'Long Shot' Director Jonathan Levine on His New Rom-Con (and All Those '90s References) [Interview]
Put Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in a rom-com and that’s automatically a funny combination. Long Shot goes there, but there’s also much more to it. It’s also about politics, particularly about women in politics, and about the media and journalism. The Wackness, 50/50 and Snatched director Jonathan Levine directs the script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah.
Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a liberal blogger who quits when conservative Wembley Media buys the site he writes for. Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron) used to be Fred’s babysitter, so she hires him to write speeches for her Presidential campaign. Romance does ensue, but against the backdrop of double standards for women, hypocritical self-righteousness, and classic ‘90s references.
Levine spoke with /Film by phone this week about his latest movie, which was formerly known as Flarsky. Long Shot is in theaters today.
First of all, thank you for naming your character Fred.
Oh, no problem. I didn’t do it but I will tell Dan Sterling. I will pass your gratitude along to Dan Sterling.
There aren’t a lot of movie characters named Fred.
It’s true. There’s Freddy Krueger. Who else?
Drop Dead Fred.
Drop Dead Fred, that’s true. That’s an iconic Fred, iconic cinematic Fred. It works. Seth has never played a Fred I don’t think so it was a good fit.
When they were going to change the title from Flarsky, what were some others they suggested before Long Shot?
Oh my God, man. If you could’ve seen the saga of this title… The issue was Flarsky was the title we lived with for so long and we were always like, “We’re going to change the title.” However, the longer you live with it, the harder it becomes. You just can’t picture another title for your movie so I have endless text chains between myself, Seth, Evan, James Weaver, just all night going through title after title to the point where the words didn’t mean anything anymore. Between the four of us and then along with the studio, we probably suggested more than 1000 titles I would say. 99.8% of them were totally bad. I’m even embarrassed to say them in this context but we had The Situation. We had Come Together, Reunited. It was a tough one because the movie is so many different things and that’s what I really like about the movie. I think every title we came up with felt like it was reductive or was leaning too into one thing to the exclusion of something else. So it really was very, very tricky and what we really wanted to avoid was a very generic title like The Situation which was something we were talking about. So it felt like Long Shot at least checked the boxes of it describes their relationship, it describes in many ways her candidacy. So at least it was checking those two boxes in a way that felt right to us, like it was elevating the movie. Flarsky we always knew was not going to be the title. First of all, it’s just his name. The movie is so much a two hander. Second of all, it’s just kind of a weird word that means nothing to most audiences so it probably wouldn’t generate a lot of interest.
If Hillary had won, do you think you’d have the same movie?
Dan wrote this script, his original draft of this script, obviously didn’t predate Hillary as the public figure but it was written early in the Obama era. I think it even predated her as Secretary of State. As it evolved you could sort of make a case that this character is a Hillary surrogate and that’s not something we ever wanted. It was something we tried to move away and I know Charlize certainly didn’t want that comparison. So it was something we moved away from just in the expression of the character. If she’d won, yeah, I think the political landscape was something we could never ignore. We wanted to make a movie that was very much of this time. So, if she had won, it probably would’ve changed some of the content. I don’t think it would‘ve changed the overall arc of the movie and of the characters because that was something that had been established many, many years prior. But it would have changed a lot of the details and a lot of the way we talk about politics. In many ways, it probably would’ve been easier but I think the degree of difficulty of trying to make a political film in the Trump era was something we embraced and something we eventually learned could be an asset in the writing and joke telling. But yeah, it certainly would have changed things.
Not that her character is Hillary, but the climate for female politicians that that election illuminated.
Yeah, I think certainly there is something in the zeitgeist now that this movie was prescient about. There’s an underlying restlessness and an underlying feeling that this is the time for this to happen that we wouldn’t have been able to graft on, frankly, if Hillary had won. Now, would I trade that situation? Yes, in a heartbeat. But, this is the world we live in and we were making a movie that very much wanted to be engaged in a dialogue with that world, just not in the exact same dimension.
Was the introduction always Fred infiltrating a white supremacist group even before Charlottesville happened?
No. Just to elaborate on that point, as we were rewriting the film, news was happening so fast. By this time, now we’re a little bit used to the velocity of the news cycle. When we were writing the film there was Steve Bannon and Scaramucci. All this sh*t was happening every day. Charlottesville happened and we couldn’t anticipate what the world would be like a week from now, let alone 18 months or two years. But, we started writing it and it felt charged and funny in a really good way. It did not feel exploitive. It just felt like a really provocative way to introduce the character that also could be funny. When we were shooting the scene, it was really hard to find the tonal balance as well because you want it to feel real, but you don’t want it to feel too real but we just went with our gut and tried not to be exploitive, and yet point out the ridiculousness of the world we live in as well.
There was also a line about Chris Brown, Brett Ratner and Jeremy Piven. Was is hard to pick only three men who’ve been outed as abusers?
