Greg Mottola's big-screen comedies - The Daytrippers, Superbad and this week's opening, Adventureland - vary widely in their styles of humor, from baggy-pants to literary. (Adventureland contains references to Virgil, Shakespeare and Gogol.) Yet they share the same high ratio of fresh behavior to surefire gags.
"Getting to direct a movie is the greatest job on earth, and I do take it seriously - even though I do pretty ridiculous films," Mottola says.
The real-life story behind Superbad belonged to co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who drew on their high-school experiences to capture the sometimes-upsetting closeness of adolescent friends. It was the ultimate in big-screen bromance until John Hamburg (a director-friend of Mottola) upped the ante this year with the self-explanatory I Love You, Man.
Adventureland is 100 percent Mottola. The writer-director based this tale of a college graduate stumbling toward maturity on a summer job he had at the Adventureland amusement park on Long Island. At the time, Mottola was attending Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He wanted to save enough money to backpack through Europe. Instead, he funneled his meager salary into his "dive-bar fund."
Mottola says his "early romantic fumblings" once made him cringe. But by the end of Adventureland, you see that they've prepared Mottola's surrogate, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), to become a healthier version of Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man: a fellow who puts his energy into man-woman relationships, not just buddyhood.
James aptly woos the insightful and unhappy Em (Kristen Stewart) with a mix tape of his favorite musical bummers. She already has fallen for a slick rocker-cum-repairman (Ryan Reynolds). But she also sees the potential in James, whose social skills haven't caught up to his lyric desires. "I never had a Kristen Stewart as a summer girlfriend," Mottola says. "But I've always been drawn to complicated women."
When he directed a half-dozen episodes of Judd Apatow's TV series about college, Undeclared, the producer's drive to assemble "smart young people" in front of and behind the camera energized the marginally older Mottola. These colleagues gave him confidence to use his blunder-and-wonder years as material.
The New Yorker critic David Denby called Mottola's first film, The Daytrippers (1996), "the most delicate movie ever made on the subject of how people get on each other's nerves."
Ever since then, Mottola had been hankering to do a "messy relationship film." A night he spent with his Undisputed colleagues sharing "worst-job stories" led him to make Adventureland the setting for his shaggy romance.
Three years later, the script was ready to go. Then Apatow called and offered him Su perbad - and Mottola loved that screenplay, too.
Mottola has learned a lot from his continued collaboration with Apatow and company. "I've worked with successful writers who need to be the funniest people in the room and don't want to change a word. But on Superbad, if [co-star] Jonah Hill changed one of Seth Rogen's lines and it worked, no one laughed harder than Rogen did."
"Comedy Cassavetes": That's what Mottola calls Apatow's practice of improvising like crazy on a movie set and finding a coherent flow in the editing room. Mottola doesn't work that way. His movies are too inexpensive for "that degree of experimentation, which costs money." And, for the most part, he has liked his scripts the way they are. "Also," he says, "not everyone can improv: You have to be a born stand-up or comedy writer."
Saturday Night Live linchpins Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, who play the married bosses of Adventureland, did the most improvisation. (Hader and Mottola are pals.)
"I met them one weekend at a T.G.I.Friday outside of Pittsburgh, where we spent six hours going over the scenes and playing with them. And a funny thing happened. Kristen would constantly misunderstand what Bill was saying and he accepted her responses, as if there was no point to having an argument. I thought, 'These people have accepted each other's flaws. They may be the healthiest couple in the movie!' "
Mottola credits Apatow with nudging American comedy away from "high concepts" and toward "caring a little more about character and making emotions ring true. And surprising people. Adventureland is a weird in-between kind of movie, not totally independent and not mainstream. Were it not for Apatow's example, no one would have let me make it except on a super-low-budget. And maybe it would have gotten to Sundance. And maybe 10 people would have seen it."
Mottola fought to preserve his most original scenes, such as James' realization that his father is an alcoholic. A mainstream version might play this situation for laughs; the "independent feel-good" version would show James demanding that his dad abandon the bottle. In this movie, the revelation lacks any obvious payoff because Mottola's point is that "the father is one more person who is not going to help James."
Mottola also credits Apatow for insisting on using the profanity "that was getting weaned from American films for whatever puritanical reason."
It used to be difficult to make R-rated comedies at big studios. Not any more. For Mottola's next film, he's collaborating with Hot Fuzz partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on a studio comedy called Paul. Pegg and Frost wrote the script. It's about two British sci-fi nerds who take a road trip across the U.S., to the San Diego Comicon, and encounter an alien along the way.
Recently, Universal Studios met with the team and asked "if we could do more to earn the R - make it a little dirtier," Mottola says. "Simon and I looked at each other and thought, 'We can do that. That's something we definitely know how to do.' "