Greg Mottola’s Ticket to ‘Adventureland’
Superbad director Greg Mottola is poised to pop the bromance bubble with Adventureland, a movie he wrote and directed based on his experiences as an underpaid carny one college summer. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan, Mottola’s fictionalized alter ego, and Twilight’s Kristen Stewart as Em, his troubled love interest, Adventureland is a sweeter, slightly more serious, and definitely more stoned version of Superbad. After the jump, Mottola talks with us about who might be the awkward king of America, Twilight madness, getting mistaken for Moby, and his upcoming stab at sci-fi with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Is it hard to direct something that you’ve written that’s personal, as opposed to something you haven’t written … that you’re one step away from emotionally? I started out wanting out to be an auteur like my heroes, naively — people like Woody Allen or Fellini or whoever, the people who made me wanna make movies, Truffaut … American Graffiti, which George Lucas wrote and directed … You know, people telling their own stories and writing their own stuff. I wanted to be a writer as much as I wanted to be a director, somewhat, but I always like the directing part better, and I finally got out of my own way and decided I should direct more and work on good scripts. And [when] Superbad came my way — and I did a lot of TV before that — it was liberating, actually, having done one little indie movie (The Daytrippers) a long time ago, to work on something that I hadn’t written.
You have a different perspective. When you’ve written it yourself and it’s personal, in particular, you’re so caught up in not just worrying about, “Is this good? Is this funny? Is it working?” You’re just worried about, “Am I expressing this the right way? Is this really how it happened? Should I be putting this out in the world? Why would anyone want to know this about me?” [laughs] You know, there’s a lot of self-doubt that comes into it.
With Superbad, because Seth and Evan Goldberg wrote it, and it was about their lives at a certain age — they started a version of it when they were actually still in high school — it was their story, and they had transformed it into a totally fictional thing, but it had the authenticity of being somebody’s story. It didn’t feel like, to me, Corporate Product Teen Movie, so I could relate to it, but it was nice that I didn’t have to think about that stuff. And that they were people I could work with, and if I had ideas about the writing that they would listen to me, that they weren’t rigid writers who would quit every time you would suggest a change.
Since James is a fictionalized account of your experiences, and who you were — Unfortunately, yeah.
Who is Em? Em is definitely a composite of a few exes. The story is ostensibly about that first relationship where you look back and go, “Oh yeah, that’s the first time I was actually falling in love with someone for who they were, not just for childish infatuation or pure horniness or whatever.” It’s the kind of relationship that happens in stages of life, one of those plateaus where you go, “Oh, that’s different. That was closer to intimacy; I was moving towards a different relationship with that person.” That person in my life was around that age, but she was nothing like Em’s character. The person who was more like Em’s character [was] based a little bit more on someone I knew in my twenties, someone I dated in my twenties, and was in the middle of a lot of pain about her life and, you know, is one of those things where I realized that to love somebody, you have to love them for everything — you have to love their flaws as well as the great things about them. And so you know when you’re young, especially, it’s unlikely you’re gonna meet someone who’s got everything all worked out, and what Jesse’s character needs to do is meet someone who doesn’t have everything worked out and make the decision that it’s OK to move towards someone like that, even if they have the ability to hurt me badly, but that’s just part of it. That’s just part of what love’s about.
So there were people I went through that learning curve with, that informed writing that character.
Do you think they’re going to recognize themselves? Um, my lawyer hopes they don’t. No, I don’t think so because I think I actually changed all the details enough that there’s nothing you could trace back. And I probably have enough of a history of falling in love with people who are complicated that there are a couple of people in there. I mean, I personally like people who are complicated. I think they’re more fun, at the end of the day. Simple people, eh.
It’s hard to avoid some comparisons with Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg. Who would win in a cage match? A cage match of awkwardness? Who’s the awkward king of America? Of young adult America?
Well, I knew of Jesse before I knew of Michael Cera, actually, because I had seen [Jesse’s] first film Roger Dodger when it came out because I was friends with Campbell Scott. I really liked him and I liked the movie, and that came out before I did Arrested Development. When I did Arrested Development, I was very excited because I was already a fan of Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor and the whole cast, pretty much, and Michael was the only person I didn’t know, and he was the one who I was like, “I can’t believe this fifteen-year-old kid is the funniest person in the room.” It kind of blew my mind.
