There’s been an ugly trend of late where Oscar-winning actresses who have been out of the limelight for some time return to play flamboyantly kooky mother figures. Jane Fonda did it twice (Monster-In-Law, Georgia Rule) followed by Barbra Streisand (The Guilt Trip), and to a certain degree Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris and Shirley MacLaine in The Last Word.
Snatched, starring Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, is this year’s big Mother’s Day-weekend opening. It’s a raunchy, R rated action comedy that — I never thought I’d say it — packs a heart. When it’s over this mama is neither monster nor burden nor cuddly golden-ager. Goldie returns after a 15-year absence to play a pretty cool mother.
The film’s directed by Jonathan Levine, a guy I’ve been wanting to talk with since first falling in love with The Wackness almost ten years ago. What follows is the unedited transcript of our lively conversation.
Scott Marks: Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater?
Jonathan Levine: Either the original Superman or Annie. It was one of those two. I kinda remember every movie I’ve seen and where I saw it. But I think it was probably Superman, which would have made me, like, two. I remember a lot of movies from when I was young and being wide-eyed, watching in amazement.
SM: When did you first begin to pay attention to the person behind the camera?
JL: There was a video store in New York that would deliver movies to me on VHS. I really got into Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese movies. That was probably when I was around 10 or 11. I was also really into comedies at that age like Naked Gun and all the Zucker Bros. movies. I think I was pretty aware from a relatively young age of the sort of not how movies were made but that there was an apparatus behind them.
SM: I’ve heard tell that you have a pronounced fondness for the films of Hal Ashby.
JL: I do very much, yes.
SM: So what are the chances that a few hours prior to interviewing you I’m sitting in a theatre watching a new film photographed by Caleb Deschanel, the man who shot Being There?
JL: Really? What movie?
SM (Laughing): Unforgettable. The latest from Katherine Heigl.
JL (After a pause): Caleb Deschanel shot that movie?
SM: Geniuses gotta eat, too.
JL (Laughing): Yeah, yeah.
SM: Amber Heard’s Mandy Lane was the hottest high schooler this side of Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in The Last Picture Show. Why did All the Boys Love Mandy Lane sit on the shelf for seven years?
JL: It was a confluence of circumstances. We sold the movie to the Weinstein Company. As a first-time out-of-the-box filmmaker, that’s always a tricky thing to do. They got cold feet about the movie. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you the short version of it because it’s such an interesting story for filmmakers. And now I think it’s almost even an antiquated story because this is not how movies get made and distributed anymore.
This was right before the indie-film bubble burst in 2005-6. We sold the movie to the Weinstein Company. Harvey bought it for his brother Bob. Bob wasn’t at Toronto when we screened it. Bob didn’t like it — I don’t think — once he saw it. And then they got cold feet. They had a commitment to us that they were going to release it on some number of screens, and it was going to be this big horror release. It just became clear that they were not going to honor that commitment in the…they were going to legally honor it but not perhaps technically honor it. They had ways of getting around it.
We encouraged them to sell it to another company. That other company was like…I can’t even remember what the deal was with that other company. They were a new distributor. All I remember is the guy who ran that company disappeared. It was like this comedy of errors. Years and years had passed and the film had been stuck in this limbo. By that point Bob and Harvey had another label that was sort of a VOD [video on demand] kind of thing. To their credit, they bought it back from us and distributed it on that label and helped it find an audience.
So I went from loving them to really not liking them to loving them again. It was very complicated for me.
SM: It’s rare that you find any film, let alone a contemporary comedy, that never once asks an audience to judge its characters and that’s one of the reasons I treasure The Wackness. The characters laugh, break, swoon, delude, and self-medicate just like normal people. It was your second feature, the first to get a theatrical release. How did you convince Sir Ben Kingsley to appear in the film?
JL: I had been working on the script since film school, and I think it was a pretty good script by the time I started taking it out. It felt like my first film in a way because it was very personal and rigorously thought through channeling of all the things I wanted to explore. We started sending it around, and since I had sold Mandy Lane people kinda knew who I was. Ben Kingsley is married to this amazing woman [Daniela Lavender], who read it with him. I look at that movie and I think Ben Kingsley at whatever…probably reading it in his mid-60s is not necessarily going to get all the references. It’s really a time capsule, and it’s not a world that he knows as a classically trained British actor. He probably was in New York a little bit in the ’90s but might not necessarily understand who Notorious B.I.G. is. I remember he did tell me that he really loved it but also his wife really loved it and that helped get him on board.
SM: With three outstanding performances all in a row — Snow Angels, Juno, and The Wackness — I thought Olivia Thirlby was going to be the next big thing.
JL: Olivia works whenever she wants to work, I think. She’s a fantastic actress, and she continues to work. I think she just got married, and she’s focused on living her life. Even when I met her she was a cool city girl who...part of what was great about her in that role was she just radiated not giving a fuck. I think that’s sort of true about the way she navigates her career — in a great way. She just makes the choices she wants to make, and I don’t know that she’s seeking the kind of next-big-thing status.
SM: You’ve talked about gravitating towards films that have a strange sort of tonal balance to them. When you’re working with someone whose persona is as well defined as Amy Schumer’s, how you do set about achieving a tonal balance?
JL: She has this persona, but she’s a storyteller first and foremost. She is able to find the truth within that persona, and really understands when the scene calls for her to be a sort of heightened version of herself or when the scene calls for her to be a more nuanced version of the character. What amazing about Amy that people would rarely expect is she’s always super concerned with the logic and reality of every scene. That’s something I find is true of all great actors.
In the scene when they wake up in a cell, if there was a single thing that she felt her character could use to get out of that room, she called it out and we had the set dresser come in and get rid of it. She re-fit light bulbs by a foot so that she couldn’t reach them. It’s stuff that I didn’t even think about, but that she was always thinking about from the perspective of where they were in the context of the story.
