Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Jonathan Levine's "Long Shot," coming out Friday, is a bit of a throwback in today's terms. Instead of being a studio project that sells moviegoers a familiar property, "Long Shot" offers the boundless charisma of its stars, Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, in a way you haven't seen them before. She plays the presidential candidate Charlotte Field, he plays the political blogger who has had a crush on her since childhood, respectively. When the two are reunited decades later as he becomes her speechwriter, it becomes a "Pretty Woman" scenario with Rogen as a schlubby Julia Roberts. Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, the movie plays with timeless romantic comedy formula while proving that star power is still a giddy cinematic spectacle.
The film is the product of Levine's love for '80s rom-coms and Mike Nichols among other influences, the director previously honing his voice as a studio comedy director with the likes of star-driven romps like "The Night Before," and "Snatched." Before those movies, he even made a buddy comedy with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rogen about cancer, "50/50."
RogerEbert.com spoke with Levine about "Long Shot," giving Theron an on-set experience she's never had before, turning Rogen into a romantic lead and more.
Where do you see yourself in the comedy universe? You seem to have an active interest in comedians, and the art of being funny.
I think when I first started making movies, I would just make little funny skits with my friends and film them when I was 12 years old. I think my ambition sort of became, just through the entropy of getting a cinema education, became to be just a serious filmmaker. And then I started getting into people who kind of split the difference a little bit, whether it be Mike Nichols, or Hal Ashby. I think that’s where I aspire to live in the comedy scene.
Any Hal Ashby films in particular?
I remember when I met with Seth [Rogen] and [producer Evan Goldberg] for the first time for “50/50,” I mentioned Hal Ashby, and “The Last Detail” was a film that really resonated with them. I remember one moment they talked about in “The Last Detail,” there's a scene where the guys stay out all night talking about the Human Torch, and it was just this incredible tangent, but it was something that resonated with them. And I think when I met them they were in their 20s and I was in my early 30s. But it was just the ability to have this sort of tangent, this digression that was so reflective of life, and yet very funny, and we were just sort of hanging out with these guys. It was something that movies don’t often take the time to do, and it was something they found very interesting. And that’s what I love about those guys, they’re constantly trying to push themselves in new directions.
Back to where I exist in the comedy scene, I don’t know: for this movie, we really did want to make a throwback to those movies of the ‘80s, whether they be “Working Girl” or “Tootsie” and going a little later to “Pretty Woman” or “When Harry Met Sally …”. Only now that I know how hard it is to make movies do I see what they were doing, that they put all this incredible work into making pop culture touchstones. And so I guess when I stop to think about it, that’s what I really want to do, too. I’m not really interested in doing sort of by-the-numbers comedy, I am more interested in doing something that combines comedy with something else to tell us something, to reflect something back to us, to enhance the degree of difficulty of the comedy, whether it be zombie romance or a cancer comedy. That’s something that really interested me about this movie, and how much of a high wire act tonally it is. And in those moments, you lean on comedy, because that can get you out of some sticky situations tonally if you have a funny joke. It really is the secret sauce to making something feel cohesive tonally, people will laugh and not worry so much about the tone. That was a little trick we learned on “50/50” but it’s something that applies here. We’re making a romantic comedy and it sounds stupid, but: make it f**king funny and make it f**king romantic. And you’d be surprised how many romantic comedies, at least in recent years, have forgotten to do that. But I am a huge fan of comedy, and being able to blend it with my lingering cinematic pretensions is probably where I aspire to live.
The hook for your studio comedies seems to be star power—“Long Shot” boasts Rogen being paired with Theron, “The Night Before” was pitched as hanging out on the holidays with Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie, and “Snatched” was sold as a vehicle for Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, first and foremost. What do you believe about star power when it comes to getting people in theater seats in 2019?
I don’t know that that’s how they always come together. I think for me, in order to make a big studio comedy, you do need that big personality at the heart of it. I can’t really speak to it from a commercial perspective, because things are evolving so rapidly that we don’t know what gets people in movie theaters, right? But I think for me, the reason I wanted to make films and the reason I go to movies, is to see people like Seth and Charlize go toe-to-toe. I think there’s something that feels big about that, and I think there is something that can compete with the Avengers of the world on that level.
