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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?

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.

I’m not sure the movie, with the balance it has to maintain between bawdiness and genuine anxiety, would have worked without some really good salesmen. Michael Cera was cast first, right?

Yes, and he’s just remarkably funny. It was kind of a problem, actually, because he’s playing the straight man — and yet no one can be as funny as him. Jonah countered that by having this great vulnerability. He’s a good actor. This was clear in the contrasts from casting. Everyone else who read for the part made it creepy and disgusting. They sexualized it too much, and Jonah played it like a deeply frightened person, probably more so than Seth would have when he was going to play the character. And that frightened vulnerability was right.

It’s like an R-rated afternoon special or something — and I’m wondering if that afternoon-special part was always there. I understand the script was originally written many years ago, and I assume it’s gone through changes since then. It seems to have the very distinct stamp of Judd Apatow’s hand, where, as you mentioned before, some fairly raunchy comedy is meant to deliver this emotional payload.

There was definitely a version of the script that didn’t have as much sincerity to the friendship. Developing that was something Judd suggested. That was before I got involved. Then, when I came on, we took some of those ideas further. Judd always says that Superbad is like a really dirty episode of Freaks and Geeks. Which it really is.

Superbad seems to hew closest to Apatow’s own movies. Within the constellation of Apatow Productions, there’s the broader side with Talladega Nights, or the upcoming Walk Hard, which is a parody in the vein of Airplane! Those are at the top of their comedy subgenres, but they’re very different from, say, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Knocked Up, and now Superbad, all of which ultimately are about relationships. And convincingly so, I think.

And that’s a place where Judd and I overlap. I have a pet peeve about managing cinematic emotion. Usually it tips over to sentimentality. Judd manages to navigate that line, and I tried to as well with Superbad. The comedy keeps the emotional part of the story in check, but you don’t undercut the heart of the story with too much gratuitous and grotesque comedy either.

And yet, the nearest cinematic cousin I keep thinking of is American Graffiti. You’d think Dazed and Confused would seem closer, but it doesn’t really have the same strong nucleus of characters in which the audience becomes fully invested.

I watched American Graffiti again before doing Superbad, and it’s really good. The movie holds up. The story and atmosphere are great. The photography is also really interesting.

It was Haskell Wexler, right?

Haskell Wexler designed the look of it — he came up with the strategy for lighting and shooting — and two of his disciples did the photography. I once met Ron Howard, and he told me that on the set of American Graffiti, George Lucas told the cameras to never stop shooting, even if the actors walked in front of lights.

There’s an emphasis on improvisation with Judd Apatow’s productions too, right? On Knocked Up, they constantly ran the camera and threw out different lines, recasting the scenes many times. Did you do that on Superbad?

We did, but not as much. Judd would say that Knocked Up was written during the making as much as it was written beforehand, but the script of Superbad was tighter. The scenes never changed all that much, but again, I did have this improvisation in mind. A lot of what’s in the movie wasn’t in the script. The actors would do things, and we’d realize we had to keep it. But the interest in improv isn’t just trying to accumulate as many jokes as possible. It also changes the atmosphere. Like with American Grafitti, where George Lucas gave the actors room. I thought about that, and it seemed like a good idea — to not hem them in, or keep them stuck on marks. There’s a real life to American Graffiti, so I tried to think about how to come up with that same effect — when actors don’t know what anyone is going to do, and they have to be on their toes. Sometimes that gets you really messy stuff. And sometimes you get authentic moments and feeling.

Superbad has this ’70s soul soundtrack. When did you come up with the idea of laying this very confident music over the story of two very diffident adolescents?

Well, people always ask, why is this movie called Superbad? And there is no answer, really. Seth and Evan took the title from the James Brown song. It has nothing to do with anything. If anything, the title kind of evokes those moments when, as an adolescent, you feel cool for a split second. You know — when the world’s come together just right, when you seem to have done just the right thing. And I got that idea in my head, and I just kept picturing funk over it. The joke of nerds listening to rap has been done. No other contemporary music seemed to make sense. I listen to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Would that work in Superbad? No. And we don’t want the soundtrack from She’s All That. So: funk. We got together Bootsy Collins and the other guys from James Brown’s band. They were the JBs. It was a little indulgent, but a lot of fun. The only problem was getting the rights to “Panama,” because Van Halen didn’t want to give it to us at first.

That’s what Bill Hader sings while destroying his own police cruiser. And by the way, I really liked the wildly irresponsible cops as a comedy device. They seemed like freelancers or something, like neighborhood-watch “deputies,” or some kind of volunteer program where you get a badge from the police table at the county fair.

I’d like to hope that the 13-year-old kids who sneak into the movie, or watch it on DVD, will get a kick out of authority figures acting like such retards. And that was the idea, to make the cops regress over time into bigger adolescents than the teenagers.

I also like the Weird Party scene. It’s a hard thing to capture, the Weird Party.

I have to say a lot of thinking went into that. And I hope we got it right. The obvious way to go, especially in comedies, is a scary biker party with guys with tattoos on their necks. And we didn’t want that. We wanted the party to feel more random, and therefore more likely to happen. We made a decision not to make anyone too scary. In the coke room, there’s no one particularly terrifying, but it’s just very clear from the people assembling that Michael Cera’s character is not supposed to be there. There’s also a little bit of wondering built into the whole party scene: Is this how Seth is going to turn out in five years, doing coke and listening to Nugent?