While the upcoming R-rated comedy Snatched will probably get more attention for its two stars, Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn--the latter making her first big screen appearance in almost 15 years--the man behind the camera is director Jonathan Levine, who continues to diversify his filmography with this female-driven comedy.
Levine first got attention for his early indie The Wackness, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, and he followed that by adapting the young adult zombie romance Warm Bodies, then making the cancer comedy 50/50 and the Christmas comedy The Night Before, the latter two with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In Snatched, Amy Schumer plays Emily Middleton, who has plans to go to South America on a romantic trip with her boyfriend, but when he breaks up with her she asks her mother Linda (Hawn) to make the trip with her. Once there, the two are constantly fighting, but when they’re kidnapped they need to figure out a way to overcome their issues and find a way to escape.
LRM sat down with Levine last week for the following interview where we talked about Snatched and his other projects. He also mentioned wanting to write a sequel to his 2008 Sundance hit The Wackness:
LRM: I’m not sure if this was on your radar the last time we spoke for “The Night Before” a couple years ago?
Jonathan Levine: It was probably 18 months ago. I’m trying to figure out if I was...I probably had early conversations about this, I think.
LRM: I think Paul Feig was going to direct it at one point.
Jonathan Levine: Paul ended up doing Ghostbusters.
LRM: What was the draw to do this? Did you pitch yourself to them, or did they come to you?
Jonathan Levine: It was right as The Night Before was about to come out, and I think I had read it right when Paul fell off, and it probably was just a script that was circulating around. I didn’t know if they wanted me to do it at the time, and Amy wasn’t attached yet, and then when she was attached I had really liked Trainwreck, and I really liked the script. I really liked the adventure component, I really liked the heart of it. I’m not sure I’d had my kid. Yeah, I definitely had just had a kid when I talked to you last. Just all the kind of themes and parenting, and how you treat your parents like shit, then you treat them like a person, and then you start to see them as a person was when it really began resonating with me. When Amy came on I ended up just sitting down with her to see if we vibed. It wasn’t like a pitch situation; I don’t think it was particularly competitive at that point. I think I was someone they thought would be a good fit. I sat down with her. It must have been before I talked to you because it was a day I was doing ADR with Tracy Morgan in New York for The Night Before, and then I drove out to where she was staying. She was staying on Long Island; I drove out when I met her.
LRM: What kind of shape was the script in? Did you feel you still needed to bat it around with Amy and work on it?
Jonathan Levine: Well, Amy and Kim did a lot of writing on it as well. The DNA of it was there, but it was a continually evolving document. We all--Katie (Dippold), Amy, Kim and me--once we got out for prep were continuing to write on it, under my supervision. It kept going...and this was something I learned from Seth and Evan. We’d just keep working on the script, so all three of them brought a lot to it, and even on set, writing new lines, writing alternative lines, that was something that Amy, Kim and Katie all had a hand in. I never feel like it’s done. I always feel like there’s more to room make things better and always keep pushing.
LRM: Is that even going into the post-production phase? Where you think, “Hey, we need something else here?”
Jonathan Levine: Oh, yeah. ADR lines. The new thing that you have now is everyone’s always looking at their phone and looking at computer screens, so you can always cheat and change sh*t there. You always have options, or we’ll bring in people and pitch ADR lines, too. You can get little bonus laughs out of an ADR line as well.
LRM: I was just reading about these actors who are so good at mimicking voices that they can come in and do ADR when the actors themselves aren’t available.
Jonathan Levine: That is a thing, that is a thing. I’ve used that--not in a final thing but in a test screening when I couldn’t get the actor in--but now, I’ve had actors send me ADR lines on their cellphones and just text it. The sound people don’t love it, but I don’t notice it being particularly different.
LRM: Well, it is their job to make it sound like everything else.
Jonathan Levine: If someone can just go like this (holds phone up to mouth), their whole set-up with microphones, and sound-proofing, gets a little obsolete. They’re definitely right. I shouldn’t say that. The sound people are correct.
