Greg Mottola Talks Paul

Greg Mottola Talks PaulJust a few days before Greg Mottola was completely finished and done with Paul, he took a few minutes out from the sound mix to have a chat with me. Some of what he told me ran on the site last week, ahead of the film's release, but I thought we'd celebrate the opening of Paul in UK cinemas with the remainder of our conversation.

Here are Five Things that Greg Mottola told me about Paul.

1. The style of the film

Everything I'd done before Paul had this kind of "run and gun" feel to it, partially as a result of never having enough money or time.  There are aspects of Paul, there are scenes that are actually loser, to try and give the feeling of the CGI character just being there. There's stuff that we shot very consciously a bit more like an indie film, or a lower budget road movie. So the movie switches back and forth between that and that the characters' fantasy would be to be in that situation. There's stuff we tried to make feel like a Spielberg film or a 1980s film or a bigger movie. I had a really good DP and we wanted it to feel like a real movie-movie, by and large.

It is strangely naturalistic in places. There are also places where we couldn't have gone much broader with the acting – as you can tell from the trailer, because they always put the broadest jokes into the trailer. But there is quite a bit of it that is played straight, very much like "this is actually happening and this guy just happens to be an alien". Having said that, I was constantly pushing to move the camera, and get the lighting right. We shot it in 2.35:1 and my DP and I looked at not just Close Encounters and ET but also Sugarland Express and early Spielberg to try and look at lens choices and framing.

I didn't want to resort to close ups as much as I ultimately had to. At the end of the day, keeping Paul in the same frame as the other characters just translated into a lot of money. Wide shots that Paul was in just cost a lot. Whenever he was in the shot it averaged out to £30,000 he was in. So two shots of Paul was over the budget of Daytrippers. And we have probably about 550 shots of Paul somewhere in there, but sometimes it was just cheaper to keep him out of the frame, to cut to somebody and to cut back to him.

2. Britishness

Part of the charm of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz is how English they are and how specific they are to being a Brit today. Hot Fuzz is practically a Mike Leigh how great the characterisations are of the townspeople, and Shaun of the Dead, if you took the zombies out of it, it would still be a great relationship movie about young Londoners. As someone who's been here enough – my wife used to work for Woody Allen, she worked on three films in London, I visited her a lot, and I had a girlfriend who went to the Royal College of Art, so I've weirdly spent a lot of time in London. It isn't that people who haven't been to London don't get the jokes, it's just that I've always been impressed how much Shaun and Hot Fuzz captured life here.

A decision was made by Simon and Nick in the writing stage to not overplay their characters' Britishness, it's really just that they're aliens in America themselves. That was the working premise – that they didn't fit in there and they didn't quite get the culture. This may be a cliché that people say about British psyche versus Americans, that they tend to be a little more polite and not as brash and narcisstic as Americans can be. I think Paul is obviously a very Americanised alien, he's been in the US for 60 years and he's a very different kind of personality type than they are.

3. On editing the film, and making changes late in the day

We would constantly call up Seth Rogen and say we wanted to try a new line, he would record it into an iPhone and e-mail it to me. We'd cut it in and if we liked it, we would then record it for real in an ADR studio.

We called it "latching picture", we didn't really lock it, though there was definitely a strange process where we had to try and lock scenes with the Alien because any time you would change even where the cut was on a shot it would cost money. The truth is, we're making a film with 600 shots of a CG alien, we're making it for a lot less money than most films that have that kind of level of complexity. We couldn't make a lot of mistakes, we didn't have money to make changes. It was the kind of situation where I had to imagine what it was going to be and then hope I was right. I couldn't go in and pull it apart.

There are definitely places were if I could go back and change it I would, but I can't. I feel relaxed that it feels close enough. There are things, as a filmmaker, you want to perfect or even just try, just to experiment and see how they go. It occurred to me they if you look at a movie like Toy Story 3, where they're not going on location, they're not building anything, the talent, I'm sure, get's paid well but they're not getting paid what they'd get paid to star in a live action movie, the money is going on people sitting behind computer work stations. And I'm sure there's a lot of animation that they do and they throw away then redo, because that's what their process is. The amount of man hours that go into any changes are enormous.

