It was still warm out in late September 2014- good news for millions of NYC residents still trying to hold on to the last embers of summer – but a challenge for director Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) and his crew, who were trying to create Christmas in the city amidst the warm weather.
The looks and feel of the holiday season is crucial for Levine’s new film, The Night Before. It’s a Christmas-themed comedy romp that reunites Levine with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (stars of Levine’s acclaimed cancer dramedy flick, 50/50) – as well as Captain America: Civil War star Anthony Mackie – in a story about three friends who plan to finish off a longtime Christmas Eve tradition by journeying from bar to bar, all the way up to the city’s biggest and best party.
Screen Rant was among a handful of journalists who ventured out to the Brooklyn studios where The Night Before was shooting a key comedy sequence – one that puts its three leads in an iconic setting, to send up an iconic movie scene, using a popular song.
The scene we saw being filmed is a featured moment in the trailer; a soundstage was decorated to not-so-coincidentally look like an iconic NYC toy store (first initials “F.A.O.,” last name rhymes with “quartz”), where we were told our three leads – father-to-be Isaac (Rogen), orphan Ethan (Levitt) and famous athlete Chris (Mackie) – have arrived after getting an early start on imbibing those holiday spirits.
What ensues in the toy store is a riff on Tom Hanks’ iconic scene from Big, playing that iconic NYC toy store’s equally iconic giant floor piano. Only in this film, instead of some happy holiday melody, Isaac, Ethan and Chris’ drunken romp is set to the floor piano tune of Kanye West’s “Runaway,” complete with the boys belting out the tune with drunken fervor, while families of shoppers, played by real local families, look on in (horror? Amusement?). The three leads got so into the scene that during one take, Mackie took an epic spill onto the floor, while riding around on a horse plush toy.
Such was the scene (literally) on set, in general: lots of laughs and horseplay, in pursuit of delivering a movie that will both satisfy the fans of Rogen and producer Evan Goldberg’s (Superbad) brand of heartfelt raunch comedy, while hopefully hitting home with legions of viewers for whom more hard-edged films like Bad Santa have become a regular holiday season viewing tradition, right alongside Christmas Vacation, Home Alone or A Christmas Story.
We sat down with Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, as well as director Jonathan Levine, to talk about making Christmas movies, and all the famous funny ladies that they have set to make appearances in the film.
What brought you guys to this project?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Uh, Levine started it.
Seth Rogen: Yeah. He came to me and Evan as producers and said he had an idea for a Christmas movie. And we thought, “That’s weird.” [laughs] And then he explained kind of his vision and reminded us that out of all the Christmas movies we loved growing up and all the kind of nostalgia you get to play with and the fact that there kinda is like a void when it comes to Christmas movies aimed at our generation and just generally being the type of movie that people like us would be excited to go see. So that’s where it all started, with Levine’s idea. And then we asked Joe if he would be in it, basically. Did you fly to Vancouver again over shooting The Interview? Was that when we all talked about it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. That’s right. There’s a pattern with us…
Seth Rogen: It always involves Joe flying to Vancouver [laughs] and convincing him to be in our movies.
What made you want to do a Christmas movie?
Jonathan Levine: This was actually something that I used to do with my friends growing up here [in NYC]. Myself being Jewish, other friends who either really didn’t like their families or who didn’t have families for some reason. I would go out with them on Christmas because everyone, sort of when we were in college…it was a time when everyone was back from college. It was a time when you could kind of reunite with people. We always found ourselves getting into weird situations. It just seemed like a very kind of fertile thing to explore for a one crazy night movie on Christmas.
The other thing about Christmas movies, and I really love Christmas movies in general, is they’re really…I always like taking a genre and then being able to [play around] in the genre but having that shorthand with the audience of the genre. So Christmas genre, you can totally fuck with it a little bit. It can be bittersweet. It can be kinda sad sometimes. But it’s always ends up being really happy. You can do more kind of complicated things when you are working within a genre like that that is, in the macro, a crowd-pleasing genre.
And I guess I had a personal…you know, just from having done it, I had a personal reason for doing it. And also, for me it’s always just fun to explore style within certain genres and stuff like that. I always really loved Christmas movies. For this I watched Home Alone. I watched Eyes Wide Shut. It’s just crazy how many different awesome…Eyes Wide Shut you would not think of a Christmas movie, nor would you think of it is a tonal reference for a movie like this. But I always like to, when I’m doing something, just grab from all sorts of different places. And there’s so many different cool Christmas movies and they all have something…like the uniqueness of it is it’s just a time of existential exploration.