LRM: I guess Goldie Hawn came in soon after, and Amy had wanted her?
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, Amy wanted Goldie the whole time, but she definitely tricked me into thinking it was my idea. We were talking about a number of names, and I was intrigued by the idea of Goldie, but I was also kind of like, “That’s risky because she hasn’t acted in so long, so how do I know she’ll even be able to remember the lines?” Then I sat down with them--we had like a lunch together--I don’t know if you’ve ever met her, but she’s kind of amazing. I was doing press with her earlier today and she’s this amazingly evolved human, who is a very special person. Immediately being around her, you’re already completely excited, because she exceeds even the highest expectations as a human being, and then seeing the two of them together was amazing. They had this amazing chemistry right off the bat, so after that I was pretty much sold. We had long conversations about why she hadn’t been acting and what she wanted to do. I was so charmed by her. The other thing that was exciting about her was that she hasn’t spent the last 15 years playing the Mom in some sitcom. She’s special...still. In this era where star power is diluted. She is completely underexposed in every way. The idea that you could reintroduce her to people, and also have that wellspring of good will was exciting to me, too.
LRM: I’d love it if some 25-year-old who likes Amy watches this, sees Goldie and goes, “Oh, hey, I should go back and watch some of her old movies,” because I’m sure they’ll be blown away by “Overboard,” “Private Benjamin” and so many more.
Jonathan Levine: Oh, my God. She produced a lot of those movies, too, so our movie has been part of these thinkpieces of, “The summer of female-driven comedies,” because there’s our movies and a couple others.
LRM: Those pieces have popped up every summer, I think.
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, sure, right, exactly, and to that point. Goldie Hawn was producing female-driven comedies with her as the biggest star in the world for a decade, and really, kind of setting the mold for Amy, to some extent.
LRM: There have been many female-driven comedies, so did you feel comfortable going into the world? I think some of your movies have been kind of male-bondy...
Jonathan Levine: I was curious to get out of that. It’s not out of my comfort zone because comedy is comedy, and a lot of the stuff that Amy does is not dissimilar from the stuff that Seth does, but I was conscious that I was telling these very male-driven stories, whether it be 50/50 or The Night Before. Warm Bodies is kind of the exception. That’s like a zombie-driven story, which I don’t know what that demographic is.
LRM: That’s kind of a romantic movie...
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, and I think even though Nick (Hoult) is a protagonist, you really see it through Teresa (Palmer’s) eyes. That was a little bit different, but I think after The Night Before, which was exceptionally male-driven, and so much based on the dynamic I had with friends growing up and stuff like that, it was very interesting to break myself out of that. There were a lot of things. On that movie, I would look around and other than the love interest, I was surrounded by men. If you’ve ever talked to those guys then you know they’re very progressive, sophisticated people. It’s not like a frat house, but if you’re looking around and everyone had the same perspective as you, then that gets a little boring. I think as a storyteller, that gets a little boring, so in this movie, I was surrounded completely by women. I was the only guy, and so it was my job not just to collaborate with them, but to also kind of channel their story, and their point of view. It allows you to both gain perspective and empathy, not just for Moms and daughters, but for women, too.
LRM: I would think working with Amy and Goldie, they’d be quite a force...
Jonathan Levine: Well, when they ganged up on me it wasn’t cool. (laughs)
LRM: I think they’d be a force on their own but when you put them together, they’d be quite intimidating and tough to say, “No, this would be funnier,” because I think they’d already know what would be funnier.
