The Night Before director Jonathan Levine talks to ComingSoon.net about making the holiday comedy
While filmmaker Jonathan Levine has been around for roughly ten years, he first got attention when he brought his indie comedy The Wackness to Sundance in 2008, where it was one of the hot tickets that year. In 2011, Levine teamed with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to bring Will Reiser’s cancer comedy 50/50 to life, followed by his adaptation of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, all very different films.
Levine’s latest The Night Before, based on one of his own original ideas, is a holiday comedy that teams Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, playing three childhood friends who have a yearly tradition of getting together on Christmas Eve. This year might be their last as two of them have other things going on in their lives, leaving the third Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan not knowing what to do until he scores tickets to the elusive Nutcracker Ball, they’ve always wanted to attend.
Earlier this week, ComingSoon.net sat down with the Night Before director at New York’s Bowery Hotel to talk about his reunion with Rogen and Goldberg, as well as some of the other things he has in the works, including a teaming with Amy Schumer. He also talked to us about how last year’s Sony hack and the effects it had on the Rogen-Goldberg comedy The Interview and how it didn’t seem to phase the duo while working on The Night Before.
ComingSoon.net: Was this one of those ideas that you’ve had for a long time? Everyone has ideas that they throw into a drawer to check back on.
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, I had it for a while. You know, I probably had it for about six, seven years. It kind of evolved over the course of a long time. I mean, this was something I actually used to do with friends of mine in New York. We would go out on the holidays. Everyone was in town from college or everybody was in town from seeing their family. Once everyone was done with their family, we would go out and weird things would happen in New York on Christmas Eve. So that was the initial premise, and then I took it to Seth and Evan and they really liked the idea. Then it just kind of evolved. I started writing it and then those guys kind of joined in. It kind of evolved. I felt like we really cracked it once we made it about Joe not having a family and that really, to me, became the emotional spine of it and that really, really gave it that emotional resonance that I think a holiday movie needs. Before that, it was just three guys getting f*cked up. (Laughs)
CS: I seem to remember that “The Wackness” was sort of based on some part of your real life?
Levine: I mean, not really. I went to high school in New York and I smoked a lot of weed. I hadn’t seen a shrink at that point. Now I go pretty regularly. But no, it was just kind of based on the vibe of that era and my personal experience, just my feeling of alienation in high school and stuff like that. But no, it wasn’t literally personal in that way, the same way this is not literally personal, but it’s inspired by stuff.
CS: Was this something that when you finished “50/50,” you just said to Seth and Evan, “Hey, let’s do another movie together?”
Levine: It was basically like that, like I was about to go into “Warm Bodies” and I was like, “I’d love to work with these guys again,” and they felt the same way. So we all kind of jumped into it.
CS: I always seem to remember that you went off and directed “Warm Bodies,” but I keep forgetting that you actually went and adapted the whole thing.
Levine: No, I adapted it. It was a pretty easy adaptation, honestly. I mean, I kept a lot of the book and there were a couple of changes that I made from the book that kind of just felt obvious to me, and then once I did that, it was a very, very easy adaptation. So yes, I did write that screenplay, technically, but when you’re adapting something, it feels like you’re co-writing with the writer of the book even though I didn’t.
CS: I have to imagine you’ve gotten to the point as a director where you get a lot of scripts thrown at you that people want you to direct.
Levine: Yeah, I kind of like working on my own things, but now I’m sick of it.
Levine: Yeah, totally. I mean, this was a wonderful experience, really, really fun. I’m so proud of it, but it was the same way after “The Wackness.” I wanted to do something I didn’t write at all, so that’s what got me to “50/50,” so now I’m going to go do this Amy Schumer movie that I had nothing to do with the script, except I love it.
CS: Did she write the script?
Levine: No, this woman Katie Dippold wrote the script, who wrote “The Heat” and the new “Ghostbusters” movie, and she’s super-talented.
CS: When you started working with Seth and Evan on this, how did it evolve? I feel like you and Seth have a similar sensibilities in some ways.