I know this is a long answer, but the other cool thing about it is, for me, in a movie about growing up, about adults who kind of…like how do you grow up with your friends? These are themes we’re exploring. What does it mean to grow up? How do you grow up with your friends, your young friends who may not want you to change or the dynamic may be different when one gets successful and the other one is not successful. To me, the allegory about Christmas, and childhood, and leaving childhood behind, something like that was very salient for telling this story. So I thought it was kind of semi-smart in that way, too.
Obviously you are doing a Christmas movie. You want it to have kind of this evergreen quality. You want it to be something to kind of show year after year. Does that limit you in terms of the pop culture references and things that you throw in?
Seth Rogen: No.
Seth Rogen: We just do it. I think generally…I mean we tried not to use references that have a miniscule shelf-life. But a lot of our humor is based on acknowledging the world we live in and commenting on it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: A lot of the most timeless movies have very topical…like Casablanca is…
Seth Rogen: …it’s true. Annie Hall has more pop culture references for that time than a lot of movies. So I think if they are done well and they are funny…I remember I didn’t even know who the author was who he brought out when I was a kid. But that you can just tell that it’s funny. That’s kind of the approach.
So in previous films we’ve had these great hallucination type scenes. Is it going to be something like that here where we see a little weirdness?
Seth Rogen: It gets weird. There’s some stylistically surreal moments I would say here and there.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: What I like is that it’s not just a comedy of people talking and saying funny things. It’s really visual and a feast for the eyes as well.
Seth Rogen: A lot of music in it and stuff like that.
Comedy pratfalls and so on?
Seth Rogen: I wouldn’t say pratfalls, per se, but there’s fighting, there’s chasing, there’s car chases. I mean everything you would hope to…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: There are psychedelic sequences…
Seth Rogen: There are lots of psychedelic sequences…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: There’s magic. There’s music. It’s Christmas.
Seth Rogen: Anthony Mackie is a Marvel star. You can’t not use that.
Anthony Mackie : I’m more of a love machine than anything else. Because I’m an athlete and…basically, my character has been an athlete for almost 15 years now, but he’s finally found fame. So he’s really into being famous, which if you go out in New York, you see a lot of these guys, like, “Oh my god…!” So he’s very bottled up in the idea of, “I’m famous now, so I’m going to use it for everything I can.” So he’s just a fame whore. He’s the guy it’s like, “Oh, man. We’re never going to get in there.” “Stop. Park the car.” He’s one of those guys.
How is the iconography of the Christmas holiday kind of affect the visual shorthand of the film?
Jonathan Levine: It’s really fun, first of all, because Christmas lights are beautiful. Having been here basically shooting in August, we’re going to come back in January and shoot Rockefeller Center and all sorts of other bigger things we can get. But it’s really nice to have that shorthand with the audience. It’s like having Christmas lights in any shot just kinda makes you feel warm and makes you feel nostalgic. And it’s not just visual shorthand. It’s a tonal shorthand, too. There’s so many movies where you can be funny but you can be introspective, too, that take place around the holidays.
But visually, honestly, Eyes Wide Shut is a huge reference for us. Home Alone is a huge reference for us. I’m trying to think of other…Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Jonathan Levine: Diehard was a reference for us. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang… there’s so many cool Christmas movies…And yeah, it’s kind of amazing. Even though we’re here in August, you put a fucking Christmas tree with Christmas lights in a shot and a little snow on the ground and you just buy it.
Seth Rogen: It’s interesting. When we were getting into the writing of it a lot, you realize there’s just a lot of expectation with a Christmas movie. We’d give it to our friends to read who are writers and they’re like, “Oh, you guys didn’t do this thing! It’s Christmas movie. Where’s this thing? Where’s this thing?” And just kinda like the tropes. I think at first we kind of were shying away from them a little bit and not fully embracing, like, it’s a fucking Christmas movie.
So I think the more we just embrace that and just let ourselves become one with that and embrace the fact that there’s things you do in a Christmas movie that you might not normally do. You are kind of giving permission, no pun intended, to wrap things up in a package that maybe you normally wouldn’t be given permission to do. I think the audience is a lot more receptive to it. I mean it’s the holidays. You want to leave them with a nice, warm, emotional feeling that generally our movies don’t have a ton of. So that was something that we talked a lot about, was like how do you make this not only a movie that has all the humor you’d expect from one our movies, but something that really checked the box of a Christmas movie, like something you emotionally wanted to dive into year after year and you liked the way it made you feel, basically?
Anthony Mackie: We definitely went full Christmas. No halfway.
Did you feel the pressure to cram… because everybody celebrates Christmas in their own way. Did you feel the need to cram every tradition in there?
