While visiting the set of The Night Before at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn back in September, we got to have dinner with director Jonathan Levine and talk about his experience making the movie. There’s humor to The Wackness, 50/50 and Warm Bodies, but The Night Before marks the very first time that Levine’s top priority is to ensure he’s putting together a crowd-pleaser.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie as three long-time friends who have an annual Christmas Eve reunion. However, now, Rogen’s character is starting a family and Mackie’s is a big football star so this is going to be the very last time that they have their holiday get-together, and Gordon-Levitt’s character isn’t happy about it. Check out what Levine told us about embracing Christmas tropes, the more magical elements of the movie, why the dialogue changed so drastically from script to screen and so much more in the on-set roundtable interview below.
The Night Before is due in theaters on November 25th. In case you missed it, you can check out the trailer below:
Question: So what made you want to do a Christmas movie?
JONATHAN LEVINE: You know, this is actually something that I used to do with my friends growing up here, myself being Jewish, other friends who either really didn’t like their families or who didn’t have families for some reason. I would go out with them on Christmas because when we were in college, it was a time when everyone was back from college and it was a time when you could kind of reunite with people, and we always found ourselves getting into weird situations and it just seemed like a very kind of fertile thing to explore for a one crazy night movie on Christmas.
The other cool thing about Christmas movies, and I really love Christmas movies in general, is I always liked taking a genre and then being able to do things within the genre but having that shorthand with the audience of the genre. So Christmas genre, you can explore, you can totally f*ck with it a little bit. It can be bittersweet, it can be kind of sad sometimes, but it always ends up being happy. You can do more complicated things when you’re working within a genre like that that is, in the macro, a crowd-pleasing genre.
And I guess, just from having done it, I had a personal kind of reason for doing it and also, for me, it’s always just fun to explore style within certain genres and stuff like that. I always really loved Christmas movies, so for this I watched Home Alone, I watched Eyes Wide Shut. It’s just crazy how many different, awesome – like, Eyes Wide Shut, you would not think of as a Christmas movie, nor would you think of it as a tonal reference for a movie like this, but when I’m doing something, I always like to just grab from different places and there are so many different, cool Christmas movies and they all have something. The uniqueness of it is it’s like a time of existential exploration. I know this is a long answer, but the other cool thing about it is, for me, in a movie about growing up, about adults and friends, how do you grow up with your friends, these are themes we’re exploring. What does it mean to grow up? How do you grow up with your friends, your young friends who may not want you to change or think the dynamic might be different when one gets successful and the other one is not successful, and to me the allegory of Christmas and childhood and leaving childhood behind was very salient for telling this story, so I thought it was kind of semi-smart in that way too.
How does the iconography of the Christmas holiday affect the shorthand of the film?
LEVINE: Well, it’s really fun first of all because Christmas lights are beautiful and having been here, basically shooting in August, we’re gonna come back in January and shoot Rockefeller Center and all sorts of other bigger things that we can get, but it’s really nice to have that shorthand with the audience. It’s like having Christmas lights in any shot just kind of makes you feel warm and makes you feel nostalgic. And it’s not just like visual shorthand. It’s a tonal shorthand too. There’s so many movies where you can be funny, but you can be introspective too. But visually, honestly Eyes Wide Shut is a huge reference for us. Home Alone was a huge reference for us. Home Alone 2, I mean, Lost in New York. Die Hard was a reference for us. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s kind of amazing. Even though we’re here in August, you put a f*cking Christmas tree with Christmas lights in a shot and a little snow on the ground and you just buy it, you know?
These guys are trying to make it to the Nutcracka Ball. What makes it so special?
LEVINE: Well, it is their kind of white whale. It’s like they don’t really know why it’s so awesome, but it’s like you know when you can’t get into something and you just want to get into it that much more? It’s so difficult to get into and it’s just this stuff of legend. In the beginning we have a poem that starts the movie and they see these people who are the most happy people in the world leaving this party and they tell the story of the party, which is just this extraordinarily, almost impossible thing to live up to. Everyone’s f*cking. Everyone’s doing drugs. It’s kind of like beyond words how great this thing is.
A unicorn, basically.
