Confess, Fletch Director Greg Mottola Strived To Make The Kind Of Detective Comedy We Don't See Much Anymore [Interview]

"Confess, Fletch" is an oddity of a comedy these days. It's not a broad, busy, or loud joke machine, in which scenes run too long from improv or the story gets lost in hijinks. It's an old-school, low-key, character and plot-driven story with laughs (read our review). The long-awaited new "Fletch" film, based on the works of author Gregory Mcdonald, is the kind of 90-minute comedy for adults that rarely gets made anymore. 

The fact that it's not the most modern comedy is what made co-writer and director Greg Mottola, admittedly, a little worried. Mottola, known for "Adventureland" and "Superbad," knew he was making something more outside of the box. Even its hybrid release, both theatrical and On Demand, is different, but "Confess, Fletch" is a rare breed these days. Mottola hopes its differences is appealing to audiences and, if we all wish him luck, that he'll continue to make more charming "Fletch" films with his titular star, Jon Hamm. 

'The character in the books is so unflappable'

I didn't know what to expect from the tone of this movie, but it has such an ease to it. It's very laid back.

Yeah, yeah, probably to a point that I worried about that. The character in the books is so unflappable. He's quite chill most of the time, and unless he has to be, so knowing Jon and having worked with Jon, that's what I wrote toward. The book itself doesn't have a lot of physical conflict or action stuff or anything.

The truth is we had to make this on a budget. Even if I thought, "Oh, this is a great chance to invent a car chase or something," we couldn't have afforded it. It was very much like when Sam Levy, the [director of photography], and I thought about how to shoot it, we thought, "Well, let's not do handheld camera. Let's do a more classic Hollywood style. It's a performance film, and we want to feel Boston in the frame. We want to feel these interiors. We don't want it all to be in closeups."

But yeah, I think maybe it just came off of Jon's energy that has this kind of language thing, which hopefully some people like that vibe.

It's nice and easy on its feet, but how challenging was that tone to pull off?

Well, I definitely wanted to give it a light touch. There are so many, and I've been part of some, so many broad comedies, so many hard R-rated comedies that have been made in the last 10 or 20 years. There's a lot of stuff that's very much [made] to get your attention, loud and busy, and that could be amazing. That could be cinematic and that could be fun. I just thought, I kind of love old stuff. I missed the sort of more dialogue-driven, character-based comedy, manner-type stories, comedy of manners type stories. So that's where that aesthetic direction began, I guess.

Something that stands out about "Fletch" in the original movie, I'm not sure about the books, is that he cares more than his carefree attitude suggests. Was that important to you?

I think so. I mean, reading the books, he definitely could be a prick, a wiseass, a troublemaker, but you sense that he really has a value system. What he doesn't have is a lot of respect or patience for the police or the justice system or the law. So he takes it into his own hands to solve things, to get to the bottom of something his own way. He has no problem bending a lot of rules in the process.

You could think he doesn't care about people all that much. But one thing I took away from the books is that there's real sense that he likes weirdos and authentic people, like the sort of equivalent character in the book to Annie, who is this lush who lives in the same apartment building where the murder took place, and she's a potential suspect. She's kind of a mess in a different way than the way Annie and I figured this out, but she's still kind of a mess, and you feel Fletch feels something for her. He doesn't want her to turn out to be the culprit. He does care about the little guy. He wants things to be more right. 

We tried to make it so that he's only punching up. He'll lie to anybody, but he's only really f**king with rich people or people who deserve it. When it gets a little more malicious or a little more mean spirited, it's to people that he feels deserve it, like Lucy [Punch's] character, who's the sort of tone deaf influencer type who is trying to sell — and this is a pet peeve of mine — but sell beauty products and self-actualization and lifestyle and travel and all these things that make you just a wonderful person, except they all require you to be super rich. It must make people feel bad, because there's a lot of people out there in our culture who must make people who can't afford that just feel bad. And they're just getting rich telling other rich people how to spend their money. And he doesn't respect that.

'One of the things I love about Chevy's performance is that it's got this Marx Brothers chaos'

What were some other rules that maybe you and Jon had for Fletch? What were maybe lines or moments where it would be like, this is clearly not Fletch.

