Interview: '50/50' Director Jonathan Levine on Comedy & Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
September 27, 2011
One of my personal favorite filmmakers on the rise is Jonathan Levine, director of lost horror All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and the upcoming 50/50. I first discovered Levine at Sundance in early '08 seeing his film The Wackness, my favorite of the festival that year, and have kept in touch with him since. His latest film, the "cancer comedy" 50/50 (watch a trailer) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, is a departure for him, at least a departure stylistically, but it's still a great film. I spoke at length on Skype with Levine a few weeks ago about adventures in filmmaking and directing one of the year's best comedies.
For those unfamiliar with 50/50, the movie (originally titled I'm With Cancer) was written by screenwriter Will Reiser, who is actually real life friends with Seth Rogen and was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24. He survived, and went on to write this script to tell his story; that's the personal core of this that makes it so good. But they had to find a director to bring this delicate balance of humor and heart to life, and Levine was their guy. As I've met Levine before and talked with him many times, I wanted to cover as much ground as I could regarding his career choices as a filmmaker, and his decisions regarding directing 50/50.
To start, a quick recap: The Wackness first premiered at Sundance in 2008 and won the Audience Award that year, being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in the process. The film then went on to only make $2 million, not the breakout hit we really wanted it to be, so I had to ask Jonathan what it was like since then, after the release of that film, and how he ended up eventually directing 50/50. He explains his "lost year":
"Well, right after The Wackness came out, it was a really exciting time, and then it was a bit disappointing when it came out. Even though not that many people saw it, I was still getting offered some movies. I was thinking that people would just stop calling me since it didn't do very well at the box office. But luckily, there were people who liked it, so I was still getting offers. I ended up writing a couple things. But I feel like it was kind of like a lost year or something where I was just kinda of feeling my way through...
As a director, there's no natural career progression. So after The Wackness, which was very personal to me, I was very, very picky about what I was going to do next, to the point where I think that I was almost too picky. This was a script that I'd seen right when The Wackness was coming out, and then Nicole Holofcener was going to do it for a long time. And then when she ended up dropping off, I was like yes, I want to chase this as hard as I can. Because I've been such a fan of Seth and Evan's movies and their sensibility...
And in that lost year, I actually had a couple family members get diagnosed with cancer, and I had to navigate with them through that. And luckily they were okay, but it really made it resonate personally with me, the amazing script that Will wrote. So then I chased it and I met those guys on the set of The Green Hornet and we got along. In a month I was up in Vancouver scouting locations. Even less; probably two weeks after that I was up in Vancouver scouting locations. So it happened very quickly. It was like a year of trying to figure shit out, and then it all sort of happened very quickly."
One of my observations watching 50/50 was that it doesn't have much of the style that I've come to expect from Levine, based on his previous movies. However, that's not a bad thing, as it's still a great story with endless amounts of heart and comedy, that's the most important aspect. I asked Levine if he tried to "make it his own" once he got involved, or if he simply tried to do the best job he could shooting Will's script.
"The great thing about Seth and [fellow writer] Evan [Goldberg]'s process is it's incredibly collaborative. The script is a very fluid thing. Even on set, there are scenes that we would shoot and Seth and Joe would just improv the whole scene. It wasn't about putting my stamp on it, it was more about working out some story beats that I thought could use a little work, fleshing out some relationships that I thought could use a little fleshing out. And yes, every once in a while I would kinda throw something in that felt like me, felt very personal to me. But more than that, I think what attracted to me the script was it felt like something I'd want to do already. It wasn't a goofy comedy that I had to make more sophisticated. It wasn't a super serious movie that I had to add humor to. It had a great combination of all these things and it was very personal."
"It's just that it was a delicate balance. And I think the great thing about the collaboration we all had was that, on that set, there's Will, who wrote an amazing script, there's Seth and Evan, who are incredible writers, there's Ben Carlin, who was one of the early creative forces by the Jon Stewart Daily Show and helped create the Colbert Report, who's an incredibly funny person. Everyone was pitching in the whole time. But Will and I did sort of lock ourselves in a room for a couple weeks and work on it. But it always felt like such a good fit for me that it wasn't like I had to do too much."