LEVINE: Exactly, and they’ve never seen it. They’re searched for it for years and years. That’s the other great thing about Christmas movies is you can be fanciful. Even though the movie’s grounded, there are magical elements to it that fit right into it because it is a Christmas movie. So, the reason they want to go to the party is because they think it’s gonna be the greatest party ever, but they also, through the course of the night, all think it’s gonna solve all of their problems, and the party becomes sort of, I’m not gonna say it’s a false goal, but it’s not everything they were hoping it would be. But it is a legendary party and the way to get into it, it’s like a scavenger hunt. We have a lot of fun with how they get to the party. It’s like you have to call a number and then you have to go to a location and then you have to – it becomes almost an adventure movie as they’re trying to get to this party.
What have you gotten to do on this movie that you haven’t done on your other movies?
LEVINE: The biggest thing is just like, only care about pleasing the crowd, you know? A Christmas movie, its final goal is to make people happy and so it’s incredibly liberating just to want to make people happy. You don’t have to do anything that’s particularly sophisticated. Even though there’s a kind of undercurrent of melancholy to it, we get to do these huge musical sequences and big action sequences and they don’t need to be smart, they just need to be funny and they need to make people smile, and so that for me is so fun. You saw kind of a little bit of it where the guys go to a karaoke bar and rap “Christmas in Hollis” and it’s like this choreographed rap sequence that they’ve been doing for years as part of their Christmas tradition and it’s just like, you have these three guys in their Christmas sweaters, one of them is tripping on mushrooms, they do a choreographed dance to “Christmas in Hollis,” it’s just so fun. It’s just unimaginably fun and for me, you know, after having done 50/50, which is a movie that was such a great experience and obviously brought me to these guys, but, you know, it’s complicated. It’s a complicated movie. It’s a complicated balancing act. And then Warm Bodies was an even more complicated balancing act. And this is really, it’s just been such a blast because all we have to do is make people smile and care for these guys and laugh and be happy. We want people to leave being happy, which is how you would leave a holiday movie.
Everybody celebrates Christmas in their own way. Did you feel the need to cram every tradition in there?
LEVINE: I mean, not the need but the point is this is a movie for sort of the disenfranchised people of Christmas. I’m Jewish, but I f*cking like Christmas way more than Hanukkah. There’s so much cool stuff about Christmas. And Joe’s character is an orphan, you know, and when I was going out on Christmas, there’s sort of this secret society of people who aren’t like, I don’t know – I don’t know who has the family in Bing Crosby movies or whatever, but I don’t think anyone has that these days and to me, that’s a very cool way to approach a holiday movie, sort of an anti-holiday movie that then turns into a holiday movie.
Anti as in unexpected and not cynical?
LEVINE: It’s not cynical. I don’t think. I think we might trick people into thinking it’s cynical for a few minutes here or there, but no, it is not cynical at all, I don’t think.
Up until now, all of your movies have been a progression of getting bigger and bigger. Warm Bodies was obviously your biggest movie but this is a slightly smaller, more character driven film. Was that a deliberate choice?
LEVINE: This one’s pretty big, in scope, yeah. It’s pretty big in scope. Hopefully it feels character driven, but it is aiming to be like a mainstream comedy, but it’s more grounded I guess than Warm Bodies.
After Warm Bodies you could have gone either way. You could have gone in a more comedic direction, you could have done a huge $100 million dollar movie.
LEVINE: Right. I think after Warm Bodies I had – I really loved working with Joe and Seth and all these guys, Evan, James, everyone. So, no matter what I did, I wanted to do that next and it was like, the idea sort of started with me and then we all kind of collaborated and turned it into something, and I think that what I love about their movies is they do feel intimate even though they can be kind of big and with this one, it’s just hard to turn down the opportunity to do a thing that’s your idea with the only people you want to work with in the world. So that was sort of how the decision came about. I did turn down bigger things – things that just would have made me money and probably made money themselves and I still will probably do something like that someday, but for me, at this point, it’s really, really fun to be able to work with these guys. I think, you know, what they bring to what I do is just incredible to have that support system and I think that I bring a certain thing that they don’t always do. It’s just like, you meet people who you want to work with and you just kind of …
… strike while the iron’s hot.
