Director Chronicles New York's Hip-Hop '90s

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The Wackness follows its 18-year-old, drug-dealing, girl-chasing protagonist through the summer of 1994 as he attempts to get a handle on his life with the aid of a therapist (Ben Kingsley), hip hop cassettes, and copious amounts of marijuana.


The summer of 1994 should have been a good one for Luke Shapiro, the main character in the new movie, "The Wackness." Luke is a hip-hop fan in New York, and New York is the capital of the hip-hop world. Nas and the Wu Tang Clan have just released their debut albums, and the Notorious B.I.G. is about to burst onto the scene. Sure, Rudy Giuliani has just begun his quality-of-life crackdowns, and Luke does have a profitable sideline selling the devil's weed. Here's what else he's up to.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wackness")

Mr. JOSH PECK: (As Luke Shapiro) Tomorrow, my life changes. Tomorrow, I graduate. And then, I go to my safety school, and then I get older, and then I die.

PESCA: The man who wrote those lines, directed that actor, and lived enough of the story to make it seem pretty authentic is with me now, Jonathan Levine. How are you doing?

Mr. JONATHAN LEVINE (Director, Writer, "The Wackness"): I'm doing good, man.

PESCA: I would think, you know, off the top of my head, how long - how far does an era have to pass for it to be nostalgia? I would say, you know, more than a dozen years, which I guess means the '90s, the mid-'90s. You could do a period piece set in the mid-'90s, but I've never seen a period piece set in the mid-'90s. Was that a, oh, did you discuss that, did you discuss updating it for the present, or did it always have to be set back then in '94, the year you graduated high school?

Mr. LEVINE: I mean, for me, it's, you know, very personal reasons to set it then. I think if I had set it today, I really wanted to feel authentic and true, and I think if I had set it today, I don't really know what kind of goes on with kids today. They, with the MySpacing and the Facebooking and, you know, I'm old, man. So...

PESCA: The kids these days. Listen to you. Oy, with their crazy blogs, and the frogs, and the...

Mr. LEVINE: Their Internets and - so, yeah, no, I mean, it's always important for me to kind of maintain that authenticity by grounding it in my own personal experience. And then, you know, I think there was something fun about being kind of the first ones to look at the '90s through this nostalgic lens. I looked at when George Lucas made "American Graffiti," and it was - I think it took place in 1961, and he made it in the early '70s. So, I think he set that precedent that it's OK.

PESCA: And let's talk about execution, because the bad way to do the nostalgia thing is like "That '70s Show," where everyone is very consciously, like, wearing a shirt that symbolizes the '70s and making references that's so very '70s, right?

Mr. LEVINE: Right. Right.

PESCA: So, you wanted to just have it not draw attention to itself but be authentic. So how do you go about doing that?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, it's a fine line, you know. We didn't want to make "I love the '90s: The movie." So we wanted - you know, it's fun including a lot of references. There was a lot of goofy stuff that people were doing, a lot of things that people were wearing, the way that people were talking. You know, you want it in there, but it's a fine line. You don't want it to be a caricature of itself, and you don't want to rely too much on gags and gimmickry to get, you know, because that undermines the rest of the story. So I was just kind of the tone police, you know...

PESCA: Yes. The tone police.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. If it got too much, I would kind of pull back a little bit, and then in the editing room, you can make a lot of choices like that, too.

PESCA: Tell me, what was the last thing in the script that almost snuck in that would have been an anachronism, but you caught it and said, oh, that was actually '95? Can you remember that?

Mr. LEVINE: Oh, man. No, I know - more stuff we missed that I wish we had talked about, which is, like - we didn't get into any of the sports stuff in there, like the Knicks and the Rockets in the finals, or the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup, or the baseball strike. That stuff didn't make it in there, but what anachronisms, no, I mean, the biggest thing was just making sure you didn't see anyone in the background with a cell phone.

