The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Greg Mottola (“Clear History”)

Greg Mottola first came to prominence as the director of the indie comedy “The Daytrippers,” but he began a much quicker rise in mainstream recognition when he helmed the comedies “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” Currently, Mottola is making the rounds to support his work as the director of Larry David’s new HBO movie, “Clear History,” but he’s not entirely confident if the word “director” really sums up his efforts on the film. Bullz-Eye chatted with Mottola during the TCA press tour, and we talked about how surprisingly easy David is to work with, how he came to appear in a couple of Woody Allen films as an actor, and what a hassle – and what fun – it was to make “Paul.”


Bullz-Eye: So directing Larry David has got to be at least somewhat of a challenge.

Greg Mottola: Um…

BE: I’m not saying good or bad, just…challenging.

GM: It’s… Well, I mean, the process was so specific. I don’t even know if my job title should be called “director” on this movie. [Laughs.] “Associate collaborator” is probably closer to it. But that’s the way it should be. I’m not sure if, in the press notes, they talk so much about how we made it, but essentially it’s the same way Larry does “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with some key differences. But Larry writes a script-ment, they call it, so this was about 35 pages of paragraphs of what happens in this scene, with an occasional line of dialogue or joke that Larry or his co-writers thought, “Oh, we should definitely get that in.” So they write that in, but, really, no other dialogue.

And we get to the set, we walk through the scene, and we’ll just sort of block it very generally. Like, “You’re gonna enter from that door, you’re gonna be sitting here, you’re gonna come over here, talk about this, you’re gonna leave.” Y’know, just sort of walk through all the little bits of blocking, but never rehearse it at all. So the first time anyone is acting, the cameras are rolling. And it’s usually two cameras, sometimes three if we can squeeze another one in there. And Larry by and large never does the same thing twice. [Laughs.] So as a director, you’re constantly strategizing, “Okay, we did that one time, I’d like to try and get something like that line, maybe in a tighter size, so…let’s switch lenses right now while we’re in the zone, and we’ll swap back and do wide shots again.” So you’re constantly just sort of improvising the directing style as everyone’s improvising the lines.


So directing Larry is just sort of endless conferences between takes about, “We’d like this from that, we didn’t like that,” just sort of honing in on what worked, sometimes stopping entirely and saying, “This doesn’t work at all, let’s start from scratch and just approach it completely differently and do a different version of the scene.” And that happened a few times. We’d have two completely different versions of the same scene…and usually the one that ends up in the movie is the second one. You know, the one thing about Larry is that he’s an absolute pleasure to work with. Despite his sort of screen persona and his point of view about human nature, which—between “Seinfeld” and “Curb”—is pretty clear… [Laughs.] He’s a really happy guy! He’s a guy who walks around whistling and practicing his golf swing. He’s, like, in a good mood 99% of the time. So it’s great to work with him.

BE: I…can’t really wrap my head around that.

GM: [Laughs.] It is hard to believe.

BE: Was it difficult to try and get away from the obvious perception that it feels like an extended “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode? Because it’s not identical by any stretch, but there are definitely moments where you go, “Oh, this is very ‘Curb’-like…”

GM: You know, the thing that kept me awake at night was the worry that it would be too much like “Curb” or that it’d be not enough like “Curb.” [Laughs.] I was constantly in terror. Like, how far do you deviate from something that works so well, so brilliantly? But also, how do you do it when it’s gonna be 100 minutes long and Larry’s not playing himself and make it feel somehow more like a movie than a TV show? And, y’know, in small ways of just, like, choosing where we were gonna be putting the camera, what the focal length is, how we were gonna shoot things, how often to be in close-up… You sort of go in with an idea of how it’s gonna look different, and inevitably it starts to get closer to the show because… [Hesitates.] I decided, “I’m not gonna fight what works.” But I always looked for an opportunity to make it feel a little bit different.