LEVINE: Yeah. It’s not even that. I would make 10 more with these guys and so, yeah, I don’t know. I guess at this point I didn’t feel the need to go do a huge movie like that. They’re so long, man. [Laughs] They just seem like they’re so long. I don’t know. How could you be interested in someone flying around for so f*cking long, or something like that? I love shooting the action. We just shot a giant action sequence and it was awesome. So, who knows? Maybe someday, but this is like, when you have an opportunity to do something that is such a part of your heart and a part of yourself and then you get to bring in some of the greatest actors in the world and the two preeminent comedic minds of our generation, I don’t know how the f*ck I wouldn’t do that.
How dark does the story get? Is it all uplifting or are there points where there’s real tension?
LEVINE: I mean, dark maybe is the wrong word. It gets f*cked up. There’s definitely edgy shit, but I think tonally it should always feel kind of, not lighthearted because it’s about real stuff, but it’s not particularly …
It’s not like Bad Santa?
LEVINE: It’s not like Bad Santa – no, it goes as far as Bad Santa. It goes further than Bad Santa, but Bad Santa, it’s very different because tonally Bad Santa is about, look at how messed up this guy is. It’s about pushing the envelope. And I think in Bad Santa they redeem him I guess at the end, but our movie, the through-line is less f*cked up. It’s just kind of crazy things happen, but our movie I think always probably maintains a positive sort of – it should aways feel upbeat and uplifting. It never gets down and dark in that way, I don’t think.
Some of Bad Santa even has a moral core to it. It’s about the commercialization of Christmas. Does this have an overarching theme to it?
LEVINE: In the broadest strokes it’s about, how can you grow older with your friends? Do you have to leave your childhood behind? And Christmas is your childhood. And so, no, it doesn’t have a thesis in that way, and it doesn’t really address holiday commercialization or stuff like that.
It’s definitely relatable though.
Does this cover all three main things of being in our 30s – friends having kids and settling down, friends who are successful and friends who are lost?
LEVINE: Yeah, and the guy who sort of hasn’t made it and starts off kind of in the dark and then is kind of evaluating where he’s at. But yeah, I think in that way it should be relatable, but to me that’s what it’s about. The holidays are the backdrop for this sort of nostalgic night.
We know there’s a couple of illusions in the film. We saw the flash dance …
LEVINE: Yeah, that’s a sort of dream sequence.
Can you tell us about any more?
LEVINE: Basically the other thing about Christmas tropes is you have magical elements and so working within that and working within – we’re constantly working within the tropes and also trying to subvert them at the same time, so I was saying that we have, like Michael Shannon plays a drug dealer who is kind of the Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life of our movie, and he sells them weed that we have, the weed of Christmas past, weed of Christmas present, weed of Christmas future, and it may or may not be magical. We kind of do it in a way that you don’t quite know, but he is so funny, man. He is f*cking hilarious. He’s great. And that was in the Seth sequence. He’s in that. I’m trying to think of what other magical stuff.
How did you come to Michael Shannon, because he’s not typically thought of for comedy?
LEVINE: I think that’s why we kind of liked him though. He did that little thing where he read that sorority girl letter.
LEVINE: And honestly, it works better with a dramatic actor who. Shannon understands what’s funny about his own persona. But we didn’t want for that role just a guy who was gonna – sometimes you want a guy who’s gonna add jokes. We wanted that role to kind of be sort of a straight kind of thing and the humor was from how straight he took it, not unlike Scrooged or something like that.
Or Gene Wilder.
LEVINE: Yeah, or Gene Wilder, but you would never think of Shannon as a Gene Wilder character.
I think I heard somewhere that he does have some background with the Largo scene in LA. He tried stand-up comedy at some point.
LEVINE: Yeah, he’s so funny. When I met him I had to tell myself, ‘I’m not gonna care if this dude likes me or not, because he always seems like he hates everyone.’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘I’m not going to worry about it.’ He’s incredibly professional and he’s amazing because, you know, with this movie, we’re constantly rewriting, we’re even rewriting in the midst of the scenes, so I can run up to him and give him a one page monologue and he’ll be like, ‘Okay, I got it,’ and I’ll walk away and he’ll say it like word perfect. He is so funny in this movie. It’s just super fun. We got very lucky to get him.
