KRISTEN STEWART AND JESSE EISENBERG IN ADVENTURELAND. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSER
After the breakout success of his no-budget family comedy The Daytrippers in 1996, Greg Mottola looked set to become a fixture on the indie scene, the Sundance generation‘s answer to Woody Allen. But after running into problems on his next project, Mottola repositioned himself as a TV director, helming shows like Arrested Development and the Judd Apatow-produced Undeclared. Ultimately, there was an 11-year gap between his debut and second movie, but that sophomore effort, Superbad, immediately catapulted him back to prominence: The high school buddy comedy from the Apatow stable not only was the number one movie in America and grossed well over $100 million but also earned the approval of the critics as a result of the directorial sophistication Mottola brought to the proceedings.
On the back of that success, Mottola has made a relatively rapid return with his third feature, Adventureland, which revisits the approximate territory of Superbad — it‘s again a comedy about teenage sexual tribulation — but approaches it from a very different perspective. The movie takes place over the summer of 1987 as newly graduated James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced by his parents to get a job at an amusement park on the outskirts of Pittsburgh so he can earn money for grad school in the fall. There the romantically naïve and sexually inexperienced teen befriends bookish co-worker Joel (the superb Martin Starr) and married man-on-the-make Connell (Ryan Reynolds), while beginning a hesitant romance with waiflike Em (Kristen Stewart). Rather than focusing solely on laughs (many of which come from park boss Bill Hader), Mottola skillfully balances the film‘s comic elements with more serious and downbeat moments, and he conveys with incredible authenticity both the bittersweet pleasures of adolescent love and the pervasive melancholy of the film‘s suburban milieu.
A month before the film‘s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Filmmaker met with Mottola near his New York home to discuss his return to the indie fold, drawing on his past for creative inspiration and the implications of being an independent filmmaker in the current financial climate.
WRITER-DIRECTOR GREG MOTTOLA AND EISENBERG ON THE SET OF ADVENTURELAND. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSER
The last time I interviewed you was just before the release of your previous film, Superbad. How much has changed for you as a result of that film‘s success? It certainly helped a lot, but there are some ways in which it‘s apples and oranges. I‘m bracing myself for people criticizing Adventureland for being “the unfunny Superbad,” but I wrote it before I did Superbad and it was never intended to be an out-and-out comedy. We set it up when Superbad was getting good buzz around L.A. and I‘m sure that good buzz is what got us the financing. In the climate now, I don‘t know that I would get the financing, even with Superbad being a hit. There are always certain factors [in my writing] that make things hard. The tone of my personal writing tends to knock it off the table with the money people. They think, “This is way too ambiguous... Why are you making a comedy and then stopping the jokes to focus on this other [thing]?”
Presumably you don‘t want to be known forever as “that guy who did Superbad.” I may well be that for the rest of my life with a certain audience, unless I make Superbad 2, and then I‘ll be that guy who fucked up Superbad. Superbad did, for whatever reason, become a quasi phenomenon with a certain age group. I can‘t deny how cool that is, but those people have no idea I did a little indie film 10 years ago; they have no idea that I have those [other] ambitions. And as Miramax wisely tries to get them to see Adventureland — at the end of the day, they want to sell the most tickets they can — we‘ll see how that goes over when they see that it‘s not exactly what they expect.
How long ago did you write Adventureland? I had the idea for it when I was working on [the TV show] Undeclared. It came out of a conversation with one of the writers, Jenny Connor, who is part of Judd‘s stable of really supertalented writers. I was telling her stories about my worst job ever and she said, “You should write about that.” At the same time, I‘d been noodling with the idea of writing a contemporary first love story and I just kind of melded the two things together. I wrote a version of it probably back in 2003, and then I was literally a week away from going out with it to companies when Judd Apatow called me and said, “Do you want to do Superbad?”
Undeclared really nailed the awkwardness of adolescent romance, and that‘s something that you capture in Adventureland too, except with more melancholy and authenticity. That feeling was the impetus for writing it, and it‘s a place where my sensibility overlaps with Judd — I got the Undeclared gig because Judd really liked Daytrippers. I guess bittersweet is my favorite tone. But I also really wanted to write a movie about the suburbs that wasn‘t, I hope, simply just shooting fish in a barrel. I feel it‘s become an indie film cliché to tear down the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs and I don‘t like them, [laughs] so it‘s going to trickle into my feelings about [suburbs in] the movie. But having said that I was hoping to approach the characters, these really middle-class people, with the assumption that they‘re not two-dimensional. My personal feeling about the suburbs is that there‘s an enormous amount of sadness underneath everything. There‘s real loneliness in the way that a lot of people live. People just focus on TV and family, and pretend it‘s not there. Once I made the decision I was going to write [Adventureland] about a suburb like the one I grew up in, all those feelings came back.
