While going to Columbia University in the late ’80s, writer/director Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “The Daytrippers”) worked in a Long Island amusement park, the embarrassing experiences from which form the backdrop of his wonderful third feature “Adventureland.” Jesse Eisenberg stars as James, a smart, neurotic college grad whose big plans to trek through Europe are squashed when his family suffers some economic duress (oh, it never ends!) just before the summer of 1987. Instead, the poor kid takes on the humiliation of the aforementioned job from Hell (here transplanted to Pennsylvania), where he runs game booths, avoids roller coaster vomit, tunes out the all-day loops of “Rock Me, Amadeus” on the loudspeakers and falls in love for the first time with arcade girl Kristen Stewart. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-ager made all the more hilarious by a top-notch supporting cast that includes Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Ryan Reynolds. I sat down with Mottola in Austin, just after his film’s regional premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, to discuss an even more bizarre summer job he once held, the two best things 1987 had to offer, and how he once blew it with Brian Setzer.
If we can just define “semi-autobiographical” for a moment, how much of this film directly mirrors your real-life encounters at the amusement park where you worked?
Let me put it this way: I didn’t meet anyone as beautiful as Kristen Stewart or Margarita Levieva. But there were girls I was in love with. Everyone is a composite of or direct reference to somebody I’ve known. Martin Starr’s character Joel is based on people I’ve met over the years, the kind of guys who I’ve felt are smarter than me, better read — the people who turned me on to great books, movies or cool music — but who were for some reason just stuck. They’re self-sabotaging, or let their bitterness get the best of them, and they were kind of constipated in life. [laughs]
I have real affection for a lot of those people because they personally gave me things along the way, so I wanted that character to be portrayed with a certain degree of compassion, and Martin’s got a soulfulness that makes him really likable. I knew a rocker dude similar to the Ryan Reynolds character who was someone we laughed at behind his back, but also looked up to at the same time. We had that strict dichotomy, like, this guy’s ridiculous, but we also thought he was cool.
Then there’s the central story of first love, which was very much taken from relationships I’ve had — the learning curve of having naïve fantasies that falling in love was about finding the person who’s perfect for you, and realizing that actually, falling in love is about accepting the person for who they are, because everyone has flaws or baggage. It’s rare you meet someone at the perfect point in their life, especially when you’re young. To me, whatever drama the film has, it’s [James] trying to decide whether to run toward or away from someone who’s complicated [and] in the middle of their own personal tragedy. I wanted to capture that in a way that feels real to people and isn’t just the Hollywood wish fulfillment of boy meets girl, they’re soulmates and everything is perfect, because that doesn’t happen in the real world. [laughs]
If working at the park and first love didn’t intertwine for you in real life, what would you say was your defining summer?
The next summer, because I was so ashamed having worked a minimum wage job at an amusement park, I thought I had to get out of town and not go home to Long Island. I went to Chicago for a summer. About a week into it, I realized I needed to make money because I don’t come from any. I started to apply for jobs, and realized no one’s going to hire me as a waiter because I’d never done it before, and it was the same thing all over again: I ended up working at an elevator parts factory. I felt like I was in a turn-of-the-century novel. They were moving from the city to the suburbs, so I was categorizing and packing up elevator parts all summer long. But it was my first actual urban living. It was the first time I ever saw The Smiths. I kept reading about this band, before “The Queen is Dead” had come out, and I thought, “I should just check them out.” Literally, the first time I heard the band was live, and I’m kind of an emo nerd, so it totally changed my life.
I love all the music in the film, too. How much of it seemed appropriate for the story and characters, and how much of it was just your own personal nostalgia from that era?
It runs the risk of being indulgent or the audience feeling like: “The filmmaker is making me listen to their record collection.” But it had to be the music I cared about because it didn’t make sense to me to pick someone else’s music. I had rough times in college when I was very lonely and depressed, and I was that guy who got a lot of solace from music. The Replacements saved my life at certain points. [laughs] It was exciting to discover that stuff. I almost feel bad for young people today, maybe because I’m sentimental about how we heard music — it just doesn’t seem the same to me that anyone can say, “I’ll just go to iTunes and download it,” rather than to try to tune in to the college radio station that you can only get in the middle of the night because the signal’s so weak, and hear these bands for the first time.