Mr. Beaks Runs Off To ADVENTURELAND With Greg Mottola!
During the 1990s, there emerged a talented group of American writer-directors who specialized in a deeply sincere, stingingly comedic style of filmmaking that had seemingly been outlawed at the onset of the Reagan Revolution. This movement consisted of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach, Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins, David O. Russell and Greg Mottola. They were the sons and daughters of Woody Allen (and Elaine May... and Paul Mazursky...), and they were doomed to, at most, niche success because there's not a marketing executive alive today - independent or studio - who knows how to sell that type of picture anymore.
Consider the plight of Mottola, who ambled out of the gate in 1997 with THE DAYTRIPPERS, an immensely witty ensemble comedy about a dysfunctional family's inept investigation of a husband's infidelity. Though brilliantly cast (with Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Parker Posey, Campbell Scott and the great Anne Meara), the real attraction was Mottola's script, which treated its characters not as eccentrics but as genuinely fucked up human beings. Sure, they fired off the occasional Woody-esque zinger, but there wasn't anything showy or heightened about this banter; it felt real, and, as a result, the film resonated. There was the promise of greatness in Mottola. And then... there was nothing.
Or so it seemed. After a failed attempt at getting a rehab comedy called LIFE OF THE PARTY into production, Mottola quietly started racking up directing credits on two of the best television shows Fox ever cancelled: UNDECLARED and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Though not as creatively satisfying as developing one's own material, this willingness to submit to (very high end) for-hire work paid off when UNDECLARED producer Judd Apatow offered him a bawdy high school comedy called SUPERBAD. $121 million later, Mottola finally had the clout to make "one for me".
And so we have ADVENTURELAND, a perfectly observed coming-of-age tale about a late-bloomer's first love and first heartbreak - both of which are experienced one magical/shitty summer at a rundown amusement park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I don't know where I thought Mottola was headed after THE DAYTRIPPERS, but I am 100% certain I didn't have him doing for the '80s what AMERICAN GRAFFITI and DAZED AND CONFUSED did, respectively, for the '60s and '70s. There's a danger in overselling a movie as low-key and sincere as ADVENTURELAND, but I'm willing to stand by those comparisons; I watched the film with the least responsive audience imaginable (i.e. junketeers), and still walked out the screening room buzzing. Most importantly, while it evokes its era palpably, it hits on so many basic, universal truths that one needn't have lived through the '80s to connect to the hopes and fears and grave disappointments of its characters.
I'll have more to say on ADVENTURELAND later in the week, but, as with AMERICAN GRAFFITI and DAZED AND CONFUSED, one of the key strengths of this film is its soundtrack. It's a jumble of tedium and hope: the hellish banality of Jesse Eisenberg's post-college ordeal is underscored by the insistent refrain of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus", while the soulful yearning for a better life outside of the suburbs is summed up in the growling defiance of The Replacements' "Unsatisfied". Best of all, Mottola doesn't limit himself to the period: he knows his main characters - Eisenberg's James Brennan and Kristen Stewart's Em Lewin - would be digging on Lou Reed and Big Star, too.
So when I sat down for a way-too-brief fifteen-minute interview with Mottola a few weeks ago, I decided we'd skip the highs and lows of the last twelve years and start with the tunes.
I should add that we do discuss the ending of the film (and its music cue) in some detail. I don't think these are spoilers, but you might want to come back and read this once you've seen the movie this weekend (which you absolutely should do).
Mr. Beaks: The first thing that jumped out to me was the music. You've gone to great lengths to use songs that haven't been overplayed in '80s movies.
Greg Mottola: It's tough on a low budget. My music supervisor performed miracles getting me as much of the music that I actually wanted in the movie. In post, I so regretted it. There were days where I was like, "Why do I have someone playing music in every scene, because now I have to put a song in and I don't have the coverage to cut around it!" It just becomes a mathematical game. But obviously there's a story purpose to it. It's tricky. You don't want it to feel like, "Hey, check out my cool record collection." But I couldn't tell the story of those people as I remembered them, and who I was at that age, without using the music that I loved. The Replacements, for instance, were a band for me that... (Laughs) I was a pretty unhappy person at points in my life. When I was in college, my hair fell out - I have alopecia - and I didn't take it so well. I got very introverted. I was that guy feeling sorry for himself listening to records alone. And I feel like those records saved my life in the way that only pop music can. And when I sat down to write the movie, the movie felt to me in my mind - and I felt this when shooting it - that these are characters from a pop song. This is a love song. I mean, I'm not trying to reinvent storytelling; this story has been told many times. But that's the way those songs feel to me. It's a very common experience that everyone can relate to - and to try and actually make it universal, but not sentimental, like everyone's got a heart of gold. I wanted everyone to be really flawed and feel like they're fumbling through. But the emotions are as heightened for them as they are in a great love song. The Smiths was another band. (Laughs) I'll fully admit that I was a huge Smiths fan.
