It’s a familiar enough pattern: a rising director helms one or two well-received indie films that hit big on the festival circuit, gets enough attention to hit up Hollywood, and signs on for a blockbuster feature or two. From Ryan Coogler to Chloe Zhao, it’s no longer news when a filmmaker jumps from Sundance to Marvel. But when filmmaker Jonathan Levine was in the mix to direct the latest iteration of “Spider-Man” after his well-reviewed festival hits “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” and “The Wackness,” the director passed on the opportunity to take a different path: directing studio comedies.
Though Levine recently told IndieWire he interviewed “a few times” for the latest cinematic incarnation of “Spider-Man” — in 2015, he was rumored to be on a short list with other filmmakers like Ted Melfi and John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, before the gig went to Jon Watts — he said he ultimately backed out on his own accord.
“I think I was breaking up with them before they could break up with me,” he said during a breakfast at a Manhattan hotel. “I don’t think I would have gotten it. But that was the one where I was like, ‘Okay, this is a teenager in New York, it’s kind of funny. Okay, I can do that.’ I grew up going to movies like that. It is alluring in that way.”
While Levine didn’t ultimately make the jump to the blockbuster world, he’s found that studio-backed comedies suit his sensibilities and style just fine. Most recently, that led to “Long Shot,” his latest collaboration with Seth Rogen, a likable romcom co-starring Charlize Theron opening this week. The genre has allowed Levine to experiment with new ideas on a bigger budget without the onus of blockbuster expectations.
Levine is not one to take anything for granted. His cautious approach emerged in part from a bumpy experience right out of the gate, when his 2006 festival hit “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” got tangled in a distribution nightmare and wasn’t theatrically released until 2013. Next up for the filmmaker was the 2008 Sundance Audience Award winner “The Wackness”; good buzz and an Indie Spirit nom helped push Levine into mid-budgeted studio projects, where he started directing films like “Warm Bodies” and “50/50.”
Recently, however, Levine has barreled through a series of commercial studio comedies, including the nutty holiday stoner odyssey “The Night Before” and the raunchy Amy Schumer/Goldie Hawn vehicle “Snatched,” his first — and so far only — critical dud. Now he’s back on steadier ground with “Long Shot,” another mid-budget studio comedy, but a sweet one that seems more in line with his earlier output.
A “political comedy,” the movie has plenty of timely trappings — Theron plays a Secretary of State getting into the presidential race, Rogen is her former babysitting charge who never got over his crush on her and is now tasked with helping write her speeches — it’s also just got one hell of a good heart.
“What I loved about this movie was that it was an opportunity to sort of not just do comedy, but do something very heartfelt, something very emotional, something with a little bit of social satire,” Levine said. “What other genre can you do that? I guess horror. Jordan Peele was able to do it. If I could write it, I would.”
While Levine hasn’t yet gotten into the blockbuster franchise fray, his views on the matter have evolved. “I like to kind of slowly climb the ladder in that way,” he said. “I don’t want to speak too negatively of those movies, because I’m sure you’ll read about me doing one in the next 10 years, and I’ll have to refute everything that I’ve said in this interview. … But it’s much more creatively rewarding to make something that’s original, that you’ve nurtured from the ground up.”
Levine’s pivot to comedy came from connecting with Rogen and Evan Goldberg, comedy superstars who have always embraced the full spectrum of the genre. “I remember we talked about Hal Ashby movies and that was a common ground that we had,” Levine said. “When you look back to movies of the ’70s, ’80s, even the ’90s a little bit, comedy did have a bit more of an independent sensibility. Even the Judd Apatow stuff, they’re relationship movies. They’re two people talking-on-a-couch movies. That’s the type of shit I do.”
The trio first worked together on Levine’s breakout dramedy “50/50,” which Rogen starred in and the long-time creative partners also produced. Released by Summit Entertainment in the fall of 2011, the fact-based film was a critical hit (it was nominated for two Golden Globes) and made nearly $40 million on a budget of less than $10 million.
If the movie was made today, Levine doesn’t believe it would land at a studio. “It would probably be on Netflix or Amazon,” he said. “That would be such a shame, right? … [With theatrical releases], you can have a chance to make a cultural impact in a way that, unless you’re Beyonce, you can’t on Netflix. And I’m not Beyonce, as much as I wish I was all the time.” (Levine isn’t a Netflix hater by any stretch, but he does hope that the theatrical experience and the streaming world can continue to live side by side.)
Levine’s success in the studio realm has been possible thanks to other relationships he’s nurtured over the years, including Lionsgate motion picture group president Nathan Kahane and chairman Joe Drake, with whom Levine, Rogen, and Goldberg previously worked on “50/50” and “The Night Before” through the pair’s Point Grey shingle. On “Long Shot,” he added, “we really trust them and we have a lot of faith in them. We never got notes about anything that was too controversial or anything like that. It was mostly notes about how to make the movie better. Sometimes they were right and sometimes they weren’t. … It’s a very safe environment to feel free to express ourselves.”
With time, Levine has developed his own diplomatic approach. “I’m usually pretty politically savvy in navigating that process, and also respectful,” he said. “I don’t want to tell the people who paid tens of millions of dollars to make this movie to fuck off. I want to try to listen to them when I can. Unless they’re wrong.”
Just this week, Levine and his newly launched production banner Megamix signed a first-look deal with Lionsgate. While the studio world has provided a degree of security, he’s not impervious to criticism, and has always read reviews of his work. “I try to get the big picture,” he said. “I don’t want to be the only person who doesn’t know if we’re getting good reviews or bad reviews.” Reviews for “Long Shot,” which debuted at SXSW in March, have been very good: Rotten Tomatoes currently rates it as 87% Fresh; it’s his second-best reviewed film after “50/50.”
But the reviews haven’t always been kind. Levine admitted that the bad reviews for the 2017 comedy “Snatched” stung, saying that they “hurt a lot.” He pointed directly to Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker as one that stuck out, even if the filmmaker good-naturedly joked that he didn’t understand all of Brody’s heady prose. “I have an Ivy League degree and I still couldn’t fucking get what he was saying,” he said. “But I knew it was not very complimentary.”
He credits both his film school background (he’s an AFI grad) and therapy with helping him deal with any backlash. He’s also been pleasantly surprised along the way. “Like ‘Warm Bodies,’ I was pretty surprised got pretty good reviews, because when I was making it, it was just so crazy,” Levine said of his zombie comedy. “I thought it could really fail. But I think the lesson of that was, when you do something risky, people actually appreciate it a little more.”
Looking back on the “Spider-Man” meetings, the filmmaker said that while he was still a bit gun-shy about jumping into the blockbuster arena during those discussions, he’s come around on the idea. “If there’s an option I guess, but it wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice,” he said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do right after my first two movies. I think now I’ve made enough movies that I feel like I could probably bounce back and forth a little bit.”
And, yes, like everyone else in the world, he can’t escape the pull of the Marvel Cinematic Universe even when it comes to his personal life. He laughed, “I tried to go see ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ and they were like, ‘The next available showtime is 3:00 AM.’ I was like, ‘Fucking 3:00 AM?!'”
Lionsgate releases “Long Shot” in theaters on Friday, May 3.