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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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