Born and raised in New York City, Jonathan Levine has been making films since the age of 12. A graduate of Brown University’s Art/Semiotics program and the AFI Conservatory, he made his directorial debut in 2006 with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, following it up two years later with The Wackness, starring Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley, which won the Audience Award at Sundance and an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best First Screenplay. Levine has made two films with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen, 50/50 (2011) and The Night Before (2015), and in 2013 wrote and directed the hit adaptation of Isaac Marion’s YA bestseller Warm Bodies. He directed the pilot of the Showtime drama I’m Dying Up Here, which debuts June 4, and the Amy Schumer-Goldie Hawn comedy Snatched, out May 12 through 20th Century Fox.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a train headed to Washington, D.C., for the thrilling culmination of a long press tour to promote my new movie, Long Shot. We had our premiere last night in New York City and I am presently attempting to mitigate my pounding hangover with a glass of Amtrak chardonnay, all the while asking myself, “Why did I agree to write something for Talkhouse? And what in the world will I write?” On this tour, I have answered innumerable questions about schlubby guys dating “out of their league” (not exactly what our movie is about … and also was the word “schlubby” invented solely to describe slightly imperfect protagonists in comedies? Plus Seth is lookin’ pretty good these days, you guys!). But I guess I will just talk about inspiration. For this movie in particular, but perhaps, due to the depersonalization effects of the aforementioned hangover, we will deviate into random recommendations for anything to ingest, inhale, metabolize, watch and listen to, in order to make you a more fulfilled human and help you lead a happier, more well-adjusted life. I’m just here to help.
Speaking of inspiration, I just read the Beastie Boys Book and it is my most favorite thing ever: a pastiche of random, heartfelt, evocative, stream-of-consciousness writing that is the literary equivalent of a Beastie Boys song. So my first recommendation is to read that book and it has nothing to do with my movie.
My second recommendation is another book that has nothing to do with my movie but is at least about movies and somewhat similar to this Beastie Boys Book in its digressive yet confessional nature and the book is called Getting Away With It by Steven Soderbergh – a combination diary/Hitchcock-Truffaut-esque interview book in which he writes very candidly about his career, his fears, his hopes and whatnot, and interviews American expat/British New Wave filmmaker Richard Lester. Soderbergh is funny and brilliant and it is fascinating to find him writing at a crossroads in his career: post Sex, Lies and pre-Out of Sight. It’s amazing to think that if Out of Sight hadn’t been a success, he may have never had a chance to make another movie, and we would have missed out on so many great ones.
OK, but this article is essentially to promote my movie, Long Shot, which is in theaters from May 3 and I know that once people read how witty I am in spite of this hangover, they will head to the theaters in droves. So I’m gonna tie it all back together now: Long Shot is a romantic comedy. And there’s politics in it. So it seems like the easiest thing to do would be to cite the movies I used as reference material and inspiration for said aforementioned movie (Long Shot, in theaters May 3. Today, if you’re reading this, like, in real-time). So here are a few of those movies, movies I love:
Anything by Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe movies are, to me, the biggest reason I do what I do. The romantic worldview of these films, their use of music, their ability to be earnest and sardonic at the same time, and finally their exquisite ability to connect you to that soulful part of yourself – these are all things we tried to put in our movie. His are the best types of romantic comedy because they are not really conventional romantic comedies but they are just romantic and funny. I rewatch Almost Famous for every movie I do, but I rewatched Jerry Maguire for this one, and it has about a dozen moments that just blow me away. But Say Anything has to be my favorite. Cuz John Cusack.
Everything by Hal Ashby
When I first “interviewed” with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg for the director gig on 50/50, we spoke about Hal Ashby, and I think my love of Ashby is why they ultimately gave me the job. Specifically, we discussed The Last Detail. And how 50/50 should be kinda like that. Hal Ashby’s movies were mostly dramas, but the characters were funny, so the point-of-view of those films could not help but be reflective of those characters’ worldview. They were also prone to go off on tangents, and these digressions would sneakily serve to paint portraits of characters that felt just like people you knew in your own life, whether they be hairdressers, Vietnam veterans, or naval officers. Hal Ashby movies often just hung out and listened to these people talk shit. His films were laid-back, funny and grounded in a way that captured the rhythms of everyday life. And their truly dramatic moments had way more impact because of those qualities.
So I like both actual good, like, fancy movies and slightly less “good” pop movies in equal measure and without irony. This movie is such an interesting one to analyze because it absolutely should not work. At all. Unsurprisingly, it also had an interesting development process. Per Wikipedia, “The film was initially conceived as a dark drama about sex work in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The relationship between Vivian and Edward also originally involved controversial themes, including Vivian being addicted to drugs; part of the deal was that she had to stay off cocaine for a week. Edward eventually throws her out of his car and drives off. The original script by J.F. Lawton, called 3000, ended with Vivian and her sex-worker friend on the bus to Disneyland.”
OK, a different kinda vibe, and maybe an interesting movie, but not what we love about Pretty Woman, which is the wish-fulfillment fairy tale that, while not necessarily progressive in its gender politics, works because it’s beautifully directed, by Garry Marshall, and because the performances are so nuanced and wonderful. A great romcom performance must be both naturalistic and kinda big at the same time. You must inhabit the character but you must also nail the jokes. Charlize Theron and Seth do it beautifully in our movie. And Richard Gere and Julia Roberts do it so well here. It is the strength of their performances, their conviction as actors, that makes it work. Also, Julia Roberts creates such a well-drawn character who is so funny, likeable and vulnerable, that it somewhat mitigates the inherently regressive nature of romcom tropes. Hollywood has never been perfect, but it has often given us female characters that are flawed, strong, and engender empathy, and the star system has given us female actors who were so good that the audience couldn’t help but connect with a woman’s point of view, even if the movies themselves weren’t always as progressive as we’d hope. And I think that the net-out was kinda positive. Although I also understand if you think it’s shitty. I’m not here to argue with you.
