Interview: Jonathan Levine and Josh Peck

Back in May, I had the opportunity to sit down with director Jonathan Levine and star Josh Peck to talk about their new film The Wackness. I fell in love with this indie coming-of-age drama at Sundance. I have since seen the film three more times. You’ve probably read my gushing posts. It seems like if you talk enough about one thing, even the filmmakers know you by name. When I walked into the room at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, Levine came over and thanked me for all the coverage I have given his film. I thanked him for making a great film. Peck even confessed that he’s a regular /Film reader. How cool is that?

Peter Sciretta: Everybody in the film has a cigarette of drug addiction.

Jonathan Levine: Yeah. Well, I think that, OK, so, yes, everyone smokes, sometimes a lot of the time they’re supposed to be smoking a joint, but people think it’s a cigarette, but Olivia smokes, Famke smokes, there was a scene in the shot where Josh’s character actually quit smoking at the very beginning of the movie and then actually has a cigarette at the end of the movie but that ended up on the cutting room floor. For me I think it’s – I recognize it’s probably pretty provocative and probably pisses people off, but a lot of the world I grew up in in New York or even, I just think teenagers do things that are bad for them. I think the point of the movie is that everyone regardless of where they are in life or what their perspective is, they have their own drug, whether it’s sex, money, music, weed, prescription medication, like everyone has their own drug. I think that kind of underscores that point, but there’s like all this, I think now if you have a cigarette in a movie it’s Rated R right, or is it PG-13?

Peter Sciretta: It’s one of the two, I know you can’t even show smoking in like greenband trailers which must make it hard for you guys to…

Jonathan Levine: It is, actually cutting the trailers is actually pretty hard because we can’t reference drugs and we can’t… so we’re doing a red band, like a long red band trailer that I think hopefully

Peter Sciretta: I was going to say, you guys should put out some red band trailers on the Internet just for the fun sort of way.

Jonathan Levine: Yeah, we are, we are.

Josh Peck: Isn’t that the line from Thank you for Smoking, like we’re trying to get smoking across to more than just the normal RAVs, Russians, Arabs and Villains, it’s kind of true, you know?

Peter Sciretta:
What’s so incredible about 1994?

Jonathan Levine: I think the best answer to that is it’s the year I graduated from high school. For me it’s a seminal year in music. I mean originally I wrote about it because it was the year I graduated from high school that was as simple as that and then a lot of the other stuff I sort of retroactively figured out and then towards the middle of the screenwriting process I was like OK, what other cool stuff from 1994 to put in.

Peter Sciretta: I’m actually interested in like the screenplay process like how did you come up with this idea, like what was first? Was it the character? Was it the year? Was it–

Jonathan Levine:
I think, and I’m not 100% sure, but I think it started out with this one scene between this kid and this shrink and it was the exchange of drugs for therapy, the exchange of pot for therapy. That was like the first thing and then, I think I started bringing some of my own personal life into it and my own personal kind of world growing up. And then it just kind of evolved from there. But originally it was like this kind of rambling, you know, it probably started out at like 150 pages and then through the kind of process of writing and rewriting you sort of start to recognize what the themes are but I had no idea what they were at the beginning, you know, and I think I knew that there was something I was exploring about. The kid was seeing a shrink so I guess there was something about that, some people are you know, there’s something about psychotherapy and not being happy and then, but it was only towards the kind of middle to the end of the screenwriting process that I really figure out what the hell the movie was about. So it’s not the best way to write a screenplay.

Peter Sciretta: You had your own journey.

Jonathan Levine: It takes a lot longer that way.