What are you shooting on?
LEVINE: We’re shooting on the Alexa. We’re shooting on video.
Yeah, the color we just saw …
LEVINE: Yeah, well, Brandon [Trost], this is my first time working with him, but he shot This is the End, The Interview and Neighbors for those guys and basically our main visual reference is Eyes Wide Shut and a little bit of Bringing out the Dead, and so he’s using this hard top light like Robert Richardson in the 90s and also he has these lenses that are like, they shot Poltergeist on the lenses. For me, this is my first movie that I’ve shot not on film. Somewhere between Warm Bodies and now, if I had suggested film people would have been like, ‘That’s insane. You can’t.’ And I was a staunch advocate of film, but shooting with Brandon and shooting with these lenses, it really kind of gives it a more analog feel than traditional video and I think it’s gonna look really cool. It should be like, there’s a bit of a psychedelic aspect to it too, and it should have that and I think with all the lights and the way we’re doing it, it should feel that way.
And he’s a director too, right?
LEVINE: Yeah, he directed a movie that I haven’t seen, but Seth and Evan assured me it’s awesome.
The FP is great.
LEVINE: It’s cool?
It’s bizarre and mesmerizing.
LEVINE: He’s incredible. He’s so technically adept and he also understands comedy. It’s been a great collaboration. He’s very, very proactive and really easy to work with and just like, cool as a cucumber man, never freaks out. He’s like 32, 33, and he’s shot like 30 movies. I don’t even understand it.
Is it different working with a DP who has also directed before?
LEVINE: It’s not just him, dude. Since I last worked with Seth and Evan and Joe, they all directed their own movies. It’s pretty awesome. It’s great because it allows me to focus on what I want to focus on knowing that there’s eight different sets of eyes that are gonna get my back if I miss something. So that aspect of it is really good. It’s a constant like, I just have to reaffirm in my own brain like, ‘I’m the guy,’ you know? So ego-wise, it’s a little bit of like, I just have to sort of keep reinforcing the fact that this is my movie even though – and that’s the only hard thing about collaborating is when you get a little just in your own head about it, and it rarely happens and these guys are so deferential.
They’ve been there before.
LEVINE: Exactly, but that’s not to say that there’s not a day or two where I get a little shook that there are so many people around who know what the f*ck they’re doing. The products may not be as good, but it’s a lot easier mentally to be like, ‘I’m the f*cking man,’ and, ‘This decision is this decision.’ But, the part of what makes their movies so great is the rigor with which they approach every scene and all of the material and it’s like nothing is ever good enough. It has to keep getting better and better and better, and they don’t settle for anything and I really appreciate that.
Talk a little bit about the evolution of the scene we saw today with the piano. That’s almost like a trailer moment, and you guys went through it again and again and again.
LEVINE: But that was actually pretty mellow as far as – we basically did that sort of by the book and then we just tried some variations, like we had Mackie riding a horse, we had Mackie not riding a horse, but for the musical stuff, there are a lot of musical numbers in the movie actually. There’s like four big musical sequences which I should have said that’s partially why I love holiday movies because they’re so music driven. Joe’s character is a musician. No, there’s probably six musical pieces.
Basically, what you saw, that goes into – so they’re playing the Kanye and then that goes into that montage you saw of them walking into the Chinese restaurant. That was actually fairly straightforward. What generally happens is, when we’re doing a dialogue scene where we need a lot of jokes, it’ll be like Seth, Evan, Kyle and Ariel, who I don’t know if you guys met, they’re the executive producers, but Kyle and Ariel are sort of their proteges, friends of theirs from Canada and they’re going to direct a movie I think next year. You’ll know about them soon. They’re incredibly funny and just super awesome guys.
What we have is, every producer has a yellow pad on his chair and they just write alt jokes for me or sometimes little try this, try that, and I’ll get like 20 per scene and then I’ll throw out whichever ones I don’t like and the ones I do like I’ll pass on to the actors, but it’s a great process because, first of all, it’s incredibly respectful and it’s like very sort of on the DL. It’s like, I’m the filtration system, but it’s also like a great way to help get scenes better and better and better, and keep getting better and better jokes, so that’s usually what happens. It’s pretty crazy.
