When ComingSoon.net spoke to director Greg Mottola a few years back, his upcoming comedy Superbad had yet to be released and no one had any idea it would be such an enormous hit that would help make the careers of almost everyone involved.
The success of that movie gave Mottola a bit more leeway to do whatever he wanted, so he went back to a script he had written years earlier, a more personal story based on his younger years working at an amusement park, a movie that was suddenly much easier to get made.
Adventureland stars Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) as James Brennan, an intellectual who after graduating college is forced to return home to the suburbs of Pittsburgh and take a job at the local amusement park, Adventureland. There, he meets all sorts of crazy characters and immediately finds an affinity with his cool co-worker Emily, played by Kristen Stewart, and quickly falls in love with her despite the fact she clearly has a lot of her own issues. It’s James’ interaction with these disparate co-workers that helps him grow up and learn what it means to be responsible. The movie co-stars Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr (from Knocked Up), and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig from “Saturday Night Live” as the owners of the amusement park.
It’s a coming-of-age dramedy that certainly wouldn’t be out of place at the Sundance Film Festival, which is exactly where and when ComingSoon.net spoke with Mottolla this past January. Needless to say, the movie went over like gangbusters at its premiere there.
ComingSoon.net: I think your movie probably received one of the best responses I’ve ever seen at Sundance.
Greg Mottola: It was crazy. For a day you get to feel like a rock star, it’s nuts.
CS: How’s the rest of Sundance been for you comparatively?
Mottola: It’s been great. It’s nerve-wracking. As you get older, you think stuff gets easier, but it just does not get easier.
CS: Believe me, I know. I’ve been running around on two charlie horses all day. Were you here with your earlier movie?
Mottola: Yeah, with “Day Trippers,” it was Slamdance. I was at the Writer/Directors’ Lab a long time ago after I graduated, back in ’92, and at the time, I had just come out of film school. I had no connections to show biz. I come from a humble background and I didn’t know what I was doing, so it was a huge bit of encouragement to have them say, “We like your script, we like your student films. Come and learn.” It’s the kind of place you come and you’re sitting around with Ring Lardner Jr. and Arthur Hiller and Scott Frank… these people are real filmmakers making movies and it was very exciting. During the hard times, when things weren’t going well in my career, it’s the sort of thing you draw upon. It’s like “Well, they encouraged me once, I shouldn’t quit.” It didn’t happen for me overnight so there were definitely times where (I was like) “I don’t know if I can do this or if I’m good enough”, you know, all the self-doubt, and stuff like that really helps get me through. It was disappointing that my film didn’t get into Sundance–I won’t lie about that–but those guys at Slamdance were super-nice, they were saying, “We’re going to do something else. It’s like the Cannes Film Festival, there are all these other sections that started up by people who just wanted to be another voice, like “‘Critics’ Week’.” Because of Slamdance in fact, people saw “Day Trippers,” it won, it got a little bit of attention and then we got into “Critics’ Week” at Cannes and that’s what got the movie sold. Even though that was a very small film, it was a super labor of love. Steven Soderergh put his own money into it and sponsored me.
CS: How’s this experience by comparison? “Superbad” was more of a movie you just directed, so this probably counts more as your second movie because you wrote it. Was it easier to get this movie made and stuff you needed?
Mottola: Yeah, I mean prior to “Superbad,” I probably couldn’t have gotten this film made, so it definitely got the film made, but it didn’t get me a huge budget. We had to make it on a small scale, and I think even though “Superbad” was as successful as it was, people still looked at this movie and said, “Well, this is kind of hard to market because it’s set in the ’80s.” The response I got from most of the places I went to said, “Unless you want to make this a contemporary film, we’re not interested.” They just felt like young audiences, which is the Holy Grail of audiences right now–it’s the audience that saw “Superbad”–they’ll look at it and say, “Well, that’s not my generation. I’m not interested” and then older audiences will say, “Well, that’s a kids’ movie, because everyone’s young and goofy-looking.” They might not show up and also, that audience doesn’t go to the movies as much as they used to anyway, the people who are my age that lived in the ’80s, it’s not a reliable indie film audience. This movie has sort of a weird falling between indie and mainstream vibe. I saw it as a short story in my head. Obviously, I’m not trying to break any new ground cinema-wise, but I still feel as if there’s a lack of sincere movies about middle-class life. I really thought I want to approach this like a short story writer. I wanted to tell a story about middle-class life that the audience will look at it and say, “That feels like my life” and also give it a certain bittersweet, and a little bit of ambiguity, and there’s even some quasi-political ideas in there. It’s not a political film whatsoever, but some ideas about gender roles and the age-old American concept that a woman who is sexually active is a slut and a man who is sexually active is a stud.
