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If you consider yourself a geek, Paul is a movie you need to see. Writers/stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost need no introduction, nor does the film’s director Greg Mottola (Superbad). The story follows Pegg and Frost’s nerds as they set out on a road trip through America’s famed UFO sites, although they end up taking a detour when an actual alien named Paul takes refuge with them while on the run from government agents.
The movie is rife with references to milestones in geek history, everything from Mork & Mindy to Star Wars to Aliens. When Mottola spoke recently with Spinoff Online, he revealed that while the bulk of those ideas came from the original script, there were a few that he contributed.
“The references come in in all different places,” he said. “The [Star Wars] cantina band music in the road house was my idea.”
“I found a band in New Mexico that was a Western swing band — I knew that the style of that [original] song was a swing song, I read that it was based on a Benny Goodman tune. And I found a Western swing band in New Mexico and said, ‘Could you learn this song?’ And they said, ‘Oh, well we played some Star Wars freak’s wedding and that was the first song they danced to.’ So they’d already done it! It’s not that obscure, people pick it for weddings!”
Although the references will be a centerpiece of the film for many geeks, Mottola credits Pegg for working most of them in seamlessly, so as not to disrupt the flow of the story. “If people don’t get it, the story keeps going … it doesn’t have gigantic quotation marks around it, it doesn’t stop dead so we can say, ‘Hey, remember that movie we all saw that came out 30 years ago?'”
The standout performance in Paul is Seth Rogen as the voice of the titular alien, a role he didn’t become involved in until later. Pegg originally suggested Harvey Keitel, or someone like him, “someone really irascible.”
“Cut to months later … we sit down and start talking about who it could be, and Seth was pretty much the first person I thought of,” Mottola said. “On the page, I thought Paul was a very well-written character. He wasn’t always the same thing. He was annoying and childish at times, but he was also clever at times. He was also flawed and gets things wrong and he’s kind of arrogant and he’s a good friend and a mensch, and he’s a coward at times and brave at times.”
“In a weird way, Paul is kind of the most grounded character in the movie. Everyone else is a little more heightened than Paul, who is kind of the most naturalistic performance. And I thought, this is a really fun, rich character for someone to do something with. And Seth is incredibly inventive.”
During post-production, Mottola cautioned the animators to make sure they didn’t reproduce Rogen’s performance exactly, but to pay particular attention to his facial expressions so that a sense of his personality could be captured. The results left the director impressed.
“It’s weird to me sometimes,” he said. “The animation is so good I really sometimes feel like it is Seth … somehow genetically engineered into a giant-headed green freak.”
Getting back to the movie’s references, Mottola mentioned that some of what you see worked its way into the script because of who Pegg and Frost are and what they’re interested in. In at least one case, a reference is obvious to the average viewer even though it wasn’t originally conceived and written as an intentional shout-out to another franchise.
“There’s a reference [in the movie] to a Back to the Future line where Paul goes, ‘Where we’re going, you don’t need to have teeth,’ which is a paraphrase of what Christopher Lloyd says at the end of Back to the Future,” Mottola said.
“Nick wrote that line and he wrote it unconsciously paraphrasing Back to the Future. Simon wrote it down thinking, ‘Oh, he’s referencing that.’ And they didn’t talk about it until after they shot it.”
Mottola did manage to surprise the duo with some of his own additions, such as one little nod to film history that made its way into the movie after shooting had wrapped.
“I snuck in the ‘Wilhelm scream’ toward the end of post-production without telling Nick and Simon, and then when they saw the final mix they giggled like children. And I felt, ‘I gotcha! I got you nerds!'”
Paul opens today in the United States.