Interview with "Adventureland" director Guy Mottola, part I

So here’s a guy who’s made three films since 1997 and already he’s got a career retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York! Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his second film. the Seth Rogen cowritten/Judd Apatow produced raunchy teenaged comedy “Superbad” made over $120 million in the US alone and is now quoted by movie geeks everywhere. His new film “Adventureland,” on the other hand, is a more subdued and autobiographical coming of age story set in 1987 in the tacky amusement park of the title. Here’s what he has to say.

Q: Congratulations on the retrospective.

GM: It was a shock to me and was quite nice. I was calling it the compound word trilogy because every film I’ve done, “Daytrippers,” “Superbad” and “Adventureland” are all compound words. That was coincidental, because I wrote “Daytrippers” and Adventureland before I wrote “Superbad”. So “Superbad” fell nicely into my lap and fit in with the trend. The next film I’m doing though is called Paul, so it screws it all up. But it’s still one word.

Q: There were films between “Daytrippers” and “Superbad” that didn’t have one word compound word titles.

GM: That’s true. There was one called “Life of the Party,” and that’s almost a sentence.

Q: But it didn't get made. In fact nothing got made for eleven years. What happened?

GM: It was the classic filmmaker making every mistake he can in his career. “Daytrippers” did open doors for me and I wrote a script afterwards that several companies wanted to make and the one who ended up trying to do it was Columbia Pictures and we got as far as getting a green light on the movie and it was cast and I was location scouting and hiring all my department heads and all that good stuff and the studio got cold feet and decided for a number of reasons that the film was just too big of a risk and put it in turnaround. which was unusual because we had gotten very far and they had spent some real money on it but at the end of the day they felt that the cast wasn’t quite bankable enough and the movie was a little too dark and weird.

Q And too many words in the title.

GM: ...and too many words in the title. And no compound words. And I probably spent too much time after that trying to set it up elsewhere because there was still some interest and then I spent too much time feeling sorry for myself that it didn’t work out and to make a long story a tiny bit longer I saw myself as really wanting to be a kind of auteur-indie film maker who only writes and directs his own movies and I’m not a terribly fast writer -- I went through some real writer’s block -- and then when Judd Apatow called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to direct episodes of "Undeclared", well, I think I was at LAX before he hung up the phone. I was ready to make a change because I really missed directing. I really wanted more experience.

He actually had asked me if I wanted to direct some “Freaks and Geeks” episodes but I was in the throes of making the film that fell apart and he really liked “Daytripper” so we had spoken and so Judd has attempted to save me several times and luckily I opened my eyes and jumped at some of his offers.

Q: After “Superbad” you can do whatever you want, right?

GM: Well, I wish. It definitely helped a lot. "Adventureland" would not have been financed without it. I finished a version of the script and I was literarily days away from setting up potential investors when Judd called me and said do you want to do “Superbad?” So I put it down and then picked it up again after “Superbad” was done. Having said that, every place we showed them the script said we will make this but only if you make it contemporary and make it more like “Superbad,”  in other words a lot raunchier and a lot more jokes. Get rid of all the bittersweet stuff. And not wanting to do that I just was stubborn until I found some people who let me do it the way I saw it in my head but I had to do it on a much lower budget than I had for “Superbad.”

Q: How much was the budget for each?

GM: I don’t know if I’m not allowed to say; nobody has ever told me. But “Superbad” was well over twice the budget of “Adventureland.”  And “Superbad” was around $20 million. Two and a half really.

Q: So eventually it ended up being pretty much what you wrote originally without making any accommodations?

GM: Whatever silly, childish and  vulgar stuff that’s in it was already in there. Because it was all from life. Like the Frigo character who keeps hitting people in the groin was my next door neighbor.

Q: Somebody actually did that?

GM: Up until my wife told me she was pregnant I wasn’t sure I could ever have children.

Q: How autobiographical is it altogether?

GM: Most of the characters have some person they were based on or are some composite of some people. They didn’t all necessarily really co-exist at the amusement park or they weren’t all part of my life the summer I worked at an amusement park on Long island. But they’re all from my late teens and early 20s and I mix them all in with the idea that -- I wanted the Jesse Eisenberg character to be surrounded by people who are all stuck or inhibited in their lives for some reason, like tragedy or narcissism or their fear. I wanted to put him in a position where he would like to grow up, needs to grow up, but has no one to turn to to help him.

Q: He’s about 21?

GM: Yeah, that’s what I pictured.

Q: He’s trying to become a journalist, which apparently wasn’t your career ambition.

GM: It wasn’t, although I .. when I went to undergraduate school I was an art student and I made the decision early on there that I wanted to get into film somehow. I also went straight from undergraduate to grad film school at Columbia University in New York. But I’ve always been interested in it as a career and an interesting world.

Q: You wanted to write “travel essays like Charles Dickens?”

GM: Well, he’s got a little naïve idea of what it’s going to be. He has no idea about what actual journalism is but the fantasy of it appealed to him.

Q: Given the status of journalism right now you made the right career choice.

GM: Oh, my God. It’s a scary time for people who actually know what they’re talking about.

Q: This is set in 1987?

GM: I actually worked there [the anmusement park] in ’84. But I graduated from college in ’86. And there were certain songs in the movie I wanted to use which were from around ‘87.

Q: Was that the year you met Steven Soderbergh?

GM: Let me think. I met Steven before “Sex Lies” came out. Was that ‘89? He’d seen a student film I’d made and a mutual friend introduced us.

Q: Has he been a mentor or role model?

GM: He has. He produced and put money into “Daytrippers” and he’s someone I periodically annoy by asking lots of naïve questions. But he’s read scripts of mine and given me notes on them and looked at things I’ve done. I always hoped I’d get to work with him again but it hasn’t happened yet. But I’m always amazed by how open and accessible Steven has been when I’ve had questions. Whether it’s advice on crew members or filmmaking or career advice.

Q: He has seemed to figure out away of beating the system by making an “Oceans 11”  followed by some small personal project. Is that the pattern you hope to follow?

GM: That would be my fantasy career. To have some semblance of what Steven’s created. When I realized how fortunate I was that “Superbad” was going to be some kind of a moneymaker I thought, well, I have  to exploit that into doing what I really want to do, which is to go back and forth. I certainly could have taken a different movie after “Superbad,” a higher paying studio comedy, but I decided to go into the indie world again and now I’m doing a movie at Universal Pictures, the next studio movie, and it’s very satisfying on a certain level. Though I liked doing something I really wanted to do, after the frustrations of not having enough time or money it’s nice to work on a bigger scale. I sort of scratched that itch and have other things I want to do now and we’ll see when I go back.

Q; This is “Paul” that you’re working on?

GM: Yeah. We shoot in June. We actually just officially got the green light just a week ago.

Q: Simon Pegg is pretty cool. It’s not like you’re selling out.

GM: No. If my studio films could all be with people like Judd Apatow or Simon I’ve really hit the jackpot. I really love Simon. This is not by any means a typical mainstream script that he’s written.

NEXT: “Comedy Cassavettes;” the tradition and future of the film bildungsroman; Lou Reed; aliens.

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