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This Little Movie Looking Back 20 Years Ago

October 10th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Adventureland, 2009 poster Adventureland, 2009 DVD

Adventureland (2009)
Written by Greg Mottola
Directed by Greg Mottola
Produced by This Is That Productions/ Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
Running time: 107 minutes

So, What’s This About?

In the summer of 1987, Oberlin College grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is notified by his parents (Wendie Malick, Jack Gilpin) that money he was depending on to help pay for a European backpacking trip will no longer be available. Unable to help their son pay rent when he enrolls at Columbia in the fall, James returns to Pittsburgh for the summer looking for work. A comparative literature and Renaissance studies major, the only job he finds he’s really qualified for is at the scruffy amusement park Adventureland, where his childish neighbor Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush) works.

James is passed over for a position in Rides when the couple that runs the park (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig) concludes that he’s more of a Games man. His co-workers include the mopey Joel (Martin Starr) and a streetwise girl named Em (Kristen Stewart) who saves James from getting knifed by a customer. Em reveals a similar taste in music (The Replacements, Big Star) and that she’s headed for NYU in the fall. But James’ affection for Em is tempered when he discovers she’s been sleeping with Adventureland’s 30-year-old married maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds).

Adventureland, 2009, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Martin Starr

Who Made It?
Greg Mottola grew up in Dix Hills, a town on Long Island, New York. After receiving a BFA in art from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mottola earned an MFA in film at Columbia. His debut feature film The Daytrippers (starring Hope Davis, Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber) won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. Mottola envisioned an auteur’s career for himself like that of Stanley Kubrick or Woody Allen, writing and directing his own material. But when Columbia Pictures put Mottola’s planned sophomore film — The Life of the Party, a road trip ensemble to feature John Cusack — into turnaround in 1999, Mottola fell into a funk that resulted in little if any writing.

Desperate to get back behind the camera in 2001, Mottola accepted an offer from producer Judd Apatow to direct episodes of Fox’s coed dorm comedy Undeclared. Surrounded by a cast and crew much younger than himself, Mottola started thinking about writing a film about first love. Working with producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey of This Is That Productions, Mottola was ready to send his script Adventureland out to investors when Apatow offered Mottola the job of directing a feature: Superbad. The teen comedy’s runaway critical and commercial success in 2007 led to Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Miramax Films agreeing to split financing for Adventureland.

Adventureland, 2009, Jesse Eisenberg

How’d They Do It?
Greg Mottola had moved from New York to Los Angeles to work on Undeclared when the idea for what became Adventureland began to percolate. Mottola recalled, “I was working on the TV show Undeclared and there were so many young people in the cast and on the writing staff, it made me very nostalgic for being young, because I was one of the older people there. I thought, you know, I’d like to write a movie about first love. Thinking back to the first relationship where it wasn’t just infatuation or horniness, it was an actual relationship and you saw the person and loved them in spite or because of their flaws.”

He added, “I was a very naïve young man at one point, and had lots of romantic illusions. I remember back to like the first girlfriend. I saw that person for who they were and it was a real change in how relationships were for me. I think I was just getting a little sentimental and nostalgic, hanging around with young people. But I thought it would be kind of fun to do that in a way that was naturalistic and kind of bittersweet.” During a conversation with a member of the Undeclared writing staff — Jenny Connor — about the worst jobs anyone had ever had, Mottola mentioned his stint working at a Long Island amusement park called Adventureland in the summer of ’84.

Adventureland, 2009, Matt Bush

“So I had a friend working at this amusement park I applied and soon found myself wearing a ‘Games’ shirt and being a carnival barker for the summer. And it was just demeaning, you know, I was pretentious, I was an art student at the time, I thought it was beneath me … You know, and I wanted to find people who could sit and talk about the abstract expressionists and Rothko you know, and it was these animals vomiting around me and eating cotton candy. But, you know, it quickly turned into one of those kind of super fun summers.” While directing episodes of Fox’s Arrested Development and HBO’s The Comeback, Mottola continued to work on his script.

Once Mottola had a draft of Adventureland he was happy with, he sent it to producer Ted Hope. A partner in the indie film production company Good Machine, Hope had produced Ride With the Devil for Ang Lee, Storytelling for Todd Solondz and Human Nature for Michel Gondry before agreeing to sell Good Machine to Universal and founding This Is That Productions with Anne Carey. Hope recalled, “Years back when I was struggling to get Nicole Holofcener’s Walking & Talking financed, Nicole said in a fit of despair that I should be working with someone who will actually make a lot of movies, like the guy who had just won best film at Columbia Film School, Greg Mottola.”