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, that’s true, and the thing is that the way I do it is, “Let’s do it your way, and let’s do it my way, and let’s just see...” What ends up happening is half the time when I say, “Let’s do it your way,” I come up to her and say, “Yeah, you’re right. Your way is better,” and half the time I say, “Let’s do it my way,” Amy or Goldie will come up to me and say, “Yeah, that way is better.” I think when you have actors who make their own content, too. Like I said, Goldie was a producer and she’s got a very high storytelling IQ, and Amy has her own show, and wrote Trainwreck, so it’s like a collaboration. It’s not the normal actor/director thing, because I do respect their opinion as macro-storytellers so I can’t just ignore it. Even though sometimes you want to, because you have a certain amount of time to get something, and if you have a certain perspective on it, you think you’re right, and you just don’t want to waste your time on someone else’s perspective. At the same time, what I found early on is that I found enough times that I was wrong. There was enough times where I didn’t think something was going to be funny, and Amy insisted on doing it, and was right, so that I let my guard down and just let the process evolve. It’s rarely this dictatorial thing with me. It’s always a conversation. Yeah, they had opinions all the time, and I was happy to have those opinions most of the time.
LRM: I think filmmaking is becoming more collaborative now. There used to be a day where you’d have some director with a bullhorn yelling at everyone. It’s a little different now. The movies which have worked are the ones where everyone is collaborating, and on the same page.
Jonathan Levine: Especially comedy. I don’t know if P.T. Anderson does it like that, and there are movies where I don’t do it like that, too.
LRM: How was it casting some of the people around them, including Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack? I didn’t even know that was Joan Cusack.
Jonathan Levine: We have a great casting director, who I’ve worked with, Francine Mazler (SP?) who is just amazing? It was awesome to be able to cast funny women, too, and Wanda and Joan...Amy had worked with Wanda on Last Comic Standing or they were together on... you know like American Idol has the expert...I think they both did that together. Amy and Wanda were tight, and I loved Wanda, and then Joan, we just offered it to her. We were like, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but do you want to play someone who doesn’t talk?” She thought it was funny, and then Ike (Barinholtz) is just someone I wanted to work with for so long, and then (Chris) Meloni, he’s so funny. The only thing I know him from is Wet Hot American Summer, but he’s just great, and he is so, so funny. It reminded me of Michael Shannon, someone who can just like say any kind of line and can give it added humor just by playing it straight, and he’s great.
LRM: Also, how come you didn’t shoot in South America? I figured it was in Hawaii from the resort. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but that resort has appeared in a bunch of them. When I saw the jungle stuff, I thought this could have been shot in Colombia.
Jonathan Levine: Yes, in retrospect, that was an option. We had just done this movie I produced, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and that was in Hawaii, so we knew the infrastructure. There were just too many variables in going to South America. I think Narcos was shooting down there, and we were inquiring about it, and just at the end of the day I was like, “I don’t know the crews, I don’t know the infrastructure,” and when someone offers you a job in Hawaii, you just say, “Yes.” Hawaii has so many different looks, too, and it’s just a great place to make a movie. It’s got such great vibes, and the people are great. I didn’t know Goldie, and where she was going to stay. It just would have required so much due diligence, whereas Hawaii was just such a turnkey solution, so it felt like it made a lot more sense to go to Hawaii at the time.
LRM: Going back to what you said before about collaboration, was “Night Before” more like how you mentioned, being more your movie, or was that a different beast?
Jonathan Levine: Not really, because then we all started writing it together, because there was a certain point on The Night Before where I was like, “You guys, I’m kind of stuck. Can you help me?” Who better to help you than the people who wrote Superbad and This is the End, and they’re invested in it, because Seth is in it and producing it. Once I let them in, it becomes all of our movie, like it’s a living, breathing thing, and all I have to do is be very protective of my piece of that. The funniest scene in the movie, which is like when Seth is getting dick pics, had nothing to do with me, so I’m grateful that I can take credit for it, but once you’re bringing that to the table, then I’m grateful, and I can’t just shut you out of other things. There are certain things that are more my forté, and then things that I’m not as strong at, so that’s why I try to build a real support system around me, sort of a checks and balances.
LRM: That’s interesting, because I’ve known you since “The Wackness” and it was always interesting when you went from that to “Warm Bodies” and adapting a young adult book. Have you felt like you need to go back to do something like “The Wackness,” a smaller more personal thing?