PESCA: Also I looked, you know, I was paying a lot of attention, more so than a regular moviegoer would, because you do get swept up in the movie, but I noticed that, probably because of rights issues, whenever there was signage on the street, you couldn't really see it that much. Like I saw Sbarros there, which existed in '94, but I didn't see too many other businesses where the viewer would have the opportunity, if they knew New York, to go that wasn't there then.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, yeah, it's really a lot about what you don't show, you know. It's a lot about - and growing up in New York and recognizing, and remembering exactly how the city - but, like, I can't show streetlights that used to read, you know, the words walk, don't walk, and now it's icons. And I couldn't show street signs because they used to be yellow, and now they're green.

PESCA: You didn't show that many cars.

Mr. LEVINE: Cars, you know, we would have, like, you know, we were a low-budget movie, but we would get - for every kind of outside shot, we would get an old cab and an old car that just kept going around the block over and over again.

PESCA: Right. And the thing is, to get a '93 car, it had to look like a relatively new '93 car. And that's hard to get unless you're - you know, the big-budget guys can, but you're just doing it on essentially a shoestring.

Mr. LEVINE: It's true. It's true. We were very lucky that, you know, we sort of replaced money with ingenuity, and hard work, and we were able to do it.

PESCA: So this is - so we just talked about how to make the '90s seem authentic. How do you make the lead character, who's a drug dealer, sympathetic?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, you cast the right guy. That's the first thing. That's actually, you know, most of it. When Josh came in, he had...

PESCA: Josh Peck.

Mr. LEVINE: Josh Peck, who's from Nickelodeon's "Drake and Josh," and also quite wonderful in an independent film called "Mean Creek" that came out a few years back. Yeah, I mean, he came in, and he just had the authenticity. He - you know, it wasn't a prerequisite that he be from New York, but he was, and that gave us a shorthand together.

And you know, he had both the authenticity and also kind of a vulnerability and an accessibility that - it was always very important to me not just to have this movie be for people who were from that era or for people who kind of grew up in New York. I wanted it to be, you know, a very accessible, not closed-off world, and he - the way he conveys emotion, and the way you can sort of fall for him when you see him on screen, that's what really appealed to me about him.

PESCA: He also had the right haircut. My best friend had that haircut, swooping down over his eyes, sort of Robert Smith of the Cure inspired.

Mr. LEVINE: I can take full credit for that haircut. Completely shaved in the back. Completely shaved to the skin in the back.

PESCA: OK. So, you have this interesting young actor, and you can - Josh Peck, contrast him with Ben Kingsley. You must have been thrilled when he signed on.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. I mean, when he signed on, it meant we had a movie. Without him, the movie doesn't exist. And beyond that he's, you know, the greatest living actor, one of them, so it's pretty cool.

PESCA: All right. Let's hear a scene. Here's Luke, who is played by Josh Peck, explaining his problem to Dr. Jeffrey Squires, played by Ben Kingsley.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wackness")

Sir BEN KINGSLEY: (As Dr. Squires) So, what's on your mind, Luke?

Mr. PECK: (As Luke Shapiro) Nothing. I mean, I - I can make something up.

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Dr. Squires) Fine. Make something up, then.

Mr. PECK: (As Luke Shapiro) OK, I'm having trouble getting laid.

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Dr. Squires) Common problem.

Mr. PECK: (As Luke Shapiro) Look, Dr. Squires...

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Dr. Squires) Call me Jeff.

Mr. PECK: (As Luke Shapiro) Look, Jeff, Dr. Squires, how much do you need, man?

Sir KINGSLEY: (As Dr. Squires) You're the one who needs this, son.

PESCA: How do you even begin to tell Ben Kingsley anything about acting, or do you?

