on board, were there any issues with some of the humor in this, like for instance, the let’s call it “the closing titles art montage”?
Mottola: They were pretty fantastic. They asked us about the “transference of human blood” scene. I don’t know how else to describe that. They were always like “Are we sure we can do this?” And we’re all like, “I dunno if we can do this.” It actually has happened. Seth and Evan actually witnessed that actual event at a high school dance as a friend of theirs had that exact stain on his leg. I felt like, “Well, it did happen.” Between that and I asked my wife what she thought of that joke and her basic response was, “Well that’s not exactly my sense of humor, but it doesn’t offend me. I’m not going to divorce you if you do that.”
CS: That’s always a good way to test out a joke in your movie.
Mottola: Yeah, so Sony was supportive of it. There was one surreal thing where the legal department of Sony got involved with all the drawings and they would give us notes that said like “too big, too veiny, too erect.”
CS: But no licensing issues with the pictures?
Mottola: You know, that’s a really good question, because I’m shocked that some of them passed through legal. (laughs) Does Mr. T know that he’s in the pictures in the end credits?
CS: Seth’s become known for his improvised bits in Judd’s movies. As far as directing a movie by him, you had a script, but was there still a lot of improv and did that make it harder to assemble? How did you work with Seth and the actors to find that balance?
Mottola: I’m totally quoting something Judd says about his feeling about improv, but I think it’s savvy and it’s why it can be such a great tool. Not only do you hope to end up with a lot of options of really funny jokes that you can then test with audiences and get the best response. You also create a situation where the actors don’t know if the other actors are going to say the line as scripted or say something else, and it makes them really concentrate. They’re in it in a different kind of way, and sometimes, it’s an absolute disaster. Often, it’s an absolute disaster and it’s unusable, but sometimes, lightning strikes and you really get something you can’t get, so something weird happens that feels like life. These guys, this whole group, all have an insane gift for it. They’re all writers also pretty much.
CS: Even Michael Cera?
Mottola: Well, his internet show “Clark and Michael” he writes, and it’s very, very funny. I’m sure he’s writing stuff on the side, and Michael I worked with on “Arrested Development” and I saw immediately that he’s got a very fertile mind. He could hold his own with David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor and all these incredibly funny, sharp actors. I always wanted to make sure that we didn’t drift too far away from the intention of the scene and get something that works for the movie, and also, not be stuck in a shooting style that you can’t move the camera, you can’t have dolly shots or something, because you want to be able to cut every single version together with all the improv. There’s always a balance, and I was always trying to figure out a strategy to have it all.
CS: Jonah was getting battered around quite a lot in this one. Did he do any of those falls himself?
Mottola: No, he didn’t do that many of his own stunts. If he claims he did, he’s lying. He fell down for me a few times and I made him run a lot, but he got sick of that after a while, but we definitely had a stuntman in Jonah’s costume getting smashed by cars repeatedly.
CS: Chris was sort of the newbie of the cast, so do you think he’s going to continue acting after the experience playing “McLovin”?
Mottola: Yeah, definitely. He’s got an agent and he’s going out for auditions. I think he’s such a natural that as long as he’s enjoying it and likes what he’s doing, I think he should really do it. We read a lot of people who were real actors who had agents and came through the normal channels to us, then we couldn’t find who we liked. I always liked in the script when I first read it that this friend that you think is just going to be hovering around the sidelines being funny on occasion, in the background of the movie, goes off and has his own movie. I always thought that was kind of surprising and wonderful and not typical, and the hardest part was that we couldn’t find somebody who could carry that, who would be able to keep up with Seth Rogen and Bill Hader and not be dominated by them. We ended up sending posters to drama departments in high schools, and Chris’ friend came in to audition and they dragged him along, and he said, “Okay, I’ll audition, too” and he just blew everyone away. We couldn’t believe he existed. The thing I like to say is like everyone played the character as a real nerd. Chris came in looking like a nerd and played him like George Clooney, the most confident, cool guy, like Danny Ocean.
CS: I think you’re going to have to do a McLovin’ spin-off movie soon, because I think the demand for more of that character is going to be huge.
Mottola: I think that would be better than a straight sequel.
CS: Maybe a McLovin’ prequel. I think we need to know more about him and how he got to be that way. Things are going great for Judd right now, and it’s awesome that he’s been bringing along all the people from “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Is there any sort of “we showed you” attitude going on because you’re all finding success in movies after those shows were unceremoniously cancelled?
Mottola: I think there’s just a feeling like I feel like I’m invested in that hope that there’s an audience out there for stuff that’s a little more grounded in reality, that’s not so high concept, that’s emotional but not so grotesquely sentimental. These are all taste things that we shared, and basically people were telling us, “No, they want movie stars. No, they want high concepts. They just want what’s already been successful.” So there’s something very gratifying that there’s an audience a big audience a shockingly big audience for this slightly different kind of taste. So yeah, and Judd’s insanely loyal. I’m so lucky that I got to do this movie by his good graces. He was just so kind to give me a shot.
CS: He had great talent making those shows, so it’s nice that he doesn’t forget that. So what are you doing next? Have you had any of your own scripts you’ve been trying to get produced?
Mottola: Yeah, I’ve written a movie set in the 1980s, sort of a first love story about college-age people about a guy who thinks he’s going off to Europe on a backpacking trip with his buddies, and his family takes it away from him. It was supposed to be his graduation present, but they have money problems and he gets stuck working at an amusement park all summer. It’s halfway between my first movie and “Superbad” stylistically. It’s indie comedy.
CS: Are you going to extend the story to 36 hours or two days?
Mottola: Yeah, I think I’m actually going to try and make it go the whole summer. I’ll pull off a transition and I’ll put in a dissolve or two.
CS: Are you going to do that by yourself or are you going to try to bring some of the Apatow crew into it?
Mottola: I may, I may. I have New York based indie producers on this one, but it’s quite likely that somebody will be in it from “Superbad.” I’m sure there’ll be somebody.
Superbad opens on Friday, August 17, but check back later this week for ComingSoon.net’s video interviews with the cast.