“Whenever people are reverse-engineering a film [for an audience], the audience can fucking feel it,” director Jonathan Levine says, as we walk into the hotel room to discuss his latest film, The Night Before, starring Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levine is asking me about a movie that just came out I visited the set for, and after I mention the project initially sounded too good to be true, he discussed why he’s stayed away from $100 million projects.
“You’re not as beholden to people [on this scale],” the director says. “You can do things that are slightly more provocative, interesting, subversive, or whatever, as long as you’re painting in the lines. I love to do big stuff and smaller stuff, but this is the perfect amount for this movie. I’ve always tried to climb the ladder, budget-wise, and not really jump from a little movie to a giant movie. I’ve had the opportunity to, but that scares me. If I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing on a budget-level, that’s going to be a disaster.”
This R-rated, holiday comedy is Levine’s fifth movie, and it probably cost not much more than $40 million. The Night Before has a similar kind of energy to what we saw in Levine’s second picture, The Wackness, but the director has come a long way since 2008. “You just learn so much every time you do anything,” Levine shares. “You learn stuff, but unfortunately sometimes you fucking forget stuff, too. I’m sure I learned shit on Mandy Lane I don’t even know now, because the more you learn, that becomes your bag of tricks. It’s a constant struggle, so it means you’re never fully satisfied or ever really chill.”
Here are the five lessons Levine hasn’t forgotten from making his five feature films:
The Night Before (2015)
“You always learn. To me, the things I’m still learning are, like, what feeling you’re going to give the audience by what you’re doing. That’s exactly what directing is. Process-wise, this was a movie I really wanted to drop myself in the [producers] Seth and Evan Goldberg process, which is a much, let’s say, crazier fucking process than what we did on 50/50. On this, this was more akin to what the guys did on This is the End and Pineapple Express, so the script is just a guideline. We were giving each other freedom to try anything. Yeah, you have a script, but let them take it in a certain direction.”
Comedies are rarely cinematic. The camera generally just sits there, focused on talking heads, Going through the Seth and Evan process, Levine also had to learn how to make their style of comedy cinematic:
“What you end up doing on that is close-up to close-up, so it’s hard to establish a visual language For me, it was very challenging how to graph the visual language onto it. I think we were able to do it because we had these visual moments that are not based in improv. We have the ‘Runaway’ scene, the Miley [Cyrus] moment, and the tunnel to a party. I’m continually learning. I don’t think I’m ever done learning. Now I’m doing this pilot for Showtime, and I’m bringing the Seth and Evan process into it. I’m also bringing my process into it, which is being ultra-prepared and having a visual idea for everything. On this, I think I learned how to melt those things together.”
Warm Bodies (2013)
“The challenge was building the world, and that was a very specific thing to learn. That was a very, for me, scary movie, because there were days where I was sitting on set, thinking, ‘Oh shit, what if this movie doesn’t work? This movie could be so fucking shitty. If any part of this doesn’t work, it could be.’ What we did on 50/50 — we were very beholden to Will’s script, because it was Will’s life. You have a certain responsibility. On 50/50, the script was super great and super funny, so if I fuck one part of it up, I could probably coast by. With Warm Bodies, it was very much up to me to make it soar. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I had never worked with CG and building a world. There were parts in it that I thought I do well, but it was a very scary proposition. Luckily, Nicholas [Hoult], Rob [Corddry], Teresa [Palmer], and Analeigh [Tipton] were so good that they also sold the whole thing, especially Nick.”
“What was the lesson on 50/50? Even on that, I was just being introduced to the idea of totally riffing on stuff, learning to be a part of a support system. For the first two movies, I had great producers, but I was sort of on my own. With 50/50, it was learning how to integrate myself into this amazing support system with Seth, Evan, and [producer] James [Weaver]. Obviously I really liked it, because I came back for more. It wasn’t a challenge, it was just meeting these creative friends that, hopefully, I’ll keep doing more work with.”
The Wackness (2008)
“The Wackness was hard because it was my script. It was about, ‘How do you keep critical distance from something?’ You need to know just as much when something you wrote is bad just like when you know someone else wrote something bad. It was about the process of being self-critical. You can’t be too self-critical, because then you’ll undermine your own confidence, and you won’t be able to get the job done. I needed to learn how to be analytical about the stuff I had written. With Ben Kingsley, it was also my first time working with a big-time, intimidating persona. Not that he has a big intimidating persona, but his reputation was. How do you deal with that? But that was easy. The great actors are always easier than you think they are.”
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006, delayed until much later, though)
“Mandy Lane was just learning how to make a movie. It was learning to build tension and create mood. More than that, it was just the stamina of, ‘What does a director need to do?’ We shot for, like, six to eight weeks. Six to eight weeks is horrible, because you shoot until the morning of your sixth day and you have half a day to do laundry and get ready for the next day. It was really about learning the stamina and what it takes to get focused.”
The Night Before opens in theaters November 21st.