We’re about to find out!
Just some small movie! [laughs] Perhaps this is an antiquated way to think about it, but I went to the movies to see people I thought were incredibly funny and see how they would play against actors that I think are incredibly talented. When I’m standing behind the monitor on set and I’m watching two of the most charismatic, funny … I’m just delighted all day just to watch that. I’m not sure what the new normal is, or what the reality is these days, but I like to hope that there is still room for something like this. Because it is to me sort of what the movies were built on, the iconography of someone you know … the cult of personality of seeing someone you know and love, doing something a little bit different, and yet play off the persona you love, and see them in new situations. Like Tracy and Hepburn, or Bogie and Bacall, whatever. It felt like we were following an illustrious tradition of seeing these two movie stars, somewhat from separate worlds, go at it. I find that more interesting than leaning on a comic book property. Not that I wouldn’t do that! I’m just saying this preemptively, because when you see I’m doing “Shazam! 6”, I don’t want to sound like a liar. [laughs]
I also think about your inclusion of Michael Shannon in “The Night Before,” a great example of seeing an actor challenge what you expect of them.
Actors crave it, too. We are able to get people like Charlize and Michael Shannon, two of the best actors in the world, to come to our silly movies because they represent something you don’t get to do all that often. I’m sure there’s opportunities to do comedy, but the type of comedy we’re doing aspires to be a little more sophisticated, not always but in general, but it is challenging and it is exciting and fun. Whether it’s Shannon or Bob Odenkirk, or Andy Serkis.
Charlize Theron has gotten to be funny in only a few projects before, like on an episode of “Between Two Ferns.” But how did she fit into you and Seth’s previous relationship?
It felt effortless. I think at the beginning, she didn’t know what to expect so there may have been some nerves. But when you get onto these sets, I guess there’s you could be worried that it’s going to be this insular club, but we are such fans of hers and we have such a collaborative environment that we wanted her character to share the point of view of the movie with Seth’s character. That was really important to us. Because we knew that would be the most successful execution of this movie, and we really brought her in early as a producer and as an actor to help craft the story, and we really valued her whether it be her personal experience or her opinions or anything we could use to integrate into the actual holistic storytelling in a movie. And then I think that the way that we work, we have these comedy writers on set and we’re always changing things; I think she really liked it. That is something I can safely say that she has not done on another movie. Even in comedy, the way that Seth and Evan have honed the comedic process is very specific and very fun.
And as an actor, you can see just from her choices that she’s always challenging herself, I think she likes sort of living in that uncomfortable space where she doesn’t know if she can do it. I think that’s something she craves, and the crazy thing is that she doesn’t know she can do it. And I watch her like, “Oh, she can do it, she’s amazing, she’s really good at this.” And once a day at least she’d be like, “That fucking sucked.” I’d be like, “Charlize, that was amazing.” I think that she shared that, that’s something spiritually that we shared this desire to keep pushing and and keeping pushing and not be happy until something was great. She saw that we cared so much about that. I think she felt she was in a safe place.
She has some moments of great physical comedy in the movie too, like when she has to be “on the job” though she's still on drugs.
In terms of comedy chops, physicality, she’s the most physical actor there is. If you look at “Mad Max: Fury Road,” you can see she has such precision and control over her physical performance. Within two seconds of meeting her, you know that she can use her body and her face to be funny in like, really remarkable ways. There were some scenes that she’s doing in the movie where she’s like, “Oh, this could be like Kristen Wiig, this could be Lucille Ball.” She’s just so good. And then, I had seen “Between Two Ferns” I had seen some stuff she did on “Arrested Development” and I’d seen the Seth McFarlane movie, and she was really charming and great in that, too. I had no concerns about her ability to do it. I also just think she’s a one-of-a-kind talent. The moment I saw her on-screen I was like, “Oh, cool. I’m going to look very good for having to do very little here.” [laughs]
With films like “50/50” and now this, you’ve been helping expand Rogen’s charisma and our understanding of him. There’s also a sense in this movie that his persona is being matured a bit. How intentional is that?
