Interview: Jonathan Levine of ‘The Wackness’

Posted on July 20, 2008 at 12:00 pm



Writer/director Jonathan Levine has been getting great reviews for “The Wackness,” the story of the friendship between a teenage drug dealer (Josh Peck) and his customer/therapist (Ben Kingsley). I spoke to him about what inspires him and about what it feels like to direct an Oscar-winning actor with a “Sir” title.

One thing everyone who sees the movie talks about is the specificity of period detail. It is set in 1994, a time so recent that we don’t really remember how much has changed. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone had to use pagers and pay phones instead of cell phones and Nintendo Game Boys instead of PSP.

It’s a fine line. We didn’t want it to become “I love the 90’s” but to have audiences bring their own nostalgia to it it brings an energy. The nostalgia I put in there interacts with yours — that’s all part of it. As long as you’re aware of it and polling when it gets too much then you’re okay. You can see where it becomes a little too much, and we cut some of it out.

You worked with actors from a wide range of backgrounds and your two leads in particular could not have been more different — one a classically trained Oscar-winner with a very long, distinguished career and one coming from a Nickelodeon sit-com. And then there’s Mary Kate Olson who grew up on television. How do you work with them?

I have to figure out how they like to work. It’s almost akin to throwing a party and you want the right people sitting next to the right people. I have to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible and working in the mode they like to work in.

With Olivia (Thirlby) and Josh (Peck), they are closer to my age and I can intuit what they’re going to dig. With Sir Ben I had to ask him how he likes to work and he knows. He knows what environment he flourishes in. He said, “You have to tell me when you’ve got it and then we can play around with a few more.” In the movie frequently it’s one of his first two takes and frequently some of the others. He said, “Tell Josh that he’s going to be leading our scenes.” That made everyone comfortable, empowered us in a way, and it mirrors the dynamic the two characters have in the movie. He told Josh that, but then as everyone got more and more comfortable sometimes Sir Ben would take the lead.

Working with smart actors makes everything a lot easier. No matter what your kind of background it works as long as you have a shorthand, and it is much easier to communicate with intelligent people. This group was all very easy communicating, even with Mary Kate.

Take Josh, his show is so broad and big and he’s like this Jackie Gleason character. But he has an acting coach he’s worked with for a while and so he has serious training. I had looked him up on YouTube, too, and saw Mean Creek. He’s not afraid to go where he needs to go. He embraces the entire character, foibles and all. There was nothing that had to be taught or learned. We talked about what of his experiences were relevant. Sometimes I would say, “Bring it back a little bit,” or “Do it again.” All I wanted was the most naturalistic thing possible.

Now I see Drake and Josh all the time, it seems to be on whenever I turn on the television. And he’s into some wacky hijinks! To me the one thing after working with him that may have helped him or informed his work here is that he has an accessibility and vulnerability and ability to empathize, and that is what appealed to me. He is not afraid to be vulnerable, to show all sides of the character good and bad.

I wish I could take credit for his performance, but it’s all him. I can only take credit for casting him.

What were some of the movies or performances that influenced you in thinking about telling this story?

The references I watched during the screenwriting process were looking at May/September buddy movies like Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Wonder Boys, but movies I didn’t watch that were so much a part of who I am and growing up, the ones I tried to capture their spirit, were films by Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. We did watch Almost Famous. I didn’t have to rewatch it because it is so much a part of my memory of growing up. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ “Citizen Kane.” The real heart of the movie is Cameron; that’s where the movie’s heart is. The scene in the museum is beautifully done. It is all about these characters and the things they’re going through. Even though what you remember is the music and the clothes, those movies influenced me more than I knew.

I’m sure everyone wants to know about Mary Kate Olson!

We offered her the role and it was a small role and she thought she could have fun with it. I was really impressed with how down to earth she was. I’d be looking for her between takes and find her in craft services, eating grilled cheese with the grips. And she’s got this amazing charisma! Considering that she’s had such a crazy strange life, it has to be so hard for her. Walking down the street in Sundance, we had this strange group of people, everyone noticed the other guys but they were tripping over snowbanks trying to get her picture. I was glad to show her in a new light. I like the fact that in independent cinema you can take people who have preconceived notions about them and show everyone something new.

Was there a moment in this film that was your starting point for thinking about the story?

The first scene in the film is the first one I wrote, the one where everything began. I started with it four years ago in film school. As everything else was rewritten and edited, this therapy session with drugs exchanged for therapy was the center, and we built the layers around that.

How did the actors change or enlarge your ideas of the characters?

Working with Josh and Olivia was incredible because they brought such realism and a natural grounded feeling to their scenes, something the actors of the John Hughes movies had, the bravery, the willingness to embrace going to every place that you need to go to show a three-dimensional character. Olivia’s character — I don’t claim to understand women. It was incumbent upon her to fill in the blanks, to make her sympathetic in spite of the fact that what she was doing was not very nice. She gave me a new empathy for all the girls in my life, and I am very grateful for that.

