Back in September 2014 I got the opportunity to visit the set of Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before while they were shooting at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie as Ethan, Isaac and Chris, three high school buddies who have an annual Christmas Eve reunion. They’re sticking to it this year, but now that they’re adults with families and careers, it looks like the tradition is coming to an end so they set out to make the night as memorable as they possibly can.
After watching the trio shoot the piano scene featured in the trailer, I got the chance to take part in a roundtable discussion with Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie to talk about their characters, the impressive supporting cast, embracing holiday tropes and traditions, the especially easygoing, friendly vibe on set, and much more. You can read about it all in this interview. The Night Before is due in theaters on November 25th. In case you missed it, you can check out the trailer below:
Question: What brought you guys to this project?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Levine started it.
SETH ROGEN: Yeah. He came to me and Evan as producers and said he had an idea for a Christmas movie and we thought, ‘That’s weird,’ [laughs] and then he explained kind of his vision and reminded us of all the Christmas movies we loved growing up and all of the nostalgia you get to play with and the fact that there kind of is a void when it comes to, you know, Christmas movies aimed at our generation and just generally being the type of movie that people like us would be excited to go see. So that’s where it all started, with Levine’s idea, and then we asked Joe if he would be in it, basically. This was around – did you fly to Vancouver again while we were shooting The Interview? Is that when we all talked about it?
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. There’s a pattern with us.
ROGEN: It always involved Joe flying to Vancouver, and we convince him to be in our movies. [Laughs]
Can you guys explain who the characters are and what their arc is in the story?
GORDON-LEVITT: Sure, well they’re three buddies who have been friends since high school and have this tradition to have a big night out on Christmas Eve that’s sort of rooted in – I don’t know. How much specifics are we revealing?
ROGEN: You can be specific. Just answer the questions. Don’t worry! As far as the story, you guys can explain it, yeah. People don’t go see our movies for surprises. [Laughs]
GORDON-LEVITT: I like the root of it though because it’s not just three guys going out simply for kicks. There’s a cool origin story to their tradition of going out every Christmas Eve. My character, Ethan, sort of has a family tragedy where he loses both of his parents near Christmas 10 years prior and so he’s alone on Christmas and his two best friends come and kind of say, ‘Hey, let’s hang out. We don’t want you to be alone on Christmas,’ and that inadvertently begins a yearly tradition of a big night out on Christmas and now it’s 10 years later and they’ve been doing this every year.
ROGEN: And it’s ending.
GORDON-LEVITT: And it’s ending because one’s about to have a baby, one has become very successful in his career as a professional football player, and one doesn’t want it to end.
ROGEN: So it’s rooted in real emotion and a lot of the stuff you find in these Christmas-type movies was honestly where a lot of the ideas came from. It was just like, ‘Are we fully gonna embrace the idea of like an orphan and all of this stuff?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s a Christmas movie. Let’s do it as well as we can,’ you know? And let’s just get away with a lot of ridiculous stuff because yeah, there’s a real actual emotional core to it.
When you’re doing a Christmas movie you want it to have an evergreen quality so you can show it year after year. Does that limit you in terms of pop culture references?
ROGEN: No. We just do it. [Laughs] I think generally, I mean, we try not to use references that have like a minuscule shelf life, but a lot of our humor is based on acknowledging the world we live in and commenting on it.
GORDON-LEVITT: But a lot of the most timeless movies have very topical …
ROGEN: It’s true! Like Woody Allen. I mean, Annie Hall has more pop culture references for that time than a lot of movies so I think if they’re done well and they’re funny – I remember, I didn’t even know who the author was who he brought out when I was a kid, but you can just tell it’s funny.
I guess you guys are pretty f*cked up on the drugs you’ve taken throughout the film …
GORDON-LEVITT: Just him.
ROGEN: Just me. It’s only me. I’m the only one on drugs.
ROGEN: It gets weird, yeah. There’s some stylistically surreal moments, I would say, here and there.
GORDON-LEVITT: What I like is that it’s not just a comedy of people talking and saying funny things. It’s really visual and a feast for the eyes as well.
ROGEN: There’s a lot of music in it and stuff like that.
Is there a lot of visual comedy, pratfalls and so on?
ROGEN: I wouldn’t say pratfalls, per se, but yeah, there’s fighting, there’s chasing, there’s car chases.
GORDON-LEVITT: There are psychedelic sequences.
ROGEN: There are lots of psychedelic sequences.
