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Director Greg Mottola on Keeping Adventureland Eighties Appropriate

In the eighties-set amusement-park dramedy Adventureland, says New York’s David Edelstein, Superbad director Greg Mottola “plays old songs in new keys and strikes dissonant, unsettling notes… [It’s] a coming-of-age picture made strange by its setting and the graceful tremulousness of its actors.” We recently spoke with Mottola, who also wrote the film, about the struggle of getting it made post-Superbad, the difficulty of writing around cell phones and the Internet, and the reason why he picked Jesse Eisenberg to play his younger self.

We’ve heard that it was a challenge for you to get this movie off the ground. What happened?
You know, it was hard to get the film set up, even after Superbad. People who wanted to make it made a condition that I had to rewrite it as a contemporary film, and I refused. That may have been very stubborn of me. But I didn’t know what the equivalent to this film would be for a 21-year-old just coming into college. I could research it, but it wouldn’t be as fun to me as a film that came from personal experiences. There was just something about a movie that’s looking back — it has a slightly more melancholy strain. And a part of it was because life did seem simpler before the Internet and before cell phones.

In Superbad, there was the joke about Michael Cera’s phone having poor reception, and in Adventureland, obviously, there are no cell phones at all. Would it be difficult for you to make a movie about young people with constant access to iPhones and the Internet?
Cell phones destroy a lot of really good plot devices — why doesn’t this person just go pick up the phone and call that person, you know? It’s kind of a drag. And when I’m watching a movie with people doing a lot of really exciting work around their computer, that’s usually when I go get popcorn. I worked for seven years doing computer graphics to pay my way through graduate school — I have no romance with computer work. There’s no amount of phony graphics and things making sound effects on the screen that can change that.

How much did you worry about keeping everything in the movie time-period appropriate?
You know, I definitely was stressed about it. We didn’t have a lot of prep or money … We had like two weeks of prep, so it was the sort of thing where like, “If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now.” And to prep a period piece without much time was very daunting. Mistakes were made.

Like what?
Oh, God. Well … like, a prop guy thought they didn’t have those pop tags on soda cans in 1987. And I’m like, “I’m pretty sure they did.” And it’s hard to find eighties cars. People will preserve and treasure their seventies muscle cars, but not treasure their K-cars. It was weird; we couldn’t find cars that ran. But I grew up in a really modest suburban community in Long Island and a lot of my neighbors didn’t have a lot of money, and their houses were still filled with furniture from the seventies and the sixties, even. It’s not as though everyone switched to an eighties aesthetic because that’s what was on TV. This is a modest world where the film takes place, and it’s okay if there’s a mish-mash of seventies and eighties.

Until now, Jessie Eisenberg was probably best known for his role in The Squid and the Whale, in which he essentially played a younger version of Baumbach. Now he’s playing a younger version of you. What makes him so attractive to directors casting themselves?
Well this is Jesse’s line, but after he got cast in the movie, he did an interview where he was like, “Well, I guess I’m the guy directors like to play them in their awkward stages.” A lot of people say, “Is he the next Michael Cera?” I don’t think there are that many young actors with that kind of energy. You know, they’re a little more introverted and sweet and, you know, awkward, but in a specific kind of bookish way. The only reason I thought not to cast Jesse in Adventureland was because of Squid and the Whale, because he was so great and the movie was so great, I thought he might not want to act as the same guy. But I sat down with him and we talked about it. He’s very neurotic in real life, and that felt like me. And I’m sure Noah felt the same way.

Director Greg Mottola on Keeping Adventureland Eighties Appropriate