Larry David in 'Clear History'
John P. Johnson/HBO Larry David in 'Clear History'

In HBO's "Clear History," Larry David plays a former marketer for an electric car company who quits his job over a dispute with his boss (Jon Hamm) only to watch the company grow extraordinarily rich shortly afterward. Much of the movie takes place on Martha's Vineyard several years later, when the David character wastes his days in disguise and trying to forget his past -- until it catches up to him when his former employer buys a house on the island. An off-beat revenge comedy, "Clear History" finds David engaging his usual improvised cringe comedy schtick, and there's no mistaking the influence of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on every scene.

Yet the movie also features a new collaboration: David hired Greg Mottola, director of the simultaneously intelligent and raucous comedies "Superbad," "Daytrippers" and "Paul." Though David's humor dominates the movie, Mottola's involvement presents the opportunity to revisit the director's career, in which he has demonstrated a penchant for smart, character-based humor each time out. Mottola spoke to Indiewire about his experience collaborating with David on "Clear History," the origins of the project, his work on HBO's "The Newsroom" and why he still plans to keep making features on his own terms -- for the most part.

With Larry David being Larry David, it's hard not to see this movie as an extension of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." How much did you consider that precedent when determining how "Clear History" would come across to people?

Greg Mottola on set
Greg Mottola on set

I heard that Larry was pitching this improved movie, that he was meeting with directors and my name came up. And before I ever met with him, I though, "God, how do you do that without making it like 'Curb'?" Then the flip side of that is that I thought, "Well, why, would you not want to make it like 'Curb'"? Obviously, you wanna differentiate it, but... What would you do if you were asked to direct a WC Fields movie? Would you be trying to push WC Fields away from playing WC Fields?

So when Larry and I initially started discussing how we were going to approach it, we had a very brief conversation about if he'll be different in this than he is on the show. And we decided that the character was essentially a loser compared to his "Curb" character. And the setting is so different than Los Angeles, which would take care of some of the feel of it. The idea of the movie was very specific even though obviously Larry gets into scenes that are reminiscent of "Curb" scenes. It would be a mistake to inhibit Larry’s points of view, since his idea about people and human behavior is inherent to his comedy. So I wanted to try and find that balance of getting out of his way but at the same time just sort of be open to ways to make it feel somewhat different than the show. And some of it quite frankly is a practical issue, because Larry as a performer never really does the same thing twice.

Was the technique similar to the production of the show?

You’re sort of forced to shoot multiple cameras, cross covering actors, because the scene won’t cut together if you don’t. Not that I would try to strategize: "Okay, is this the point where we go in for close ups or stay loose a little bit and see how the scene plays out?" For the movie, and on the show, there’s a 30-page outline that has all the paragraphs of all the scene descriptions and no dialogue. We walked through the blocking on set the day we shot a scene, and told everyone what their intention is, roughly figure out the geography and whether we’re going to shoot it handheld or with the cameras on tripods or where we’re gonna start.

Nobody rehearses it, no one does anything until the cameras are rolling. So there’s stuff in the movie that’s from the first take before anyone’s tried it out. Then there’s stuff that went wildly wrong in the first take and we’d try to figure out what the scene should be and then we’d scrap the whole thing and start again. So it’s a very experimental process. We just said, "Let’s just let the process tell us what it should be."

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How was this a new experience for you?

I was always looking to learn from the rules of Larry's comedy. One of the things that I realized he thinks a lot about is the exact sort of performance or mood or tone in a scene that will counterbalance the darkness of it. He's very concerned with the specific kind of tone so that we can push the comedy darker and further or more uncomfortable and awkward. There has to be something balancing that. For instance, coming up with the score for the film and working with a composer we hired -- Ludevic Bource, who did "The Artist" -- and we basically gave him free range to do what he wanted. But we were often pushing him to make things light so it would balance out with the darker stuff in the movie.

It’s a style in which Larry can go further with some of the dark comedy if he’s also telling the audience, "It's OK, we’re in a comedy." That approach to dark comedy allows you to keep the audience with you and doesn’t begin to shed people along the way, so they aren't like, "This has now become unpleasant and I don’t want to be a part of it anymore."