It’s not this square-peg/round-hole situation. When you get into the editing room, there are moments where it feels like she’s too much like the stand-up version of herself. When I’m directing, I let her go off in whatever direction she wants because that’s how you end up getting these amazing moments. In the editing room is where you have to find the balance. But in order to have the option to cut it out you must first get it on set, if that makes sense. It’s all massaged in the editing room, and it’s not nearly as challenging as it would be to make a zombie love story.
SM (Laughing): Luckily for you Warm Bodies has already been made. Oy, did I have a crush on Goldie Hawn. I learned about the Holocaust when I was in Hebrew school. It was right before my Bar Mitzvah. I felt this sudden sense of solidarity and wanted to know what celebrities were Jewish. My mom had great Jewdar, and I remember asking her about Goldie Hawn. With the blond hair and blue eyes, surely she was a shiksa. Ma said “no.” One for our side!
JL: You’re gonna love this story. It was the first time I had met with Amy and Goldie. Amy had been advocating for Goldie to be in this movie for a long time. I was a huge fan of Goldie’s, but I hadn’t met her. I didn’t know why she hadn’t worked in so long. I didn’t know her story.
The three of us met in a hotel and started talking. Seeing the two of them together was a real light bulb moment. What I thought was so funny was, I’m like, “So Goldie, are you…” and before I can finish my question, she goes, “Jewish? Yes.” (Laughing.) “That’s good to know,” I told her, “but that was not what I was going to ask.” It was so funny and strange. And also I was surprised, because you’re right: I always thought she was a very goy person, but that has nothing to do with your question. (Laughing.)
SM: For me the film’s biggest saving grace is that towards the end, it dawns on Amy’s character that her mother is really a pretty cool person. To those of us who had cool mothers, it’s nice to see a movie recognize one, particularly when she’s played by Goldie Hawn.
JL: In that relationship, there’s so much for me to work with on an allegorical level: it’s about even rediscovering Goldie, not just Amy Schumer’s mom. One nice thing about working with Goldie was that she had not spent the past decade playing Lindsay Lohan’s mom in a movie, for example. She felt so fresh. And she’s not just good through the lens of nostalgia; she is genuinely good playing this character.
The fact that she does end up being this cool version of a mom and this person who sort of rediscovers who she was as a younger person and all that stuff… it was in the script, but it was sort of retroactively tailored to Goldie. In the original script, the mother was a lot less sympathetic. Once we started working with Goldie, we were like, “There’s no way. That’s not what you want to see from her.”
SM: To Ms. Hawn’s credit, she seems to have played along with whatever you threw her way. Was there anything in the original script that she blanched at?
JL: Once we brought her on, she had a lot thoughts on the script that we reworked with her. [Screenwriter] Katie [Dippold] and I and Amy and Amy’s sister [Kim Caramele], we would sit down and we would go through it with her. We’re all writing from the younger person’s perspective. The only way the movie works is if you empathize with both the characters. Goldie brought that perspective. She produced several movies and would often reference Private Benjamin. She has such great storytelling instincts, to the point you want her to be a partner and a collaborator in developing the script in that way.
SM: You have cameos in all of your films. I know what you look like, but I didn’t spot you in Snatched. Where are you?
JL (Laughing): I wasn’t in it! I spent a night dressed as an elf and I ended up cutting myself out of it. I was like, “Fuck this! I’m not doing this anymore!” It’s very hard to stand behind a monitor trying direct people with elf ears on. It was preposterous.
SM: Will you field a complaint? It’s one thing to have zombies communicate via voiceovers in Warm Bodies. Whose idea was it to make Joan Cusack a mute?
JL: That was something that was in the script that Amy worked with Katie. I don’t know whose idea it was. You didn’t like it?
SM: Joan Cusack is one of America’s most underused comic forces. She’s a terrific physical comedian, but there’s something about the absence of her overbearing delivery that I missed. I guess I just wanted to hear a little schtick come out of her.
JL: We gave her the option, thinking she’ll never do it. Why would she not speak? She was like, “I think it’s funny!” We always had in our back pocket the option that she would talk in a later scene. I can see it being a controversial choice. Hey, I got to hear her talk between takes. (Laughing.)
SM: As the budgets get bigger does it become harder or easier to make a movie?
JL: There’s this inverse relationship. As a filmmaker you can definitely say if you were to try to graph it, that it does get harder. But, I think it depends on the project. Certain projects are hard, certain projects are easy. And every project has hard moments and easy moments. They’re just different from movie to movie. Warm Bodies was very challenging in post just to find the tone of that movie. 50/50 was very challenging in production because we had no money.
The biggest challenge of Snatched was working with all these singular voices and trying to synthesize all of it into something that had a coherent vision. In that way it was challenging in post as well. This was not such a huge budget. Comedy is so subjective that they give you a little bit of leeway. If I was doing a franchise I think I’d be much more closely monitored. Comedy? The studio sees a couple of funny things in the dailies and they leave you alone. Unless something is horribly wrong.
SM: I think you’re going to do quite well with this. I much prefer it to Trainwreck. There’s something about Amy Schumer as a love interest that she’s yet to figure out. I believed her as Goldie Hawn’s daughter.
JL: I loved her first movie, but I sort of understand what you’re saying. There is something about Goldie that balances her out in a nice way. I’m a huge fan of Amy’s, but I think the two of them together are greater than the sum of their parts. I appreciate you saying that. (Laughing.) And I appreciate you saying nice things about my other movies. That’s really cool.
SM: I love The Wackness so much, you’re good in my book for at least another five movies. Just don’t do one of these filthy comic book movies.
JL (Laughing): I'll try not to. If you see me doing one, you’ll know that I had a second child.