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  • Interview: 'The Wackness' director Jonathan Levine

    Mon, 30 Jun 2008 17:19:48

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    The year is 1994, the setting is New York City, and the young protagonist's occupation of choice is weed pusher. The Wackness' hero, Luke (Josh Peck), is a recent high school graduate contending with familiar issues that plague disaffected youth: an emotionally taxing home life, lacking a stable sense of identity, and enduring embarrassing sexual blunders with his first love, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Seeking council in a drug-addled therapist (played with brilliant flamboyance by Sir Ben Kingsley) whose payment is a steady supply of pot, Luke attempts to reconcile his emotional ails but often finds himself reeling in the adults in his life, chief among them his erratic shrink. Director Jonathan Levine peppered his '90s-era bildungsroman with songs that plant viewers firmly in the story's temporal setting, evoking sweet reminiscences of a time when Will Smith (nee, Fresh Prince) and DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Summertime" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It" were blaring on Manhattan streetcorners.

    The Sundance audience favorite recently screened at the L.A. Film Festival and officially hits theaters on July 3rd. In a one-on-one with ARTISTdirect, Levine talked about the movie's music, how he consciously avoided writing a "stoner flick," and the songs he would put on his Summer 2008 playlist (because he's bringing the mixtape back, baby).

    New York during summer time is a really specific—and, in a lot of ways, very volatile—setting for a movie. I’m wondering why you chose it and how that informed the story for you?

    I think we were trying to follow in the tradition of coming of age movies, and for some reason most people come of age in the summer. It’s not just in movies; in real life, for me, most of my rites of passage occurred in the lazy days of summer, probably just because you had more time on your hands. New York, specifically, in the summer is a crazy place. It gets so hot and everyone is at each other’s throats, but yet, it’s still 90 degrees at night, so you can be out at night and it’s got this vibrancy to it. So for me all of those things contributed to setting it in the summer. Summer is my favorite season for some reason. Most of my fondest memories are from summers. Some of my fondest moviegoing memories are from summers.

    Even though I wouldn’t directly compare it to these films, I immediately thought of Kids and Do The Right Thing while watching.

    Those are two of my favorite movies. For me, Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker. I think I was probably 13 when I saw it. Kids is a very strong reference for us, just because [it’s] very, very authentic. I think our characters are a little less intensely involved in the subculture than the kids in that movie, but it’s certainly a very strong reference for us.

    I spoke to another director recently who described how work can be personal without being autobiographical. I’m wondering how that’s true for you with The Wackness?

    I’m gonna have to steal that, because that’s the exact way I would describe it. I think when you make something this personal—and the main character is very much a reflection of my own personality, although Josh [Peck] sort of took it and ran with it—the tone of the film is very consistent with my own worldview and my own sense of humor. And of course the world is culled from the memories I had. But I think it’s more the spirit that’s personal, and once you get into the details of it, the autobiographical stuff goes away. If I were to make an autobiographical movie it would be totally boring; nothing that interesting has ever happened to me [laughs]. But if you make a personal movie and use reality as a jumping off point, then that’s where you can be specific and more resonant at the same time. I think that’s the goal of any movie in this genre, or any movie at all—to be specific enough to ground yourself in the details of a world and then be as accessible in the emotions of your characters to appeal to a broader audience that may not know that specific world.

    The characters are ones that you knew intimately, then. Were you referencing friends, or were they a pastiche of people that you knew?

    Growing up in New York is a very different kind of experience and I feel like the rites of passage make those bonds tighter. It’s the specifics of going to a house party, or what kind of beer they’re serving at the party, where you’re drinking, or where you’re hanging out in the park, the way you’re talking, the way you’re dressing—these are all very specific. Not based on real people, per se, but all the details of it are from specific memories.

    Everyone is talking about the music, because it’s really distinct and it gives the film a temporal specificity. What kind of emotions did you want the music to evoke?

    I think the great thing about the music is that when people listen to it, if it resonates with you, if it’s something you were listening to when you were growing up, you have your own memories. You have your own bittersweet nostalgic moment when you were listening to [a] song, what you were wearing, who you were talking to the summer that the song came out or how you felt about the world. I like the interplay of that. I like that the audience can have their own specific memories. It ties in very neatly with the tone of nostalgia and bittersweet haze of a summer long ago. Having the audience bring their own memories to the table allows them to engage in a more active way with the film.

    Were you listening to the music while you were writing?

    I can’t remember what I was listening to while I was writing. When I’m writing, I’m doing a hundred different things at once. I’ve got—and this is horrible; I have to learn how not to do it—iChat open, my e-mail open, I’ve got iTunes open, and I’m always changing the songs I’m listening to. I mean, I wrote songs into the script, but they’re so much a part of my memory, I don’t even know that I needed to listen to them. I can quote every line of every song in the movie verbatim. I don’t think I needed to listen to them to get to that point, but I probably did at some point. I was probably listening to all sorts of random stuff on my iTunes.

    I do the same thing, too, so maybe it’s just a generational thing.

    Well, the good thing is that computers allow you to be much more efficient, so that balances out the inefficiency and procrastination that they promote.

    Despite what people might think when they hear the premise of the story, it’s not a “stoner flick.” How do you as a filmmaker and a writer consciously avoid that artifice?