Levine: Yeah, we have similar frames of reference, similar sensibilities. Gosh, I started writing it and I probably wrote for about 18 months. Then we sort of brought everyone into the process and then everyone kind of started writing it as a collaboration and that was so fun for me and such a new way to work. We would Apple TV mirroring, and we would put it up on a big screen and we would all just sit there and write.
CS: That’s pretty cool.
Levine: It was really cool, and like, it was really kind of a super fun way to write, because you’re writing almost in this conversational style and you’re laughing at everyone’s terrible ideas and then you’re like, “Okay, that could work.” It’s really fun.
CS: It sounds like how they write television shows.
Levine: But it’s even more collaborative than a TV show, because a TV show, you’re breaking story in the room, but then you’re going off and writing your own thing together. This, you’re actually pitching dialogue as though you’re having a conversation with the character and it’s really cool.
CS: Was it decided early on that Joe would play Ethan, so he could be involved in that process?
Levine: Yeah, we went to Joe very, very early in the process and he wanted to do it. Then as far as writing, when he came to New York, he actually came into that sort of writer’s scenario as well, and he came and spent a couple of days writing with us. That was really fun, too. I mean, that’s the thing with working with these guys is, even since “50/50,” Seth and Evan have written and directed two movies. Joe wrote and directed a movie and we’re all friends. I think the reason that friendship and collaboration works is none of us are particularly precious about anything. We all just value the best idea. So it was kind of effortless for everyone to just sit in and start collaborating and start contributing in that way. I think it was really fun for them, too. It was probably fun for them not to direct, because that’s always fun, not directing is always. (Laughs) I’m sure it’s really difficult for Joe and Seth to star in movies that they also direct, but it’s also, I think, exciting for them to know that they have that kind of creative input, to the point where they can write dialogue.
CS: They have some experience now at least, so they know what it’s like to be on the other side so they know that they’ve gotten to the point now where they’ve been in those shoes.
Levine: Seth and Evan have always been two of the best comedy writers in the world. I think Joe, it was a real revelation when I saw his movie to see what a fantastic writer he was, so yeah, we all kind of had at it together and I was the ultimate arbiter of what was good and what wasn’t, but it was a very collaborative experience and a very rewarding one.
CS: That’s the thing with any comedy, the director always has the last word.
Levine: The kind of taste guy.
CS: When you’re editing stuff, you’re the one picking the takes.
Levine: Well, I have control in the editing room, yes, but also, on set. If someone pitches me a joke and I’m like, “Eh, that’s not going to work,” and I’ll explain why. I think this to me is not the kind of comedy where you just throw a bunch of jokes in and see what sticks. To me, this needs to be a much more kind of controlled and tight environment that’s just kind of what I like. So while almost every scene was improvised, we didn’t allow it to kind of keep going and going and going, you know? So I wanted it to be very, very tight editorially.
CS: I feel like a lot of the actors you have in this are very good at that stuff, like Jillian and Seth obviously.
Levine: Even Mackie is amazing at it, and you wouldn’t expect that.
CS: I wouldn’t expect that at all, but he did go to Juilliard.
Levine: Yeah, he’s classically trained.
CS: There’s a lot of things in the movie like Run DMC and Kanye, so as you were writing it…
Levine: That was all in the script.
CS: You’ve got a lot of locations, so as you’re writing, do you go, “How are we going to manage to get this, to be able to shoot in New York at Christmastime”?
Levine: We shot most of this in the summer.
CS: Really? Even with the tree?
Levine: The tree, we came back for. So we shot 35 days in the summer, knowing that we would always come back for a few days to get snowy Tompkins Square Park, the tree, and some other stuff, which was great because it’s sort of like having a plan to reshoot, even though we didn’t have the whole movie for a while, which was a little frustrating. But it was great because we had the opportunity to kind of go back in and tweak things, if we wanted to, because we always knew we were going to come back and shoot some stuff. But no, we shot in the summer. We were bitching about it and we were like, “Oh man. It’s hot and whatever.” Then we came back in the winter and we were like, “Oh, the summer was so much better.” So I now highly recommend shooting a Christmas movie in the summer.
