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Straight dope: Interviewing "The Wackness" people

Say what you will about the films of Judd Apatow, but “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and the rest have inspired one worthy trend in Hollywood movies: dope smoking. Not only is it prominent in the upcoming Apatow movie, “Pineapple Express” (the title refers to a lethal blend of cannabis) directed by David Gordon Green, but also in “The Wackness,” JonathanLevine's vaguely-memoiristic tragi-comedy of being an 18-year-old dope dealer hopelessly in love with a seemingly unattainable woman in New York City in 1994. Whose stepdad is his psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley. To whom he sells dope, and so on. That one.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed the director Levine and Olivia Thirlby, who plays Stephanie, the unrequited love, but I got so stoned while talking to them I forgot about it. I found it later when I played the tape thinking it was an old  Mott the Hoople/Cowsills mix. So here it is now two weeks late but still relevant. Why? Well, Thirlby, who also played Juno’s best friend in “Juno,” was supposed to play a role in “Pineapple Express” (she was also in Green’s last movie “Snow Angels”) , but got dropped from the cast. So there. Anyway, she’ll get around to talking about that and also the “Juno” effect so-called with all those unmarried Gloucester high school girls getting pregnant. Or getting stoned, I can’t remember which. And then, oh yeah: misogyny.

Here goes.

PK: So what was it about 1994 that was so tragic for everybody’s lives?

JL: That was so tragic? Well I think that’s more what the characters are going through at the time. I don’t think that’s specific to ’94. I think there were two separate things. There was the world I wanted to set it in, which is a world I was very intimately involved with from my own personal experience and then there was kind of the themes I wanted to addresss. I think ’94, not just with the music that was so important to me growing up, but thematically I think with Giuliani cleaning up New York and New York at this crossroads, I think it sort of mirrored what the chacters were going through at the time.

PK: Do you to take some credit for derailing Giuliani’s presidential hopes?

JL: No. He was well on his way to derailing himself

OT: He was derailed a while ago I think.

PK: Olivia, in 1994 you were in New York. But you were only about 6 at that time, right?

OT: 8, I was 8

PK: Do you remember anything about it?

OT: Yeah, I totally do. Like John said, the city was undergoing huge changes and I was very aware of that. At least in the sense that all the adults around me were talking about it and, especially in the neighborhood I grew up in, the changes were really evident. I mean, it was a huge deal. We had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, people that had been living there for a long time, and when they started arresting the homeless people out of Tompkins Square park it was a huge deal when Giuliani started trying to close all the community gardens. It was a huge deal. It was something I was very much aware of and when the first restaurants started to open up within walking distance that was also a huge deal.

PK: What part of New York is this?

OT: The East Village. When I was that age in ’94, it was still really kind of pretty authentic. And people who didn’t live there didn’t go there and now it’s, especially over the past two or three years, it has become really different.

PK: It’s like a theme park or something?

OT: It’s like a quaint tenement theme park.

PK: There was an artistic fervor going on...?

OT: I wouldn’t say artistic fervor at all.

PK: Before, I mean.

OT: Oh, before. No. It wasn’t really like a bohemian area. It was like a crackhead area.

JL: A lot of crack fervor. People getting excited about crack

PK: You don’t have any crack in your movie, though.

JL: No

PK: You draw the line at crack?

JL: It’s just not anything I knew personally. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid crack thus far.

OT: Don’t lie, John

JL: OK, well, with the exception of a few nights in college, but, no, that wasn’t the world I knew, that wasn’t the world we were involved in. So, no crack.

PK: But you smoked pot continually when you were about 18 or so?

JL: Yeah, pretty frequently.

PK: But you never sold it?

JL: I never sold it. I would have been really bad at it I think. I would have gotten arrested like even when I cheated on a paper in high school I would get caught, I always had a really guilt conscience.

PK: If the film is autobiographical, did you have a heartbreak at the same time? Were you also a virgin?

JL: I guess. Was I a virgin? At some point I was. I probably like around that time was when I was deflowered. I’m not really very comfortable talking about that one. Am I blushing?

PK: No, but I am.

JL: Ok. No, it’s not strictly autobiographical in any way. It’s just the worldview that the characters have, the music, the backdrop, that’s all culled from my personal experience, but nothing in that movie really happened.

PK: Is that a Donovan song on the soundtrack?

JL: There’s a Donovan song, “Season of the Witch.” Yeah, we thought that Kingsley’s character…

PK: Wasn’t that used by Scorsese in “Mean Streets?”

JL: I don’t think he did.

PK: No, I’m thinking of “Atlantis.”

JL: Anyway, we used it because we thought the Kingsley character would have been really into like 60s -70s psychedelia and that in many ways he would kind of connect the spirit of that music to the spirit of hip hop that Luke’s listening to.

PK: I get the impression that Ben Kingslry may have been a handful to work with.

JL: No he’s awesome. Why do you think he may have been a handful?

