Director Greg Mottola has had one of the more eclectic directors careers in present-day Hollywood, helming everything from gentle dramas like Adventureland to raucous teen comedies like Superbad, to Larry David’s improv comedy feature Clear History for HBO. His latest, Keeping Up With The Joneses, stars Isla Fisher and Zach Galifianakis as a suburban couple whose comfortable routine is upended when they become suspicious of their just-a-little-too-perfect-looking new neighbors (John Hamm and Gal Gadot) and discover that the pair are actually international super-spies.
Mottola recently spoke with Screen Rant for an interview about the film, his career and his upcoming projects.
What brought you to this project?
The script was sent my way and Zach was kind of already loosely attached to it. I liked the themes of being married and having kids and waking up one day when the kids are away for the first time and thinking “Who the hell am I? What is this marriage? Who is this person I’ve been living with?” I can relate to all that, my wife and I have been married ten years, we have three kids. So, the intimacy of that and obviously the high-concept premise of this Mr.& Mrs. Smith or The Americans type of story told from the perspective of the nebbish neighbors – it’s a fun way to sneak in a character comedy.
I’ve always loved Zach, I auditioned him many years ago back in 2000 (I think?) for a movie I was ultimately fired from called Duplex. I hadn’t seen his standup at that point, I’d just heard his name around and I thought he was great. I’ve wanted to work with him ever since. So that was enough to seal the deal for me. Then I went to John Hamm, who I’d worked with not that long ago on an HBO TV movie I did with Larry David which was all improv called Clear History. He was the first person I had in mind for the part and I still, to this day, can’t imagine anyone else. And Zach and John are old friends, so that’s how the ball got rolling.
John Hamm, certainly very well cast as sort of the Platonic ideal of the Secret Agent archetype.
Yeah. Also, like everyone else I’m sick of the term “bromance,” but there’s definitely a relationship between him and Zach that’s this… sort of like big brother/little brother. Especially when your in a car chase or being shot at.
Was there an attempt to stay away from “repeating” the tropes of previous films post-Mr. & Mrs. Smith, where it’s become sort of a comedy “thing” to have the action spill out in suburban spaces?
Y’know… I think it’s a good question. We didn’t consciously – when Mike wrote the script he wasn’t trying to satirize that particular movie [Mr. & Mrs. Smith]. That movie is actually quite funny, it’s exceedingly well done. What we focused on was the relationship between these couples. The action stuff… we tried to pare back as much of the plot to have it make sense and play the danger real.
We made a decision, when it came to our big action sequence in the middle – this car chase with the motorcycles – there were drafts where that was a much jokier scene. Zach had a lot of lines that, in the script, were very funny but weren’t really anything you’d actually say in that particular situation. We made a decision to keep… you know, even though the plot’s ridiculous, I wanted the performances to be at least one foot on planet Earth. To have their moment to moment psychology be at least reminiscent of real life; even if the events of the film are totally over the top.
This looks like a bigger level of action than any previous film you’ve done. Is this the biggest production for you so far?
Absolutely. When I did the movie Paul with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there was some car chase and action stuff in it; but when a CGI alien is part of your budget it gets so high that they took away my second unit so I had to scrap a lot of my ideas for action stuff and shoot everything with the first unit. And that’s time consuming, so there’s no way I was going to finish the film on schedule and do what I wanted to do.
So I was thwarted there, which was still okay because it wasn’t the point of the movie. But here I said I needed the second unit director, a stunt coordinator, a driver… there were discussions of putting the actors in front of a green screen but I said, no, lets do real moving vehicles even if theres a stuntman driving from a remote camera so it looks like it’s John driving. But the truth is, John did a lot of his own driving for the movie because like everything else he does he’s good at it – which is really, really annoying [laughs]. So that was fun to do, and I learned a lot (mostly about how I really knew so little) and it was kind of a blast to do. But I have nothing but respect for people who do it really well.
Speaking of big action movies: At the point that this was shooting, were you already aware that you’d cast the future Wonder Woman in Gal Gadot?
Well, when I met Gal I knew that she’d been cast as Wonder Woman and my friend Jesse Eisenberg had said great things about her. I guess they’d already started shooting Batman V Superman, the courtroom drama [laughs].
I had auditioned a few people and met a few actresses, and what’s funny is… we’d already cast Isla [Fisher] in the film, and Isla is herself already very pretty. So who is going to intimidate her? [Note: That Hamm and Gadot’s characters are both considered so unnaturally beautiful is part of what raises other characters’ suspicions in the film] So we need someone who everyone… you need someone stunning, and Isla is so gorgeous that we’ve limited the pool of people – so thank god Gal exists! So I met with Gal and she wasn’t prepared to audition, she’d just gotten off the plane. But just hanging out with her, being intimidated by her… she’s really irreverent and funny and when she breaks into this smile all of this sort of, y’know, Israeli Mediterranean warmth comes out and I just thought… it wasn’t really on the page like that, her character was more just a badass.