Beaks: (Laughing) Me, too. But I like this. The songs you use aren't just signifying the era. They're emotional triggers that set something off in us - that is, if you lived through that era...
Mottola: It definitely has a different effect for people who are really young and don't have that frame of reference. It does limit some of the effect depending on the audience. But, yeah, it's clearly a divide between Top 40 radio and the music you feel like you found. And it was a different time: you found music in different ways than you do now. Besides all the obvious things of making the movie set in the '80s - not having cell phones or the internet - it seems downright quaint. It feels like it could be colonial times.
Beaks: Did you play music on the set?
Mottola: I did. When we were doing scenes, like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart driving, I would always be playing the song I thought I was going to use. Sometimes it did end up being the song. For instance, "Pale Blue Eyes" is the song that was playing in the car while Jesse is stealing looks at her and clearly falling in love with her and trying to figure out how to make a move. So, yeah, I played a lot of music on set to force my '80s on other people. (Laughs)
Beaks: It's so tough ending a movie that's so reliant on music with that perfect, final cue. And "Don't Change" by INXS definitely is that cue. How did you get that?
Mottola: You know what? That was the last piece of music that went into the film. It went in at the last minute. It was because we had literally run out of money, and had nothing left for a final song. And Miramax was like, "Look, we stretched the budget as far as it could go, we gave you a little extra, so we are just going to put in some more score at the end." I love the Yo La Tengo score. It's really kind of the glue for the film - because there's so much music in the film, their music had to be much more subtle and ambient. But that final moment didn't need a subtle music cue. It needed rock/pop oompf. ["Don't Change"] is without a doubt my favorite INXS song, but I didn't even think of it; it came to me through Miramax. You know, usually the filmmaker is complaining about the studio, but the head of music at Miramax said, "Did you ever think about using "Don't Change", even though we can't afford it?" So I cut it in, and it was pure torture. It was so perfect. So I said, "Let me screen it at Sundance with that song." We had screened it without that song, and I could tell everyone was like, "It needs that song at the end." When we showed it at Sundance with it, they all said, "Okay. We'll find the money somewhere. You prick."
Beaks: So it was either that or "Young Turks".
Mottola: (Laughs) "Young Turks." I thought about that actually.
Beaks: (Laughing) Seriously?
Mottola: Well, I thought about using it in the movie somewhere. It was a little earlier in the '80s, but the synth line takes me back to that time.
Beaks: It's definitely evocative.
Mottola: But "Don't Change" is really good still. There's a certain guitar sound in it that I feel has been ripped off by half of the Williamsburg bands. I think Interpol's whole career is based on this song. (Laughs)
Beaks: It has that siren-like wail at the end...
Mottola: That ringing... yeah. Not unlike what U2 did. It's a sound I still hear a lot in indie rock. Great fucking song. Poor Michael Hutchience.
Beaks: Yeah. Now, since you shot the film on a very tight schedule. I would imagine casting was incredibly important. I was talking to someone recently who'd worked with Robert Altman, and I guess he always said that casting was, like, ninety percent of the job. If he got the right cast, the film was going to work no matter what. Did you look at it that way?
Mottola: I did. And it's true especially of a certain style of movie. Quite honestly, I would love to have a real schedule on a film and be able to do more with the camera. But [on ADVENTURELAND], I just decided that it's one of those films where it's not going to be about fast editing; it's going to have the rhythms of summer and the rhythms of movies from a different time period. I just embraced that, and really relied on the fact that the characters are really ambiguous and that it has this sort of meandering plot. And I have to say, with many of the roles, I got the first person I wanted. Jesse and Kristen, for instance, were first choices. I hesitated with Jesse a little because THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was such a great film, and I thought the characters overlapped a little. I didn't want to be the movie that sucked compared to THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. But I got over that when I met with him. He's just so perfect and so neurotic - and I'm neurotic. (Laughs) As much as people in the blogosphere - who haven't seen THE SQUID AND THE WHALE - say, "Oh, he's just doing a Michael Cera impersonation." It's, like, Jesse can't impersonate anyone. He's Jesse.
