When Greg Mottola, the New York-based moviemaker behind such naturalistic, character-driven comedies as Superbad, Adventureland and The Daytrippers, was asked by Shaun of the Dead co-creators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to direct Paul, their “pop culture mash-up” homage to the golden age of sci-fi blockbusters, even Mottola admits he wasn’t the most obvious guy for the job.

Pegg insisted, however, because he wanted Paul—a lighthearted comic adventure starring himself and co-writer Frost as road-tripping nerds who encounter the titular smartass, a CGI-animated extraterrestrial voiced by Seth Rogen—to have an indie feel.

“He thought it would be cool if it felt like an ensemble road comedy, but one of the characters just happened to be this really expensive special effect,” Mottola laughs. “As if you’d dropped Gollum into Five Easy Pieces.”

Mottola consented, of course. As the film readied for its August 9th release on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand, the director spoke with MM about geek culture, his trial by fire into the world of special effects and commanding a great performance from an actor who lives on a hard drive.

Aaron Hillis (MM): Director Edgar Wright, who worked with Pegg and Frost on Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and “Spaced,” was too busy directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to take on this project. What specifically convinced you to direct it?

Greg Mottola (GM): I was already a fan. I’d seen episodes of “Spaced,” and I love Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I was definitely intimidated because Edgar is an amazing director, but Simon sent me the script and I loved it. I have the same nostalgic affection for that period in mainstream movies when I came of age. When I was seven, my parents took me to a revival of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t know what they were thinking; they weren’t really that arty, but they took me and then fell asleep, while my mind had been blown. I had pretty amazing nightmares for a long time.

I was 12 when Star Wars came out, and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind the next year. Like many people of that generation, I was very influenced by those movies. Those movies were inspired by classic Hollywood, but suddenly they were showing things that none of us had ever seen because there hadn’t been the advances in special effects or makeup technology before then. I read a lot of sci-fi and tons of comic books, but I left that culture behind a little when I left for college.

I can’t say I’m a card-carrying Comic-Con geek, but I’ve been one of those kids who is obsessed with fantasy. Obviously, this is a silly comedy. In the way Simon does, it takes something he loves, puts it in the blender and spits it out with jokes, simultaneously making fun of it and celebrating it. It clearly comes from a sincere place.

MM: How difficult was it to bring life to a bunch of zeros and ones, especially for comic timing?

GM: Simon and Nick were very generous insofar as their writing. They gave Paul the best role; he’s got great lines, and they’re the straight men supporting him for a lot of the movie. That was a huge leap of faith.

If you look at the trailer, you might assume he’s just a walking visual gag, but he’s actually got various facets. At times, he’s incredibly childish and annoying. Other times, he’s opinionated and arrogant. Then there are scenes where he’s a real mensch, a good friend and quite charming. I take some pride in the fact that a lot of women tell me they really like the movie—women who said they couldn’t give a shit about science-fiction, but they like Paul.

Trying to get a somewhat naturalistic performance out of pixels was an exciting challenge. We cast Seth Rogen and knew that he was going off to do The Green Hornet, so he wouldn’t be on set while we were shooting. This made me nervous because when I went back and looked at older movies, I realized that part of the reason we buy E.T. or Yoda is the performance of the actors who are acting with this nonexistent thing.
The little kids’ faces in E.T. are really selling it while they were talking to a little person in a rubber suit. Maybe it was the great character design, and they just looked at E.T.’s big eyes and bought it, I’m not sure.

MM: That was also an era when practical effects were more in vogue, instead of the digital post-production we see today.

GM: I wondered about that. One of the reasons why CG characters so rarely work in things like the Star Wars prequels is that you feel like poor Ewan McGregor is standing there talking to a stick. This is different since we’re not trying to create a realistic world of magic. It’s a comedy, but we still need timing and people playing off each other.

The reason we couldn’t do Paul with animatronics—besides the fact that audiences have moved on and expect more—is that E.T. wasn’t exactly a glib, Seth Rogen type. He needs energy, a lot of facial expression and he needs to talk. It’s not going to work with hydraulic levers.

