The Wackness: Jonathan Levine and Olivia Thirlby Interview
We hustled whiz-kid director Jonathan Levine and gorgeous leading lady Olivia Thirlby into giving us the inside track on new coming-of-age comedy The Wackness. They let us into Sir Ben Kingsley’s sage-like mind, revealed the perfect mix tape, and exposed Olivia’s man-eating tendencies…
LOVEFiLM: Jonathan, how much of the story in The Wackness is autobiographical?
Jonathan Levine: None of that drug business ever happened, and I never had a Ben Kingsley character in my life. It’s really just the perspective and the music and the world of New York in that time, but it’s not really strictly autobiographical.
LF: Your life was a much more innocent version right?
JL: I dunno if it was more innocent; it was just less interesting!
LF: Is it true that the character Stephanie is an amalgamation of various women you’ve met throughout your life?
JL: Well, I think it’s a combination in my head of what I perceived all those relationships to be like. There’s no ex-girlfriend of mine that’s gonna watch it and be like: ‘that’s me’. It’s really more the feeling of that first love, you know? The feeling at that time like you’re getting your heart broken even if you’re not. It’s more like a character who embodies a time and a place in my life and hopefully in other peoples lives too.
LF: Olivia’s character, Stephanie, is in the driving seat in terms of her relationship with Josh Peck’s character, Luke; which was refreshing as it’s usually the other way around. Was that always an intention?
JL: I think you don’t see that in movies a lot, and for me it’s true to life at that age.
Olivia Thirlby: Especially at that age! At that age, there is just no comparison: girls feel like they’re women and guys are still little kids - which they remain for many, many years. But I think it actually mimics a couple of my experiences of being more experienced than the guy and being able to bring that experience to the relationship. And what I tried to convey with Stephanie was that she didn’t care, it was just a new situation for her and an opportunity for her. I think she even likes being that person for him, the one to guide him and take his virginity and I think she kinda likes that.
LF: Olivia, what parts of her character did you relate to?
OT: I related to her so much that I decided to play her as myself, pretty much. It’s not that I relate to her actions necessarily, but the way that Jon wrote her; she very much just came off the page and you really got a very strong sense of her personality. Just being a New Yorker, being a sort of more experienced girl with a less experienced guy.
JL: It’s interesting cos you probably took certain parts of yourself and magnified them, and certain parts you just ignored.
OT: Yeah, on the page Stephanie was a little more detached, she’s a little snarky almost. I think that I overplayed a part of that, maybe warmed her up a little bit, but it was actually unintentional.
LF: Olivia, was it difficult moving out of your comfort zone by exposing yourself to the camera?
OT: Yeah, it definitely was. As an individual I’ve always been really private about my body and just completely addled with major self conscious things, so it’s a huge step for me to take off my clothes. Even the bikini was a huge deal for me, but I did it for Jon!
LF: There a good chemistry between yourself and Josh off screen; do you still see him now?
OT: Oh yeah definitely, we had an instant Luke and Stephanie bond. When you’re naked with somebody with a whole bunch of people who aren’t naked, it’s a really bonding experience! The more we worked together, the closer we became. It was interesting: because of the dynamics between our characters there was always tension. And even though we were close and we did hang out a lot on and off set, there was always this Luke and Stephanie tension.
LF: The hazy look of the film is at stark contrast to its more gritty nature; was this intentional?
JL: Yeah, that’s our cinematographer, she’s amazing; someone I went to film school with. We always wanted it to have that look. It was dictated very much in the post-production process but it was always part of the movie, that kind of hazy, chocolatey look.
OT: Yeah, like sepia… It’s funny because Josh and I didn’t realise that you were filming it so beautifully, and so stylised, and we sort of figured it out. We were like: ‘I think Jon and Petra are shooting this really artistically!’ Seeing the final film, of course, just makes me want to hump Petra! So good!
JL: It’s trying to be a combination of nostalgia; like memory meets reality. We sat down and figured out all the shots in advance and we talked about the colour scheme and all that kind of stuff and we are very happy with the way it turned out. It was very important to shoot it in a specific way.
LF: Was it actually filmed during the summer?
JL: Yeah, we were about to finish up this time last year. It was brutal. Like that bathroom scene: we were sweating; I had to have a shower.
OT: Oh my god! They had to have all these changes of shirts for us cos we were sweating so much.
LF: How did Sir Ben Kingsley get involved?
JL: He was one of the first people to get involved apart from me. We offered the role to him early on and him saying yes was what enabled the movie to happen, so we kinda owe the whole thing to him. As much as you need producers to say: ‘yeah you can make a movie’, you have to get someone in who justifies spending all that money. And I can’t think of anyone really who justifies it more than him.
LF: You’re both young talents, so how was it working with such an old pro?
JL: It was great, I learned a lot from him. I kinda took my cue from him. When he was around, I would be much more aware of his process. He has certain things he likes, and certain things he’s not comfortable with, but the most important thing is that he’s another collaborator. He has such a talent at treating people with respect; such a gentleman.
It’s just amazing how much control he has over his craft, and yet not in a way that makes it feel forced. It’s really cool to watch; he’s one of the most remarkable people I‘ve ever met. I always think about how he handles success and fame and how he handles his work, and it’s just a great template for all of us to follow.
OT: He’s like a wise sage type of person. He really encouraged me, which was incredible as I was kinda hoping he would. Occasionally he would suggest something, but more often than not he would just say: do what you’re doing, it’s really fabulous.
I think that in acting it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing; it’s the level of commitment in which you do it. If it’s honest it doesn’t matter which direction it’s coming from; it’s real, so that’s all that’s important.
LF: The soundtrack plays a major part in the film, how did you go about choosing the tracks?
JL: There was certainly a lot I wanted to put in that I didn’t get a chance to for budget reasons. But I wrote a bunch of songs into the script, and I was shocked that we were able to get them. The producers were great about devoting a good chunk of the budget to the music, as they identified that as something that was really important to me from the beginning.
You want to include certain seminal artists or songs in it, but it’s also a matter of what fits the scene. Especially with hip-hop - it’s hard to put hip-hop in a movie, as you have a lot of people talking on it so it fights the dialogue sometimes. It’s just a puzzle you need to work out. It’s an interesting challenge, but also really fun. That was the most fun part: when you watch a scene with 10 different songs behind it, it’s exciting.
LF: Is there anything you really wanted on the soundtrack that you couldn’t have?
JL: There were a couple of hip-hop songs. I wish I had been able to do some alternative music from ‘94; originally Nirvana was written into the script, and Smashing Pumpkins was in there for a little bit. But we couldn’t get it, it was just too expensive and not important enough; but it would have been cool.
LF: The mix-tape played an important part of youth culture in 1994. If you could make a mix tape now what would you put on it?
OT: I like making really eclectic mixes. So there would be a third jazz, a third hip-hop and a third indie-rock. It would be Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Joshua Redmond, Brad Mehldau, Jill Scott, Erykah Badou, the whole Wackness soundtrack! Then some Broken Social Scene and Regina Specktor.
JL: I dunno what I’d do. Dolly Parton!?
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