Adventureland, 2009, Margarita Levieva

Hope added, “He already had a producer relationship so we just got to know each other, but life wasn’t as Nicole had predicted for him. By the time five or so years had passed since Daytrippers, his agents, who were also our agents, submitted the script to us as a ready-to-go project. We loved it but had some thoughts on how to enhance it and make it more resonant in the marketplace. Greg agreed but it took us over two years to get it right, and then he got what initially looked like a direct-to-DVD feature, but that turned out to be Superbad and the rest is history.” Confident of his take on Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s teen comedy, Mottola put his moody take on first love on the backburner.

With the massive success of Superbad, Mottola found plenty of investors willing to bankroll Adventureland, if he could only change it a bit. “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.”

Adventureland, 2009

Sidney Kimmel — a garment magnate who built Jones Apparel Group into a publicly traded company worth $5 billion — had quietly assembled a film production and finance company in Beverly Hills in 2005. With indie film vets Jim Tauber and William Horberg on his team, Kimmel rolled the dice on a number of offbeat comedies (Death at a Funeral, Lars and the Real Girl) and socially conscious dramas (United 93, Talk To Me) that were anything but safe commercial bets. SKE financed Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York and decided to go into business with Greg Mottola, splitting $10 million or so in financing with Miramax Films. In August 2007 it was announced that Adventureland would be Mottola’s next picture.

Ted Hope recalled, “We were ready to go out with the script for financing and casting a few weeks before Superbad came out. Interest in Greg was high, but time to put together a summer movie was short. Luckily Greg had thought hard about whom he wanted in the film prior and they were all accessible. Jesse & Kristen were pretty much whom he always wanted. Kristen had yet to get Twilight so she was still considered a virtual unknown. Greg knew Bill Hader from Superbad and wanted him and Kristen Wiig from the get-go too. Ryan Reynolds may have been the first person Greg had met for the role; he just happened to be in NYC right when we started.”

Adventureland, 2009, Ryan Reynolds

Hope continued, “And Martin Starr just slayed it in an early audition and changed our conception of the character. Similarly Margarita Levieva came to the audition in full character and makeup. Both of them became the archetype so there was no one else we could cast. Perhaps most fortunate, was that our financing partners agreed with our vision for the roles and that allowed Greg to lock his cast quickly by his taste and not some Chinese Menu of what may work in different markets or with specific demographics.” To get the summer romance rolling before winter set in, Mottola ended up with two weeks of prep time. The director admitted some mistakes were made as a result.

“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 ‘80s cars. People will preserve and treasure their ‘70s 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 ‘70s and the ‘60s, even. It’s not as though everyone switched to an ‘80s 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 ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Adventureland, 2009, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

The search for an amusement park that hadn’t changed much in 20 years came down to Playland in Rye, NY and Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. Mottola recalled, “The tax rebates in Pennsylvania were better than New York state, plus it seemed like we could get a better deal with Kennywood, so the choice was arrived at pretty quickly. Plus, I have a fondness for poor maligned Pittsburgh. We didn‘t have the budget to build or create very much, although my production designer Stephen Beatrice did a very nice job of creating the specific booths that I needed and scuzzying up the park a bit so it wasn‘t quite as quaint as Kennywood is in reality.” Shooting in the 111-year old park during the week — before Kennywood went into Phantom Fright Nights mode on the weekends — Adventureland commenced filming September 2007.

An Adventureland employee in 1984, Mottola bumped the film’s timeline up to 1987 to take advantage of songs he wanted to use to tell his life story. Collaborating with music supervisor Tracy McKnight — who had worked at an amusement park in Seaside Heights, NJ in her youth — Mottola exchanged iPod playlists and mix tapes. Accustomed to licensing 15 to 20 songs for a movie, McKnight arrived on 40 tunes, including “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements, “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” by Husker Du and “I’m In Love With a Girl” by Big Star. Mottola joked that the fee paid to Van Halen to use “Panama” in Superbad “cost nearly as much as all of the songs in Adventureland.” To compose a score, Mottola turned to another favorite band, the Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo.

Adventureland, 2009, Jesse Eisenberg, Margarita Levieva

Screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January and the South By Southwest Film Festival in March, Adventureland opened nationwide April 2009. Critics fell in love with the movie. Tony Scott, The New York Times: “Somehow the story of a young man’s coming of age never gets old, at least when it is told with the kind of sweetness and intelligence Adventureland displays.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle: “A confident return to the kind of teen comedy that’s funny without being raunchy, youthful without being juvenile, and reflective without hitting you over the head.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune: “A sweet, sharp coming-of-age romance, Adventureland is a little warmer, a little funnier and a lot more truthful than the last 20 or 30 of its ilk. Especially its Hollywood ilk.”

