Wackness by Jonathan Levin and Josh Peck

Sundance Film Fest 2008–Interview with Jonathan Levine and Josh Peck, co-directors of “The Wackness.”

Autobiographical Film

Jonathan Levine: I think anytime you write something about a time in your life, you need to access whatever emotions you were feeling at the time, and I definitely needed to go there in order to write something that rang true. Certainly the world is the world I grew up in, and the characters and a lot of the alienation that Lukes feeling is the stuff I felt, but as far as the facts and details, none of its based on reality.

Josh Peck: In one way or another, I have been in those situations that Luke goes through in the movie, like trying to think of something cool to say to the girl I'm trying to get hooked up with. or just kicking back with friends and questioning whether these people are really my friends, or whether these people are cats that
I wouldnt wanna hang out with five years from now. There are so many things flying through your mind when youre 18, 19, 20, and the feelings are so visceral, they feel so real in the moment and all encompassing and are such all or nothing.

I really identified with Lukes bleakness. It literally came down to the fact that I was two years older than Luke was in the script. It was a part of my life that I felt that I was more at the end of the chapter with, while Luke was just beginning it. I remember when I auditioned for you the first day: it was the scene where Im in
the bathroom with Olivia. You gave me a note that maybe this kid isnt so comfortable in this situationmaybe he isnt good at acting like this cool guy who is feeling fine. And I was like, alright cool, so then I kind of referred back to what comes naturally to mebeing semi-neurotic, always trying to make light of the
situation whenever I feel pressure. You afforded me the freedom to make him funny. Its rooted in this sort of pain and uncertainty that Luke has about life and people.

JL: I think I never had an exact idea in my mind about what this kid was going to be until you came in. When youre writing, you write what you know and hope that an actor will be able make it his own and take it to the next level. As a director, I wanted to give you as much freedom as possible, as long as the spirit of what you were doing was consistent with what the ideas I had in the script. I never wanted to handcuff you with any preconceived notions. But now of course, I would want you to do the exact same thing.

Family Saga

JP: When you asked me where my family was from, I said, Im from New York, but most of my family lives in New Jersey, and I fucking hate Jersey! And so Luke started having this thing for Jersey too. He says in the movie, Well, I
can't live in Jersey! I thought it was really funny.

JL: Once you put your mind on Luke there was no such thing as a wrong decision. It just became part of the life of the character. And you had a pretty good knowledge about the music of the time. You really identified with Biggie and the sentiments in Biggies songs. To me, the music is the biggest thing about grounding yourself in 1994. Of course, you were only eight then.

Memories

JL: You do have significant memories from that time.

JP: I was watching Power Rangers in 1994. I was playing Duck Hunt in my room on the Nintendo NES, you know what I'm saying For me it was a different reality. But I tried to remember the major subjects that adults were talking about in 94. Everybody was talking about Clinton coming in. I remember all the older
kids talking about Pulp Fiction, and how unbelievable it waspeople were seeing it 7, 8, 9 times. And those were all things that were incorporated into the movie, with the video games, and the culture and the high tops, and the haircuts.

I remember my babysitter was always watching 90210, and I had the same haircut as five out of six of the guys on that show. I was just trying to reinvestigate that part of my brain and psyche that might have gone dormant if I wasnt doing the movie. Also, a lot of the slang is still used now.

Cool Words

JL: The vernacular hasn't changed that much.

JP: When I started on the movie, I found myself saying a lot of words that are used more sparingly nowwords that we probably wouldve used a lot more in 1994. I found myself saying: that's mad cool, or thats mad crazy, or that's really dope. They just became second nature in a way.

JL: But sometimes youd say something that was.

JP: Totally. You were like, No, we didn't say that in 94. And then we would change it.

JL: It helped a lot that you and Olivia happened to be from New York. Thats not why I cast you twoits just a coincidence. But it made things a lot easier. With Sir Ben, it wasnt about authenticity. He is not the kind of New York Actor you might expect in that rolehes just an amazing actor. He gave this distinctly ballsy performance, a strange concoction. Our idea was to just bring him into this world and have the world react to him.