Mr. LEVINE: I don't think you really do, man. I mean, you know, I talked to him about the role and the character, and I recognized that we were on the same page. But I certainly felt a lot of my job was just kind of staying out of his way and giving him a comfortable environment in which to work, and just opening the lines of communication. He rarely does anything wrong, so it's, like, you know, I got to be pretty hands off with him and just kind of work with him as a collaborator and a friend, which is the best way to work with anyone. But no, it's like, you know, I never rehearsed with him. We never did any, like, exercises or anything like that.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LEVINE: It's just, you know, I kind of was learning from him.

PESCA: It - another thing that's weird, you have Josh Peck, who's this Nickelodeon veteran. He's done hundreds and hundreds of hours of TV. And you have Mary-Kate Olsen, who's done hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of hours of TV.

Mr. LEVINE: Yes.

PESCA: Were you intimidated? Were you the least experienced guy on the set some days?

Mr. LEVINE: I mean, you know, I felt pretty comfortable in my skin as director, just because it's so personal. I mean, I was more intimidated kind of by the idea of it than actually doing it, you know, the thought of working with Ben Kingsley. When I went to go meet him, I looked up on IMDB kind of other directors he had worked with. Of course, I had seen the films, but just to see the list from...

PESCA: Sir Attenborough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: Sir Dickie, Mr. Spielberg, Polanski, now Scorsese, I'm even forgetting some. Jonathan Glazer in one of my favorites.

PESCA: Levine.

Mr. LEVINE: And some guy named Levine, geez.

PESCA: The other main cast member that we haven't talked about yet, Olivia Thirlby. Did you see her as the best friend in "Juno" before this shot?

Mr. LEVINE: No. I didn't. We had talked about it. She - when I met her, she had just gotten back from Vancouver shooting "Juno," and you know, of course, I had no idea it was going to be such a phenomenon. Like Josh, she came into audition, and she was amazing.

PESCA: I would imagine that Stephanie, the character that Olivia plays, on the page, when you really think about who she is, this really rich girl who kind of, you know, she's not exactly mean, but uses guys...

Mr. LEVINE: She's not sympathetic.

PESCA: She's not sympathetic at all. The audience would find her extremely sympathetic exactly because of what Olivia does.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. She's great. That's a credit to her. You know, for me...

PESCA: But did you want - did you want the access to make her sympathetic? Or did you kind of envision the girl as a little, let's say it, bitchy?

Mr. LEVINE: No. God, I wanted her to make - you know, because, like, I don't know how to write women, you know? The same way I just don't know how to deal with them in my own life, I don't know how to write them. So, I really counted on her to sort of fill in the blanks. You know, the little things Olivia does to make this character sympathetic and to recognize the motivations even when the actions are not, you know, something you can get on board with - to recognize the motivation behind it, you know, she's just a kid. She's a teenager and not always doing the right thing. It's - I'm very grateful to her for that, to make me look like I know a little bit more about girls than I do.

PESCA: Getting Josh Peck to show his ass on screen, was that a challenge?

Mr. LEVINE: You know, I got him drunk, a few cocktails. That's usually how I get people to show me their ass. No. It was cool, man. They were just - they were on board with - they understood that it was about kind of getting to the truth of that situation and the frank sexuality and kind of the awkward, teenage, kind of first-deflowering moments were going to be that much better the more true they felt. And so, I think he was really into it the first time he saw it. And now, he's like, I'm not sure about my ass, man. And I was like, no. It's real nice. It's really nice.

PESCA: Wait until you see it on the big screen.

Mr. LEVINE: Oh, we've seen it on the big screen.

PESCA: Wait until you see it in IMAX. Oh, Method Man was in the movie.

Mr. LEVINE: Yes.

PESCA: He was in the movie in two ways. He acts in the movie as a, you know, drug kingpin or quasi-kingpin, and his music's all over the movie.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. He's in two different songs in the movie.

PESCA: That's pretty amazing. I mean, what kind of conversation did you have with him about, you know, starting the Wu Tang Clan and all that?

