The Reeler


January 20, 2008

Can I Get a Wackness?

Reeler Interview: Filmmaker Jonathan Levine on buzz, Mary-Kate and finding a future at Sundance

Uphill battle: Sir Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck in the Sundance competition film The Wackness (Photos: Occupant Films)

It seems like only yesterday that The Reeler caught up with director Jonathan Levine on the Brooklyn set of The Wackness, his '90s-set comedy featuring Sir Ben Kingsley as a psychiatrist who trades young drug dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) pot for therapy sessions. In filmmaking terms, of course, late August might as well be yesterday; as Levine told me in the lead up to The Wackness's premiere this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, business was anything but usual.

"Well, I'm going from the soundstage where we're finishing the mix, to the color-correction place where we're finishing that," Levine said. "And there's everything else that that entails: The composer has to hustle and change things -- it's such a musical film, and we've got to make sure all the songs are mixed right and all that stuff. It's a lot of work; we're doing what would normally be three weeks of work in a week. It's a lot faster than I've ever been used to working, but it's kind of cool because it forces you to make faster decisions. Then you live with them for the rest of your life. So it's scary and cool at the same time."

The same can be said for the film's response thus far in Park City, where Levine has attracted significant industry interest in an '08 market widely perceived to be hit-or-miss. He recently spoke with The Reeler about anticipating Sundance, working with the surrealistically diverse cast and how being once bitten at a previous fest makes him twice shy this week.

THE REELER: Just so it's clear, The Wackness is a totally autobiographical story, right? Ripped right from your journals?

JONATHAN LEVINE: [Laughs] Apart from the selling weed part, and the fact that as a kid I never saw a shrink... OK, no, not really. The things that are close are all culled from memories I have from that time. The entire world is a world I was in, and the kid's personality is pretty similar to mine. It is fairly autobiographical, like if I were to take myself at that age and put myself in this movie? But that's not to say that any of the shit in this movie ever happened to me. The main character and I have a lot in common, but the actor, Josh Peck, has taken him and made him his own.

R: Let's talk about the cast: Sir Ben, Josh, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man... one of the more eclectic casts I've seen in a Sundance film. How and why did you put this group together?

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JL: First of all, the one thing all the actors have in common is that they're really good. But I think it's kind of cool to throw this cast together and see what happens. When I was casting this film, I was doing it more as a film fan than as a filmmaker. From my perspective, if I saw a poster with Famke, Mary-Kate, Method Man and Ben Kingsley, I'd be like, "What the fuck is that? That looks cool." There's something exciting about it. On paper it could seem kind of gimmicky, but all of these people are so good in the roles that it transcends any kind of gimmickiness and makes it exciting -- people from all kinds of different backgrounds and worlds. I appreciate it as a filmgoer, but it is a strange mix.

R: People used to see Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen at Sundance and say, "What the hell are they doing here?" Now she's here with a film and even some buzz about her role. How was working with her?

JL: I was really impressed with her. Look, I basically know what everyone else knows: I'd see her on the cover of US or whatever, and I kind of grouped her in with the Paris Hilton/Lindsay Lohan crowd. I don't know if those are her friends or not, but the thing is she came in and she read for the lead role, and I thought she was a fantastic actress. I thought it might be distracting for her to be the lead of the film because of the persona she brings to it, but I was really excited to have her in the movie. And that was based on seeing her act. Upon meeting her and hanging out with her, I was even more impressed. She's just so cool. She was hanging out in the craft service truck with grips. Very down to earth, very smart, very, very talented. I've got nothing but good things to say about her. She's great in the movie.

R: Have you been to Sundance before? What are your hopes, expectations, nerves and the like?

JL: I'm very nervous. We went to Toronto with my first film [All the Boys Love Mandy Lane], which is coming out in a couple months and was a very overwhelming and amazing experience -- some sort of overnight experience when we sold the movie for a bunch of money, and then went under the radar. It was overwhelming and intimidating at the same time. As much as I love showing people the film and as much as I want the distributor to buy it for a lot of money and put it on screens across America, it's really scary, too. I'm trying to keep perspective; really, all I'm doing is going there to show the movie to a lot of people and hope they like it. If I get caught up in all the other shit, I'm going to go crazy. I also want to be able to enjoy what the festival experience is all about, which is hanging out with filmmakers and being able to connect with people on a very personal level.

The Wackness director Jonathan Levine

R: Let's talk briefly about Mandy Lane, whose acquisition and subsequent distribution hassles are among the more famous Toronto stories of recent years. [The film opens this spring in New York.] Does that experience affect how you approach Sundance as a marketplace?

JL: That experience was a very strange one filled with both incredible highs and incredible lows. I think from the producer's and my perspective, we're going in there hoping to find a distributor who most accurately gets the film -- is passionate about it and wants to find it an audience in the right way. We're a little less naïve about it at this point. The experience of Mandy Lane -- taking it from the Weinsteins to Senator Entertainment-- was like night and day, and we want to find a home for The Wackness that will be like the home Mandy Lane eventually found. But it's been a year and a half since Toronto, and we still haven't released the movie. Maybe it'll be a double feature with The Wackness? Maybe we can work that out? Anyway, we're going in there with a much healthier cynicism that we didn't have the first time.

R: That's perfect. You could release it like Grindhouse.

JL: Exactly. We'll release it as a double feature and I'll talk in between. Maybe DJ, play some music.

R: Your friends could cut a few fake trailers.

JL: Maybe for Mandy Lane people could drink and for The Wackness they could smoke weed?

R: That sets the bar awfully high for the next one. Strippers, perhaps?

JL: Strippers who sing karaoke.

R: Wow. We can't even take the interview any higher now.

JL: Or any lower.

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