Life is messy, and Greg Mottola sees no reason to clean it up. The director of 2007’s blockbuster “Superbad” and writer-director of the new “Adventureland” is drawn to ambiguous characters and unresolved story lines, to the delight of fans and the vexation of marketers.
Sitting on a sun-drenched hotel poolside cafe in dark clothing, his head shaved bald and wearing black-framed glasses, Mottola is the very model of a modern indie filmmaker. He’s jet-lagged from a week of flying from his New York home to Los Angeles to London to New York and back to L.A. for work on a new film with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the stars of the Brit hit “Hot Fuzz.”
“I’m not at liberty to talk about it too much,” he says, then proceeds to divulge the plot of the Universal/Working Title picture. “It’s called ‘Paul,’ and Simon and Nick play these two British science fiction nerds who go on a cross-country trip to Area 51, their dream mecca journey. And on the way they meet an actual alien.” He pauses, realizing he’s spilled too many beans. “I’m probably going to get yelled at later,” he says agreeably and orders a fruit-juice elixir that the menu claims is for exhaustion.
It’s been a long journey from his homespun first film, 1996’s charming ramble “The Daytrippers,” in which a married woman finds a mysterious love letter to her husband. Gathering her mom, dad, sister and sister’s boyfriend, she sets forth on a series of Manhattan misadventures to confront him.
The film, which Mottola wrote and directed on a $70,000 budget, had unexpected repercussions. In addition to taking him to Cannes, it found a fan in Woody Allen, who proceeded to cast him in his 1998 film “Celebrity” and 2002’s “Hollywood Ending.” Mottola met Allen’s assistant Sarah Allentuch. “We hung out because I didn’t have a hell of a lot to do,” he says; they are now married and have a 21-month-old son, Max. Mottola shows off a picture of an adorable toddler. “He’s edible,” says the proud papa. “He’s the happiest person. I can’t believe he’s my kid.”
Mottola mentions that he once put his name in an anagram program and got back “gloom target,” “which I think I may name my production company, if I ever have one.”
After the success of “Daytrippers” and between the acting interludes, he spent two years working on a film for Columbia Pictures that was ultimately killed during preproduction. During that time, Judd Apatow called to offer him directing work on the television show “Freaks and Geeks,” but Mottola turned him down. “I was very stubborn, and I only wanted to direct what I had written, but I wasn’t a particularly fast writer,” Mottola says. After the film project fell through, “Judd called again,” he recalls. “And he said, ‘OK, big shot, do you want to do [the TV series] “Undeclared?” ’ And I said ‘Yes!’ ”
Mottola, who was born and raised in Long Island, moved to Los Angeles from New York and for a few years worked on “a lot of really cool TV shows,” including “Arrested Development” and “The Comeback.” He was still getting offers for film work, but “it wasn’t Scott Rudin calling me and saying, ‘Would you like to direct this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?’ ” Mottola explains. “It was more like, ‘Would you like to direct “Boob School”?’ ”
During that time, he wrote the “Adventureland” script. “And ironically, the week I was about to try and raise money for it, Judd called me and said, ‘Do you want to do “Superbad”?’ ” So Mottola set his project aside to do a little coming-of-age movie about two kids who try to score beer.
Audiences responded, as did critics. “Superbad” was a breakout hit, grossing more than $121 million domestically.
Mottola then turned his attention back to “Adventureland.” The film centers on James (Jesse Eisenberg), an earnest college graduate who’s stuck at a horrible job in an amusement park in 1987. It’s based on Mottola’s own experiences at the Adventureland park in Long Island during a college summer.
James endures a tortured romance with the semi-available Em (Kristen Stewart). In a refreshing role reversal, she’s uninterested in being tied down, “and he’s the one who’s pining, and he can’t hide his feelings -- what a big sissy I was,” Mottola declares, noting that he was intent on making as much fun of his younger self as of anyone else in the movie.
When he finally went out to shop the “Adventureland” script around, he found it was a job made both easier and more difficult by “Superbad’s” success. Everyone he met wanted only two changes, he recalls. “ ‘One, don’t make it a period piece, it has to be now.’ ” And Two? “ ‘Make it a lot funnier and raunchier, get rid of all the sad, bittersweet [garbage] that you’ve got in there.’ ” In other words, make it a “SuperAdventureBadland”!
He stood firm by his script. Eventually Miramax came through with a budget of less than $10 million.
Mottola understands the hesitation. Independent film divisions are closing left and right, “and at the end of the day, they can’t afford to make too many ambiguous movies.” For his part, he’s going to make sure to keep writing scripts that don’t cost much to make.
And he’s not going to try his hand at marketing. When Miramax was coming up with a campaign, the filmmaker helpfully told them, “ ‘It’s a romantic movie for sensitive males.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, OK, shut up.’ ”