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.”

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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.

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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.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

There may have never been a more self-explanatory title for a web series than Jerry Seinfeld‘s latest project, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The format is simplicity itself: for each episode, Seinfeld picks a different car, picks up a different comedian friend, and they go and get coffee and, often, a meal. Throughout the drive and the meal, they talk about various things, all improvised and frequently very funny. The main charm of the series, though, is watching the comedians make each other laugh. At best, it is almost like actually hanging out with a couple of very talented people for a little while. At worst, it is rather lazy and inconsequential, and Seinfeld sometimes seems to be exaggerating his reactions to the jokes told by his guests.

The series begins with Seinfeld’s most obvious guest, Larry David, with whom he co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Seinfeld.” There seems to be some effort on Seinfeld’s part to pick a car that reflects his guest’s personality, as in this first episode, in which he chooses a 1952 VW bug as a symbol of David’s humble, unassuming nature. David, along with his other dietary idiosyncrasies, slightly messes up the premise right off the bat by ordering tea, but he offers one of the series more interesting insights. Discussing the difference between cigars and cigarettes, he suggests that a cigar imbues the smoker with an air of wisdom because of the time it takes to smoke, which lends itself to a “contemplative” posture.

Another very intelligent guest is “Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson in episode 5, who offers some interesting insights about nostalgia and economics. On the former, he says that the reason people love to look back at the past is that “You know what you’re going to say … you know what to say about the past, and you don’t know what to say about the future.” When Seinfeld brings up the mysterious economics of a restaurant, Hodgson offers a musical analogy: “The guy who sells the guitars makes the money, and not the guy in the band … How many guitars have you bought over the years … I’ve bought … six, and I don’t play the guitar.”

One of the series’ most enjoyable episodes is the third, in which Seinfeld’s guest is the great stand-up comic Brian Regan. The reason it works so well is that their conversation throughout feels like a joke-writing session, as if the two comedians are co-writing a sitcom or a stand-up set, often finishing each other’s sentences and collectively brainstorming jokes on each topic that comes up. Another especially good one features Alec Baldwin, whose overall attitude toward Seinfeld is playfully hostile, though he shows great humility when he credits the cast and writers of “30 Rock” for teaching him how to be funny. His story of a Rip Torn bar fight is not be missed, and this is where “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” excels: it presents very funny, interesting people just being naturally funny and interesting.

  

A Chat with Peter Farrelly (“The Three Stooges”)

The initial reaction to the idea of a new Three Stooges film for 2012 brought no end of moans and groans from Moe, Larry & Curly purists, but after Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s film hit theaters, many were surprised by the fact that it didn’t completely suck. Indeed, it was actually about as good as anyone could’ve hoped, thanks in no small part to the Farrelly’s devotion to making the best possible tribute to the comedic trio that they possibly could, aided in no small part by the efforts of Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe), Sean Hayes (Larry), and Will Sasso (Curly). Bullz-Eye talked to Peter Farrelly in conjunction with the film hitting DVD, and he spoke about the trials and tribulations of getting the film made, his Zen attitude toward the lengthy casting process, and his continued optimism that the Farrellys’ next film will indeed be “Dumb & Dumber 2.”

Bullz-Eye: Not that you haven’t been asked this more than a few times, but…what’s your very first memory of experiencing the Three Stooges?

Peter Farrelly: You know, the God’s honest truth…? I don’t remember it. Because they were always there. I’ve been watching the Stooges since I could turn on a TV. But I guess the thing I recall the most is, for some reason, I went through a period when I was, like, a freshman in high school where they were on every day from I think 4 – 5 PM, and I just remember it being the highlight of that winter. [Laughs.] Every day, because it was freezing out, you’d just get in the house and turn on the TV. Every kid in my school at that time was watching. For some reason, they were going through some sort of a renaissance. Everybody was watching them that year.

BE: Not that you guys have ever been afraid of testing boundaries, but it would seem to be pretty daunting to update the Three Stooges. I think the last time anyone tried it was with “The Three Robonic Stooges.“

PF: Yeah, we knew it wasn’t gonna be easy, but we love the Stooges and…the God’s honest truth is that we felt like they were going away. I had little kids…well, they’re 11 and 13 years old now, but the last few years, I asked their friends, and two-thirds of them did not know the Three Stooges. Or they had heard of them, but they didn’t really know who they were. And that bothered us, because we’re huge Stooges fans – they’ve given me more laughs than anybody – and we wanted to bring them back. But we knew that…you know, look, anytime you do anything like this… There was a huge, huge opportunity to fall on our faces, but I did believe that it should be done, the movie should be made, and I felt very confident that we could pull it off.

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The Light from the TV Shows: David Steinberg Gets “Inside Comedy” on Showtime

David Steinberg began his career in comedy with Chicago’s Second City, quickly gaining fame as a stand-up through his appearances on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” while also courting controversy by performing comedic “sermons” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” In 1981, Steinberg began to shift his focus from performing to directing, starting with the Burt Reynolds film “Paternity,” and has gone on to become one of the more prolific sitcom directors in the business, but he recently stepped back in front of the camera to host the new Showtime series, Inside Comedy,” which airs Thursdays at 11 PM. Steinberg spoke with Bullz-Eye about his new gig, detailing the trials and tribulations of securing classic clips to accompany his interviews, while also discussing some of his past efforts as an actor, director, and stand-up comedian.

[NOTE: All photos appear courtesy of TheDavidSteinberg.com.]

Bullz-Eye: This is certainly not your first time hosting a show where you interview comedians: you also brought us Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg. Not that there isn’t still plenty of material yet to mine, but what inspired you to take another crack at it?

David Steinberg: I felt that I hadn’t really done it the way I wanted to. That’s why we first started this as a film. Starting it as a film was really good, because then you get so much material, and it’s sort of looser or whatever. And then I settled on this notion of putting two people together and how they connect, but not in any specific ways. They just go together by what they’re talking about. And once I arrived at that, I thought, “This is gonna be good!” [Laughs.] Of course, making it that good…it was time consuming, but it was great, great fun. I worked with some incredible editors, and there was a lot of archival stuff that we talk about that…well, they know that they’re talking to another comedian. That’s the bottom line. And then, archivally, I didn’t just do the clichéd version. I handpicked the clips that I wanted and then begged people to let me use them. [Laughs.] Archival stuff takes so long to get people to sign off on.

BE: Was there anything you wanted to use that, even with all of your pleading, you still couldn’t get?

DS: Yeah, for Jonathan Winters, I had a clip of him in an old Dean Martin roast where he’s roasting (Ronald) Reagan, and in it there’s a wide shot where you could see Dean Martin, Reagan, (Don) Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and… [Sighs.] You know, it’s generally not the original inheritors of the celebrity estates that are the problem. It’s the grandchildren, who don’t even know or understand what it means to be celebrating Jonathan Winters. They asked for so much money everywhere that we couldn’t use it. I ended up having to go with just a tight shot of Jonathan instead. So, y’know, just stuff like that drove me nuts. For the most part, though, I got everything I wanted. Some were just so exorbitant that I just couldn’t do it. But I’m happy with it.

BE: Speaking of Jonathan Winters on Showtime, he also appeared on The Green Room with Paul Provenza not so terribly long ago. It’s great to see people as yourself and Paul continuing to give him the props he deserves.

DS: That’s right, yeah. I will say that the younger comedians tend to look after the older ones. Richard Lewis goes out to Santa Barbara and spends time with him, and Sarah Silverman has done that with Phyllis Diller. It’s very interesting, the comedy community. It’s more surprising and tight-knit than you would imagine.

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