Peter Sciretta: How did you find Josh, like how did you get involved

Josh Peck: It was in some ways sort of a traditional auditioning process except for the fact that I knew that my favorite actor ever was in this movie so it kind of added a whole different level to it, I was just like pretty much bugging out before every audition,

Peter Sciretta: ::joking:: You’re talking about Method Man right? ::joking::

Josh Peck: Yeah, dude. No question, I mean method is the epitome of me of acting truth, no, I was, you know, and even through the whole audition process, I mean it was the whole time I was just kind of on edge I remember it was early June I was auditioning, it was my mom’s birthday and I like took her to this, we went to this hotel for like the weekend in Palm Springs and we wound up driving home like the next day like a day early because I like ruined her birthday I’m like, because I was like bugging out about this movie, and I’m like Mom, I can’t relax, she said, come in the fucking pool, chill out like, you know, just

Jonathan Levine: Now I feel bad.

Josh Peck: No, man, it was all right, I made it up to her, we went on a nice weekend after, you know, it’s very important to the moms to sustain the birthdays tradition. So it obviously struck a chord in me that was greater than anything that I had ever been a part of. I met Jon at the audition and I remember calling up my manager after and I was like ‘yo, is John an actor?’ I said, because I feel like I know him, like we’ve hung out before and we just kind of had this repartee thing going and then I find it interesting is that he asked me like ‘yo, where’s your family from? I’m like well I’m from New York I’m like but a lot of my family lives in Jersey but I fucking hate Jersey’ and that you know, that’s also something I share with Luke.

Jonathan Levine: And for me I mean there’s two things I remember not beyond like just knowing that Josh was going to play Luke the first time I saw him that Josh also, he wrote me a nice letter talking about how much he identified with the character. And then this dude, Jacob Estis, who lives in my neighborhood who directed Josh in Mean Creek, he and I started like, he hangs out at my coffee shop in front of his laptop all the time and I one time just like before I made this movie, I went up to him for some advice and he was really nice to me and I remember talking to him about Josh and he just had nothing but amazing things to say about him and so that was cool.

Peter Sciretta: And he was wrong.

Jonathan Levine: He was completely lying. I think he’s maybe coming tonight though to the movie, according to Josh, but he didn’t say.

Josh Peck: He could be, he’s got like a wedding to go to beforehand

Peter Sciretta: Oh, just one of those.

Josh Peck: But you know,

Jonathan Levine: Oh he’s got a wedding before?

Josh Peck: Before.

Jonathan Levine: Oh, so he’ll be like wasted.

Josh Peck: Well, yeah, it’s a definite chance, but you know, you dance the horah, you eat some wedding cake, you’re out of there, right? I mean c’mon you gotta make wedding quick.

Jonathan Levine:
That’s true

Peter Sciretta: Yeah. You know, I posted a lot about this and I always get comments from people asking me why haven’t we seen Famke and you know, she must have like a big fan base or something, but and I understand why, she has only a few scenes in the movie, but she has like this top billing credit and I was wondering like did she have more scenes and then it got cut out or was –

Jonathan Levine: We definitely like, not disproportionately, like we had our first cut of movie was two and a half hours, so we cut equally from everyone. But no, she does have a very loyal fan base and I think

Josh Peck:
And rightfully so.

Jonathan Levine: And rightfully so, she’s fantastic. I think in the new trailer there’s more of her. There’s also an Aaron Yoo fan base, there’s a big fan base for him, too. He’s very genuinely funny and great, but it’s a hard movie to cut trailers for, man, it’s like, first of all you can’t mention drugs and second of all it’s like, it’s the type of thing where I think it’s a combination of – it’s smarter than the people think it is going in and more emotional than people think it is going in and a lot of that is hard to kind of convey over the course of a minute and a half, you know, that kind of journey, but we’re working on it. We’re doing one that’s all Femke and slow motion.

Peter Sciretta: The fans should be happy about that. Did Giuliani ruin New York City or did he clean it up?

Jonathan Levine: Uh, he definitely didn’t ruin it. He definitely didn’t ruin it. He made New York City possible for me when I was going to boarding school and coming and visiting my parents wearing a tight white hat and a Patagonia wing for a cab not to get my ass kicked. So for that, I thank him.

Josh Peck: He didn’t do that for me.