We haven’t done that today because it wasn’t a very dialogue driven scene, but yesterday we did it and the scene changed 100%. I would say of the script that was written, that was basically me, Evan, Kyle and Ariel all wrote it together in Seth’s house, so he was pretty involved as well, I would say 10% of the dialogue is what was written. The big set pieces and the big structural things are all the same, but dialogue wise it keeps changing and evolving, and it’s great because it just makes it feel more naturalistic, too. It feels really real the way it happens.
Did you guys go to the set of Neighbors or any of their other movies? It’s like a process they hone. We didn’t do it on 50/50 so much. On 50/50, they would just come up and whispered stuff to me, but 50/50 was also Will’s story, so you can’t be like, ‘What if he doesn’t have cancer?’ [Laughs] There’s not much you can change about it. So it was a process they’ve sort of honed over the last three movies and it works really, really well.
I’ve heard stories about how on Adam McKay’s movies, they’ll spend eight hours on a one-minute dialogue.
LEVINE: Yeah, yeah.
It’s interesting though, notes seems like a good way.
LEVINE: It’s a great system and for me, if I were spending eight hours on a two-minute scene, I can’t f*cking do it. And for me, it’s like what I really like about comedy and what I really like about working with these guys is that we can do a little bit of that and we can do a little bit of stuff that’s more cinematic, music-driven, stylized. It allows me to sort of have both things, but yeah, I mean, I love Anchorman, I love Anchorman 2, so I get it. It’s just, if we had infinite time I would do that and I guess those guys have bigger budgets than we do, but I would always edge toward like 60/40 jokes versus hard cinema style.
Do you have a soundtrack preview for us?
LEVINE: I think it’s a lot of Christmas music. Obviously that Kanye song is in it. When I came up with the idea for the movie, I think I was watching a 30 Rock Christmas episode. All these TV shows, The Office, the British Office, great Christmas episode and with Christmas movies and then Christmas music, you have younger bands covering the old Christmas songs or you have people writing new Christmas songs, and with Christmas movies there aren’t that many for new generations so there will be some of that hipster Christmas music. There will probably be cool juxtapositions of like Bing Crosby playing behind something modern.
Mumford and Sons doing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
LEVINE: Right, right. Wait, who does it?
I made it up. I don’t know.
LEVINE: Oh, oh! But like, The Muppets doing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is pretty good. There’s a bunch.
Is there any original music in the movie?
LEVINE: Not now. I have an idea that I’d like to try to get people to cover Christmas songs, but I don’t know how that works. It’s probably really expensive, I don’t know. But no, there’s no original music as of now, but I want a score that’s a very either Home Alone or Willy Wonka or something like that score. Christmas movies are bigger than life so you can have like, it’s not cynical, but it’s kind of an ironic score, like we put a lot of Willy Wonka music in our temp cut. It’s cool. Willy Wonka is one of my favorite movies so it’s great to be able to work in the same tonal palette as stuff like that.
It’s interesting that you seem to be addressing Christmas movies from a place of creative family versus a family you’re born into.
LEVINE: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s for people who aren’t served by the traditional Christmas movie or the traditional family structure and it’s like about your friends being your family to a certain extent because as much as I love my family, I’m not as close to them as I am to my friends, you know?
Tell us about the supporting cast.
LEVINE: Yeah, well, we have Shannon who’s amazing, Lizzy Caplan who is one of my favorite people in the world who plays Joe’s character’s ex-girlfriend. We have Jillian Bell who was in 22 Jump Street and is on Workaholics. We have these incredibly funny women which is really great because I think so often these movies can just become testosterone driven, dick joke driven. And we have plenty of dick jokes. We probably have more dick jokes than most dick joke movies. We have the most dick jokes of any Christmas movie, I think, safe to say. And the most dicks on screen, by far.
LEVINE: She’s like Jay Z, dude. She’s the best. She’s the only person I’ve ever seen in a scene with Seth where he kept cracking, he broke so many times.
For more of my The Night Before set visit coverage, browse the links below:
- ‘The Night Before’ Set Visit Interview: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie
- ‘The Night Before’: 23 Things to Know About the Nutcracka Ball, Magical Weed and More