Q&A: “The Internship” Director Shawn Levy on Making a Feel-Good Movie About Google
Hollywood and Google are putting aside their differences over piracy and payments and focusing on what really matters: A feel-good buddy movie set at a beautiful corporate campus full of free food and world-changing aspirations.
“The Internship” — starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn and filmed in part on the actual Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. — comes out June 7.
I got a chance to see a screening of the movie, and my quick take is that it’s a two-hour commercial for Google. But it’s also actually funny, so it’s an even more effective commercial.
While I know zilch about the film business and whether “The Internship” will be successful, I was interested in the Hollywoodized version of techie culture and Silicon Valley.
So I asked “The Internship” director Shawn Levy to talk about what it was like working with Google and portraying a company that so many people know so well. While Levy stressed that no money changed hands, he said that Google helped out on everything from technical advice to co-founder cameos.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Liz Gannes: Tell me about how the premise of the movie came together.
Shawn Levy: Vince had this idea, basically, of two guys, him and Owen, in that moment where the economy is literally sinking and resulting in them not just losing their jobs, but those jobs literally going away. Entire areas of professions becoming obsolete. The notion of two such guys looking for a chance of reinvention in the belly of the beast, if you will, and in the sweet spot of an industry that is not at all going obsolete, but — in fact — becoming more and more relevant every day. The idea of that kind of mismatch of cultures, the analog guys in the heart of the digital world, seems interesting to explore, both comedically and thematically.
Was it crucial that you shoot it at Google?
For me, it was. In fact, I told Vince, I think there’s a big idea for a movie here, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting if we have to use a generic tech company. I think that part of what’s cool is, not only is Google kind of globally ubiquitous, but there’s a certain mythology around its culture. Google has essentially rejected traditional workplace notions and rebuilt them in their own image, according to its own ideals and aspirations. I thought that it’d be cool to get a look from the inside of that Emerald City. Kind of a pass to the inside of the chocolate factory, if you will.
It does feel like that, especially in the beginning of the movie when you’re zooming all around the Bay Area and then into the happy campus. Did you think Google would go for it?
I wasn’t sure, because going into the movie, we knew that, clearly to Vince and I, that it might be PG-13. It might be R. That it would definitely need to be filled with a certain comedic irreverence, and that it was not going to be a commercial for Google. It wasn’t going to be vanilla or saccharine. The ground rule going in [for Google] was, we’re willing to have a sense of humor about ourselves, as long as you portray us in a way that feels accurate.
Google said: As long as it’s ultimately a movie that is uncynical. And the truth is, I don’t make cynical movies. I actually don’t believe in cynical movies, and I don’t want to put them into the world.
So I was able to promise that the movie would be really irreverent and occasionally audacious, but that it would be accurate in how it portrays the fundamentals of the Googleplex and Google culture. It would ultimately be aspirational, because the movie is ultimately really kind of open-hearted about a number of things, but certainly at the possibility of building a better future both societally and individually.
I think that comes off. The movie is very positive toward Google, and it’s almost a more perfect commercial for the company, because it isn’t too safe and over-polished, so it feels authentic.
It plays like an underdog story. I thought it had a lot in common with a sports movie, but with unconventional competitions, like playing Quidditch and making Instagram clones.
That’s very observant. When we were making the movie, we invoked movies like “Rudy” and “Rocky” and “8 Mile” more than we invoked comedy. It was absolutely an underdog paradigm.
Tell more about the process of working with Google. I was surprised at how accurate your portrayal of the technology was, though obviously some things have to be changed to fit the arc of the movie. The way that you were using Google search volume to decide whether to have a restaurant in one city or another — it made me laugh, because it was actually authentic.
Literally, every single computer screen and every single white board in the movie was either done by a Googler or sent to us by Google or personally verified and approved by a Googler, because I wanted the movie to be accurate in the small details, as well. Every time you see a shot, even in the distant background where there’s a dry-erase white board, what you see on that white board is something that you see in the Googleplex, and I wanted all of that to be accurate.
The scene you’re talking about is when they’re selling ads at a local pizza joint. Vince and I had the scene, but then I went to Google, and I said, “What are the tools that would be useful if you were trying to make a case for the usefulness of an online presence?” Because Vince and I, we don’t know those details. Google educated us on things that exist in the world, and then we integrated those real things into the screenplay and into the dialogue.
Are there any interesting details or cameos from Google that you want to call out?
I know a lot of people see a cameo from Sergey Brin in one of the final scenes of the movie. But almost everyone misses the first cameo of Sergey.
Oh, when he’s on his elliptical bike?
Yes. Exactly. He’s literally wearing these completely bizarre neon green slippers from New York fashion week. He also seems partial to the frequent wearing of yoga clothes.
Yes. All Lululemon, all the time.
I just want to underline the fact that’s another area of accuracy: Himself.
For me, this notion of hiring people who are old and unqualified as a diversity initiative was hilarious, but also the least authentic part of the film, given what I know about Google.
There’s this notion of the old kind of social class system, the high school class system, with the cool popular athletes and then there’s the bookish outcasts. Our movie reflects the reality at Google and, frankly, I think, in the emerging tech industries in general. In fact, it’s the smart kids who are running the world. There is a bit of image and perception shift in what it is to be cool, but that’s the wrong word, because we’re not even talking about “cool” anymore.
It’s interesting to look at the two different big Hollywood takes on Silicon Valley, with Facebook and “The Social Network” about this evil genius being ruthless and wreaking havoc, and your movie making you want to go live on the Google campus. It’s very different.
I don’t know if that’s actually in any way reflective of the different cultures. I do know that I was really kind of wowed by the genuinely sincere altruism at Google. I really felt like, a) the people who worked there wanted to be there; b) work was a place of fun as much as a place of toil; and c) there’s a vast number of people who worked at Google who were actually there, because they really believed that this is a place that can help make life on Earth for humans better.
There’s also a bit more nuance in portraying Google or Facebook, because everybody seeing the movie also likely has a personal relationship with Google through their products. And these are a very few smart people who build things that affect millions and billions of people in a personal way, for instance with regard to their privacy.
I get it.
How involved will Google be in releasing the movie?
We are going to come up there. Usually, press junkets are held in Beverly Hills hotel rooms, but we are actually going to come there and do our entire press junket on the Google campus. And we’re doing screenings with a huge audience of Googlers and a lot of Silicon Valley notables.
For me, getting Google to cooperate with the movie was great, because it gives us a really privileged view of the inside of one of the biggest companies of our time. Yet I’m also quick to say they didn’t pay us. We didn’t pay them. I’ve been very impressed with how much autonomy they’ve given us creatively. They were just really happy, because the movie was funny, and it had the spirit that they were hoping for.