PK: His performance is so, I don’t know, out there and freaky…

OT: That’s the amazing thing about him is that he’s functioning on such a high level as an actor that he can go from being himself to being this character who bears no resemblance to himself in an instant. It was one of the coolest things about working with him is that a lot of actors like need to be in character and get in character and if they are playing someone who’s childlike or volatile or crazy or stoned they need to be those things all the time, but he’s not that way at all he’s very, one moment you’re talking to him before the camera is rolling and he’s his stately, highly intelligent proper British kind of self and then the next moment, literally, the camera’s rolling and he’s become all glassy-eyed and stoned and...

JL: Yea, it’s crazy. He’s got remarkable control and you wouldn’t know from one moment to the next that he could go to that extreme place without …I don’t think he’s ever done that stuff

PK: I read that you had to teach him how to use a bong.

JL: That’s on the internet today. I did teach him how to use a bong, but he wasn’t so interested in kind of the details of that stuff. He was really interested in the emotion and intention of his character and that’s sort of how he connects to it like all the details are fairly ancillary to it. He connects to it through this very kind of, he’s a classically trained Shakespearean actor, that’s how he gets to it even when there’s a bong involved.

PK: Did he improvise at all? Some of his riffs seemed almost spontaneous.

JL: I think it’s mostly acting. He had one improvisational line with Mary-Kate which was very good, but he was very much interested in adhering to the text strictly. In fact, when he would get one word wrong he would ask the script supervisor to come up to him and inform him of that.

PK: So Mary-Kate Olsen and Ben Kingsley in a phone booth. How did you come up with that idea?

JL: Well, it wasn’t that. I wrote it before they were even involved. So it was originally just more about this character trying to connect to his lost youth by hooking up randomly in a bar. Once it became them, I recognized that it might cause a bit of a stir, but at the time when we were shooting it it just felt, and this is maybe a testament to how strange I am, but it felt really fine, because he’s playing a character that’s the maturity level of an adolescent and she’s very wise beyond her years  in a way so I think they kind of met in the middle.

PK: [to Thirlby]Were you sorry that you weren’t in a similar scene with Ben?

OT: Was I sorry that I didn’t have a make-out scene with her? Who’s not? I mean, even Jon considered writing himself into the script so that he could make out with Sir Ben.

JT: By the way, we rehearsed that scene and then I was like this just doesn’t make sense, it’s just weird

PK: I don’t know it could be a sequel. You probably don’t want to talk about “Juno,” but it’s been sort of in the...

OT: It’s ok we can talk about it

PK: Especially locally we have these Gloucester teenagers

OT: So what happened? They decided they all wanted to get pregnant and they all wanted to do it together and they were inspired by the film “Juno.”

PK: Well I think that last step is debatable.

JL: That’s just pure speculation. I feel like that’s much ado about nothing.

PK: It’s a hot topic.

OT: I mean I’ve definitely heard of it. People have been asking me about it, but I think “Juno” is a piece of fiction. It’s a movie and it’s meant to be an artistic endeavor and that’s the beauty of art is that you put it out into the world and people can react to it so many different ways and if they react to it by taking it very literally then that’s their choice.

PK: And you don’t think the movie’s responsible for…?

OT: How could the movie be responsible?

PK: Hey, I’m on your side

OT: I mean I don’t see how those things tie together. That would be the same as saying that a movie that depicts a psychokiller inspires psychokillers [as in this recent case]. Sure, potentially maybe that’s true, but is it the movie’s fault? If some person saw the movie “Seven” for example and said wow that appeals to me I’m gonna go kill people in a very strange and convoluted way, maybe they were inspired by the film, but is it the fault of the film for depicting that?

PK: Oddly enough, though, after I saw “The Wackness,” I did become a drug dealer.

JL: You became a drug dealer? After I saw “Juno,” I got pregnant, which is weird, but yeah, I don’t know. I feel like if you’re worried what anyone’s going to do when they see your movie it’s going to paralyze you.

OT: I mean it’s the same thing with Jackass of kids trying the Jackass stunts. Does that mean we have to put a disclaimer in front of every single film saying “don’t go do this.”

PK: I think that’s Darwinism at work. The people who imitate Jackass are probably people who shouldn’t live to reproduce.

JL: What about the people who see a double feature of "Jackass" and "Juno?" They’re probably screwed.

PK: They’d probably cancel each other out. Meanwhile, in one interview you said you don’t know how to write women. And in retrospect I'm wondering if maybe the movie might be a little misogynistic.

JL: Well.

OT: People keep saying that.

JL: Oh my god, really? I haven’t heard it. No one said it to me. Here’s the thing, I can neither confirm or deny that. There are parts of me that potentially have that and I would probably like to work on those parts. I don’t claim to be a perfect person, but I also don’t want to censor myself to the point where I’m, I think if you start censoring the bad traits of your personality, the character overall or the personality of the film overall is undermined. I certainly hope that’s not the case. I don’t think my girlfriend thinks that’s the case.

OT: I certainly don’t think it’s the case.

Next: Enough with this misogyny obsession, already. 


  • Alison said:

    Don't you mean Judd Apatow?

    July 26, 2008 10:49 AM
  • Peter Keough said:

    Whoops. Thanks.

    July 27, 2008 4:32 PM

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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