I think the rule I had for him is one rule I had, and I didn't have to tell Jon this, but he's not Don Draper. He is not that kind of character. He doesn't have demons. He doesn't have any damage. He has opinions. There are people he doesn't like, but he kind of loves life. He's even amused often by the people he doesn't like. He's just enjoying the ride. And so I tell Jon, he's played a lot of dark characters, played a lot of silly characters and I said, "You've got to walk a line of being a guy who has a serious side is, but is irreverent almost constantly and is enjoying it. He's human. He'll get mad, he'll get hurt, but he won't stop for a lot of big ego driven breakdowns or anything."

Even though he's wrong in the movie sometimes, he devises a theory about one of the mysteries, and he turns out to be wrong. He doesn't stop and beat himself up, and he doesn't make excuses or claim the other person's not right. He just shrugs and moves on and says, "Okay, well, then we'll find another answer." And yeah, he kind of loves life.

The other thing is, in looking back on the original "Fletch," one of the things I love about Chevy's performance is that it's got this Marx Brothers chaos. He walks into a situation and he just confuses people so much by double talk and disguises, and they don't know if they're coming or going. He just really makes the situation so chaotic that people just don't realize that he's bamboozling them. That's very much Chevy's style, and he's brilliant at it, but it's not really the character in the book.

When Jon and I sat down and said, "Okay, it's going to be a challenging thing to do because people love the movie, including us." And the second one is also extremely funny. The first one is very perfect comedy from that time period, so we just said, "Well, we can't really steal his bits. We can't really steal the fake names and the disguises and the way Chevy did the absurd behavior." And I'm sure he improvised a ton of that. I also feel like you can't go home again. Some nostalgic fanservice things work, but I feel some of them don't in a way that kind of bums me out and it's just like, let's not do that with this one.

Let me put it this way. There are about 15 actors who've played Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow, from James Garner to Humphrey Bogart to Elliot Gould, Alan Ladd, a ton of people have played it. But people did get pissed off at Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye," because they thought it was disrespectful to the genre. So you can't always win, but no one else has played Fletch. He's associated with this one person. So we knew that was a risk. And we thought, "Well, we better just not try too hard to be the Chevy version." But at the same time, some of the DNA's baked into the character and we put in obviously a couple little Easter eggs to the movie, the most obvious one being that he is wearing a Lakers hat the first time you see his face, because that's not something in the books. The love of the Lakers is a "Fletch" movie thing.

Plus, the more references you make, the more comparisons people make, right?

Yeah. I don't want to be compared to that movie, because that movie's great. I want people to hopefully have an open mind and say, "Okay, this is a different way and let's judge it on its own terms."

'It's very confusing how to compose a shot anymore'

One of the few similarities between the first "Fletch" and "Confess, Fletch" is, like director Michael Ritchie, you really let the audience feel the character in these spaces.

I was thinking about how he shoots. Michael Richie really doesn't chew all of his comedy in close-up, and a lot of movies of that period didn't, and a lot of movies don't. I feel there has been a little gradual move toward that in places, because we watch everything on smaller and smaller screens while we also buy bigger and bigger TVs. It's very confusing how to compose a shot anymore. It's like, is this going to be seen in a theater or on an Apple Watch? I'm not sure. So yes, I did think about it.

I think rewatching "Fletch" a few times before I started, I thought, "Oh, there's something really nice about the world in Los Angeles and that movie. I want to capture the Boston version equivalent in a way." Boston is such a different setting than Los Angeles, so that was the attempt. It was also, we decided we're not faking, we're not shooting Boston in Toronto. I don't have to worry about hiding things, hiding signs or changing everything. It's nice to actually shoot the place for what it is because I've been in this situation where you're faking it. It drives you crazy.

Like you said, people got mad at "The Long Goodbye," the idea of turning the genre on its head, but here, how did you want to lean into what you respect and love about good detective stories?

I hope this doesn't sound too much like an excuse, but as I said before, Miramax basically said, "Here's the amount of money you can have to make this movie. You're going to get about 30 days of shooting." I'm going to have to work fast, so I thought, well, baked into the book is this kind of classic detective story thing where he goes around and talks to people, and he's trying to get them to reveal something about themselves or what happened or get clues. He often pretends to be somebody he's not or uses other techniques to get them to open up. Those scenes, by nature, are people coming to a place and sitting and standing and talking, they're a little static. I thought that I could try to find an excuse for them to be moving around a lot, but it doesn't really make sense.