Never expanding beyond 1,876 U.S. screens, Adventureland sold $16 million in tickets domestically and added $1 million overseas. Acknowledging the challenges of marketing a period movie to kids who might feel it wasn’t about them and to adults who might feel it was just about kids, Greg Mottola sounded pleased with the results. “There was a moment when I thought, well, maybe I shouldn’t make this film. I’ll turn into this, like, young-adult filmmaker and everyone will be disappointed that it’s not Superbad 2 and I’m not as funny as Seth Rogen. But I didn’t write the movie to try to be as funny as Seth Rogen. It’s apples and oranges to me. I wanted, for better or worse, to make this little movie looking back 20 years ago. And I’m just grateful to have this shot.”

Adventureland, 2009, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig

Should I Care?

Quickly hailed as one of the year’s best films by critics and too easily dismissed by casual viewers as lacking in laughs (Kristen Wiig fans expecting more than a token cameo will probably be disappointed), Adventureland is a little of both, a small but perfect gem that gets better the more I think about it. Without painting a rose colored portrait of the late ‘80s, Greg Mottola’s writing genuinely pines for the days when people somehow met without the Internet and expressed themselves without cell phones. It’s a gentler coming-of-age drama than something from Noah Baumbach and recalls Wes Anderson’s early work in its understated wit.

One sign we’re in the hands of a talented filmmaker is the casting. Jesse Eisenberg does what Michael Cera couldn’t have done, playing a boy growing into a man. Kristen Stewart has an alluring scruffiness that I can’t recall seeing another young actress emulate as convincingly. It takes time before we know how to feel about either character. The soundtrack — a sublime blend of kitsch played at the park and the ‘70s or ‘80s music its couple shares via mix tapes — refrains from explaining the scenes, supplying mood instead. What’s most rewarding about Adventureland is how Mottola smarts the movie up — instead of dumbing it down — by rejecting raunch and taking a slow turn toward brutal honesty.

Adventureland, 2009, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

Where’d You Get All of This?

“A Film Producer Guided More by His Heart Than by His Calculator”
By David Halbfinger. The New York Times, 12 December 2007

“When Hollywood Comes Calling”
By Daniel McGuire. IAAPA, February 2008

“Greg Mottola Interview, Adventureland, Sundance 2009” By Kevin Kelly. SpoutBlog, 22 January 2009

“Sundance 2009 — Adventureland — Greg Mottola” The Hollywood Podcast starring Tim Coyne. 19 February 2009

“Directing to an ’80s Playlist”
By Larry Rother. The New York Times, 20 March 2009

“Five Questions for Ted Hope (Adventureland)” By Matt Dentler. indieWIRE, 31 March 2009

“After The Daytrippers …” By Peter Keough. The Boston Phoenix, 31 March 2009

“Director Greg Mottola on Keeping Adventureland Eighties Appropriate” By Lane Brown. New York Magazine, 3 April 2009

“Some Kind of Love” By Nick Dawson. Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009

Tags: Coming of age · Drunk scene · Father/daughter relationship · Music · Surprise after end credits

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moviezzz // Oct 11, 2009 at 8:20 am

    One of my favorites of the year. After this and ZOMBIELAND, I think I like Eisenberg more than Cera.

    As for this:

    “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.’ ”

    Someone else mentioned this to me after they recently saw it. I think that tags were gone by the early 80’s.

  • 2 kelsy // Oct 13, 2009 at 12:09 am

    I enjoyed this movie as well. A lot of that has to do with how low key it is, and a lot of that has to do with just graduating from college myself.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 13, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Jim: I’m always amused to read about the things directors obsess over. I never notice gaffes like the color of the sky not matching from shot to shot. If the story is compelling, I could care less about whether the sky is clear in one shot and cloudy in the next. Movies are essentially dreams and don’t always have to adhere to the laws of physics. It doesn’t distract me.

    I’m not even sure I understand what the Yankee Greg Mottola means by “pop tags”. Soda cans in the ’80s still had the pull rings you could yank off and litter the environment with. 7-Up is the only soda from my youth I recall having a punch tab that opened the can. By the 1990s, all soda cans had this eco-friendly feature. Anyway, I enjoy your comments, as always!

    Kelsy: You just graduated from college? This is not the best example of good timing. Just kidding. I would say that any radio station or publisher would be fortunate to have you on their staff, but they’re probably going bankrupt anyway. Let me end this on a note of hope: if you worked at Adventureland, you would be one of the cool kids. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 kelsy // Oct 14, 2009 at 1:21 am

    No worries. I’m just entered grad school, so I’ve got a few more years until I need to find gainful employment.

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