Greg Mottola

Just call Greg Mottola a late bloomer. It took 11 years after the release of his first film (1996’s Daytrippers) to get around to his second, Superbad, whose success was largely chalked up to its association with the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen juggernaut. But with Adventureland, which he wrote and directed, Mottola is in the spotlight—although having Twilight’s Kristen Stewart aboard doesn’t exactly hurt. Decidedly more melancholy than Superbad, or his episodes of Undeclared and Arrested Development, the movie draws heavily on Mottola’s experiences working a dead-end summer job at a decrepit amusement park, although the film’s low budget forced him to relocate from his native Long Island to tax-friendly Pittsburgh. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale) stars as a middle-class kid whose parents’ financial woes derail his plans for a post-college Eurotrip. Scored with vintage Replacements and Crowded House, the movie is wryly, sometimes painfully funny, making room for gonzo comic moments, mainly courtesy of SNL vets Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. From New York, Mottola recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the callow agonies of young life, and why everyone in his next movie will be over 30.

The A.V. Club: Adventureland is at least partly based on your experiences. What inspired you to go back to that time in your life?

Greg Mottola: It actually took me 20 years to want to write about my youth. I was definitely always a little intimidated about writing about that part of my life.

I started thinking about it when I was a TV director working on Judd Apatow’s show Undeclared. I was surrounded by so many young people. People like Seth Rogen, who was 9 years old or something. It was just a ridiculous amount of talented young people. I started to think I’d like to see a young-love movie, but not one done in that glossy, Hollywood, high-concept manner we’ve become accustomed to. One that was, for lack of a better way of putting it, a little more ambiguous, ’70s-style, where everyone was flawed, middle-class characters.

I have a little bit of a pet peeve about how the middle class is depicted in movies. I feel like they tend to be either depicted in a very sentimental way, where everybody has a heart of gold except for the villains you’re supposed to hiss at, or there’s a sort of indie-style version… When it’s done well, it’s brilliant, it’s Blue Velvet. But when it’s done poorly, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel, just saying, “Ooh, scary suburbs.” I don’t see that many movies where people are depicting middle-class suburban life in a more textured way. My feelings about the suburbs are not so wonderful, so my movies tend to be a little melancholy.

One night I was getting drunk with the writers from Undeclared and we were swapping worst-job-ever stories, and I talked about the summer of 1985, when I worked at an amusement park on Long Island, the kind of place where someone would pull a knife on you if they wanted a better prize than you were giving them. You found a lot of used needles beside the cotton-candy cart at the end of the night. It was a pretty white-trash, scary place. It was one in a series of terrible jobs I’ve had, coming from not much money and having no particularly resourceful skills. And at one point one of my friends, a writer on the show, Jenny Konner, said, “You should write about that.” I’d already started outlining the young-love story, and I thought, “Well, that kind of fits.” So I melded them together.

Everyone has that first relationship where you look back and go, “Oh, that one was different. I evolved from pure infatuation and horniness. This is when I started to see the person of the opposite sex as a flesh-and-blood human being.” Usually that relationship is one that hurt you badly. But it’s the first time you’d let them in, the first intimacy that let someone close enough to you to scar you for life. So I thought back to those one or two relationships that were like that, and for better or worse, I decided “I’m going to make fun of my youthful self.” I was naïve, I was sheltered. I had illusions about who I was going to be, delusions, and a little bit of pretentiousness. And I thought, “I’ll write the guy like that. It’ll allow me to make fun of everyone else if I make fun of myself.”

AVC: It’s hard to write young characters without importing the self-consciousness that comes later in life, to write them as self-infatuated and sure of themselves and wrong as we all are at that age.

GM: I feel this way about a lot of movies, that the characters are idealized versions of people. For better or worse, I am as fascinated with human flaws as anything. It would be fair to criticize me by saying, “Oh, this guy is based on you and he’s juggling two beautiful women?” My argument is that is a love story and it’s a certain artistic license to make the people attractive, because in the shorthand of making movies, attractive people are fun to watch. Jesse’s a good-looking guy. The ladies like him.

AVC: In your defense, at that age, people often end up pairing up in ways that would be unimaginable even five years later, because they haven’t really figured out who they are.

GM: The Lisa P. character is based on one of the hottest girls from my neighborhood I grew up in, who had no interest in me until I came back from college, and then was interested in me for about five seconds. It would have made no sense at all for us to have gone into a relationship, but she was great-looking. I certainly tried to get into some sort of relationship with her. I failed, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it. In fact, if I have free time today I can even think about it. So I think that’s a good point. I think that’s a true observation about the unlikely people you try to forge relationships with when you’re very young.

AVC: Between this and Superbad and Undeclared, you’ve spent a good amount of time dealing with characters in a fairly specific age range. Is that just typecasting, or is it something you feel like you have a particular talent for?

