Sundance Interview: ‘The Wackness’ Writer/Director Jonathan Levine

The passionate writer/director behind The Wackness talks about bringing his film to Sundance, his other film All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and the thought of making a sexy werewolf western starring Ben Kingsley.
By  · Published on January 25th, 2008

At this point it is no secret that I absolutely loved The Wackness. In fact, I wrote a review to that effect that can be found here. It was one of the most intelligent, well acted dark comedies that I have seen in a while. And while the immensely talented cast (which includes Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby and Famke Jannsen) gets to rake in the glory on screen, it is really the very passionate writer/director Jonathan Levine who is the driving force that made Wackness one of the best films of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

I got an opportunity to sit down with Jon and talk about The Wackness, his other film All The Boys Love Mandy Lane which hits theaters later this spring and the thought of making a sexy werewolf western starring Ben Kingsley. Take a look below.

What’s so special about 1994?

For me its the year I graduated high school. And I wanted to do a movie about that time, you know. About that time in someone’s life. And I really like high school movies that are authentic. And for me that was the best way to be authentic. Rather than trying to write a movie that takes place in present day. For me, the best high school movie is like Fast Times and what Cameron Crowe is like. And you know, now that I’m 30 I can’t fuck with what kids are doing these days so I just had to change it; go back to then. And I liked the music, you know. So its like that’s part of it today.

And the music is a strong point of the film. How did you bring together that soundtrack?

A lot of the music is written into it and we tried to start clearing it early. We have a good relationship with Sony BMG. They were able to help us out with a lot of stuff. And its you know, since no one really puts that music in film, a lot of people were excited to include it. So, it was actually a reasonably easy process. Clearing the samples is hard because a lot of those guys never clear their samples so we’re kinda clearing them for them too. But otherwise it was a really nice process. I was shocked for our budget, the amount of great music we were able to get. I was really happy.

Were there any other movies that influenced you as you were writing it?

No. Not while I was writing it. We were getting ready to make it and I started… No, maybe when I was writing it. I would meet with the producers and like, there’s a lot of high school movies and most of them kinda suck. But the really good ones are like fucking awesome, you know. And this year there have actually been a few like Superbad I really like, and Juno I really like. But before this year, not much. So we went back to like the Cameron Crowe, John Hughes days. And those were our biggest inspirations. We watched Almost Famous, we watched Say Anything. We didn’t watch any John Hughes movies, but they’re all committed to memory, you know. We watched Rushmore. A lot of movies about a guy with an older, like Wonderboys.

About the cast, which was so dynamic. How did this cast come together?

Kingsley was the first one to come on board. And then after that it was really easy. We got him the script and we had a relationship with his agent, so we were able to get him to read it. And he really responded to it. And he loves it. And then everyone else, you say to Famke Jannsen “You’re opposite Ben Kingsley”, she’s gonna read the script. And she liked it, you know. And as far as like Mary Kate and Meth go. Meth, I had always wanted to work with. I think he’s a really good actor in addition to being a legend. And Mary Kate I had seen some of her work and I was like, I know she brings a big iconic personality to the table, but I think she’s a really good actress and it would be nice to discover someone whose already one of the most famous people in the world, but discover them as an actress.

And Josh and Olivia?

Josh and Olivia were just like, as far as the kids went, since you don’t need them for financing or anything like that. So we just auditioned people. And they just you know, they had it in their blood and they had it in their sould already. So I just recognized it as soon as I saw them. You know, there were other great actors we saw but for me they were it.

Was it a fun film to make?

Maybe. It was really stressful. But that’s part of it. Look, when you’re doing a movie for like $7 million bucks in New York. That’s a lot of dough, but not in New York. It doesn’t go very far. So you have to get everyone psyched about it. So yeah, all the actors were fuckin’ psyched. I think everyone was psyched except me because I was really tired and it was really hard. But you know, it was fun. There were certain days that were like amazingly fun. There were certain days where I was like man, just fuckin’ shoot me in the head. But otherwise yeah. I think it generally was fun.

What’s it like bringing the film to Sundance? What is that experience like for you?

It’s crazy man. It’s you know, we had a movie at Toronto and that was pretty crazy too, but this is like some next level craziness. But honestly the best thing about it is that we’ve had two screenings now, one at 9:15 in the morning and one at 8:30 in the morning today where people just — and those are the ones where you get real people. Because like the one you were at [The Premiere on Saturday] was like a lot of press and a lot of distributors and all that shit. And like, it was still a decent screening. But when you are with 1,200 people in the Eccles, that’s why we’re here. So it’s amazing like, if you just focus on that, like its the relationship between the film and the audience, then its mind-blowing. And its so small, the community, that its just really really fun. Toronto is much more spread out and that’s a beautiful festival too but, this has a vibrancy that you just can’t match.

Now, is the waiting game tough for you? After the premiere and you are waiting to see who’s going to buy it.

We had shown it to people before hand. We were very confident that people were going to like it. We like it and its for us. We are all the age of the people we make it for. Its stressful, the distribution thing. But we did our jobs, you know. We produced a movie that people like, so now we are just being picky about the distrubutor otherwise we would have announced it a few days ago. Its a little frustrating because I would love to have someone come up like Choke. Like right after and say “here’s a bazillion dollars.” That’s what happened on the first movie. But this one, I think is — whenever you do something that’s a little new — half the people get it and half the people don’t. Hopefully 6 months or a year down the line we’ll be like, we were right, you know. We have a bunch of options, its just a difficult decision. But the most important thing is that the audience is responding. And after that, the distributors want movies that audiences like. So hopefully we will figure it out before to long. But yeah, its stressful.