The thing is, part of it is dictated by the fact that the process is you shooting kind of a performance movie. Since everyone is improvising, you’re trying to capture the performance in the moment and trying to have the character in the right place. So I kept saying to myself, “I’m shooting a concert movie that just happens to be a story.” [Laughs.] And not to overthink it too much, because if I started to impose tricky camera moves and steady-cam shots on it, I’d probably find that the camera was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have to kind of sort of be patient and sit there. And it leads to a fairly basic camera style, but at the same time, that’s…y’know, a lot of comedy lives somewhere in that wide to medium close-up, and that’s the nature of the beast. And I kept thinking, “What would I be doing if this were 70 years ago and I was hired to direct a W.C. Fields film?” [Laughs.] How would I shoot that?

BE: You know, I’d never thought about Larry David as a modern-day W.C. Fields, but there could be some merit to that.

GM: There’s at least a misanthropy overlap on the Venn diagram. [Laughs.]

BE: So when it came down to casting “Clear History,” was it a case of Larry just calling up people he wanted to work with?

GM: It was a mix. We did read a bunch of people. People who maybe wouldn’t normally read were willing to come in and read for Larry. And part of it is that it’s a chemistry thing. We want to make sure people have chemistry with Larry or with each other. And a lot of them were offer-only kind of folks that we just were confident about. Like, we knew Jon Hamm could do it, that Jon Hamm would be perfect. And Jon Hamm, if you’ve seen him on “SNL” or any other comedy things, he’s super funny. Because of the structure of the story, Larry has to avoid his character, so if anything, I wish there was a way to have more of him in the movie. But it didn’t work for the story. But, y’know, there was lots of discussion of “okay, we’ve got this person, who do we think would work with that?” as we were piecing it together.


Some people in the movie read. I almost don’t want to say who, because it feels a little bit like I’m ranking them. But some people who were in the movie did come in and read. The people who were less obvious. Somebody like Danny McBride, yes, he can do improv comedy. He doesn’t need to prove to us that he can improvise. Some people who hadn’t really done improvisation were, I think, happy to come in and try it, because they needed to prove to themselves that they’d be comfortable doing it. And it was great, because most of them came in saying, “I’m not sure I’m gonna want to do this, but let’s try it.” And by the end of the session, we’re having so much fun that they thought, “Oh, well, no matter how bad I look, this was way too much fun, so I’ve got to try.” [Laughs.]

BE: Larry’s good luck charm is in the film: Philip Baker Hall.

GM: Yes! Well, you know, the movie is so much like a Paul Thomas Anderson film… [Starts laughing.] No, it’s not! But, no, I love Philip Baker Hall. I’ve loved him for a long time. He’s, like, one of my favorite actors on the planet. And he’s been so hilarious on “Curb.” And he was on “Seinfeld.” Yeah, he is a good luck charm.

BE: I did a Random Roles interview with him for the Onion AV Club, and it’s one of my favorite interviews of all time.

GM: Oh, he’s amazing. He’s an incredibly sharp, funny guy. And he’s a great guy. You know, he just came in and started improvising things as if he’d been doing that job for the last 50 years. And he’s one of the people who makes Larry more than any other person on earth, because he’s so dry, and he never breaks himself, and the more serious he becomes, the more Larry ruins the take. [Laughs.] So it’s a very nice dynamic.


As a quick sidebar, I don’t usually incorporate moments from TCA panels into interviews, but in this case, I can’t resist, since I managed to ask Larry during the “Clear History” session about the great PBH and what it is about him that makes him break where others don’t:

“This guy, nobody, nobody ever makes me laugh as hard as Philip Baker Hall, starting with ‘Seinfeld’ when he played the librarian, and then I think he did three ‘Curb’s. Well, maybe two, I don’t know. But in both those episodes, he just…he just kills me. It takes so long for me do a scene with him. He never breaks, and he just has this straight-laced way about him that breaks me up. I love him.”

BE: I’m curious: you’re a director, but how did you come to play a director (“Celebrity”), then an assistant director (“Hollywood Ending”), for Woody Allen?

