A Conversation With Greg Mottola, Director Of "The Daytrippers"
by John Bernstein
South Florida turned out to be a good place for Greg Mottola to
wrap-up his 13-month-long film festival odyssey. The sold-out audience
at Miami’s ornate Gusman Theater responded enthusiastically to the
first-time filmmaker’s romantic comedy, “The Daytrippers”, which was one
of only a handful of US independents to be shown at the 14 year-old
festival. A large crowd also turned out for a seminar on the making of
the film that included Motolla, lead-actress Hope Davis, and the film’s
refreshingly outspoken publicist Reid Rosefelt.
It was been a long, sometimes difficult journey for the 32 year-old
filmmaker from Long Island. Even with a strong script, a well-known
producer, and an impressive cast (including Davis, Parker Posey, Liev
Schreiber, Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci and Marcia Gay Harden), the
film almost never saw the light of day. Rejected by Sundance, “The Daytrippers”
had a premiere plagued with problems at Slamdance ’96, and
had very little luck getting distributors even to see the film until
last May, when it was finally accepted into the Cannes Film Festival’s
Critics’ Week. At last, “The Daytrippers” is about to be released in New
York and L.A., and the long wait is almost over for Mottola. He sat
down with me to reflect on Miami, Sundance, Cannes, and the film’s
producer Steven Soderbergh.
indieWIRE: Quite a few people turned out for your panel discussion.
What does it feel like to be considered an expert after one film?
Greg Motolla: It’s strange. I was on the other side of the panel for
the longest time, and I didn’t think anything had really changed that
would make me a good subject for a panel. I realize now that I learned
a lot making “Daytrippers”, and that sharing some of those experiences
might be valuable. It’s important for filmmakers to enter the process
with their eyes wide open, and not to overly romanticize it. The crazy
thing about independent filmmaking is that you’re so judged on your
first film. It almost needs to be one of those ground-breaking
I read a great quote from a book about Bergman. He talked about
how his first four or five films were garbage. He thought that those
early works were ways to work the junk out of his system so he could
ultimately make a good film. The success stories in this business are
few and far between. Whether you are a success or not, what really
matters is making the film, what you learn from it, and what you give
iW: What did you learn from your experiences with Sundance and
Mottola: I participated in a Sundance writer’s and director’s lab, and it
was a really good experience. I guess it’s no surprise that I really
wanted to get into that festival. Sundance is really important and many
great films come out of there. Getting in would probably have helped
the film more quickly. On the other hand, it’s crazy to think that the
Sundance programmers should be the only ones choosing movies, and that
there is only one film festival that all independent movies in America
should come from. Sure, it’s a great platform for selling movies, but
clearly a lot of these movies aren’t doing that well. The whole
independent film business is having a lot of trouble, and they’re not
making the money that you would think considering all the hype they’re
getting. Maybe [distributors] should be looking at other places, too.
I guess it was inevitable that something like Slamdance was going to
It was Soderbergh’s idea to approach Slamdance initially. He’s got
a rebel streak in him, and feels that whole point of independent film is
not to ask permission. Not to ask for permission to make a movie. Not
to ask for permission to show it. His attitude was, ‘So we didn’t get
into Sundance. It’s a good movie, so let’s show it.’ Unfortunately,
the facilities at last year’s Slamdance were terrible. Our first
screening was unwatchably bad. I probably should have just pulled the
plug on the projector. At the second screening one projector was
broken, so we had to stop for each reel change.
iW: It seems like it was just as hard to get the film screened
as it was to get it made.
Mottola: It was very frustrating. We just kept thinking, “Why can’t we get
iW: You got that break when you got into Cannes, right?
Mottola: Getting into Cannes was a really big thrill, and actually it
probably saved the movie. If we didn’t get into Cannes, the film might
not be coming out now. I think most distributors had totally written us
off, but being there opened some doors for us. Most of the US press and
most of the US distributors didn’t pay any attention to us at Cannes
since we were old news, but suddenly we were brand new for the European
press and distributors. We had a whole new audience to try and dazzle.
In the end, we had a couple of choices, and ultimately signed a
deal with Cinepix (Film Properties-CFP). I guess my most vivid Cannes memory is every night after a day full of interviews and screenings, my best friend and I would ride around on Kawasaki mopeds in our tuxedos, and go from party
to party, getting drunker and drunker. I was running on empty for the
whole ten days, but it was a great experience.
indieWIRE: How did the Miami Film Festival compare to all the other
festivals that you have been a part of?
Mottola: It was great. There was a real interesting, eclectic feeling to
it. What I particularly liked about screening “Daytrippers” at the Miami
festival is that every film got shown by itself. There were no
competing screenings, so every film got its moment–in a really great
theater. I think there is a lot to be said for that, especially when
you’re presenting the films to a community because the people who are
interested have a shot at seeing each movie. I was impressed with the
number of people who attended the festival, and how cool the audiences
were. It was one of the nicest audiences that I’ve experienced.
iW: Yeah. It’s seems like there was that strong sense of
community in Miami that you don’t always feel at other festivals.