How easy was it to find a suitable amusement park location, and what were the challenges of shooting there? Once we started looking for a theme park, it became clear that it would be difficult to find one that didn‘t have a lot of post-1987 rides and elements (licensed cartoon characters, corporate signage, etc). The only two parks in the U.S. that are on the national register of historic places are Rye Playland and Kennywood. The tax rebates in Pennsylvania were better than New York state, plus it seemed like we could get a better deal with Kennywood, so the choice was arrived at pretty quickly. Plus, I have a fondness for poor maligned Pittsburgh. We didn‘t have the budget to build or create very much, although my production designer Stephen Beatrice did a very nice job of creating the specific booths that I needed and scuzzying up the park a bit so it wasn‘t quite as quaint as Kennywood is in reality. The challenges were making it work with our low budget and short schedule: getting enough extras, dressing them, coordinating rides to start on cue, dealing with all the sound issues, etc.
And how did you approach trying to get the requisite 1980s look for the film beyond the confines of the amusement park? I didn‘t want the movie to be an ‘80s kitsch-fest, which was just as well because I don‘t think we could‘ve pulled that off on our budget. Since the characters are mostly from humble backgrounds, we went with the idea that the interiors would be a mix of furnishings from prior decades (my childhood home and my neighbors‘ homes were certainly like that). We chose houses almost always for their kitchens — it‘s very hard to find a house where the kitchen hasn‘t been given a Home Depot makeover. Also, it was surprisingly hard to find modest cars from the ‘80s that were in good driving condition — people tend to collect and cherish ‘60s and ‘70s cars, but the ‘80s, that decade of questionable aesthetics, did not produce as many cars that anyone bothers to keep in working order. So, due to our limitations, we had to mix together elements from the ‘70s and ‘80s. But [Adventureland isn‘t trying to] make a “big statement” about the ‘80s. I was mostly aiming for a feeling that this story simply happened to take place 20 years ago. I also wanted the locations and interiors to feel like the environs of people who had given up, and that James was surrounded by people who were not encouraging him to change his situation.
The movie was shot in Pittsburgh, a city you know well from your time studying at Carnegie Mellon. You graduated from there in the mid -‘80s and had your own crappy summer job about the same time, so how much of this film‘s actual storyline is autobiographical? I wish I‘d been making out with Kristen Stewart when I was that age. [laughs] Some of it might be wishful thinking, but I definitely mixed in aspects of my first real intimate relationship. To me, the film is building up to the question, “Can this guy go from the stage of only infatuating women to understanding that intimacy requires being vulnerable, to seeing a person for who they really are, all these layers, and then to the point where he can actually date somebody and not be a complete child about it?” Those were all the things I went through, but they didn‘t happen in the summer of ‘87. However I really did work in a shitty amusement park in the summer of ‘85. It was deeply humiliating that I was a college student working as a carnival barker, but I had no real skills. I didn‘t know where to go to make money, and I didn‘t come from a family who had any money. I knew when I started the script that a movie about young people always runs the risk of being trite because they don‘t have the most dramatic problems in the world, but at the same time I didn‘t want to create a melodrama to beef up the movie. I wanted to make a very “slice of life” movie. So it‘s a very fictionalized thing set in a very autobiographical world. There are people I know or knew in all those characters.
EISENBERG AND MARTIN STARR IN ADVENTURELAND. PHOTO BY: ABBOT GENSER
The film makes me suspect that as a teenager you drove around endlessly listening to the Velvet Underground. In the ‘80s, there was this new wave of college radio, bands that are mainstream now like Talking Heads, The Smiths, Violent Femmes and the whole late ‘70s New York punk scene. I came from a conservative world where it was all classic rock and top 40. I was definitely the dork who made mix tapes for girls, and my mix tapes were all kind of like [the music in] the movie. I was a little bit of someone who railed against certain kinds of popular music. I would think it was stupid and shallow but at the same time secretly got a lot of pleasure from it. It‘s kind of like the mix in the movie: really cheesy pop songs and then there‘s what I consider “real” music, like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. One thing I love about Lou Reed is that even though he writes these songs that are like Allen Ginsberg stories of transvestites and dopers, they are imbued with so much romantic vision. It‘s incredibly romantic songwriting; in his disillusionment and pain there‘s an incredible sense of longing and unhappiness for a love that didn‘t turn out to be true or was destroyed.
