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`DAY(TRIPPERS)' IN THE LIFE OF GREG MOTTOLA : QUIRKS ABOUND ON SCREEN AND OFF FOR INDIE DIRECTOR.

Byline: Amy Dawes Daily News Film Writer

Filmmaker Greg Mottola's life is full of contradictions lately. On the one hand, he can tell stories about riding around the Cannes film festival with his buddy on a mo-ped, both of them dressed in tuxedos and going from party to party until sunrise. On the other hand, he got home to New York recently and couldn't watch a story about his own movie on cable television because he's been too broke to pay his bill.

Such is the real life of a novice independent filmmaker - even one whose movie, ``The Daytrippers,'' has been embraced by critics and has won a number of festival awards, including audience awards at Deauville and Athens; a jury mention at Toronto; and the grand prize at Slamdance, a guerrilla offshoot of the Sundance Film Festival.

Already playing to strong art-house grosses in New York, ``The Daytrippers,'' which opened here this weekend, is a charming and eccentric ensemble comedy about a Long Island family that rallies behind one of its own to help track down a straying husband.

Eliza (Hope Davis) arrives at her family's house at breakfast, upset over a letter that suggests her husband is having an affair. Determined to get to the bottom of it, the whole family piles into the wheezing station wagon and heads off to Manhattan, where their abbreviated road trip merges into some through-the-looking-glass adventures as they pursue their elusive quarry throughout one long, surreal and surprising day and night.

Before it's over, the movie's buoyant tone has darkened and some raw shocks have been received, but it only serves to make these accessible characters all the more human and fascinating.

And some appealing new talents have caught our attention, including Mottola and his lead actress, Davis.

Mottola, 32, is a bespectacled, articulate, soft-spoken man with his head shaved bald. He remembers the beginning of the filming as seeming like something less than ``an arrival'' for all concerned.

``Our camera was stolen on the first day of filming, and a few days later, Hope (Davis) sprained her ankle pretty badly,'' he laughs. ``I had named the production company Fiasco, and someone told me that had been a bad idea.''

It had been hard enough for Mottola to get to that start date in the first place, even with the backing of his producers, Steven Soderbergh and Nancy Tenenbaum (``sex, lies & videotape'').

Ambitious script - cheap

The two had been high on his potential after seeing a short film he'd done called ``Swinging in the Painter's Room,'' and had spent two years trying to help him raise money for another, more ambitious script. Finally, said Mottola, they told him, ``If you can come up with something that could be done really cheaply, we'll give you the money to make it.''

While working nights at a computer graphics company, Mottola wrote the first draft of ``The Daytrippers'' in four weeks, based on something that had occurred to him while riding in the back seat of his parent's car.

``I remember thinking, since they're facing forward, they can't turn around and remember that I'm 30 years old - they're talking to me like I'm 10. I realized that certain kinds of relationships we have are set in cement.''

Soderbergh and Tenenbaum, along with actor Campbell Scott, put their own money into the new project, coming up with $70,000. Scott acted in the movie, playing a debonair young writer, and also brought in Tucci, with whom he'd co-directed the independent hit ``Big Night.''

The actors worked for $100 a day, plus a deferred minimum salary. The movie was shot in 16 days. Based on what the filmmakers shot for the initial amount, they were able to raise more money. By the time salaries were paid and post-production was completed, the actual cost of the movie was about $500,000.

Passed over by Sundance

The movie was passed over by the Sundance Film Festival, which Mottola remembers as ``devastating'' to his prospects for selling the movie. ``Distributors have a herd mentality,'' he said. ``They think Sundance is the only place to buy independent American films, so it's like, if you don't get into Sundance, you might as well burn the negative. You'll never get anywhere.''

More than a year later, the movie was acquired by New York-based distributor Cinepix Film Properties, or CFP, which submitted it to other festivals. Since then, things have turned around.

Mottola is now discussing potential projects with producer James L. Brooks (``Bottle Rocket,'' ``Broadcast News''), and writing a script that has drawn interest from 20th Century Fox. ``I want to keep it small, so you don't feel the pressure to make it more palatable to everybody,'' he said. He anticipates being able to pay his cable television bill in the near future.

But the scarcity of money didn't scare off actress Hope Davis, whose stage performances in New York had inspired Mottola to tailor the part of Eliza for her.

New to low-budget game

``I thought the script was so beautiful and so well-written that I could not imagine that it wouldn't somehow all work out,'' she said. ``Also, I was kind of new to this low-budget game, and I just wanted the experience of making the film.''

That translated into a lot of seemingly endless days and nights, while the cast and crew hustled to get the story covered before their scant funds ran out.

``We just kept rolling and rolling,'' remembers Davis. ``That scene I shot with my dad (played by Pat McNamara), where we're embracing on the sidewalk, was shot at about 5 in the morning, and it was freezing. We were just trying to get the shot before the sun came up.''

Davis also appears in another recent independent film that is drawing attention - ``The Myth of Fingerprints,'' which screened at Sundance. Her startling, sexually outspoken persona in that movie, about the sadness within a dysfunctional New England family, couldn't be more different than the quiet, vulnerable performance she gives in ``The Daytrippers.''

Davis is pleased at the contrast. ``I really love what I'm doing right now, and I'd love to keep doing it, so the more possibilities people see in me, the better.''

Currently, her blond good looks and vivid sense of interior life are drawing comparison to Gwyneth Paltrow - all the more ironic because Davis has twice been in productions (including ``The Myth of Fingerprints'') in which she played the daughter of actress Blythe Danner, who is Paltrow's mom.

``Well, I don't think we really look alike, but I don't mind when people say it,'' said Davis. ``She's beautiful and a terrific actress.''

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1) Anne Meara, left, Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey star in ``The Daytrippers,'' which has been embraced by critics and has won a number of festival awards.

(2) Greg Mottola: ``Our camera was stolen on the first day of filming. ... I had named the production company Fiasco, and someone told me that had been a bad idea.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Words:1169
Previous Article:HOT TIPS : WE CAN ALL BE STARS ON OSCAR NIGHT.
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