EXCLUSIVE: 'Snatched' Director Jonathan Levine on 'Half Frontal,' Tapeworms and the Return of Goldie Hawn

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Photo: Getty Images
To entice Goldie Hawn back to the big screen -- for her first film in 15 years -- it took a special script (Snatched), a special co-star (Amy Schumer) and a special director: Jonathan Levine, whose past work includes the cancer dramedy, 50/50, and the stoner Christmas carol, The Night Before. In his latest, Levine is tackling mother-daughter bonding (and snatchin') and ET phoned the director to discuss the road to bringing Hawn out of semi-retirement, doing improv with Schumer and the movie he would like to direct with Jennifer Lawrence.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
ET: Amy said she approached Goldie on a plane and that's how she got her to star in Snatched. What was that process for you? Or, did you just get a call from Amy that was like, "Goldie is in."
Jonathan Levin: Basically, we had a list of kind of the usual suspects to play Amy's mom. And Goldie was not on our list, because we assumed Goldie was not...you know, working. [Laughs] Amy kept bringing her up, but she wasn't someone who was a priority for us, because we didn't really know how real it was. And then, at one point, Amy got her and me together for a drink and from the very moment I saw them, I was just so taken with their chemistry and really started to believe that this was something that could happen and this was something that Goldie would be into. So, I guess everyone was feeling each other out, except for Amy, who orchestrated the whole thing and beautifully connected the two of us.
Goldie's just such a special person, her energy is just so amazing and [she] is such a legend. And we had a very long, candid conversation about what she'd been up to and what she viewed as the challenges of this role and how it would feel to get back into acting. It was such an amazing meeting that, next thing we knew, we were in Hawaii making the movie.
Did she tell you what it was about this project that brought her back?
I think it was really the opportunity to work with Amy. What became very clear was that they both respected and really loved each other from afar and really, really were kindred spirits and wanted to work together. Also, what is great about this movie is it is a two-hander, and I don't think there's that many opportunities for female comedians of a certain age to share top billing with a young comedy star who's having a moment. I think that they both respect each other as comedians and Goldie has really admired Amy's brand of humor. It just felt like a really good, natural fit for all of us to jump in together.
And Goldie is still so good.
She's so wonderful and just really effortless and it was really such a gift to even see that, let alone direct that.
What is it like being on set and directing such a legend? And what type of actress is Goldie to direct?
You know, I've worked with people who are sort of natural comedians, whether it be Seth Rogen in The Night Before or Rob Corddry in Warm Bodies. People who, for lack of a better word, are comedians first and actors second, even though I think all of them have great chops acting. But I would call Goldie an actress first and a comedian second. I'm not sure she would agree with that, because she does describe herself as a comedian. But to me, it always comes from a place of truth and a place of really feeling the stakes of a situation. That's where her humor comes from. A lot of what we're used to from comedies these days is situational, yes, but it's sort of a riff on a situation. That's something that's became a mainstay of modern comedy since 40-Year-Old Virgin, and that's not how Goldie does it. Goldie does it like an actress. She can find the beats and she can find the rhythms and she does that, but first and foremost, it has to start from a place of emotional truth.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
Obligatory question: What is your favorite Goldie Hawn movie?
Private Benjamin, I think, is my favorite of hers. Not just because of her performance, but because I re-watched it and many of her movies in preparing to work with her, and what I admired so about the movie is that it seems ahead of its time, even today. This emotional journey of this woman, trying to find herself and learning that what she needs is within, I think was almost revolutionary at the time, and you still don't see many movies like that. And to know that she also produced it makes it that much more esteemed in my heart. It's just such a special movie. Not a deep cut, but my favorite.
Hey, there's a reason it's not a deep cut. With Amy, she has such a distinct voice and often writes on her projects. You touched on this earlier, you said she did a pass on the script, but what does it look like working with her? How hands-on is she during pre-production? Or is it a lot of improv on set?
It is a lot of improv on set and it is a lot of work in the trailer, or in the weeks before or passing drafts back and forth between [screenwriter] Katie Dippold and Amy and her sister [Kim Caramele]. We get to the set with a blueprint and then Amy always has the freedom to riff. But more than that, if something just wasn't working when we got it on its feet, we would all circle the wagons and figure out how to make it work. It wasn't always about finding different jokes -- with Ike Barinholtz's scenes, for example, that is what it was about. It was about trying to beat jokes and coming up with better jokes. But with Amy and Goldie, it was more about making the story work and coming from a place of character and story.
Walk me through Ike's very unique pronunciation of "mamá." Where did that come from?