GM: I’m starting to think I have deep [issues], like I need to call a shrink and talk about my immaturity. Let me put it this way: The next script I’m writing and the next few movies I want to do, I want to make sure everybody is over 30. I think it’s time to move on from that world. In the case of Adventureland, I wrote the script, toiled on it, and put it down, and was close to the point where I was going to start showing it around, and literally the week I was about to go out with it to the usual sources of financing, Judd called me and said, “Do you want to do Superbad?” So then I started to wonder, “Should I really do two young-person movies? Am I turning into the indie-comedy S.E. Hinton or something?”

I think I am attracted to that time in life when your worldview is still forming in small ways. Adventureland was always a short story in my head. It’s a little intimidating putting a new movie out in the world with the way the blogosphere is. The stakes are just so fucking high for so many of these people. It’s like the way they talk about Watchmen. You just want to say, “Chill out,” you know? It’s a movie. To put out something that’s sort of low-key and quiet after a bigger, successful comedy, it’ll be interesting, because people have a lot of expectations before they’ve seen it. Having said that, I am very interested in the small decisions people make that do set you on a different road in your life. For James’ character, it’s not like it’s an overtly political movie, but he confronts a certain amount of classic American “small-minded men who are sexual are studs, and women who are sexual are sluts” kind of mentality in his suburban town. And he’s forced to make a decision, you know, “What do I think?” I think those decisions at certain key moments in your life do shape who you’ve become. As much as we have influence over what kind of person we’re going to become, there are little tests along the way, and I hope this movie depicts something that feels like an accurate version of that.

AVC: It’s surprising how much we still relate to these characters, when in theory we ought to be past these emotions. In a way, this period is when you’re first confronted with the kinds of decisions which you have to keep making for the rest of your life.

GM: I feel like I came from a generation where… We didn’t have Vietnam. We didn’t have World War II. Nothing cultural was thrust upon us to make men out of us, so you’re kind of free to not grow up that way if you don’t want to. There’s a lot of people who haven’t confronted it. I’m 44, and I have a 21-month-old. It took me this long to be ready for that. So for better or worse, I guess I was able to make a beeline back to that age, and I can still feel those things.

AVC: The amusement park in the movie is a pretty terrible place, but there’s something oddly nostalgic about it as well. James actually knows the people he works for. It’s not some gigantic entertainment mega-conglomerate.

GM: It’s nostalgic in ways that I only became aware of as I was writing it. For instance, the amusement park I worked at out in Long Island is called Adventureland. I went to scout it, and it is totally corporate now. It’s been cleaned up and turned into a really family-friendly, nice place. When I worked there, it was a place that opened in the ’60s, and it had that kind of kitschy, leisure-world America, 1964 World’s Fair vibe to it. I wish they had saved all their old signage so I could have stolen it for the movie. But it’s so squeaky-clean now, and it has, like, cartoon characters. Someone who owns a chain of amusement parks bought all these independent ones. It’s the same way I lived on Thompson Street in SoHo for 13 years and I watched it go from a little Italian neighborhood to the Mall Of America. Then the obvious fact that it’s pre-Internet, pre-cell phone. Everyone I think thinks their youth is a more innocent time. I just don’t know.

AVC: Like Daytrippers and Superbad, Adventureland has moments of pure farce, and moments that are driven by the coming-of-age genre. But it also has a real melancholic element. What kind of tone were you going for?

GM: I was definitely trying to walk a somewhat tricky line. One of the dangers of making a movie about young people is it’s potentially trite.

AVC: Because they don’t change so much?

GM: They don’t change so much. Their problems are not that dramatic. That’s part of the reason why it’s more of an ensemble than just the two characters. I wanted to show a world around the main characters of people who are stuck, who aren’t working their way out of their illusions or their depressions or whatever. I guess bittersweet is probably my favorite tone, as a lover of Woody Allen and Fellini and the French New Wave. You know, old Hollywood, sad movies. I guess it’s my picture of suburban life, a lot of it being very, very lonely. I wanted to have that infused into the feeling of it.

The movie is being marketed more as a comedy than it is, and that’s just, I think, smart marketing. Some people will hate me because it’s not Superbad, and some people will hopefully be pleasantly surprised that it’s something else and it’s interesting to them. It’s sort of a Chekhov story tone. When Jenny suggested “You should write about that,” the part that became immediately appealing to me is that I loved it as a sort of metaphor for the shabby idea of fun that life presents to so many people. That’s what the suburbs represent to me. It’s like, “Really? Someone sold you on the idea that this is utopia? This is what they told you was so great? Where you’re all really alienated and there’s no community and you’re separated from your families and there’s a sameness to everything? How did you think that was a good idea?” I really wanted that feeling throughout.

