Dialogue: '50/50' Director Jonathan Levine on Negative Reviews, Title Swaps and Selling a Cancer Comedy to a Mainstream Audience

Dialogue: '50/50' Director Jonathan Levine on Negative Reviews, Title Swaps and Selling a Cancer Comedy to a Mainstream Audience

Aug 24, 2011

All summer critics have been buzzing about 50/50, and it's for good reason: The film is funny, heartfelt and hits all the right spots at the right time. It was smart of Summit Entertainment to screen this sucker all over the place ahead of its September 30th release in order to build word of mouth, but they wouldn't have been able to do just that if it weren't for director Jonathan Levine. After going through one horror story after another following the sale of his indie horror directorial debut All the Boys Love Mandy Lane back at Sundance in 2006, Levine learned from his mistakes and watched his follow-up, The Wackness, score a wide release over the summer of 2008. Those two films -- as well as 50/50 -- helped score Levine the adaptation of the popular genre novel Warm Bodies, and his steady climb up the Hollywood ladder will only continue onward (and upward) from there.

Movies.com caught up with Levine a couple weeks before 50/50 officially premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, where six years ago his career began with the debut of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. We spoke to the director about the much-publicized title change on 50/50, as well as the difficulty of selling a cancer comedy to an audience that's afraid of cancer. Levine also talks at length about his experience with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, as well as what we should look forward to when it comes to his Warm Bodies adaptation.

Check out the chat below. And if you're interested in seeing an advanced screening of 50/50, reserve your spot now for showings next week in one of 10 cities across the country.


Movies.com: The film’s title was changed from I’m with Cancer to 50/50. Why was that? Is Hollywood scared of the word cancer?

Jonathan Levine: I’m scared of the word cancer. It was never studio against us – I was definitely one of the most vocal. Yes, [I’m with Cancer] is a ballsy and clever title, but I think it does limit the commerciality of the movie. We all worked very hard to make this as entertaining and as accessible as possible without kind of selling out. And, yes, maybe there’s a school of thought that says you soften the title and that is selling out, but I don’t agree. For me, the best title is a title that gets people to actually go see a movie that’s unique, different, entertaining and uplifting. It’s a very hard movie to title, and I know 50/50 is not a title everyone loves, but from my perspective it accurately reflects the movie without turning people off, which is really all we could’ve hoped for from the title.

Movies.com: Were there any other titles you tried out before settling on 50/50?

JL: Oh dude, we had like 500 f**king horrible titles. We had lists and lists and lists, and we tested it under the title Live with It, which was a title we were going with for a second. And Get Well Soon was another title we were going with for a second. We wanted to avoid turning people off, and we definitely wanted to avoid “How do you know,” or “ Life is what happens ..” or whatever. Very generic titles. So this is where we landed. Some people really like it and others don’t, but from my perspective it’s a good fit for this movies.

Movies.com: So you’d say the reaction to the title is around 50/50?

JL: [laughs] Yeah, it’s probably around 50/50.

Note: This R-rated clip is NSFW.

Movies.com: Cancer is a tough sell because people are afraid of cancer, so how do you go about selling this film to an audience?

JL: It’s interesting because the people who are most worried about how commercial this movie is are the people who haven’t seen it. I’ve been in theaters where people are laughing at this as hard as they have for any other R-rated comedy this summer. We’ve tested the film and it’s tested through the roof, so the biggest challenge is getting someone to walk through the door. Once they walk in the door, I feel like they’ll call their friends and tell them they have to see it. By that note, we’ve been trying to get as many people to see the film as possible. We’ve been doing a ton of screenings across the country, which have been amazing. And luckily we have actual movie stars in the movie, so that really helps. For me, I feel people may overestimate the fear of audiences, especially young audiences, with something like this. Speaking for myself, I’ve spent the whole summer seeing superhero movie after superhero movie, all geared toward my generation or people even younger. And I think audiences – especially young audiences – appreciate not being talked down to, and seeing some material that’s a little more sophisticated than the kind of stuff Hollywood throws at them.

