Interview: 50/50 director Jonathan Levine
Jonathan Levine is quickly becoming a favorite director of mine. His Amber Heard starring feature, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE is one of the most striking and original horror films in the last decade Sadly it has yet to get a proper release. If youve never heard of Mandy Lane, search it out, it is well worth your time. And if you cant get your hands on what all the boys want, Levine also created the refreshing feature, THE WACKNESS.
It is rare to find a director that can really tackle different genres as well as Levine can. And his upcoming feature is no exception. While 50/50 may be called the cancer comedy in some circles, it is much more than that. In fact, it may very well be one of the best films of the year. Heartfelt, honest and oftentimes beautiful, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a bravura performance as a man attempting to take on the dreaded C-word.
I recently spoke to Jonathan about 50/50. We talked about delivering an honest movie that manages to entertain yet still speak truthfully about the subject of cancer. And of course Mandy Lane came up, even with talk of how cool a sequel would be. Besides that Jonathan filled me in regarding his next project entitled WARM BODIES, a zomcom if you will. Mr. Levine is a major talent, and he is one hell of a nice guy.
50/50 will be in theatres on September 30th and it is definitely one to watch.
I have to say that not only did I love 50/50, you also made one of the best horror films of the past decade!
Oh God! [Laughing] Thank you man, thank you!
I just dont understand why it didnt get a release and why people werent given a chance to see it.
You know, its funny. Since Ive been doing a little bit of press recently, for me its like, it was such a traumatic experience. Making the movie was incredibly fun and filming the movie was incredibly fun, but everything post that has been such a traumatic experience that I sort of closed it up, you know. Its really nice to talk to people who are so positive about it because for me, the way everything kind of went down is a negative so I have this negative connotation to it, so this helps me psychologically reclaim the movie. I very much appreciate it.
Well, you certainly helped make Amber Heard a star.
Shes fantastic, and now shes on The Playboy Club which Im kind of excited to see.
So after that, you now decide to do another easy sell sort of movie about cancer. How did this script come to you?
You know, its interesting, I read the script maybe a year and a half before the movie got made and it was probably right when THE WACKNESS was coming out. I didnt know what I wanted to do next and I wasnt really ready to go out for it. So I just kind of read it and I liked it and just kinda life went on. Then in that year I had two family member that I found out had cancer luckily they are fine now and it really made the script resonate personally for me and after having gone through that. I was like, Whats up with that script? I had a personal connection to it, I totally get it. And then another director was directing it. So I was like, shit! And then maybe six months later that director fell off of it and I chased it rabidly and met with Seth (Rogen) and Evan (Goldberg) and two weeks later I was up in Vancouver scouting locations.
How much did the other director get involved? Was it a complete new shoot with you coming on board? Oh no, they didnt shoot anything, it was Nicole Holofcener and she was just attached to it for awhile. It wasnt like I jumped in and they had already shot something, it was just a very quick turnaround. I probably got the job in December and we were shooting in mid-February, which for movies is super fast.
It is a very personal story, yet one that many can relate to.
Oh yeah, its really when you make a movie like this you realize that so many people have a personal connection to it. And it is just crazy and its horrible.
How did you find the balance of telling this story with still finding the humor without, to put it bluntly, bumming people out?
We were never too concerned with bumming people out because when we read the script and when we made the movie, it is a movie that is, I think uplifting. It is a movie that is positive. The simple truth is that it is a movie about something that all of us deal with, which is our mortality. You dont want to make a depressing movie because I dont want to see a depressing movie. But at the same time I was never worried about that because what Will [Reiser] wrote found the positivity in what is an incredibly harrowing experience. That said it was very important to us I think the bigger question with him was dont cop out on the reality of this stuff, dont just go for the easy jokes, dont fill it wall to wall with humor, make it real. That was always very important to me, and you know what, honestly if making it real turned it into making it the most depressing movie ever, then I was willing to deal with that. But that said, I always had faith in the script and I always had faith in the actors. I always had faith that the movie we were making wasnt depressing in tone, but was uplifting.
Its a fine line to walk when dealing with a subject like this, but oftentimes, as dark as things get there tends to be in life when dealing with something like this and you capture that very well.
