[Metroactive Movies]

[ Movies Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Who Needs Sundance?

"Daytrippers" director Greg Mottola talks about making it big on $30,000

By Richard von Busack

To hell with the Sundance Film Festival. My grandparents moved to California to get us away from the snow. Robert Redford's cologne makes me break out in big magenta hives. To be bitterly honest, I can't pay $150 a night for a hotel room, and the nearest Motel 6s are in Salt Lake City, down what I'm certain would be a winding, ice-covered road I'd have to drive in the dark.

I'll stay here where it's warm and wait for the overpraised SRO audience favorites to slide right into the local screening room about a month or so after the festival. Let the Weinstein Brothers get into hand-to-hand combat with their fellow pugilists from Fine Line; I'll just wait right here in the bleachers to chomp on the spoils like the jackal I am.

Why? Because something bad happens to a lot of these movies when they reach sea level. Remember The Spitfire Grill? You watch these films that were so highly praised, and you think: What in the world gave this movie such a buzz? Hypothermia? Altitude sickness? Fumes from drying Gortex in an overcrowded, overheated theater?

Now, one of the most subtle movies I've seen this year arrives without the cachet of an appearance at Sundance. In our interview, shaved-head director Greg Mottola gives me more fuel for an already simmering prejudice.

The Daytrippers is Mottola's small but highly intelligent story of a day's toll on a feuding family as they drive through New York searching for a straying husband (Stanley Tucci of The Big Night). Explains Mottola, "The conceptual theme was that rubes from the suburbs would meet rubes from the city. It's a fish-out-of-water story that only sounds like that Jack Lemmon/Sandy Dennis movie The Out of Towners."

Slamming Sundance

Metro: Though co-produced by your mentor, Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), The Daytrippers was bounced out of Sundance into a salon des refuses--an anti-festival, in other words--called Slamdance, where you won the Grand Jury Prize.

Mottola: Slamdance does take place outside of Sundance, and the management of Sundance is vocally unhappy about it. Remember, though, that the Director's Fortnight at Cannes, founded in 1967 by Louis Malle, was originally outside the main competition. The Cannes Festival used to consider them outsiders and parasites. Now they've incorporated it, and they're lots more vibrant by having the other opinions.

The feedback I got on The Daytrippers from the Sundance judges was surprising. They didn't like the digressions. "You should have just told the story--and the characters are too unsympathetic." I thought, Is this a judge at Sundance or a Disney executive? Not getting in to Sundance was a huge strike against us, because of the way the independent film industry treats Sundance.

Metro: The Daytrippers didn't all fit together, which I liked. I enjoyed the jaggedness of it.

Mottola: I went to film school [at Carnegie-Mellon with graduate work at Columbia], and the teachers were all trying to cram Syd Fields down our throat. [Fields is the author of how-to books on screenplay writing; he exhorts people to write solid, three-act screenplays, which is why, in a bad, derivative film made according to the Fields plan, you can set your watch by the action.] I like oblique filmmaking; I don't want to know what happens next. I like scenes that don't fit in thematically, and [I like] digressions, all of that kooky stuff you're not supposed to put in.

Metro: Your view of New York is a unique one, in which the real problems aren't random crimes but stuff closer to home: lovers who betray you, people you respect who cut you dead. How did you get that look of a chilled, abandoned city?

Mottola: In the original script, the action was set during the summer, and in the script it was the car's air conditioning that didn't work, not its heater. Because of delays, we couldn't shoot in the summer. When I saw how well the city looked cold, I couldn't believe that I'd ever thought of any other possibility.

Soderbergh said you have to learn to deal with limitations. I think I gave more preference to the acting and the script than to the look. Ordinarily, shooting in New York with a normal-size crew means blocking off the streets, blocking traffic, hundreds of extras driving prop cars. It always seems to me too controlled.

And in ordinary films, when you shoot exteriors at night, everything's always lit up by floodlights. We didn't have very many lights, so we could make New York a stark, alien landscape. The family is driving through it, and they're not connected to it. This is a slightly pretentious thought, but the longing and alienation you feel in a family are reflected in the city here. The whole movie is about people not connected to each other.

Metro: The empty streets remind me of Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985), which you've mentioned is a favorite movie of yours.

Mottola: A really wonderful movie, with great melancholy scenes in it--also a movie about people failing to connect. It's probably my favorite nonautobiographical Scorsese film--OK, if you don't count Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. You've heard that Michael Powell suggested the ending for After Hours? [Powell was the noted British director who was married to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor on Raging Bull.]

Scorsese had wanted the film to end with the Griffin Dunne character trapped in the George Segal sculpture driving away, but Powell recommended the more Kafkalike ending of Dunne going back to the office the next morning and starting all over again.

Metro: You had a two-week-long shoot for this. How did that work out?