Beaks: But, you know, early in the film, when he delivers that "semiotics" line, I got a distinct Woody Allen vibe. I think he'd make a great Woody surrogate.
Mottola: He's definitely got a lot of Woody in him. He loves Woody, and it pops out particularly in those early scenes. But, you know, Jesse does project a certain intelligence. He does have qualities that are not typical for a young actor - just like Michael Cera, which is why people compare them. Michael Cera is unique. There's no one on Earth like Michael Cera.
Beaks: Movies like ADVENTURELAND rely on moments. It's like AMERICAN GRAFFITI or DAZED AND CONFUSED: there are those perfect moments that are going to stay with you long after you leave the theater. I guess you can script those moments to a degree, but when you get on set on that particular day with those particular actors and whatever energy they've brought to the set... can you really engineer a moment? And how do you know if you have it?
Mottola: Some of it was using music to trick people into getting there. Some of it is cajoling it out of them. And some of it is shooting on location. We were shooting in October and November pretending it's summer. And the fact that Pittsburgh isn't the flashiest place, you get to feel what middle- and lower-middle class life is like. And you start to long for an escape from the suffocation of suburban life. I have to say they all got there one way or another. There were days where we had to rush through scenes I wish we didn't have to rush through - and I'm still looking at it thinking, "We could've had more time." But that's the nature of making a movie that's not quite straight-ahead. They're hard to get made. You're only going to get a certain amount of money to shoot movies like that, so you just have to find a way to make the most of it. But it probably wasn't hard for Jesse to imagine falling in love with Kristen. It's not that big a challenge.
Beaks: I wouldn't think so.
Mottola: As far as acting challenges go, there's worse.
Beaks: As the film gets into the third act, I had a feeling like you might go for a more melancholy ending. Or maybe something as unresolved as the final shot of THE GRADUATE. You don't quite go there. You leave open the possibility that they might hang on for a while.
Mottola: I hope the audience is left with the sense that, "Oh, maybe this guy will get to have his first girlfriend." When I set out to write it, I was thinking of the relationships I had. And when I look back on them, they were different than the ones that came before because I actually learned something about intimacy; I saw the other person as a flesh-and-blood human being, and not as a romantic construct of some fantasy idea of the woman I wanted to be with. He's a very romantic guy, but in a way that's sort of childish. He falls for somebody who's had some real tragedy, hasn't processed it, and is acting out. She's got problems, and he has to make a decision: do I run away from this person, or do I hold on tight and hopefully not get too scarred in the process? In my mind, that's part of growing up: I have to say yes to this even though I have no idea if it will work. People are complicated; everyone's got baggage. So I think back on the first girlfriend I had, and some of my spastic attempts at courtship were not dissimilar. (Laughs)
Beaks: How challenging was it to make a personal film after directing mostly television for a decade?
Mottola: I honestly think I forgot a little what a challenge it is to be both the writer and director on a movie. There's a point where the director brain has to click in and be much harder on the writer - and his stubborn refusal to compromise "his vision". Directing makes one a bit more practical, so much of the job is problem-solving - those damn writers live in a fantasy land where unpredictable weather and budget limitations don't exist. So I had to get schizo again. And I have to say that starting in indie films and working a lot in TV has trained me to work pretty fast - but it's still difficult when you realize that you planned ten shots for a scene and it's clear there's only time for five.
Beaks: How has independent filmmaking changed since you made THE DAYTRIPPERS?
Mottola: I do think indie films have changed considerably since I started - in good and bad ways. When I did DAYTRIPPERS there were many more small companies willing to take a chance on films that, at best, promised a small profit. That end of the business seems seriously diminished. Investors are really looking for a crossover hit, not a niche-market film. The folding of several smaller companies or art house divisions of studios is discouraging. I can only hope that we're in a transitional period and new companies will sprout up to distribute the great, diverse new films that are being made right now. The revolutionary effect of the internet as a way for film lovers to hear about movies is sure to have a profound effect on all of this.
