How Jonathan Levine Made 'The Night Before' — Gratuitous Dick Pics & All
When director Jonathon Levine arrives to our lunch date to talk about his latest film, he offers me a warning: "I'm going to order a lot of food. I'm really tired and really hungover." And the 39-year-old writer/director has good reason to be. The night before he had the premiere for his latest film, The Night Before, a Christmas movie/buddy comedy hybrid starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie. After the premiere, Levine, along with members of the cast, celebrated a job well done with copious drinks at the after party. Now that the booze has worn off, the director has a lot to say about crafting his R-rated holiday film for adults — after we order, that is. A pizza, a bowl of pasta, a side of bread, cheesy brussels sprouts, and a few Bloody Marys later, we're in business.
"I used to go out with a couple friends on Christmas Eve, and I thought there hadn’t really been a holiday movie for our generation for younger people," he says of the film's inception, explaining that the film is an R-rated love letter to his best friends.
The plot surrounds three friends who indulge in a variety of holiday traditions every year on Christmas Eve. The film hit theaters in November, had a $10 million opening, and will likely see a boost in sales in December, given the upcoming holidays. For most studio openings, $10 million would be nothing noteworthy, but in the world of R-rated Christmas flicks, this can be considered a success. Remember Black Christmas, the 2006 R-rated holiday horror film? Probably not, because it grossed a mere $3 million opening weekend. Similarly, other R-rated holiday flicks like The Ref ($3 million), Silent Night, Deadly Night ($1 million), and Santa's Slay, which didn't even make it to the big screen, followed suit.
Arguably the two most popular R-rated Christmas films, Love Actually and Die Hard, kind of bombed opening weekend at the box office. Love Actually, now considered a modern classic, grossed $6 million when it opened in 2003. Die Hard grossed $7 million after its wide release — a low number, considering it's both a holiday and action flick. R-rated holiday films are apparently hard to craft, considering Christmas is often associated with good moral values and time spent with the whole family — often going to the movies. Making an R-rated holiday picture immediately alienates a specific group of movie goers.
So as far as R-rated Christmas flicks go, The Night Before's $10 million is nothing to scoff at. So how did Levine, known for movies such as 50/50 (also starring Rogen and Gordon-Levitt), Warm Bodies, and Sundance darling The Wackness successfully craft an R-rated holiday movie for adults? Easy. According to Levine, all you need is...
An A-List Cast
Starring along side Rogen and Gordon-Levitt is Mackie, the outsider of the group, having not worked with Levine in the past. While Rogen and Gordon-Levitt were attached to the film early on, the third friend — a third of the Three Kings, if you will — took time to nail down. "There were a bunch of people who auditioned. Anthony said he hadn’t auditioned for anything in 10 years because well, he’s a well-known actor. He said his goal in the audition was to fuck with Seth. It was a dynamic that really worked. We knew he was a good dramatic actor, but his improvisational skills were on display in that audition and he was just great."
The film co-stars some exceptionally funny ladies, like Mindy Kaling, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer. "When we started filming I had only seen a few episodes. Now I've seen all of it," Levine says of Broad City. He says that watching the show while filming convinced him to give Glazer more to do. "We kept giving her more and more to do because that show is so fucking good."
New York City
Like many memorable Christmas films — Home Alone 2, Elf, Miracle on 34th street — The Night Before is set in New York City, utilizing the location's many iconic settings as a playground for the Three Kings. With Christmas tree lightings at Rockefeller Center, Christmas concerts, elaborate window displays, ice skating, and outdoor holiday markets, New York City is an obvious addition to any successful Christmas film, and seeing Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie frolic around the Big Apple, as opposed to any other, less iconic city, wouldn't be quite as fun.
Opening with a "Once upon a time..." narration from comedian Tracy Morgan, Levine argues New York City is the only city in which this modern Christmas tale could go down "New York is such a romantic place," Levine says. "There’s a certain way to look at New York that’s very magical. It’s this fairytale place. So this movie, kind of being a fairytale itself, did need to be in New York."
But the often idyllic setting wasn't always candy canes and snow globes, Levine explains how having stars like Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie walking around the streets of Manhattan, at arms reach from New York locals and tourists, was particularly disruptive. "People would walk by and be like 'Seth Rogan! What’s up man?' And he’d be like 'I’m in a scene. Like literally we’re rolling.' That’s challenging, and also because you have friend and family obligations, and they don’t get it when you’re making a movie. Like my mom comes on set and I turn around and she’s sitting talking to Mindy Kaling. I'm be like, 'Mom, she doesn’t want to fucking talk to you! Stop it, she’s working.'"
After all, it's a film Levine made for his friends, not his family.
Three Christmas Sweaters
Ugly sweater parties are now a staple of the holiday season, so it was no surprise to see Rogen, Mackie, and Gordon-Levitt in hideous getups of their own. The sweaters themselves become characters in the story, a major talking point amongst the men, and when one of the friends decides to take his off for the evening, all bets are off.
Gordon-Levitt's knitted sweater is the most commercial of the bunch with a simple red and green moose design. Mackie has a black Santa Clause adorning his, a design that initially caused Levine to worry. "I found the black Santa one and I showed it to Seth and I was like, 'Is this too much for Mackie?' And Seth was like 'No. And I want to wear a star of David sweater.” And he did.
