Christmas came a little early last year. It was the end of September and still pretty hot out, but the stars of The Night Before were rocking holiday sweaters. When I arrived at the film’s Steiner Studios set in Brooklyn, New York with a group of visiting journalist, Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were in the middle of playing Kanye West’s “Runaway” on a gigantic piano with Anthony Mackie jumping around screaming “who got ya” as backup.
The scene takes place at the beginning of the movie when Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) are first kicking off their annual Christmas Eve reunion. It’s something they’ve been doing together since high school, but now that they’re entering adulthood, partying just isn’t a priority anymore, the tradition is coming to an end and Ethan isn’t happy about it.
During our evening on set we got to talk to loads of people behind the film including Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, Mackie, director Jonathan Levine, producer James Weaver, and writer-producer Evan Goldberg. I’ll be sharing those interviews in full soon, but they’re absolutely loaded with story details, information regarding the tone and style of the film, and so much more so first I bring you 23 things to know about The Night Before.
The story is about three high school buddies who have an annual Christmas Eve tradition. Gordon-Levitt explained, “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.”
Sounds sweet, right? The problem is, the tradition is ending. Gordon-Levitt broke it down; “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,” and that one is Ethan.
Mackie dubs his character, Chris, a “love machine.” “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.”
Rogen’s character, Isaac, is the only Jewish member of the trio. “I think like most Jews in their 30s, my character’s kind of benign towards [Christmas] 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.” Rogen continued, “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.” He also teased, “At the beginning, there’s a scene where I’m explaining to her two Christian nieces what a Jew is.”
Rogen and co. are clearly seasoned comedy filmmakers, but there’s a number of big differences between making any old comedy and making a Christmas comedy. Rogen recalled, “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?’” Initially, they shied away from incorporating holiday tropes, but once they decided to embrace them, they came to realize that there are certain things they could pull off simply because they were making a Christmas film. Rogen continued, “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?”
Here’s how Levine, Rogen, Goldberg and the rest of the team integrate new jokes while on set. Levine explained, “Every producer has a yellow pad on his chair and they just write alt jokes for me or sometimes a 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.” He continued, “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 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.”
Levine insisted that The Night Before has more dick jokes in it than any other movie. “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.”
The structure of the story stayed the same throughout shooting, but only 10% of the original dialogue was used. Levine estimated, “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.”
The guys are gunning to make a funny movie, but they want it to have an emotional core, too. Here’s how Rogen put it: “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 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.”
In addition to Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie, The Night Before also features one heck of a supporting roster packed with top-notch actresses. Rogen recalled, “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.” Here’s what Gordon-Levitt had to say about Lizzy Caplan who plays his character’s ex-girlfriend: “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 also added, “I think the first time Lizzy ever acted on camera was in a scene with me and [James] Franco on Freaks and Geeks, 15 years ago, which is horrible.”
Rogen continued, “And Mindy [Kaling], 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.” Mackie chimed in, “Ilana’s mine.” He continued, “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 then, of course, there’s Jillian Bell who made quite the impression in 22 Jump Street last year. Levine noted, “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.” Rogen confirmed, “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.”
What exactly is the Nutcracka Ball? Levine began, “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.” He continued, “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.”
Apparently you need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt to get into the Nutcracka Ball. Levine teased, “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.” He also added, “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.”
What does the Nutcracka Ball look like? Weaver explained, “We can tell you the inspiration for the party, which, this is something that Evan came up with when we were talking about how we were going to make it look, it’s Burning Man meets Coachella meets Tron, so I think that’s the look that we’re going for.” Production designer Annie Spitz also teased some of the specifics; “We wanted them to enter the party in a strange way, so I thought it would be fun to have them walk into a deli, and they walk into a deli and the guy who owns the deli, they show him the tickets and [he] leads them back. They go into a freezer and then they open the back of the freezer and we end up in our party, which starts out with this huge tunnel of Christmas lights. Everything is Christmas themed, so there’s this huge tunnel of lights and a train and they ride the train in and they enter into the Nutcracka Ball, so there’s all these giant, large scale nutcracker things and a human snow globe and girls are dancing in the snow globe.”