I also had to ask how—or why (if he knew)—they chose him to direct 50/50 in the end. He mentioned earlier that Nicole Holofcener was attached at one point, but I was curious what made Will, Seth and everyone come to him, and choose him, when they needed to find a new director. His answer:
"I mean, Evan once said that he was like, 'Let's get the other weed guy!' [laughs] But I think, yes, they had seen The Wackness. I don't know if they had seen Mandy Lane. I don't think they'd seen it. But they saw The Wackness and liked it. And more than that, I think when they sat down with me, my take on it was something they really liked. And I think they liked the fact that we were all kind of coming from the same perspective and all young. I think that was the most compelling thing for them."
One of the thoughts that kept coming to mind when discussing 50/50 with Levine was the idea of why now?, why did it take so long for a "cancer comedy" that is this good to get made, and why in 2011 and not three years ago (or three years from now). I was wondering in the sense that it's such a smart, enjoyable approach to very sensitive subject matter, and why it's taken so long for something like this to come along. Obviously it's Will's personal story, but Levine gave a great answer regarding why he was even interested:
"When I talked to Seth and Evan about this movie, we referenced movies, we referenced Hal Ashby, we referenced The Last Detail, we referenced, of course, Terms of Endearment. And I just feel like, especially after having gone to the movies every weekend this summer, sometimes twice a weekend, movies for this demographic—people who go see Seth Rogen movies, Joseph Gordon-Levitt movies—they are just kind of fucking dumb now, you know?"
"With the exception of a few wonderful, wonderful movies that I've seen in the past six months, I just think that myself as an audience member, there's either the super serious movies that are for old people, or really kind of very... stuff that I've seen before that's being marketed to young people. I feel like it's been a long time since someone's tried to make a mainstream movie for young people that is sophisticated, and that doesn't talk down to them, and that challenges them. So whether or not they will respond, I don't know. I think from my perspective, if I were a moviegoer, I'd be psyched to see this instead of the eighth superhero movie."
If that's not already reason enough to go out and see 50/50 when it's released in theaters this weekend, then continue on, as Levine has plenty more to say to convince anyone who loves a great time at the movies and a great story to go see this. Part of the reason it works so well is the tone, as it's a perfect balance of humor and drama, and not overly stylish or overly "art house", which is huge a testament to Levine's work directing the script. Indeed, the tone is what he spent a lot of time working on:
"That was always, to me, my biggest job, was finding a tone. And it's interesting... the number one guideline was: we never strained for a joke. No one would ever act like they wouldn't act in real life. If something was funny, it's because the situation felt grounded and is something that people could imagine happening in their real life. If Seth is funny, it's because Adam's best friend happens to be a very funny human being. We never strained believability to go for a joke. So that was the number one rule."
"Beyond that, on set, well, you just let Seth do whatever he wants, because he'll do five takes five different ways and they'll all be funny. And really, as far as the tone goes, you make the funny stuff funny and the sad stuff sad, but you always play it as real as you can; for the real emotion of the scenes. That was really it."
"Obviously a lot is done in editing. And there are sometimes when you say, 'This is too serious a scene, we don't need a joke here' and you cut it. Or, there are times when you're choosing between five different jokes and they're all really funny... So we were very lucky to have the funny stuff actually be funny. That, I think, goes a long way to having the audience just go along for the ride. There were a few times... I mean, I had to be careful when I pushed in, you know, when I would dolly into someone. You notice there's not a lot of that. There's not a lot of us telling people what to feel with the camera."
