Let’s get this out of the way: yes, 50/50 is a comedy about a young man dealing with a precarious cancer prognosis (hence the title), and, no, it doesn’t sugarcoat the experience in the slightest. If you’ve ever had a friend or family member battle the disease, much of this film will be recognizable – some of it painfully so.
But here’s the thing: it’s funny. Really funny. And not just in a gallows-humor way - though there is plenty of that kicking around in the movie. In many ways, 50/50 is as much about cancer as it is about leaving young adulthood for actual adulthood, and the fear of what comes next. That this is all viewed from the perspective of a twenty-seven-year-old who’s unsure whether there will be a “next” only heightens the anxiety: on one hand, each decision matters that much more, while on the other… what’s the fucking point if it's all going to end so soon?
50/50 is a seemingly effortless movie. Based on a keenly-observed screenplay by Will Reiser (former DA ALI G SHOW writer and, not for nothing, cancer survivor), it boasts a number of subtly powerful performances from the formidable likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the afflicted), Anjelica Huston (his protective mother), Bryce Dallas Howard (his self-absorbed girlfriend) and Anna Kendrick (his new-to-the-job therapist). And then there’s the intentionally unsubtle (and plenty formidable himself) Seth Rogen, who instigates most of the comedy as Levitt's indefatigably optimistic best friend. It’s a beautifully acted film; everyone inhabits their role as if they’ve been rehearsing the movie for a year. And this is a testament to the assured, less-is-more direction from Jonathan Levine.
50/50 is something of a departure for Levine. Though his previous films, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE and THE WACKNESS, weren’t exactly hyper-stylized, they did have a distinct, almost dreamlike quality to them. But aside from one amusing slo-mo sequence, Levine keeps 50/50 completely grounded in reality so as not to allow Levitt’s Adam – or the viewer – any distance from the seriousness of his diagnosis. As for the humor, it’s not a form of denial, but rather a way of defiantly laughing at both the absurdity of the situation and the absolute randomness of the shit life throws at you. And when things finally come to a head for Adam, Levine deftly segues from comedy to emotionally harrowing drama, culminating in a mother/son moment that's as heartbreakingly real as anything I've seen in a movie this year.
50/50 is headed to the Toronto Film Festival in a few weeks, at which point it will surely become an Awards Contender. Levine will probably be doing interviews in support of this film until February, so I’m glad I got him now while he’s still fresh and not in campaign-mode. Levine’s at an interesting place in his career: though he’s about to start shooting his first big studio movie (the zombie comedy WARM BODIES), he’s likely going to be highly sought after as an “actor’s director” of more intimately-scaled dramadies. As Levine explains in the below interview, this is exactly where he wants to be: in demand and impossible to define.
Mr. Beaks: Actually, I just watched ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE the other night.
Jonathan Levine: You did? How is it? Is it okay? I can’t even bear to watch it it’s been so long.
Beaks It was my second time through. I’m a fan of that movie. I think you did great job.
Levine: Oh, okay cool. I can’t even remember. I mean, I have a vague idea of what it is, but… I should watch it again.
Beaks: You should. Are you one of those directors who has trouble watching their own movies?
Levine: Not when I’m editing. When you are done with it, it’s fun to watch it. But if something’s in the past, it’s in the past, you know? I’ll watch 50/50 probably another fifteen times, just because I like watching it with an audience, and then I will probably never watch it again. Well, that’s not true. Maybe I’ll watch it again when I’m old.
Beaks: When you’re doing a retrospective at the AFI or somewhere?
Levine: Yeah, right. Okay. Maybe. (Laughs)
Beaks: When they are celebrating your ten films and two Oscars?
Levine: Jesus, that would be great. It’ll be more like when I’m sixty and stoned on my couch.
Beaks: Those are the best kinds of retrospectives.
Levine: My own retrospective, yeah. With a bong and some pills and my heart medication. Exactly.
Beaks: So a couple of years passed between directing THE WACKNESS and doing 50/50. What was going on during that period, and then how did 50/50 come along?
