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Superbad director Greg Mottola puts his own spin on the Judd Apatow school of emo-raunch filmmaking

Wednesday, Aug 15 2007
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More than a decade ago, Greg Mottola spent $30,000 and 17 days filming The Daytrippers, a small but smart story about a feuding family looking for a wayward spouse on a sudden, daylong road trip through New York City. The film, which was produced by Steven Soderbergh but was nevertheless rejected by Sundance, went on to win awards at Slamdance and Cannes and became a signature contribution to the ’90s era of independent cinema. It was Mottola’s first film. But then he disappeared from the feature world. After a brief moment at the helm of Duplex (which was eventually directed into disaster by Danny DeVito), Mottola turned to television — good television, the kind made by Judd Apatow. Mottola worked on Apatow’s Undeclared, and that led to directing Arrested Development. And both led to Mottola’s film re-emergence with the Apatow-produced Superbad, starring Michael Cera (the lovable George Michael from Arrested Development) and written by Seth Rogen (of Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Knocked Up, etc.) and Evan Goldberg. If Apatow’s ever-proliferating crew is like some kind of comedy Wu-Tang Clan, then Apatow is the RZA, Steve Carrell is Method Man, Paul Rudd is U-God, Seth Rogen must be ODB, and I guess that makes Greg Mottola one of the creative affiliates, maybe Cappadonna. Like The Daytrippers, Superbad is a small but smart story about a daylong adventure. But this time the setting is the unease of adolescence. In the tradition of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, Superbad is a momentary snapshot of youth, one day on the verge of adulthood and the anxiety that goes with it.

“The one-day movie allows you to do things a conventional structure doesn’t allow,” says Mottola. “The limitation opens up surprising possibilities.”

L.A. WEEKLY:What kind of possibilities?

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GREG MOTTOLA: When a movie’s all happening in one night, the burden of storytelling changes. The timeline is what makes something as simple as two guys buying booze for a party and arguing because they’re going to different colleges — the plot of Superbad — plausible as a movie. That’s barely a story, but it’s enough of a story for a one-day movie, because it’s realistic. It’s the kind of thing that might happen over the course of an evening, and that gives you enough room to look at the characters.

When Daytrippers came out, people also talked about how the story was basic: woman thinks husband is cheating, goes on search for him. It was like a sitcom subplot, but turned into something funnier and more meaningful than anything in a sitcom. You could say the same thing here: Two guys trying to get laid are scared of the future. And so you’re suggesting you can get away with that plot because the discrete time period allows you to elevate the fairly ordinary into the basis for a movie.

Right. It’s an ordinary day, and the stakes don’t seem that high for the two main characters, Seth and Evan. But then again, everything’s relative, especially at that age, and for them, the stakes are high. This is turning into the biggest night of their lives. And the thought of going to different schools is the biggest loss they’ve ever experienced. So for them, it’s very difficult. We didn’t plan on making a tender story of friendship here, but we wanted it to be a little bittersweet. We thought: Why not try to infuse something emotional into the story? You know, getting some feeling into it — if for no other reason than it will buy us more jokes.

Was there like some kind of currency-exchange board where you could trade in a bit of sincere friendship for some extra lewdness?

Right. Seth feeling betrayed by Evan equals three minutes of Jonah Hill saying “vag.” We had to have someone work out the math on . . .

. . . the redemption equation.

Or when we really couldn’t figure out how to redeem Seth, we’d just have someone hit him with a car.

So you say you weren’t going for tender friendship, but ultimately that is what comes through. Sure, there’s all that brazen horny-teen stuff — all of Jonah’s “vag”-infused monologues — but it couldn’t paper over the emotional core.

That’s great if you think so. That makes me very happy. When Bill Hader, who plays one of the cops, first saw the movie, he turned around and saw two girls sitting behind him, obviously best friends, and both were crying. They were teenagers, and something personal was speaking to them. And I have to say I think it’s absolutely amazing that anyone would cry after Superbad. I thought the only people crying would be Sony Pictures once they realized what we’d made. And all joking aside, I think the emotion in the movie speaks to Michael and Jonah’s portrayals. They’re really sympathetic.

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