Jonathan Levine: Not the need, but sort of the point is this is a movie for people Christmas forgot. It’s for like the sort of disenfranchised people of Christmas. It’s like I’m Jewish, but I fucking like Christmas way more than Hanukkah. There’s so much cool stuff. And Joe’s character is an orphan. When I was going out on Christmas, it was like there was this sort of secret society of people who aren’t…I don’t know. I don’t know who has the family in Bing Crosby movies or whatever. But I don’t think anyone has that these days. To me that’s a very cool way to approach a holiday movie. It’s sort of an anti-holiday movie that then turns into a holiday movie.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I like the root of it, though, because it’s not just three guys going out simply for kicks. There’s a cool origin story to their tradition of going out every Christmas Eve and that’s it. My character Ethan sort of has a family tragedy where he loses both of his parents near Christmas 10 years prior. So he’s alone on Christmas. And his two best friends come and kinda say, “Hey, let’s hang out. We don’t want you to be alone on Christmas.” That inadvertently begins a yearly tradition of a big night out on Christmas. And now it’s 10 years later and they’ve been doing this every year.
And it’s ending because one is about to have a baby. One has become very successful in his career as a professional football player. And one doesn’t want it to end. [laughs]
Seth Rogen: He has nothing else going on. So it’s rooted in real emotion. And a lot of the kind of stuff that you find in these Christmas-type movies was honestly where a lot of the ideas came from. We’re just like, “Are we fully going to embrace the idea of an orphan and all this stuff?” They’re like, “Yeah. It’s a Christmas movie. Let’s do it as well as we can.” And it lets us get away with a lot of ridiculous stuff because, yeah, there’s like a real actual emotional core to it.
It’s interesting how you seem to be addressing Christmas movies from a place of kind of creative family versus the family you are born into.
Jonathan Levine: Yeah. Definitely. It’s for people who aren’t served by the traditional Christmas movie or the traditional family structure. And it’s about your friends being your family to a certain extent, because as much as I love my family, I’m not as close to them as I am to my friends.
Are there any big choreographed dance pieces?
Seth Rogen: It’s Christmas! [laughs]
I like that your response to that was: “It’s Christmas.”
Seth Rogen: That’s what you start to get into. It’s like, “It’s a Christmas movie. I guess we need a choreographed dance sequence somewhere!” [laughs]
Speaking of the comedy of this, you guys also have an incredible supporting cast. We were talking about Jillian Bell. Lizzy Caplan is in this, Mindy Kaling. Could you guys talk a little bit about them?
Jonathan Levine: Yeah. Well, we have [Michael] Shannon, who is amazing. Lizzy Caplan, who is one of my favorite people in the world, who plays Joe’s character’s ex-girlfriend. We have Jillian Bell who was in 22 Jump Street and she’s on Workaholics. I mean we have these incredibly funny women, which is really great, because I think so often these movies can just become testosterone driven, dick joke driven. And we have plenty of dick jokes. We probably have more dick jokes than most dick joke movies. We have the most dick jokes of any Christmas movies I think is safe to say, and the most dicks onscreen by far.
Who else is in the movie? Jillian, Mindy, who is amazing, Lizzy, Ilana. So it was great to work with all those ladies. Michael Shannon, and then the stuff with the two Jason’s. Who else? Randall Park, we saw a little bit of him, who plays Kim Jong-un in The Interview. He came and did a day with us. He’s on Veep. He’s incredible. It’s just all these funny…Oh, and Nathan Fielder from Nathan for You. So lots of funny people.
Seth Rogen: Oh, they’re all so funny. It’s been awesome. Neighbors was the first movie we really did where we were just like, “What if we filled every single tiny role with the funniest person we could possibly find?” This movie had a lot of really funny female roles. And we know a lot of really funny women. And it was awesome to fill the roles with them. And they’re great. They really drive the comedy in those scenes. Like, Lizzy, she’s awesome…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Lizzy is so smart and so good at your guys’ style on this. She is so quick at thinking on her feet and coming up with funny things that surprised me while it was happening. That’s kind of at the root of this style of comedy. She’s so good at it.
Seth Rogen: She started with me. I think the first time Lizzy ever acted on camera was in a scene with me and Franco on Freaks or Geeks 15 years ago, which is horrible. And Mindy, again, I’ve known for years, and year, and years. And she’s hysterical in the movie. Ilana [Glazer] is someone that we met more recently, but we’re working with them also on some other stuff.
Her and Abbi?
Seth Rogen: Yeah. But only Ilana is in the movie. But yeah, we’re working with both of them on some other stuff. But Mackie has a lot of stuff with Ilana.
