Jonathan Levine on 'The Wackness'

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Director Jonathan Levine talks New York, 9/11 and filming sex scenes with Time Out

The film is set in New York and I wondered if you could describe your relationship to the city?


‘I grew up with Woody Allen and early Spike Lee movies in which New York was such a specific character. The city has a certain vibe and beat which really informs your entire existence. To tell a story about the city and have the city be a big character in it was always something that was in my blood and yearning to get out. I think, more recently, there are a lot of movies set in New York, but not a lot of them really have the city as a character. It’s all this glossy, ‘Sex in the City’-type world, and for me New York is not that.'

You show the World Trade Centres at the end of the film. Is ‘The Wackness’ about pre-9/11 New York?

‘It’s pre a lot of stuff New York. The reason we included that at the end is because the movie is really about this bittersweet moment of ‘what kind of innocence has this character lost?’ For me, this was the ultimate signifier of a lost innocence. But I also hope there are some changes we can look at that aren't nearly so depressing. You know, the fact that no one had cell phones, and the fact that there was no Internet and all that stuff is part of it. For me, September 11 totally changed my life in a very profound way. I was in the city when it happened. It’s impossible to ignore, but it's also something that is really difficult to think about.’

The Wackness’ reminded me of films like ‘Do the Right Thing’…that kind of old-style, shabby/chic New York of the

80s and

90s. What was your decision to set it at that exact point?

‘It was a very personal decision. I wouldn’t have been able to, nor would I have wanted to, figure out what was important to a teenager in 2008. To go back to that time allowed me to create a story that would resonate more, that would feel more authentic and grounded in reality. I also wanted to put that music in the movie, and that was really a good excuse. The early independent movies of the ‘90s, those are the movies that made me want to be a filmmaker.'

I’d guess there was some kind of autobiographical element in the film.

‘There’s definitely an element of it, yeah. Autobiographical might be a misnomer just because the plot of the movie never really happened to me, but I knew so much of the world, so much of the perspectives.'

Did you know a Doctor Squire (Ben Kingsley’s character)?

'I didn't know a Doctor Squire, that’s the biggest thing that didn't happen. And I never sold pot. But other than that…'

What about Luke’s relationship with Stephanie?

‘That's very grounded in reality. I was taking parts of my own experience and examining them. But I think the parts that I was taking, hopefully everyone could relate to. With first love, you always feel like you’ve got your heart broken, you’re always messing up in the relationship, and you always think your parents are total idiots who make the wrong decisions and, you know, you just learn as you get older to accept all that stuff.'

Interesting casting. On one hand you've got the character from kids TV show ‘Drake and Josh’, and on the other you’ve got the guy who played Gandhi.

‘It’s funny, because first off, I’ve never seen "Drake and Josh". I was able just to see Josh Peck as an actor, and when he came in he just blew me away. And with Sir Ben, I’ve seen pretty much all his movies, and he's just able to do so many different things, so it was never a concern. I think that’s one of the exciting things independent film can do, take people you wouldn’t necessarily expect and put them in the room together.'

The film takes a very objective stance on drugs and drug taking.

‘First of all, it was always paramount not to judge anyone or moralise. I didn't want people to get punished. While I don’t necessarily respect it, I understand it. And I think the more you can be aware of that, the more you maybe go out the next day and do make the right decision. But if you don’t, the movie’s not going to punish you for it. Doing it is punishment enough.’

I wondered if you can talk me through the shower sex scene at the middle of the film. Do you enjoy filming those kinds of scenes?

'Mmm… no. Well, I don’t hate them, but what I feel the most is that I want to get them over with, because there are two naked people in the shower. It's very important as a director to understand how hard it is to be an actor. The most important thing is to make them comfortable and make sure – and this happens a lot – you clear everyone from the set. You also want to get it done as quickly as possible. Originally, there was a deer involved, which was stupid. We had a deer running around in the background, but we got rid of it quick.'

Was the deer intended as a metaphor?

‘No it was supposed to be a very naturalistic. It’s set in a place where there are always deer running around.' 'The Wackness' is released on Aug 29.

Author: David Jenkins


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