Mottola: First day of the shooting, I was feeling like the big weak link. Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis are all there, the crew is uptight, and there's lots of hushed talking among them. They can't find the camera. All of the camera-rental places are closed for the weekend. We've got this down to a 16-day shoot, and changing it to 13 to 14 days will absolutely kill us. Luckily, we found someone who had a Super16mm camera, and we rushed through the first day. It was trial by fire, and it couldn't get worse than that. And then everyone calmed down.

We were always fighting time, every day giving up shots that I wanted. I had to decide what was essential, even something as basic as closeups and master shots. I hope next time we get a longer shoot--maybe 17 or 18 days. I asked Soderbergh whether he ever had enough time to make a movie--and he said that the only time he felt that he had enough time was on his first movie: sex, lies and videotape [groans], his most low-budget movie!

Lush Life

Metro: What was writing The Daytrippers like?

Mottola: The writing process was unlearning all that I learned in film school. In film school, you learn to emulate your heroes and some formulas and that's all a big mess. My first draft was just about right, the second draft I didn't like, and the third draft came close to the first. Then how to make it? Steven Spielberg said that the first role of filmmaking isn't to use your own money--there are people who could make a movie on what he spends on lunch. And the kind of movies that influence me didn't break the bank: Italian neorealist, French New Wave.

I was waiting for a deal on my first script, Lush Life, but while I was waiting, I got a call from Soderbergh [telling me] that if I could come up with an idea that could be done cheaply, I could make the whole film hand-held in 16mm. I didn't want to do the whole film hand-held. So I only switched to hand-held at the very end, in the scene when the characters all stop talking for a few minutes.

Soderbergh came to the sets when I was filming, but he told me to make my own mistakes. I had to make all sorts of minor split-second decisions, about how a shot was framed, about shooting in tiny places. I had to punish myself by using the wrong lenses. I watch films much differently now. I'm not a huge fan of incredibly slick movies that leave nothing to the imagination, but I wish The Daytrippers was a little more slick, though I think audiences respond to it anyway.

Metro: Anne Meara, who plays the mother, is intimidating. What was it like directing her?

Mottola: She's a big personality, and she terrified me. I warned her that there weren't going to be any trailers on this film, that there was going to be Ritz crackers, if that. She loved it, though. At first, I was very intimidated about directing her, but she was the one who kept it together. When the crew was getting oppressed by the shooting schedule, she'd start telling jokes or singing a song.

A difficult mom with a heart of gold is not what I wanted; I wanted something deeper, a sort of disturbed person. I kept thinking of Hank Quinlan in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil as a model for her. Quinlan is wrong in all of the things he does, but right about his judgment of character. Anne Meara's mother is right; she does understand--she's just wrong in the way she goes about trying to help.

Metro: What's your own background like?

Mottola: Half Irish, half Italian. There's a lot of strong matriarchal families where I came from, on Long Island, lots of professional mothers. The parents were lost in space. Their own parents were immigrants, and their children, the third generation, were real Americans who started doing all of these unspeakable things.

Metro: Obviously, any movie that sympathetically portrays a frustrated second-rate writer is going to be popular with critics. Is the "man with the dog's head" allegorical novel that the character named Carl is writing actually something you'd written in your adolescence?

Mottola: I don't tell many people about this because I'm embarrassed. But yes, it was a little bit like a script I was writing, a sort of surrealist thing. Carl is based on people I know who went to art school or grad school--decent people who feel compelled to create. I'm really touched by how many of them there are in New York--so many furniture builder/writers, carpenter/musicians. Whenever I'd see one of them who was bitter, I had private slang for them, "woodworker," because it seems that after they'd given up trying to write or paint, they'd end up renovating apartments.

Metro: Can you tell me something about Richard Martinez's music for The Daytrippers? It's very evocative.

Mottola: Thematically, it reflects the repression and denial these people are in, related to a period gone by. It's neo-bossa nova, built around a Stan Getz tune. We bought the rights to the melody. I wanted eclectic music. I was afraid that if someone heard a clarinet, they'd think Woody Allen.

Metro: Finally, can you describe how your shot-in-two-weeks, $30,000 movie got picked up for distribution?

Mottola: When the film was being considered for the Cannes Film Festival, during the Critic's Week screenings, I kept hearing how close it was to being selected; I'd heard I was in the top four to be selected, and then the top two.

I thought it was going to be close but no cigar. Before the festival, one distributor saw a rough cut and was ready to pick up the film, and then they changed their mind and reneged. It was Cannes that really broke The Daytrippers, and the film was sold in Europe but not the US.

I got a small distributor, CFP Films, on the theory that they'd work harder. It's hard not to want Fine Line or Miramax to pick up your film, even after hearing about disappointing experiences. It's tough with specialized films like this; you get a ton of attention and very little money. Seven hundred movies didn't get into Sundance this year--they were all movies with good intentions, that just didn't work for whatever reason.

So if you're an independent filmmaker, you have to realize you will get something out of making a film. In his book on independent moviemaking, Soderbergh says, "Talent plus tenacity equals luck." The people who keep at it get better and develop the tenacity as they go along.

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Web exclusive to the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.