The sweaters, which were made special for the movie, are available for purchase, if you want to wear a black Santa or star of David ensemble to your next ugly sweater party. No news on how well these sweaters are selling thanks to the flick, but you can buy 'em here.
Two Easter Eggs
Because this is a story about friendship, Levine wanted to toss in a few easter eggs only his closest friends would notice. Levine had Gordon-Levitt wear one of his old summer camp T-shirts in a scene: "He wears it in a flashback," he says.
The film describes Gordon-Levitt's character as someone who once "had purple hair and a cloak." Levine explains the reference: "There's this kid in college who's now a doctor but used to dress up like that, like a warlock," he says.
Being the writer and director of a film gives you a certain amount of creative control, and Levine took full advantage.
A Handful of Dick Pics
Levine native says the joke that always got the biggest laugh in test screenings of the film was the scene where Rogen's character accidentally receives a variety of penis pictures on a phone he thinks is his, but isn't. But getting the OK to intercut a bevy of genitals into the holiday film wasn't an easy battle. It was in fact, very hard.
"There was a lot of conversation about what constitutes an erect penis and what constitutes a soft penis. The MPAA did not like it all that much. There was a lot of back and forth," he says. But the ratings association and Levine finally came to an agreement. "We finally landed on this: If the erect penis was falling, like it was on [his] body, then we could make a case it was a flaccid penis and gravity was just pulling it in that direction," he reveals. "There were meetings where we were sitting there and looking though dick after dick after dick. Think of the poor effects guys who had to pour over all these different dicks."
For those who have set to see the film, yes, we see the dicks. As Rogen sits down to dinner with his buddies at Mackie's mother's house, the phone he thinks is his begins to buzz, and he receives the photos, one after the other — the camera lingering on every single one. Though a body double was used, the photos belong to James Franco's character, and with Franco's enthusiastic fan base, this might have caused a slight increase in movie ticket sales. From the guy who posts photos of himself in his underwear that collect hundreds of thousands of likes, it's a possibility, right?
A Ton of Drugs
Seth Rogen is known for his stoner comedies like Superbad, Knocked Up, and of course, The Pineapple Express. But in The Night Before, he takes his stoner sensibilities to a whole new level. He ingests the drugs his wife gives him far too quickly, allowing for a very heightened and physical performance from Rogen. "The idea for the drugs came in pretty late, and [choosing] which drugs he was on was evolving," Levine says. "There was a version of the film where he died, like where his heart stopped for a really long time and then he came back to life. That was too far. It was too fucking dark."
Though I'm thankful Levine decided not to kill his leading man in an overdose scene, it was strenuous to watch the always on edge Rogen tripping through the near entirety of the film. But for those who come to Rogen-led stoner films for these scenes, the elongated drug sequence will be a welcome treat.
The film boasts some of the best and most surprising cameos of any film this year. Ranging from pop culture icons like Miley Cyrus to highbrow actors like Michael Shannon, The Night Before has a new cameo in almost every other scene, a quality I attribute to part of its relative box office success. Not many Christmas films have surprising and funny actors as plentiful as ornaments on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Here are a few that stand out:
James Franco plays the aforementioned culprit who sends Rogen's character a smorgasbord of dick pics. As their constant collaborations have proved, Franco and Rogen are real life BFFs. "They have such a great relationship that they’ll support each other no matter what," Levine says. "He was so awesome. He commits so hard to everything. It's my favorite jump-in in the movie. I had a really high bar for what Franco's cameo would be, and he met that."
This isn't Cyrus's first time collaborating with Rogen and Franco. She performed at Franco's Bar Mitzvah earlier this year, and almost took on a role in 2013's This is the End. In The Night Before, Joseph Gordon-Levitt convinces the pop star to woo his ex-girlfriend (Lizzie Caplan) with a rendition of "Wrecking Ball." Cyrus even pokes fun at her Hannah Montana days in the cameo. "The first time she sang in rehearsal we were like, 'Oh wow, we're getting a private Miley Cyrus concert.' She's so awesome, and Lizzie is a huge Miley fan."
Undoubtably the most surprising cameo in the film comes from Michael Shannon, who has made a name for himself playing baddies in films like Man of Steel and 99 Homes. But his usually terrifying demeanor is traded for Rogen's brand of stoner in the film. Playing the men's high school teacher turned drug dealer, Shannon provides the weed of Christmas past, present, and future.
"He's hard to read," Levine says of working with Shannon. "If he looks at you, you're like 'Oh this guy fucking hates me!' But he doesn't. He left set and his agent was like, 'Michael had the best time with you guys.' And were like, 'Wait, really? He did?' You just can't read him," he says. "He's pretty deadpan. I knew he was a great actor — I love Take Shelter more than anything — but I was a little intimidated. The first day he showed up in these really short jogging shorts. He had jogged from his house to where we were in Brooklyn. It was just weird. This guy is an amusing person. And he's a sweetheart. Very polite."
Though we don't see the SNL comedian in the film, he plays an important part as the film's narrator. "It was the first thing he'd done since the accident," Levine says of the 2014 car crash that left Morgan with brain injuries. "We didn't know how he was going to be, but it was awesome. He was so great."
Thanks to these killer cameos, a cast boasting a large fan base, a mixture of modern humor and classic Christmas movie charm, a city synonymous with the holiday, (and maybe a few dick pics), The Night Before is one of the only R-rated Christmas films in recent years that might actually stick around for Christmas present — and Christmas future, too.
The Night Before is in theaters now.