Greg Mottola wrote and directed the 1996 independent film The Daytrippers before moving into television directing, working with Judd Apatow on Undeclared and then on Arrested Development. He re-teamed with Apatow to direct 2007 comedy Superbad. His latest, Adventureland, is a moving comedy drawn from his own experiences working on an amusement park in his youth. Martin Starr, meanwhile, is another Apatow student, working on TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. He’s starred in a number of movies, including Stealing Harvard, Cheats, Band Camp, Kicking & Screaming, Superbad and Walk Hard. In Adventureland he stars as the downtrodden Joel Schiffman. Like his character, Starr is quiet in person but possesses a keen wit. Needless to say, this being Mottola’s personal tale, the writer-director dominates the conversation…
Q: With a movie that comes from a personal place as this did for you, where do you let go of your own very specific memories and let it turn into a movie?
Greg Mottola: Once you cast people and they have their own specific qualities that aren’t mine, like Jesse is playing a version of my younger self, it was fairly easy to see it as a fictional story, except for those moments where something would flash back to me. That was so horrifying, so deeply embarrassing, some realization about myself that would make me just cower. I think this is the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I’m thin skinned, I guess, and I thought I could never write about my youth for the longest time. It took getting to my forties before I could even look back on it. It’s kind of cringy to me.
Q: So what made you change your mind and write about your embarrassing experiences?
GM: When I got to a certain age, I was working on a TV show, Undeclared that Martin did an episode of — that’s where we first met – and I first had the idea of writing about young love and trying to do it in a more slice of life, not slick Hollywood, way. It was about the first messy relationship, the first girlfriend, making the decision to face up to love is actually really complicated and requires you dealing with your fears and accepting a person for their flaws. I wanted to write that kind of story and one day I was telling stories on set of the show — we were all getting drunk and I was telling stories about working in an amusement park. We were all comparing worst job stories. And then, I had the Eureka moment of putting them together. But, I think it was also because I was working around young people. All these guys are so young. Seth Rogen was probably 18 when we did Undeclared.
Q: Could you talk about the difference between the story you wanted to tell and the traditional Hollywood studio summer comedy?
GM: Let me put it this way. When I showed a lot of people the script, especially post Superbad, they would say they just wanted it to be more of a comedy. They didn’t want the characters to be as flawed. People would’ve preferred that it have a more clear relief. It’s going to be an indie movie. It still should have more of a wish-fulfilment ending as opposed to a ‘what’s going to happen next’ ending. I just felt like there’s a place for a slightly different tone. I feel like I’m in kind of a strange place of really existing between indie films and Hollywood films, because it’s a little of both. I think that it makes it a little hard to market it and describe it. I feel like it’s partially the times we live in. The Holy Grail audience are young people and, at the end of the day, that’s who gets courted. In a strange way, the fact that it’s about young people is something that I didn’t realize would kind of hijack the marketing to some extent. When people passed on the film, they’d always say, ‘We would have made it if you were willing to make it contemporary because the fact that it’s an ’80s film means young people are going to say it’s not my generation and old people are going to say it’s about young people.’ I’m hoping that people who actually lived during the ’80s will hear about it and find it later.
Q: How much did you have to explain of the ’80s to the young cast, so that they understood the background to the story?
Martin Starr (MS): There was a giant Bible.
GM: There was a giant Bible. [laughs] No, there wasn’t.
MS: There was. You gave all of us all this big folder…
GM: Oh that’s true. We did have a research Bible of the highlights.
MS: It was massive.
GM: We researched the incredibly boring…
MS: …like who was the President and what happened. What happened in recent months before this or years before this?
GM: Yeah, we did make some poor assistant put that together.
MS: It was great. I still have it.
GM: [whispering] It’s like, ‘Who’s Margaret Thatcher?’
Q: Do you guys each have a particular favorite movie or music from the ’80s?
