As a teenager living in New York City in 1994, Jonathan Levine searched for a mantra that would encompass everything he was feeling as a recent high- school graduate living in a city that had just elected Rudy Giuliani as mayor.
During this time, NYC started to become a different place as Giuliani implemented zero-tolerance crackdowns across the city. Looking for a voice he could connect with, Levine says he turned to the hip-hop movement and found comfort in lyrics like, “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit” from Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album. Although he knew they weren’t necessarily written for him, he was a restless soul and rap music became his passage to confront his teenage angst.
Flash forward 14 years and director/writer Levine has taken his memories of 1994 and injected them into “The Wackness,” a film that revolves around Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an 18-year-old drug dealer who trades weed for therapy with his shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).
Via phone, Levine spoke to me about music, movies, and video games.
When you start creating a playlist for this film, what music were you looking for?
There are so many wonderful songs from that era, so I thought, “Does this song have that nostalgic feel?” When you think about the song “Summertime” with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, it’s all about barbecues and playing basketball until the sun goes down.
As an 18-year-old kid, did any of Giuliani’s new regulations to clean up the city affect you personally?
I got beat up less, which was good. I can thank [Giuliani] for that. Well, in any city, there is a pulse and energy. If you start making it more palatable for tourism or the richer portion of the city, you’re going to lose a lot of what living in a city is all about — the great melting pot of America. Yeah, some volatile stuff is going to happen, but you can’t deny it. And when you do, you in some ways crush the spirit of that city.
So, he did more harm that good in your opinion?
He’s gone through many incarnations — from a police-state fascist to a very beloved figure. It’s interesting because they’re both very accurate. He handled September 11 beautifully, and he really was amazing in that time, but it’s just funny that people forget on September 10, everybody hated the guy.
You took me back during the scene where Luke is blowing into a Nintendo game cartridge to get it to work. Were there any other ’90s references that you wanted to use that didn’t make the cut?
There were definitely more movie posters. We didn’t get “Natural Born Killers,” but we did get “Forrest Gump.” The Nintendo was in there from the beginning.
Was it difficult to decide what game to use?
It was always [The Legend of] Zelda. First of all, my cinematographer liked it because it gleamed n’ shit. In my own pretentious head, the quest that Link is on is the same quest that Luke and Squires are on.
I didn’t see any plugs for “Pulp Fiction.”
You know, at Sundance Quentin Tarantino was there and came up to me the last night and was like, “Where was ‘Pulp Fiction?’” I explained to him that ‘Pulp Fiction’ didn’t come out in New York until October, and the movie is set in September ’94. He was cool with that.
Have there been any other music movements since ’94 that have affected you the same way?
Unfortunately not. That was a watershed moment in pop culture because of all the hip-hop stuff and Nirvana. It was a very vibrant time. Now, there is just so much access to music you can’t help but find really amazing stuff. But when someone makes a movie 10 years from now about 2008, I’ll probably be proven wrong.