Sundance: Interview with The Wackness Writer/Director Jonathan Levine
by Alex Billington
January 31, 2008
When it comes to the next generation of filmmakers, Jonathan Levine is one of the few who is leading the way. His film from Sundance this year, The Wackness, was a huge hit that played well with audiences of all ages, eventually winning the coveted Audience Award. Thankfully we had the opportunity to sit down and chat with this up-and-coming filmmaker and talk about everything from memories of 1994 to Biggie to marijuana to Kubrick and even There Will Be Blood. I'm very glad I had this chance to talk with Levine, because not only is his film The Wackness one of the best this year, but he had a lot to say. If you're curious to know more about The Wackness or just want to hear what goes on in a filmmaker's mind, then this interview is a must read.
How has your Sundance been so far?
Jonathan Levine: It's been great, man. It's been unbelievable, showing the movie to people, having fun, getting good responses so far. It's awesome. It's my first time, and it's just - there are a lot of parties, and a lot of other stuff to deal with but we just screened the movie at 8:30 this morning to a packed house, you can't beat that.
Was it a good reaction there?
Levine: Yeah, man, they liked it. I can never tell, I mean, they clapped and the people who stayed praised me. I mean, you never know, man, you never know who's saying what. No one's going to come up to me and be like dude, I hated your fuckin' movie.
That's what I always hear! I interviewed a couple of other directors and they always say, well, you never hear from the bad people.
Levine: Yeah, of course, of course! Except on the internet…
What was your reaction when you first heard you got into Sundance?
Levine: We were thrilled. The information sort of trickled in. We didn't get it all at once. We heard a rumor that we were going to get in and then the producers got a call and then I was like no. I'm not going to believe it until I get something official. So then when I got an email telling me where to pick up my badge and shit, that's when I was like, oh, okay, I guess we are really in. And, I don't know, it was amazing, man, we were walking on sunshine. Like that Katrina and the Waves song. "I'm walking on sunshine…"
That's what was going through your head?
Levine: That was it, yeah, and then I called my mom and she yelled in the middle of the street and she's like, aww shit, everyone's looking at me.
What was your inspiration for the story? We can sort of kick off there, and if you can go a little bit into explaining the story as well for people who haven't seen the film.
Levine: Basically the story is about a kid named Luke who lives in New York in 1994 and he's kind of a troubled kid, he's kind of sad, depressed and he ends up - he's a drug dealer - and he ends up trading pot for therapy session with a shrink played by Ben Kingsley. And the inspiration - I don't know where the inspiration for that premise came from, I just thought it was kind of funny. But once we got that, I brought a lot of personal stuff into it, being in 1994, the music… I definitely was kind of a dark soul and that's sort of where it sprung from and then we just continued to - I continued to work on the script with the producers and we got to a place we were happy with and we sent it to Ben Kingsley.
So why 1994 then? Is that like "your" time?
Levine: It's the year I graduated high school and some people think it's a little early for a 90's nostalgia piece, but I find that a lot of people my age and even a little younger are like, this strikes a chord in a unique way, because we haven't had a movie like this, with the music and with that world.
In regards to all the nostalgic things, when you were making it, did you just sit down and throw out every awesome 1994 thing you could come up with?
Levine: That happened kind of late. The script initially had a few, and then I started at the very end I was like, oh, all right this is funny, this is funny, and I added a bunch. I would just even ask people, what do you remember, and people would tell me stuff and then I would add it. Those details came much later on.
Because that's what I really loved about it is that there are period pieces but there aren't those specific things that for people from that time, they would be like "oh yeah" and you really bring us into that moment with The Wackness with the NES, the Game Boy and all the music references.
Levine: You know, I love Dazed and Confused and all those little details like when she's using that thing to zip up her jeans and all that shit is like, that's what makes it cool, man. That's like you feel you're in the time.
So let me ask you a funny question that I guess I have to ask from the filmmaking process is were you using actual marijuana for the pieces and what were you using smoking-wise?
Levine: No, I mean, when they were smoking, we had herbal tobacco that we would put in the fake joints and stuff like that. When we shot it, they have stuff, something called cold foot that looks really close to, you know, because this kid is supposed to be selling good weed so most of the fake weed you see in movies looks really bad, but the props department was on top of it, they knew all about it for some reason--
For some reason?
Levine: Some strange reason. And they found this great, I guess it is like a well known prop for weed.
I guess that was a question I wanted to ask, because I've seen it so much and I'm like, this looks pretty authentic doesn't it?