The main character is very sexually inexperienced, and in a way this is almost like The 40-Year-Old Virgin except that, unlike Judd Apatow‘s movie, James being a virgin is something we sympathize with rather than make fun of. It was a somewhat different time 20 years ago, obviously, but there was a lot of discussion about whether to keep the virginity aspect in the script. Between the time I wrote it and was trying to get money for it The 40-Year-Old Virgin had come out. The characters in Superbad are virgins and, you know, we‘ve seen it — it‘s not brand-new. But I really felt like it was important because it was so connected to this guy‘s unrealistic romantic idealization of women that he couldn‘t quite go through with it. Besides the fact that he was awkward and bad at seducing women, he really was clinging onto an idea of some romantic fantasy. I wanted to imply that being able to understand that that [point of view] is childish was crucial. It doesn‘t mean that he has to give up all of his romantic notions of the world but just that [he finally understands] that it doesn‘t work that way, that people don‘t have intimacy that way. In fact, having your head up your ass [like he does] stops intimacy from happening. I came from a very Catholic family and I definitely inherited a childhood fear of things that you were told by priests and sermons. There‘s a certain amount of repression I grew up with. I had a college friend who hadn‘t even masturbated until he was 22 — he was such a repressed Catholic — but I spent an enormous amount of time when I was in high school envying my friend who was fucking girls, just really being so jealous and hating myself because I was not there.
In a traditional coming-of-age story, there are always clear lessons learned plus an epiphany or two, but in Adventureland you don‘t have those moments. Believe me, I was endlessly asked to write them [laughs] but I just didn‘t.... It‘s not that [those moments] can‘t be great in a movie, it just wasn‘t the story I wanted to tell. I guess I was trying to be honest about some aspect of myself at that age — it just wouldn‘t have been true to give him the big epiphany. It‘s more [about a] series of small self-realizations that are fairly internal and not very telegraphed. I [wanted to] illustrate the small ways in which people see something about themselves because of a relationship with a specific person.
You shot The Daytrippers with almost zero budget, completely on your own terms, and then Superbad was a studio movie that you were brought on to direct. This film is between the two. Did you have to balance your own vision for the film with the satisfying of the commercial needs of the producers and financiers? I wonder what it would have been like to make the film 10 years ago when it was a slightly different business. I really like the [production] companies a lot — they were really respectful and cool, but they‘re under a lot of pressure to deliver films that do something at the box office, and they turned it on me often enough. It was more just [their process of scrutinizing everything]. I had to dig in my heels on a lot of stuff and say, “Well, this is what it is.” Because of Superbad they can‘t help but want to promote it as Superbad 2. It makes some sense because the characters are young and there‘s some silly and raunchy comedy. And, at the end of the day, they‘re probably as frustrated as I might be about how hard it is to do other kinds of movies right now. It‘s a little weird for me because I feel like I‘m not Michael Haneke — though I like Michael Haneke‘s work a lot. I feel like I have a fairly commercial sensibility, but there are certain things, like ambiguity — not knowing exactly who to root for at what time in the story — that in American movies are a hard sell. I think people think you don‘t know what you‘re doing [when they see these things in your work]. They‘re like, “What?! It‘s wrong....”
As somebody who wants to make movies with that element of ambiguity, how optimistic do you feel about being able to continue to do that in the current climate? I think my strategy will be to design my own personal films to be made as inexpensively as possible so I can have as much autonomy as possible. Maybe one day I‘ll get to make a personal film on a larger scale when I have the time and money, but I think it would be stupid of me to assume that that will happen. There are a lot of filmmakers of all different ages who are going through the same thing. There are a handful of people who get to work at a certain scale no matter what they do — and they‘re the minority. I‘m incredibly grateful. I‘ve really gotten my own way for a long period. After I did Daytrippers, I had a movie fall apart, a personal film that was set up at a studio, and I was very stubborn that I only wanted to direct what I‘d written. And I was not a fast writer, so it was really stupid [laughs]. I feel incredibly lucky now. I couldn‘t be happier about the fact that I can go from a little indie film to a film with Simon Pegg [the upcoming Paul]. It is a very studio film — it‘s “one for them” — but I feel as invested in it as I did on my own films. So if I can get lucky and have some money and backing and do films with people I really respect and with great scripts, I‘ll be very happy.