The Badass Interview: Jonathan Levine, Director Of 50/50

Jonathan Levine, director of ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE and THE WACKNESS, talks about his latest film, the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen cancer comedy, 50/50.

If you’re in the United States of America and avoid piracy, it’s unlikely that you’ve seen Jonathan Levine’s first film, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. Which is too bad, because it’s terrific filmmaking and a neat spin on the usual slasher set up. Levine’s next movie, The Wackness, made some waves but never really got the wide release it deserved. And now, a couple of years later, Levine is back with a new film, the innocuously titled 50/50.

That title stands for the odds of survival Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character has. Young, smart and otherwise healthy, he has a malignant tumor on his spine, and the outlook is dicey. His best friend, a slobby slacker played by Seth Rogen, is his only support system as he enters a world of chemo and therapy and existential uncertainty.

But this isn’t a bummer movie! Levine really wants to make sure you know that in this interview. In fact, I think it’s okay  to tell you that Levitt’s character totally makes it, as the movie is based on the real life experiences of screenwriter and cancer survivor Will Reiser. Who, it turns out, is best friends with Seth Rogen and producer Evan Goldberg. In fact, Reiser wrote Rogen’s part for Rogen, and largely based it on how Rogen reacted to the illness.

I know what you’re thinking right now: man, this movie sounds cheesy, like a Judd Apatow generation Hallmark Channel film. But it’s not, and I was just as surprised as you are. In fact, I had to open my interview with Levine by talking about that:

I was doubtful about this movie in advance because there’s such a huge possibility of this kind of movie being schmaltzy. But the tone you’re going for - which I think you nail - allows the film to come across as emotional without being schlock. How do you get that tone?

I think you just have to be hyperaware. The great thing about Will’s script is that it never pushed you into any place where you felt like you were being manipulated - it was always in the spirit of the situation. For anyone who has ever been in a situation like this, where you or someone you care about has their life at stake, there are often moments where you cannot help but laugh. There are often situations that are so awkward you have to laugh. And there are situations so horrible you have to laugh. It was just very important to stay true to the tone of that.

It’s something that’s different, but once we established our rules of being grounded and being very true to the reality of the situation it’s not as hard as you might think - especially because you have someone like Seth who is there to ensure that the funny parts stay funny. And you have someone like Joe, who is there to ensure that it plays as intensely and reality-based as possible. That allowed all of us to have faith in the tone of the movie.

But it’s also something you do decide in the editing room. There were times when we were editing the movie and I would see something and say ‘That’s cheesy, so let’s not do that.’ It’s easy to spot and easy to remove.

I’m really interested in how you work with Joe. What’s fascinating about his performance is that it’s very interior in a lot of ways. So much of the movie is predicated on people around him reacting to what he’s going through and he has this tough role of not only being the center of the drama, but also the guy who everyone else bounces off of - and he’s playing a character who isn’t a drama queen or given to hysterics.

I’ll just tell you what Joe brings to the table without me doing anything, and why he’s perfect for this role: he’s very egoless as an actor and also very confident. He’s also the type of person who, in close up, you can see a hundred different things going on and you empathize with him and like him. He works at it, but that’s just something he has innately.

For me working with him was really about creating an environment where he always felt safe and making sure I was always there for him. He jumped into the movie with very little prep time and I had to make sure he had the information and backstory and everything he needed to make this grounded. Then you just kind of let him go, man. He just is that good.

For me, I’m a fairly hands-off director as far as performance goes - I’ll go up between takes and tell him I like this or I like that, or every once in a while I’ll say dial it back or dial it up - but generally I feel like my role on set is to provide an environment where the actors feel free to make choices and give them ammunition to make those choices. Then I sit back and watch it.

It’s really true! Sometimes I’m just the arbiter of taste. On a movie like this, where there’s a lot of improv, I’ll say ‘This is funnier than this,’ and hopefully I’m right.

This seems like a weird position to be in as a director because your screenwriter has written a movie about his own, real life experience with cancer, and your movie star is his best friend and your producer. Is it hard to assert yourself as a director on this kind of set, where everything is so personal to these guys?