One of the smartest decisions I made came when we were very close to shooting. We were going to have a script supervisor read all of Paul’s lines, or take recordings of Seth doing the lines, then have a sound guy try to cue them live with a laptop and not screw up. I thought, “This is going to be a disaster, it’s never going to work. We’re going to find out too late, get behind in shooting and kill ourselves.” So I asked Joe Lo Truglio, who has a supporting role in the movie, if he would be willing to be Paul on set when not playing his own character.

He said yes, and took it really seriously. We rehearsed for two weeks with Seth in the motion capture suit, and the effects guys videotaped everything to get animation references. We actually didn’t use much of the suit because Seth isn’t shaped like a tiny alien with a huge head, and it didn’t look right. But we now had the entire movie on tape in this rehearsal form, so Joe would watch every scene, remember what Seth had done and be ready to improvise. Seth went back and adapted what Joe had done, and it was tedious because there were a lot of layers, but it helped a lot.

MM: Paul looks like the grey, wide-eyed alien we’ve seen on “The X-Files”, Communion and in police sketches from cuckoos everywhere. Was there a creative logic behind this old-school look?

GM: There’s a built-in joke that Paul crashed on planet Earth in 1947 and has been in a military base for the last 60 years. During that time, the government simultaneously drip-fed his image into pop culture in case they ever decided to reveal that Paul was there, or if his people ever came looking for him, we wouldn’t totally freak out. There’s a further extrapolation of that joke that Simon and Nick wrote, which is a clever way to steal literally from other films. Basically, the government becomes so comfortable with Paul, they allow him to have access to certain VIPs. There’s a flashback scene where he’s giving Steven Spielberg notes on E.T. It’s like a hip-hop song stealing from the past. I remember the first time I heard De La Soul and was like, “Wait a second, that’s Steely Dan. Hey, I kind of like it!” It’s up to the audience to decide whether it’s cheap, earned or in the right spirit. No lawyers have contacted us yet, and it was Spielberg’s idea to have that scene, so we were lucky.
MM: Beyond the written page, were there any logistical challenges in crafting your space invader?

GM: Double Negative did all the digital effects, and they’re brilliant, but designing Paul was tricky because it’s hard to design in the computer. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with their first passes at this concept, and even though it seems like “How many different versions of a bug-eyed alien can you make?” you can make a lot. It didn’t feel completely right yet, so I hired Spectral Motion, who do a lot of character design for Guillermo Del Toro.

One very talented sculptor started building Paul out of clay, and suddenly the neck muscles felt like they could support a gigantic head, the Adam’s apple was in the right place and the ridges in his skull would’ve evolved that way to protect such a big brain. All this shit came together that makes him interesting to look at for the 90 minutes he’s on-screen. Then it gets pulled into the digital world, they do a 3-D scan of the life-size sculpture, build a skeletal armature, put tendons and muscles on, then a layer of skin. What Ray Harryhausen used to do with plastic, metal and rubber, they’re doing digitally.

MM: I can appreciate the technology and getting lost in a CGI-enhanced world, but I hope that doesn’t become the replacement for humanity in cinematic storytelling.

GM: I agree. I’m left cold by a lot of those movies. When I read stories like George Lucas trying to buy up the trademark for famous dead actors because he wants to do some CGI film with Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart together, I’m like, “Please don’t do that. For the love of God.” With Paul, even though he was expensive, we were doing the opposite of what special effects movies are doing because they’re usually trying to blow people away with how cool it is, and this is a decidedly uncool movie.

We shot a lot of it handheld, keeping Paul in the background. We just want to feel like he’s there. We’re trying to make a character that feels human and is relatable. The thing I like about Paul is that he’s very unapologetic. He’s surrounded by Simon and Nick and people they meet along the way who are a bit stuck. There’s a bit of poking fun at Creationists, these devout evangelical types, and what the movie is saying as Paul gives them a hard time is “Just be open to the world. If you’re so closed-minded, you’re going to miss out on stuff.”

He’s saying it to the geeks, too. “You guys are talented, but you’re not doing anything with it.” Simon’s character is an illustrator and Nick plays a writer, but they have arrested development and he’s saying, “Own who you are, and fuck what anyone thinks.” When Seth Rogen read it, he’s like, “Oh, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. He’s the cool guy who helps these other guys get the stick out of their ass.” MM