TIFF Preview: 50/50 Director Jonathan Levine


Back in 2008, filmmaker Jonathan Levine showed up at the Sundance Film Festival with a coming-of-age comedy called The Wackness that got a lot of people talking. Set in New York City during the ’90s, it starred Josh Peck as a young guy selling pot out of an ice cream cart who first experiences love and all its intricacies while being mentored by a pot-smoking psychiatrist played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Somewhat based on Levine’s own experiences, it would have been considered one of the most auspicious debuts of the year… if not for Levine directing the controversial horror flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (a movie that’s not likely to ever see the light of day at this point).

Three years later and Levine is back at the helm of 50/50, a project written by Will Reiser based on his own personal experiences fighting cancer. Produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad, Pineapple Express and The Green Hornet fame, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam Lerner, a guy in his mid-to-late 20s who learns that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. Along with his best friend Kyle (Rogen), his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), an inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick) and his overly protective mother (Anjelica Huston), Adam tries to deal with what he’s going through physically as well as the ever-changing relationships around him. It’s a movie that’s much funnier than you might expect considering the subject matter, but also quite warm and poignant with Gordon Levitt giving a performance even more memorable than his one in (500) Days of Summer.

ComingSoon.net spoke a few times with Levine for The Wackness, and we were thrilled to talk to him a few weeks back about a movie many are already considering one of their favorites of the year. We also touched briefly upon his next movie, an adaptation of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, which he will start shooting a week after 50/50 premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival.

ComingSoon.net: When I last spoke to you for “The Wackness,” I found out you were developing something else at that point, but I don’t think it was this.
Jonathan Levine:
No, it probably wasn’t this. I don’t know what I was doing at that time as far as what I was developing, but it wasn’t this. After “The Wackness” I just went through a bunch of different things and was having a hard time figuring out what to do next, so I may have had any number of different projects at the time. But I’m very lucky that I didn’t do those and that I ended up doing this one.

CS: I just got the press notes literally like 15 minutes ago, so I read that Seth and Evan knew Will and had worked with him over the years on developing this. At what point did you come onto it and how long ago was that?
I came onto it fairly late. They had another director involved up until right before the shooting and that director, for a various number of reasons, didn’t end up being able to do it. Luckily, for me, I was and I really pursued it very, very hard because I really, really liked the script and I really, really wanted to work with those guys. I came on probably mid-November and we were shooting in April of last year.

CS: I remember there was a lot of heat on this script, so how did you first hear about it and read it?
You know, I just got it sent to me I think, then Mandate, who financed the movie, I had wanted to do something with them. I really liked Nathan, the head of the company, so we’d been looking for something to do together and this is one of the most interesting projects. I was just very lucky that he supported me and he got me in a room with Seth and Evan, I visited them on the set of “The Green Hornet” and we just hung out in the trailer for like an hour. Luckily we all get along, and that’s how it all came together.

CS: Originally, the movie was called “I’m With Cancer” so were you already working on it at that point and how did the title transition into “50/50”?
We always knew that that would not be the title of the movie. Our biggest problem was that we didn’t change the title sooner, so we all started to think of it as “I’m With Cancer,” but “I’m With Cancer,” to me, is not the catchiest title. I think it’s a cool title and I think it’s really clever, but I would not buy a ticket to see that movie. I really want people to see this movie. I’m really proud of it, and any title that would kinda turn people off is not the title we wanted, so we eventually had to jettison that title, even though it is in many ways the most quality title. I feel like it’s a quality movie and the title should just be something that invites people in and gets them to pay money to see something that they’re going to like.

CS: When I first got invited to see a movie called “50/50,” I didn’t really read the description and I had no idea what the movie was until maybe 10 minutes into it, then I was like “Oh, it’s that movie, I’ve heard of this.”

CS: Did Seth and Evan have a lot of the cast already set when you came on board? Did they already have Joseph or any of them?
Well, they had Seth obviously because Seth is sort of playing himself because of Seth’s relationship with Will. Do you know the whole story about that, that Will originally got cancer when he was working on “The Ali G Show”?

