'Snatched' Director Jonathan Levine On Taking A More Visual Approach To Comedy [Interview]

So far, Jonathan Levine has directed a coming-of-age movie, a zombie romance, a horror movie, a buddies night out film, a heartbreaking comedy, and now, an action-comedy starring Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn. With five features under his belt, the Snatched director has shown an interest and skill in making a variety of movies.

His newest film, which is written by Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters), is his biggest movie to date. Five features into his career and his priciest movie yet isn't a comic book movie or a sequel – it's an Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn comedy. Levine has stuck to telling mostly original and heartfelt stories. The director told us about how his previous work, including his last comedy, informed Snatched.

Below, check out our Jonathan Levine interview.

Were there any lessons you had learned from The Night Before that influenced Snatched? Are you one of those filmmakers who what you do next is almost a reaction to the movie you previously made?

I certainly am, Jack. I learned a couple things. I had gotten sick of my own writing even though that was a collaboration with Evan and Kyle and Ariel and that movie was a pretty collaborative thing. It was about friends, and we're all friends, so it really made sense for that movie. But that was something living and breathing in my mind for a couple years. I just got sick of my own writing and I was tired of everything that I wrote for a second. So you know, I thought it would be great to read Katie's script and be able to both love it and also to not be so inside it that I didn't feel I can have objectivity.

And then the other thing that I've learned, and the other thing that was really fun for me on this movie was that ... On The Night Before, we did an extreme amount of improvisation. I would say every take, you know how they say you do the scripts once and then you get, in comedy, you do something once, and then you DVD comment it, you know. It makes sense except we didn't stick to the script because the people were so fun and it was a lot of two cameras at the same time. And what I wanted to do on this movie was kind of take a more thoughtful, formal visual approach to it. Not do as much improvisation, although there certainly was a lot of improv on the movie. It was a more focused comedic visual approach that I took with this one.

What else does that entail? 

You use the cameras less, right? A lot of times when you tend to use two cameras, you let the actor understand that you're doing that and feel free to just kind of go crazy and go completely off script. When it's an actor like Seth Rogen or Jillian Bell or Ilana, you just have to do it because it's always so funny. With this, I was trying to use something more that had more of a '80s vibe. It was like Romancing the Stone or Outrageous Fortune or something like that and those movies were about the storytelling person foremost, so I was trying to sort of think through what the shots were a lot more.

I was kind of going back to what I did in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and was just like really, really figuring out the best way to execute a scene. And that's not just in the action sequences, although it certainly was more in the action sequences, but it's also in the scenes with two people talking. And to really put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the movie which is something I did on Mandy Lane and something I did a lot on Warm Bodies, too, and the last one that I did.

Music is usually a big part of your films, and there are some cool songs in Snatched, but I would say they're maybe not as central as the music was to The Wackness or 50/50.

Well, it's interesting because this movie, I said it to my editor at the beginning, this isn't going to be a music-driven movie. We're going to use all Latin American music, and we're going to have it be just blended into the background, and we're not going to do any montage-y stuff or any of that. And then I found out we were going through it and I started making playlists for myself. Latin dance music or tropical music from Brazil. I started playing that for myself to sort of enhance the vibe a bit.

And then I just kind of reverse engineered this ... Gabe Hilfer, our music supervisor, and I, just kind of reverse engineered the soundtrack. I never had this kind of macro feeling of what it should be. As we started to work through it, cues in on a cue-by-cue basis, it started to take on this shape. It became very eclectic, very diverse. Once the soundtrack took shape, it had everything from Major Lazer to Van Morrison. Once I finally watched the final cut of the movie, I was like "Wow, this actually turned out to have a really, really cool soundtrack." And I was really, really proud of it. And it was never any sort of master plan with this one, the way there was on other movies.

It sounds like you changed up your process a little for this one. 

I mean, yes and no. I think that my directing style is still very much the same. We're still pushing for the theme to be as great as possible, still trying to get as many jokes in there as possible. Still trying to get as much heart in there as possible. And really, the process is less about changing it up and more about synthesizing things I've learned from different projects and putting them all together.

The Wackness and 50/50, I think, were kind of two very similar movies and two very similar approaches. Warm Bodies was a complete world-building movie that really had a more aggressive visual approach and was a real change of pace. And then The Night Before was much more of a straight comedy. So I think this movie very much combines all of that stuff.

So much of directing is really just the way you talk to actors and the way you run the set, and that's never really changed. Since I've been here, I've always just tried to make things really fun and really direct and give people the freedom to be their best selves. It can feel that different, but it was fun.

Snatched - Goldie Hawn and Amy SchumerSomething that connects those movies is how kind-hearted they are. You don't make mean-spirited comedies. For me, the most memorable scene in the movie is when Emily finds the photo album of her mom, and it's kind of a bittersweet and relatable scene from an R-rated comedy. 

Well, I think that moment, and thank you for picking it out, is like, the whole reason I wanted to do the movie. What I always thought was "this is a movie about a relationship between a parent and a child, and that is a very compelling and relatable chain." And having that guiding principle carries you through all the comedic tones of the movie, all the absurdity, all the silliness, all the raunchiness. It gave it a through-line that I found to be the most compelling part of it.

So the other cool thing with that scene is not only is it sweet that she's looking at pictures of her mom, it's sweet that she's looking through pictures of Goldie Hawn and that the audience is reminded: "Oh, this is Goldie, you haven't seen her in so long. And this is the person we all fell in love with. And oh, wait, no, this character is not that person anymore."

And so, what I find really fun and really sweet is that by the end of the movie, she's reclaimed that persona. I think that core ... And it's The Night Before, too. The Night Before is really a letter to my friends. The guys who I went to college with, who I spent many nights getting drunk and smoking pot with and were there through good times and bad times. I think that is something that's really important when you're trying to make people laugh, is to have a core of sweetness. Especially in this day and age.

Definitely. You mentioned earlier you got sick of your writing. When exactly did that happen and how do you feel about your writing now?

I always get sick of my writing. That's why I did 50/50. And after The Night Before, not only did I do this but I did a pilot [I'm Dying Up Here] for Showtime that's coming out in a couple of weeks that I'm really proud of too, that was written by Dave Flebotte who is an amazing writer. No, now I think my writing is awesome again [Laughs].

[Laughs] That's great.

And I'm going to start writing some more. I have a script that I co-wrote with [50/50 writer] Will Reiser called Brooklyn Castle, which I don't think we're going to be able to do next. I'm doing another movie I didn't write next. But I'm going to try to do that right after it.

What's Brooklyn Castle about?

It's a documentary about these kids at a public school in Williamsburg who are really amazing at chess. It's a sports movie but it explores the education system, it explores issues of race. And it has a little bit of a Freaks and Geeks vibe and a little bit of a Hoosiers kind of vibe. It's all kids and, hopefully, Seth is going to be in it, too, and that's one that I think is going to be really fun.

I read you want to make a sequel to The Wackness. Have you wanted to return to those characters for a while or is this a new idea?

I started thinking about it six months ago. I have no idea why I started thinking about it. Actually, you know what's really great about that sort of canvas? You can do all this sort of crazy stuff, like when he's doing the Billie Jean thing. You can just have fun with it. I thought about what that character is facing now, and all the sort of existential dilemmas both of them would be facing. I just came up with this cool plot, but I'm not sure anyone would ever want to see it or give me money to make it.

What I would really want to do is set it in present day, which would be a little tricky because the first one took place 14 years before it came out. That's the real trick. There's so much I want to say about New York City politics and the existential dilemmas of these guys as they progress and get older. I have it all beat out. I'll write it if it's good.


Snatched is now in theaters.