GORDON-LEVITT: There’s magic. There’s music. It’s Christmas.
ROGEN: Anthony Mackie’s a Marvel star. [Laughs] You can’t not use that.
How does your physicality come into the comedy of this?
ROGEN: You’ll see in an hour.
ANTHONY MACKIE: [Laughs] I’m more of a love machine than anything because I’m an athlete and basically my character has been an athlete for almost 15 years now, but he’s finally found fame, so he’s really into being famous, which if you go out in New York, you see a lot of these guys. Like, ‘Oh my god, I finally …’ He’s very bottled up in the idea of, ‘I’m famous now so I’m gonna use it for everything I can,’ so he’s just a fame whore.
Is his Christmas story arc about learning what to value and what not to value?
MACKIE: Sort of. Sort of. That’s a pretty …
ROGEN: Everyone’s is. That’s kind of everyone’s arc in every movie. [Laughs]
Do you guys have any personal Christmas traditions?
ROGEN: Chinese food is a big personal Christmas tradition, which we do in this movie. Go see movies. That’s not interesting to see characters in a movie do but …
No Hanukkah bush?
ROGEN: Yeah, we don’t do that. See, come on, it’s pandering.
He’s judging your traditions.
ROGEN: I am. I’m judging your tradition.
MACKIE: ‘I want Santa Claus to come so bad. I’ll make a bush.’
ROGEN: How did you know? [Laughs]
How does that play in? Does your character feel isolated or resentful towards the holiday?
ROGEN: No, not really. I think like most Jews in their 30s, my character’s kind of benign towards it at this point and just acknowledges that to some people it’s a big deal. I think he views it through the lens of our tradition with one another, and my guy is about to have a kid. And my wife is not Jewish in the movie. Jillian Bell plays my wife so that’s kind of an element as well is that, we’re gonna start our own family tradition in the coming years basically.
Does that cause some friction?
ROGEN: There’s some friction. It’s not a huge thing. It’s not a giant element in it, but yeah, at the beginning there’s a scene where I’m explaining to her two Christian nieces what a Jew is.
It’s good to have on record.
ROGEN: [Laughs] Exactly. Just for the world, it’s good to put that out there.
GORDON-LEVITT: And having to define inbreeding.
ROGEN: Inbreeding, why we all look the same, the curly hair, explaining and reading and all that stuff.
GORDON-LEVITT: I don’t have curly hair.
Can you guys talk about the amount of improv you do in every scene?
MACKIE: I think it’s a 50/50. It’s one of those things I feel where, we do it pretty close to the script and then we kind of venture off and just find different ideas once we get into it. I think the more we explore on camera, the more we find and the more we just play with each other and find different things in different characters.
ROGEN: Yeah, and then meanwhile, the guys, Evan and Kyle [Hunter] and Ariel [Shaffir], are writing alt jokes and stuff and constantly feeding us with stuff, so it’s not like we just have to keep coming up with one liners and stuff like that. There’s many comedy writers on set providing them for us.
How has making a Christmas movie been different from any of the other genres you guys have tackled?
ROGEN: It’s interesting. When we were getting into the writing of it a lot, you realize there’s just a lot of expectation with a Christmas movie. We’d give it to our friends to read or writers and stuff and they’d go, ‘Oh, you guys didn’t do this thing. It’s a Christmas movie! Where’s this thing? Where’s this thing?’ And just kind of like the tropes, and I think at first we were shying away from them a little bit and not fully embracing like, it’s a f*cking Christmas movie, and so I think the more we embraced that and just let ourselves become one with that and embraced the fact that there’s things you do in a Christmas movie that you might not normally do. Like, you’re kind of given permission, no pun intended, to wrap things up in a package that maybe you wouldn’t normally be given permission to do. I think the audience is a lot more receptive to it. It’s the holidays. You want to leave them with a nice, warm emotional feeling that generally our movies don’t have a ton of, you know? That was something that we talked a lot about was like, how do you make this not only a movie that has all the humor you’d expect from one of our movies but something that really checks the boxes of a Christmas movie? Like something you emotionally want to dive into year after year, and you liked the way it made you feel basically.
How about shooting the scene you’re working on today? That piano works so I assume you need to actually practice the notes?
ROGEN: A little bit. They put tape on the piano to show us which order to do it in, but there’s a few other musical performances and stuff like that. Again, it’s a big show. We want it to be a fun experience all the way through.
GORDON-LEVITT: There’s a lot of music in this movie. There’s about as much music as you could have without it being a musical.