"Music is also very important, but a lot of the times music is used, I think, as counterpoint. So you have the Roy Orbison, or you have the Bee Gees, and they're used almost to take a piss out of a scene. So that helps with tone. We never wanted the audience to feel like they were being pushed in any specific direction. So we had to be very careful with music. Michael [Giacchino] wrote this amazing score that manages to be heartfelt and, yet, never manipulative, in my mind. I think that's what works about the movie, is that it is so incredibly heartfelt and hopefully never feels manipulative."
Once we were on this topic, I had to follow-up, and told him that I felt like it was very risky (or brave) of them to try and make a movie that was smarter than most and yet would connect with the demographic they were going for. "We were never scared to do that on set. I think when we were done with it we were like, 'Fuck. I hope this works.' We just loved the script and we just did it. We knew that Seth and Joe were funny together, and we knew that that would feel accessible to people. And beyond that, we knew that we were making a personal story about something that was meaningful to people, so we just had to take a leap of faith with it," he said. It was definitely a leap worth taking as the final result proves they could, and did, pull that off. Levine continued about how smart comedies have been on the rise since Apatow took over:
"You know, I don't know how many people are going to see the movie. I know that people we showed the movie to like it. I know that they really like it. And I think people appreciate being respected in that way. But I think that, honestly, the Apatow comedies really did pave the way for us to be able to do something a little more sophisticated. This movie almost starts out trying to trick you into thinking you are in a movie like that. And then it sort of pulls the rug out from under you. But I think it's constantly engaged in a dialogue with that type of movie. Like, Bridesmaids is my favorite movie of the year. I think it's just amazing. And I think that is for a fairly sophisticated audience as well. I think audiences are more sophisticated than people give them credit for in general. And I like to hope for the best in people."
When I first saw 50/50, the screening was personally introduced by Seth and Will, and I told Jonathan that I thought this was a nice touch (I've heard they've tried to introduce as many screenings as they could) because it showed how personal of a film it was, allowing for a connection and resonance with the audience. Levine reiterated what I said and mentioned a great point about how everyone just needs to see this, even if they're hesitant or unsure about it, as it'll be worth it in the end (and I'm not just saying that - it's true!).
"I think one of the most compelling things about the movie is that it's a personal story. I think it's important to understand how much blood, sweat, and tears went into this movie and how no one got paid... Seth, I don't know what he got paid, but I think he got scale and he just did it, he took a pay cut to make this movie. It's a passion project."
"The response has been so overwhelmingly positive that I think that one of the best marketing tools for this movie is people just seeing the movie itself and telling their friends about it... I think that a lot of people might be worried, 'Oh, is it going to be too depressing? Is it going to be this? Is it going to be that?' And I think all those fears are answered when people actually see the movie. So I think seeing the movie is a great, great tool to get more people to see the movie. [laughs]"
In addition to Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring in this as Adam, and Seth Rogen as his friend, the stellar cast also includes Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston, as well as some great appearances by Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall. I asked Levine about test screening the movie and what they learned from that process and the changes they made. While I'm wary towards test screenings being effective, Levine speaks highly of his experiences testing, and the insights it gave them for this film:
"We tested it twice. It tested awesome. We tested in once, we changed the ending, tested again, it tested better. But both times it tested awesome. For me, having that opportunity to actually test the movie was an incredible gift. I remember even taking The Wackness to Sundance and watching it with audiences, like, 'Oh, it's fucking... it's 10 minutes too long!' So having Seth come from that Judd school where it's just, testing is part of the process, I think was an incredible thing for me. And having the opportunity to test it, re-cut stuff, re-test it, re-cut again, I think was great, because I think it made the movie much tighter, and I like tight movies. I think there are too few of them around."
"As far as what we learned, I've been pleasantly surprised with the way its resonated with people. Both people who have had personal connections to cancer, and people who maybe didn't have that close of a personal connection to it, but the movie still resonated with them as well. And that, to me, has been one of the more gratifying things about it - is everyone who has had a connection to cancer thus far I think has felt like its done justice to what that's like. And that is very meaningful."