CS: Yeah, that’s what I read in the press notes 15 minutes ago.
Yeah, so Seth was involved both as an actor and as a producer from day one, but no, other than that, we all put the cast together together and we were extraordinarily lucky to get Joe and Anna, Bryce and Anjelica and we just had a remarkable cast. I would just look around every day and be like, “Holy sh*t, you guys are working with me?” It’s very, very, very intimidating and great.

CS: Did you have any kind of connection to cancer yourself? As I watched this, I wondered if you had ever been around someone who had cancer that helped you relate to what everyone was going through.
You know, in the last few years I’ve had a couple of family members battling with cancer. Luckily, they both made it through. But yeah, I went to consuls with them and went through surgery with them, so yes, I had a very personal connection to it. It’s one of the worst things I think that can happen to someone, and it’s very intense. In many ways, for many people, it’s sort of the first way that you’re made aware of your own mortality, you know? It comes with no warning and it affects so many people. That was one of the most interesting things I think about this movie is that the people in my life were not 27. What happens when you get it when you’re 27? You haven’t even lived a life. That, to me, was really, really interesting.

CS: As a movie journalist who talks a lot of other writers, whenever this project was mentioned, the conversation would always turn to “Well, who wants to watch a movie about cancer?” As I watched the movie, I immediately related it to my own experiences. I had a friend who passed away from cancer very suddenly, and I feel a lot of people may be able to relate to this even though it might not seem that way. It can possibly offer some closure in some ways.
I think it’s very, very relatable. I mean, when you do something like this, so many people talk to you about their own personal experience with this stuff. We hope that it’s cathartic for those people and I would imagine it is. I would imagine it’s not always easy to watch it, but I think the great thing about the movie is at times, the humor in some of the situations that feels very real to me, when I was going through it with the people in my family, you have no choice but to laugh sometimes. Hopefully that feels real to people and it’s sort of a way to take ownership over their own pain.

CS: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors who is just so unbelievably likeable no matter what he does, and I don’t think you could have found a better actor to play Adam. How did you arrive at him? What were some of the discussions you had with him about playing the part and mixing the humor and drama and trying to keep it balanced?
The great thing about Joe is that you can have one conversation with Joe and realize that he’s an incredibly intelligent person, an incredibly intuitive person and not just a great actor, but a great storyteller. He’s always thinking of the bigger story. I didn’t have to really talk to him about balancing tone or anything like that. He just got it from the script. As far as our preparation, we did some work with Seth and we sat down and we just went through the scenes. We would just riff on the funny ideas or some of the circumstances of each scene. We hung out with a lot of cancer survivors as well and that I think really helped place him in the perspective of this character and really helped him prepare. Those were the two things we did in prep that really I think were very helpful, but the fact is, you just know from talking to him that you don’t really need to do as much. He can do it all. I mean, the amazing thing about him is he can do it all with a look. He doesn’t even need to say a line.

CS: I’ve always gotten the impression he’s a very committed actor. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and his character goes through an amazing transformation. At first I thought he had lost a lot of weight or that it was done with make-up but I think it’s more that he changes the way he moves. So is this transformation a combination of his acting and makeup and making it seem like he’s going through a bigger transformation than he actually is and did you shoot in some sort of order to make that possible?
No, the movie was not a big budget movie. We had maybe seven million dollars to make the movie, which is by far I would say Seth’s smallest movie and definitely a small movie for everyone involved except me. For me, it was like “Citizen Kane.” (laughs) So yeah, we couldn’t shoot it in order, so basically Joe shaved his head on the first day, and all we did is we divided it into stages essentially. We actually consulted with an oncologist and we consulted with another doctor, who basically helped our hair and makeup team and helped myself learn about the real life stages of Adam’s progression. Every scene was assigned a certain stage and the makeup team would make him up as such, but it was very important for us to be very realistic to the look and to the progression of his battle with this disease.

CS: You said that Joe shaved his head on the very first day of shooting, so you actually had him shave his head on camera that very first day?
Yeah, it was the first day.

