With 20th Century Fox’s action-comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses now playing in theaters, I recently got on the phone with director Greg Mottola for an exclusive interview. During our wide-ranging conversation we talked about how he put together this incredible cast, how it’s not hard to imagine Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot as a power couple, the way the script changed during the development process, why they re-shot the opening scene, what they learned in test screenings, who he trusts for honest feedback, what will be on the Blu-ray, future projects like The Dangerous Book for Boys that he’s doing with Bryan Cranston, and a lot more.
In the film, Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play a happily married couple in a quiet suburban neighborhood. When a new couple moves in next door (played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) Galifianakis sees an opportunity to make a new friend while Fisher’s character is suspicious. Before long her doubtfulness is confirmed and soon they’re all forced to work together on a top-secret mission to stop an arms dealer known as The Scorpion.
Check out what Mottola had to say below.
Collider: Before we get started, one of my writers wanted to know what’s the status of The Daytrippers on Blu-ray?
GREG MOTTOLA: We are talking to a company. I don’t wanna blow it by saying who yet, but it’s looking good. And the intention will be to do a new transfer, a state-of-the-art transfer, not like we did in the old days which was like shining a flashlight through the film and recording it with a VHS handheld camera. It’s really gonna come out better than that, but this time we’re gonna do it right, with the right aspect ratio and get interviews with the cast.
Do you still have unseen footage from that as well as some of your other films that have never seen the light of day?
MOTTOLA: I wish I could put my student film on there but there are music rights on it that I will never get. Just because that’s what got my foot in the door and I met – The first person I met in the business was David Heyman, who was a producer on Daytrippers and who went on to produce the highly-unsuccessful Harry Potter series. But if I could get around the music problem I would stick that on there. There is footage somewhere from Daytrippers, but I don’t know if I have the heart to go through it.
I’m also talking about Paul or Superbad or other films. Is there footage that has just still never seen the light of day, or is it that whatever’s been released, that’s it?
MOTTOLA: I’d say chances are that the stuff that we released is the only stuff worth looking at, and that’s debatable whether it’s worth looking at all. But I can’t think of anything…There’s some weird stuff on Superbad that we shot that…Yeah, no one wants to see that [Laughs].
Jumping into your recent film [Keeping Up with the Joneses], you put together this insane cast and I’m just curious, how the F did you do that?
MOTTOLA: Well, Zach [Galifianakis] before I had even read it, or loosely attached to it. And I’m a huge fan of Zach’s and I auditioned Zach a million years ago on a movie called Duplex which I was fired from. But Zach came in –It was like 2000, maybe– as a buddy stand-up that people were starting to notice and there was something about him I loved. He wasn’t quite right for the part and I got fired anyway, so who cares? But I always wanted to work with Zach. And then Jon Hamm was the first I thought of for the other role, I recently worked with him on Clear History, an HBO improv movie that we had done together.
When we looked at the list of women, I just thought Isla [Fisher] hasn’t been utilized as she should. I just think she’s so fucking good and hilarious and such a great actress. So these are all our first choices and we were lucky to get them. And because Isla is so pretty we were trying to decide who the hell should play against her that would intimidate her, and one day I said, “You know…this was before Superman had come out, Superman v. Batman: The Court Room Drama I like to call it. Superman and Batman go to a small claims court together. I knew they’d cast [Gal Gadot], I had seen pictures of her, I remembered seeing her doing parts in movies and I went and re-watched stuff with hers and then met with her and I just called the producers immediately and said, “We have to try and get her to do this” because she’s really intense and scary and also incredibly warm and sweet. When the earthy, smiling Israeli side comes out she’s like the warmest person on earth, and she’s really silly and fun and she’s a very cool person. So I don’t know how they agreed to it, but they did.
I was also gonna say that she plays well with Jon because they look like that super power couple.
MOTTOLA: Yeah, I mean, it’s ridiculous. We wanted that image of people that are ridiculously like another species.
You nailed it.
MOTTOLA: They are like that, yeah.
It’s like they’re both superhuman in terms of everything so you look at them and you’re like, “Yeah, forget it.”
MOTTOLA: I think even Jon, the first day Gal was in a scene and he was as tall as Jon was, he was like, “What the fuck is this? It’s ridiculous.”