Michael is a very specific … He’s unique. I mean, there’s no one like Michael Cera. He’s his own thing, and I feel the same way about Jesse. I mean, Jesse has a slightly more neurotic New York Jewish energy to him, but Jesse, I think, is a little more sexualized than Michael. Michael is so sweet that some of the stuff, some of the yearning in Adventureland I wanted to have something of a sexual component, and I think that felt better, that felt more correct with Jesse, although Jesse has a lot of the sincerity and sweetness. You know, I’m glad that there are two actors like that out in the world because there’s not a lot of young people who could have played parts like that, in either Superbad or this, so I’d say it’s a toss-up. I love them equally.
So Kristen Stewart and Twilight madness. Were you guys in the throes of that while you were filming Adventureland? No, we actually shot this before she even got the part, so we were shooting, and one day I heard that Catherine Hardwicke, who I had met years ago, I heard she was visiting Kristen to audition her for a movie. I knew she used to be a production designer, I knew she was directing, I had seen Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, and I said, “Oh, that’s cool. She makes cool movies. She’s a cool person.” And Kristen is so mellow, she was just like, “Yeah, it’s a vampire movie. It’s cool.” And then one day she’s like, “Yeah, I got that part. You know, could be pretty cool.” [laughs] Like, not a big deal about it at all. I thought, “Oh you know, it’s probably some indie vampire movie — Catherine Hardwicke does indie films. It’ll be an interesting movie, you know, some people will see it.”
I had no idea, not until months later, that she was going to explode into the culture this way. It’s lucky for me, of course … Kristen’s a very serious young person. She takes the work really seriously, so I know she applied herself to that. ‘Cause Adventureland was lower budget and shorter schedule, it’s not like she’d be like, “Ugh, this dumb little movie.” She’d work really, really hard. So it didn’t surprise me that Catherine Hardwicke chose her, because she’s really interesting to watch. Kristen is great. But it is, yeah, it’s cool and strange — I mean, she’s handling it really well, but the first time I’d seen her in a long time was at Sundance, and she’s being followed down the street by gangs of girls yelling, “Bella!” So, that’s her life for the next decade. [laughs]
Yeah, well, I know how that is. Not really. I know. They won’t leave me alone. But they’re yelling, “Moby!” so they’re confused.
Speaking of budget, you guys spent a tremendous amount of effort getting the songs for the movie, which were amazing. Was there anything that you were dying to get that you weren’t able to get? Not that much. There was a Smiths song and a Brian Eno song that had sentimental value that I wanted to get in there, but I’m amazed that we got as many songs as we did. And it’s not like those songs were so unaffordable, but in the bigger picture there were things I had to have. There were a lot of things I felt I had to have, and I got the things I had to have. I mean, once Lou Reed signed on to do it — the fact that we mention him in the movie made it slightly trickier to approach. We were saying, “Hey, we wanna use two Velvet Underground songs and one of your solo songs, and full disclosure, we talk about you as a human being in the movie.” And I also made a decision that if Lou Reed said no, I would take that out of the script. We had to figure that out in prep, because I wasn’t going to go down the list of rock stars until I ended up at, like, Billy Squire or something. It had to be someone that meant something to me, and whose music would mean something in the movie, and is great, so once his people said okay, it did help us ’cause we made deals that we could then say, “Okay this is what we got Lou Reed’s songs for, so will you be nice to us also?” And so we could start to put together a manageable budget. Because in Superbad we have one Van Halen song that cost almost as much as the entire music budget for Adventureland, so my music supervisor pulled off some unbelievable deals. But we went after the Rolling Stones — it’s a more obscure Rolling Stones song, but it’s from Tattoo You, which was their ’80s stuff, you know, ’79, ’80 — I really wanted that. I wrote that song into that scene. When I was writing that scene, I heard that song in my head. And I got a lot of the stuff. And then of course there’s the music James and Em listen to that’s all indie rock, we called it college radio back then … there was no indie rock label yet. But The Replacements, Husker Du, Jesus and Mary Chain, the stuff that kept me sane through college and being unemployed after college, kept me from slitting my wrists.
