“I’m much better when I don’t have to be on the camera.”
That’s what Jonathan Levine uttered to his publicist when we spoke to him at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and over six months later, his baby, the New York coming-of-age buddy comedy The Wackness is finally being released. It follows the summer of ’94 in the life of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) as he bonds with his pot-smoking New Age psychiatrist Dr. Squires, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, and falls for Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
ComingSoon.net decided to put Levine up to his own challenge and see if he could field whatever we threw at him while surrounded by cameras and lights, and he did just fine. We asked him some of the things we didn’t get to ask at Sundance, how the movie changed and what Sony Classics brought to the table, but because of the nature of the movie, we had to ask him a couple questions about sex and drugs. He also talked about his first movie (which still hasn’t been released) and hinted at his next project.
If you want, you can skip to the written part of our interview, done at Sundance earlier this year, or just watch the video first and then fill in the blanks with the earlier interview.
After the camera stopped rolling, we asked Jonathan Levine a couple other questions about his first movie, the teen horror flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which back when we talked to him at Sundance (see below) was going to be released in April, which is obviously no longer the case, plus we also wanted to know how Levine felt about the strange backlash that hit the internet shortly after The Wackness was picked up by Sony Classics at Sundance where those who saw and loved the movie weren’t sure if they were the right place for the movie.
ComingSoon.net: What’s the word on “Mandy Lane”? Last time we talked, it was going to come out in April. Jonathan Levine: Oh, my God, Dude! It’s like… I’m out of the loop, man. I stopped because I stopped caring. Well, I didn’t stop caring, but I had to divorce myself from it emotionally because there’s so many different release dates, it’s just been such a rollercoaster. I’m hoping by the end of the year, it’ll be out. They just released a new poster that I love that just came on the internet today. That’s what it’s kind of like making independent movies. It just makes you that much more grateful to Sony for getting this one out there.
CS: There was a bit of a backlash after Sundance because people thought Sony Pictures Classics was a strange choice to release the movie, and I’d never really seen that happen before. I guess it was just because people loved the movie so much. Levine: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I definitely read a lot of that stuff, and I respect that opinion. I know a lot about what it’s like not to have a distributor behind you, just because of my experience on “Mandy Lane.” These guys are so committed and their blood, sweat and tears are going into promoting this movie that I think people will be very happy. I think they’re definitely the right people to do it and I’m very grateful they’re doing it with such passion, but I read it, and I hope those guys are wrong.
CS: Well, I did see two commercials last night on Comedy Central… Levine: You did!?! WHAT THE F*CK!?! That’s awesome. No way, that’s so cool. I think so far so good with these guys.
And now, here’s the aforementioned interview we did with Levine at Sundance, just a day or two after The Wackness had premiered and was already building buzz around Park City, Utah…. (Including more on Mandy Lane asked about six months ago when it was still scheduled to come out in April.)
ComingSoon.net: So basically this movie is your life story… Jonathan Levine: You know, it’s culled from… it’s ripped from the headlines. No, it’s kind of an extension of my life. What really is based on my life is the memories I had from that time, the context of the world, the music.
CS: When you figured out the story, did you always want to base it in those particular three months? Levine: I mean, for me, 1994 was like a great time to set the movie, and I graduated high school that year, so I had very strong memories from it. It’s condensing a lot of different themes and memories into one summer, but nothing went down like that. I didn’t have a Dr. Squires character in my life, I didn’t deal drugs. No, I wish I had that cool story. Maybe I should just make it up and say I did. F*ck it, I did it, I did it.
CS: I live in New York now and I lived in New York then, so I know how it’s changed, but what was involved with recreating that time period, besides mentioning Giuliani a few times? Levine: You know, it’s interesting though. I think Giuliani started a trend that Bloomberg continued with rampant gentrification, and I think it’s tough because why would any city choose not to do that? For me and as the Kingsley character in particular points out, you do lose a bit of authenticity when that happens. While there’s no avoiding it and while change is always a good thing, I think that it’s important to remember that there is a little something you lose when that happens.
CS: I’m always looking to catch filmmakers when they try to do New York period pieces but you got a “Forrest Gump” poster in there plus the World Trade Center is back. Levine: Yeah, we had that, and there’s a couple cars that are out of period, but I had to choose performance in those takes, and the big one for me is that one time… did you find any?