Movies.com: The Wackness was a very personal film for you because it was based on your own experiences growing up, and now 50/50 is a very personal film for someone else because it’s based on writer Will Reiser’s real-life battle with cancer. Talk about that transition as a filmmaker – which is more difficult to tackle?

JL: To me they both have their pitfalls and they both have their benefits, but the great thing about doing [50/50] is that I have the experience of having done The Wackness. And even very early on, Will [Reiser] and I liked to talk about both how important it is to separate yourself from the material and dramatize the material even more than you might be inclined to, and how strange it is to put yourself out there. I would tell him, ya know, you’re eventually going to have to talk about this movie and put your life out there, and it’s going to be a very strange situation. So yes, I felt having done The Wackness I was able to come at it from an educated perspective and talk to Will about some of the pitfalls that come with writing a very personal story. It’s almost like having a chance to correct your own mistakes, and also a chance to learn from them and help someone else dramatize it in a way that remains true to the spirit of it, if not the real-life course of events.

Movies.com: How did you get involved with these guys because they’re all friends, and Seth Rogen and Will were best friends in real life when Will was diagnosed with cancer. So were you friends with them too?

JL: Not at all man – I would watch Knocked Up, and be like, ‘Man I wish I could be friends with that guy; that’d be cool.’ No, I just kind of went out for it. It was a job interview, essentially. Seth and Evan [Goldberg] had seen The Wackness and they liked it, so I went and met them on the set of The Green Hornet and we just clicked. Those are two of the nicest, smartest guys you’ll ever meet, and they’re so much fun to be around. I think from my perspective they liked that I seemed pretty mellow and laid back, and that I pride myself on being a decent person. All of those things made me a good fit for their process. And that’s what a lot of it was – me learning their process … and their process is pretty awesome. I’ve now incorporated it into my process.

Movies.com: What is their process? Seth likes to improvise, so it is a lot of that kind of stuff?

JL: Yeah, it’s mostly that kind of thing. It’s mostly about collaboration and having the material be as fluid and free as possible. So even if it’s not improvising on the day, it’s talking to the actor about what’s not working the night before and then we’ll re-write it the night before. It’s just constantly questioning whether it’s good enough. And if it’s not good enough, then we get in a room with ten smart people and the best idea wins. No ego, none of that. In a movie like this you can do that – you’re able to change things. It’s really all about the script; you don’t have any stunts to worry about, or big explosions, so you can just change things if you want to change them.

Movies.com: It seems like this is the biggest budget you’ve worked with and yet it’s probably your quietest film. What’s it like doing a quieter indie film for a studio?

JL: It’s interesting, I don’t know that it’s that much bigger than The Wackness, to be honest. It certainly was a very similar scale. For me it wasn’t really about quiet versus loud – I definitely approached the material as a character-driven piece, and my role was to get the best performances out of these guys, and control the tone of this movie. I never questioned it – I always had an instinct about what it should be and how it should be executed, and I couldn’t let myself think about all the other stuff.

Movies.com: How much of the script really happened? We know Will had cancer, but did he also have a cute therapist who looks like Anna Kendrick? Is his mother really that neurotic?

JL: I don’t think he had a therapist. The girlfriend character was a few different people. The mom … I mean, I met Will’s mom and she’s not like that. That’s the thing, though, and I can sort of instinctively tell from having done The Wackness that, yes, the mom is not like his mom, but maybe his mom did do one of those things and that allows him to expand upon that.

Movies.com: Speaking of the mom, played by Anjelica Huston, she’s so great in this film. Did you want to use her in other scenes? Huston is so good in that role, you can’t help but want to see more of her throughout.

JL: Yeah we added a scene with her at the end when Anna comes into the waiting room. We were like, f*ck, we have Anna, Seth and Anjelica and we haven’t put them in a scene together. Even though it breaks point of view a little bit, we were like f*ck it, we’re gonna do it. But yeah, she’s amazing.

