You may not have heard of Jonathan Levine….yet. But you will. The helmer’s latest feature, The Wackness, has already made a good amount of noise throughout the festival scene, winning the Audience Award at Sudance and the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year.
The pick takes place in the summer of 1994, a pivotal year for the director and the film’s characters, all set against the backdrop of a powerful hip hop soundtrack. Taking place during the period in which Levine himself graduated from high school, The Wackness follows the sensitive and lonely Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), as he tries to makes ends meet through selling weed. Luke finds himself entangled in a teenage love affair with the beautiful Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), all the while bonding with his therapist, who is also Stephanie’s father, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who is also a fan of the ganja.
I sat down with Levine last week to talk about The Wackness.
Sarah Mitchell: How did you get into making films?
Jonathan Levine: I’ve always been really into filmmaking. When I was growing up here my friends and I would pick up cameras and play around when I was twelve. So I’ve always just been really into it. Then I got the opportunity to study it. I’ve always been kind of down to earth. I’m not into a lot of the bullshit. And I think that that’s why I’m really happy to have met all these actors, because you never know. There’s a lot of egos, especially out in Hollywood. And we had a tone on set that…wouldn’t tolerate that stuff. And luckily, none of these guys have it. You would think between Famke and Method and Mary-Kate and Kingsley, that someone would be a dick, but no. They’re all cool and they’re all really dedicated to their work. It’s really inspiring actually, especially with someone like Kingsley, to see that they’re still so down to earth and really just about doing the work and they don’t let all the stupid ancillary stuff get in the way of being creative.
SM: What made 1994 such an important time for you?
JL: When you’re just graduating from high school there’s something very significant about it. Regardless of what you personal experience is, its a time you’re being exposed to all sorts of different things, whether its blossoming sexuality or your first drink or your first time you fall in love. Or even just kind of the social structure of it. I hated it. And I was really lost and I think that’s around the time I started to find my way…to try to fin the way. So that, to me, is why high school. Why 1994? A lot of its because of the music and a lot of it is because of the ability to do it since it hasn’t been done yet. ..the ability to look back at that time and put it through that nostalgic lens.
SM: The Wackness is very “New York-centric.” Do you think the story could have taken place anywhere else?
JL: I’d like to hope it could. I’d like to hope it could’ve taken place anywhere. But that said, I think when you’re telling a story like this you have to infuse it with as much personal detail as possible. I hope that it is accessible to people who don’t know the specifics of the story. I hope that people can connect to the fact that maybe that’s the summer they fell in love or some older mentor that they had- some more emotional arc of the story. So I like to think that these characters could’ve existed somewhere else. But that said, you’ve got to write what you know and this was very much what I knew.
SM: How did you know that Josh would be a good fit for the role of Luke? It’s such a pivotal change in his career.
JL: I didn’t know anything about Josh. He just walked into the room, one of probably six dozen actors. He just walked into the room and did his reading. And he was just a revelation for me. He had this sensitivity to him and this vulnerability. So I didn’t know anything about the show. Now I see it all the time. Now I can’t flip through the channels without seeing it. But I was not in the target demographic of the Drake & Josh show. But it’s interesting, now that I watch it, I’ll fuck with him about it. I’m like, “Dude, you were up to some crazy hi-jinx. I was on the treadmill at the gym and you were microwaving something and you burned your hand and you put your hand in a pitcher of milk to cool your hand.” But it’s like, he’s got this ability…I think it’s the accessibility and the ability to find humor in stuff which is a similarity between that show and this. There’s not many similarities, but that would be one.
SM: Was Ben Kingsley your first choice for Dr. Squires?
JL: Yeah, he was the first person we offered it to. And without him we wouldn’t have a movie. We were lucky to be able to get to him and that he read it so quickly and said yes. We originally had a huge list, it wasn’t like written for him, we had a huge list of actors. You know, the usual suspects and then some. Hundreds of actors we were thinking would be exciting. But he was always the most intriguing to us for two reasons: one, because he’s fucking awesome and two, because he’s not the type of person you might normally expect in this role. That to me as a director is really exciting, to see him in a new light. Obviously he can do it because he’s done so many different types of things. But, you’ve never seen him do this before. And that’s what really excites me about his work in this film.
SM: How did you go about choosing the soundtrack?
JL: I wrote a bunch of shit into the script. And I’ve actually helped clear music for a short film I did and my first feature, so I know how difficult it can be. I wrote songs I thought I could get. And we ended up being able to get even bigger songs. Usually it’s the opposite. They’re listening to fucking “Let It Be” by the Beatles, no one’s gonna give you that. Anyway, we were able to get better shit and that’s just because….first of all we’ve got this soundtrack relationship with Sony BMG but I think it’s also because we’re also the first people to use this music in a really long time in a movie. And I think we got a lot of good feedback from the hip hop community as we’re hopefully turning new people on to this era of music and hopefully it will reap benefits down the line for a lot of these artists. So, the feedback from when we tried to get these songs were great. We were able to get songs I never thought we’d be able to get- “Can I Kick It,” I never would have thought we would get “Just a Friend,” or R. Kelly, all this stuff. But as far as picking it goes, once we knew we were working with the Sony catalogue we would just try a bunch of stuff. I knew I wanted a song from Illmatic. I didn’t know what the song would be, but I knew that Illmatic, that was an album that I played over and over and over again in my room in high school. I knew, well, Biggie obviously, we knew we wanted some Biggie songs. But I tried not to write it into a corner. We needed that framework as broad as possible. And then you just pick what goes with the scene.
SM: I noticed there was a Method Man song in one of Method Man’s scenes.
JL: Yeah, that was kind of a mistake. That wasn’t my original intention. Searchlight is doing a Biggie movie, so they kept the song we wanted for themselves.
SM: What song?
JL: It was “Things Don’t Change,” first song on Ready to Die. It was the original song in that scene. And now I think it’s cool because he’s so good with it that you don’t recognize it as Method Man over Method Man. Hopefully its Method Man over this character.
SM: So would you classify The Wackness as a hip hop movie?
JL: I’d like to think that the spirit of hip hop is something that we try to convey in the movie. I definitely would not be upset if it was classified as a hip hop movie because what the characters, the Kingsley character and the Josh character, identify with in the music is stuff that we wanted to do on a macro level in the movie itself. Hip hop has a spirit and a soul that transcends music. It’s more of a state of mind. And I hope that in some small way that soul comes across in the movie.
SM: Despite the heavy presence of weed in the movie, this isn’t a stoner pic.
JL: The weed is there as a device. It’s there to serve a purpose. It allows me to explore some issues of how people medicate themselves to cope. And it also allows me to do some funny stuff to lighten the mood. It’s not a stoner movie, but it’s very much integral to the plot of the film and also to the themes that we’re looking at. But I’d also like to think that it tries to get a little deeper than those kinds of movies do. Although, I love those movies. But stoner movies, man, I want to see Wall-E. That’s a fucking stoner movie.
SM: So, what’s up next for you?
JL: I am writing a book adaptation for Sony, which is supposed to be due in a couple of day and I’m going to be late with it. Just because I’ve been so busy, man. That’s kind of what’s up next, going all over the country promoting this thing. So, I have a few ideas percolating along with this script that I’m finishing for Sony, but a few ideas that I’m going to write for myself. I’m reading a bunch of scripts, potentially to direct some material that someone else wrote. And I’m going to sort of use this movie to fly me to Europe and hide in Italy with my girlfriend for a week and hope that the dollar’s a little stronger.
So see what Levine’s been up to since then, click here.