Greg Mottola interview: directing Paul, working with CGI and more

As Paul beams into UK cinemas, we caught up with director Greg Mottola to discuss making the film, music, and computer graphics…

Greg Mottola

This week, the sci-fi/comedy geek tease, Paul, beams onto our Earth-based cinema screens. In anticipation, Michael had the chance to chat with director Greg Mottola, whose previous work includes Superbad and DoG favourite, Adventureland.

Unfortunately, time was short, but Mottola gave us invaluable insight into the film’s soundtrack, revealed his favourite pop culture references, and expounded on the enduring power of movie magic.

Beware: there are mild spoilers for some of Paul’s prime gags, so if you’re keeping yourself pure, come back later. Otherwise, read on!

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One of the things that bowled me over with Adventureland was the soundtrack, where you kicked off with Bastards Of Young by the Replacements and had other tunes from Big Star, Lou Reed and Husker Du at key points.

Paul has a similar power pop sensibility, with Another Girl, Another Planet ringing out over the opening scenes, and ELO, B-52s and Todd Rundgren popping up throughout. Is that something you brought to the table or were they in the script? Is making these song choices an important part of the creative process?

I did make those choices. I’m afraid of just being a nostalgist, but at the same time, I thought, “What music would be playing on the radio if you were taking a road trip? What station would you turn to if you were on a road trip in South West America?” You’d probably just put on an oldies station.

There’s something about driving in those big open plains that makes me think of 70s music, so I filled it with a lot of 70s music. And then some of the songs were just choices that had a sci-fi theme to them. It was sort of an obvious way to go, but if it was playful enough, I hoped it could work.

And Another Girl, Another Planet is such an awesome song. It’s a great song, and it wasn’t intentional, but it sort of connects, weirdly, to the last movie, because it would have fit in with the sound of Adventureland.

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Paul contains a lot of film and pop culture references. Knowing Pegg and Frost’s previous work, I’m guessing most of them came from the script. Were there any that you added in, or particularly enjoyed working on from a director’s point of view?

The most obvious one that I thought of was using the Cantina Band music, played by a Western swing band when they come to the Birdhouse. I’m trying to think of others – No, they probably all came from Simon and Nick, the rest of them.

For some of the visual stuff, I rewatched Duel and Sugarland Express, because I’d already watched ET and Close Encounters again, and I thought, “Well, you know, we’re going to shoot in that part of the country, and those are such beautifully shot films”.

And Duel was a super low budget film. We had to shoot quite fast, and a bit down-and-dirty, so I thought maybe I could learn something. And, obviously, there’s moments at the end with the spaceship that are stolen from ET and Close Encounters. I thought about cutting the scene where they come in and the cantina band is playing with shots that matched up with all the shots in Star Wars, but it just seemed indulgent.

I remember particularly liking a scene where the three guys sit around a campfire getting stoned, which seemed like a call-back to a similar scene in Easy Rider. And then you see a cinema later, which is showing a double bill of Easy Rider and Duel.

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Well, yeah. I went back and I did watch Easy Rider again, because it’s the ur-road movie. And, obviously, there’s so much Spielberg love in the film, and Spielberg’s voice itself, but I thought Duel would be a funny one to put up there. And actually, that block we were shooting on, a bunch of scenes in Easy Rider were shot on that same block.

It’s a place called Las Vegas, New Mexico, and there’s a scene where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper come into this town, and there’s a big parade and they get arrested and end up meeting Jack Nicholson. It’s all shot on that block. It was really cool.

Paul‘s both a sci-fi and a road movie, neither of which are genres you’ve worked in before. So, was that part of the fun of it?

Yeah, I wanted to push myself. When I first went to film school, I thought I’d be an indie filmmaker, and do tiny movies for the rest of my life. But, I had a simultaneous love of arthouse  movies and mainstream Hollywood movies, and I finally thought, “Well, maybe I could pull it off.”

And, having said that, I was seven years old when I first saw 2001 in a movie theatre, and I was 12 when Star Wars came out. Those are films that really made me want to be a filmmaker. Even though I grew to love a lot of other things – I’m a huge Woody Allen fan, for instance – those movies completely, like the rest of the world, just blew my mind. I have the same nostalgic love for that as the guys do.

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And as much as it would be great to be an auteur who just writes and directs little movies, I’d never get the chance to do something like this. I’d never get the chance to have this kind of equipment, and support, and this big, expensive special effect. And I was really into the challenge of creating a CGI character that was actually a well-rounded character.

Simon and Nick wrote a script where they play straight men to him, and they generously gave the movie to Paul. It’s different from their other films. Those are real buddy films. This is about an interloper who comes and takes over the movie.

I think some people have asked: why are the references to movies that are thirty years old’ For me, movies, the technology and special effects, changed in that decade. And movies suddenly showed things that you could never see before.

For a lot of us, who really love all kinds of movies, certainly there was a new kind of film that could not have been made before. And so, I think Simon and Nick remember what that felt like. So, it was really fun to try and capture a little bit of that magic too.

Mr Mottola, thank you for your time!

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