So I said “I think we found the one. We have to get her!” And the studio, I think, in their wisdom said “Well, she’s going to be Wonder Woman, so let’s do what’s smart.” I’m just glad she wanted to do it, she’s such a cool person. And she looks really funny in Wonder Woman! Her not understanding… the misogynist ways of the male world, I find amusing. I think it’s going to be good. I mean, I’ve only seen what the world has seen, but it looks good.
Was it difficult to go from something like Clear History to something like this that’s much more strictly-scripted?
When you’re working with people like Zach and Isla and John too there’s going to be a certain amount of improv anyway, so… this story did have kind of “genre demands” that you have to stick to, but yeah theres still a world of improv going on. Working with Larry is a very interesting, specific process – he’s literally writing the movie right before your eyes, which is a remarkable thing to witness. So this definitely wasn’t that, but we were changing things along the way and discovering things about the characters. But I’m trying to have a career where I do a little TV, maybe do a studio film, now I feel like it might be time to do one for me and do a small indie thing more like Adventureland, just to keep mixing it up.
Do you have your eye on any project in particular?
Well, there was a script I wrote quite some time ago that some producers would like to make and have the money to make but there’s some legal issues to sort out, but if it’s possible to make that that’s what we want to make. But I’ve decided in the meantime I’m going to write another small movie of my own, because it takes awhile to get ‘em right so I might as well get started. I’m also co-writing a TV thing with Bryan Cranston which has been kind of awesome.
[Bryan] started his TV production company Moonshot after Breaking Bad ended, and he had approached me about this book called The Dangerous Book For Boys; which is this book that came out I think in the mid-2000s – it was written by this English guy who was basically writing it for his three sons, who were growing up in a world of ipods and Gameboys and Xboxes; and he wanted them to get outside and “know the world” a bit because that’s the childhood he had.
So he wrote this book, kind of irreverent, of all the things that boys could get “into trouble” doing like building go-karts, the rules of poker, famous battles, all broken up into these short, very well-written chapters. And Bryan had to my surprise a way to turn this into a story, which is kind of new to me because it’s a family show but it’s made to work on two levels. Our mantra is “This needs to work for kids and adults at the same time,” not a cloying, annoying childrens show that youd want to turn off if you had kids. We’re writing it for… Amazon is the company we’re writing it for, and we have to see if they want to do it. But that’s been much fun to write with Bryan.
I remember when that came out, that was a cool book.
It was! It was a cool book, and now that I’m a dad my son really dug it.
Did you get to do most of what you wanted to with [Keeping Up With The Joneses]?
[laughs] Well, I’m my own worst critic so there’s always going to be something… but I think we got most of what we wanted, overall. For some things, the needs of a studio comedy didn’t “allow” me to get there, but it’s always kind of a tricky balance. When a lot of movies aren’t performing, theres a certain amount of pressure to make films that can draw a wide enough audience – which is fine, a lot of films are made with that intention, some films I love – but there’s… I think me and Zach had maybe a slightly “weirder” movie we wish we could’ve made, but it’s… you know, I guess my point is it’s hard to imagine a studio allowing Albert Brooks to make a feature if he were young today starting out. I think I’ve even heard him say that, in interviews: “They’d never let me do the things I used to do.”
It’s just… there’s some… we had to kind of find a balance that worked for what made sense for this day and age. I think the truth is, television is getting more daring and [feature films] are not making money. So it’s hard to get the audience. But by and large… Fox was great, y’know. I have no complaints about the studio. If anything, maybe, I could have had more nerve possibly. But who knows? [laughs]
Speaking of studio movies: One thing that’s often talked about now is how nothing can be just one stand-alone movie – they’re always looking for the sequel, the franchise, etc. Has there been any talk of a follow-up to this, already?
I think because it would feel like bad luck to talk about it we don’t really talk about it, but I know from my experience of making it I would love to get together with this group of people again and revisit these characters – maybe get a little further into these characters, God willing. With my own movies… I’d love to do a sequel to Paul. The only film of mine I wouldn’t want to do a sequel to is the one everybody seems to want me to do [laughs] which, of course, is Superbad. But I feel there’s just no way to make a sequel to Superbad that isn’t disappointing.
It does feel like it’d be completely against the point to have a sequel there, yeah.
Yeah! I totally agree.
I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, yet… kind of surprising.
Well, I think Sony would’ve wanted a sequel, they’ve always said they would support that. But Seth [Rogen] and Evan Goldberg and me are just… no. That’d be like a crass money grab. I should do it, because I’m not nearly as rich as those guys [laughs] I’m ready for a crass money grab! But for me, myself, nah.