Not that I've had experience or I won't admit it, but--
Levine: Yeah, nor have I.
It's just a funny thing. Can you go over your cast and how you came to Ben Kingsley - was he your first choice?
Levine: He was our first choice, yeah. We had a list, like all other movies. These are the people who can make us this much money and these are the people who would be interesting in the role -- so, we had an in with Kingsley. And our agents, or the agents of the producers know his agent and they worked together before so we knew we could get a read out of him pretty quick and that's usually the difficult part with an independent movie is that we're not offering that much money, these scripts sit on people's desks for weeks and weeks and we were on a pretty aggressive time schedule. So we knew, and we thought we were in love with the idea, and we got it to him. He read it quickly. He liked it. Next thing I know I was up in Vancouver, talking to him about the character and a couple of weeks later we started shooting.
And was that the same for the rest of your cast?
Levine: Yeah, well, no, actually I exaggerated the time schedule, once we got Kingsley on, it was probably another six weeks and the rest of the cast fell into place really quickly. They were all thrilled to be working with him. As far as the kids go, that's an easier thing to do because there aren't that many good roles for kids and none of them mean anything financially. It's not like you need to put no one who's, unless you're Michael Cera I guess, it's not like any financing is based on that. So we just were able to audition tons and tons of kids, and then we were able to pick the two best.
I mean, I thought Josh Peck did an amazing job in the movie.
Levine: Yeah, I love that kid.
And Olivia Thirlby as well, I met her at Sundance last year, and I've just sort of been hoping she hits it big, so you've got two perfect choices with this.
Levine: We got very lucky, I mean we saw a ton of great actors, but it was pretty obvious when they came in that they were the two. We saw hundreds.
Can you talk about the music choices as well, because I think that's another really key thing that defines the movie. There are so many great elements to it, but the music as well…
Levine: The music for me, that's what I grew up with, and most of it was even written in the script and we brought a music supervisor on really early. Biggie was such an important part of the script that we got in touch with the Wallace estate and we were able to get that Biggie stuff in there and they were very gracious to us. It was just, that was really important to having that soundtrack and luckily we got all the stuff we wanted. It wasn't easy because a lot of them have samples that are difficult to clear, or also the fact that that very few movies have used that type of music meant that a lot of the artists and the labels were really excited about the opportunity to put it in a movie. You don't see Nas or Wu-Tang or all that stuff in a movie very often, especially not their old stuff.
How did you get into filmmaking? What's your story?
Levine: I'm kind of lucky in that I kind of always knew I wanted to do it. I was really into making movies as a kid. I was really into wrestling, which I guess is kind of like filmmaking.
Levine: Yeah, I was really into Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior and all that shit. I went to every Wrestlemania. I don't know for some reason I felt like there's a theatricality to it that I thought--forget it!
Anyway. Then in high school I took film classes. In college I took film classes and then I went to grad school, so ever since I was able to think about what I wanted to be, once it went from being a fireman, it went pretty much to being a director. It's cool, because it's at least you tell yourself it's the one thing you want to do and then it becomes easier when you fail, and then becomes more awesome when you succeed.
What's your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Levine: I like editing. No no, showing it to people.
That's the same thing I heard from another director, too.
Levine: Yeah, but that doesn't really count. I think I really like editing, I like watching it all come together, I like making choices, I like putting music behind the scene and being like, oh, now it's fuckin' awesome. And no, that's what I really like.
And you wrote the script for The Wackness as well? Right?
Levine: Yes, I did.
How did that go? Do you find that the hardest part?
Levine: It's definitely not the hardest part, because for me the hardest part is production, because it's really stressful, you don't get a lot of sleep. That's for me the part I don't like the most, I don't know whether it's the hardest or not, but writing is fine. There's a lot of times you'll sit down and just feel like, arggh, not get it, but this one actually went pretty nicely. The beginning of the idea happens like several years ago when I was in film school and then I directed my first film and then I just kept coming back to this and I wrote a real first draft of the script maybe a year and a half ago and I showed the producers. We worked on it for another six months and that was it. It had been brewing in my head for 3 or 4 years, but the actual process, we really tackled it really aggressively and we got it done.
You said you went to film school?
Levine: I did, I went to AFI.
Awesome. Now that, well, I wouldn't say The Wackness is done, but I mean you still got a long path of hopefully distribution. Have you heard anything on that?
Levine: I will be hopefully figuring it out within the next couple of hours actually.
Good, that's one of the things that a couple of my friends and I have been talking about is Wackness needs to be the biggest, not biggest purchase, but that would be good, too.