Obviously Kristen Stewart’s character is written as somebody who’s supposed to have a legitimate sadness, a real loss in her life. It’s clearly the most dramatic element in the film, and I wanted Kristen because she’s really fascinating to watch. A good illustration of her instincts: There’s a scene where she finally tells James the whole story about how her mom was sick with cancer and her dad was going off to Temple to theoretically pray for her and met someone else, had an affair with that person, her mom died, and now she’s stuck with that stepmother. She tells the story as if she’s just saying, “Hey, you want to hear about something fucked-up that happened?” As opposed to a lot of people I auditioned for the part, who told it like the most dramatic monologue ever written. Just to understand that, at that age, you haven’t processed that. You haven’t processed your mother’s death a couple of years after it happened at the age of 19. I thought that showed a really good instinct for understanding behavior, and implied something that would be disturbing to Jesse’s character: “She’s still in the middle of a lot of pain. This is complicated. This is scary. I should run away from this, because I can’t handle this. I’m not man enough for this.”

These are the kinds of things one is confronted with when you fall in love with somebody. Like, “Oh shit. They come with all this other stuff.” There will be certain young people who watched Superbad and will think, “What the fuck am I watching this for? What is the filmmaker showing me this for? Why would I care? Where are the jokes?” But, it might be nice to know that some people are like, “Oh, that’s weird. That’s kind of cool.”

AVC: Maybe they’ll come back to it in a few years.

GM: Yeah, I think for better or worse, some of those things play better with older people.

AVC: I hated Jules And Jim when I was a teenager, and then I saw it again after I had been through the horrible end of a relationship: “Oh. I get it now.”

GM: I definitely have those movies, where I saw them when I was in college, and I was like, “What’s the big fucking deal with this movie?” You have to have lived through it. I’m afraid, now that I’m married, to watch Scenes From A Marriage.

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AVC: You cast people who are best known for fairly straight-ahead comedy, but they’re showing a lot more colors in their performances here. Where did you get the sense that they were going to be able to do more, and how did they end up in those roles?

GM: Are you talking about Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader?

AVC: And Ryan Reynolds, too.

GM: There was a movie, it used to be called Life During Wartime, but it came out The Alarmist. It was well before Van Wilder and all that shit, and [Reynolds] was playing a kind of strange young man. I think Stanley Tucci was having an affair with his mother. He had this odd quality that I haven’t seen him ever get to do again in a movie that just made me think he’s got some chops. He’s got a strangeness to him, but he’s also clearly been stuck in this role because of his looks and his type. He’s been really pigeonholed, I felt. I wanted someone in that part to be a guy whose vanity keeps him trapped. He’s so angry that he’s trapped in a shitty job, and he thinks it’s everyone’s fault but his own, is how I pictured him and his psychology. He can’t help but advise Jesse Eisenberg’s character about women, even though he’s advising him how to deepen his relationship with a girl Reynolds is having an affair with, because his own vanity, his own need to be the cool older guy who knows something and prove to the world he’s got something to offer, actually trumps his own self-interest. Which also says that he doesn’t really care about the affair. The affair is just another way to get through the job and get through a marriage that doesn’t satisfy him.

I felt that Ryan playing against type, using all of his good looks, but being, underneath everything, a pretty unhappy, dark guy would be interesting. He obviously serves a plot function, but I wanted him to be very dry and not try to be charming in the way he’s always asked to be charming. The guy does shitty things, but I didn’t want to paint him as the villain of the movie, where at the end of the movie, Jesse threw a drink in his face or gave him his comeuppance. I think Ryan does some really nice things. My favorite moment is at the very end of the movie right after that, where he just has this little smile on his face like, “Yeah, I know I’m full of shit, but I’m doing the best I can.”

With Bill and Kristen, obviously their characters are silly, but I asked them to dial it way down from what they’re usually asked to do. I like the idea that they weirdly represent the best relationship in the movie. So they’re almost always shot in the same frame, they very rarely appear without each other. They totally got the vibe, the style of the movie. Because Bill’s really pulling it way back and playing as ridiculous of a character as he’s playing very naturalistically. It’s quite satisfying to let him have his crazy baseball-bat moment. And Kristen is just a master at underplaying insane people. The character as written was not that, but we just started playing around with it in rehearsal, and I rewrote it for her, and it was so much more interesting than what I’d written. I know Bill and Kristen are people that could do completely straight drama; they just have the depth for it. In fact, I’ve optioned a book called The Dog Of The South by Charles Portis for Bill to be in for me to direct, because I really want to do a whole movie with him at the center, but a pretty naturalistic movie.

AVC: One of the hardest things at Sundance was trying to explain to people how good Ryan Reynolds is in the movie. People sort of refused to believe it.

