Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Levine on Snatched, Vaginal Fonts and Ninja Movies

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Jonathan Levine has been on a role since his indie movies All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and The Wackness played Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals respectively. He’s been directing big budget comedies like 50/50, Warm Bodies, The Night Before and this weekend’s new movie Snatched.

Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn play a mother and daughter who go on vacation to Ecuador together, only to be kidnapped and have to escape while working out their issues. Levine spoke with me by phone this week before Snatched and we talked about the film’s outrageous set pieces, and his gig directing the pilot to Showtime’s new series I’m Dying Up Here. Snatched is now playing in theaters.

WLE: This movie was untitled while it was in production. When did Snatched become the title?

Jonathan Levine: Snatched was the title that Amy and her sister were really pushing for. We had this on 50/50. I’ve had this on a lot of movies. We had it on The Night Before. You get these lists of titles and they sound just like very generic, like What Is The World Coming To? or Moms Trip. They’re just terrible. Snatched was infinitely debated a little bit as to whether it was too lowbrow or too reductive. What we eventually decided was that if the poster and all the materials played the joke straight, didn’t have any sort of vaginal themes to the fonts or anything like that, that it would be a slightly more sophisticated version of that joke. It just made so much more of an impact than any other title we had.

WLE: Do you adapt your style to the different comedians’ voices you work with?

Jonathan Levine: I certainly adapt my style to different actors, comedians or not. What’s amazing about Seth [Rogen] and Amy and those guys is that they’re comedians first and foremost. It’s not really about a style. It’s more about speaking the language of comedy which everyone kind of does in a similar way. Now what’s different is when you’re dealing with more of an actor first, comedian second, which is what I consider Goldie, which is what I consider Michael Shannon or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in those ways you’re on sets and you’re communicating slightly differently with actors first versus comedians first. Although the great thing about the actors I’ve had the privilege of working with is they’re all so versatile. Seth has amazing acting chops and Joe’s a great comedian. Goldie is just this kind of unicorn who embodies both in an unreal way.

WLE: Was Amy ready to do nudity for the sake of a joke?

Jonathan Levine: Amy wrote that scene into the script. [Laughs] That was her idea. I said to Amy, “How do you want us to do this?” figuring I would shoot it from behind and maybe just allude to it. She said, “No, no, no. I think I really need to show my breast.” I was like, “Okay, great, I was really hoping you’d say that because that’s going to make it so much funnier.” I think that is just a testament to her commitment to comedy. She thought it was funny and decided to push that as far as possible and did 20 different versions of that joke. So had her tit out on set for hours at a time. I remember Tom Bateman who was acting opposite her would keep looking away to be polite, as everyone would. I mean, it’s a closed set. She kept yelling, “Stop not looking at my tit, Tom.” That was very funny.

WLE: Staging the bathroom angle must’ve been so precise to get the mirror, the door opening and Tom in the right spot. Was it?

Jonathan Levine: Yeah, and that was something actually I’m really, really proud of how it turned out on the day. We were playing with different things. That bathroom actually worked perfectly. We were in The Four Seasons Ko Olina on Oahu. They happened to have this bathroom and it was really the only bathroom option we had. Myself and the DP, I put my foot up on the sink and he got a finder when we were scouting. He said, “Yeah, yeah, this is going to work.” We definitely had our angles planned out well in advance. I really, really was very proud of the way we executed that joke. It’s one of my favorite jokes in the movie.

WLE: Was there a really intense dog trainer? Because the timing of the dogs is perfect.

Jonathan Levine: The dog trainer was so good. I should say dogs are more easily trainable than cats. Our cats were very difficult to train and I got very sick of the cats. Every day I would complain to [screenwriter] Katie [Dippold] about the cats because Katie wrote this movie as a love letter to her own mom who I guess does have cats. I just could not get over how the cats would never listen. Anyway, the dog trainer was so awesome, I had my dog in Hawaii, I said, “Dude, you have to train my dog.” My dog is like a little rescue Maltese Yorkie mutt dog who is a very wonderful dog but also kind of an asshole. He’ll fight other dogs. This guy went over to my house while I was on set. He took my dog out onto the beach and he texted me video of my dog playing with these other dogs. And he was like, “Your dog’s fixed.” The next day I took my dog out, he was again trying to bite pit bulls. So he’s not a miracle worker but yes, he’s a very good dog trainer.

WLE: Did you enjoy doing the classic crane up shot as the kidnapper is crying into the sky?

Jonathan Levine: Yeah, there was a lot of shots like that that I think myself and Florian Balhaus, our cinematographer, really wanted to approach this from an aggressive visual standpoint. What was so appealing to me about the movie was that it had a core of this relatable mother and daughter story and heart, and also would give me the opportunity to work on a bigger palette, explore some action and move the camera in ways that I hadn’t done since Warm Bodies. So yes, I really had a great time with a lot of the crane shots. It was a lot of fun to come up with the visual strategy of the movie. The movie we watched to reference for this movie were everything from John Huston movies to Michael Bay movies. The visual language was pretty eclectic. That was the other thing that was really fun about this movie. It starts as this almost Apatowian relationship comedy and turns into a kidnapping movie and then turns into an adventure movie.