There’s a drug box. As Levine explained, Rogen’s character is a doting father to be so he hasn’t done drugs or partied since his wife became pregnant so, as a little holiday treat, she gives him a box of drugs. Rogen teased, “It gets weird, yeah. There’s some stylistically surreal moments, I would say, here and there.” Gordon-Levitt added, “There are psychedelic sequences.”
There may also be magical weed. Levine explained, “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.”
There’s as much music in this movie that you could have without it being a musical. Rogen noted, “It’s a big show. We want it to be a fun experience all the way through.” Not only are we getting that Big-like scene of the guys playing the giant piano, but there are a few other musical performances throughout the film.
That’s one pricy piano they play in the trailer. Spitz recalled, “This piano was extremely difficult to find. It’s like a copyrighted item. It came from Philadelphia. We got it directly from the creator of the big piano. I think he’s in his 80s and he’s the gatekeeper of the piano, so we had to go there. He’s a really nice guy, he offered to take everyone out to lunch. I don’t think this thing goes out all the time, so he was pretty excited to get it used.” The trouble started when the piano arrived on set and everyone wanted to play it. “Everyone was kind of jumping around on it before and I was like, ‘Let’s hold off on that.’ [Laughs] He claimed it’s worth was $100,000. I’m not sure about that, but that’s what he said.”
There’s dancing, too. When we asked the cast if there are choreographed dances in the film, Mackie responded, “It’s Christmas. If The Muppets can have choreography …” Rogen also added, “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.”
Levine used a bunch of very unlikely visual references for the film. “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.” Levine also broke down the look he developed with his director of photography, Brandon Trost. “This is my first time working with [Trost], 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.”
The Night Before also marks the very first time Levine chose digital over film. “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.”
As for the score, Levine is aiming for a Home Alone, Willy Wonka feel. He explained, “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.”
So what is the tone of the movie? Are we talking Bad Santa? Levine noted, “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.” He added, “It should always feel upbeat and uplifting. It never gets down and dark in that way, I don’t think.”
The main goal is to deliver a crowd-pleaser. “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.” Levine continued, “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.”
And in case you were wondering what it takes to create a snowy scene in late September … as snow effects foreman Robert Scupp explained, snow falling or background enhancements are considered visual effects. His type of snow, however, falls in the special effects category. “I use a cotton batting, also called a snow blanket. I use that and I cut it into templates, place that on the ground and then I cover it with magnesium sulfate heptahydrate.” The amount of material he needs varies, but he did give us a number for one particular scene in the film. “There’s a street scene that we had done, which is the end of the movie after it has snowed, it’s literally the last couple pages of the script, and I think we used 25,000 pounds of it.”
FILMING and FOOTAGE
You know that piano scene featured in The Night Before trailer? That’s what we got to watch them shoot. The whole thing was built on a sound stage and looked pretty authentic minus the green screen surrounding it. They ran through the scene so many times that I still have a hard time listening to Kanye West’s “Runaway” without hearing Mackie belting out “who got ya” over and over again. However, there were slight variations each time they did it. For example, at one point, they had Mackie riding around on a toy horse and in one glorious outtake, he wiped out hard. (Fingers crossed that makes the DVD gag reel.)
On top of that, Levine also showed us a few scenes from the film. I don’t want to spoil the jokes, but I will tell you, a good deal of the material had me laughing out loud, especially the stuff featuring Rogen’s character who is super high and talks non-stop. As for the look of the film, if you fast forward to the 1:45 mark of the trailer, you can catch a glimpse of the footage we saw and I, for one, really dig the warmth, vibrancy and framing of the visuals.
I’m a big fan of Levine’s and usually thoroughly enjoy Rogen and Goldberg’s comedies, so what’s not to love? Again, the footage we saw was absolutely hilarious and based on what Levine told during his interview, it seems like he could be striking the perfect balance between Christmas tropes, genuine heart, and Rogen and Goldberg’s style of humor. And on top of that, just look at the trailer. The Night Before could have been your quintessential commercial comedy, but it seems as though Levine infused the material with more than enough style to make it his own. Hopefully the guys really did pull it off and we wind up with an R-rated Christmas comedy that we can watch for years to come.
The Night Before hits theaters nationwide on November 25th. Click here to check out the on-set interview with Rogen, Mackie and Gordon-Levitt.