ROGEN: There are several kind of musical performance sequences throughout.
GORDON-LEVITT: Which is awesome, and people get together and play music together on the holidays.
Are there any big choreographed dance pieces?
MACKIE: It’s Christmas. If The Muppets can have choreography …
I like that your response to that was, it’s Christmas.
ROGEN: Well, that’s what you start to get into. You’re like, it’s a Christmas movie and I guess we need a choreographed dance sequence somewhere.
How’s it working with Jonathan on this compared to past films? I imagine the humor in this is a lot bigger so does that change his process at all?
ROGEN: Not really, honestly.
GORDON-LEVITT: I think that’s the strength of this movie, that it is rooted in a sincerity that you would also find in 50/50. Obviously this movie is very different from 50/50 just by virtue of the subject matter, one being about a dude surviving cancer and the other being about three guys having fun on Christmas. Those are two very different subject matters, but I think that Jon always keeps an eye on things staying viable, staying sincere, not getting too far away into the realm of just jokes for jokes’ sake and always keeping like, ‘Okay, these still feel like human beings with real cores to them,’ and that, as an actor, makes it more fun for me and I think as an audience kind of makes it more engaging.
ROGEN: There’s a scene we were shooting the other day where me and [Evan] were just like, ‘We would never put this scene in one of our movies.’ [Laughs] He’s willing to have an emotional earnestness that I think as people who explicitly grew up in comedy, we shy away from, you know? But he has made full on romantic movies, movies with very little comedy, movies that are built on that type of thing and it’s great to work with people who do that because we don’t always do that.
You guys also have an incredible supporting cast. We were talking a little about Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan is in this. Can you guys talk a little about them?
ROGEN: Oh, they’re all so funny. It’s been awesome. Neighbors was the first movie we really did where we were just like, ‘What if we filled every single tiny role with the funniest person we could possibly find?’ And this movie had a lot of really funny female roles and we know a lot of really funny women and it was awesome to fill the roles with them. And they’re great. They really drive the comedy in those scenes. Lizzy, she’s awesome.
GORDON-LEVITT: Lizzy is so smart and so good at your guys’ style of comedy. She’s so quick at thinking on her feet and coming up with funny things that surprised me while it’s happening, and that’s kind of at the root of this style of comedy. She’s so good at it.
ROGEN: We started together. I think the first time Lizzy ever acted on camera was in a scene with me and Franco on Freaks and Geeks, 15 years ago, which is horrible. But yeah, I mean, and Mindy, again, I’ve know for years and years and years, and she’s hysterical in the movie. Ilana [Glazer] is somebody we met more recently but we’re working with them also on some other stuff and so …
You mean her and Abbi [Jacobson]?
ROGEN: Yeah. Only Ilana is in the movie, but yeah, we’re working with both of them on some other stuff. But yeah, Mackie has a lot of stuff with Ilana.
MACKIE: Yeah, Ilana’s mine.
ROGEN: [Laughs] He can get proprietary.
MACKIE: She’s great though. She has a ridiculousness about her that you don’t find in many adults that kind of makes it fun and I think she does it with such an ease and she has the ability of making it just seem like natural behavior, you know? And that’s what makes it so unique to me. It’s like anybody else would do it and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re being stupid!’ And you see her and it’s like, ‘Oh, you really act like that.’ It just makes it fun. It makes you want to go further as an actor.
ROGEN: And Jillian too is like, she destroys me. I have a hard time. I wasted several good hours of a scene we were shooting a couple weeks ago because I couldn’t stop laughing.
You two guys obviously worked together before, but Anthony, this is your first jaunt with them. You’re all supposed to be long-time friends. How do you develop that camaraderie?
ROGEN: We went to one dinner.
MACKIE: We went to dinner and we were sitting in like a rape cave and …
Did you say rape cave?
MACKIE: It was really weird, in a basement. But, they picked it, so, you know, you gotta go. It was dope. It’s interesting. I mean, I feel like both of them are really – everybody on this set is just really easy going. There’s no egos or ridiculousness, which you usually don’t find when you have stars on set. Usually everybody’s like, ‘Well, my trailer’s bigger,’ or, ‘My girlfriend’s gonna come today,’ or, ‘Why is he getting that,’ you know? And you don’t really find that on this set. I feel like even in the movie, the three of us are so vastly different, one by one, that it kind of works really well together, so there hasn’t been any stupidness or conflicts.
