At some point when I was talking to Greg Mottola last week, I had to ask him about his geek credentials-- had he been to Comic Con like the main characters in Paul, Graeme and Clive? Did he grow up loving sci-fi movies like their characters did? To answer my question, the 46-year-old director pulled out his iPhone, where had a snapshot of a drawing he'd done as a 19-year-old college art student. The assignment was for him to draw himself with one of his idols, and the picture shows Mottola-- with a youthful head full of hair-- looking into a camera lens as George Lucas stands by and guides him.
So, that answers that. In Paul Mottola puts all that sci-fi loving childhood experience to good use, directing in a style that nods toward early Spielberg work like Duel and Sugarland Express but also references nearly every geek-friendly film from Close Encounters to Back to the Future. Starring in the film and writing the script are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the British comedy duo who turned to Mottola when their longtime collaborator Edgar Wright was too busy making Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to work on Paul. Mottola, whose previous films include Superbad and Adventureland, told me one of the major challenges on Paul was directing in a way that didn't mimic Wright's style but stayed true to the script's comedy style that was so similar to what Pegg and Frost brought to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
I also talked to Mottola about shooting out West, in the same location as Easy Rider no less, establishing the film's comedic tone, and how there are jokes in the movie that even Pegg and Frost haven't figured out yet. Paul opens in theaters in the U.S. on Friday.
Is there a background in genre or geek culture that people ought to have before they see this? Is there one movie you took the most inspiration from?
It's closest to a version of E.T., I suppose. The references to those films, those are some of the most famous films ever made. Between E.T., Star Wars and Close Encounters, who hasn't seen those movies? It wasn't like we were consciously saying, let's make this as mainstream as possible. We wanted it to hopefully work on two levels, that people who aren't necessarily science fiction fans can enjoy it, to not be like "Oh, go away, this isn't for you, you're not part of our clique."
Did you work with Simon and Nick on the script at all to determine the amount of references, or anything else?
I only got involved after there was a finished script. It didn't really change much. I brought a few things in, little jokes like having the Cantina theme done by the Western swing band. I was 12 when Star Wars came out, and I always loved that music, maybe because my dad grew up in the swing era so I listened a lot of Benny Goodman.
I never would have guessed it would work so well for a country bar band.
It occurred to me, it really is like an old swing song. And there was a Western swing band in New Mexico, and I met with them. The irony is they said, "We did a wedding for some Star Wars geeks, and we played it." That was the song they danced to, the bride and the groom.
Was there anything not mentioned at all in the script originally that you wanted to reference? Like having Duel up on the marquee in the small town?
I put that in because… I knew we were going to be shooting kind of fast. It's the biggest budget I ever had, but once you take away the cost of doing the CGi of Paul, it wasn't that big a budget. I knew we'd have to do it down and dirty and have an indie vibe. I went back and watched Duel and Sugarland Express, because they were made for not much money and shot in the Southwest and had all this driving and stuff. There's so much Spielberg homage it would be kind of funny to put that title up there, as opposed to having Close Encounters, which is was too on the nose. Then there was also Easy Rider [on the marquee], which is because it's a road movie, but also because we were shooting in this little town called Las Vegas, New Mexico. Because it was a weird railroad stop at the turn of the century, it sprouted up and looks like nothing else in New Mexico. There are scenes in Easy Rider that were shot on the same block we shot on. They shot like No Country for Old Men and Red Dawn there, so random.
There's so much cinema history out in the West. Was that part of the appeal for you here?
That was part of the fun of it. I shot a film in Pittsburgh, but I had only worked in cities or in LA. It's such a classic Americana location. We had to shoot everything in New Mexico for the tax rebate, except for a little bit of stuff we shot in San Diego. But New Mexico has incredibly varied terrain. Most of my films have taken place practically 75% at night, so it was nice to shoot something with daylight scenes.
You had this enormous challenge of recreating Comic Con in New Mexico for the opening scenes of the film. Did you have a relationship to that kind of very intense geek culture before?
My own personal geek culture years were when I was much younger. I collected comic books up until a certain age. I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was younger. I always wanted to do something [as a director] in sci-fi or fantasy. This fell into my lap, but when Simon contacted me to see if I wanted to meet on it, I had to make it clear to him that I had that side of me, because you wouldn't know it from my work. I'm not someone who's gone to Comic Con as a devotee.
Did the script have all of that Spielberg influence in it before you came on, or is that something you brought in?
I have no illusions that I have any of the savant visual abilities that somebody like Spielberg has, but I thought if we could get close to touching on the sincere, magical feeling that we had when we saw those films when we were younger, it would be a nice thing to achieve. It's not expected in a comedy. It's always tricky when you're doing something cross-genre. It has to be a comedy first. You can't stop too much for that stuff or else people say "It's not funny, so fuck you." But there are moments that I'm really proud of, small things I really like. In my mind the strategy was to start the movie as a more indie road movie, that once the bad guys come in they're more like bad guys from movie. It takes on a slicker Hollywood sheen, the two movies crash into each other, and by the end it becomes more of a Hollywood film.
How did you establish the comedic world of the film? It slips every now and then into slight unreality.
It was tricky, and partially because Simon and Edgar have this incredible meta comedy. I keep calling it a pop culture mash-up style. It was very tricky for me, because I'm a huge fan of theirs. I have tremendous admiration for Edgar's awesome talent, but I didn't want to direct a movie like he does, because that would be a disaster. But some of the jokes were more in the style of Spaced or Shaun of the Dead. We actually took some out. We really limited those jokes, but it's also so much of what really tickles Simon, and one of the things I really love about him. The jokes are there to find or not find. They're not in your face, there aren't big quotation marks around them. Some people get them immediately, and other people never see them at all.
The references are that way too. Do you think there are more than anyone will get the first time around?
Yes. We did the commentary yesterday, and there were still things that Nick and Simon didn't realize. And there are some that are subconscious references-- when Paul says "Where we're going, you don't need teeth." Nick says he wrote that line and didn't realize it was a play on Back to the Future. But when he wrote it Simon knew what he meant.
Did working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who have known each other their whole lives, prepare you to work with Simon and Nick, who have worked together for so long?
Yeah. I was intimidated to do it, because Simon and Nick and Working Title and their producer Nira [Park], and I was the odd man out. But right away they made me feel very supported and trusted, and never once made me think they were thinking, "Oh, God, I wish Edgar were here." They're so excited about what they do, so positive, it was a really nice way to work.