Sounds like he couldn't ask for a better response. To bring everything full circle with my discussion with Levine, I asked him if he thought it was important for his career progress to make a movie like 50/50, that's a bit more restrained (not as stylized), but mainly a bit more commercial and accessible. As expected, his answer was a definite yes, or he wouldn't have even directed this to begin with. Levine reveals:
"I think at some point I did become aware that I would need to make a movie that people would want to see. [laughs] And also, it was important to me to sort of have... not just because I'm a huge fan of Seth and a huge fan of Joe, but it really helps when you have movie stars in your movie. Like I said, I spent a year kind of lost trying to navigate the filmmaking world, and directing, and Hollywood and all that stuff. Yeah, at a certain point you're like, 'Whoa, I should probably make a movie.' Not just because that's what you do and you want to, but because all you want to do is be able to keep doing it, and you'll be old news if you're not doing it."
"But that's not why... I turned down so many things. If this wasn't the exact right fit I wouldn't have done it. And it just felt like it came at the right time and it was the right thing to do. And I'm so, so incredibly lucky to have done it."
I think he made the right choice and this is only going to help him develop more projects that he wants to be involved in. I asked if he'll still be making smaller budgeted films or go bigger when he can. "My taste is kind of all over the place. I like adventure. I like kind of these transformative cinematic experiences. But then I also like... I mean, there's just so many things I want to do. But there's also a lot of things I don't want to do. So I have to really navigate it, and it's not easy." Up next for Levine is Warm Bodies, a zombie rom-com adaptation that it sounds like will be quite fun to see. We talked about Warm Bodies as well:
"For me, it's really about, 'Can it feel a little different? Will it be of a certain level of quality?' There's so often, in filmmaking, you're backed into something that already has these set parameters, whether it's a sequel or a book that people love. Isaac Marion wrote a wonderful book and we were lucky to get on top of it before it even came out. Now it's coming out, but it's not like we have to contend with the rabid fans who will get upset if I do something different. There's a little more freedom than a lot of stuff you get to do on this scale. And that, to me, is a great thing."
"Right now there's a few things in development that I really also like. I don't know which one I'm going to do after this, but I think they're all unique and interesting and kind of reminiscent of the movies that I enjoyed growing up - from the '80s, kind of Zemeckis, Spielberg stuff, to then discovering independent film with Soderbergh and Spike Lee and all that stuff. I just hope to get good enough that I can do stuff like those guys."
He doesn't have far to go, as he's definitely nearing that level already. For some final thoughts, I spoke with Levine a bit about how zombies seem to be on the rise (no pun intended) nowadays, with "The Walking Dead" on AMC being so successful, and movies like World War Z with Brad Pitt in the works. While they're still early in development (John Malkovich was just cast in Warm Bodies a few weeks ago and it'll star Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer), he explained that it won't be like any zombie movie we've seen before.
"I think on one level that's a good thing. Then, on another level, you don't want to be played out by the time it comes out. But ours is so different, man. It's so different. It's bananas, this movie. It's told from the perspective of a zombie. It plays within the constraints of the genre, yet I hope it just kind of explodes the framework of the genre, too. We don't want to feel like we're part of this wave of stuff, we sorta want to feel like our own unique thing. Hopefully we can convince other people that's the case!"
For more info on Warm Bodies, you can read our Teresa Palmer casting news or grab a copy of the book, which is out on shelves now. Filming has already begun and production is underway, so we already have this Jonathan Levine film to look out for next, but in the meantime, 50/50 will be hitting theaters very soon. I would've loved to talk even longer with Levine and share even more quotes, but we were already pushing into his next meeting, so we had to wrap it up here, though I was glad we got to talk briefly about Warm Bodies. And of course, I was happy to chat with him about 50/50, which is one of the year's best comedies.
Thank you to Jonathan Levine and Summit Entertainment for the interview. 50/50, written by Will Reiser, arrives in theaters everywhere starting September 30th. If you've been waiting for another great comedy actually worth seeing in theaters, this is the one, it's worth every penny. Thanks for reading the interview!