ROGEN: And we seem like friends! We are getting along, but when you watch us in the movie, that was something we were very aware of is like, will we seem like guys who’ve been friends for 20 years? And I remember the first day of filming we were like, yes.
MACKIE: And I’ve always known – I met Joe once. I’ve always known his work and I’ve always liked him from afar. Like, you see somebody and you’re like, ‘I like that guy.’ And when I auditioned with Seth and everybody – I’ve auditioned twice in like six years and I love auditioning but, you know, people are like, ‘You don’t audition anymore.’ It’s like, ‘F*ck, all right.’ It’s like dating. So I go in the room and I’m like, ‘All right, it’s Seth. Just play it cool, be yourself.’ So, I walk in and they’re like, ‘Hey!’ And it’s the four of them and they’re making noise and the office is in chaos, and they’re trying to decide if they saw the couch before and I’m like, ‘What the f*ck is going on,?’ And at that point it was like everything was all good because I saw they weren’t assholes.
It’s going to be good for people to see this comedic side of you. Can you talk a little bit about some of your comedic influences and things like that?
MACKIE: You know, I have a very comedic family. My family is pretty ridiculous in every aspect of the word ridiculous that you can think of it being used. I’ve always liked to have fun. I’ve always joked with my friends. We all make fun of each other and we just have fun. I don’t take stuff too seriously so it’s kind of second nature to me and when people take stuff seriously, I make fun of them for taking stuff seriously. So, you know, it’s kind of second nature. It’s horrifying. Every day coming on set is horrifying. I would much rather have had two scenes in this movie than a part, you know? But it’s been fun.
How about keeping the energy up? It seems like a condensed amount of time to be filming such a big Christmas movie. How do you keep it up?
ROGEN: You just do it, I guess. I mean, that’s what acting is, really. It’s a physical thing you have to maintain. It’s like any other physical activity, I guess. It’s obviously not as strenuous as playing basketball, but it’s a similar thing in that you’ve just gotta keep doing it, maintaining the energy and you play off each other. They have a lot of energy. Mackie has tons of energy. Levine has a lot of energy. He gets very excited. And when what you’re doing feels genuinely good, then it’s exciting and it makes it way easier. And because we do it differently a little bit every time, there’s a spontaneity to it so it’s not like you’re just doing the same thing over and over from different angles and just checking the boxes. Something new could happen at any moment and that’s what I do. If I start to be like, ‘Urgh, we’re doing it again,’ I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I’ll do something new this time,’ and maybe we’ll come up with something funny and it will be exciting instead of boring, you know? It’s all how you just convince yourself that you should keep trying to make it funnier and funnier, basically.
MACKIE: And there are no assholes on this set. Honestly, it’s really surprising.
ROGEN: Nothing kills the vibe …
MAKCIE: … like an asshole. It could be a grip, it could be a driver, it could be an actor, there’s always one asshole where you’re like, ‘Man, I just want to beat the …’ Ironically, there’s not one of them on this movie so it kind of makes it easy.
ROGEN: That means it’s you. [Laughs] You see everyone hates him on set.
MACKIE: Yeah, I won’t let them win. I’m like, ‘You’re gonna f*cking like me by Monday.’ I’m still fighting, I’m still fighting.
We were talking to Evan about how this seems like a spiritual successor of Superbad in that it’s one crazy night, it’s kind of a rite of passage moment. Is it important for you to not be playing the same guy from Knocked Up and Freaks and Geeks, and that you evolve on screen?
ROGEN: Yeah, I mean, we talk about it a lot and I think one of the things that forces us to make movies that are personally relatable to us is the fact that I’m in a lot of our movies and I am aging, as a human does, and therefore, we are forced to make movies about a guy who is getting progressively older and older, you know? [Laughs] And now that I’m 32 years old, we make movies about guys who are around 32 years old and it forces us to examine what we’re going through and what our friends are going through and make that the content of the movie because, again, the movies that we focus on largely are the movies that I’ve been acting in, lately. In the future that might change, but for now, that’s what I think in a good way has forced us to make things that are relatable and we’re not just – and some people, like John Hughes made high school movies until he was 60 and he was fucking great at it.
He actually regressed. They started to become babies.
ROGEN: Yeah, they got younger and younger! But I think for us, that’s one of the things I think that makes us make movies that are very personally relatable to what we’re experiencing is that I’m often one of the conduits that we’re expressing the things through.
The Night Before hits theaters nationwide on November 25th. Click here to check out the main set visit report.