CS: If I see it again, maybe… Levine: One time, you see… the biggest thing I had to avoid was the “Don’t Walk” signs. No they’re icons instead of words, so one time, you see them, but you know what? It’s not “I Am Legend”; I can’t CG the whole thing. (laughs)
CS: Can you talk about the casting of Sir Ben? This is a very different role for him. He’s been doing a lot of eccentric things but nothing this far out there. Was he the first person you thought of for Dr. Squires? Levine: He was… like anyone, we had a list but he was the first person we went to. It was always our intention to cast someone in the role for whom it is a departure, and the Kingsley idea was originally brought up by one of my producers and I was just like, “Wow, that’s it.” We sent it to him and he responded to it, and I went and met him and luckily, we got on quite well.
CS: What was his reaction when you talked to him about the script? You’d think that era of New York and that culture would be very foreign to him. Levine: I think the way he acts as a character, the brilliant thing about him is he has a way that transcends time and place and all that stuff. He goes at it from a very classical means, so what he and I talked about—and it sounds pretentious but it helped both of us have a common vocabulary was that we talked about Shakespeare. Obviously, that dude’s a much better writer than me—yeah, he’s pretty good—but we talked about how the Dr. Squires character was a bit of a Falstaff to Luke’s How in “Henry IV.” But that’s how he thinks about it, in these very classical terms, and I think that is why his performances are so resonant.
CS: He always finds something he can respond to. Levine: Yeah, yeah…
CS: As far as Josh and Olivia, they both come from New York but they were a lot younger during this time period so might not have related as much to the references. Was that the case? Levine: They knew all the music, which is #1 prerequisite, they knew all that, and they both have a bit of hip-hop in them already, so I didn’t have to do too much to bring them back to that. They have it in them already, which is why they’re so perfect for it. Every once in a while, I let them improv and play around and they’d improv something that was like, “Oh, no one would say that” but they got it right from the get-go.
CS: Did they know anyone who talked like that because obviously a lot of the humor comes from the fact they’re talking like they’re on “Yo! MTV Raps.” Levine: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, that was a time, 1994, which goes back to what we were talking about, when white culture was very much obsessed with hip hop, as it still is, but in New York, with the movie “Kids,” which we actually watched quite a bit because that’s ’94, right straight up and down. That was definitely a certain kind of person growing up in New York. I was like that and I’m as white as can be, and when I talk to my parents, I’m not like, “Yo, wassup?” But it’s just something that invades the vernacular and I think that the way it’s handled here is just sort of there. We’re not calling attention to it. These kids aren’t trying to be black. They’re just being themselves and that’s how they talk, so that’s kind of refreshing.
CS: What were some of your other influences? Obviously, there’s some of the classic coming-of-age films like “The Graduate”… Levine: Well, sure, we watched “The Graduate.” We watched a lot of stuff in the screenwriting process… “The Graduate,” “Rushmore,” “Wonder Boys,” “Almost Famous,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” I’ve seen “Squid and the Whale” but that’s what filmmaking is, you rip-off something from one person and something from another person and then you combine them all into one giant rip-off that’s not related to anything else.
CS: So was it just a coincidence that you found someone to play Luke who kind of looks like you? Levine: No, I didn’t realize it. I’m glad I look like Josh Peck. He’s much more handsome than I.
CS: Are you aware that with “The Wackness,” you join a select group of directors whose first movie has been delayed to the point where it’s released after their second one? Levine: It’s weird. It’s almost like I have two first movies, which it actually turned out okay for me. It turned out to be a nice opportunity to show people two different sides of what I can do, and hopefully, they’ll respond to both of them.
CS: I know you didn’t write “Mandy Lane” and that was more of a director brought on board type thing. Levine: I was thrilled with it and the response. It’s an interesting time for horror films, so I’m very curious to see the audience’s response to it. I think what people are looking for in horror films is something different from what they’ve been seeing for the last six months so hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize on that.
CS: It’s a somewhat controversial subject matter and I wondered if they pushed it back to avoid any problems because of the Virginia Tech shootings. Levine: No, I mean obviously that’s a horrible thing but I don’t think there’s too much common ground between those two things, and there was a bit of a worry that someone might misrepresent it that way, but I’m really glad no one did.
The Wackness opens in New York and L.A. on Thursday, July 3, and will expand throughout July until its nationwide release on August 1. Who the BLEEP knows about All the Boys Love Mandy Lane anymore. Look for the CS video interviews with Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby and rapper Method Man sometime next week.