It's kind of the vibe of the woman who comes to Sam Spade's office and tells her as she weeps into her hanky this terrible thing that happened that she needs this help for. I love all those tropes. I have such affection for those tropes. I went back and looked at "The Thin Man" movies, which are very much comedic whodunits. They're very funny, and the leads, William Powell and Irene Dunne, are hilarious and great. I love that they are lushes, too, which really makes me laugh. But there's a lot of funny people around them, a lot of ridiculous people, and they find a really nice tone of, I want to know who did it. I want to get to the bottom of the story, but I also want to watch these people live their lives and make martinis on a cross-country train or something with their dog.

I rewatched "The Long Goodbye” just because I love it. I'll watch it immediately if it's on TV. I could see where, at the time, it was like, "Well, that's not what Chandler's character would have done." It's like, "Yeah, it's not. It's the '70s." "The Maltese Falcon," that is one of my favorite movies of all time. And the greatest to me, the greatest Chandler-inspired film of my age is "The Big Lebowski," which is in essence, a Raymond Chandler detective story. It's just he's an unwitting Philip Marlowe. He's very high most of the time, but that movie follows all of those tropes in the most stylish, wonderful, perfect Coen Brothers way.

I would love to be able to get another crack at this with Jon, maybe with a little more time, a little more money, maybe go a little further stylistically, but I certainly was inspired by all that stuff. And I went and reread some of those books and "Red Harvest" for the first time, which is sort of detective and it's such a great genre.

'I hope that there's an audience that's going, Oh, this is fresh enough'

On the flip-side, do you think the budget worked in your favor? For example, if this cost $40 or $50 million, it probably would've had to go broader, right?

I did kind of commit myself to the idea that it wouldn't be entirely conventional and that we wouldn't go for set pieces and big broad comedy stuff, just because I think there's a lot of it out there, and there's less of this. So some people will say, "Well, I don't find this style all that funny," and that's fair enough. Humor is very, very subjective. But I felt like, I hope that there's an audience that's going, "Oh, this is fresh enough. I haven't seen this in a bit, and I'm kind of glad it's this style." It's more about the acting and characters.

I like behavioral comedy, especially. I mean even "Superbad" for as insane as it gets, the two main characters are really beautifully written and performed human beings. They have a real inner-life. They feel like real people. Jonah and Michael, amidst the insanity, give great naturalistic performances while also delivering some of the funniest s**t I've ever heard anyone say. So that is more my speed.

I don't want to get into it too much, because I don't want to put down anyone's work, and I'll only put down my own work, but "Keeping Up with the Joneses" got a little lost in being neither fish nor fowl, not enough of a smart alt comedy and not enough of a mainstream broad comedy, that it didn't find its lane. I could go into all the reasons why, but we'll save that for another day.

Understandable. You recently said in an interview you were nervous about the response the movie might get, but it has great reviews so far. So are you feeling less nervous now?

Yeah, I'm feeling very encouraged. It's very nice. I feel like people are being in some cases quite generous about this movie, and I so appreciate it. It's such a weird time. I was worried because the movie was getting this very hybrid, small release. It's 450 theaters, OnDemand the same day, then going to Showtime. There was an assumption, which I understand, that the movie must stink because they're dumping it. It's a character I've heard of, so why is this movie about an IP that I know of being distributed this way? And I'd say, "It's a combination of the fact that it is a certain style of comedy that's not as broad, broadly popular, maybe skews a little more adult." When I meet people under 40, there's a very good chance they've never heard of "Fletch." It's a great movie. If you haven't seen it, you should go watch the first two Fletch movies. They are tons of fun and no one knows what's going on.

The whole business on post-pandemic, everything is upside down. Just the mere fact that this movie is showing in some of the big chain theaters and OnDemand the same day, would've been impossible a year ago. The chains would not have allowed that. And because they were so beaten up by the pandemic, they've loosened up all of their rules with distribution. And it's like, what is a small medium, small comedy in the movie theater now? It more often happens from an A24 or a Fox Searchlight, where they put out a comedic film in some limited run or something. So it's a brave new world. I hope people hear about this and this movie. I appreciate you helping signal boost.

Of course. I also think it'd be fun to see with a crowd, but maybe also just nice to relax with a beer from home.

Yeah, I hope so. You can giggle to yourself, hopefully at whatever jokes particularly land for you. It was an absolute fun thing to make. And Jon's a great guy. I was so lucky with that cast. I know I have an idea of what the sequel would be, which book I would try to adapt. So I guess all I can say is, wish me luck.

"Confess, Fletch" is now playing in limited release in theaters and it's available OnDemand. The film will hit Showtime on October 28, 2022.