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JULY 11, 2008

Stardusted Memories

Director JONATHAN LEVINE on The Wackness, a semi-autobiographical account of his 1994 summer of love

By Mark Jenkins

Escapee from New York: Jonathan Levine (Sony Classics)


SET IN MANHATTAN IN THE SUMMER OF 1994, The Wackness is the tale of dejected teenage pot dealer Luke (Josh Peck); his substance-abusing shrink, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley); and the doc's stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who briefly descends to earth from dream-girl status and acknowledges Luke's existence. Director Jonathan Levine's first released feature — an earlier film, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, remains in limbo — The Wackness is very specific in detail. Yet Levine, who visited D.C. in mid-June to promote the movie, hopes it has near-universal appeal.

I've watched a lot of New York movies that took place in this rarefied world that I didn't even understand — and I grew up in New York — with characters whose dilemmas I didn't understand, because they were all wealthy and well-educated. I wanted this movie to resonate as broadly as possible. To appeal to anyone who could remember a summer when they had their heart broken.

You've said the film is not autobiographical...

I did? I was lying. [laughs]

Well, how much of it is autobiographical?

It's very much my personality, and very much the way I was feeling at the time about the world, and the adults in my life. When I say it's not autobiographical, I'm just trying to stress that I never sold pot. [laughs] Although I can't say I didn't smoke it, I certainly never sold it. The various plot details are where the movie disembarks from reality.

Did you have a relationship with a disreputable mentor?

I didn't. I think I kind of wished I did. Maybe that's where it came from. I think the Dr. Squires character came from my projecting where, if I went off the rails, I would be at his age. And from the fact that, as I was growing up, and figuring out who I wanted to be, I saw just how hard it is to maintain your focus and your principles as you go through life. Both of them are coming of age, both Luke and Dr. Squires. I've come of age several times, but I keep regressing, and keep having to learn those lessons over and over.

So it's doubly autobiographical. It's you meeting a dissolute older version of yourself.

Yeah, exactly. I meet the ghost of Christmas future.

Aside from what was happening in your life, what makes 1994 the right year to set the film?

1994 was the year I graduated. It started out with my just trying to be as authentic as possible to the experience I knew, and not do something disingenuous. I feel if I tried to capture high school in 2008, I probably wouldn't understand it. Then as I started to look into it, I realized that it was a significant time in the history of New York, with Mayor Guiliani coming into office. Hip-hop was hitting its creative apex, and grunge was really big. Actually, it was a watershed year for all American music.

When Dr. Squires asks Luke if he's depressed because of Kurt Cobain, that's like the "plastics" line from The Graduate. Somebody who's completely missing it.

Thank you. [chortles] Totally missing it. No idea.

The first cut of the film was three hours long...

Two hours and 40 minutes.

Did it have more of a pot smoker's rhythm to it?

It had more subplots. It had more of Luke's family, it had more of Dr. Squires and his wife [played by Famke Janssen] in it. As we kept screening it for people, we realized that the core of the movie is the triangle between Dr. Squires, Luke, and Stephanie. I had a bit of a pretentious attitude about it: "Oh, it's a big story." It's not a big story; I don't know what I was thinking.

I looked at the running times of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and some of the great movies that I love. They're all like 95 minutes. Then I just started hacking. The more I did it, the more it was resonating. We had to do it very quickly, because we finished shooting in September, and Sundance's deadline was a couple months later. I worked as an assistant to Paul Schrader when he was finishing Auto Focus, and what I learned from him was that you keep showing it to people. Not testing it, like it's a product. You just keep showing it to people, and figure out when they're bored. You're making a movie for an audience.

So it didn't have a different rhythm, it just had more stuff in it.

It was also really long and boring. [laughs]

Sometimes Americans can be sanctimonious about drug use. Have you encountered that in reactions to this movie?

For me, every character in the movie makes the wrong decisions. So that would be the one blanket judgment: that we're human, we're all going to do things that are terrible. I think that drug use is one thing that someone may say is a bad decision, and the fact that Dr. Squires and his wife are stuck in a loveless marriage is also a bad decision. I'm trying to look at the coping mechanisms that people use to get through the day. What is their drug of choice? For me, marijuana is just a tool to look at a bigger picture.

I'm hoping that the movie resists judgment so much that it doesn't even become an issue. There's nothing I can do but try to be true to the characters. I hope people like it.

Well, certain people are not going to like it. But they're probably not the audience for this movie.

I know, but I want everyone to like it. I want everyone to like me, too. It's not going to happen. [laughs]

The soundtrack is mostly hip-hop, but there's a fair amount of stuff that comes from early-'70s David Bowie. There's Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?," which samples Lou Reed's Bowie-produced "Walk on the Wild Side," and Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," which Bowie wrote and produced.

I just love Bowie. And there's so much Bowie that hasn't been used in movies. We got "All the Young Dudes," which was also used in Juno. Originally it was "Moonage Daydream," but we couldn't get it.