Levine: I was sort of trying to figure out what the hell to do. I wanted to do something, but I poured my heart and soul into [THE WACKNESS], and after that I really did not know what my next move would be. I was offered bigger movies. And I like to write, so I was writing some stuff. But for whatever reason it was just really hard trying to figure out my next move. I was definitely keeping busy. I was writing scripts and I was actively trying to figure out what to do, but at a certain point I was like, “Shit, I should probably do another movie because it’s what I love to do.” And you kind of have to do one every once in a while for people to keep hiring you to do more.
So 50/50… another director was attached to it for a while, and I had, in that year, dealt with a couple of family members who had gotten cancer. Luckily they are okay, but I had a real strong personal connection to the script, and was very dismayed that another director was doing it. When that director fell off, I chased it rabidly. I met with Seth and Evan [Goldberg], and it just felt like a great fit; it felt like the right next thing to do. So somehow, through some sort of fate, I was able to do it. I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t come along. Once I got it, it felt so much like the perfect project for me.
Beaks: What was it n your meeting with Seth and Evan that really clicked?
Levine: I’m a big fan of their stuff. I feel a real affinity for their work. I felt like I had met some kindred spirits when I sat down in Seth’s trailer on the set of THE GREEN HORNET. It’s just rare that you get to meet other young people with a very similar perspective who are making movies; I loved the fact that in all of their movies they are continually pushing the boundaries of what comedy is, whether it’s bending genres in PINEAPPPLE EXPRESS or the heart of SUPERBAD. I just can’t say enough about how much I respected their work. So when we hung out, not only was I hanging out with people whose work I admired and respected, but I really liked them personally and it just felt like a really nice pairing.
Beaks: Was there any trepidation at that point about making a comedy that deals with such an unfunny topic?
Levine: When you are making it you are not really thinking about that. You are just, “I’m sitting behind the monitor watching Seth do five takes of something and come up with a different hilarious joke on every take. I know it’s funny, and I know that an audience is going to find it funny.” Or if you see Joe and Anna, and the kind of awkward dynamic that they have. For me, the real secret to the movie is to keep everything very grounded, make the funny parts funny, and make the dramatic parts as real as possible - and have faith that an audience will recognize that. When you are making the movie, you can’t really be afraid of stuff like that. Maybe later on you can. In the selling of the movie, that’s when you get afraid of stuff like that.
Beaks: Where we are right now. (Laughs)
Levine: At this point! These are the sleepless nights! (Laughs) But not really. I’ve been lucky enough to have watched the movie with audiences and see how they respond to it. So it’s having faith and feeling like we’ve put a good product out there that is unique and unconventional, and that people are responding to. It helps with the “It’s a tough sell” aspect of it.
Beaks: Yeah. At what point did they make the switch from McAvoy to Levitt? How did that change the dynamic?
Levine: You know the McAvoy thing happened very close to shooting. James had a family emergency that absolutely… he had every reason to do what he did and leave. And Joe remarkably came in with very little prep time and just completely crushed it. How did it change the dynamic? They are two different actors. I think they are two of the finest actors of their generation. I just think we were incredibly lucky that Joe responded to the material, and that he was willing to take this incredible leap and jump right into the material.
Beaks: How long did it take for Joe and Seth to develop their chemistry?
Levine: They had chemistry right away. We did rehearse probably two or three times for three hours at a time. The rehearsal was really about keeping it loose and coming up with jokes and trains of improv that we would then reference when we were on set. But they were incredible together immediately. I think Joe did something that’s really smart. [Acting] opposite Seth, I think it’s probably a real challenge because what he is doing is so big and loud and incredibly funny. In his scenes with Joe, ninety percent of the scene Seth is driving [the scene]. And Joe, to his credit, didn’t try to go toe to toe with him on trading jokes; he really stayed in character and reacted just like Adam would - just like anyone who has a friend like Kyle would. I think that’s a credit to Joe, that he plays so close to the reality of his character. I just think it’s so egoless of him, and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s such a fantastic actor.