We had a lot of lines like that in the movie. On set, we have three joke writers always on set. They’re sitting at a table and the cool new thing is they have a printer. So they will just type of jokes, print them out, cut them into little strips and hand them to me. That is going on all the time and that is a classic type of joke, a namecheck joke. The pop culture namecheck joke is low hanging fruit but it’s also one of my favorite types of jokes. So was it hard to pick three? I think we landed on a good group of three. I’m sure those gentlemen in question would each probably not want to be associated with the other two. I’m not going to say who wrote that joke but it may have been me. I should stress that these are only allegations and I have no intimate knowledge of any of their personal lives. That said, they seem like three people that should be name dropped. If we’re ranking them, Chris Brown is probably the person who should get the most sh*t but I’m not sure what the benefit is of ranking those three guys.
Did a lot of the ‘90s references like Encino Man and 90210 come from that table of writers too?
Some of that was written into the script just because it’s baked into the concept that Charlotte has not been connecting to pop culture for the last couple decades because of course she’s been very busy being Secretary of State and ascending to that role. A lot of the ‘90s stuff was baked in but also a lot of it was just we’re all children of the ‘90s so it was really, really fun to do. My first movie all took place in the ‘90s so obviously I’m a fan. 90210 to me is probably the single greatest television show in the history of the medium. Maybe that’s a bit much but really like 90210. I know a lot about 90210 and my wife and I just binged 90210 because we were so distraught at the loss of Luke Perry. We watched some Dylan’s greatest hits and especially the tour de force performance when he’s meant to marry Toni Marchette and Toni Marchette gets killed by her own dad because her dad is trying to kill Dylan. That’s pretty crazy, man.
I remember that episode. At the end Dylan says, “We’re even now” and I always said, “No, you’re not. Tony killed your father and your fiance. He only lost a daughter.”
You’re right, it doesn’t make any sense. Oh, man. That’s the first flaw I’ve ever known to exist in Beverly Hills, 90210. I thought it was flawless. The scenes between Brandon and Dylan, the way they’re written, they’re written so sparsely. Everything else, everyone just talks, it’s really bad TV, and they talk for the sake of talking and they split up the lines. Each person gets a line about something and it’s just really terrible. The last scene with Brandon and Dylan, and I think Dylan ultimately did come back to the show but this was what they thought was going to be the last scene with Brandon and Dylan because Dylan was going to go on to be a movie star. It is so beautifully written. As someone who’s done scenes where guys are saying they love each other where they don’t say they love each other, this was like a template for it. They just say goodbye and there’s no emotion but it’s all emotion. It’s all subtext and it’s beautiful. There’s better sh*t to watch if we’re recommending things to the reading public but there’s also worse things to watch. It’s pretty cool.
Were ‘90s political comedies like Dave an inspiration for Long Shot?
Obviously, Dave and American President were movies that were both inspirations and that we just watched a lot. More so, for me the most fun parts of this movie were being able to do romantic stuff. For me, Cameron Crowe was a big inspiration for that. Say Anything was a big inspiration for that. When Harry Met Sally… was a big inspiration for that. Both Dave and The American President were certainly references but I think you can go back to movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. You can go back to movies by Lubitsch like To Be or Not to Be or Ninotchka, where I think the very troubling times of the day were both background and fodder for stories that were about both that and more than that. To Be Or Not To Be is a great example. It’s so provocative and interesting. Yet, it is incredibly funny and it’s about the characters in the movie more than it’s about the background. It’s about World War II yet it’s not. It’s about these characters and it’s about the ridiculousness of the world we live in. I very much wanted to bring that to this. You should watch it. It’s one of the best movies ever made. It’s one of the best comedies. It’s so incredibly sophisticated for a comedy made in that era. Even like Billy Wilder and Frank Capra from that time. These are romantic comedies that exist against the background of a world in turmoil. More than anything, that’s what we were doing.
Fox News has been around for a long time, so was that always what The Wembley Network was based on?
Yeah, that was from Dan’s original script. What was amazing was we got these great people to come in. We got Kurt Braunohler who was one of our on set writers. We were in Montreal and June was there with her family. Her husband Paul Scheer came in and then we got Claudia [O’Dougherty] to come in and that was very heavily improv’ed. We just had areas we wanted to explore. There were a few things they needed to hit but we just let them run wild. It was three cameras, we probably only shot it for a couple hours and it probably had the highest ratio of shots to footage in the movie of anything we shot, because it was just so funny.
In the flashbacks, did you have to teach the child actor the Seth Rogen laugh?
We did. That was a moment suggested by one of our on set writers, Alex Rubens. We did, we taught him the Seth Rogen laugh. I love that kid. That kid was great. It was his birthday that day. I think he was turning 14 or 13. That night we were all going to a Jay-Z concert so gave him tickets. He and his dad went to see the Jay-Z concert. They sat right in front of us. I watched as his dad proceeded to go from being excited to just wanting to get out of there. I think it was a good day for that kid and he was lovely.
Did you have more international locations on Long Shot than any of your previous movies?
Yeah. Not as many as we made it seem like. We shot Sweden in Montreal and we shot Paris in Montreal. That’s one of the great things about shooting there was that it had such a versatile amount of looks. But then we went to Cartagena for a week and what a beautiful city. Such an incredible city, incredibly people. We used Cartagena to represent a number of places. Yeah, it was truly amazing.
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