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Interview: Josh Peck and Jonathan Levine on “The Wackness”

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06302008_thewackness.jpgBy Stephen Saito

Jonathan Levine calls “The Wackness” a “second first film.” In a way, he’s speaking for his whole cast. While Levine is making his debut as a writer after helming the much buzzed-about (but still unreleased) teen horror comedy hybrid, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” he hired an eclectic cast for his latest film that includes Nickelodeon staple Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”), Method Man, Famke Janssen, Sir Ben Kingsley, and in case you hadn’t heard, Mary-Kate Olsen. It’s an unusual ensemble for an unusual coming-of-age story of a teen (Peck) who forms an unlikely friendship with a psychologist (Kingsley) by trading marijuana for therapy in 1994 New York. It’s clearly a personal story for Levine, but it’s not an autobiographical one, though both he and Peck both sweated out sticky summers in Manhattan, listening to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” a generation apart. Now, the two have collaborated on a generational anthem of their own that bridges the gap.

Even though this is set in a very specific time and place, there’s something very universal about it as a coming of age experience — was that something that really came out in the script for you?

Josh Peck: No question. Granted, in ’94 I was eight years old, rocking shoes with lights in them and watching “Power Rangers,” but I think the universal thread throughout the movie was the plight of Sir Ben’s character and my character Luke, their disillusionment and cynicism and not having the support structure that most of us come to lean on. It seemed to me that Luke, at 18, was just becoming a man, but what constitutes [that] — experiences? Relationships? You can go to war and you can vote, but what does it really mean? That’s initially what drew me in.

Jonathan Levine: Everything crystallized once he walked into the room. Even though a lot of this character comes from my personality and my own experience, I had no idea of what [he] looked like or how he carried himself. It wasn’t necessarily about the time period. I was constantly impressed by the ways in which [Josh] was making this character his own and in doing that, it allowed me to have a little distance, a little perspective.

Did you find it easier to write from personal experience,or was it something that you looked back on and realized you had injected more of yourself into than you initially thought?

JL: The latter, definitely. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, this very digressive 140 page first draft [that] just came from the lack of my censoring myself. Looking back, [I’d say] these are the themes I’m working with, this is what I should magnify, this is what I should cut.

I was Paul Schrader’s assistant for six months before I went to film school, and he’s very much about knowing what’s going to happen on every page before you even start writing dialogue — the entire plot and character arcs are mapped out. When he would leave the office, I’d sneak looks into his old files and there’d be the yellow piece of legal paper with a handwritten “Page 10 – Travis meets Iris.” (laughs) But this was a serendipitous thing; the more I wrote, the more it felt like the right thing to be doing.

07012008_thewackness3.jpgJonathan, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you wanted the Notorious B.I.G. on the soundtrack because his music was a deeper than he’s given credit for. From the title on down, “The Wackness” seems like it might be a pretty superficial movie, but Ben Kingsley signed on after comparing his character to Falstaff. Was it your intention to make something that worked on both those levels?

JL: For me, the number one goal was always to entertain people, make them laugh and make them feel for the character. But the more we give the audience the cues that they’re used to, and I actually learned this on “Mandy Lane,” the more you’re able to subvert that. You can do more if you’re safely protected by both the genre and by giving the audience the traditional things that they want.

I’m an audience member as well, and I don’t want to be bored or overtly preached to, either, but I think that [“The Wackness”] was a great forum in which to ask deeper questions than you would normally expect from this type of movie. You hope at the end of the day that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I think that if you have it in the story, and I was aware we had it in the story, then that’s a good start.

I remember David Gordon Green getting criticized for “All The Real Girls” because people were saying oh, he’s too young to be nostalgic. With “The Wackness,” was going back a decade a little strange?

JL: One of my favorite pastimes is making fun of myself [laughs] and that’s usually a hindsight kind of activity. So I think it’s not nostalgia so much as just showing people who don’t know any better making mistakes, to show the characters in these vulnerable states.

By the way, “All the Real Girls” is one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years. We have a mutual friend, me and David Gordon Green. After “Mandy Lane,” I didn’t really know what to do because I didn’t know anyone who’d made a feature yet. She put me in touch with him and he gave me the advice to go ahead and do whatever I could to make sure this movie happened.

Josh, you go to some vulnerable places in this — did this touch on any real life stuff for you, too?

JP: No question. Acting’s not therapy, but it can be therapeutic. Unfortunately where the real emotion and deep feelings lie is in a place we’d normally keep so protected and wouldn’t allow to be projected in front of thousands of people. It’s the masochistic part of the profession, that it’s painful to go to those places and yet that’s where the good shit lies. It makes you grateful in the end that you’ve had heartbreak for a part like this, though in the midst of it, you’re not sure if you’re going to live or die. [laughs]

On a lighter note, was it surreal to be in a room with both Sir Ben Kingsley and Method Man, or Sir Ben and Mary-Kate Olsen?

JP: It’s a credit to who Sir Ben is, this charismatic chameleon; he’s able to relate to different kinds of people. When it was Method Man and Sir Ben and I, we were talking about acting and Method’s accent in the movie and it was a somewhat brotherly, dysfunctional relationship. With someone like Mary-Kate — he’s got this debonair quality and the girls, I think, get a bit weak in the knees about it. Only when you’re that revered and that comfortable in who you are can you get the likes of a 21-year-old socialite, or anyone for that matter, to really swoon. So it was nice to witness that.

07012008_thewackness2.jpg Josh, not to bring up a sore subject, but Jonathan said at Tribeca he hadn’t seen your Nickelodeon sitcom “Drake and Josh” before filming. Do you think that was like a good thing or a bad thing?

JP: It was a bad thing only because he wasn’t able to enjoy years and years of comedic genius. [laughs] It probably was a good thing, because any time you can go into a room and have no preconceived notions and they can hinge their decision entirely on your performance is a good thing. Now he watches “Drake and Josh” when he’s at the gym, so the relationship’s gone full circle.

JL: This’s true. I watch it at the gym — it’s always on. It seems to me like a modern day “Honeymooners.”

[Photos: Josh Peck; Jonathan Levine; Olivia Thirlby and Peck – “The Wackness,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“The Wackness” opens in limited release on July 3rd.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

via GIPHY

IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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