I think it would have been had it not been for Seth and Evan, who I feel like are just about the best producers I could ever ask for. I don’t know where they learned it because they’re so young, but they’re so good at creating a collaborative environment. I imagine they learned it at the Apatow school. But it was always collaborative and it was best idea wins. We were all, very quickly, clicking together. It was definitely the kind of set where everybody is having a great time behind the monitor. That’s the kind of set I like, and I’m easy going and mellow. We live or die by the shit we do, but it’s always a great dialogue to get to the best possible outcome. It’s not about ego, it’s about the idea.

For so many directors the idea of imprinting themselves on the material is important. Do you feel like you’ve imprinted yourself on this material, or is this Will’s film?

I determined the best way to fully realize this movie, both directorially and have the best finished product was to sort of sublimate myself to the overarching ideas of this movie. I did not feel like I had to put any specific stamp on it, I did not feel like I had to assert myself with the camera. In fact I felt like I held back with a lot of the stuff I like to do with the camera because the story demanded it. I have to say sometimes it’s a little hard. Sometimes I felt this need to do it, but I really told myself at the beginning of the film that’s not what the story needed.

Do I feel like I put stamp on it? Yeah. I feel like it’s the movie I wanted to make, and I feel like it has a very unique tone from other movies. I just was comfortable enough that I wasn’t going to insert my stamp - if my stamp is moving the camera or inserting a hip hop song - because the story didn’t need it.

Moving on to the fluffier stuff - you have this scene where Joe shaves his head. This was obviously not a CGI sequence, so you only had one shot at it. How did you make sure you didn’t fuck it up?

We did as many takes as we could of the stuff before he shaved his head. The whole thing they do at the end of the scene, their whole back and forth, is completely improvised. To me it’s like Michael Jordan steps to the free throw line and only gets one shot and nails it. It’s honestly unlike anything because - you can’t even compare it to a stunt - but having to be in character and acting and [having only the one take]... can you imagine if one of them broke character and started cracking up? We’d be fucked. We did it the first day -

That was the first day?

Yeah. We didn’t shoot the movie in order so basically Joe’s wearing a wig for a lot of the movie. But yeah, man, we knew that the two of them were clicking when their chemistry was so good on the first day. It was fun to watch. The set was really fun. It’s like you’re all kids getting to make a movie together. I’ve heard people say that before and I thought, ‘Eh, that sounds untrue,’ but it was this time. Especially that day - when they were clicking, Seth and Joe together, we knew we had it.

This film has had a couple of titles. It was I’m With Cancer, now it’s 50/50. Can you talk about the decision to go with that title?

I never liked I’m With Cancer. Our problem was that we left I’m With Cancer on the title page for so long that any other title seemed to pale in comparison. I didn’t like I’m With Cancer for the simple fact that I want people to go see the movie. I have had family members who had cancer and I can’t see myself going to the movie theater and saying ‘I’d like two tickets for I’m With Cancer.’ I just can’t see it.

Then we went to Get Well Soon. We went through a lot of titles to find something that we felt accurately portrayed something about the movie, didn’t seem too saccharine but also wasn’t off-putting to people. 50/50 is what we ended up with, and to me it solves a lot of those problems. If you go to IMDB there are a few with that title. I think it can be a lot of different things for different people, but I want people to know this isn’t going to be a depressing experience. I feel like we landed on something that will insure more people see this movie. And that to me is the most important thing. It sounds like it could be lots of different things, which makes it open to criticism, but it also won’t turn people off. The movie needs all the help it can get; people when they see it respond to it, but I want people to know it isn’t depressing.

Is this your most mainstream movie?

I like the fact there are movie stars in it. I think that really helps. Not just movie stars, but incredibly charismatic movie stars in their prime. But I don’t know… mainstream is almost a pejorative term. I hope it’s successful, and that it makes a shitload of money.

In terms of being released and not being totally indie…

Of course. Having the support of a studio like Summit is a great blessing for a movie. I was kind of burned on my first two. While I had a great experience with Sony, it was a bummer how few people saw the movie. I hope a lot of people go see it because I think it’s kind of a unique movie in that it doesn’t talk down to audiences yet it’s still very entertaining. I think it would be great if people sent the message that more stuff like that is considered mainstream.