Mottola: Exactly. I enjoyed Toronto too, but Toronto is a different kind of
city. There, the audiences are film buffs and seem enthusiastic, but
there is a something a little different about the Miami festival. You
do feel like it’s a real community. They’re really supportive. It was a
great chance for me. Hopefully, the film will open there, and people
will talk about it.
iW: You’ve traveled to quite a few film festivals over the last
year. I’m sure you get pampered at a lot of them. They fly you around
the world, feed you, and treat you like a VIP. It seems as if it would
be pretty easy to get caught up in that world and lose sight of what’s
really important, like making films, right?
Mottola: Definitely. It’s really tempting. I’ve got to keep telling myself
that it’s out of my system, and now I have to move on. I just turned
down chances to go to festivals in Portugal and Oslo. These are places
I would love to see. I mean, when’s the next time someone’s going to
offer me a trip to Oslo? At the same time, it gave me a chance to see
how people from different parts of the world would react to my film, and
hopefully develop audiences in those places. I really learned a lot
from all the different Q & A’s I’ve done. On the business side, those
festivals gave me the chance to meet people from other parts of the
world who I may potentially ask for money if I don’t feel turning to
Hollywood is appropriate.
iW: As a first-time filmmaker, it must have been great to get
Steven Soderbergh as one of your producers. On the other hand, did his
involvement add any pressure?
Mottola: Well, I already knew Steven, but yes. Unconsciously, I think I was
nervous. I worried that he’d see me making mistakes, and would shake
his head as he was looking over my shoulders. I also worried that I
would be overly influenced by him because I respect him so much.
Fortunately, he made it clear very early on that this was my movie, and
he wasn’t going to try to force his aesthetics on me. There were
probably times when Steven would bite his tongue and stop himself from
saying, ‘Greg, this is how I would do it.’ I’m sure there are other
filmmakers who would have had a harder time putting their egos aside,
and would have ended up controlling the production more. For the most
part, Steven knew when to be supportive, and knew when to just get out
of the way. Occasionally, he would kick my ass and say stuff like ‘this
has got to be better,’ but that’s what a good producer should do.
iW: What was his biggest contribution to the film?
Mottola: The cash. (Laughs) He put the initial twenty-thousand dollars
down, and by the end of post-production he probably put in about
sixty-thousand. Other than the money, he gave me tremendous support.
Originally, he was really going to try to be on the set, and even be the
cinematographer. It turned out he had to do post-production on “The Underneath“, so he couldn’t be there when I was shooting. He was only
there for parts of pre-production and post-production. He really had a
producer’s attitude about the whole thing. He’d get on the phone and
try to get me cheaper film stock, or find me a place to do the dialogue
On the creative side, he looked at many, many cuts of the film. He
also gave me great feedback about the script, casting, and stuff like
that. There’s something thematically I have in common with the stuff
that interests Steven. Certainly, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” is a movie about
self-awareness, or the lack there of, especially in romantic
relationships. I think we related to each other because of that, even
though I sort of come at it from another angle. I think he really got
into my themes, so it was easy for us to talk pretentiously (smiles)
about stuff and how to translate it to the writing.
iW: One of those themes in “The Daytrippers” is dysfunctional families. You’ve said that some of that is based on your family
experience. How did your parents respond to you becoming a filmmaker?
Mottola: Overall, they have been pretty supportive. Especially if you
consider that no one in my family has had anything to do with the arts,
with the exception of an aunt who was in a steno-pool for actors in the
fifties, and typed letters for Laurence Olivier. There were stretches
of time when they would worry for me and wondered what I was going to do
for money. When I tried to explain to my parents how the business works
and the complications I was having in the beginning, I might as well
have been talking about particle physics. They couldn’t relate it to
Once we began shooting “Daytrippers” that started to change, but
since we shot some of it in their house, there were times they’d be
mortified. They were in shock for about three days because of all the
people and equipment, and things were always on the verge of getting
knocked over and broken. Now that I have made a film they’re much more
savvy. They’re actually reading Variety and the other trades. I think
the whole process is more interesting to them now, since it effects my
life in more of a direct way.
iW: What was your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Mottola: I like writing, but it really can be a struggle for me. Being
on-set probably became my favorite part of the process, but we certainly
had a rough start. On the very first day of shooting we had major
troubles. I was rehearsing a scene with Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis.
When I asked the crew to set up the camera, they started acting very
strangely. Finally, the A.D. nervously told me the camera had been
stolen. It was a thirty-five thousand dollar Arriflex that we rented
from a friend of a friend. Since it was a Saturday I was sure we’d
never get another camera, and we’d lose two days out of our very tight
seventeen-day shooting schedule. That would have been disastrous.
Then, Anne Meara showed up to the set with a 101 degree fever. At that
point, I really felt the Gods were against us. I told myself I never
want to make another movie again. Fortunately, things got better.
Someone loaned us a camera, we re-shot some of the troubled scenes, and
things began to click. Being on-set didn’t scare me anymore. It became
a comfortable place. It was really exciting watching the actors bring
the story to life.
iW: What did you learn on the set that you didn’t learn at film
Mottola: Film school didn’t prepare me for the fact that you have to manage
so many different personalities at every stage, and I learned nothing
about what to do when a movie was finished. The whole distribution
thing was a total mystery to me. It also didn’t prepare me for the
incredible highs and incredible lows that I would go through. There
were many occasions when I wanted to hang myself, and other times when I
had this wonderful feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to