Writer/director Jonathan Levine has been getting great reviews for “The Wackness,” the story of the friendship between a teenage drug dealer (Josh Peck) and his customer/therapist (Ben Kingsley). I spoke to him about what inspires him and about what it feels like to direct an Oscar-winning actor with a “Sir” title.
One thing everyone who sees the movie talks about is the specificity of period detail. It is set in 1994, a time so recent that we don’t really remember how much has changed. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone had to use pagers and pay phones instead of cell phones and Nintendo Game Boys instead of PSP.
It’s a fine line. We didn’t want it to become “I love the 90’s” but to have audiences bring their own nostalgia to it it brings an energy. The nostalgia I put in there interacts with yours — that’s all part of it. As long as you’re aware of it and polling when it gets too much then you’re okay. You can see where it becomes a little too much, and we cut some of it out.
You worked with actors from a wide range of backgrounds and your two leads in particular could not have been more different — one a classically trained Oscar-winner with a very long, distinguished career and one coming from a Nickelodeon sit-com. And then there’s Mary Kate Olson who grew up on television. How do you work with them?
I have to figure out how they like to work. It’s almost akin to throwing a party and you want the right people sitting next to the right people. I have to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible and working in the mode they like to work in. With Olivia (Thirlby) and Josh (Peck), they are closer to my age and I can intuit what they’re going to dig. With Sir Ben I had to ask him how he likes to work and he knows. He knows what environment he flourishes in. He said, “You have to tell me when you’ve got it and then we can play around with a few more.” In the movie frequently it’s one of his first two takes and frequently some of the others. He said to tell Josh that he’s going to be leading our scenes. That made everyone kind of comfortable, empowered us in a way, and it mirrors the dynamic the two characters have in the movie. He told Josh that, then as everyone got more and more comfortable sometimes Sir Ben would take the lead. Working with smart actors makes everything a lot easier. No matter what your kind of background it works as long as you have a shorthand, and it is much easier to communicate with intelligent people. This group was all very easy communicating, even with Mary Kate.
Take Josh, his show is so broad and big and he’s like this Jackie Gleason character. But he has an acting coach he’s worked with for a while and so he has serious training. I had looked him up on YouTube, too, and saw Mean Creek. He’s not afraid to go where he needs to go. He embraces the entire character, foibles and all. There was nothing that had to be taught or learned. We talked about what of his experiences were relevant. Sometimes I would say, “Bring it back a little bit,” or “Do it again.” All I wanted was the most naturalistic thing possible.
Now I see Drake and Josh all the time, it seems to be on whenever I turn on the television. And he’s into some wacky hijinks! To me the one thing after working with him that may have helped him or informed his work here is that he has an accessibility and vulnerability and ability to empathize, and that is what appealed to me. He is not afraid to be vulnerable, to show the all sides of the character good and bad.
I wish I could take credit for his performance, but it’s all him. I can only take credit for casting him.
What were some of the movies or performances that influenced you in thinking about telling this story?
The references I watched during the screenwriting process were looking at May/September buddy movies like Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Wonder Boys, but movies I didn’t watch that were so much a part of who I am and growing up, the ones I tried to capture their spirit, were films by Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. We did watch Almost Famous. I didn’t have to rewatch it because it is so much a part of my memory of growing up. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ “Citizen Kane.” The real heart of the movie is Cameron, that’s where the movie’s heart is. The scene in the museum is beautifully done. It is all about these characters and the things they’re going through. Even though what you remember is the music and the clothes, those movies influenced me more than I knew.
I’m sure everyone wants to know about Mary Kate Olson!
We offered her the role and it was a small role and she thought she could have fun with it. I was really impressed with how down to earth she was. I’d be looking for her between takes and find her in craft services, eating grilled cheese with the grips. And she’s got this amazing charisma! Considering that she’s had such a crazy strange life, it has to be so hard for her. Walking down the street in Sundance, we had this strange group of people, everyone noticed the other guys but they were tripping over snowbanks trying to get her picture. I was glad to show her in a new light. I like the fact that in independent cinema you can take people who have preconceived notions about them and show everyone something new.
Was there a moment in this film that was your starting point for thinking about the story?
The first scene in the film is the first one I wrote, the one where everything began. I started with it four years ago in film school. As everything else was rewritten and edited, this therapy session drugs with exchanged for therapy was the center, and we built the layers around that.
How did the actors change or enlarge your ideas of the characters?
Working with Josh and Olivia was incredible because they brought such realism and a natural grounded feeling to their scenes, something the actors of the John Hughes movies had, the bravery, the willingness to embrace going to every place that you need to go to show a three-dimensional character. Olivia’s character — I don’t claim to understand women. It was incumbent upon her to fill in the blanks, to make her sympathetic in spite of the fact that what she was doing was not very nice. She gave me a new empathy for all the girls in my life, and I am very grateful for that.