Ticket to Ride
The Daytrippers' Filmmaker Greg Mottola
By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 25, 1997
I remember hearing some expert claim that 97% of all families are "dysfunctional" and it made me think of two things:
1) The word "dysfunctional" is meaningless, since it apparently pertains to almost every living human (and probably should be expelled from the English language) and...
2) Who are the freaks that make up that 3% of "functional" families?
-- Greg Mottola, The Daytrippers press notes
Appearances can be deceiving, however. For one thing, 32-year-old Mottola, a Long Island native, has just released his first feature The Daytrippers, the often hilarious, sometimes downright disturbing, funhouse station wagon ride through New York hell. The journey begins when wife Eliza (Hope Davis) discovers what appears to be a love letter from another woman in her husband Louis' (Stanley Tucci) trousers. This, in turn, leads Eliza and her whole extended family off to New York City to confront Louis and, hopefully, find out the truth. Filled with familial bickering, angry moms, and the requisite wood-paneled station wagon, The Daytrippers is a dead-on look at dysfunction junction, a laugh-out-loud comedy that also leaves you wincing in pain at the emotional tsunami up on the screen.
No mean feat for Mottola's debut film. Co-produced by longtime friend Steven Soderbergh, The Daytrippers is currently enjoying a limited release which brings it to Austin this week. I spoke with the director while he was visiting Austin as part of a promotional tour for his film.
Austin Chronicle: How did you come to hook up with Steven Soderbergh, and what sort of input did he have on the film as producer?
Greg Mottola: Well, I met Steven because of a student film I did while I was at Columbia -- "Swingin' in the Painter's Room" -- which then went on to the festival circuit, where his agent saw it. At that time, I was thinking should I move out to L.A.: What should I do? This was back when I was 25 or 26, so actually I've known Steven quite a while. I met him, like, right around the time sex, lies and videotape was just coming out. So, anyway, he saw my student film and this agent put us together and we just became friendly and started talking over the phone.
The first script I finished that I thought was any good I sent to him to get his opinion. He said it needed work, but it was good, so he went on to help me set it up. He introduced me to this woman, Nancy Tenenbaum, who was his favorite producer of the many people who produced sex, lies and videotape.
For years the three of us tried to get this film made. I rewrote it; I went to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab with it; it went through many incarnations. We'd get some actors attached and then that would all fall through, or some investors would express interest and then that would go nowhere fast. It was really frustrating, and it became clear that I was never going to get the type of money that this film needed to be done right. And so Steven and Nancy literally called me one day -- in the summer of '94 -- after three years of trying to get this particular project made, and said, "If you can think of something that can be done really cheaply, we'll give you the cash out of our pockets."
GM: Seriously. Now, I had had the idea for The Daytrippers a few months before they made that offer but I didn't do anything with it at the time, I just dropped it in a notebook. Then when they said that to me, I thought, well, what could I do that could be real no-budget, just kind of a hand-held, run-and-gun film. Then I remembered the idea of The Daytrippers, which, in my mind, seemed like a really unromantic view of people: It didn't have to be beautifully shot, it was all about character. It really seemed like the right kind of no-budget film, so I immediately began writing, and after about four weeks I had a draft of it. Steven and Nancy looked at it, and Soderbergh was like, "Okay, why don't I shoot it?" -- because the original plan was that he was going to shoot the film on 16 millimeter with a camera he owned. In fact, the original plan was that he was going to shoot it on his weekends while he was doing The Underneath, which is typical of Steven Soderbergh -- and he would be able to pull if off, because he is so obsessed that he would direct a movie five days a week for Universal Pictures and then do another film on the weekends.
GM: Very, but by the time I finished the script it was so much a New York story that it made absolutely no sense to try and come down to Texas and do it on the weekend. Anyway, in the very beginning when we were going to shoot the whole thing for $40,000, it was going to be done entirely hand-held, with non-SAG actors, for however long it took to get it done. We were going to do it, you know, completely guerrilla-style. And then slowly I started to show it to actors that I liked, thinking I would get them, and once I had put together this cast it was all professional people.
AC: How did you manage to put together such a great cast?
GM: One of the advantages of being in New York and sort of failing for so long in getting this other film made is that I'd done readings of it and met all these actors. I knew Campbell Scott and was friendly with him, and I knew Parker Posey really well -- I actually wrote that part for her -- and I knew Hope Davis and other people who I really admired.
With Parker, when I first told her that I wanted to do it, it was like typical Parker: "I just did five no-budget films in a row and I'm not going to be able to pay my rent. I can't do it, I simply can't do it. But let me read the script to see if I can recommend other people." So she reads it and goes, "Okay, I'll do it." I think she goes through that process every single time. She always says she's got to go to L.A. and make money and then she'll read something that pays no money and then, sure enough, a year later she's got five or six films under her belt. I think she's up to 23 now, which is unbelievable.