Beaks: How involved was Will [Reiser] during the shooting? Was he on set rewriting?
Levine: Will was there every single day. Every single day in prep, every single day on set. All of us on set were coming up with jokes. We often would change things the night before, and Will would sit at his laptop; we would be firing things at him, and, to his credit, he really was able to not only write an amazing script from the beginning, but was flexible enough and agile enough as a writer to deal with… I mean, you have Seth and Evan, who are great writers. And you also have [producer] Ben Karlin, who was around when Jon Stewart took over THE DAILY SHOW, and is one of the co-creators of the COLBERT REPORT; he’s an incredible guy with great writing instincts. You have me, who’s a writer. And then Will, who has this incredibly personal story and has to navigate all of these other voices and stay true to his own script. He was able to do both, and it’s really amazing that he was. It’s just incredible.
Beaks: Will being kind of the ultimate bullshit detector, having been through it.
Levine: Yeah, totally.
Beaks: The most powerful moments in the movie for me are really between Joseph and Anjelica Huston. It’s a very particular mother-son relationship. How did you establish that?
Levine: First of all, I completely identified with that relationship. I think it’s a type of mother/son relationship that, whether or not your mom is like that, you can identify with feeling the way Joe’s character feels. As I’ve said, one of Joe’s great assets is that he can find the truth in any situation, and I think with Anjelica… she is not only one of the greatest actresses of all time, she’s also a really cool chick. So it was really about the same way we did it with Seth, the same way we did it Bryce, and the same way we did it with Anna: we sat down in preproduction, we talked about the characters and the dynamics, and we tried to ground it. Anjelica had just lost her husband recently, so she knew what it was like to go through this; she came to it from a very real place, often kind of scarily real. As a director, you are like “Oh my God, I almost don’t want you to go there because it’s so intense…,” just feeling for her as a person. But she did go there, and I think it’s really amazing what she was able to do.
Beaks: And when you’re shooting those scenes, how many times can they go there?
: Yeah, you don’t want to do it that much, you know? I don’t know. If it was like a really emotional thing, like the scene in the hospital, probably three takes each. But still, that’s like three takes of Joe’s close up and three takes of Anjelica’s close up and three masters, so they are doing it ten times. You almost feel like you’re torturing people. (Laughs) But at the same time, you are sitting there… I was tearing up watching it. It’s such an amazing privilege to watch the two of them do that. That was like one of my favorite days on set, even though it was probably the most serious day on set. I felt like I was witnessing something pretty remarkable.
Beaks: And the head shaving scene. What we are seeing there is the real thing.
Levine: Yes, that was the first day. We didn’t shoot the movie in order, so essentially it’s way better to do a wig of fake hair than a bald cap. Basically, Joe in the movie is wearing a wig. He was bald. He really did it. It’s amazing.
Beaks: And that’s a situation where you can’t really do another take.
Levine: Exactly. It’s almost like a stunt, except it’s all acting and they were improvising. The lines they improvised at the end of that scene, they just completely invented. That was the first day, and their timing together was good. That was the last thing we shot on the first day, and it was super fun. It’s just so badass that he’s willing to do it, and the fact that they were able to stay in character. You can’t mess it up because you only get one shot.
Beaks: Watching Bryce play her character, the way that she starts off genuinely likeable and then just turns… less so. That’s a really tough role, and she pulls it off fairly effortlessly.
Levine: The degree of difficulty on that role is higher than any other role in this movie. It is very, very hard to pull that off. Again, it was our constant mandate on the movie to be true to the reality of the characters, and Bryce was able to take someone who really doesn’t act all that nicely, and really doesn’t do the right thing, and still… come at that character from a place of empathy and a place of understanding. She was able to imbue that character with some humanity, and in doing so, I think, allowed an audience to somewhat empathize and not have her feel like a caricature. I think that’s it. I really want to see THE HELP, because it looks like she plays someone really mean in that, too. She’s good. For someone who is as incredibly nice as she is, she is good at playing… not-that-nice people.
