TORONTO – “50/50” director Jonathan Levine says he miscalculated how reticent movie-goers would be to see a big-screen story about cancer and hopes viewers will find his acclaimed film on DVD.
“I think we were originally hoping more people saw it,” Levine said during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.
“I think we kind of underestimated how much the subject matter would scare people off.”
Released in theatres last September, “50/50” tells the story of Adam, a 27-year-old radio producer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. It’s based on writer Will Reiser’s real-life experience with the disease.
With a stellar cast including Seth Rogen as Adam’s stoner friend Kyle and Anjelica Huston as his heartbroken mother, “50/50” received rave reviews and Levine was lauded for the film’s pitch-perfect tone.
Although the director was happy with the reaction and wouldn’t do anything differently (he notes that “50/50” made money), he concedes he didn’t fully anticipate how much the subject matter would rattle viewers.
“I think the surprising thing is just that, for me, it’s like, younger people — for whom this movie is really something that they don’t normally get … I guess I underestimated how people are scared of their own mortality. I think that that’s kind of a big thing. For a lot of people, it’s not something you want to think about when you go to the movies.”
Added the director: “It’s a bit disappointing because it may discourage (movie-makers) from doing something like this in the future. I hope it doesn’t.”
Still, Levine says he understands the audience reaction, noting he likes a good popcorn pleaser as much as the next person.
“I’ve had the ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ screener sitting on my table for three weeks,” he said, referring to the Tilda Swinton film about a troubled boy who goes on a shooting rampage.
“I’m going to watch it, but you know, I totally get it. And I’ve seen (popular thriller) ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ … I’ve seen (the comedy) ‘New Year’s Eve.’ I would be completely hypocritical if I said I didn’t get it.
“The difference in this case is that this movie was meant to be —and is — uplifting and is a crowd-pleasing movie. So hopefully people will discover it on DVD.”
The DVD is out Tuesday, the same day the Academy Award nominations will be announced.
“50/50” netted a couple of Golden Globe nominations and some critics have predicted Oscar love as well. Not that it’s something Levine is thinking about.
“I think they deserve it, I think Will (Reiser) deserves it. Will I be watching? No. I kind of feel like I don’t want to get caught up in that stuff. It’s totally beyond your control.”
One of the most rewarding things about “50/50,” he said, has been hearing from cancer survivors who were gratified to see their experience reflected onscreen.
“It kind of felt like there were a lot of people who battled cancer themselves or who had loved ones who battled cancer who shared the … perspective of the film and had not necessarily seen their experience reflected in movies that way,” said Levine.
“When that happens it’s incredibly exciting. You feel like you’ve passed a real test.”
While “50/50” proved that Levine is more than capable of helming an intimate, naturalistic film, the director intends to keep viewers guessing. His next project is the zombie thriller “Warm Bodies,” based on a novel by Isaac Marion.
“There’s sort of this misconception out there that it’s just drafting on the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon, but it’s a very unique kind of story and just gave me an opportunity to really explore new things,” he said, adding that he’s currently editing the film, which stars John Malkovich and has an August release date.
“It’s kind of a whole new mythology, a whole interesting kind of revisionist zombie myth that also kind of plays within the rules of that world but also pushes them in a new direction. I think it’s pretty cool.”
Added Levine: “I like to try to do all kinds of different things … I’ve always been very cognizant of continuing to bob and weave so other people can’t put you in a box.”