Mr. LEVINE: You know, I never really - I wanted him to not feel like he was there as a musician, you know. So I never really pinned him down about that. As much as I want to, you know, as much as I want to talk to him about that stuff, I was always a little nervous because he's, you know, he's still such a vibrant artist today. I didn't want to be like, dude, remember when this happened? Remember when this happened?

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LEVINE: Even though he would have been down to talk about it. So, no, we just - I just really kind of treated him like all the other actors on the set. And you know, we never got the chance to kind of just hang out and kick it and talk about that stuff. I really hope we do, though. I hope we get that chance, because I've got a lot of questions for him.

PESCA: Oh, yeah. I wanted to ask one more question.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, man.

PESCA: One of the shorthands for this movie, I mean, like, if you read a blurb in Esquire or one of those magazines, the sentence is, you'll never believe it, but Ben Kingsley makes out with Mary-Kate Olsen.

Mr. LEVINE: Yes.

PESCA: That was probably in the script for a long time, right?

Mr. LEVINE: It was in the script for a long - I mean, I never knew it was going to be the two of those guys.

PESCA: That's the thing. You get the actors, and for a second, you're, like, I got these actors, and then how long does it take before you say, I am going to be the director who makes Ben Kingsley make out with Mary-Kate Olsen?

Mr. LEVINE: Oh, it's pretty awesome. I mean, there is - there were moments like that when I was behind the monitor on set being, like, I can't believe this. I mean, you know, Ben Kingsley takes bong hits. It's like, there's a lot of stuff - there's a lot of new territory being mined here. And yeah, it's cool to be able to do really weird stuff like that.

PESCA: You're a man who brings worlds together. That's pretty cool stuff. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. LEVINE: Thank you very much, man.

PESCA: "The Wackness" opens July 3rd in New York and L.A. Opens wider in the following weeks. Jonathan Levine, thank you, sir.

Mr. LEVINE: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of song "Times Have Changed")

Mr. BIGGIE SMALLS: (Rapping) Remember back in the days when had waves, Gazelle shades and corn braids, Pinchin' pennies, honies had the high-top jellies...

PESCA: That song, "Times Have Changed" off Biggie Smalls' - or was he Notorious B.I.G. only back then on "Ready to Die"? Win Rosenfeld joins me now. Was he both?

WIN ROSENFELD: Hey, Mike. He was both.

PESCA: He was Biggie and...

ROSENFELD: You know, Notorious B.I.G. is the artist on that album.

PESCA: I see. We invite Win here because he is in the demographic bull's-eye for that movie, "The Wackness."


PESCA: He graduated a New York City school in the mid-'90s, obsessed with rap, sold a lot of drugs, should I not have mentioned that?

ROSENFELD: Yeah. I would prefer if you would have just...

PESCA: Oh, sorry.

ROSENFELD: This isn't live, is it?

PESCA: So, what are you looking for out of this movie? Better yet, what's the thing that if they put it in the movie you'll know it's inauthentic?

ROSENFELD: Well, if it was, like, "Kids," if it was, like, Larry Clark's "Kids," you know, where it was so hyper, you know, danger - I mean, this is - this movie and I - I haven't seen it, but looking at the trailer, I mean, this is a movie that me and my friends have been talking about for years all through high school. We're always, like, someone's got to make a picture about this era, man, this New York Giuliani, Biggie Smalls, era. And when I saw this trailer, I mean, just my jaw just dropped.

PESCA: That - the same thing happened to me and my other brother and two sisters about our experience traveling to a fabled land ruled by a Christ-like lion, and they did that movie.

ROSENFELD: Oh, they did, yeah?

PESCA: Yeah.

ROSENFELD: I always thought that that was kind of about you.

PESCA: Yeah. It was "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." All right, well, thanks, Win Rosenfeld.

ROSENFELD: All right.

PESCA: Thanks, everyone else who helped put this show together. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I am Mike Pesca. We're always online. Take care.

ROSENFELD: Peace out, New York.

PESCA: As they say...

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