Greg Mottola has come a long way in just a few years. He and his crew lost the first day of shooting on his debut feature, a two-week, $15,000 indie, because they couldn't locate the camera. On his most recent film, Universal Pictures' science-fiction buddy comedy "Paul," Mottola got to direct Steven Spielberg. That's progress.

Yet even on a $40 million production, the more things change, the more they stay the same. "You'd think a bigger movie would feel a lot different," Mottola said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. "It's awfully shocking how similar, how disorganized and time-pressured it is. So guerrilla-style indie filmmaking is a pretty good starting place."

"Paul" blends action and comedy in the tale of a runaway alien (a computer-generated character voiced by Seth Rogen) befriended by two English tourists (co-screenwriters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) visiting UFO-themed attractions in the Southwest.

Mottola takes the directorial reins held by Edgar Wright on the Pegg/Frost hits "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz." In place of Wright's whirligig visual energy, Mottola brings a knack for creating familiar, flawed, relatable but psychologically accurate characters. Paul, a fast-witted slacker savoring an RV road trip after decades of top-secret confinement, is a very down-to-Earth extraterrestrial.

"We wanted to push this away from slickness and toward the messiness of life, so we'll have something that feels more alive," said Mottola. His teen comedies "Superbad" (starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill) and "Adventureland" (with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) boast emotional depth and a human dimension alongside abundant laughs.

Moving on to a madcap sci-fi comedy might seem like a radical change of trajectory, but Mottola disagrees. "I am interested in characters that are forced to have some kind of awakening. There's an element of that in the films I made before. This time it's sillier."

Skewering fantasy fans, gently

Frost and Pegg play archetypal comic-book aficionados exulting at their first pilgrimage to San Diego's annual Comic-Con extravaganza. The gala, with its costumed attendees and self-regarding minor celebrities, is skewered thoroughly but gently. Mottola, 47, who grew up on Spielberg and "Star Wars" in the 1970s, said he feels like enough of a geeky insider to affectionately mock zealous fantasy fans and nail the script's machine-gun paced movie references.

"The movie's designed so that if you don't get the references you don't feel left out, but if you do it adds an extra dimension," he said. There is an element in the film where Paul basically takes credit for all pop-culture references to aliens since 1947, when flying-saucer fans believe a UFO crashed into the New Mexico desert. Pegg and Frost, who are acting in Spielberg's upcoming film "Tintin," told him he'd be in for a ribbing, and he replied that he hoped there'd be a part for him in their movie. His bit part is one of the film's self-referential highlights.

"He actually seemed a little nervous because he hasn't done a ton of acting," Mottola said. "It was very sweet."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186