So on Paul, it was one of many ways in which I felt like, okay, we're doing this by the skin of our teeth. But, I have to say, by and large, once everything got dialled in… it's interesting because the movie did change enormously, in the last few months of post production. We did some reshoots, which was mostly live action stuff, stuff that we'd simply ran out of time to do as well as I wanted to, so we went back and got additional action beats and things like that. We rewrote the ending. There's a credits sequence that is like a coda, like "Two Years Later", we rewrote it and reshot it. Paul's not in it, so it didn't effect the special effects.

When the Paul animation was finally at a level of being done that I felt like I had an entire movie – and it took a year before I felt that I could see what the movie was – we had such a small amount of time, about a week, in which I cut eight minutes out of the film, I changed takes, and the movie changed more in that week than it had in the last year. It was just a product of finally being able to look at the whole thing and say "What works?"

I wanted to be really disciplined. I didn't want the film to go on too long. The running time is pretty short for a movie like this, it's certainly not indulgent, which I feel good about. I feel this is the right length for this conceit. It's not Dr. Zhivago.

4. The film's representations of geeks and geekdom

A lot of the underlying, old-school references were ones I could understand. I was twelve when Star Wars came out, and early Spielberg, those movies were hugely influential to me when I was a kid. That stuff I knew inside and out. And, you know, I've loved science fiction. The first movie that ever made me want to work in the movies at all was when my parents took me to see 2001 when I was seven and it totally blew my mind. So, I am a lover of science fiction. I read comics a lot when I was younger, even though I don't read them so much now, partially because I don't have the time. I like that world, and I follow it. The science fiction and fantasy references in the movie are ones that resonated with me.

When Seth first read the script he said Paul is like a Ferris Bueller, Axel Foley character – he doesn't change but he changes the people around him. So Simon and Nick play these slightly quieter, afraid of the world guys. It was very important to me that we imply to the audience that as Nick's character is a writer and Simon's character is an illustrator, that they have talent, that when we see Simon's character's illustrations that they're actually very good.

We had these two guys, Jim Murray and Jason Brasshill. Jim Murray did all the painting stuff, and Jason Brasshill, who did stuff for Spaced, did all the sketches. They're great artists, so every time you cut to something and see something Simon's character has made, it's actually really good. And you want to feel that Nick's character is smart, that he's actually a talented writer. They're these guys on the cusp of the question "Are they ever going to do anything with their abilities?" and you feel like the influence of Paul is enough to get them to believe in themselves.

The movie is trying to make the point that it's still okay to love the things you love. There's definitely time to move on, but you don't have to let go of your passions either. So that's how it's taking the piss out of ET, in a way, because instead of being this messianic figure of benign power, Paul is a pain in the ass and he's fallible, he's annoying but he's also surprisingly wise and a cool friend. They wrote an actual character, he's actually a character who grows as the movie goes along.

5. Believing Paul is real

The thing I'm most proud of from the test screenings, and I hope this remains true when the film goes out into the world, is that the audience stop seeing Paul as CGI and just see him as a character. Mostly this is down to the script they wrote, but also the work they've done at Double Negative, coaxing a performance out of pixels. We really worked hard, but the thing I learned about CGI is that a lot of it is technical stuff. Once they started perfecting things like making his Adam's apple move, and making his skin move when he rubs his chin, things that might just be happening in your peripheral vision but make you feel like "that's actually an organic being". When the acting is right, a lot of the fakeness goes away. This is the reason that Yoda works better as a puppet than as a CG creation, because the CG character doesn't give as good a performance.

Paul is in cinemas across the UK now. I rather liked it and think you probably will too.

I have one more little bit of the chat with Greg to come later, in which we discuss the project he was writing at the same time as wrapping post-production on Paul. Stay tuned.