Photo: Abbot Genser/Miramax
Greg Mottola
“I once read an interview with Fellini where he claimed that he couldn't remember his own past, so he made it up. I feel like I did a bit of that.”
Mr. Mottola’s Wild Ride
Written by Denis Faye

There’s no denying Greg Mottola has comedy chops, but narrowing the field more than that proves difficult. His writing and directing debut was the darkly indie The Daytrippers. From there, he went on to direct episodes of every critically-adored-yet-cancelled-in-its-prime television comedy in the last 10 years, including Arrested Development, The Comeback, and Undeclared, where he fell in with Judd Apatow, who then gave Mottola the helm of the profane-yet-commercial Superbad.

He returns to the independent world as the writer-director of Adventureland [watch the trailer] a highly personal coming-of-age story centering on a misspent summer at an amusement park circa 1987.

So what kind of influences does someone with such wide-reaching abilities have? The answer is “a lot.” Of course, there’s Woody Allen, but Mottola also claims interest in everything from the ridiculous -- the Marx Brothers and Monty Python -- to the witty -- His Girl Friday and Oscar Wilde -- to the extremely profane.

“Think penis drawings,” he admits.

Mottola recently spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Adventureland, why he avoided conventional character arcs this time out, and why setting it in the ‘80s, like, totally mattered to the story.

How do you go about balancing depth-of-character and humor? Which needs to take priority?

It depends on the tone I'm after. I always intended Adventureland to be much more of a bittersweet, slice-of-life comedy/drama compared to Superbad, which was a comedy first-and-foremost, with some emotional nuance thrown in there to round it out.

In Adventureland I set out to make something where the behavior feels very much like real life, not a heightened version of it. Having said that, absurd behavior exists all around us -- but I tried to make even the Bill Hader & Kristen Wiig scenes feel grounded.

Have you ever considered writing a broader, more commercial comedy?

Photo: © 2009 Miramax
Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr in Adventureland.

Honestly, I'm not in Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen's league when it comes to comedy writing -- but I could see attempting it with a great writing partner. For instance, Bill Hader and I have tossed around an idea to write together.

Many of the minor characters' arcs felt more naturalistic and less typical Hollywood. (Mr. Brennan, in particular, was well handled in my opinion.) Was that your intention? How important are minor character arcs?

I like films that don't tie up every loose end, that have unpredictable elements and flawed characters. James' father is not meant to be a raging alcoholic “villain” -- he's meant to function more as a disappointment to the character, another person he can't turn to for guidance. I wanted it to feel that James' discovery about his father's drinking is a truth he “can't deny any longer” -- the signs must've been there, but now James is forced to see his world a bit more clearly.

Why did you choose 1987? How important was that time period to the plot?

I really wanted this movie to be a personal remembrance of the world I grew up in. When I was shopping the script around, I was told on several occasions, “We'll make the film if you make it contemporary.” To the marketers, they felt that young people wouldn't want an ‘80s film (because it’s not their generation) and an older audience would see it as a kids’ film. But it was a deal-breaker for me. The music, the naiveté of a pre-Internet suburban world, the tinge of sadness that comes with a story set in the past -- all of those things were essential to me.

Did directing a broad comedy like Superbad have any effect on how you wrote Adventureland, a much more personal film?

I actually wrote Adventureland before Superbad. The more vulgar moments in Adventureland all came from actual memories (mostly the Frigo-related scenes ... he's based on an old neighbor of mine). But the Judd Apatow style of improv informed some of the directing of Adventureland.

Particularly in terms of dialog, how much of this film was on the page and, as the director, how much did you and the cast create as you went along?

We stuck fairly closely to the script unless a scene wasn't working -- except in the case of Bill Hader & Kristen Wiig. I flew them down to Pittsburgh one weekend and we workshopped their scenes (in a booth at a T.G.I. Friday’s near the airport ... very glamorous). In the script, the characters bickered a lot more -- but then Bill & Kristen started to improv a variation on that, where Kristen was constantly misunderstanding Bill, but they never erupted in argument. Suddenly they seemed like a rather sweet couple, in their own kooky way, and I really enjoyed the idea that they were in fact the best example of a relationship in the entire movie.

How does writing such a personal film influence your creative process?

I once read an interview with Fellini where he claimed that he couldn't remember his own past, so he made it up. I feel like I did a bit of that: took people from various parts of my past, then imagined them co-existing in this little carnival world for one summer. The most personal stuff is how I make fun of my own youthful foolishness in the character of James. I definitely needed to be cured of some of my own earnestness and delusions about how relationships work. There are certainly moments in the film where the James character makes me cringe, so I guess those are the most autobiographical. Of course, it changed a bit to suit Jesse Eisenberg -- but anything awkward that James does around a woman in the movie, you can assume I did at one point. I'm cringing again.