Jonathan Levine graduated from film school three years ago with a heaven-sent idea for an opening scene: a teenager exchanging weed with his therapist for treatment. He combined that idea with the sticky New York summer he experienced after finishing high school in 1994. Together, the idea and the experience created a film that captures a world of headphones drowning out an increasingly rigid city, smoking a lot of weed, and trying to get laid—The Wackness.
The Wackness is quotable without being melodramatic or having obvious jokes. How did you find that balance?
For me, it was most important that it be entertaining. I was sort of trying to hide the deep, emotional shit, to have it sneak up on you. But we tried not to be in any sort of box and really make it about characters and their dilemmas. And I was also very police-like and mindful of "this feels too movie." A lot of it was avoiding and avoiding. We wanted to avoid anything big, any caricature.
You said you started writing the script for a class assignment. How did you take it from there to a feature film?
It all kind of retroactively happened. I was like, this kid is like me so I tried to make him more like me. Then this doctorI don't know where he's coming frombut he's kind of gonzo and I'll go with that. And every successful screenwriter says you've got to know what is going to happen on page 110 before you start writing. I didn't do that. I wanted to capture the rambling, anything-can-happen summer, so I said "fuck it, I'll just keep rambling and writing." I think the fact that I did the movie that way gave it something that it wouldn't otherwise have.
Aside from just being of the time and place, how does the soundtrack of early 1990s hiphop fit into your story?
It's a lot about the spirit of the music, the fact that there was this movement at the time. Take Biggie, for example. [Ready to Die] was frank and blunt. Part of hiphop is that it's raw emotion and I think that's what both Luke and Dr. Squires [characters in the movie] identify with. It's not necessarily telling you how something is supposed to be. A lot of it is "this is fucked up." That's all. We're not trying to figure out why. First, we're just going to accept that it's fucked up and talk about that. That spirit is not only what the characters identify with, but it's also what I was trying to say with the film.
What was it like to work with Ben Kingsley?
I had no idea what he would be doing when he got to the set, but I knew it was going to be good because it's Kingsleyhe's not going to suck. I've never been around anyone who is as good at anything as he is at acting. I would give him little notes, but not often. You know, you feel like you don't want to be on set drinking coffee and watching the monitor, but with Kingsley, really, a lot of it was about not getting in his way.