Clear History: Comedy which takes risks

Clearly History stars Jon Hamm and Kate Hudson.

LOS ANGELES - What do you do if you want to make a movie that has no pre-written dialogue, puts sexy movie star Eva Mendes in a "fat suit" and has a leading man who is old and intensely unlikeable?

It does not take a marketing genius to see that this would be a hard sell, but that is exactly what comedian Larry David and director Greg Mottola set out to do with Clear History, a dark comedy about a luckless man who sells his shares in a start-up just before it goes public and makes billions.

Unsurprisingly, they had some trouble convincing a movie studio to back them.

So they found a home on television instead with HBO Films, which is emerging as a haven for projects that have been unable to find financing or distribution from risk-averse studios.

This was how HBO also came to screen the critically acclaimed Behind The Candelabra, the recent Liberace biopic by director Steven Soderbergh.

Clear History, which David co-wrote and stars in, is about a marketing executive, Nathan Flomm (David), who becomes a laughing stock when he prematurely leaves a job that would have made him a billionaire.

The show, which premiered in Singapore on HBO on Tuesday, has an all-star cast that includes film actors such as Mendes, Kate Hudson and Michael Keaton, television star Jon Hamm, and comedians Bill Hader and Danny McBride.

At a press event in Beverly Hills, Mottola tells Life! that most of the cast were drawn to the project by David's reputation.

The 66-year-old is, after all, behind two of the most successful and critically acclaimed television shows of the 1980s and 1990s: Seinfeld (1989-1998), which he co-created with Jerry Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2011).

Both shows derived much of their humour from a misanthropic view of human nature. Clear History does the same while also making up most of its dialogue on the fly, much like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"Everything was improvised. There were maybe five lines of dialogue in the whole 30-page script, which was mostly just scene descriptions," says Mottola, 49. "Larry is always looking for spontaneity and he feels like it can't happen if you have to do written lines, it has to happen in the moment, and he's writing and thinking and changing things between takes.

Adds the director, who has helmed movies such as the alien road-trip comedy Paul (2011) and the awkward comingof- age tale Superbad (2007): "It's a very special way of working and it was terrifying to me in the beginning."

HBO's movies division offered the duo free rein. And although the term "TV movie" is often used disparagingly, critics have come to expect from it the same high production values and quality of writing that it brought to television series such as Game Of Thrones (2011-present), Sex And The City (1998-2004), Entourage (2004- 2011), The Wire (2002-2008) and The Sopranos (1999-2007).

HBO, a premium cable channel in the United States, is able to take bigger creative risks and explore more adult themes because of its smaller audience and the looser censorship rules that apply to such channels.

Mottola says its executives also have a different approach to content creators, making it "truly a very nurturing and supportive place to work".

He says: "They have opinions and they share them with you, but it has a different quality to it than some of the studio experiences I've had. You really feel like it's a discussion and that it's okay not to take their notes."

What David wanted was to mine human neuroses the way he did with Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he played a fictionalised version of himself.

This sort of humour is often uncomfortable to witness and "always a bit tricky", says Mottola.

Such content is, however, hard to pitch to studios, many of which are looking for broad, easily marketable comedies that appeal to the young.

This is why creators like him and David are increasingly turning to cable television channels that can afford to court a smaller and more sophisticated viewership.

It was David's idea to cast Mendes, the 39-year-old stunner from films such as The Place Beyond The Pines (2013) and Hitch (2005), as a dowdy and occasionally chubby character in Clear History.

"The character on the page was nothing like her and not someone that you'd think of Eva Mendes for.

"But we called her and said, 'Would you ever do this?' She said, 'Would I have to wear a fat suit?' and when we said yes, she said, 'I really want to do it!' I think when you're that beautiful, you get really sick of being cast as a beautiful character."

She, Hudson, 34, and other cast members who had little experience with improvisation also felt they were able to experiment with it on this production, even though this made some of them nervous.

A project like this would be riskier, therefore, but also potentially more rewarding.

Mottola says: "The cast get to bring their ideas of where their characters would be in that moment, even though sometimes we disagree with it and have to stop and start again. It's very fluid.

That's why I felt, in my mind, that it's really like a performance film - I have to get the performance and hope that we're in the right place with the right lens at the right time."

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