Beaks: Is LIFE OF THE PARTY coming back?
Mottola: Maybe. Mandate, the company that made JUNO, wants to make it. But there are legal issues that are driving me crazy. I would love to make it some day, but I can't.
Beaks: The same kind of legal issues that are keeping THE DAYTRIPPERS from DVD?
Mottola: Yeah. Sort of connected legal issues which I am not at liberty to discuss. Be careful who you do business with. But some day. Soderbergh is trying to help me get DAYTRIPPERS back on DVD.
Beaks: Criterion maybe?
Mottola: I wish. I've never spoken with them, but that's my dream.
ADVENTURELAND opens nationwide this Friday, April 3rd. It is a wonderful film. Please support it. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks
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March 30, 2009, 3:04 a.m. CST
look anything like the older brother in E.T., or is it just me?
March 30, 2009, 3:05 a.m. CST
This movie looks really funny and full of heart.i plan on making it a double feature with observe and report
March 30, 2009, 3:06 a.m. CST
March 30, 2009, 3:46 a.m. CST
by Horace Cox
He DOES look like the older bro in ET! Good call. And good job on making Broseph look like the lowly douche that he is. And SUPERBAD sucked.
March 30, 2009, 4:24 a.m. CST
I've been waiting for a long time for Mottola to "arrive". So far I've loved everything he's done, including all of those amazing episodes of Arrested Development, so this is fantastic news. I'm officially psyched. I'll be even more pleased when I get to see The Daytrippers again.
March 30, 2009, 4:34 a.m. CST
no "web." For sure there was a net, and local BBS's. Oh, the late 80's have more in common with the early 90's. Classic 80's ambience was from 82 to 85.
March 30, 2009, 5:19 a.m. CST
Mmmm...I love corn dogs.
March 30, 2009, 7:08 a.m. CST
...only with more Kirks. zone.aintitcool.com/index.php
March 30, 2009, 7:13 a.m. CST
Insert obvious joke here: ____________________
March 30, 2009, 9:45 a.m. CST
Mottola on Jesse: "He's got a lot of Woody in him." Nice job!
March 30, 2009, 9:59 a.m. CST
...everyone likes this movie so much. I have tons of respect for Mottola, but I thought this movie was really not worth my time. I didn't even pay for it and I felt let down. Leaving aside the fact that it's not very funny, it was just about people I would never want to meet in real life. This was not a Say Anything for me--there are stories about teenagers and young adults growing into adulthood that make you think nostalgically about the person you were back then, and there are movies that make you ashamed to have ever been that age. For me, this was one of the latter.
March 30, 2009, 7:13 p.m. CST
You had about two years of '70s seepage at the beginning and then everything we think of as '80s peaked right around '87. From there you had another distinct early '90s period that lasted from '88 to '94.
March 30, 2009, 9:55 p.m. CST
I hope it's not artsy fartsy music.
March 30, 2009, 11:45 p.m. CST
will be the shit. So shut up all you haters.
March 31, 2009, 2:16 a.m. CST
by Quin the Eskimo
is a fucking tragedy
March 31, 2009, 11:30 a.m. CST
There's no will be about it. I saw it. I thought it was boring, vaguely pretentious, and unlikeable. Maybe I'm in the minority--in a way I hope so, because I like Mottola and would like him to make some more stuff I like. But this movie just reminded me how much I hate young people--a neat trick to pull on someone who's only 27. Maybe it's a distance thing. I know my brother didn't like Superbad because it reminded him of how much he hated high school kids, and he had just graduated. I dunno.
April 1, 2009, 1:01 p.m. CST
And so does every other band that's on the soundtrack. I heard Hüsker Dü is on there...that's pretty fucking awesome.
April 2, 2009, 5:05 p.m. CST
Terrible band. Boring. Their music always reminded me of the '80s version of KISS.
April 3, 2009, 4:10 p.m. CST
by Ozman X
From that point on I thoroughly enjoyed Adventureland. Love love the Replacements. They sound nothing like KISS.
April 3, 2009, 5 p.m. CST
...and realized that's where Beaks got his name from.
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