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Christmas came early one September evening in 2014, when myself and a small band of reporters trekked to Brooklyn to see what Yuletide shenanigans would be offered with The Night Before. Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie front this funny feature about three friends whose lives are pulling them in very different directions. Fighting the tide, they reunite in New York City on Christmas Eve, searching for the Holy Grail of holiday parties: The Nutcracker Ball. Stepping onto the soundstage, we got an instant exposure to the magic and mayhem promised by the premise, along with a big fat ode to Big.
Who could forget the iconic scene where man-child Tom Hanks dances on the giant keyboard at a massive toy store? Well, in The Night Before, you've got Rogen and Gordon-Levitt collaborating on the massive floor piano, while Mackie rides a toy horse and hypes up the crowd as all three perform a jaunty version of Kanye West's "Runaway." Despite some racy lyrics, children gather and clap mittened hands, parents marvel instead of sneer. Even with the edges of the set well within my view, it's Christmastime in Manhattan. It's the most wonderful time of the year.
We sat down and spoke with Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as director Jonathan Levine, producer James Weaver, producer and screenwriter Evan Goldberg, and some key elements of the Christmas-manifesting crew, and learned there's lots to look forward to during The Night Before.
It's about the end of an era. Seth Rogen plays a soon-to-be dad, out enjoying his last hoorah pre-baby. Anthony Mackie is a pro football player who’s blowing up. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a 10-year orphan, drifting in life and struggling with losing touch with his old pals. Making matters madder, Rogen's loving wife (22 Jump Street scene-stealer Jillian Bell) gives the ultimate gift to her baby daddy: a boatload of party drugs. "It gets weird," Rogen promised, "There’s some stylistically surreal moments" -- including a strip club scene moviegoers won't soon forget.
The success of Neighbors made The Night Before wilder. With the gross-out gags and outrageous humor of the frathouse-focused film proving a massive success for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, they realized The Night Before could stand to turn up the volume on its outlandish gags. Whether or not we'll see something as shocking and silly as Rose Byrne's milking scene remains to be seen. (Writer Goldberg and producer James Weaver were divided on that point.) But Levine noted, "We have the most dick jokes of any Christmas movie, safe to say, and the most dicks on screen, by far."
Expect an R-rating, but no cynicism. "We might trick people into thinking it’s cynical for a few minutes here or there, but no, it is not cynical at all," Levine told us over one of the poshest set lunches this reporter has ever seen. (Sushi buffet for days!) He added, "It’s not like Bad Santa. It goes as far as Bad Santa (in wild humor). It goes further than Bad Santa…but our movie, the throughline is less fucked up. It’s just kind of crazy things happen, but our movie always maintains a positive (vibe). It should always feel upbeat, uplifting. It never gets down and dark in that way."
The Night Before is inspired by Levine's own tradition. The premise is the director's brainchild. Eager to create a heartfelt holiday comedy that would play to his generation, Jonathan Levine pitched it to Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg while they were collaborating on 50/50. "This is actually something that I used to do with my friends growing up here," Levine said of the Christmas Eve party-hunting plot. "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… and 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 Nutcracker Ball will be a Christmas bash unlike any you've seen before. Levine explained how the party is one the film's heroes have been in search of for years to no avail, and how it's become their "white whale." But how do you build the most bananas holiday party of all time?
Production designer Annie Spitz explained, "It was described in the script as Burning Man meets Tron meets the North Pole, and it’s basically the best Christmas party that ever happens." Like some of Manhattan's most exclusive clubs, the entrance to this shindig is hidden. "I thought it would be fun to have them walk into a deli," Spitz smiled. "They go into a freezer and then they open the back of the freezer and we end up in our party, which starts out with this huge tunnel of Christmas lights. Everything is Christmas themed, so there’s this huge tunnel of lights and the train and they ride the train in. They enter into the Nutcracker Ball." To see what dazzles inside, you'll have to turn out for The Night Before.
It'll be stuffed with comedy cameos. While the scene we saw shot featured leads Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, director Jonathan Levine was positively giddy to give us a sneak peek at some of his previous shots. We were politely asked to save the surprise of most. But I will say this: if you're a fan of Comedy Central, you'll geek out over the comedians who pop by this The Night Before. Also, look for recurring Rogen co-stars Lizzy Caplan and Mindy Kaling!
Rogen was happy to bring his heritage into the holiday movie genre. Sporting a Star of David on an "ugly Christmas sweater," Rogen told us how the Hannukah/Christmas culture clash plays into The Night Before. "My wife is not Jewish in the movie -- Jillian Bell plays my wife -- so that’s kind of an element as well is that, we’re going to start our own family tradition in the coming years basically… There’s a scene where I’m like explaining to (Jillian Bell)'s two Christian nieces what a Jew is," he chuckles.
The Night Before is a musical! Rogen shared the Big allusion is just one of "several musical performance sequences throughout" the film. Levine teased a karaoke jam, a Flashdance nod, a "choreographed rap sequence" around the classic Run DMC track "Christmas in Hollis," and mentioned that Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a struggling musician, which sets up room for him to let loose. "Which is awesome," Joseph Gordon-Levitt added, "People get together and play music together on the holidays.
Big's won't be the only allusion. Most will be from holiday films like Home Alone 1 & 2, It's a Wonderful Life, Love Actually, Eyes Wide Shut (yup, Eyes Wide Shut) Die, Hard, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and more. For instance, like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, The Night Before will offer its own sort of angelic guide to its spirited leads. Their Clarence just happens to be a weed dealer played by Michael Shannon who sells them "the weed of Christmas past, weed of Christmas present, weed of Christmas future, and it may or may not be magical, " Levine shared.
Michael Shannon got cast for his sorority sister menace. Remember this NSFW vid? Jonathan Levine says this inspired him to cast Shannon, saying, "It works better with a dramatic actor who, I mean, Shannon understands what’s funny about his own persona." Levine felt the humor of his potentially magical dealer would work best with Shannon's stern and straight approach to comedy. "Not unlike Scrooged or something like that."
Realistic snow scenes perplexed locals. Ahead of the relentless blizzards that battered the Northeast in the winter of 2014/15, special effects foreman Robert Smith was tasked with bringing fake snow to New York City for some of The Night Before's 17 or so location shoots. This includes scenes in Rockefeller Center (shot later in January), Chinatown, the Empire State Building, and Brooklyn. And Smith is a guy who relished in making faux snow mind-meltingly real. On August days that clocked in at 90-some degrees, Smith was tickled to see New Yorkers turn a corner and be confronted with confusion thanks to a street caked in slush and snow. His secret? Cotton batting topped with Epsom salts that melt, glisten and respond to tromping like real snow.
The Night Before wants to be your new classic Christmas movie. Rogen acknowledged how engrained the tropes of the genre are into movie fan expectation. It's something the script initially rebuffed, but ultimately reveled in. "I think at first we were shying away from them a little bit and not fully embracing," Rogen recalled. "Like it’s a fucking Christmas movie, and so, I think the more we embraced that and just like 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, like you’re kind of given permission 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. It’s the holidays. You want to leave them with a nice warm emotional feeling that like generally our movies don’t have…That was something that we talked a lot about was how do you make this not only a movie that has all the humor you’d expect from one of our movies but something that really checks the box of a Christmas movie. Something you emotionally wanted to dive into year after year, and you liked the way it made you feel basically."
Gordon-Levitt added, "There are psychedelic sequences. There’s magic. There’s music. It’s Christmas."
Mackie summed it up, "We definitely went full Christmas."
The Night Before opens on November 25.
Photos by Sarah Shatz.