While you were making it, did you ever look at the drug content and say “maybe I should pull back a little bit”?

Not really. But I think thats maybe because thats like, in ’94 everyone was doing that shit. It never occured to me, and maybe thats just ‘cuz I’m retarded, I’m like its just weed man. And I think more than just the drugs is the movie’s refusal to moralize about the drugs. I think for me it was like, I never felt morally bad about it. Creatively I never felt bad about it because I thought we were just being authentic. Those are like the kids I know who smoked pot. When I was that age, I would smoke joint after joint after joint. And I’m not saying its great — I think its actually pretty fuckin’ stupid. But you know, that exists. And its not like — nothing terrible is going to happen to that kid because he smokes pot. So its a very fine line. You definitely don’t want to promote it. That’s not what we were trying to do. But you also don’t want to pretend its not happening. And plus there’s a rich illustrious history of smoking weed in high school movies that we’re proud to be a part of.

Some of my personal favorite scenes were the daydream sequences, where the movie becomes surreal. Where did those come from?

That’s just always something I’ve liked to have fun with. That’s how I write — I always include stuff like that just ‘cuz I think its fun. And I think it comes out of no where and surprises people. And its consistent with the tone of the movie. It allows people to have fun and laugh at it. There were originally more and we cut a few out. There was originally one where he is sitting up on the water tower and everyone just starts fucking, and they’re all naked. And that I cut out ‘cuz I was like that’s a little wierd.

Is that something we’ll see on a DVD release?

You’ll see it on a DVD release, yeah.

Thats something that I wondered. Why weren’t there more of those scenes?

Yeah you know. There weren’t more — there was just that one more in the script. And then its sort of like, as it gets into the story. I think in the beginning you want to get into the kid’s head. Then as it gets into the story we start to go a little bit more to Kingsley and so, it just never — it didn’t happen organically. Someone told me once that I should add something to the end, but I didn’t. Oh well.

Lets switch gears to All the Boys Love Mandy Lane real quick. I was told that it was awesome. When are we going to see it get released?

Its this spring. Basically, they’re kind of — its either late March, early May — and I think its going to be on 1,000 screens. They’ve been moving it around because they want to avoid like Prom Night. But it will be out and it will hopefully be something people like, you know. Its been a long road, but I think we’re getting to the end of it. It’s good.

Now that is more of a thriller, a horror flick.

That is very different, very very different. The one consistent thing is that it is also a high school movie. Except all of these kids happen to get stabbed and killed at the end. But you know, you can watch and there are some similarities. You can tell that they are by the same dude, but they couldn’t be more different.

That’s really what I was wondering — can you bridge a gap between the two films?

There are definitely themes about being alienated at school. I think that’s why genres are great because they allow you to give an audience what they want, but kindof also sneak in the shit you are interested in as well. And so both of them are really fun and cool. And I hope people like them both, but they’re totally different.

Where do you go from here? Are you working on anything?

Well, no. We’ve been working so hard to finish this that I haven’t really given much thought to it. You know, you hope — I’ve been lucky enough to have two movies that have been reasonably well received and you just hope that you keep getting more and more opportunities. The goal is just to be able to keep doing what you want, and get paid for it. ‘Cuz who wants to not get paid?

I’d like to write some more. I have a few scripts that I’ve started but you know, I’m on strike so I can’t really do that. I’d like to write movies for other people and I’d like to do movies that other people write, it just really depends. I couldn’t tell you what. I can tell you that I need like two weeks off and then I’ll probably get psyched to do another movie. But I don’t know. It’s hard — not that much stuff interests me. There’s not that many good scripts out there. So either I will have to find one or write one myself.

Do you ever see yourself breaking away from making high school genre movies?

Probably. I don’t know, you know. I think the next one I would like to be more like about someone my age, whether he turns into a werewolf or you know, just goes around trying to fuck chicks.

You could do both..

Or is a werewolf who fucks chicks. Which actually, I think we have it dude. Should we just start writing it right now?

Yeah, let’s do it [laughter]…

Or anything. But I think I’d like to just start going [to] something contemporary that’s about being late-20’s, early 30’s. I don’t know how. It could be a western or a sci-fi space movie. Something like that, I don’t know. But that’s what interests me — just keeping it real and talking about stuff that means something to me.

A western werewolf movie about fucking chicks? That’s awesome…

Werewolf western. [Titled] How the West Was Fucked?

That’s actually something I would go see.

Dude, I would go see that in a second. Who would play the werewolf, though? Kingsley I guess could play the werewolf. He wouldn’t do it, though. If I came up to him and was like do you want to do this, he’d be like ‘fuck you’.

Do you see yourself looking at this cast and saying that these are people that you’d definitely like to work with in the future?

Yeah, I’d love to work with all of them again.

This seems like this is a movie that could really put Josh Peck out there…

I hope so man. He’s the sweetest kid in the world. And there aren’t that many kids his age who have charisma and bravery. And the world needs new actors.

It seems like it was a pretty brave role for him…

You know, he doesn’t even think of it that way. That’s just in his personality, he will just do it. He’s an artist, which is wierd because he’s on Nickelodeon. [laughter]

As I was leaving, Jonathan said that he may see me around the fest, as he was staying the duration. My response: hopefully we will meet again on Saturday night when the awards are handed out, as his film is definitely deserving. While he knocked on wood, I told him that I would stick to the speculation and let him get back to work on that werewolf western of his.

I have to admit as well that it was such a joy to speak with a filmmaker who has such passion for his projects. It is easy to see why The Wackness turned out to be such a great flick — it all lies with its very passionate and immensely talented director.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)