CS: Was this mainly locations? Was it all locations? I feel like there’s not a lot of stage work.
Levine: A little bit of soundstage stuff. I mean, the stuff with Shannon in the car was on a stage. There’s probably like five days of stage work or something like that.
CS: Shannon’s a surprise for people who see this movie. I’ve seen every single movie of his and even in dramas, he’s always the funniest part of any movie.
Levine: He’s fun.
CS: To see him play a role like this, where he’s not telling jokes, he’s just kind of delivering dialogue….
Levine: Something about the way he does it is so great, yeah. He’s wonderful.
CS: I think somebody needs to write a thesis on why Michael Shannon is so funny.
Levine: As a comedian? I mean, it’s incredible. When we cast him, we thought, because the character’s supposed to be intimidating and kind of weird and kind of quiet, and we thought that can sometimes describe Michael Shannon, as his just onscreen persona. Then to see him just kind of take that and run with it and just, and a lot of the jokes he made up himself. It was just absolutely delightful and such a natural for it. It was exciting to watch.
CS: Going back to the Run DMC and Kanye thing, you said you wrote them into the script. At what point did you have to go and make sure you could get the rights?
Levine: Yeah, before you do it. So our music budget was pretty much spent by the time we started shooting, because between that and Miley Cyrus and Run DMC and Kanye, we definitely were very, very locked into music. But for me, that’s what I love to do, so having that was just exciting.
CS: Let’s talk some more about Anthony Mackie. You knew the others before, and while Mackie can be very funny in a lot of movies, he hasn’t done a lot of straight comedies. Actually, I just spoke to him last week for “Shelter,” the Paul Bettany movie. He was playing a more dramatic, serious role in that.
Levine: He’s got so much range, but yeah, he came in and auditioned, which he said he hadn’t done in a decade, and he just was great. He had such a natural kind of rapport with Seth. He was able to, whatever Seth improvised, he was able to improvise right back and he was so quick and witty and it just felt like he’d be a natural. I think we wanted someone who could kind of shake up the dynamic between Joe and Seth, because you’ve seen that before in “50/50.” It really just felt like he’d be such a great fit. I mean, he’s so not like those other guys as far as his comedic rhythms, as far as his persona, yet he kind of brings so much energy and has such an ability both on the comedic side and the dramatic side that it just felt like such a great, great idea.
CS: I’m amazed that he came in and auditioned.
Levine: We had some incredible actors audition. Like, we had some really, really top, top-notch actors audition. It was a very, very intense kind of audition process, and he just felt like the right one from the beginning. Seth was reading opposite him at the auditions.
CS: One of the things that happened while this movie was being made, in the middle of it all, was that the whole thing with “The Interview” was going on. Did that have a big effect on the production?
Levine: It didn’t really screw anything up. I was definitely in the periphery. I felt like Forrest Gump, watching this historically significant thing happen. No, I mean, no. It was business as usual for everyone, except every once in a while, I’d be like, “This is f*cking crazy.” Yet, those guys are so professional and focused, which you wouldn’t think, because they smoke so much weed, but they’re so focused and so devoted to the work, that it was remarkable to watch them. You would have not have thought anything was wrong. I’m sure it was traumatic. I think more than traumatic, it was probably just surreal.
CS: Yeah, well, nothing’s ever happened like this. This is the first time someone’s actually hijacked a release of a movie with threats.
Levine: I felt very emotional for them, because they’re my friends, so I was very upset for them, but I felt more upset than I think they seemed. That’s why they’re so successful is they put their heads down and they keep working. So it’s a real testament to them, and for me, from where I sat, I was just bummed out that something like that was happening with my friends, and to a movie that I really, really enjoyed. So but yeah, it was weird. I think the burden of expectations that movie faced after becoming a national incident, it just inspired people to look at it in a way that it wasn’t meant to be viewed.