Tell me about Paul and how you got involved with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The Superbad DVD has a fake interview with Michael Cera and Jonah Hill and Edgar Wright on it, so were you guys all friends? We were all Simon Pegg fans, and then going to places like Comic-Con, I met Edgar pretty early on. I met Edgar before I met Simon, and just because he was at Comic-Con at the same time as Jonah and Michael, they stayed in touch and did that thing [on the DVD], which I think is really funny — Edgar’s a good actor! My agents called me one day and said, “Simon Pegg wants to meet you about a project.” He liked my little indie film The Daytrippers; he hadn’t seen Superbad yet. We met the day Superbad opened; he had just finished shooting How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, so he’d been up all night; he was really out of it, and we met at his hotel restaurant — we went to the Bowery — and he told me about Paul. And I loved Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I said, “I’m in, if you’ll take me.” I’m so glad Edgar was too busy, because I wanted to do this so badly. And he said, “Well, we haven’t even written yet; we’re just starting it. I’ll call you when it’s done.” And I knew that I’d be one of some list of directors they’d have, and much to my amazement, eight months later, he called me up and said the script is done — and we’d stayed in touch, and he’d loved Superbad — he called me up and said, “Do you want to do it?” And I said, “You mean me? Or am I on a list?” And he said, “Nah, I’ve decided I want you to do it.” And I was like, “Holy shit! This is so cool!” And the script was fantastic and so incredibly smart.
And it’s sci-fi? It’s ostensibly sci-fi. The most I can say about it — ’cause we don’t wanna give away too many of the things, ’cause Simon and Nick in particular are so beloved in the world of the blogosphere and Comic-Con and all that, we just don’t wanna spoil the fun by giving too much away — it’s two sci-fi nerds from the UK who come to the United States, their first trip ever to the United States, and for them, their dream vision of going to the US is to go to Comic-Con and then take a road trip to Area 51 because they’re obsessed with aliens. And somewhere along the way, they actually meet an alien. But it’s kind of like Easy Rider with an alien. I mean it’s a road trip. It goes into all strange directions and the writing, it’s not the mainstream Hollywood take … it sounds like a high-concept movie, but it’s just such a smart script.
Why do you think that Comic-Con and SXSW and Apple stores are becoming venues for people to promote their movies? I mean, like Comic-Con … Was like, yeah, you wouldn’t be caught dead at Comic-Con. [laughs]
Well, maybe you wouldn’t … No, believe me, I went to comic conventions … The movie studios were hardly there, ten years ago, five years ago … I mean, obviously there must be money to be made. That’s why they’re there. But, you know, it’s a passionate culture. These are people who really, really love what they love, and it’s not like, a blasé consumer culture of people who are just like, “Yeah, that movie was cool, that was good.”
These people are passionate, having been to Comic-Con, and people like myself — you know, before I became obsessed with foreign films, I was obsessed with horror films, I was obsessed with science-fiction movies, I was obsessed with Star Wars like everyone else, every other boy, and you know, these people are lovers, not fighters. Obviously because of the Internet now, there’s an entire way of talking about movies and getting the word out that just didn’t exist before. And Hollywood came to them … They realized things just started to become successful because of that environment at Comic-Con, that world, that community, and Hollywood started paying attention, like, “Wow! Ain’t It Cool News can talk about something and more people will go.” It’s like somebody’s actually … those website hits mean something. You know, of course it will be abused and twisted and destroyed by the machine, and it’s already happening, and you know, it’s gonna be corporatized and all that shit just like everything else, but then something else will take its place, or they’ll find another use for it. You know, someone came up with Twitter.
Where do you like to go in NYC and Brooklyn? The places I love to go are music venues — my favorite still is Bowery Ballroom. I still think it’s the best place to hear music, although a lot of the bands I would see there are too big to play there any more, and I’d have to go to Terminal 5, which I hate. It’s not a good place. That place in Brooklyn is much better — the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I like that place. And I love, even though it has terrible acoustics, I love the crazy Polish Warsaw.
I love to eat out in Williamsburg because I feel like the restaurants are more fun in Brooklyn than they are in Manhattan now … That tiny little wine and tapas place? Marlow & Sons. You know, the truth is, I have a kid and I don’t go out any more. I really like Macao Trading Co. in my neighborhood in Tribeca. It’s a new hip restaurant that makes me feel like I’m in Brooklyn.