Jonathan Levine: No, he – I think that, the very crux of that question is something that allegorically the characters in the movie are going through: Is it better to kind of clean the messy stuff up and not, or is it better to indulge it and have it be a part of life? I think there are certainly benefits to each one, and I don’t know the answer. I think a lot of the movie is the fact that we’re asking that question. I have no idea. I definitely think New York is a very very vibrant wonderful city, but I certainly of course, can’t help but miss a lot of the stuff that’s no longer there.

Peter Sciretta:
The character…

Jonathan Levine:
The character, yeah, and exactly the character and the kind of vibrant sort of… I mean that’s a great time, just with hip-hop and kind of the hip-hop was much more of a cultural experience and much more about identifying with a world view than with socioeconomic status or race or anything like that. It just transcended that and you know, I’m not sure that has anything to do with Giuliani but I think Bloomberg’s pretty good.


Peter Sciretta: You mentioned your favorite actor of all time was in this movie, were you intimidated working with Sir Ben?

Josh Peck: I think yeah, no matter what, it is the – it’s sort of the mystery of meeting kind of one of your heroes. It’s really up to your hero not to let you down, kind of because you’re going to have these ultra expectations, and he totally, he was totally gracious. When he met me he gave me a hug and he was like this part chose you you didn’t choose this part. And he was wearing like designer jeans and I was like man you know, you wear designer jeans, I can wrap my head around that, like I can’t wrap my head around being a Sir, or being as talented as you are but you know, everybody likes true religions, you know. I never felt so much of a family type atmosphere with all of us being sort of these young actors and filmmakers between Olivia Thirlby and I and Mary Kate, we were just these young people sort of taking our first steps into this career that we all hoped to have and sustain and hopefully we’ll be lucky enough for people to really dig the choices we make. And Sir Ben was sort of like the proven entity, you know, he was the one coming in with the most experience and most wisdom and he allowed us to feel comfortable and especially me, I mean he knew that our scenes hinged on a certain amount of vulnerability between the two of us and if it, if that didn’t exist there, it would have been very apparent on screen.

Peter Sciretta:
You definitely feel that connection between you two, it’s really, apparent and you’re right, it wouldn’t have worked.

Josh Peck: You know.

Peter Sciretta: The whole movie wouldn’t have worked if that didn’t work.

Jonathan Levine: No, if we were scared of him, and he knew that, I mean he’s a very – just I mean there’s also a difference between the way he looks when he comes to set which is the very intimidating Ben Kingsley with the bald head and the goatee and when he puts that wig on he gets a lot less intimidating you know.

Peter Sciretta: One of the great things in this movie is mix tapes, and I always love mix tapes, because and then like the whole CD era came and you can still make CDs but you can skip the songs and just like listen to the whole mix tape like, and it’s supposed to be like this progress right where…

Jonathan Levine:
Right, a narrative that you’re telling through television.

Peter Sciretta: So why did you include mix tapes, like what was

Jonathan Levine: Oh my god! I mean that’s the first way I ever learned to communicate with the girls, you know, I mean that’s like the only way if not for that, I don’t think I would ever have even talked to a girl, and no! I mean it was just you know, I think the more kind of social interactions that were authentic to the time for me the better. There were no cell phones, like that’s that creates a whole different way of communicating with people, but for me mix tapes, they were like you know, pretty important way of conveying your personality through music and I miss that. And now they have these things which we were trying to get

Peter Sciretta: Are you talking about mux

Jonathan Levine: No, well, I don’t know maybe it’s like little flash disks that little flash disks that come inside like a mix tape box and they’re really cool, I’ll send you the link, it’s but we were trying to get them to kind of like put a press kit in and promote the movie but I guess

Peter Sciretta:
That would have been really cool.

Jonathan Levine: Yeah, I guess we can’t get them in bulk in the States, or some thing.