Anthony Mackie: Yeah. Ilana’s mine.
Seth Rogen: People get propriety over…[laughs]
Anthony Mackie: She’s all mine. She’s great, though. She has a ridiculousness about her that you don’t find in many adults. It kinda makes it fun. She does it with such an ease. She has the ability of just making it seem like natural behavior. That’s what makes it so unique to me. It’s like anybody else would do it and you are like, “Oh, they’re being stupid!” You see her and you are like, “Wow. You really act like that!” So it just makes it fun. It makes you want to go further as an actor.
Jonah Hill said when he did 22 Jump Street with Jillian [Bell] that it made him want to quit being in comedy because she’s so much funnier…
Jonathan Levine: She’s like Jay-Z, dude. She’s the best. She’s the only person I’ve ever seen in a scene with Seth where he just was…he kept cracking up. He broke so many times…
People keep saying that. Can you give us some idea of what that scene is? Everyone kept saying that they couldn’t keep it together in that scene.
Jonathan Levine: It’s the scene where he sees his unborn daughter as a stripper in the future. It’s a very surreal scene. We probably shouldn’t talk about it, but it’s cool.
Seth Rogen: Jillian, too, is like…she destroys me. I have a hard time…I wasted several good hours of a scene we were shooting a couple weeks ago because I couldn’t stop laughing.
You two guys [Seth and Joe], obviously you worked together before [on the film 50/50]. But Anthony, this is sort of your first time with them. You are all supposed to be long-time friends. How do you develop that camaraderie?
Seth Rogen: We went to one dinner.
Anthony Mackie: We went to dinner. And we were sitting in like a rape cave…[laughs]
Did you just say a rape cave…?
Anthony Mackie: It was really weird. It was in a basement. But they picked it, so you know, you gotta go. It was dope. It’s interesting. I feel like both of them are really…everybody on the set is just really easy going. There’s no egos or ridiculousness, which you really usually don’t find when you have stars on set. Usually everybody is like, “Well, my trailer is bigger,” or, “my girlfriend is going to come today,” or, “why is he getting that?” And you don’t really find that on this set. I feel like even in the movie the three of us are so vastly different one by one that it kinda works really well together. So there hasn’t been any stupidness, or conflicts, or…
Seth Rogen: And we seem like friends. I mean we are getting along, but when you watch us in the movie, that was something we were very aware of, is like, “Will we seem like guys who have been friends for 20 years?” I remember the first day of filming we were like, “Yes. It 100% seems like we’re actually good friends…”
Anthony Mackie: And I’ve always known…well, I met Joe once. I’ve always known his work and I’ve always liked him from afar. Like you see somebody and you are like, “I like that guy.” When I auditioned with Seth and everybody…I have auditioned twice in like six years. I love auditioning, but people are like, “You don’t audition anymore.” It’s like, “Fuck. All right.” Because it’s like dating. So I go in the room and I’m like, “All right. It’s Seth. Just play it cool. Be yourself.” So I walk in and they are like, “Hey!” And it’s [him] and they’re making noise and the office is in chaos. And they’re trying to decide if they saw the couch before. And I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?” At that point it was like everything was all good, because I saw they weren’t assholes.
Seth Rogen: Yeah. You play off each other. They have a lot of energy. Mackie has tons of energy. Levine has a lot of energy. He gets very excited. And when it feels genuinely good what you are doing, then it’s exciting and it makes it way easier also. And because we do it differently a little bit every time, there’s like a spontaneity to it. So it’s not like you are just doing the same thing over and over from different angles and just checking the boxes. Something new could happen at any moment. That’s what I do. If I start to be like, “Ugh. We’re doing it again?’ I’ll be like, “OK. I’ll do something new this time and maybe we’ll come up with something funny and it will be exciting instead of boring.” It’s all how you just convince yourself that you should keep trying to make it funnier and funnier, basically.
Anthony Mackie: And there are no assholes on this movie. Honestly, it’s really surprising…
Seth Rogen: It’s true. Nothing kills the vibe…
Anthony Mackie: …like an asshole. It could be a grip. It could be a driver. It could be an actor. There’s always one asshole where you are like, “Man. I just want to beat the…” You know. But, ironically, there is not one of them on this movie. So it kinda makes it easy.
Seth Rogen: That means it’s you.
Anthony Mackie: I definitely know three people that think I’m the asshole.
Seth Rogen: You see everyone hates him on this set. [laughs]
Anthony Mackie: But I won’t let them win. I’m like, “You’re going to fucking like me by Monday.” So I’m still fighting.
The Night Before will be in theaters on November 25, 2015.