One of the higher-profile movies making its debut at Sundance this year is Adventureland, director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad. The â€˜80s-set film, which he also wrote, stars Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale and Twilight star Kristen Stewart as two kids trying to survive their summer jobs at an amusement park. It also features another scene-stealing turn from SNL‘s Bill Hader.
Mottola’s first film was the 1997 indie The Daytrippers, starring a young Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey, after which he directed episodes of the Judd Apatow TV show Undeclared and Arrested Development before helming the Michael Cera-Jonah Hill breakout. Greg talked to Heeb at Sundance a few days after Adventureland‘s premiere.
How’s your return to Sundance been?
I’ve been a nervous wreck for some of it. It’s very scary showing a film in a gigantic theater, like showing it at the Meadowlands or something.
I was in the Sundance lab when I was in my early 20s, but it took me a long time to finally have a movie here. I didn’t have the overnight success. I made Daytrippers, a super low-budget indie film and got my foot in the door. I then spent two years on a follow-up movie that was a real labor of love. We went into production, and I got called and they said it’s just too weird and dark. I then struggled with the idea that I had to only direct the things I’ve written. I got in my own way very neurotically for many years. Finally I accepted a great opportunity to direct some episodes of Undeclared.
The frustration of Daytrippers not getting into Sundance seemed so terrible at the time. Now I have perspective. It’s all life experience. You just bring it to the set. And I’m just so happy with what I get to do and the people I get to work with. To make a small film where someone lets you tell your own little story and get it shown here, it’s really nice. Admittedly I’m nervous because people pay more attention now because of Superbad. It was sort of safe and nice to be an unknown with a tiny, little movie.
You wrote Adventureland before you directed Superbad?
Yeah. Working on Undeclared with so many young people, I got very nostalgic for that age. I started to think, I want to write a movie about that first relationship that’s a real relationship, where you look back and you go, “Oh yeah, every one before that was just an infatuation or horniness.” I was overly romantic when I was younger. So I was getting nostalgic for all those feelings that seemed so terrifying and important. But also it’s kind of a blessed time of life. You’re forming your identity still.
I was telling these stories about the worst job I ever had, which was at an amusement park, to the people on Undeclared and one of the writers said, “You should write about it.” And I thought, I want to do this thing about young love, and this idiotic experience I had, and I stuck them together.
Did you feel pressure to go more towards Superbad or to go the opposite direction? They have very different tones.
All the companies that we went to wanted me to make it funnier, more like Superbad, and make it a contemporary film. But I said no, even though that made it maybe less appealing at the box office. It’s apples and oranges. This is a romantic movie, through the prism of looking back on youth. I didn’t want to make it into an â€˜80s kitsch fest, but I wanted it to feel like something that happened 20 years ago, before the internet, before cell phones. That felt more charming to me. Little did I know that even making an â€˜80s period piece, especially at such a low budget, was a lot harder than I realized.
To what extent does the success of Superbad work for and against the film?
It’s definitely the proverbial double-edged sword. There will be some young people who see it expecting Superbad 2 and will be disappointed, or outright angry. And then I think there will be some people who will be pleasantly surprised. Hopefully enough people are open to a movie that’s slightly slower paced, with a little bit of melancholy, some bittersweet, lyrical stuff. More character stuff.
When I saw Freaks and Geeks I thought, that got it right. That felt like what middle class suburban life is like. And I’m surprised at how often it’s not quite captured in a way that strikes me as being accurate.
Music plays a key role in the film. How did the music help you tell the story?
At that age you’re always putting music on. You’re trying to fill up the silence with the soundtrack of your life. Music to me was one of those things that kept me sane, like I could get through the boredom or the loneliness being able to play the Replacements or the Smiths. It was challenging to have that much music in a low-budget film. But I’m really shocked at how much stuff I wanted that I actually ended up getting, like the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed.
Originally you guys were coming out last summer, before Twilight, but you weren’t quite finished. Has it been interesting watching this phenomenon with Kristen that’s happened since then?
It’s crazy, yeah. I feel for her because she’s a very sensitive and very young person. The experience of making Twilight I’m sure was the same as any other film. But then the aftermath is nuts. But I think she’s doing well, considering how challenging that is. Selfishly, it’s good for me, because it helps the movie a lot. And I’m grateful that she came to Sundance.
So: Bill Hader.
I love Bill. A lot of the people you meet in comedy love comedy movies. The great thing about Bill is, he’s a total cinephile. We can sit and talk about Hal Ashby, geek out on Kubrick or old foreign films for days on end. I love comedy, but you get sick of talking about old Steve Martin movies.
Bill and I optioned a novel, this book by Charles Portis called Dog of the South. Charles Portis wrote True Grit. This is a comic novel that’s set in the â€˜70s, and it’s one of the funniest things I ever read. It’s for me to direct and Bill to star in. But it’s a dramatic acting role. It’s going to be Bill showing a whole other side of stuff. And I can’t wait, because I know he has it in him.