CS: Wow, that’s such a pivotal scene and a real turning point in the movie, and they even put it on the poster, so can you talk about what it was like shooting that scene? Was a lot of that written or were they improvising a lot as he shaved his head?
The only thing that was written was that he shaved his head and literally that was like the first day, the first thing we did with them and the first thing that Joe and Seth were in. It was the end of the first day, but we shot some stuff with Joe and Bryce at the beginning of the movie. At the end of the day we did Joe and Seth. It was the first time they were on screen together and they were on screen in this remarkably tense situation because it’s basically like a live TV show. You can not mess it up. He is actually shaving his head. It’s not even like a stunt because there’s no acting involved in a stunt, so they had to actually act while this thing was going on. I remember all of us seeing it on the monitor just cracking up ’cause they do these incredible riffs in it and it was really, really fun to watch.

CS:Seth had been working on this movie for a long time so I wondered whether or not he still had room to improvise or whether he already worked out a lot of his jokes very early on?
I don’t think he worked on it, man. He was coming up with jokes in pre-production, but a lot of the jokes he just came up with on the day. Evan would run up to him with a joke. I think a lot of his process is being spontaneous and I think that that helps everyone around him feel very natural, too.

CS: What about Will? Obviously he went through this and must have a sense of humor about it because he can write about it and talk about the movie like this. Was he on set a lot? How was it for him to watch the shooting and watch the movie, basically seeing Joe go through some of the stuff he went through.
He was great and he understood very quickly what was important for him to be there for a resource as the source material. What was important for him to be there as a resource as the writer and when it was important for him to not insert himself into the process, and that’s really essential when you’re a writer on set. He was on set every single day, and it was amazing to have him there. I loved having him there and it was great. I would turn to him after takes and ask him what he thought and if something rang really untrue he would mention it, but there were a lot of people on set who functioned in those roles. It was a very collaborative environment between Evan and Ben Karlin and Seth and Will and myself, it was just a really nice team of collaborators; we had a really good time. We were always watching each other’s back and making sure everything was as good as it could be.

CS: You do have a great cast, but Bryce is an interesting choice because her character Rachel (the girlfriend of Gordon-Levitt’s character) ends up being quite unlikable, and that seemed like such a different character for her especially at this point in her career. She’s almost the antagonist of the movie in some ways.
You know, Bryce is very brave, and I think she really relished getting into this character. I haven’t seen “The Help” yet, but from what I gather, she’s playing a fairly unappealing character in that as well. I think her secret to it is she really is able to put herself in the head of this character. Yes, there’s a way to look at the Rachael character as the antagonist, but there’s also a way–and this is something that Bryce and I really, really talked about–to look at her and understand where she’s coming from. I mean, she was at a point in her relationship with this guy where it wasn’t like they’d been dating for five years. They’d been dating for a few months and what do you do? You want to be a good person, but what do you do when someone you don’t even know what your commitment level to is, and they get something like this? To me, I think the biggest issue that character has is that that character wasn’t straightforward from the beginning, but it’s a very, very difficult position. I think that’s a credit to Bryce, that she’s able to emphasize even when her character’s not always doing the greatest stuff and I think she’s great.

CS: It’s kind of interesting the direction you take with this and then you’re going onto “Warm Bodies” which is an adaptation and you’re in talks for “Legend” – I’m not sure if you’re still directing that…
Not definitely.

CS: I would have thought after “The Wackness” you would be writing your own scripts and developing your own projects but you’re going in this direction where you’re adapting others books, so how has it been adapting other material like “Warm Bodies”?
Well, my first movie was written by someone else and I really liked that. I like doing both, to be honest. I like going back and forth. I definitely am going to direct another movie that I write in the future, hopefully the near future. In fact, I’m doing one now, I guess. I wrote it, even though it’s based on a book. It’s really interesting, and I think it’s good to kind of go back and forth because when you’re doing something that someone else did you can be a lot more objective and a lot more critical of it. When you’re doing something you did, perhaps you can bring that degree of objectivity and criticism to that. That’s the biggest pitfall when you’re directing something that you wrote. It’s just that you’re falling in love with it too much. I think on “The Wackness,” as much as I’m proud of it, I did fall into that pitfall every once in a while, if not more. I feel like it’s good to bounce back and forth, and for me, it’s really about the quality of the script. I think Will wrote just an exceptional script and if I’m lucky enough to write a script that good I will definitely want to direct it myself.

