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The Wackness - Jonathan Levine interview

Jonathan Levine directs The Wackness

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JONATHAN Levine talks about directing The Wackness – a coming-of-age tale set in New York, 1994 – and what he loves about the city and why it’s changed since then.

He also talks about some of the challenges that lay ahead for him as a filmmaker and why hip-hop is no longer the first thing on his play-list (with a few recommendations of what is!).

Q. The Wackness offers a terrific depiction of New York in 1994…
Jonathan Levine: Thank you, yes, we tried our best. We were very rigid about what we included and what we didn’t include, and what little details to pepper throughout it and what things to not show. At the end of the day, we wanted to treat it like a period piece from the beginning.

Q. Do you think New York has changed a lot since then – and is it for the better?
Jonathan Levine: Yes, I think so. I don’t know if I’m the one to judge whether it’s changed for the better or not. But both… probably. One of the things that I think changed is that you see less… Ben Kingsley’s character sort of bemoans the lack of character, and the fact that it’s sort of going away, and while I’m not sure that I agree with him entirely, certainly New York now looks a lot like every other city. You know, you don’t see many home-grown businesses there; you see the kind of franchises and chain stores that you see in every other city. I was actually very surprised when travelling around London that while, yes, there’s a lot of Starbucks and whatever, there’s also a lot of stuff that’s part of London. And I think New York is losing the stuff that’s just part of New York.

Q. So what’s your favourite thing about New York?
Jonathan Levine: Oh, I think the greatest thing about New York is the people. I live in LA now, which is where I have to live to continue to make movies… and you get in your car, you go from one place to another and you never see people. Just sitting on the subway in New York can be the most inspiring thing in the world. You see people from all different kinds of life, all different kinds of socio-economic backgrounds, all different kinds of racial backgrounds… Just sitting there, you just get a great perspective and can be a part of the human experience. I think that’s really remarkable. You just get that walking around the streets of New York – much like you do in London I guess. The cities are very similar in that way – it’s just about density.

Q. How much of yourself is in the Josh Peck character?
Jonathan Levine: Quite a bit. I think quite a bit was on the page but then when you get someone like Josh Peck in the room with you, you kind of give the character to him and he makes it his own. And that’s great – he didn’t get handcuffed by trying to be like me. I think a lot of the perspective of that character, his approach to life and his world view is a lot like what I was like when I was 17. A lot of the world that he lives in, and a lot of the music – all the New York hip-hop and that stuff – was part of my growing up. But the plot isn’t autobiographical. I definitely smoked a lot of dope but never sold it. So none of that is really true. But I was probably lost in the same way he was, so I recognised that in him.

Q. I imagine one of the great joys of putting this together was getting to pick the soundtrack?
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, that was really fun. It’s not without its challenges because you can’t always get what you want but we actually were able to get most of it. I was in shock. But that’s one of my favourite parts, getting into the editing room, trying to get the songs and kind of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Q. Being a hip-hop fan, it must have been great to secure the cameo from Method Man?
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, that was totally great. He’s been an idol of mine ever since I was a kid. I used to get all his albums. So it was great. And the best thing about it was that he was really down to earth and cool… everyone in the cast was such a delight to work with. They all responded to the script and they were all there to make it the best movie it could be, so there weren’t any egos, or anything. It was just about doing the work.

Q. And Sir Ben Kingsley smokes dope… that’s a bit of a departure for him in a sense…
Jonathan Levine: Yeah [laughs] but it’s interesting because he does a lot of departures. I think that’s what’s so great about him – he’s very difficult to define in one certain role. In the States, he has three movies out now – Elegy and The Love Guru – and they’re totally different each time. That’s just because he can do that; he’s such a chameleon. But for me, this was exciting because I hadn’t seen him do anything like this before so I thought it was really cool.

Q. This won the audience award at Sundance. What was that like?
Jonathan Levine: Amazing. Sundance can be very crazy, it can be very overwhelming to be there. So to get that award made the whole experience entirely incredible because that’s what it’s all about – showing it to an audience. I could feel audiences connecting to it but I was still shocked that it won.

Q. Has that recognition made it easier to get films made? What’s next?
Jonathan Levine: I’m writing a film for a big studio movie, which I don’t know if I’m going to direct, but it’s a spy novel. I’m also reading a lot of scripts to figure out what I’m going to do. It’s been a very fast process from shooting The Wackness to getting it out there, it’s been less than a year, so now I’m just starting to think what I want to write for myself next. But it’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me and, so far, a pretty great experience. It also makes the next decision that much harder because as much as I would love to just accept the next studio movie I get offered, you want to live up to the passion that you had. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do next but I know that I have a lot more options.

Q. Are you keen to work in a lot of different genres? You’ve done horror [All The Boys Love Mandy Lane] and now coming-of-age [The Wackness]…
Jonathan Levine: Definitely. I think a lot of it is about having to figure it out… you have to think of it in a bit of a holistic perspective. As soon as you do one thing, that’s all you get offered, so you have to do a bunch of different things. But my interest is in a lot of different things. I have a very pop kind of tastes… you can tell from the soundtrack. I like all different kinds of movies. I like the communal experience of actually going to a movie, whether it’s action, horror or comedy. And I also like taking genres and tweaking them a little bit, too. So I think I’m going to continue trying to do that. But I also want to do this for the rest of my life, so I have to figure out what to do so that people let me do that [laughs].

Q. Who were the filmmakers that influenced you?
Jonathan Levine: Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Goddard and Paul Thomas Anderson. Todd Haynes is great.

Q. You worked with Paul Schrader on Auto Focus, didn’t you?
Jonathan Levine: I got him coffee and stuff [laughs]. He was awesome. But I never really collaborated with him. I was right out of college but it was amazing just to be around him and I learned a lot from just being a fly on the wall there. He was very good to me. It was great just to see someone else’s process.

Q. Finally, do you still like hip-hop?
Jonathan Levine: These days, not as much. I do every once in a while buy a hip-hop album. The new Nas album is pretty good. Contemporary music I listen to a lot more independent rock now and more alternative. Not as much hip-hop. For me, it’s not as vibrant as it was. It’s more contrived. I don’t know what it’s like here. It’s very hit-and-miss in the States.

Q. So which bands are currently on your playlist?
Jonathan Levine: Let’s see… I download a lot of stuff. The new Al Green album is so good. I kind of like Estelle, Santogold, MIA and that kind of stuff. But most of the time it’s rock ‘n’ roll from the ’70s. Contemporary music is good but I tend to wait until someone recommends something. Although you should listen to the new Al Green… I think I like it because it sounds so like the old Al Green stuff [laughs].

Read our review of The Wackness