That had been in Katie Dippold's script from the moment I read it. And Ike, I think, took it and said it, like, 50 more times than that. But that was always in the script, the flip side of Amy's character, who has become a semi-irresponsible free spirit in the face of her mom's overprotection. Ike's character sort of did what his mom did, which was retreat from the world and become very much a mama's boy. And that pronunciation was always in there. Credit goes to Katie for that, and we just kept thinking it was funny every time he did it. We cut a lot of them out of the movie too. [Laughs]
What else is cut from the movie, in terms of outtakes and deleted scenes? Was there anything you were particularly sad to lose in the end?
A lot of the scenes will show up somewhere as deleted scenes. There were a lot of really funny scenes that we had to cut from the movie. There's a scene on the ship where Goldie and Amy play strip poker with the crew members that I thought was particularly funny, but it's a tricky tonal balancing act trying to find, The stakes are real, yet they're never in too much jeopardy, but you always want them acting as a real person would in these scenarios. So the strip poker scene, even though it was funny as a kind of one-off, it strained believability as far as their characters went, so we cut it.
And there's your pitch to buy the DVD. If you want to see Goldie Hawn playing strip poker, buy the DVD.
There you go. No full frontal. [Laughs] But if you want to see half frontal, you can just go to the movie!
Photo: 20th Century Fox
You mentioned tone, and there are almost equal parts comedy and intense action-adventure in this film. Who is doing their own stunts?
They're doing their stunts as much as is insurable, I would imagine. We had an incredible stunt team, but both Goldie and Amy were game to do whatever and really, really got into the physical aspect of it. I was, in advance, worried about Goldie, just because, I think she's 70? And I was like, "Oh man, I gotta be careful with her running around and all this stuff." Turns out, Goldie is in better shape than anyone I've ever met. Any time something would happen and I would call cut, she would just jump right up and be ready to go again. She's the type of person [that] if you're having a conversation with her, she will just start, like, stretching and demonstrating incredible flexibility as she's having the conversation with you. So, I needn't have worried.
I want to talk about one scene in particular, my favorite sequence, which is the tapeworm scene. Can you walk me through that day on set?
Yes! [Laughs] So, that was always in Katie's script, going way back to the very beginning. On the day, as soon as we put Amy in that kind of mouth gear, it just became so incredibly, incredibly funny. And that's the amazing thing about Amy, right? Is that she will go to such extremes to get a laugh and her commitment to getting a laugh is unwavering. I should say, the tapeworm is a CG creation, but at a certain point, our prop master had made a tapeworm that would, like, attach to the headgear and someone would pull some fishing line and make it kind of dance out there and that's where I found her limit for what she would do for comedy. She drew the line at having an actual, fake worm coming out of her mouth. She also has a very small mouth, which had been written into the script, but we cut that out. I think that that's why she did not want that fake tapeworm in there. But that was a loooot of fun and, as I think Amy said, the hardest scene to film, because that stuff is physically exhausting.
Is that scene signed off on by scientists or doctors? Is that how tapeworms work?
OK so, no, not at all. It is an urban legend, but it is a renowned urban legend! If you want to know how tapeworms work, uhh-- you can Google videos of tapeworms being pulled out of people.
I'm OK.
Yeah, man, talk about a wormhole. I mean, there's one-- I hesitate to even describe it to you, because it is super gross. They don't have those little heads either. We took a little bit of artistic license, but they do kind of look similar. And you will find on the Internet rumors of tapeworms that have been extracted that way throughout history, although no one has yet committed that to YouTube. So, I sincerely doubt it's true, but it is a renowned urban legend.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
Do you see Snatched as a movie that you could or would want to do a sequel to? Could we see Amy shouting, "Dammit, we got snatched again!"
The thing that I would love to explore more with those two characters is where they ended up. Because it's wonderful to see Goldie back and to see her play this character, but that little epilogue we had, where Goldie was a free spirit again and dancing and all that, just to see that version of her go on another vacation, and maybe not even get snatched! Maybe just have a really good time with her daughter. I think that would be really fun. Although that might be a short film. [Laughs]
That last moment too, it was like a sparkle of First Wives Club Goldie.
It was the last thing we shot and I remember I hugged her and said thank you and she said, "Thank you for letting me dance." Which was lovely, because she's such an amazing dancer and that's what her background is. It's truly incredible to be that great at so many things.
My wish is that you all reteam on that project Amy wrote with Jennifer Lawrence. We haven't heard much about the script in a while, but it's hard to imagine Amy could find a better onscreen mother and you can direct.
That sounds like something I would really like to do. Yes.
We'll put it out there and maybe we can get some wheels spinning.
Let's try to get some traction on this!