Talk a little bit about from when you got on the project to what people are seeing on screen how much changed along the way in terms of the story. Because when you cast certain people, you write to their voices and things change.
MOTTOLA: One of the things that wasn’t really in the initial script was the –It’s revealed that the Joneses are, you know, human, but the details were somewhat different. Jon is incredibly good at playing people who have secrets and are hiding aspects of their personality, and obviously Don Draper had a lot of that. We didn’t want to make it a parody of Don Draper but we did arrive on this idea that there’s a side of him that opens up that would like him to stop living as a professional liar. There’s something about this earnest person that just makes him feel kind of dirty about his job and then reminds him that he sort of wants other things out of life and he and his wife haven’t really…He’s brought it up in the past and she hasn’t wanted to really pursue it, and so Jon has this great vulnerability like all these sort of great leading men that have a softness under the hardness that makes them so compelling. And plus, you know, Jon’s too funny for someone who looks like Jon.
He’s a very talented comedian, which also makes me very angry.
MOTTOLA: Me too, it’s just so fucking annoying.
It’s not fair. I’m curious what you learned from test screenings and in friends and family screenings that possibly impacted the finished film.
MOTTOLA: Well, after the first two test screenings we did go and reshoot the opening of the film and a series of scenes. The opening of the film I liked on paper, but it was sort of introducing the wrong movie, there was like a backyard party with a bunch of neighbors and it just didn’t quite kick the movie off in the right way. And we learned that really from the audience, people were confused as to why the story seemed to start one way and become something else, and that’s the audience being smarter than me. The other thing we changed was in the movie Jon takes Zach to the snake restaurant, that originally was a different series of scenes all taking place at a beer tasting room in the little craft beer, home brewing store they go to. And it was the first thing we shot on the first day and it was way too many pages for one day and it just wasn’t quite lively enough, it just didn’t really intercut that well with Gal Gadot in her underwear. Just a little hard to compete with. Although I’ve seen Zach in his underwear, it’s pretty good. So yeah, we went and reshot that stuff and that was all stuff we learned from the audience. We designed the film…It’s PG-13, Zach was fine with that, he said, “I can’t do The Hangover forever. I have to try and be funny without being crass or vulgar” which is hard for Zach [Laughs]. So we purposely made it not a kind of machine gun jokes movie, it was more of a throwback ‘80s wish fulfillment, ordinary people getting sucked into something.
So I think some of the audience in test screenings were wondering. “Oh we’re not getting the Zach we’re used to, the sort of obnoxious Zach.” But we committed to that, we didn’t really change that even though that was a little bit of the feedback we were getting. It took people a beat to adjust to Zach. I personally, knowing Zach, he’s such a warm and sweet person in real life, he’s not as dumb as Jeff Gaffney but the sweetness of the character is actually a lot of who he is in person.
It’s funny you mentioned like an ‘80s thing, because when I was watching the film I thought it existed in that sort of ‘80s reality where you can’t look too deep in terms of the bullets flying and the reality of the situation, in essence it’s sort of having fun with its own reality.
MOTTOLA: Yeah, yeah. It’s not one of those movies where people get shot and fall down and there’s no reality of what would happen if you got shot and knocked over a motorcycle. It’s meant to be a slight comedy in that sense. The one thing they did let me do which I appreciated was that for budgetary reasons they were trying to push me to shoot all that action stuff with green screens with the main cast, and I said, “No let’s get them in moving cars because that’s always just more fun to watch and they’ll scream better.”
Who is on your friends and family group that you show the first cut? The one you edit in assembly and you have your first cut, you invite five, six, or a dozen people to watch that early cut to give honest feedback. Who’s in your little circle?
MOTTOLA: Well, the tricky thing for me is that I like to do post in New York because that’s where my family is but my friends who I would do that with are all in L.A., and I should’ve probably demanded that they let me take the film out there and show it to Judd [Apatow] and Bill Hader and Rodney Rothman, those are the people I would’ve shown it too if I had been in L.A., maybe Nick Stoller, who are all old friends. In New York it was my editor that I worked with a lot Anne McCabe, who didn’t cur this film but who I trust a lot. And, you know, my wife and just some old friends from film school. My bold name group of friends are all in L.A., I didn’t round them up.