GM: I got a call because, when Woody Allen was shooting “Celebrity,” the opening of the movie was going to have a director directing Melanie Griffith, and it was going to be Sidney Lumet, who Woody was friendly with. And Sidney was actually my teacher at film school. He was the greatest guy on earth. But Sidney had a film that the schedule changed and moved up, and he wasn’t available. And they were scrambling, they were close to shooting, and a mutual friend of mine, Doug McGrath, an old friend, he’d written “Bullets over Broadway” with Woody, and Woody’s casting people said, “Well, maybe let’s get some New York indie director.” And Woody had liked my little first film, “Daytrippers,” and Doug said, “Oh, Greg acts, you should have him come in and read.” And that was an entire lie. I don’t act. I’ve only acted in, like, film school films…and I was terrible! . [Laughs.]

But I had to come in and try. So I actually auditioned for his casting people and then for him, and I got the part. And Woody told me, he thought “Daytrippers”…he said [Does Woody Allen impression.] “You know, your film’s terrific!” You could’ve killed me right there. But I was, like, “Oh, great, now I have nothing to look forward to!” [Laughs.] No, it was amazing. And then Woody’s people called me a couple of years later and said, “Do you want to play an assistant director?” I was demoted in “Hollywood Ending.” If he ever calls me again, I know it’s gonna be to play a gopher. Maybe a P.A.

But the other incidental thing… At the time, I became friendly with Woody’s assistant who he had on the movie, and she ended up becoming my wife. So I met my wife on “Hollywood Ending.” And the super cool part is, Woody loves my wife, and we get to go out to dinner or lunch with them every couple of months, which is amazing.

BE: I can’t believe he’s actually considering going back to stand-up. That’s, like, the best news ever.

GM: I think…I mean, he has told my wife that he’s considered it before, but it sounds like… If he’s talking about it in the press, he must really be thinking about it. Because he doesn’t bring that stuff up if he’s not starting to really… I guess Louis C.K. must’ve really had that influence.

BE: I was just about to say that that’s basically what Louis C.K. said about the buddy comedy with him and Woody: “I didn’t want to say anything and jinx it, but if he’s talking about it, then I guess it’s okay!”

GM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I saw that.

BE: Lastly, since I know you’re on a tight schedule, how was the experience of making a sci-fi comedy like “Paul”?

GM: Um, the experience of making a comedy with a CG main character was…challenging. Because we weren’t really given a schedule that allowed for a CG main character. [Laughs.] I mean, we had to work pretty fast. We were shooting on, like, sort of a normal studio comedy schedule, and then we’d have to stop endlessly for gray ball passes and stills. All these effects guys that come in, they might as well be wearing HazMat suits. They come in, they’ve got, like, surveyors equipment, and they do all this shit that takes forever, and you’re going, “I’m losing light, I’m losing light, what the fuck are you doing?” And then it’s, like, “Okay, and now we’ve got five minutes to shoot the scene.” So we had to work really fast, and it just made it a little hard.

Film Title: Paul

But we also had so much fun making it. I mean, “Paul” was a great experience. But I’m not so sure how quickly I’d go back to doing CG, because it also takes forever to finish it. And, y’know, I was limited, because of the budget we had. Like, I’d literally have to go through and they would make me say in the edit how many times we’d see the alien in the scene, and if it’d be a wide shot or a close-up or an over, and they’d want to just fill in numbers to budget. So I had to decide. I was just limited to what I could do, often. I had to shoot a little more like TV, because I had to keep the alien in close-ups or know where he goes in a wide shot, because every time he appeared it’d be thousands of dollars in animation and all that stuff. It makes you go a little insane after awhile.

I just saw Simon Pegg last night, actually, who was coming through town on his “World’s End” tour, which I can’t wait to see, and…that was a fantastic experience. I loved Working Title, and Universal was great. I honestly don’t know why they let us make that movie. [Laughs.] I think the world has changed enough since we made that movie that it’d be really hard for somebody to say “yes” to it now. But…I hope to use CG again someday. Maybe it’ll surprise me.