AC: Did you write the film with Anne Meara in mind as well?
GM: I didn't know what I was going to do with that part, you know, because it's a lot easier to find younger actors who are willing to work under shitty conditions, either people who haven't paid their dues so much yet, or people who are just more resilient. By the time someone gets to be Anne Meara's age, they've usually either dropped out or they don't feel like having to put up with that.
The advantage, however, is that there aren't that many good roles for older women either, so my casting director knew her and gave it to her. She called me up to check me out over the phone and, I guess, see how much of a joker I was. I kept warning her how low-budget it was, but it wasn't until the day she actually showed up and saw that it was much lower-budget than anything she'd ever seen in her life -- I think that's when it really sunk in, what she had gotten herself into. But she turned out to be probably the most enthusiastic advocate of this kind of filmmaking. I mean, she would keep people up. The crew would be on the verge of rebelling and she would start telling stories or doing song-and-dance routines. I mean, literally. She'd sing songs, she'd tell jokes, she'd perform for the crew, because she has endless amounts of energy. She's insane. So, that turned out to be incredibly fun, and I think she really enjoyed working with Parker and Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber, because a lot of the stuff she does now is, you know, TV stuff, and that's a different kind of world.
AC: Timewise, you were working on not only a minuscule budget, but also a tiny shooting schedule... 16 days, right?
GM: Yeah. Tiny.
AC: Was that due to financial constraints?
GM: Yeah. But it was also due to the actors' schedules. We had a couple of half-days, too, so it ended up being about 17 days total.
AC: Long days and long nights, huh?
GM: Oh yeah. But, you know, I was really naïve when I wrote the script. I thought it was pretty contained when I visualized it in my head, and then I realized that "pretty contained" means two or three locations, like two or three characters in a room. Prison-cell scenes or something. Not like going all over New York City in a car. It was pretty insane actually. I was constantly throwing away half the shots I wanted to get.
In a way, though, my guiding principle about this movie was the acting, so I would always make my compromises hoping that they would least compromise the performances. You know. It's kind of like one of those situations where you don't quite know how you're going to pull it off, but you just keep going.
AC: What's up with distribution these days? Do you have national distribution, or what's the story on that?
GM: Yes, we do. We're in about 40 theatres right now, split up over maybe about 12 cities. You know, San Francisco, New York, L.A., Minneapolis, D.C., Boston. It's a small, slow push. We started in New York for three weeks only, and then the week after that we added Boston, then L.A., and so on. I think it's worked out well for this film.
AC: Have you started to see any monetary return for your efforts yet?
GM: Well, we actually made some money selling the film in Europe. In fact we made a lot more money selling it in Europe than we did in the Unites States.
AC: Why do you think that is?
GM: I think it's because the Europeans aren't as freaked out by the commercial prospects of a film that has an ambiguous or not-so-happy ending. I think it's largely tied to that. I think that if I made a film where everything worked out well and it was all a big mistake and it had a happy ending, I could have sold it for a lot more money. That's a theory. All I know is that the distributors here were like, "The ending doesn't work, we can't sell this film." And then in Europe, they're like, "What a great ending!" you know? The price that we got in Germany was three times what we got for the entire United States. Twice as much in France, too. So, because of that, we're almost at profit. Finally.
AC: So what's next on your list of things to do?
GM: Well, I recently sat down with the people from Dino De Laurentiis Productions in L.A., and they're looking for someone to write and direct a new version of Barbarella.
AC: You're kidding!
GM: No, really. I thought that would be so much fucking fun, too. But then they started telling me the direction they wanted to go, like, they wanted to make Barbarella in San Francisco or Miami, with Drew Barrymore as an outer-space cop who comes to earth to solve a crime. And suddenly, that didn't sound like so much fun to me anymore, so...
AC: But that's Dino for you.
GM: Yeah, that's Dino. Actually I'm finishing up a script that I really, really want to do next. I feel like it's a good extension of The Daytrippers. Now, of course, Hollywood's finally paying attention and, of course, all they want to talk about is the more mainstream version of The Daytrippers, which, to me, would be completely uninteresting. What I'm doing is slightly less mainstream than The Daytrippers, but I'm hoping I can get a slightly larger budget as well, and do visual things that weren't possible before.
AC: Can you tell me a little about this new project?
GM: Yeah, sure. It's tentatively titled Earthly Delights, and it's all about sex versus love. It's all about how for some people sex and love don't happen in the same relationship. Or not very well. In other words the sex part works, but the romance isn't there, or the romance works but the sex...
AC: ...right. I know all about that.
GM: Oh yeah! So it takes place over a long period of time, with lots of characters coming in throughout. It's sort of -- I hate this kind of thing -- I was going to say, "It's `fill in the blank' for the Nineties!" But then I'd have to shoot myself.