Speaking of really strong female characters, this movie was another huge inspiration for me. Lubitsch’s mastery of tone, his deft touch, and the script’s amazing ability to depict these two characters from different worlds, torn apart by the realities of their different backgrounds and circumstances, only to have their arcs illustrate how much they truly complete each other is so ahead of its time and became a big reference for our new film (Long Shot, in theaters probably, like, right now. Note: it is not Avengers). And Greta Garbo is transcendent playing the title role in this, her first comedy. No surprise it was co-written by Billy Wilder.
When Harry Met Sally…
Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch are like the Beatles and Stones of romantic comedy. They figured that shit out and did it better than anyone who followed them. With the notable exception of Rob Reiner, who made this amazing romcom, which featured Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan at the top of their game, and Nora Ephron writing one of the wittiest, most heartfelt scripts ever. As an aside, Rob Reiner sometimes gets treated unfairly as an anonymous, journeyman director, but his run of great movies in the late ’80s/early ’90s is pretty unparalleled (This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men, The American President). He bounced from genre to genre and delivered consistent quality with amazing performances. He also exhibited a true mastery of tone. Give my man Rob his proper respect!
Without him, I would never have been introduced to the genius of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Without Knocked Up, there would be no Long Shot. He reinvented comedy and defined it for a whole new generation, when many were leaving the genre for dead. A little Hal Ashby, a little James Brooks, and a lot himself … he depicted people who were kinda like me and my friends in his movies, or at least it felt that way. And, like Ashby, he made me feel like I was hanging out with them. And he continues to push himself and the genre in new and fascinating directions.
I know a lot of people try not to eat carbs these days, but they are the best. Did you know pasta is carbs? And bagels? And pizza? See? The best.
Sweeping romance, without the comedy, is another thing movies can do really well. They remind you what it’s like to fall in love, what it feels like to love someone so much in the face of overwhelming odds. This one is, to me, the most moving film about love I’ve ever seen. So deeply felt, so romantic, and so tragic.
What a wonderful example of two big movie stars with very different energies complementing each other. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are so wonderful in this film, and it was certainly a big influence for our movie Long Shot, which comes out May 3. Retrograde Hollywood alert: Peck is 37 and Hepburn is 24 in this movie, which I guess was like a totally fine age difference back in the day? Not as crazy as Hepburn’s age difference with her costar/love interest Fred Astaire in Funny Face (he’s 58 and she’s 28!!!!), but kinda gross nonetheless, especially because every leading man back then looked perpetually 60, including Peck. OK, maybe the central pairing in this movie isn’t that great in retrospect. But it exists! And it was nominated for Oscars! And the ending is bittersweet and beautiful.
Also, Rome is cool. Also, Only You is a ’90s romcom with Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei and it’s kinda like this movie and it’s pretty good!
My favorite artist and songwriter of this generation. His album Blonde is a masterpiece. And we used his cover of “Moon River” in Long Shot!
A meditation app that helps me chill the fuck out sometimes.
For once, an amazing Hollywood comedy that is so ahead of its time. According to IMDb, this was written by seven people, among them Elaine May. Who knows if IMDb is right. In my case, it’s wrong all the time. But the script is great. Anyway, this movie struck a tonal balance that I tried my best to rip off, by treating its absurd situations in incredibly grounded ways. And they combined amazing comedic actors (Bill Murray, Teri Garr) with amazing dramatic actors (Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange), so the tone was balanced and naturalistic and always incredibly funny. Also, the dad from Punky Brewster is in it! If it was an Uber, I’d give it five stars!
Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen
I can’t say enough about these guys. They are everything you’d want them to be. If you like them, I would like to recommend a couple of their deeper-cut performances: if you haven’t seen Young Adult or Tully, see both as soon as you can. Jason Reitman directed them and Charlize is great and funny in them and the movies are great too. As for Seth, he’s amazing in the Steve Jobs movie (the one without Ashton Kutcher), and also very funny in Neighbors, which is not so much a deep cut but a movie I admire greatly.
Adam Sandler’s 100% Fresh on Netflix
Surprisingly funny and reminiscent of ’90s-Billy Madison-era Sandler, which is my favorite Sandler except for mid-2000s-acting-for-auteurs Sandler. Bonus: P.T. Anderson shot some of the standup sequences!
He has made only great movies. Not that many other filmmakers can say that.
Marijuana and movies
What better Hollywood romance is there than the one between celluloid and sativa? In my opinion, movies go great with a little bit of weed. But don’t smoke too much or you might have a panic attack!
Here are some great movies to watch high:
Spider Man: Into the Spider-verse
This is the End
The part before the movies where the theater chain shows its logo and you like go INSIDE the theater with janky CG
Bohemian Rhapsody (improved by weed by a factor of six)
OK, guys, quick question: what the fuck is happening? This thing has gone off the rails and I have to stop before I confess too much to y’all. Like I said, it’s been a long press tour. I’m finishing this thing on a plane on my way back to L.A. to see my beautiful son and wife and I’m kinda watching Aquaman as I write. And it’s just getting good. So, as much as I love talking to you, Jason Momoa is calling my name. I am so glad to have spent this time with you. And I would be very grateful if you would go and see my new movie, Long Shot. Just as grateful as I am to Talkhouse for guilting me into writing this shit. It was sincerely really fun. Much love, and thanks again for your time!