Beaks: Visually, this film is more subdued than your first two movies. How difficult was it to adjust your style to fit what the material required?
Levine: It was a necessary thing. For me, this is a movie that’s driven by the actors. It’s not necessarily a movie where you want to push people to feel anything in a way that feels manipulative, so I really tried to be invisible in a way. Sometimes it was frustrating. On day twenty of shooting two people talking to each other on a couch, you really want to do some fucking crazy cool shot. But I felt very strongly that that wasn’t what the movie called for. I just felt like I really wanted it to feel very grounded and very real, and that’s what I tried to do, to give the actors that freedom to drive it. When you are doing all sorts of things with camera, you are sometimes locking actors into things, and I just didn’t want them to feel that way.
Beaks: So are you getting to indulge those kinds of visual flourishes more on WARM BODIES?
Levine: Yeah, man. This one is going to be pretty crazy. I’m doing my shot list now, and hopefully I’m going to get it out of my system. I have a lot of pent-up cool shots that I’d like to do.
Beaks: Stylistically, what would you compare WARM BODIES to? What kind of look are you going for?
Levine: Man, I don’t know. I have a whole wall of references. I think CHILDREN OF MEN, OLD BOY… there’s a ton. My wall is filled with stuff right now. I hope for it to push the envelope visually and stylistically. I think the great thing about the movie is it’s actually is what is called for. This is a very different type of movie [from 50/50], and it’s also an exciting challenge.
Beaks: Content-wise, are you going PG-13? R?
Levine: We are going to do PG-13, which may have some of the zombie die-hards calling for my head. But it’s a romance at its heart. I’m not so concerned about the violence. While we are working within the genre, it’s really important to me to also try to push the boundaries of the genre, and I don’t get that excited about seeing people’s heads explode and stuff like that. We will be as violent as we can be within PG-13. We are not going to be pussies about it, but at the same time I think it makes sense to have as broad of an audience as possible to be able to see it. It’s not really a dark tone.
Beaks: And it’s not like we don’t get to see exploding heads in lots of other things.
Levine: No, I mean, you can see an exploding head anywhere. It’s on YouTube anytime.
Beaks: One of your first gigs was working on AUTO FOCUS with Paul Schrader. Was there any wisdom you were able to glean from working with him?
Levine: Well, I worked in his office when he was editing AUTO FOCUS, and then I worked with him for a year in his office, so it was just a lot of assistant stuff. That said, I was obsessed with him as a writer and director before I got the job, and he is an incredible, very cool, very fascinating person. Basically, I was just kind of listening. It’s interesting. You pick up things, like how he interacts with his editor, how he interacts with the studio, how he interacts with producers… he’s pretty badass, you know? I think that what I did learn is that you have to stick up for what you believe in. He’s pretty vigilant about doing things that are true and real and different, and I definitely share that sensibility with him. My job with him was awesome, but I did realize at some point that he was never going to hand me a camera and ask me to direct something, so I had to go to film school in order to get that kind of practical experience to be what I wanted to be.
Beaks: Looking forward from here, do you have a model for how you want your career to go? Do you look at certain directors and say, “I want to do it the way this guy did it”?
Levine: I like all kinds of movies, you know? So I’m interested in directors who make all kinds of movies. I really have tried in my first three movies to continue to do interesting stuff, so that people can’t be like “Let’s give him SAW 7!” I can’t get put in a box like that. I admire directors who are able to do that, like Fincher and Soderbergh. Then there’s just people who I’m like “Jesus, I don’t even know how they do what they do,” like P.T. Anderson or Wes Anderson. I just feel like they are so in a class of their own, so to model yourself after them is just pointless. For me, it’s not so much modeling your career after someone in particular, it’s just about keeping people guessing, and picking projects that appeal to my sensibilities, and not allowing myself to get put in a box.
50/50 will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in a few weeks. It opens theatrically on September 30, 2011. See this movie!