Filmmaker Jonathan Levine stood in front of a packed theater in Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening to introduce a screening of his new film, “Long Shot,” a political comedy. He opined that it was somewhat of a challenge, in such surreal times as now, to make a comedy that satirizes politics. Nonetheless, he felt the time was right for such a rib-tickler like his new film.
“We started making this eighteen months ago or more,” Levine told me during a sit-down interview at a D.C. hotel Thursday afternoon. “It was incredibly daunting, because you just don’t know where people are going to be at” from the time the script is written until the film comes out, he said.
“Long Short” stars Charlize Theron as Charlotte Fields, the secretary or state who is hoping to campaign for the presidency when the president (played by Bob Odenkirk) decides not to seek a second term so he can—wait for it—return to his TV acting career.
“[Odenkirk] became that character as a result of Donald Trump,” Levine said, adding that the blueprint for the chief executive in the original script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling began to hew closer to the current White House occupant as rewrites went along.
During his few scenes, Odenkirk is seen not only reading scripts for his post-presidency in the Oval Office but also reciting lines along with himself in a televised rerun of a show in which he played, well, the president.
“He’s not an avatar for Donald Trump, but it was clear the world was showing us that we could take a little bit of license and have him be a former TV president,” Levine said. “It felt like the sweet spot of what we were trying to do.”
“Long Shot” also stars Seth Rogen as Fred, a disillusioned political journalist who runs into Charlotte at a swanky New York party, only to realize that she was once his babysitter and his first crush.
Charlotte then hires Fred, a stoner/slacker true to Rogen’s on-screen mold, to punch up her speeches as she travels the globe on the business of statecraft. Romantic and geopolitical hijinks ensue, with the heroes dodging insurgent missiles, prying paparazzi and even the schemes of a smarmy billionaire (Andy Serkis, underneath a great deal of makeup) out to make Charlotte come to heal.
It’s a ridiculous premise, but Levine said that taking it that much past reality allowed he and the writers to go for broke when it came to producing the laughs, which are plentiful in “Long Shot.”
“We found we could use it to point out absurdities, but be very gentle about it because people want to go to the movies to forget…how divided we are,” Levine said. “I don’t know that I could even articulate the rules we had, but when something felt too charged or pushed, we wouldn’t [use] it.”
Actress June Diane Raphael co-stars as Maggie, one of the secretary of state’s handlers. Maggie is a sneering, controlling type who is clearly suspicious of Fred and his place on the road next to the third-most powerful person in the Cabinet.
Raphael, a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade, brought much of her improvisational training to “Long Shot” (Levine said that comedy scripts often function as a blueprint).
“After seeing the first cut, I called up Jonathan and said, ‘Oh, no, I’m not funny!’” Raphael said. “I definitely panicked because I like making people laugh.”
“I feel some women who are comedic actresses say ‘I don’t care about comedy, just find the strength.’ Not me. I want it to be funny, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Raphael said she was more gentle in her self-appraisal upon seeing the finished film, and added that the magic of improvisation, on a set or just in training exercises, lies in creating a magical moment that no one could have sat down to write.
“I find myself always wanting to get to that special place where something is really happening in the moment,” she said. “I think there was so much of that on set, and you can feel really that texture watching the movie.”
“I think the other thing that June is so good at is almost improvising behavior and reactions,” Levine said next to her. “Some of my favorite stuff in the movie is the way she reacts in the presence of Seth’s character. We also had writers on set [who would] sometimes say ‘Give me a category of joke that you need,’ and they would pitch different versions of that joke. So you’re kind of both writing and improvising at the same time.”
One of Raphael’s best scenes involves her trying to get Rogen’s character not to talk about drugs as they are almost certainly being monitored by the Secret Service. Her hand gesticulations become ever more frantic as the scene progresses, with Rogen’s Fred clearly oblivious to her warnings.
“That was one of the few situations where I think we had one line of dialogue and we did eight different versions of that scene,” Levine said. “And I would love to show you every single version.”
The cast is rounded out by industry veterans, including Alexander Skarsgård in an uproariously funny turn as the befuddled Canadian prime minister, and O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of Ice Cube—and who also portrayed his father in “Straight Outta Compton.”
Levine believes that the funniness of “Long Shot” comes from taking situations to hilarious excess, be it the TV star president who wants to move back into acting or Fred giving the secretary of state—who is also his boss, and for whom he still harbors feelings—drugs during a crisis situation.
“It was important to us to make something kind of joyous at the end of the day,” said Levine. “And I think that watching these two characters overcome their obstacles and navigate their journeys and have an ending that really feels good and is aspirational…is an exciting thing to see. And movies I think can often be ahead of the curve and depict things we hope for ourselves.”
“I really hope people see it in the theater because comedies are really meant to be viewed communally,” added Raphael. “I think there’s something so incredible about seeing a comedy play with other people and the experience of the collective laughter.”
“Long Shot” opens wide Friday.