Jonathan Levine: Well, I do want to do that, and I wonder whether that’s in a movie or more like a TV Netflixy kind of thing, but certainly, it’s a constant push and pull between you try to find commercial vehicles for this that blend with your sensibility and also, you have something to say within the context of something like this, which is a bigger comedy. The Night Before was sort of a blending of those two things. I had an idea that organically became something that I thought was commercial, and then the next movie I’m going to do is a very romantic movie, so it does have elements of The Wackness to it, it does have elements of Warm Bodies to it, and then I don’t know. I think it’s very easy to get seduced by the bigger budgets, and jump into a superhero movie, because not only do you get to work on a bigger palette, and have more toys, you get a higher salary. You get money, which is always cool, and you get your movie seen by so many people. I think why I felt burned on The Wackness was because I didn’t know enough about it.
LRM: There’s always the famous thing I’ll never forget is when Sony Classics picked up “The Wackness” at Sundance and everyone was like, “Really? Them?” and I don’t want to bash them because they’ve done great with a lot of movies, but it was a weird combination...
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, and that was, as much as I love them, they weren’t our first choice to distribute that movie, and I do love them and I think they did a wonderful job and I’d happily work with them again, but at the same time I was like, “Oh, I can put all this effort into this thing and then who knows who is going to see it?” It’s nice to know that people are going to see it. It’s nice to walk around New York, see my movie advertised on taxis and know that people are supporting it and people are behind it. Now, I really want to write this sequel to The Wackness, and I have this whole idea for it, but I’m thinking I don’t know who would fund it. I know I could probably get money for it, but it feels more likely to be in a Netflix/Amazon thing then as an indie movie. It’s kind of just crazy how much that stuff has changed.
LRM: Totally, and yet “The Wackness” is still out there. It doesn’t go away when it leaves theaters, so I’m sure there’s 19-year-old now who might see it and go, “Holy sh*t, this is my life.”
Jonathan Levine: I hope so. That would be really meaningful to me and that would be really, really cool. I think that does happen. I think it resonates with people who have a certain perspective on the world, and it shows them that there are kids who were depressed in high school, which is everyone. Yeah, I hope people can discover it, and I’m trying to figure out how to do the sequel. I want to set it in present day, and since that movie was 15 years before it came out (1993), I have to figure out how to age them. I don’t know what to do about it.
LRM: I’m not sure Ben Kingsley has aged in the ten years since the original movie either.
Jonathan Levine: He hasn’t aged either, so I can just not give him a wig, and he could have lost all his hair because he’s a famous bald man.
LRM: What other things are you working on? Is “Flarsky” something you’re doing?
Jonathan Levine: That’s something we’re doing.
LRM: That sounds like an amazing premise and if it’s with Seth and Charlize Theron. It should be amazing.
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, it’s really good. It’s just a really, really good script. It’s written by this guy Dan Sterling who wrote The Interview. It’s funny, but it’s also really romantic and heartfelt, almost like a Cameron Crowe/James Brooks kind of vibe, which is something I’m really excited to do. We’re hopefully going to start shooting that in a couple months, but we’ll never know. I’m not sure if we’re going on strike or what’s happening tonight. (Note: This interview was done the day of the WGA negotiations, although everything worked out and there wasn’t a WGA strike.)
LRM: I was also reading about your Showtime show (“I’m Dying Up Here”), which is coming out pretty soon, which is about the L.A. stand-up scene in the ‘70s?
Jonathan Levine: Yeah, that’s awesome. That turned out really cool. It’s great. That is on June 2 on Showtime, and I just did the pilot, but I was really happy with how it turned out. It was a great cast and yeah, it’s a drama about comedians, and it’s set in the ‘70s, so it was an opportunity to just do this really cool period recreation. It’s fun, and it’s got Melissa Leo and Ari Graynor, just great actors, too. Michael Angarano.
Snatched opens on Friday, May 12 with previews on Thursday night.