Peter Sciretta: It’s funny, I mean mix tapes are coming back, I mean there’s like this web site called muxtape.com which basically people can upload the songs and you listen to it online and mixtape

Jonathan Levine: Really!

Peter Sciretta: Yeah.

Jonathan Levine: That’s not illegal filesharing stuff…?

Peter Sciretta: It’s –

Jonathan Levine:
Is it like

Peter Sciretta: Right now, no one is making a big deal about it.

Jonathan Levine: It’s like Pandora or something like that but you put your own

Josh Peck: Pandora is awesome by the way I just discovered that

Peter Sciretta: I love Pandora.

Josh Peck:
Wow! Isn’t that awesome?

Peter Sciretta: Yeah.

Josh Peck: And I’m like well, WOW, KRS-One is consistent with some East Coast rhyming with some strong flows…

Peter Sciretta:
The way they put it, yeah. Well, it’s funny, because sometimes they’ll pick some really strange stuff and it’s still like…

Josh Peck:
Yeah, sometimes it’s like dead-on, I’m like yeah, the Donny Hathaway channel check that the fuck out.

Peter Sciretta:
Looking into the future, I mean Josh, you – is Drake and Josh in New York still happening?

Josh Peck: We’re not going to New York. Not doing any of that but I’m not taking it to my city. We’re doing a TV movie.

Jonathan Levine:
Thailand?

Josh Peck: Over the summer – yeah. Drake and Josh go, and take downers in Thailand and then have their kidneys removed. No, we’re doing like the final TV movie, give the kids a bit of closure, so we’ll just we’re going to knock it out this Summer. This way I don’t have to be a waiter and you can share that with all of the SlashFilm visitors.

Peter Sciretta: That’s great.

Josh Peck: No, no, but it’s all so cool you know, I’m really appreciative of what I’ve been able to do with that, and then I get to make kids happy, I mean, that in itself is a real gift, but yeah, we’re staying in California we’re not going anywhere.

Peter Sciretta: What do you–

Jonathan Levine:
Don’t you think it was an odd choice to have Drake’s character die at the end of this final film? Don’t you think that [laughs]

Josh Peck: Less weird than the fact that I’m the one that kills him.

Jonathan Levine:
I know.

Josh Peck: You know

Peter Sciretta: [laughs]

Jonathan Levine: Spoiler alert!

Peter Sciretta: It’s all over Internet now. Though, what do you have next. Well, I know you have American Primitive, Safety Glass, what do you have after that? Like is there anything coming out.



Josh Peck:
God, who knows! I’ve got a massage at six. I mean I did Safety Glass with Olivia Thirlby.

Peter Sciretta: Another period film with Olivia.

Josh Peck: Another period film. ’86, so a little bit farter back, the year I was actually born, which is interesting, and Steve Coogan, who’s pretty comedically brilliant, you know. American Primitive I play as a 70′s piece another period piece where I play like a fisherman from Cape Cod so I just pretty much listen to all the tapes of JFK nonstop and listen to Howard doing a lot of Iraaa Iraaa you know, Ted Kennedy shit and so that was a totally different part. My biggest fear ever, especially when you do TV is to be typecast and to be thought of only able to do one role. And to only be being offered things that you they think that you should be doing as opposed to things you want to be doing. So I think I’m about, if I’m lucky, I think I’m about five Wackness’s away from getting offered shit that I actually like. [laughter]

Jonathan Levine: But it’s actually – that’s kind of like an interesting problem because like I have no idea of what I’m going to do next but having just on this, and being so proud of it, it makes the next decision that much harder, you know, because you can’t just feel like, all right, I’ll do it,

Peter Sciretta: You have no idea as for next?

Jonathan Levine: I mean I’m writing a script for Sony which is a spy novel, that’s a big movie. I don’t think they’d ever let me direct it. I have an idea for, I have a couple of ideas of things I want to write for myself, but you know, I did two movies in like two and a half years and now I’m kind of –

Peter Sciretta:
You mentioned Iron Man earlier, would you ever want to do a superhero movie?