Movies.com: I want to segue to reviews, because one of my colleagues, Scott Weinberg, had written a negative review of The Wackness back when it premiered at Sundance that year, and he told me that you approached him about it afterwards and were really cool about the whole thing, going so far as to engage him in a conversation about it.  A lot of directors wouldn’t do that, or they just avoid reviews all together and pretend critics don’t exist. How do you handle reviews? Do you read them? Avoid them?

JL: [laughs] I totally remember that conversation! Scott was great about it. I mean, I try not to read reviews because they can be hurtful, sure. You’re not super psyched to read a negative review. It’s really difficult, and I’ve talked to other directors about this and everyone just f**king lies. There is no way to do it unless you literally don’t care what people say. Most negative reviews, though, are thoughtful and interesting, and there are a lot that I learn from. That said, you don’t want to be on the internet googling yourself all the time because that’s not a healthy thing to do. It’s neither healthy for your own mind, nor is it healthy for your work.  

Movies.com: Speaking about your work, what’s the latest with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane? Are we ever going to see a US release of that?

JL: Is it ever going to be shown in the US? Yes, I imagine it will be. I'm friends with the guys who financed the movie, and the movie's in some bizarre, crazy ... like, this hedge fund owns it as part of their defaulted assets, and they don't care. It's just a line on a spreadsheet to them, and we're trying to get it back. I think it's a pretty bad situation to be in. I'm sure eventually we'll have annoyed them to the point that they'll just sell it to us. I wish I could tell you -- I've heard so many times that it's close to happening, but at this point I have no good answer. It's a very, very sad story.

Movies.com: Does an experience like that scare you off from doing more low-budget horror in the future? Do you look to return to horror in the future – I know you have Warm Bodies coming up, which is definitely a genre picture ..

JL: Yeah, sure. Yes, Warm Bodies definitely has horror elements, genre elements. For me, I’d like to do whatever, as long as it’s good, interesting material. I definitely like genres; I like movies in all different genres. But no, it doesn’t scare me off from doing a horror movie. I don’t think the tragedy of that movie was because it was a horror movie, I think the tragedy of that movie was that it was an independent movie … and that it didn’t have the backing of people from day one. I think the tragedy of that movie was that we didn’t sell it to the right people. The only cautionary tale about that movie is know who you’re selling your movie to, and listen to other people and don’t take the most money. We were just young and kind of naïve and really excited, you know. To be honest, we just didn’t really know what we were doing. It wouldn’t happen again. All of us have now learned from it.

Movies.com: Warm Bodies is what you’re working on next. It’s based on a book, which is an interesting experience for you since now you’re working off an adaptation. We’ve heard this film compared to Twilight before. What do you think? Is it the next Twilight?

JL: The only thing I know about Twilight is I've seen a few of them and ... I understand why people like them, but they're not for me. I understand why people like them, though, and I think elements of them are really interesting and great. That's not the movie we're trying to make here. What we're trying to make here is very different, very unique -- the tone is a little ballsier, I think. Yes it's still a romance, but it has more elements of humor; it's got cynicism and irony and cultural commentary. It's just smart. That's what appeals to me about it.

Those films like Back to the Future -- Zemeckis and Spielberg kind of things -- are good examples of what we're trying to do. There's also elements of Children of Men; stuff like Oldboy. And it's not that it's a throwback to those films of the '80s or anything like that -- I'm just using those references to say that a movie for young people can be more sophisticated in tone, and doesn't have to be super earnest. That's the thing about the Twilight movies that doesn't appeal to me -- it's that they're earnest. And as much as I understand people's appreciation of them, I've always wished that they had a Han Solo character who could be the guy who was, like, "What the f*ck is going on here?" The comic relief, the sort of audience surrogate. That, to me, is what separates the good Star Wars movies from the bad Star Wars movies. There's cynicism and irony in four, five and six, and there's not in the first three.

Movies.com: And to bring it full circle, you’re reuniting with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser on a project called Jamaica?

JL: Yes, we are going to do that. Absolutely. I’m really, really excited. It’s based on an experience Will had when he was younger, and it’s really funny, and really heartfelt, and I’ll get to go hang in Jamaica with those guys which should be really crazy, I’m sure.

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