When Greg Mottola and I met at a small bistro in Lower Manhattan a week before he left for Park City it wasn’t the nostalgia of returning to the site where his career began that was on his mind but the anxiety of trying to downplay his recent success in Hollywood so his upcoming film could be judged on its own merits.
Though many in the indie world know Mottola, 44, for his witty 1996 feature debut “The Daytrippers,” it’s directing the Judd Apatow-produced teen comedy “Superbad” that will draw general audiences to his ’80s first love comedy, “Adventureland.” Screening at Sundance in its Premieres section and being released by Miramax in March, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) as a recent high school graduate who must forgo a trip to Europe with his friends to stay home in Pittsburgh and work at a dingy amusement park for the summer. There he meets a beautiful girl (Kristen Stewart) who turns his summer into a memorable one. The film also includes a great supporting cast including Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr (“Knocked Up”), Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Though comparisons to “Superbad”’s youthful protagonists are inevitable, Mottola hopes that won’t cause people over 25 to skip it. “’Superbad’ was the greatest thing that could ever happen to me in a lot of ways and the most logical way is to sell it on the tail of that film,” he says. “But I hope people who grew up in the ’80s don’t assume it’s not for them. In a way there is a credibility Sundance will lend it.”
However, Mottola’s neurosis is hardly earth shattering as not too long ago he wasn’t sure if he’d have a career making feature films.
After “The Daytrippers” won the Grand Prize at the 2nd annual Slamdance Film Festival in ’96, followed by a distribution deal at Cannes, his next script, “Life of the Party,” was greenlit at Columbia making Mottola believe his dream of being a writer-director auteur like his idol Woody Allen was taking form. Unfortunately, “The Daytrippers” was underappreciated in theaters (and is unavailable on DVD due to legal issues) and “Life of the Party” was shelved when the studio decided to back their other rehab project, the Sandra Bullock-starrer “28 Days.” Suddenly Mottola’s climb up the director ranks was in a sudden free fall. Luckily someone in Hollywood wanted him to direct TV. “Judd Apatow called and asked if I wanted to do ‘Undeclared,’” Mottola recalls. “He had contacted me about ‘Freaks and Geeks’ but I thought I was making ‘Life of the Part.’ He was nice enough to come back to me and I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’m dying to work and this is a great guy.’”
With no other options Mottola moved to L.A. and began directing episodes of “Undeclared” followed by directing gigs at “Arrested Development” and “The Comeback.” Though his laid back demeanor and I’m-just-happy-to-be-working attitude made him an easy fit in television, Mottola admits that his internal drive to be making his own films was eating away at him. “I was getting extremely bitter and it was my own fault because my second movie fell part, other people said they wanted to make it and it fell apart, and I was really unwilling to consider other ways of working,” he says. “I wish I had the maturity after ‘Daytrippers’ to come to some of these realizations sooner because I would have spent less time spinning my wheels before the TV work.” He also blames his lack to rebound after “Life of the Party” to taking too long to write scripts and a fear to show unfinished works. “I have scripts that I’ve only shown to animals… and they passed on them.”
It was while working on ‘Undeclared’ that Mottola came up with the idea for “Adventureland.” While trading stories about crappy first jobs with one of the writers, Mottola entertained as well as horrified the person with tales of working in a broken down amusement park. He gradually began writing a screenplay, “in the spirit of a short story,” as he puts it, about drab suburban life and letting go of childish romantic fantasies to take that first brush with real intimacy. For Mottola, it was therapeutic creating something that he could hopefully direct one day while also including some of his influences, like his favorite boyhood bands The Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes and Talking Heads and films like Fellini’s “I, Vitelloni.”
While dodging offers to direct romantic comedies and smartly getting out of helming the Ben Stiller/Drew Barrymore 2003 stinker “Duplex,” Mottola kept working on the script until Apatow suddenly came calling again. “I was literally going to send the script to companies the week Judd called me and asked if I wanted to direct ‘Superbad.’” Eleven years after making “The Daytrippers” Mottola had his second feature film lined up. “'Superbad' was always a funny script but we needed a director who would emphasize the dramatic aspects of the story,” says Apatow via e-mail from the set of his latest film. “Greg is as funny as anyone, but he also really understood and cared about the friendship story and that is why the movie works. Without Greg the movie would have just been about penis drawings.”
“Superbad” became one of the highest grossing and critically praised films of 2007. Though Mottola’s name was non-existent in the publicizing of the film, it bolstered his image in the business and made what would have been a painful task of finding money for “Adventureland” a little easier – kind of. “The money came fairly quickly, but it was still hard to convince people to make the movie as it was written,” he says. “There were those who wanted it to be contemporary because they didn’t think young people would want to see a movie referencing another generation.” And some people didn’t get the crappy first job angle. “I remember one executive asking me, ‘Why doesn’t he just get an internship at The New Yorker if he wants to be a journalist?’ Like a kid from Pittsburgh with no money could move to New York and waltz into The New Yorker in 1987.” Miramax came on board before the film’s 32-day shoot.
Next Mottola has been hired on to direct the upcoming Universal film “Paul,” written and starring Simon Pegg. He admits to have become content with the “one for me, one for them” formula. “I can pay the mortgage this year, I can afford to take some time off and try to finish some scripts. And I think I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I need to be taken out of myself and do something that is written by someone else sometimes,” he says.
And some of the bad luck from his past may turn around after all. Mottola says “The Daytrippers” is getting closer to a DVD release, thanks in part to the help of Steven Soderbergh, who produced the film, and Mottola is still optimistic he will be able to make “Life of the Party” (though that too is in a legal quagmire he can’t fully talk about). Now living back in New York he’s even toying with an idea for a film set in the city, “though I never could top Woody,” he quips.
Before we leave the bistro, Mottola tells me about a recent dinner he had with Allen that has stayed with him: “I did ask him some career advice and he was one of the people who said that making ‘Superbad’ was the best thing I could have ever done,” he recalls. “He said, ‘If I was coming up today I wouldn’t be as lucky as I’ve been. I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky that people have let me do my own thing, but in the climate today I don’t think that would have happened. You need to work and if you like a project at all do it.’ He was very pragmatic about it. When you start making more films you start to appreciate how lucky you are to do the job.” Mottola pauses for a moment to sip his coffee, perhaps taking the time to replay his career to this moment. “I really had to work through some shit to figure that out.”