CS: Which hasn’t really changed much in the last twenty years.
Mottola: Which really hasn’t, no, that little bit of puritanical thinking has not really gone away. (laughs) And these are the small ethical decisions you make as you’re trying to figure out what kind of person you want to be, and they’re small, but they add up to something, so I wanted to try to capture that moment in life.
CS: How important was it for you to set it in the ’80s? Obviously, you worked at an amusement park yourself but was it that important to have it set in that era?
Mottola: I think it was just really important that I wanted to do something that was drawn from my memory. Whereas “Superbad” I tried to really get inside the head of that age and not overthink and not condescend to what felt honest for someone that age. This one was definitely seen as looking through the filter of looking back in time. I didn’t want it to be like a kitchy ’80s-fest. I grew up in a kind of humble area where a lot of people weren’t that wealthy and kept all their furniture from the ’60s and ’70s. Where I grew up, it didn’t feel uber-’80s. I wasn’t making “The Wedding Singer.” All that stuff. The truth is that we didn’t have the budget to do that well anyways, so we had to take what we could get. This was a small movie, but I did want it to feel like it happened 20 years ago. I wanted it to feel like it was a story in the past, and then you start to write it and then you realize, “Oh, there’s no cell phones, there’s no texting, there’s no internet” and you do start to feel like the world was really different 20 years ago. Also, kids weren’t… you weren’t watched, you weren’t under surveillance the way kids are today. I don’t know. Young people might look it and say, “Why does he care about having a girlfriend? All we do is hook up. We don’t have girlfriends and boyfriends.” My brother teaches at a college and he says that so few of the students have relationships like they used to when he was in college. He said it’s all friends with benefits. It’s not as much about going steady. My parents are from the WWII generation, and I feel like alternating generations… my generation is slightly more conservative than the present generation because our parents were probably more conservative than the baby boomers.
CS: What about the casting of Jesse and Kristen? Both of them have done a lot of things like this kind of stuff… coming-of-age comedies and dramatic stuff as well.
Mottola: Yeah, Jesse was the first person I thought of and my only hesitation was that I really really admired “Squid and the Whale” and I was insecure that people would say, “Oh, ‘Squid and the Whale’ was such a better movie and he’s playing a similar character” but then I thought, “Oh, screw it, you’ve gotta try.”
CS: He did straighten his hair for that one, though.
Mottola: Exactly, right, and there are certain strains of sweetness and romanticism that are similar but different, but there’s not that many young actors. There’s a lot of people that said, “Did you think of Michael Cera?” and not that many actors who have those qualities, he’s just sort of a man out of his time, the way Michael Cera is, but Jesse’s a little more neurotic and a little more sexual than Michael. I felt like Michael’s so sweet. I wanted somebody who plausibly could be tempted by Lisa P. and the horniness in his romantic view of the world would be at odds with each other, and he seems so perfect. Kristen I thought of immediately just because I think she’s fascinating and has a lot of mystery to her, and she’s the kind of actress who has the qualities… She’s really interesting to watch think because there’s a lot going on there. You really feel like she’s an old soul.
CS: Talking about the ’80s, I wanted to talk about the music because you have a lot of different styles of music. You start with The Replacements and Big Star, the hip alt-rock bands, but then you have all the bad ’80s metal and Falco and even Lou Reed. Did you have to figure that stuff out early on because that stuff can cost a lot of money to use.
