The Night Before reteams director Jonathan Levine with his dramedy 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Seth Rogen. Here though the comedy/drama scale tips heavily to the former. The Christmas-set feature has much more in common with the Rogen/Goldberg oeuvre (This is the End, Superbad, The Interview) than it does with Levine’s more grounded work (The Wackness, 50/50). Even so there’s enough of an emotional backbone to see Levine peaking through all the drug-induced hijinks.
Levitt & Rogen, along with Anthony Mackie, star as three best-friends who every Christmas Eve go out drinking in search of the most epic New York City Party; however with the onset of responsibility looming (Mackie’s career, Rogen’s parenthood), the friends come to the decision this will be their last Christmas Eve together. Of course – this ‘last time’ proves to be the most debaucherous yet as the trio run afoul a motley assortment of eccentric characters – a Christmas-hating thief (Ilaza Glazer), a pot-smoking former teacher (Michael Shannon), and even Miley Cyrus herself.
It’s quite a juggling act to keep the episodic narrative moving while maintaining a consistent emotional through-line, yet Levine seems more than up to the challenge. In the following interview, the director discusses the complexities of such a task, moving into broader comedies and what exactly is the perfect runtime for a comedy.
We opened by talking about CGI breath in Christmas/winter set films:
JONATHAN LEVINE: To be honest – I feel like CG breath…
Collider: It never looks right.
LEVINE: Yeah, they’ve never nailed it. So we were going to do it and then I was like ‘Ehh…’ But you do see one [real] breath early in the movie and then you buy it.
It sells it.
LEVINE: The more movies I make, the more I realize once you establish something with an audience, they just buy it as long as you don’t egregiously fuck it up. Once you’ve sold the world, unless you’re deliberately taken out, it feels good.
You share credit for writing this movie [with Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir & Evan Goldberg]. Was this a script you had in place or did you come aboard later on?
LEVINE: Originally it was my idea. I brought it to Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] right when we were finishing 50/50. I was really into the idea of a ‘holiday movie’. I like to have a genre framework that [I can] rely on. With a Christmas movie, you’re making a crowd pleasing movie, you’re really trying to make people smile but it’s also a time of reflection, it’s bittersweet – so it allowed me to have that side of the tonal palette without undermining the overall feel of a ‘Happy Christmas’ movie. There are so many great Christmas TV shows and films, but no one’s doing it for our generation. Seth and Evan agreed.
I started working on [The Night Before] right after Warm Bodies. The Seth and Evan process is that you keep improving it, keep improving it, never accept that it’s anything less than what it could be… So two months before we ended up shooting, we all got into a room together. I would get on Final Draft and always be typing but Kyle, Ariel, Evan & Seth was there too. It’s not like we started from scratch but we blew up about fifty percent of [the script]. We would just write all together. I never give a shit about credit or anything like that. I’ve helped out other people on scripts. I think people caring about credit is the enemy…
You just want to make the best product.
LEVINE: Also by the time it came around to divvying up credit, I don’t want credit for shit I didn’t do. I would be fucking embarrassed to have credit for shit I didn’t do. At the end of the day, I felt like those guys had contributed a really significant amount to the movie.
What changed during that month period?
LEVINEThe notion that Joe was an orphan came up really late in the game. Originally it was just his dad that died.
That’s the whole emotional backbone for the film.
LEVINE: I write in a very… it’s not plot driven. It’s more tonal and feelings – which is great for The Wackness; but when you’re doing something that wants to be a big Hollywood commercial movie… That’s just not my strong suit. Those guys brought the spine of [the film] without sacrificing the tonal thing I created.
What type of films did you look to for that tone?
LEVINE: The Seth and Evan catalogue was something that really inspired me. I knew that part of the DNA was going to be imprinted – so for me I was looking at disparate references. It’s like adding spice — you take a little bit of fucking salt and pepper or whatever and then all of the sudden you’ve created something, not completely new, but different. For this – I would look at the Christmas perennials. I looked at It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, The Family Man… I watched so many movies. I watched After Hours and then I’d watch weird things you wouldn’t think: The 25th Hour…
That’s a perfect New York movie.
LEVINE: It’s a New York movie about three guys and at the end of the night one of them is going to go away. I watched The Last Detail, Eyes Wide Shut, which was actually a big reference for us visually.
For the party scene?
LEVINE: For everything. Eyes Wide Shut is the dramatic version of what we’re doing. It’s a total fantasy. The more you watch Eyes Wide Shut, the more it becomes this dream like thing. And that’s what I wanted for this. It was always going to owe so much to Superbad and This is the End and stuff like that — so I didn’t want to watch those things. To make something unique, you need to undercut that a little bit.
When you’re writing the film, are you catering it to Seth [Rogen], Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] and Anthony [Mackie]?