Well thank you, thank you. Exactly right. When you are in these types of situations you have no choice but to laugh. Not even because everything is so horrible but also because in these circumstances, funny things actually happen. It was always important to me to capture the tone of life, which so few movies do. In life, you are happy one minute and sad the next and youre laughing one minute and crying the next. I feel like there are filmmakers who are able to do that, the Cameron Crowes, the Hal Ashbys and the James Brooks and it was always the goal to follow in the footsteps of those movies in some small way. To capture the reality of these situations was very, very important to us.
I think youve succeeded. I also have to say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt should get an Oscar nomination for this.
Oh my God! You know, I think Joe is incredible in the movie and I think he deserves any and all accolades. I dont even like to think about that stuff. [Laughing]
Well, its hard to make a role like this work as well as a film because sometimes it falls into this trap of being overtly saccharine sweet.
I think that is one of Joes greatest talents is that he is able to distil the reality of every situation. There are so many scenes that really stick out for me with him, but a couple like the one where he is in the office with Anna [Kendrick] and he is saying, I just wish someone would tell me youre f*cking dying dude. First of all he made that up, that was just him. The dialogue on either side of it is Will, but that just came out of [Joe]. He is just so in the head of the person he is playing, he is so empathic. And the other scene is when he which is to me the most remarkable thing because he does so much with so little he is sitting in that hospital and they come up to him and they ask him to sign something when he is about to go in for the surgery. The way he asks these simple, little questions is just heartbreaking to me. He is trying to hold it together and he is overwhelmed, and it is real and its sad and its exhilarating to see someone like that do that. I cant say enough good things about him and hes also a really cool guy too.
I really liked this cast, how involved were you in the casting process? Seth was involved from the beginning, correct?
Seth was involved in the beginning because you know, Seth was involved as a producer and an actor Will and Seth in real life are the best of friends. Seth was around when Will was going through what he went through, and he and Evan [Goldberg] encouraged Will to write the film. So Seth was always a huge creative force in the making of this movie. As far as the rest of the cast honestly everything in this movie was incredibly collaborative in the best possible way. People deferred to me, but if four people would disagree with me, I would say, Oh shit! Maybe Id better rethink that.
As far as the casting goes, I had a pretty big hand in it I would say, but everyone else was really supportive of the changes we made too. But I felt incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to work with Anjelica [Huston], Anna [Kendrick], Bryce [Dallas Howard] and then there is Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer! Its just really, really a great group of actors. And I think all of them are doing something kind of fresh and something you havent really seen.
Anjelica was my other Oscar pick from this.
Oh man, you are so nice to say The thing about Anjelica that I have to say is that she is an even cooler person than she is even a good actor, and that IS saying something because she is an incredible actress. But she is so cool man, like she would sit down and eat with the crew and she would tell us stories about her dad and stories about her life. She is a legend! I just loved her from all the Wes Anderson movies too. Then there is PRIZZIS HONOR, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERIES, I am just a huge fan of hers and I think she is so good in the movie.
What is next for you after this?
Im actually in Montreal right now prepping a movie called WARM BODIES, which is another easy sell, its a zombie romance. You know, the old zombie romance genre. [Laughing] So we are here prepping it, we are going to start shooting in about five weeks. And its gonna be a pretty crazy movie. Its gonna be really awesome.
Teresa Palmer is there right?
Teresa Palmer, Nicholas Hoult and a few more people that will probably be announced in the next couple weeks.
Are you going for the gore or the romance?
Were going for the romance, but we are trying not to pussy out on the gore. It is going to be PG-13 because I feel like the story is such that we dont need to see heads exploding, and I always think its nice to have as many people able to see it as possible. I think this will be my first non R-rated movie and Im not going for the exploding heads. Its going to be more like action-packed, romantic kind of situation.
Well that is a brave choice because you are going to have all the fanboys going, What? No, its supposed to be gory!
I know, Im scared of them. Im scared of them. But, I hope to make them happy and I hope to also kind of push the boundaries of the genre as well. And we will see but I cant think about it, I cant think about it! I have to think about what is best for the movie. If they hate me, they hate me. Theyll still like Mandy Lane. Thats fine. [Laughing]
[Jokingly] Are we going to see a sequel to Mandy Lane? [Laughing]
A sequel to Mandy Lane? I hope maybe when we can release the original movie we can go in two weeks and shoot a sequel. [Laughing] Wouldnt that be cool?
That would be fantastic!
I will let you know if that happens, although it is fairly unlikely. [Laughing]
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