As a director, how do you play a role in that process?

In between takes, we would stop and talk a lot about what we liked about it and what we didn’t like about it and it was very pleasant, because it was just constant problem solving. And suddenly you're in position of co-writing the movie while it’s happening and giving the actors tremendous room to try things to put them on the path of what we thought was going to work. Quite honestly, sometimes Larry would do that in the middle of a shot because it was the most efficient way to handle it. If he felt like something was going in the wrong direction he would drop out of character.

I was constantly thinking about where the camera should be and how, aside from helping the actors and thinking about the content, I was often doing stuff I haven't done a lot before: shooting a wide shot, going in for a close up, going back out for a wide shot -- replicating shots we’d already done because we now had a different performance or a different version of the scene. Obviously, it's easier cinematically to work this way because you can’t do anything too heavily choreographed because it's hard to figure out once I've moved the camera to push in on a line, the lines are different in every single take. I started to think of it as if I was shooting a long comedy performance movie, more like a concert film.

"I started to think of it as if I was shooting a long comedy performance movie, more like a concert film."

Was that a daunting challenge?

I think it's probably typical of my anxiety that I mostly worried that I had all these great people and I was going to somehow squander them. But Larry and I would talk with Danny [McBride] and said, "You're overqualified for this part. You’re playing the sounding board character," but having said that, every funny thing that Danny says in that movie came out of him. He's also a great guy, quite willing to play second fiddle to Larry, who wanted to be there and try this and is a big fan of Larry's -- so it was such a laid back set with the right combination of personalities that we just worked on really enjoying ourselves.

There were days where I was like, "Shit, is this working?" I have to confess it was extraordinarily fun to watch these people. The people who are more known as straight actors arrived on set with a little bit of anxiety about whether they could do this. Larry had said that he's worked on "Curb" with some actors who can’t do it. He auditions people who can't do it and he doesn't hire them. But we didn’t have any buyers remorse. We felt that everybody just got right into it and actors love it because you know they get to shape their parts.

Exactly how much of the movie is improvised?

Well, there’s no dialogue in the script so, every line. There's maybe two or three jokes that were written into the script, just things that Larry and his co-writers have loved. But the whole thing is improvised. Unlike Mike Leigh, who improvises in a workshop and creates a script out of it, we just show up, and it's a little tricky because you don’t know how long it's going to take to shoot a scene. Some scenes comes together really quickly and some scenes are disasters that take forever. But it sort of works itself out over time.

Was it liberating to make a TV movie without things like box office expectations on your mind?

That's interesting, since it started out as an indie film. It wasn’t meant to be an HBO movie and the reason we moved it to HBO was that -- it's symbolic of where movie financing is this days, or the state of the two different mediums, that we got into a lot of arguments about casting with the company that was going to make it. It wasn’t a studio, it was an indie arm of a studio.

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And that indie arm of a studio was...

Larry’s said it in an interview, so I guess it’s okay to say it. It started as a Fox Searchlight movie. It ended amicably. We couldn’t see eye to eye on all the casting. They have their marketing needs and I think I was a little surprised to find that Searchlight’s marketing needs to be as important as main Fox's marketing needs might be. They wanted us to shoot the whole thing in North Carolina to save like a million bucks, location fees and things like that. We just wanted this movie to be set in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place Larry’s been going to every summer for 12 years or so and it’s what he wanted to write about. And it’s an improv movie and he wanted to improv about a place he knew.

It's really the location that became a deal breaker. We understand why Searchlight was worried and biting their nails. It was an all improvisation movie and they would have had to spend a lot of money to market it. We thought, you know, let’s just make the movie we want to make. It’ll be a lot more fun, there’ll be a lot less pressure. HBO had offered Larry an open door if he changed his mind and wanted to do it there. They could offer us the things we wanted and pretty much give us creative control. In Searchlight’s defense, they were totally cool about it. They understood that we wanted to do what we wanted to do. I liked those people a lot, I was sad about it and wanted to do the movie for a movie theater but I’m not the first one to talk about how a lot of stuff that used to happen in movie theaters is happening on TV now. 

Next: Directing "The Newsroom" and getting advice from Steven Soderbergh.