Q&A: Greg Mottola, from Superbad to Adventureland

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Abbot Genser / Courtesy of Miramax Films

Director Greg Mottola, left, on the set of his latest film, Adventureland.

Before Greg Mottola signed on to direct the hit comedy Superbad in 2007, he had already completed a script about the summer jobs he worked in Long Island — gigs he took for the sole purpose of saving money for graduate school. He was a night watchman at a public beach, an assistant wedding videographer and a staffer at an amusement park, managing various carnival games. The last position served as the inspiration for the new coming-of-age comedy Adventureland, which opens April 3. It's about an intellectual, awkward young man named James (Jesse Eisenberg) who spends a summer in the '80s at a family-owned amusement park, falling in love with another employee, Em (Kristen Stewart), who herself is dealing with the stress surrounding the death of her mother and her affair with the park's older, married mechanic (Ryan Reynolds). TIME talked with Mottola about the film's quirky characters, its occasional scenes of drug usage — marijuana is this boy's secret weapon when it comes to making friends at his new job — and Mottola's favorite carnival food. (See TIME's "Top 10 Movie Bromances")

Was there really an Adventureland?
Yep. It's on Long Island, and I worked there during college. We didn't shoot the movie there, though, because we went back now to scout it out, and it just didn't look right for the '80s. It didn't have the right sort of lovely seediness, the sense that at any moment you might trip over someone's discarded needles.

Are the details in the film drawn directly from your Adventureland experience?
I took some artistic license, and pulled things from different periods of my young life. As we were taking the project to studios, many wanted me to make it contemporary, but I thought that was precisely what made it funny — to dredge up all these specific old memories, and to recreate them. I love that it's set in a different time period, when James would take this all way too seriously, shocked that all these games are rigged at the amusement park. And I love that this college boy starts thinking it through, about how much money they could possibly have lost if people could have actually won. How much: Maybe $50 in awful stuffed animals a season? I'm amused by that kind of stuff, the small observations.

This whole movie is really about the small things — the tone's a little more muted than what we saw in Superbad.
I had always thought my fantasy career would be making indie films, and doing my own thing. But then Superbad came along and it totally changed everything. It was so hilarious and smart and extreme; you could probably do a psychoanalysis term paper on the male sexual psyche going on there. And the best thing about that movie is that these are the things that teenagers think about. Some of those who were raised a little better might not have said it, but these thoughts are there for every teenage male. That said, I honestly didn't see myself making a mark in teen comedies. I had written Adventureland before Superbad came along, and so I set this one down for a year.

James is a virgin, and you can tell he's struggling with issues of sexuality and wanting to leave his home but not knowing if he can make it in the big city. There's a lot of uncertainty there.
I think that's the real story — his decision at the end of the film concerning: Do I accept small town, suburban attitudes, where men are treated like sexual studs, even if they're married, and women are sluts. There are these closed-minded issues, and he has a really childish view of what love is, and Em, with her complications and problems, really makes him come to terms with things.

I know that I faced many of these same problems, saving all my money so I could go to film school, and I found it interesting as I started getting notes on this script from people in Hollywood that some told me not to make it a period piece because kids will think it's about a different generation, and then some were asking me: Well, why doesn't James just go to New York and get a job at The New Yorker? Why is he such a loser at an amusement park? And I was sort of like: I'm pretty sure you came from money. You can't just go to New York with nothing in your pocket — even if it's 1986.

This sort of thinking plays into all the movies I make. When I first saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I thought: That's what my life is like. That's my day-to-day. I didn't know anyone as funny as Spicoli, and we didn't grow up in California, and we had burnouts instead of surfers, but I could relate to working at a shitty job at the mall and poor Judge Reinhold having to dress up like a pirate to deliver food, and also Jennifer Jason Leigh getting an abortion, which was really sad. It was honest, and you could tell it came from people who understood a certain community, and it just wanted to capture that twilight of childhood. I think we need more movies that connect with the world like that.

So did you really get into a fistfight with someone who played one of your games at the amusement park?
Not at that job, but there were definitely some jobs where things got heated. I was usually the one who knew how not to get his ass kicked — to run faster than the other guy, or to get a few insults in and then get the hell out of there. I'm not quite as chivalrous as James is in the movie.

Did pot help you make friends that summer?
No, I'm a terrible pot smoker, but I thought James needed something in his sad little world that would help open up some doors for him.

So from your carny days, what would be your perfect afternoon at the amusement park? Which snack, which ride?
Even though we make fun of corn dogs in the movie, I actually think they're quite tasty, and when we were shooting the movie I got to ride these wooden roller coasters at the park in Pittsburgh which were some of the best I've ever been on. Later, the guys told me that they had taken off the brakes to make it extra scary for us. But I love bumper cars and I have a specific memory of being with a particularly pretty girl on the Ferris wheel.

See TIME's review of Adventureland

See TIME's list of the greatest 100 movies