Written by Dylan Callaghan
It's late afternoon in New York, only hours before the premiere of his debut film The Wackness, and writer-director Jonathan Levine is attempting to mollify his admittedly obsessive tendencies with a freshly uncorked bottle of chardonnay. “I've just opened it,” he explains, adding with only a faint tinge of defensiveness. “It's 3:30 here, so that's fine.” The add-on is unnecessary as Levine's nimble, articulately engaging conversational style smacks more of a future Hollywood big-timer than it does a wino.
For his feature debut, the Brown University and American Film Institute-educated hyphenate has gone all the way back to '90s Manhattan -- the setting of his own teens -- for his coming-of-age dramedy The Wackness, which boast an ensemble cast that runs the gamut from Sir Ben Kingsley to Mary-Kate Olsen. Though he's already helmed a somewhat famously unreleased teen horror film All the Boys Like Mandy Lane, The Wackness is his true coming out party.
In between what can only be imagined as modest sips of chardonnay, Levine spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his debut film, his feeling of immense good fortune at the cast and performances he captured and why, somewhat surprisingly, by directing his own script, he's learned not to be overly bound by the screenplay.
You spent many hot summers in the Big Apple listening to Notorious B.I.G. and the like, but I understand that this film is not autobiographical.
I would say it's personal without being autobiographical. Nothing in the movie ever happened to me. I like to make that distinction. Beyond that, certainly the spirit of my own experience is deeply a part of it and the world that it's grounded in. I definitely identify a lot with this kid [Luke Shapiro, the film's main character].
Photo: © 2008 Sony Pictures Classics
Josh Peck in The Wackness.
So you've planted an entirely fictional story in the trappings of your youth?
Essentially. For me, when I started grafting themes and plot onto that environment, the film started to take shape. If I'd strictly told a personal story, it would have been really boring.
You needed to kick it up a notch?
Yeah, you know, it would have just been me sitting around stoned for an hour and a half.
Going back to the inception of this film, before you'd written the script, what was the gist of the movie you wanted to make here?
It's a coming-of-age movie, so even though I don't think I knew it at the time, it's steeped in the Cameron Crowe/John Hughes world -- a movie authentic to the high school experience about growing up. As much as I resist offering genre definitions, that one to me is the most apt because it allows for comedy and drama and anything else. Other genres tend to preclude something.
That's what it ended up being. I think at the beginning I thought it was more of a May-December buddy movie. As I was developing the script the producers and I were watching films like Rushmore, Wonder Boys, and Harold and Maude.
Did you have this unusual ensemble cast in mind? Were you actually visualizing Mary-Kate Olsen and Ben Kingsley as you wrote dialogue?
No, not at all. At the same time, I knew something like that was what we should do. I like the idea of putting these people you wouldn't expect into unlikely roles. I think it injects the movie with an energy it wouldn't otherwise have. It doesn't hurt if they're good actors and, lucky for me, they all happened to be awesome, Sir Ben being the greatest among them. But you know Mary-Kate Olsen, she's got chops. So does Method Man.
For an independent movie, I think you need all the help you can get. Infusing it with these personas from pop-culture adds another dimension, I hope.
Do you direct your own scripts because you feel you're the only one who can see them through? How do you think scripts written with the knowledge that someone else will be directing them are different than ones you know you'll be directing?
For me, I was able to put a lot on the page, a lot of the style of the movie. Sometimes you write shots into the script, 44-frames-per-second or whatever. I think in writing it, it's very liberating to be able to include that stuff, [but] in directing, it's somewhat challenging because you want to throw a lot of that stuff away.
You want to throw a lot of your own playbook away?
So you feel like a director dealing with another person's script?
Yeah, in fact, I found I felt more of a debt to the writer, so I felt more of a burden to stay true to that, whereas with Mandy Lane, I definitely knew it was my job to interpret the material. Here I had to faithfully adhere to it.
So you felt somewhat more encumbered as a director?
With my own material? Yeah, totally. After the first couple weeks, I freed myself from that a bit, but it took me a while to realize that it could be a liberating thing rather than a limiting thing. On the next one, I'm gonna be so not faithful to the writer -- if the writer is me.
That's really interesting that you didn't feel more at liberty with your own script.
I felt more at liberty with the dialogue, [but] with the style of the movie, I didn't. I definitely played it a little safer than I would have otherwise because I loved the script so much, I didn't want to fuck it up.