Jonathan Levine: Oh yeah. But I mean all the best Marvel ones are now being used up, you know, there’s only, the only one left is Submariner I think. No! I’d have to it would have to be one of the Marvel ones because that’s what I grew up with. You know, and I think Iron Man was kind of the last…

Peter Sciretta:
He was the last really good one I think.

Jonathan Levine:
Yeah. I mean they’re doing, I heard they’re doing like Shield, right?

Peter Sciretta: Yeah.

Jonathan Levine: And that’s Sam Jackson?

Peter Sciretta: That’s definitely at the end of the credits on Iron Man, because he shows up.

Jonathan Levine: He shows up?

Peter Sciretta: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Jonathan Levine: That’s cool, and maybe they’ll, maybe by the time I’m ready they’ll have a new Hulk, a third incarnation of The Hulk.

Josh Peck: Mortal Kombat would be good, a good version of that.

Peter Sciretta: My only other question is and we mentioned before it’s hard to market this film, the smoking, the drugs, sex. I mean sex drugs used to be like the easy way to market

Jonathan Levine:
Used to be good things.

Peter Sciretta: Yeah. And that was like

Jonathan Levine: What’s wrong with society when sex and drugs become bad?


Peter Sciretta: What is the plan to get people to see this movie? Like what is your pitch to get people to watch this movie.

Jonathan Levine: I think here’s the thing. I think that the best way to get people to see this movie is to have their friend see this movie and tell them they’ll like this movie. I think it’s a very different and meek kind of movie. That said, I think we’re going to do our best to kind of capture kind of the nuances and the heart of it in the marketing materials as we can. The great thing about Sony is that they love input from the kind of creative forces behind the film, so – you know, whatever happens it’s my fault.

Peter Sciretta: Are you cutting that redband trailer you’re talking about?

Jonathan Levine: I’m not cutting it but I’m very involved in it. And I think that the biggest thing and the thing that I’m so pleased with them about is just getting the word out. Getting it to be a part of the cultural landscape, you know, I mean we’re in all the summer movie previews, we have like, the trailers is up on Apple, you know, the trailer was attached to Sara Marshall, like these are things that I think the first thing I want to do is get the awareness up and get people to kind of respect it as like a kind of, a movie that they might enjoy and then you know, once the awareness is up hopefully people will go see it and like it and tell their friends about it. But I don’t know man, I don’t know you know,

Peter Sciretta: Well that’s the thing it’s such a generational thing, you’re so – I think you’re lucky in the sense that like, most of the people in my field are like in that generation and everyone seems to love the film.

Jonathan Levine:
Yeah, no, and it is like, the blogosphere of being supportive you know, and

Peter Sciretta:
I haven’t heard one person that disliked it yet.

Jonathan Levine:
Oh, get Google News Alerts. I got a few of them. I found them.

Peter Sciretta:
Really?

Josh Peck:
The best comment so far has been that I heard about myself was Peck’s Stoner malaise is over played at times. And I’m like, yo, son, that’s just how I look, I mean dude! You wouldn’t like me in real life, then son.

Jonathan Levine: But I think you know, the biggest thing about it is I’m not going to fucking stop. I will stay up 24 hours a day and just like work my ass off and it’s hard doing it, man, that’s why you know, not every movie is Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, or whatever, but even if I have to go to every single fuckin’ person and

Josh Peck: Grassroots campaign

Jonathan Levine: And pull them in, you know, I’m

Peter Sciretta: That would be awesome and have cameras following you.

Jonathan Levine:
It would be great. Yeah.

Peter Sciretta: Drag people off the street into the theater.

Jonathan Levine:
Yeah. I mean we are working our asses off and in fact that is part of why I don’t know what my next thing is because I have devoted this summer just to helping out in anyway I can, so hopefully it’ll turn out OK.

Peter Sciretta:
That’s very cool. Thank you very much.

Josh Peck: Thank you very much man.

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