GM: Yes, people have a hard time with him.

AVC: Was it difficult mixing people with a comedy background with people who haven’t done that that much? Was there a lot of improvisation?

GM: It can be difficult. Once people like Bill and Kristen Wiig start improv-ing, then everyone else wants to improv, because it looks fun and they feel a little competitive. Not everyone can do that. You have to inherently be a writer on some level to do it that well. Jonah Hill or Michael Cera are both good at it because they are instinctively writers also. They could easily be stand-ups. They’ve written scripts. And not every actor is that. So, especially since we had such a short schedule, you have to stamp it down, because we didn’t have too much time. Believe me, there is a ton of stuff we shot on Superbad that was unusable, because people were just riffing and riffing. It’s just part of the Apatow method, and part of the technique is to also be able to rewrite the movie again in the editing room. I didn’t have the luxury of time to do that on Adventureland. We only had 32 days. It’s a double-edged sword, because once you start shooting that way, it limits what you can do with the camera. I’m really glad to have made a movie that way on Superbad, because I learned a lot about what can be done and what the limitations are.

AVC: Judd Apatow has made some incredibly funny movies, but that strategy of gathering a lot of material and then figuring out what to do with it afterward kind of shows. Superbad is the tightest movie released under that banner.

GM: I do think it was, and I think Judd would say the same thing, probably the closest to the script of any of the films he’s produced. I do think that’s some of the downside, that you can run the risk of the narrative meandering too much. But I was running the risk of that in Adventureland, even though we stayed close to the script, because I wanted it to be not a schematic movie. For better or worse, it’s not a wish-fulfillment movie. It’s got a kind of happy ending, but it’s not like I forgot to put on the “Ten years later,” and they’ve got four kids and a dog. Those guys are not together today. It always was leading up to the moment of “Oh, I have my first girlfriend.” Credits.

AVC: These are experiences you have to have in your life and you treasure them, even the parts that kind of come out badly and teach you what never to do again.

GM: Right, even the mistakes and the pain that you’ve caused and enacted upon you. That is definitely what I’m trying to capture. That moment in a summer.

AVC: Was it difficult for you to go back into that emotional space?

GM: I don’t really talk about this because it seems indulgent, but I lost my hair, I’m bald, I had alopecia in my teens. That was back in the late ’80s, well before people shaved their heads. So it’s probably one of the reasons why I have been obsessed with that age, because it’s locked in time where I feel like I had this personal loss that so affected my vanity, and I don’t really feel like I handled it well. I’m so much older now, so it’s not a big deal, but when I think back at it, I can conjure up how I felt then.

I was in college—Carnegie Mellon, which is one of the reasons Pittsburgh was appealing to me—and I personally feel that whole world of what we used to call “college radio” is a big part of what kept me sane through a period where I stopped dating, I felt like a freak, I felt like no girl would like me. You know, a very adolescent response to losing my hair. I turned to obsessing about The Replacements and The Smiths and R.E.M. and getting further into The Velvet Underground. People who, in my sheltered suburban life, I knew of, but didn’t know fully. Brian Eno records and music became a huge obsession of mine in college, in a way that a pop song can provide solace. I don’t know if it’s shallow or silly, but it meant so much to me. And it got me through. It made me feel like there were other people out there who had the same questions and fears and unhappiness. Particularly those kinds of artists who were writing songs about exactly those things.

AVC: What’s the status of Paul, the movie you’re making with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost?

GM: I met Simon the day Superbad opened. He was finishing How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. He had just shot ’til 4 in the morning, doing the last scene of the movie, and was very groggy. I had just finished up press and doing pre-production on Adventureland. He said he hadn’t seen Superbad yet but had heard great things about it, and he did see Daytrippers years back in London and had really liked it, and he thought I might be the guy to do this movie. It was one they were going to do without Edgar, because Edgar has a million things lined up, and they thought it should be an American director. I loved the idea of it, I love him, I had seen all of his stuff, was a big fan, and was very excited about the prospect of it. And time passed, and probably 8 months after that, he just e-mailed me and said, “Script’s ready.” It was incredibly smart and hilarious and I was so grateful that Edgar Wright wasn’t available, and I immediately signed on to it. It’s gonea little slowly, especially with the special-effects testing we have to do. We weren’t going to say what the premise of the movie was, and then it kind of leaked, and we were like, “Fuck it, okay.” So now that people know what it’s about, the alien, how to do it and how to do it well has kind of been a huge learning curve for us. But we hope to be shooting in June, so things are looking good. And we’ve sorted out various techniques. It’ll probably be a combination of CGI and puppetry and all kinds of things, and we just all have T-shirts with Jar Jar Binks with a big circle around him and a line through him. No Jar Jar!

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