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Jeffrey Blitz of ‘Rocket Science’

Posted on August 5, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Jeffrey Blitz, director of the award-winning spelling bee documentary Spellbound, was in Washington to talk about his first feature film, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, “Rocket Science.” He and I had a wonderful talk at the Georgetown Ritz hotel. We got off to a good start when we discovered we were both on our way to Comic-Con.

Most people would say that the lifetime period of greatest anxiety and misery is ages 13-15. What is it about that time of life that interests you so much?

You live an inwardly raw life at that age, you haven’t got an ability to protect yourself from your own emotions and the world. You are ripe –when you fall in love you really fall inlove, when your heart is broken, your heart is really broken, you don’t yet have the inner resoures to protect yourself or be anything less than completely that feeling.

It must be a challenge to ask kids to access and express emotions that are still unfamiliar to them. How do you work with these young actors?

The biggest part of it is casting. When you cast well you are casting someone who can access what needs to be accessed for that part. It was a low budget movie but we put whatever resources it had into casting. The great story about finding Reece is that we had looked for six months and finally HBO, who was financing, gave us a two week grace period, or we’d have to shut down. And then one day someone was walking through the production office with a bunch of tapes that had been sent in unsolicted. Normally, we would not have watched them but we were ready to try anything. Reece’s came from Vancouver and his agent sent it in. It was like when yiou meet someone you want to be friends with or fall in love, you don’t ask why It’s him, he thoroughly inhabits the role.

The big challenge was that in this case, we had a main character who stutters. It’s like learning a very difficult accent. Sometimes a performance suffers because the actor’s brain is working on the mechanical stuff their mouth has to do instead of what they need for the scene. We looked for six months, everywhere, we tried actual stutterers, but this character had a very particular kind of stuttering that is more amenable to the way of comedy, to set-ups and punchlines, it has a rhythm.

Our female lead, Anna Kendrick, came in very early into the process. After her audition, I wrote down Anna Kendrick is Ginny Ryerson, but because it was so early we thought we should keep looking. But she was one of the few girls we auditioned who could grasp everything she was saying, not just rattle off all those serious SAT words.

Boys and girls at that age seem to be from completely different species. How would you describe their differences and how does that affect their ability to communicate with each other?

We tried to get out of the idea that boys and girls are of completely different realms. Everyone in the movie is lost when it comes to love and romantic relationships and that defines them more than any differences. Ginny is very ambitious, not a typical girl role. They’re all kind of gender neutral in a way, all striving.

The adults in the film all seem to be dealing with their own difficulties. Despite the fact that the characters are surrounded by parents and teachers who theoretically have a commitment to concern for the kids, most of them do not seem to be capable of it. What is their role in the story?

We were not trying to make a comment about adults in general or say that adults are useless. If my main character is lost and all he needs to do is turn to his parents, there’s no story. It is so much more interesting if he has to solve things on his own. It’s not about debate, not about who wins; it’s about kids who are trying to grapple with questions that are bigger than they are. You can love but still not feel you understand it. The adults are childlike, all at the mercy of the mystery of love. The Violent Femmes (whose song is played in the movie) are so expressive of the anger of love gone bad. I love the idea that the adults’ idea of therapy is to do a cleaned up, dainty version of the songs that are roiling with such anger.

In a movie about the power of speaking to express oneself, why have a narrator? He seems to be omniscient, not just older and wiser. Who is he and what does he contribute to the movie?

Hal is a character who essentially has no voice and is struggling to find his voice. He has a fantasy of a voice like James Earl Jones. With a narrator, we had one character with no voice and one who is noting but a disembodied voice, a purely articulate voice. It shows the gulf between who Hal is and who he wishes to be. You are given Hal’s dream voice and confronted with his real voice. I love the idea of a torrent of words. When you grow up as a suttterer you are very aware of the power of words.

What do you want to do next?

I’m working on a documentary about lottery winners. It is another low budget scrappy project, just me operating the camera and producer/sound man. It is a great thing to go back and forth between big productions with a crew of 100 people and this little two-person movie. In a bigger production, you speak in a different language to the cinematographer and the production designer and the cast, many different languages all day long, saying the same thing over and over again. On this new film, I just put the camera exactly where I want to put it. I don’t have to say anything to anyone, I just start to shoot. There are two American myths about the lottery. One is the Protestant work ethic, it’s tainted, bad, and you’re cursed if you did not earn the money. The other is that it solves all your problems. The reality is that your sense of scale shifts, your sense of the money that you need or want shifts. If you have more money, you have more financial concerns. And family members and friends expect you to help them out.

Can you give examples of the kinds of movies and directors who have inspired you?

Hal Ashby — I watched his films again and again, the cinematography and production design. He has a masterful blending of absurd comedy and naturalism. His characters do outrageous things that are not of the real world and yet I feel like he’s someone I know. I did not want a Wes Andersen snowglobe artificial world. I wanted characters with real human emotion but exaggerated. I watch a lot of Billy Wilder films, the way he brings intelligence and humanity into whatever genre he was working in. I love the idea of being able to genre-hop the way he did. He brought his stamp to every one of his films, and I would love to be able to do that.

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