    It’s true—you try to use it, because the people who go in expecting a stoner movie will actually, hopefully, come out pleasantly surprised, and then you just avoid the pitfalls of it. First of all, you try to be smarter, and that’s not very difficult; a lot of the goals of those movies are to be as dumb as possible. Second of all, I think it’s a movie where the guy’s occupation, while he’s dealing weed, is almost arbitrary. I think you connect to the emotion of the characters rather than the specifics of what it’s like to be a drug dealer. You can have a lot of fun with the weed stuff and it’s a great way to lighten the mood and to show a side of an occupation that has not yet been shown very often in movies. We were going for truth with our characters, more in the stoner movie tradition of Dazed and Confused, which is one of my favorite movies ever. I guess that’s really the only one. It’s not about the weed; that’s just something they happened to be doing and, yes, it can be a device, but that’s all it is—a device. If you’re true to your characters’ arcs and emotions and intentions, then you can avoid that. Once I wrote it, the actual act of shooting it was as much being conscious of what we didn’t want to be as what we did want to be, like the pitfalls we could fall into.

    I read a compliment that Olivia [Thirlby] paid you recently, about how you allowed her and Josh as actors to just exist in the characters, to be as natural as possible. What did you hope to get out of them as actors, and how did you work with them?

    I think the great thing about working with young actors is they don’t yet have their bag of tricks. They’re very much bringing a lot of themselves to the table, sort of channeling themselves into the role. If you cast someone new who happens to share some superficial similarities to the characters, then you can allow them to connect to their own personalization of the characters. There’s no real way for them to make a wrong decision. I want them to come onto set being free to do whatever they want. Obviously, they’re going off a framework and it’s not like we totally went away from the lines. They were able to improvise, but more than that, they were able to make different choices if they felt the situation merited it. Often those choices ended up on the cutting room floor—maybe 8 [takes] out of 10—but the 2 times out of 10 that they didn’t are some of the most magical moments in the movie. Beyond that, if they feel the freedom to go with their instincts and bring a lot of themselves to the table, that’s the way I can get the naturalism that I’m looking for. A lot of this is about showing frank sexuality or situations where people are very vulnerable, showing situations that actors or filmmakers might otherwise shy away from. I think it’s very brave of [the actors] to go to those places, and the more they can be true to themselves in those places, the more it can [communicate] resonance.

    You don’t romanticize the love story subplot at all. It’s awkward and heartbreaking, which Olivia and Josh play very well. It will likely ring true with the young people that see this movie.

    I hope so. For me it was just about having as much fun with my own foibles as possible and being able to laugh at myself. Not that this is me in this situation, but the idea is that I’ve completely messed up in front of girls throughout my entire life. Often I’ve just been able to laugh at what a douchebag I am, so I’m sure other people feel the same. Why not show that, and try to show it in a nuanced way and not just a blunt, jokey way? Although we do that, too. I love when Josh is on the phone and he goes from proclaiming he loves Olivia[‘s character Stephanie] to telling her he never wants to talk to her again. It’s all in the spirit of having fun with these things and being able to laugh at yourself. I think it’s consistent with what happens at the end of the movie. It’s owning your own faults.

    You’ve got the young actors on one hand, and you’ve got Sir Ben Kingsley on the other. When Ben came onboard the project, how much did he contribute to augmenting the character you had written on the page? Did he cultivate certain eccentricities that weren’t there before?

    Totally. I think of anyone, he did the most to make that character his own. With him it is so much about the physicality of the character—the way the character looks and talks and carries himself, and that was all his creation. I would just watch him with a big smile from the sidelines. I knew that he was going to do something that I was going to love, so I didn’t really micromanage him. The flipside of that is, when we were about to shoot I had no clue what the hell was going to happen. Then he did it and I was thrilled. It’s this interesting combination, because he did all that to create this character and then, as much as I gave the other actors freedom, he didn’t want the freedom. In fact, if he were to get even a word wrong on set he would insist the script supervisor come up to him and correct him. I didn’t care, but for him it was very important to stay true to the text. I think it’s that dual combination. He’s taking this character and making it his own, but yet he needs the roadmap to make sure he doesn’t go too far left or right. I served, hopefully, as that, too. I was very much about giving him the freedom and the comfort to work in the way that he most wanted to work, and I pretty much stayed away.

    What do you enjoy, or what is more difficult about directing material that you’ve written?

    I like them both. When you [direct] something you wrote it’s so intensely personal, you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve the whole time. It’s a much more vulnerable position to be in, and you’re also hyper-aware of being true to the writer’s intensions, even when the writer happens to be you. On my first film the writer was a very good friend of mine; he wrote a wonderful script, but it was my job to interpret that script. In doing that I felt a little more freedom than I did with my own material. One is a real opportunity, the other is a story you’re telling from your own personal soul and it’s so important to tell in your own voice. I like them both. If I get the opportunity to make a few more [films], I’d like to go back and forth between stuff I wrote and stuff I didn’t write. I think each one has its own unique challenges and rewards.

    If I have any hope for The Wackness, it’s not only that people see it, but that it brings back the mixtape.

    I know! That’d be great. There are new ways to do it, too, with the digital age.

    If you had to pick five songs that would be on your summer mixtape for this year, what would they be?

    Oh, cool! I would do “Summertime Rolls” by Jane’s Addiction. Let’s go with Souls of Mischief, “93 ‘Til Infinity,” just so we get the hip hop out of the way. Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So;” Buju Banton, “Untold Stories;” and “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Jonathan Levine, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Ben Kingsley

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