I can take no credit for doing it, because he’s the producer of these movies. It’s his ambition to do these things. To think [with “50/50”] that you have a kid in his late 20s who has decided to use his star power to tell a cancer comedy story, where he is the sidekick essentially, is just emblematic of how sophisticated and talented he is. But on that movie, we knew the kind of movie we were making, but we didn’t have a lot of conversations about what the intention was for his expansion as a comedic persona or an actor. That sort of was a byproduct of the story we were telling. I think that if you look at what he’s doing in that movie, he’s not doing anything different from what he’s done, he’s a naturalistic performer and that’s just the role he occupies in that movie. I think the way the movie looks and feels, and the movie that surrounds him, does that more than what he’s doing in the movie.
With this one, it was slightly different, and I can’t recall a specific conversation that we had about it, but we did know that we were trying to make … we knew the touchstones for these movies, whether they were Sydney Pollack or Mike Nichols or Cameron Crowe. We knew that his character needed to work as a romantic lead. That’s not to say we wanted to, we still wanted to play off his comedic and star persona, but we did know that we were going to try to not lean so much on our bag of tricks as we had in the past. I think it was just an unspoken thing, where we would challenge jokes and we would always challenge the tone a little bit.
How do you and Seth collaborate when it comes to this fluid idea of what's funny on set?
He’s such a collaborator on this stuff, he just instinctively knows when something is right or wrong, and together, I think what the guys like about working with me is that my brain immediately goes toward pushing things in a more emotional grounded direction. And Seth’s brain does both. He’s looking for the joke, and if the joke is actually the most immature thing you can say, and that’s fine too. We have those in the movie too, because people laugh at them and we think they are funny. And in a comedy, being funny is number one. But in order to find that balance, I think he and I had this unspoken thing. And I think that for me, crafting him as a leading man, or helping him realize that, really was kind of effortless for me because I find him to be so charming and so funny. I think that’s all we wanted was part of this guy to be taken seriously. And every once in a while you’d go, “Oh, he’s kind of cute!”
He cleans up well.
Yeah, exactly! And I believe that, as the filmmaker. And it’s not hard for me to do that. I do think that it was a little bit trickier because I knew him so well, it’s kind of … imagine one of your old friends, and trying to turn them into a romantic lead. It can be a little awkward at times, but I found it fun. But what I love about Seth so much as an actor is that he is the audience surrogate. He is us. I love the notion that I can see a sort of avatar for myself becoming this leading man and using their kind of charm and intellect and humor to end up meeting the right person and falling in love. I think that’s a cool thing to show people, because it happens all of the time. It was an unspoken thing, but we knew what we were going for.
"Long Shot" is a movie about a politician, but there’s no designation of parties. There’s also a twist at the end that hints that both sides may not be all that different. How did you approach the project in terms of politics, and why did you go with that twist at the end?
I think we knew first and foremost that we were making a movie that’s goal was to be entertaining, and we wanted to make fun of politics and we wanted to use politics, and use the current world we exist in, and analyze that to point out the absurdity of the world. But we also wanted to zoom out and do more of a Capra kind of thing, where it wasn’t so much about party or whatever, but the ideals that unite us as people. Because hopefully, this era we will live in will just be a blip, and when you’re watching this movie on TV in ten years, you’re not thinking about how angry you were about the Mueller Report or whatever. That’s something that I think, that’s the way we could justify having romance, comedy, and politics coexist. If you want political insight, I think Stephen Colbert or John Oliver can get to it better than we can, but we just didn’t think it was our job. And so, we felt like our mandate was to find the thing that united us but also spoke about how absurd every day life is in this country right now. We didn’t shy away from being provocative, but we didn’t want to be too angry or outraged, we just didn’t feel like that was our lane.
I just remember waiting for the movie to share what party she belongs to. That moment never arrives.
Here’s the other thing, rewatching all these political movies—they don’t mention party in “The American President.” Of course it’s about a crime bill vs. an environmental bill, so the subtext is Democrats and Republicans. But they don’t explicitly state it, and I think that in a more innocent time, such as when “The American President” came out, you didn’t really think about it. We sort of wanted to hearken back to that a little bit, too. But we want people to come to the movie, to be able to forget about what’s going on in the world. Even as we kind of make fun of it, we don’t want the weight of that to impact the viewing experience. This is escapism, first and foremost.
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