Throughout almost all of his career as a filmmaker, Greg Mottola has told stories that celebrate the sweet, funny and sometimes hard process of coming of age. In his latest film, 'Paul,' he does the same, but for two decidedly different characters (or at least characters of different ages) than in his previous efforts 'Superbad' and 'Adventureland:' Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), two pushing-40 British nerds whose pilgrimage to Comic-Con is hijacked when they encounter the title character (Seth Rogen), who happens to be an actual extraterrestrial. Although the project was written by stars Frost and Pegg, Mottola gives their alien tale human dimensions, dispensing life lessons and laughs in equal measures as the duo liberally references classic sci-fi texts like 'Star Wars' and 'E.T.' en route to their own rendezvous with otherworldly creatures.
Cinematical sat down with Mottola in Austin at the South by Southwest Film festival, where 'Paul' played like gangbusters to a crowd comfortable with celebrating nerd-dom. In addition to talking about the film's pastiche of references, Mottola explained the film's unusually... mature coming-of-age curve, and offered his thoughts about telling stories that connect with more than the Comic-Con crowd that is flatteringly depicted in the film.
Cinematical: How difficult is it to work these pop culture references into a story so they're noticeable, but not so obnoxious that they overshadow everything else?
Greg Mottola: Well, the references come in different ways; some are audio, some are visual, some are lines [of dialogue], they could be music or whatever. I always wanted to be conscious of the fact that the movie should work on two levels – it should work for the people who get those things, and then it will hopefully for people that don't get them at all, but it's not stopping the story dead. I mean, a lot of that's in the writing – a lot of them were stolen from 'Star Wars,' for instance, are lines that work in the context of the scene. But I didn't want to put giant quotation marks around things; I mean, if you show Devil's Tower, there's no subtle way to have such an iconic image. But at the same time, I didn't want to linger on it forever, because people who get it get it, and then there are people who haven't seen 'Close Encounters' – especially younger people – so it should just move on.
But it was a little bit of a game that everybody wanted to get in on; I threw a couple in, like the Cantina band music in the road house scene was my idea. And another one I threw in, which you may or may not notice according to your levels of geekiness, was the Wilhelm scream – but I didn't tell Simon or Nick. It was an Easter egg to them, so that the first time they saw it really finished-finished at the premiere, they giggled like little boys. So I hoped that it could work on two levels, but the thing that is a little different just as a subject than zombies in 'Shaun of the Dead,' zombies, I wouldn't say that they're cult, but they're a little more inside, whereas 'Star Wars' and 'E.T.' are some of the most well-known films ever. So I didn't expect people to remember every single line that's been stolen, but they certainly know the basic concept.
Cinematical: Obviously Simon and Nick conceived the project themselves, but why do you think it was the right choice to create characters that were in their mid- to late-30s as opposed to ones that are younger whose lives might appear to be more in flux? At a certain age, it could be perceived as a questionable choice for someone's life to revolve around Comic-Con and do the things they do.
Mottola: I think we never really had that conversation because I couldn't imagine Simon and Nick wanting to give up their roles, but I guess in my mind, I thought about the fact that certain comedy teams played some variation of the same dynamic from very young to very old; Laurel and hardy did it when they were very young and very old. But I don't think it's an irrelevant question; I mean, it does change how it plays. Like for instance, when we did the artwork for anything Simon's character had supposedly done – the cover of the book or any of the sketches – that it should actually be really really good; we imply that this guy has skills, and he's not just some delusional [person]. Because especially at Simon's age, because when we shot it he was turning 40, if he doesn't have something, it's sad, so you want to feel like, oh, he's got skills but he just hasn't quite done that much with them. But we decided not to go into any back story about what they do for a living, where exactly they live, how they make money; we just wanted to imply that they don't have a lot of money, but they have these dreams that they've done nothing with – and Paul moves them along a little bit.
Cinematical: I'm sure I'm not the only one who noticed that 'Paul' is at least incidentally lampooning religious fundamentalism. What sort of line did you have to be careful not to cross in terms of making that funny but not offending any potential viewers?
Mottola: Well, you don't want to offend anyone who's an atheist, because that's most of the world, or at least most of America. We did think about it a lot and we didn't take it entirely lightly – and it made me laugh because I didn't know it was coming the first time I read it. Simon hadn't told me that was an element of the script, and it made me think of this conversation with friends where I would say, "if you saw a movie like 'The Omen' or 'Rosemary's Baby' where the Devil is proven to exist, why doesn't anyone ever say, 'well, the plus side is that there must be a God.'" No one ever stops to say that, and I thought this was really funny, that this is a movie about an alien, and suddenly people are discussing, well, if aliens exist, then that makes something like creationism is questionable.
Now, personally I think creationism is something that already was questionable, and people who want to teach it in school seem crazy to me, and I'm surprised at this time in history that we're having a discussion about whether or not science is right. But Paul says some fairly bold things, and I think because he's an alien we can let him say a couple of things; at the same time, he's mostly just picking on creationists, and that is a fairly extreme segment of Christianity. I was raised Catholic, and no one was ever talking about that. And I would say that everything is game for a little bit of satire, but we did end up cutting some of it out, because we ultimately felt like we'd made our point. I mean, I think we were being extra sensitive, and the studio wanted us to be extra sensitive, because they thought, why needlessly piss people off if it's not funny or you've already said it, and it also might be redundant. So we did pull back on it here or there because we thought, okay, we've made that joke. And it's clearly related to what we have Spielberg say about E.T. being a messianic character, because Paul ultimately does these things that are equivalent to what Jesus has done. So it's interesting, but I've shown the film to a few relatives who are very religious, and it didn't bump them at all; they were able to laugh at it.
Cinematical: This is obviously a love letter to the Comic-Con crowd and genre fans, but what were you guys thinking about in terms of the way this movie could reach a more mainstream audience? Or what do you think about this movie will appeal to that broader viewership?
Mottola: It's interesting to me because I really feel like there was a time and place where the internet as sort of a grassroots promotional medium made a huge difference. For instance, it helped Judd Apatow a lot; I think there was a period before 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' where people started talking about it on the internet and got the word out there in a way that Hollywood then took notice of and thought, how can we exploit this? Now, I think it's a very crowded playing field; people have integrated the internet into their lives in such a more complicated way. And it is a numbers game; I mean, the response to 'Scott Pilgrim' on the internet was spectacular, and it should be because it's a great fucking movie. And it was as baffling to me as anyone else to where is everyone? I mean, I saw that movie a couple of times with different kinds of audiences and people went nuts and loved it, but where are they? And people wondered, was it a failure of marketing, was it just an unmarketable concept?
And we faced similar challenges with this; one thing was that when we test-screened 'Paul,' women seemed to like it as much as men, but that doesn't mean women are going to show up for it. I think there's a sweetness to it and I think Paul as a character is actually appealing; my girl friend said, "women will like him because he's a good listener" – but she was joking. So how do you get people with TV commercials and print ads, how do you let people know they might enjoy it even if they aren't necessarily someone who eats, breathes and sleeps Comic-Con culture? And I don't know; it is a very high-concept movie, and it's certainly the most high-concept thing I've ever worked on. So there may be hope for us that people will say, oh, that's a funny idea, meeting an alien and the alien turns out to be kind of just this dude – that seems funny. Will they show up for it? I don't think anyone has any idea.