CS: I saw that movie twice before this whole thing even started, but when I first saw footage from it at CinemaCon, I wasn’t really sure why anyone would make a movie like that, and then I saw it and got it.
Levine: For what those guys do, I thought it was very sophisticated, and I think that they were trying to do something different with comedy. I think that that’s something we should all want from our filmmakers, is pushing the envelope and aspiring to do something different.
CS: I couldn’t agree more.
Levine: So whatever, anyway, that whole thing sucked.
CS: Let’s get back to this movie and let’s talk about holiday movies in general. Holiday movies have a certain tradition, and you mentioned a couple of them in there. “Home Alone” is one. But these movies just play forever and ever since every year they’re rediscovered. Do you hope that “The Night Before” will become one of those movies?
Levine: I mean, we’re all huge fans of holiday movies. We’re all huge fans of the holidays. I think that we would love to be a perennial type of movie that is on TV every Christmas and that people kind of make part of their holiday tradition. That would be amazing, because the great thing about Christmas is, it’s a communal experience, and that’s what movies are, too. That’s why I loved the idea of a movie becoming a tradition. There’s so much in this movie about tradition, too, and about how traditions are a way to mark time. Traditions are a way to kind of hold you back, too, but traditions are also very important. So anyway, to become one of those movies, that in some small way, plays every once in a while around the holidays would be really fun for me. I wouldn’t watch it, myself. I would flip past it just because any time I see…
CS: Are you able to watch any of your older movies ever?
Levine: When something’s on, like “Warm Bodies” was on HBO a bunch, and I’m like really hard on it. “Warm Bodies” and “50/50,” I’m like, so hard on them.
CS: Even “The Wackness”…?
Levine: No, it’s never on TV. No, no one ever puts it on.
CS: If you ever had a chance to make “The Wackness” again and have the money you’ve had for some your other movies, would you do it?
Levine: I would love to do it again. I would just start from scratch and do it again. I would, but I’m proud of the movie, I’m just incredibly self-critical. So when I watch… like “Warm Bodies” was on and I watched 10 minutes of it and I was like, “It’s not bad.” Then I got to a scene I didn’t like and I had to turn the channel. There are scenes that I really love in “50/50” that I love not because of anything I did, but just because of what the actors and Will’s script kind of brought to the table. So if that’s on TV, I’ll watch it for a second and be like, “Cool to have been a part of that,” you know? This one, I would probably watch, like yeah 10, 20 minutes. I watched it last night. I really like it.
CS: If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think any critic has ever gone back and re-read one of their old reviews ever.
Levine: Wow. That’s very insightful. You don’t think some people kind of re-evaluate it?
CS: Sure. Once in a while they’ll re-evaluate a movie, but they won’t go back and re-evaluate what they wrote about it.
Levine: Read the review? Yeah, I can imagine that might be painful to think about. Well, no matter what, you were younger when you wrote it, even if you’re 40 and you’re looking at something you wrote when you were 35. You always feel like you know more as you get older. I can imagine it being strange. You always feel like you’re learning more.
CS: Of course. So you talked a little bit about this movie with Amy Schumer, so is that something you’ve already started production on?
Levine: We’re softly prepping. I don’t think it’s 100 percent confirmed, but it feels like it’s going to happen.
CS: Is that something you’ve been developing before “Trainwreck” came out?
Levine: No, no. It was a script I read probably six months ago and I just fell in love with the script and loved “Trainwreck” and love her comedy just so much. I think she’s so great. So yeah, so I jumped onto it and it looks like it’s going to happen.
CS: The other thing I saw, you might do another movie with Will, also. Is that something you’ve been developing?
Levine: Yeah, I mean, Will and I are working on a couple of things together, and we’re co-writing a movie called “Brooklyn Castle” with Scott Rudin, which is based on the documentary. Have you seen it?
CS: Yeah, I’ve seen the documentary.
Levine: I think that script is going to be really good, and it’s so fun working with Will (Reiser). He’s such a talented writer and the thing he did in “50/50,” he just can do and it’s such a rare skill to have, just that combination of comedy and drama, so this movie I think would be really, really cool, and we’re still, we’re like, writing a third draft of it now.