Levine: It would be great.
Something big, because we think it could be huge. It could be the biggest Sundance movie this year.
Levine: Yeah, it will find a home and a loving home, but it's not going to be like Hamlet 2 where we get, and I haven't seen Hamlet 2, I'm sure it's great, but this is, it has an independent soul and an independent spirit, and that makes the upside a lot higher for these guys but also they're scared of it. I think frankly a lot of these old white dudes don't fuckin' get it at all. But we have a few interesting options right now, but we would have obviously preferred to have a ten million dollar bid within ten minutes of finishing.
But it'll be a big release, it'll get to people and I think it'll touch a chord and because I kind of like it and I made it for people like me, hopefully there's a lot of them out there.
Do you have any ideas for future projects?
Levine: No. I just finished the movie literally like a week ago, so no, I haven't really been thinking about it. The writer's strike is on, so I'm in the guild, and I can't write for other people. I can write for myself but I just haven't had time, but for me, either I'm going to write something for someone else to direct or I'm going to direct something that someone else wrote or I'm going to write something for myself to direct and it just really depends on, I'm just not in a place to think about it right now. But the best you can hope for is that when you come to a festival like this and people like your movie that it opens doors for you and you're able to work with, whether it's bigger budgets, or you can choose your path. That's the best possible thing that could happen, so if I'm lucky enough to have that opportunity, great, and if not, I'll direct, you know, Prom Night 2 or something…
Prom Night 2?
Levine: I don't know. We'll see. I just want to keep working, hopefully working on stuff I want to work on.
Have you noticed a benefit from the success so far at Sundance?
Levine: No. I mean, what happens is it's a very insular place. What I've noticed is that people are really responding to the movie, but you know--
You're not walking down the street and getting phone calls from producers yet?
Levine: No, I'm getting business cards and phone calls, sure, that happened in Toronto too and when I got back and it's like, all right, I guess I'm going to have to do my own shit. But basically everyone's full of shit, that's kind of what the deal is, but hopefully the one's who responded to it will follow-up when I get back to LA and we'll be able to make another movie together. But the thing is you never know. You can't judge anything by being at the film festival, because it's like being through the looking glass here.
I don't know if you can answer this now, but do you have any ideal actors you really want to work with?
Levine: I mean I'm lucky that that movie I just did has amazing people. In my first film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, there's a bunch of great guys in that that I'd love to work with again. I would love to continue to work with the same people over and over again. Now, there are so many amazing actors out there, but I think I feel really lucky that I was able to meet the people I was able to meet on this one. It's more about who's right for the role, I mean there are so many awesome actors out there, so I'd have to write something and then tell you.
Speaking of Mandy Lane, what has your response been to how the whole studio treatment has been on that, and how The Wackness, although it actually doesn't have a distributor yet, how it has more of a reception and how Mandy Lane is sort of getting screwed?
Levine: Well, it's going to be out in two months so that will hopefully be the happy ending to that story. It's been a hard kind of struggle, I mean, we sold it within two hours of screening it, and then it was kind of a steadily depressing thing from there on out. But now it's found a home, and for us in many ways, it was a good lesson to learn, and I think there's a lot of filmmakers who learn that lesson and don't have the kind of happy ending that I think and hope we're going to have, and I feel bad for those guys. In spite of the fact that it was a difficult time with the Weinsteins, we bear them no animosity, they really like this film too, and I would hope to work with them again, too, just going in with eyes wide open and not eyes wide shut.
A Kubrick reference, huh? We just do this as a fun thing, but what are your five favorite movies of all time?
Levine: Five favorite movies of all time. Fuck.
I know, I hate putting people on the spot.
I don't think so.
Levine: And Do the Right Thing. Yeah, it's not right, but whatever - a few of them are right. I got to update that list. That list hasn't changed in a long time.
There were a lot of good classics, though.
Levine: There Will Be Blood is getting close though.
Levine: Yeah, have you seen it?
Yeah, a couple of times, I loved it.
Levine: Love it. Yeah. And I'm Not There. Have you seen that?
No, no I haven't.
Levine: It's fucking awesome, man, so good.
That's what I've heard. I'm trying to go into eventually the Oscar catch-up. And just see everything that I haven't yet.
Levine: It's very underrated.
Levine: Yeah. I mean it's like for me it's one of the best films I've seen.
Thank you to Jonathan Levine for the interview! After seeing his Q&A at the first screening of The Wackness, I knew I had to interview him because it seems he has so much to say and it paid off. The Wackness should be out in theaters sometime later this year.