JP: I remember Olivia and I were in a state of perpetual anticipation, this whirlwind of: Sir Ben! Oh my God, what do we expect What's it going to be He came to me the first day of shooting and gave me a hug and said, This part
chose you; you didn't choose this part. And right then, every wall, every piece of trepidation, everything fell awaybecause he truly made me feel like an equal.

Ben Kingsley Intimidated

JL: I think, to Bens credit, he knew we would be intimidated, and he knew that this was not going to work if Josh and I were scared of him. Not to mention the fact that hes just a sweet man.

JP: Sir Ben said at one of our interviews at Sundance that we had to be comfortable in order to be vulnerable in front of each other. There are scenes in the movie where I break down in front of Bennear tears, totally heartbroken. And if our relationship hadnt been one of mutual respect, I dont think I would have had this comfort going to such places of vulnerability. My characters in front of him, sort of oozing out all of this uncertainty, this state of unhappiness, and just cynicism and kind of being angry at the world, which I think is a definite theme with most young men. You're so unsure of yourself, you don't know who to be mad at… you just pretty sure you're mad at something.

JP: Kingsleys character identifies with Lukes restlessness, his malaise, his kind of unfocused anger. I think people like Squires intellectually know that theyre doing the wrong thing. Im sure he knows hes in a loveless marriage. I think that in a way, Squires starts to think that if he can help Luke through this, he can also teach himself a lesson or two.

I think Squires is trying to caution Luke as much as possible. Hes telling Luke that this is what you could end up being if youre not careful. And you don't want to end up being like me! From the first scene he says tells Luke that hes graduating tomorrow and he sees no sense of happiness inside Luke. Squires is trying to save Luke from all the pain and the suffering that Squires has sort of figured out too late in his life. And now he really can't do much about it.

Mentoring and Role-Reversal

JL: But I think by choosing to mentor Luke, hes also trying to live vicariously through Luke.

JOSH: Olivia said a really interesting thingthat Luke kind of wishes he was Squires, and Squires kind of wishes that he was Luke.

JL: Both of them are pretty clueless about women.

JP: Luke was unbelievably kind of needy toward Stephanie because it was this new relationship. There was so much unfulfilled shit in his life. To have someone come out of the woodwork that kind of gets youyou want to kind of throw yourself at this person and never let go. Get as much out of them as you can. I think that that was the downfallthey both weren't ready for this kind of relationship. She was just kind of damaged, and maybe unable to love in that
moment.

JL: I think there was a genuine connection. It was just about a time and a place. If these two had met three years after college, they might have gotten married. Unfortunately, it just didnt work out at the time.

JP: Even now, being a couple years older, I constantly say to anyone who will listen, that even if the right girl came into my life right now, I would know what the hell to do with her. Because I know that psychologically I'm not ready to completely be there in a relationship at this point in my life.

JL: Originally when I wrote the script, Stephanie was like the Fuck You to every girl who dumped me when I was at that age. The character was definitely a lot less appealing on the page. But Olivia injected the character with such humanity. She did this wonderful thing in the last scene. When Josh tells her that he's never been heartbroken before, she smiles to herself as he goes down the elevator: she knows hes gonna be okay; she knows that whatever they went through was worth it because they had that connection. And so it went from being the Fuck You to every girl that ever dumped me to being, Okay, I know why you dumped me, and you were right, which is a much more constructive
way to go about it. But it really is a testament to how much Olivia identified with the inner life of that character. Its hard for me as a guy to write girls…if I understood girls I'd be a lot better off. But she did such a wonderful job I feel like I gained insight into my own life.

JP: Youre right about that. I came into the movie a bit heartbroken from stuff that went down in my own life. And it was great be able to incorporate that into Luke. I had a crystal-clear image of who Stephanie was to me in my life. You know, they say acting isnt therapy, but it can be a great way to get through shit. And it was true for me. By the end of the movie, I had a much better perspective on my life through Lukes eyes. It was great to be able to bring out these emotions every day and for me to be able to put them to use, instead of welling up from some sappy John Mayer song on the radio. It was a great luxury I was afforded. I think Luke is just pretty damn cool. I definitely was proud to play this kid, and to be in his skin.