CS: Is it going to be tough casting it? There’s going to be a lot of young kids.
Levine: Yeah, it’ll be tough figuring out whether it’s R or PG-13 because it should be R, because Seth plays a teacher. It should be R.
CS: Seth’s getting involved also?
Levine: I don’t know, maybe. The idea is anytime Seth’s producing something, you just write a role for a Seth-like character and hope eventually.
CS: Hope he’ll do it.
Levine: He’ll notice it, but yeah, we’re writing it as a “Bad News Bears” type movie, and so we’ll see if there’s a PG-13. You know, at some point, I’m waiting for someone to be like, “You know?”
CS: There was a “Bad News Bears” remake and because it was PG-13…
Levine: It was not good.
CS: It might’ve even been PG.
Levine: It was Linklater, right?
CS: It was Linklater, yeah, and Billy Bob Thornton.
Levine: I mean, the cool thing about “Bad News Bears” is like—
CS: The swearing and all.
Levine: Walter Matthau’s an alcoholic and Tatum O’Neal’s smoking cigarettes, anyway.
CS: Do you have to think about rating a lot while writing? Like you did when doing “Warm Bodies”?
Levine: “Warm Bodies,” I was contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 movie. But like, I wanted it to be PG-13 because it’s for younger people and I don’t want them not to be able to see it. I mean, you have to kind of think about the marketplace as well.
CS: Right, and “Brooklyn Castle” is probably going to be a similar type of thing.
Levine: Yeah, well that’s what I’m worried about. But yeah, it’s like the tone of “Warm Bodies” was a tone that was geared toward young adults. Sure, I wish we could say f*ck the same way John Hughes could, or whatever, but we can’t. You get one “f*ck.”
CS: It’s crazy. I don’t know when they’re going to change the MPAA because everyone complains about it and it’s getting so ridiculous. People have almost given up. It’s almost at the point where filmmakers have just given up because they know they can’t do anything about it. Some people like Harvey Weinstein still go in and tries to fight them but it’s a losing battle for some reason.
Levine: Well, look, in this one, we were able to get, I think more. The dick pic stuff in this one was really pushing the MPAA limits.
CS: Yeah, it’s also strange. How is that going to harm anyone? I don’t understand why sex and language is considered more harmful than violence.
Levine: We got into very, very extensive discussions about how the first dick was fine. The second dick, which is kind of a hard dick, we had to show it couldn’t be protruding from the body. It had to be the dude lying back and the dick had to be on his chest so that then we could make a case that it was a flaccid dick and just gravity was pulling it in that direction. This was a totally serious conversation we had with the MPAA.
CS: Is that literally someone’s whole job at Sony to go to the MPAA and come back with notes?
Levine: I guess so, yeah. There’s someone who interprets the notes. I mean, I guess it’s important to do, I don’t know. It seems kind of weird and arbitrary, but once you get into that kind of back and forth, it’s kind of like a fun game to figure out what you can get away with and what you can’t.
CS: I’m sure Seth’s been dealing like that for a long time.
Levine: Yeah, and he was the one who was the most kind of into it figuring it out, too.
CS: Do you think you foresee yourself doing another independent film or another film outside the system?
Levine: Yeah, I would love to, man. I would love to. I think I’m going to do this movie with Amy, which I’m so excited about and it’s just such a great script. Then yeah, I don’t know. Either I’ll do a big superhero movie or an independent film. We’ll see how I feel. Yeah, I definitely miss it. I definitely miss it, and I think that going back now, knowing what I’ve known about making bigger movies or somewhat bigger movies, I think I would be like, a little better at it, but I might be worse. I might be just so bummed out that I don’t have the resources that I would just…
CS: I don’t know. I think you’ve been working at a good level, where you can make movies like “50/50” or “Warm Bodies,” and they just do well enough and have their fans.
Levine: That you can make more, yeah.
The Night Before opens nationwide on Friday, November 20 with previews on Thursday night.