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Jonathan Levine’s Total Wackness

Jonathan Levine’s Total Wackness

Articles - Directing

The prospect of meeting Ben Kingsley is a daunting one for any director, especially a man of such limited talent and eloquence as myself. So when I heard the news that Sir Ben had enjoyed my script for The Wackness and would like to meet me in Vancouver, my excitement was tempered by an immediate pang of terror.

I recalled the episode of “The Sopranos” in which Sir Ben attempts to blow off Christopher and his mob cohorts as they push their script onto him. Needless to say, I hoped my meeting would go a bit better than that…

I’m not very good at acting “director-like.” When meeting actors, I tend to steer discussions toward the casual, as I get embarrassed talking about my “vision” for a film. This is not a good thing, and it was something I would have to overcome if I was going to get one of the world’s greatest actors to work with me.

If there’s one thing I learned from film school, it is to always be prepared. So I put together a visual presentation and practiced how I would articulate my thoughts about the character of Dr. Squires, the drug-addled, gonzo Upper East Side psychiatrist role we had offered to Sir Ben. I rewatched just about every film he’d ever done (except Species, as I’d already seen that, like, 10 times). This only served to intimidate me more. The list of geniuses with whom he had worked was extensive: Spielberg, Beatty, Attenborough, Polanski. I had to keep reminding myself that he must have liked my voice as a writer or my first film or something. But I left open the possibility that I had some mob ties deep in my past of which I was unaware.

Sir Ben was in Vancouver working on a film so, armed with photo references and so freshly shaven that I got carded for cigarettes, I boarded a plane to Canada. I arrived at the hotel bar a bit earlier than he and ordered a drink to calm my nerves. (I got carded for the drink as well, even though we were in Canada, which is where underage Americans go to drink.)

When I first saw Sir Ben approaching, I realized I needn’t have worried at all. His warm smile disarmed me immediately and I quickly began to feel as though I could be myself. He ordered a water, and we talked about the script, but very casually.

Being a classicist at heart, Sir Ben compared the character of Squires to Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V. Luckily, I had read those plays, so I was able to hang with the conversation. It wasn’t the first reference that came to mind—that of a bong-hitting, rock ‘n’ roll-loving shrink to a Shakespearean character—but now it seemed apt. In observing the story through a classical lens, Sir Ben was able to connect to its heart and, as such, to a core of universality. I like cores of universality almost as much as I like bong hits, so I was happy to discover we were both on the same page.

I showed him my visual references, but it was almost beside the point. As the conversation progressed I felt both safe and strong; he actually cared what I had to say! I realize now that he was already making me a better director, and that is what the best collaborators do. A few days later I found out he had signed on to do the film. Without him, the movie would not have gotten made.

The lesson I took from this encounter was pretty banal, and for that I apologize, but it’s to be yourself. There is also a related lesson that transcends moviemaking: Treat all of your collaborators with respect, not as icons but as equals.

People think that because moviemaking is such an emotionally-charged profession, and because a lot of the people involved in it are so fucking crazy, this gives them license to act immature or abusive or generally unprofessional. That’s not cool. We tried to create the antithesis of that environment on The Wackness, and the result was something in which we were all emotionally invested. I really feel like that shows up on the screen. I don’t know how exactly, but I have to believe it does… and that it all started with a drink in a hotel bar between a true gentleman and a scared kid. MM

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