WLE: Was the tapeworm a complicated visual effect?

Jonathan Levine: The only thing that was complicated about it, from my perspective, since I wasn’t roto’ing anything, was figuring out what it should look like. So we had a few different takes on the tapeworm. Paul Feig, our producer, was urging us to explore a really big tapeworm, for example. Then we explored a tiny tapeworm and then we explored a tapeworm that had no face and then a little. We tried so many different things to get it right. What we ended up landing on was this amalgam of fantasy and reality. That was the tone we landed on I think for the movie in its entirety. It had to be grounded enough to not feel completely ridiculous, but heightened enough to be both funny and give you that adventurous exhilaration. I think for the visual effects team it was tricky because they had to keep trying and we had to keep testing it over and over again. It’s very labor intensive to keep messing with that stuff.

WLE: I’m sure martial arts cross borders but do they actually do capoeira in Ecuador?

Jonathan Levine: I am sure they do capoeira in Ecuador although it is not the actual homeland of capoeira. The other thing is I don’t think there’s a secret tree bar anywhere in Ecuador either. We were trying to find things that were sort of based enough in what reality could be and then just magnifying them in a fantastic way. I’m sure there are people who do capoeira in Ecuador. Have you spent time there?

WLE: I actually did visit Ecuador once but I only know about capoeira from Only the Strong.

Jonathan Levine: What’s Only the Strong?

WLE: Oh, it was supposed to be The Karate Kid for capoeira.

Jonathan Levine: Oh, here they are doing it. Whoa. These guys are good. These guys are hardcore. We’re bringing it back. I fell out of that genre right after ninja movies. Did you watch ninja movies?

WLE: That might’ve been a little before my time, like the Cannon Enter the Ninja/Revenge of the Ninja movies?

Jonathan Levine: Ninja III: The Domination is a movie I highly recommend.

WLE: That’s been in my queue. I love the crazy premise that she’s possessed by a ninja spirit.

Jonathan Levine: It’s super awesome, although I haven’t seen it in 20 years but I assume it’s still just as awesome. What about an Amy Schumer/Goldie Hawn ninja movie? Sorry, we’re off the rails.

WLE: I’d be up for that. I happen to have seen the first two episodes of I’m Dying Up Here also. Were you obsessed with or nostalgic for that era of ‘70s standup comedy?

Jonathan Levine: 100%, man. I was so excited to see that it even existed. When I started talking to them, I don’t think they were interested in me directing it because they thought I had any specific affinity for that stuff, but I am a huge fan of standup. My friends and I used to rent VHSes of Evening at the Improv and all the old comedians. I’m also a huge ‘70s acolyte, ‘70s movies and ‘70s music. It was such an amazing opportunity to explore that world. Of course, tonally it’s the exact type of thing I like to do which is funny people in dramatic situations. It was fun not only recreating the time but also just the tone of it was something I was super, super into. Not only did I get to go to Comedy Store and watch current comedians and feel the ghosts of that place, but I just poured over old standup extensively and went down that rabbit hole. It’s really interesting because it’s groundbreaking but it’s by today’s standards not that funny. I was surprised at who I found funny. I found Robin Williams’ standup to be revolutionary but he honed it in later years. His ‘70s standup was just crazy and totally different. I think Freddie Prinze was super funny. George Carlin obviously was super funny. It was just an amazing opportunity to explore that world. I’m so happy with not just the pilot but I’ve seen a few of them now and I’m really happy with the way they followed it up.

WLE: Did you have to make some tough calls when there’s funny standup but you had to focus on the story and setting up the premise of the show?

Jonathan Levine: The real tricky thing about that show was that there are like 1000 characters. That was trickier than the standup. It was really just about making that feel cohesive and making that rhythm feel smooth. That show is also doing some very aggressive things as far as switching points of view and taking some great bold risks with the characters it’s aligning with. What was really fun was being able to take the language of not just ‘70s cinema but Scorsese and P.T. Anderson and kind of go nuts visually. And Oliver Stone we ripped off and then we ripped off Cassavetes and a movie called Alex in Wonderland with Donald Sutherland. Mazursky was doing this very L.A. right in the era. As far as looking for the Sunset Strip and that world in the same time that we were shooting is a real time capsule, that movie.

WLE: What are you doing next?

Jonathan Levine: I’m doing a movie called Flarsky, it may not continue to be called that, with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron. We start shooting it in a couple months. It’s a script by Dan Sterling who wrote The Interview. It’s such a funny script and a very romantic movie as well.