How much stuff is on the deleted scene floor, if you will, how much will be on the eventual Blu-ray that fans can look forward to?
MOTTOLA: All the stuff that we reshot pretty much we’re putting on the DVD. I just decided it’s kind of like showing our dirty laundry but at the same time it’s like this is useful for like a film student, or an up-and-coming writer, they might look at it and say, “Well, you should’ve stuck with it, the first time it was better.” But just to show what happens and what can change, how you try to thread the needle of changing something and not have the who thing fall apart.
I think Blu-rays used to be really good at teaching people, in essence like a Blu-ray film school, but now the studios have really cut down on the extras to sort of educate, it’s more like bare bones.
MOTTOLA: I know, why is that? I sit just they don’t care because it doesn’t make them money, there’s no money to be made at all?
I think home video sales are declining, but the truth is that there’s still people who wanna watch it and you gotta wonder. I don’t actually know, but I would imagine it’s a cost/profit ratio.
MOTTOLA: Yeah, I’m sure that’s it. Because I got a sense that they were only gonna put so much into it, it’s not like the old days. It’s true. I mean, I listen to director commentary or look at scenes as a film student, as a still film student. They’re very useful, they’re very informative, and have affected what I’ve thought about things, especially when it’s a master like [Martin] Scorsese or somebody.
I really do wish that for certain movies they would show how they directed something, like a scene from a movie, that would be a cool extra. Like really break it down, show the dolly, show really how it gets put together, because there’s a lot of people who can’t afford film school and want to make movies and that’s how you get the next generation involved.
MOTTOLA: Yeah. Actually, I should think about that maybe on an indy, more personal film to do something like that on the side.
The issue of course is when you’re making that indie with limited money, do you really want to devote two hours to showing how the dolly track works.
MOTTOLA: But something like a good assistant with a video camera could capture that. It’s actually an interesting thought.
What have you been developing? What else is coming up?
MOTTOLA: I feel like I’m long overdue for a “one for me” movie, so I’ve got two low-budget indy personal things I’m working on. One is an old script that I’m reviving, there’s people who wanna make it but I have some legal issues that I have to get through with my former producer on it. And then there’s a new original thing I’m writing. I’ve been co-writing a TV thing with Bryan Cranston, which we are going to find out soon if it’s moving forward or not which is for Amazon.
That’s an interesting name to drop.
MOTTOLA: Yeah, it’s been awesome, he’s incredible. Great guy.
I was gonna say, with his name I would be surprised if people don’t wanna –Is it something he’s gonna star in or is it something he’s writing with you?
MOTTOLA: No, it’s just something he would write and produce. He’s got a whole production company, Moon Shot. I’ll probably beg him to pop in for a recurring or something. He’s a very funny guy, he’s a very smart guy.
You were involved in TV a while ago and now TV’s a whole other level in terms of the amount of content out there, the amount of channels, people spending money, Netflix, Amazon, it does seem like there’s a lot to offer there.
MOTTOLA: Yeah it’s an amazing time. My first love will always be movies, but that’s why I jumped to the chance to work with Bryan, because it’s something that I don’t think –It’s the kind of project that I don’t think anyone would have touched 10 years ago and I think Bryan sees that there’s a chance to do stuff that they didn’t used to let you do. So yeah, it’s a very cool time.
Does it have a title?
MOTTOLA: It’s called The Dangerous Book for Boys, which is based on a book called The Dangerous Book for Boys which came out about a decade ago and it was –Essentially a dad wrote it for his kids and it’s a guide on how to be a boy, but there’s no technology or screens or anything and he based it on his own childhood. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek in places and it’s how to build a go-kart, how to play poker, or what are the rules of baseball, or what are famous battles that have occurred. It’s all stuff that boys growing up should know but often don’t because unless it’s on Google they haven’t seen it or done it. So it’s sort of a push back against the digital age, and Bryan found a way to turn that into a story about actual human beings, and it’s very irreverent but it’s been fun. It’s the first foray into family entertainment for me. Well, Joneses is my first PG-13 movie so I guess I’m mellowing at an old age.