The Night Before

The Wackness wasn’t Jonathan Levine‘s directorial debut, but it was the first film we saw from him. Following the long-delayed All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Levine wrote and directed the coming-of-age film set in the early ’90s. The Wackness was packed with music of its time, with no shortage of Biggie songs, and lots of old classics, such as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Levine’s love for music, and his knack for using music to tell a story, rang loud and clear in The Wackness.

Over the years he’s continued to use music rather effectively. As famous as some of the songs are in his films, they never distract from the emotional or comedic beats they’re serving. The Wackness, 50/50Warm Bodies, and the director’s newest film, The Night Before, are packed with great tunes. Levine’s Christmas comedy features plenty of cheerful holiday music, but there are also some modern hits that play a major part in the story. There’s a Miley Cyrus performance, for example, that is more than a cameo.

At the junket for The Night Before — which stars Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50), and Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) — we decided to discuss with Levine his love for music and why he chose certain songs over the course of his career. Read our Jonathan Levine interview after the jump. 

Joseph Gordon Levitt;Seth Rogen;Anthony Mackie

What makes a great soundtrack? What kind of feel did you want The Night Before‘s to have?

To me, using music is creating a shorthand with an audience. And I love music so much. I’m always walking around with headphones on, creating my own soundtracks to whatever the day is. I think I have a poppy sensibility. This movie especially is a very poppy movie and meant to be a very crowd-pleasing movie.

And so, there are a lot of Christmas songs that are just that. They are just happy, melodic, upbeat. But the other big thing about Christmas, and the other big thing about Christmas movies and Christmas music, is it can also be a little bittersweet and melancholy because it’s like the end of the year. It’s winter. There’s something kind of a bit reflective about Christmas.

So I love the kind of juxtaposition of those two energies. The Wackness is stoner movie, but the character is smoking weed because he has problems that he’s dealing with. It’s like when you look at the Biggie songs in that movie, for example, there’s a great beat and you can bob your head to it, even dance to it sometimes. But he’s talking about really messed up stuff.

For me, a great song is kind of generally pretty poppy and you kind of get it right away. But it also has that kind of melancholy edge to it sometimes.

What are some of your favorite soundtracks?

There’s so many great ones… Coming Home has a great soundtrack.

It’s impossible not to cry at the end with that Tim Buckley song, “Once I Was.”

Oh, God, dude. Yeah, that Buckley song is incredible. These are kind of lame, but these are the ones in college I would listen to, like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. Those are just so good. And the other big thing I should say about a soundtrack is it has enough songs you know and in introduces you to new music, too. Certainly Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction did that for me.

Fuck, man. What else? There’s obviously ’80s, like Footloose is a great soundtrack. Purple Rain is probably the best soundtrack. Saturday Night Fever… those are kind of the obvious, but they are obvious for a reason. They are so great. And they are all different types of music, all different kinds of musical palettes. What else has a great soundtrack? Straight Outta Compton, which is one of my favorite movies I saw this year. That was an incredible soundtrack.

Quentin Tarantino is probably the master of this, and P.T. Anderson, too. It’s like counterpoint, musical counterpoint. Not that many people do it anymore, but I think that Django had a great soundtrack, too. He’s the the best at that kind of thing. And Django had that Jim Croce song. That was probably my favorite musical moment in the last 5, 10 years, with that song “I Got a Name.” Do you remember that montage?

I do.

It’s great. I was like, “Oh, I kinda know Jim Croce, but I know the big Jim Croce songs.” And that was a little bit of a less well-known Jim Croce song, or to me it was. But you’re like, “This is a cool song and it’s a beautiful moment.” And it just perfectly kind of captures the feeling that you are supposed to feel.

That’s the great thing about music, too, is it’s a very quick shorthand to give you a feeling. So the two Darlene Love songs we use in The Night Before, they just remind me of Christmas and they put me in a time and a place. And I like the way that you can have that time and place and your own personal experience interact with what’s going on with the characters in the movie.

I want to mention a few songs you’ve used over the past few years. 

Let’s do it.


For starters, the Liars’ “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” in 50/50 hits you really hard, before Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes into surgery.

That’s one of the very few I can take no credit for, except for the fact that I saw it and was just like, “Whoa.” That was Zene Baker, our editor, who edited The Night Before and 50/50. Just like first cut I came in and it was just like it was there. He looped it and it just built such tension.

I remember being on set that day. And it was a late night when we were doing the scene with Joe saying goodbye to his parents. Man, it was one of the few times I was overcome with emotion, just being on set watching it. And usually Seth and Evan [Goldberg] will hang out, pitch jokes or whatever. They just saw that and they’re like, “We’re going to go.” This doesn’t happen that much, but we all recognized it was no time to try to inject levity into it. We were just completely overcome by the emotion of the moment and the reality of the moment.

You’d think somebody thought of that song ahead because it fits so well, but it’s interesting to hear that choice wasn’t made until post-production.

And it’s not a band that I knew. I don’t know where he got it or where it came from. That’s why he’s such a brilliant editor. It perfectly underscores the tension of the moment and the release of that moment when she hugs him and she won’t let go.

I have a hard time getting excited about stuff that I’ve done. I certainly had a hand in that part, but to me that scene is so much Zene’s editing, the music, Joe and Anjelica [Huston]’s acting, and Will [Reiser]’s writing. So I don’t feel like I’m too shy to tell you I like it.

Did you have Radiohead’s “High and Dry” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in mind before shooting?

No. Usually what happens is, I sometimes have the editors make a QuickTime, which in this day and age you are really not supposed to do because anything can get leaked on to the internet or whatever. But I have them make a QuickTime and I’ll go home and I’ll just go into my iTunes and I’ll put the QuickTime up and I’ll just start playing shit. That’ll happen over a weekend.

To me that’s like playing a video game, just trying different music against images. I’ll just bring it to the editor and just be like, “I thought five of these worked.” And they can edit it and see if it works. “High and Dry” worked pretty well right from the beginning. We weren’t struggling with that area, but it has a hard downbeat and it came in right on that shot in the window and just pops out. It’s like energetic but super fucking sad.

And then “Crying,” that’s an example of that counterpoint. It’s a triumphant moment, but that song is playing pretty ironically. And Roy Orbison, just that voice and that kind of soundscape is so cool.

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