CS: I’ve spoken with many writer-directors and a few of them have actually switched over to just being directors because they don’t have time to write while developing and doing all the pre-production and the preparation that’s involved. How has that been for you? Obviously you’ve finished this movie a while ago, so how has it been finishing a movie while developing other things?
It’s great, man. It’s really nice. I mean, it’s a lot of work. The biggest work right now is directing a movie while promoting another movie. That’s crazy. I don’t know if I’d ever do that again. But I’m incredibly lucky to be able to have directed a movie and be able to direct another movie, so I definitely have nothing to complain about. As far as developing stuff, when you’re in production and pre-production, you’re not really as immersed in the other stuff as you are when you’re in post or after a movie. Right now, with all the projects I’m developing, they’re just moving forward with the writing and with going after actors and all that stuff. I just have to stay in touch about them, but I’m not really doing a lot of day-to-day development on them, essentially so I can focus on this. It’s like anything else, the difficult thing about directing is there’s career map for you and you have to map out your own career. Yes, you can say, “I want to model myself after David Fincher,” but unless you get the script for “Se7en,” it’s not going to work, you know what I mean? So it’s all about luck, really.

CS: I don’t know if David Fincher would even say he’d want to model his career after David Fincher because he’s had some pretty serious pitfalls over the years even if things are going really well now.
No, it’s true, it’s true, but I think the great thing about him is he took risks, and he was not able to get pinned down into any one genre or any one type of movie. I think on that level certainly he’s someone to model yourself after… yeah, and mostly good movies. That “Benjamin Button” movie wasn’t very good, but otherwise he’s pretty good.

CS: I liked that one. I wanted to ask more about “Warm Bodies” since that’s what you’re working on now. I’ve heard a little bit about it. It’s a zombie romance from the perspective of zombies in some ways I guess. Is that true?
That’s correct, yes.

CS: Is there any kind of gore or horror elements involved or is it just a drama with zombie elements?
It’s not a drama, no, but it’s more akin to an adventure I think. There’s not a lot of horror in it. There’s action and adventure and it’s hopefully not goofy or anything, but it’s not a straight horror. There are, of course, elements of that genre in it, but I would classify it as a romantic adventure first and a horror movie second. But yeah, it’s a mash-up of lots of different things, which is what I like about it.

CS: Summit is really pushing it even before you started shooting, which is very different for any movie in some ways where they’re pushing it as an adaptation of this book. So does that put a lot of pressure on you because of that?
Well, now there’s pressure, man. I didn’t know they were doing anything. (laughs) I didn’t know they were f*cking talking it up. Damn it! (laughs)

CS: Well, they had the author at Comic-Con.
Yeah, it’s at Comic-Con. I think they’re really excited about it. I mean, we’re all really excited about it. Is there pressure? I think the biggest pressure is someone putting tens of millions of dollars in your hands, you know? That, to me, is pressure. That’s a lot of money, especially in this day and age, so I can’t imagine anything being more pressure than knowing that someone is counting on you to not waste their money when it’s that much money.

CS: Have you gotten the rest of the cast together and is there going to be some kind of announcement soon?
Yeah, there is, there is. I can’t talk about it yet. We had one person I think just fell through, so I don’t want to say anything. I would’ve told you right before this, but now I’m worried about saying anything about anyone, but it’s going to be awesome. We have three awesome f*cking people already.

CS: And the plan is still to start shooting in September?
Yeah, we start in five weeks.

CS: Cool, so you’ll go to Toronto with this, do your pitch and then you’re onto your next movie.
Yeah, man, that’s exactly it.

50/50 will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12 before opening nationwide on Friday, September 30. You can follow ComingSoon.net’s festival coverage on our TIFF Blog and on Twitter. We should have more interviews with the cast of 50/50 closer to release.

(Photo Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com)