LEVINE: It was written for Seth and Joe. Everyone else – it wasn’t written for but we had some in place when we were rewriting. It was so improvisational, that [everyone] could make it their own.
Given the improvisational nature, how much then is written before?
LEVINE: The writing process happens faster. It’s more breaking it then writing dialogue because you know the dialogue is going to change. It’s more figuring out the arcs and story…
What is the balance on set having this improv but then still maintaining the story?
LEVINE: You let the improv stuff go because you know you can always cut it out. The hardest part is figuring out your time during the day. There were times when I realized I was spending half a day on a little scene because I was letting everyone improvise and then I would have no time to do my cool shot. That was always a really hard balancing act. As a director, time is the thing you have the strongest relationship with during the day. You’re always figuring out how much time things take, how much time can you devote to something. It’s tough to figure out where to devote your resources. I learned a lot about how to devote time. It’s hard because people are just so funny. You become an audience member. You’re watching Mindy Kaling and Lizzy Kaplan riff for an hour or you’re watching Seth and Jillian [Bell] together or Michael Shannon with anyone…
How did that casting come about — Michael Shannon as ostensibly the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future?
LEVINE: It was always written as a person who was weird and intimidating – so those are two adjectives that could describe him. What we didn’t know – is that he was so funny. I thought, worst-case scenario, if he just delivers these lines without any inflection it will work because of his persona. But he brought so much to it and he improvised so much and I think he was having fun. He always has the same look on his face but his agent was like ‘Michael, had a really good time.’ And we were like really? He seemed fucking miserable… but he’s awesome and one of my favorite things in the movie.
What is your approach to directing actors from different backgrounds?
LEVINE: You just create the atmosphere. You host the party and you make sure they have a good time. That’s for this movie specifically. That’s not the case for every single thing. Right now I’m doing a pilot and it’s fifteen different amazing actors and I have to have a very different approach with everyone. But for [The Night Before] – just make sure you’re considerate of everyone, make sure everyone’s having fun… Create the right atmosphere and everything else falls in place.
Is that reflective of making a bigger, broader movie?
LEVINE: Yes, certainly and it won’t be the case on every movie I do. This movie in particular was about old friends so you want people to feel like they’re with old friends.
How much of this is based on your own experiences in New York?
LEVINE: I would go out on Christmas with friends and get really drunk and I always found it to be a really interesting time because you just go out and the city is really quiet and then you open the door to one of the few bars that are open and you’ve discovered this underground community of people, many of whom are sad and alone, a lot of whom are looking to cause trouble. You find that really interesting things would happen. A lot of friends are away in college and the Holidays were the only time when everyone was back home. People are with their families but are looking to get away for a few. It was a really charged time. There was an undercurrent of emotion which is what I always found interesting…
You do seem to move from genre to genre. Is that a conscious decision on your part – to not be pigeonholed into one thing?
LEVINE: It might be subconscious. I don’t like being pigeonholed at all. It stemmed from after Mandy Lane, I was being offered all these horror movies. I love horror movies but when I dreamed of being a director, it was always doing all sorts of things. I feel like comedy is where I’m most at ease; but I also have an allergy to silly jokes. That’s why I like [The Night Before] because every time there’s a silly or dumb joke, we have what I think is hopefully a smarter joke. As I continue to evolve as a filmmaker, I’m going to continue to do different stuff. The next thing I’m going to do is this movie with Amy Schumer. It’s a really great script – so that’s another comedy; but there’s also a lot of heart in that movie. I like that space. I would still love to do another horror movie or do a comic book movie, all sorts of stuff. But I definitely don’t like when people are like ‘Hey you did that, can you do that again.’ Well I just fucking did that.
Editing wise on this movie – how do you corral all the improv into a cohesive whole?
LEVINE: You just have to be really hard on stuff. I really don’t like when you see improv scenes go on too long. It really bothers me even if the jokes are good. Seth and Evan are great about that. We were just talking — their new goal is for every movie they make to be under a hundred minutes.
That makes perfect sense.
LEVINE: People don’t go back and forth and riff so it takes you out of the movie. It has to be a really high bar especially if it’s improvised. As long as you’re critical and you set your bar higher for that type of material… We test these movies over and over. If it gets a huge laugh, it’s in the fucking movie. If it gets a medium laugh, I don’t know…
So the testing process really does influence the final cut?
LEVINE: Oh a hundred percent and I think rightfully so. We’re not slaves to it but especially on this movie, it’s a hundred percent for people and to make people happy – so it makes perfect sense to keep testing it vigorously over and over again. There are jokes that get laughs that we don’t have in there and I think we’ve all gotten better about what those jokes are, that take you out of it. It’s really important because a movie like this shouldn’t be more than an hour and forty minutes. You have to be very critical when you’re doing something so unruly, you have to be very vigilant about not letting it get in that rhythm of scenes that go on too long.
The Night Before opens everywhere Friday, November 20th.