GM: I have so many and I’ve obviously crammed them into the film. For me, a lot of it is the music that Jesse’s character and Kristen’s character are listening to. A lot of it is the music that kept me sane in college. I have alopecia. My hair fell out when I was in college and I didn’t take it so well. Back then, people weren’t shaving their head when they were young. I set the trend [laughs]. So I had my self-pitying moments listening to The Smiths. When you’re a young person, the solace one can get from popular music is something I just have tremendous nostalgia for, affection for. I still have it. I even thought of the movie as a pop love song and I would play music while we were doing scenes. I’m nostalgic for how one would hear music. It was different listening to college radio in the middle of the night. I grew up on Long Island and I would listen for Fordham University’s radio station — I could only get it in the middle of the night — and hear bands coming out of Minneapolis and things that wasn’t the classic rock that I heard elsewhere. And, culturally speaking, I was also the nerd who was going to see Zelig on the opening day. The ’80s were Full Metal Jacket and Zelig to me as much as it was Pretty in Pink.
MS: There was a level of nostalgia for me, only because when I did Freaks and Geeks, that was based in a similar world so a lot of the culture was the same; Culturally and also musically. I started listening to the music that was put into that I got into a lot of other things of that era…
GM: Mostly Angel Dust [laughs]!
MS: Yes, mostly I started in drugs of the era.
GM: The defunct drugs of the ’80s!
Q: You started out doing a film that a lot of critics loved, Daytrippers, and then you did Superbad. Were concerned that film might stereotype you away from where you wanted to go?
GM: Yes. I did a low-budget indie purposely trying to build a fantasy career, being able to do low-budget indie stuff and mainstream studio stuff. Luckily for me, Judd Apatow became so successful he could kind of let me make an indie film at a studio level. Superbad” was by design kind of rough and tumble and we wanted to not be slick. But I’ve aspired to do other kinds of movies and I made a rule to myself, I’m going to stay away from movies with people all under the age of 21 for a little bit just, so I’m not in the young adult section of Netflix for the rest of my life! There was a long period of floundering that probably informed my writing of Adventureland. Part of it was coming to realize that I’m my own worst enemy. I’m the person that had fantasies of being an auteur: I’d only write and direct my own stuff. But I’m not a fast enough writer. I find filmmaking a little more intuitively. It makes sense to me working with actors, the collaborative process. Writing alone in a room is really, really scary. Obviously I owe a lot to Judd but it surprised my agents when I called them up and said, after all those scripts they’d sent me that I passed on, that Superbad was the one I actually really wanted to make. It’s a sincere movie. It’s not corporate teenage product #731. Those guys started it when they were teenagers. It has a real authentic feeling to it.
Q: You used the word ‘floundering’ for those years, but you did some really great television…
GM: Well, before the TV, I was floundering for a while and saying, ‘I don’t want to direct TV, I only want to make features.’ I didn’t want to give up the dream, but then realized that it’s stupid. I’m really turning away from great opportunities to learn and grow and sure enough, once I said yes to it, it’s paid incredible dividends. I’m enormously lucky to have hooked up with someone like Judd who’s so loyal and supportive and has taught me so much. So doing television was the best thing I could have possibly done.
Q: When you direct something like Adventureland or Superbad, is it tough to capture that authentic tone?
GM: Yeah. I try not to over-think it to the point of putting myself today, for instance, in Jesse’s character and really trying to let him make it his performance but also live through the cringy moments. Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of artistic license by casting someone as beautiful as Kristen Stewart as the love interest. She didn’t work in the amusement park when I was there in 1985 [laughs]! It’s trying to let it be, using just your internal bullshit detector. I learned a lot from the way Judd works. I remember very distinctly on Undeclared, we’d do table reads, there’d be really funny jokes and Judd would cut them out of the script and he would say, ‘No, that’s stepping on the emotion and we can’t. We have to protect what’s authentic. We’ll try to be as funny as we can but we need to also get to the heart of that.’ You know, he’s kind of the comedy Cassavetes. He really loves actors so much. At some point, you do cast them and let them do what they do.