Mottola: Yeah, it’s a lot, a lot of music for a low-budget film, and that was very challenging. I came to regret it at certain points. I had this idea in my head, which is very simple when you’re a writer, it’s like, “Every time you’re starting a scene, someone’s putting on a cassette tape or a record” because that’s just life at that age. You’re always soundtracking your life with music, it’s just ever-present, but then when you get in the editing room and you’re at post and you’re just thinking, “Oh, sh*t, that’s going to cost that, and that’s going to cost that and now I have to have a song, because I start the scene with them starting a record and you can’t get out of it.” It’s terrifying because the stuff is so expensive, but I had a great music supervisor. If I couldn’t get something I wanted, I’m a music lover, I have thousands of CDs, I have a lot of songs in mind ready to go if something happened to fall through, so we just kept going through and trying things that we could afford and make the formula work. I had that idea that these characters listen to what was called college radio, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü and then there’s the mainstream world of Top 40 radio and then doing the movie, I started to realize that Top 40 is kind of frozen in time, because Top 40 radio basically stops and trickled out in the ’90s and you go into a supermarket or a Wal-Mart and most of the time, you’re hearing songs from the ’80s or ’70s. It’s like those songs are still the soundtrack of our lives.
CS: But at the amusement park, they’re still playing popular songs from the ’80s.
Mottola: Yeah, because popular music, we don’t consume it the same way anymore, so everyone’s frame of reference is not… there’s no shared popular music the way there was then in that same ubiquitous way.
CS: One thing I was really surprised by was that we really spend a lot of time with Kristen Stewart’s character Amber. When I heard about the movie and its general plot, I assumed it would be all about Jesse’s character James and his journey, but we really see a lot more of Amber than I expected. I wondered how you came to the decision to show the other side and what she’s going through, which is not something we see very often.
Mottola: We talked about it a lot stylistically with my producers Ted and Anne and with the studios of you starting with one person and then the story suddenly starts to follow someone else, but I just wanted to make a movie where the female character was ultimately just as important as the male character, that it wasn’t only just from the perspective of the guy. She is a composite of a lot of women I’ve been in love with so I couldn’t stop being interested in her side of the story.
CS: When you went into it, did you always see this more as a comedy or a drama? It’s being marketed more as a comedy but there’s a lot of heavy issues and drama, which is somewhat surprising.
Mottola: Yeah, I think it will be a surprise. I hope it’s not too unpleasant a surprise. I think some “Superbad” fans may be disappointed but hopefully, they’ll be patient and give it a chance. Honestly, I probably see it a little more as a drama, but there’s very little in the world I don’t find comedy in. The world provides comedy everywhere you go, so a lot of the vulgar stuff–I wrote the script before I did “Superbad”–all the ball-punching stuff, the vomiting, and all that stuff, that was all in the script long before I did “Superbad.” It’s not like that was the effect of doing a teen movie. I just feel that’s part of life, especially the idea that he’s this guy that takes himself so seriously and he’s surrounded by this incredibly unclassy world and neighbors.
CS: It’s amazing that punching someone in the balls can get a laugh from just about anyone.
Mottola: I know it’s very cheap, but actually, my next door neighbor used to punch me in the balls every day.
CS: Before we wrap things up, I wanted to quickly ask about when you think you might be starting the movie you’re doing with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (from “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead”)?
Mottola: Hopefully in the spring. We don’t have an exact start date yet. There’s a lot of technical stuff we have to work out because the special FX are very complicated but I feel incredibly lucky that I get to make my small little personal film that for better or worse is from my life and then turn around and now work with Simon and Nick. They’re world-view… their films are weirdly personal for what they are, because their movies are about loving movies so much, but their vibes and the world they grew up in so much informs their characters. To be relieved of the authorial duties is great, because those guys are brilliant writers. It’s just a super-exciting project. (Since this interview, the film has been greenlit by Universal Pictures, and it will indeed be shooting starting in June in Santa Fe, New Orleans and elsewhere.)
CS: Are you going to try to go on the road with them beforehand to see what that’s like?
Mottola: I hope we do. I don’t know. Everyone’s so busy. I hope so. They did a road trip on their own to research the script, and I wish I could have been there but I hadn’t met them yet.
Adventureland opens nationwide on April 3. Look for ComingSoon.net’s exclusive interview with Jesse and Kristen sometime next week.