Q: Can you talk about the evolution of Apatow’s group? It seems like slowly but surely everybody has kind of found their way to success…
GM: In Judd’s case, with the casting, he has an amazing eye for talent and so all those people have just continued to work, because they’ve got something. It’s an unlikely and amazing thing to me. I was just saying in another interview, it feels like being part of a theater company.
GM: [laughs] Yeah, Apatown. Because you get to come back and work with your friends again. It’s sort of what I imagine it would be like to work with a theater company and say, okay, we’re putting up The Seagul this year, start picking your parts.
Q: Why did you cast Kristen Stewart?
GM: Kristen was one of the few people I cast without auditioning, and my only hesitation was she’s obviously younger than the character she plays. She’s supposed to be about 19 or so in the movie. But she’s got a quality. I personally find her very fascinating to watch. She’s someone who makes thinking dramatic. There’s a lot going on. And it was important to give the movie some dramatic ballast, to make her somebody who’s in the throes of some tragedy and hasn’t processed it yet. Hence, that makes her a scary person to fall in love with. One of my favorite scenes is when she tells this awful story about how her mother is dying and her dad’s having an affair with the woman who is now her stepmother and she tells it in this very matter of fact ‘here’s this screwed up thing that happened.’ She instinctively knew that someone who hasn’t processed those feelings yet wouldn’t know how to talk about them. Other people auditioned for that role and made that into the most melodramatic monologue I’ve ever heard, which sort of makes sense because it’s such a sad tale she’s telling, but Kristen knew that, no, that person’s not at that point yet. They’re so far away from knowing how to express those feelings that they’re cut off. And I wanted the character to be flawed that way, because I think that we’ve all got our baggage. We’ve all got the pain we carry around.
Q: And Ryan Reynolds
GM: Ryan, I’m very lucky he agreed to do it. He gives a very dry, kind of quiet performance in an archetypal character of the stud-like bad boy. But he does his own thing with it and I really like that he got inside the guy’s psychology enough to make him feel like someone you’d meet and not just like the villain of the movie.
Q: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are both very flamboyant in the movie, offering the more obvious comic moments. Was it hard to find balance in those characters in particular?
GM: Interestingly, particularly in Kristen Wiig’s case, the character was different in the original script. Their relationship was more troubled. They were a troubled married couple. And Kristen said, ‘You know, I’ve just played characters sort of similar to this. I want to do the movie, but the way it’s written, it’s kind of similar to the last few things I’ve done and what if they actually get along well? What if they’re a good couple?’ And it really got me thinking. I found it amusing that the best example of a relationship in the movie is pair of ridiculous people. I also liked the idea of shooting them in the same frame all the time. Kristen has an amazing timing and a great way of playing a quietly insane person. It was always a question — is this a different movie or not? — but I think those guys can really pitch it at a very nice level. We meet crazy people in life and maybe I just love them so much. But it was hard. We shot stuff that I ended up not using — again, it’s the Apatow rule. It’ll be on the DVD, of course. I am looking forward to doing some really dramatic stuff with those two. I optioned a book for Bill to star in. It’s a book called The Dog of the South, which was written by Charles Portes who wrote True Grit (which the Coen Brothers are remaking incidentally), and it’s a great 1970s weird road movie for Bill. It’s a very funny character, but it’s not a comedy per se.
Q: Was it difficult to get the rights for Rock Me, Amadeus?
GM: Falco is no longer with us so we had to ask his estate and they’re clearly very cool people with a sense of humor. That was the first song I thought of as from that era. It’s also one of those songs that if you were there, you remember it. It hasn’t quite been canonized like other ’80s songs. I remember being tormented by it though!
ADVENTURELAND is available on Blu-ray & DVD August 25th!