Screwball Comedy, Marriage and Filmmaking: Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal on Wild Canaries
A loose-limbed caper comedy that lovingly mashes Hollywood screwball conventions with Brooklyn relationship drama, Lawrence Michael Levine’s sophomore picture, Wild Canaries, tries two things most independent films don’t, and largely succeeds. It’s narratively complex — maybe not Inherent Vice-level, but this mystery thriller about an engaged pair of armchair detectives investigating a possible murder in a rent-controlled apartment is strewn with crosses, double-crosses, disguises and clues. Even more impressively, Wild Canaries shoots for a quality that is often a byproduct of independent cinema but not a goal: entertainment. Inspired, says actor/writer/director Levine, by the “Nick and Nora” Thin Man movies he watched early in his relationship with co-star and producer (and Green director) Sophia Takal — also his wife — Wild Canaries contains car chases, slapstick humor, shoot-outs and plenty of skulking up and down fire escapes while wearing wide-brimmed hats. It’s all quite charming even as the two leads hit deeper notes about the interpersonal challenges and struggles to maintain identity within young relationships.
Wild Canaries follows up Levine’s debut, 2010’s independent ensemble comedy/drama, Gabi on the Roof in July, a film also dealing, somewhat, with real estate and twenty-something anxieties. For his new film, Levine has multiplied his budget ten-fold and surrounded himself and Takal with name actors (Jason Ritter, Alia Shawkat, Kevin Corrigan and, particularly good as Levine’s character’s ex and business partner, Annie Parrisse). Still, Wild Canaries‘ $300,000 budget is a fraction of what a mini-major would spend on a picture like this, and Levine faced recognizable stresses when he premiered his film for both audiences and distributors at SXSW last year. As in the film itself, there were some nail-biting moments, but things worked out in the end. In the wide-ranging interview below, Levine and Takal discuss many things, including complicated storylines, fundraising, working out a shooting style with DP Mark Schwartzbard, walking away from Austin without a deal and why you shouldn’t pack your festival premiere with acquisitions folk. But I flick on my tape recorder mid-conversation, as we talk about 50 Shades of Grey and Levine tells me why Wild Canaries isn’t entirely dissimilar.
Levine: It’s about similar themes. You’re laughing, but it is. I mean, [Wild Canaries] is not about sex. But it is about how when a couple’s about to get married, everything gets really, really heightened. The decision to spend a life with somebody makes you examine them very critically. You’re watching them [thinking], “This is the person I’m going to spend my life with.” And you’re also trying to work out who’s going to set the tone, who’s going to be in charge. [You’re thinking], what parts of myself will I have to give up [to be in this marriage], and then you cling more desperately to those parts. When I was writing Wild Canaries, those were the kinds of things [Sophia and I] were going through because we were planning our wedding. So it is kind of about dominance and submission — this couple is fighting to maintain whatever parts of themselves they like but the other person doesn’t really like.
Filmmaker: How do you feel the specifics of your relationship is reflected in these two characters you’ve created?
Levine: [Our relationship] is reflected [in the film], a lot. I feel like their’s is a dynamic that Sophia and I have. I tend to be more circumspect, more even keeled, less enthusiastic, but also maybe less—
Levine: Less devastated when bad things happen. And she’s more ebullient, more far out.
Takal: More fun.
Levine: More wacky.
Takal: Funnier. More exciting to be around. [Laughs]
Levine: I wanted to take a look at these things and laugh about our fears of each other. My character is a parody of what I imagine Sophia thinks of me when she’s pissed at me. And her character is a parody of what I think she must think of me.
Filmmaker: Wild Canaries, with its suspense storyline, comedy, car chases, multiple locations, is on a different scale than your first feature, Gaby on the Roof in July. How did you wind up coming up with not just the story but the scale at which you worked this time?
Levine: Well, I knew I was going to be making a movie with other people’s money, and I wanted to do something that was just more appealing to a larger audience. I thought, what genres do I like the most? I love Hitchcock, I love old screwball comedies and Woody Allen. So, I wrote the screenplay, and I was hoping, naively, that Sophia and I could be [the leads] and that we’d attach actors for the other roles and I won’t have any trouble raising the money. I thought maybe we had done enough in the indie film world that people would let us do that, and I was totally wrong. I went to production companies, and they were like, “Maybe we’ll give you the money, but it’s not going to be that much. And you can’t be in the film.” Production companies were offering us the same kind of money that we raised privately. So, they would’ve given us all the money, and we wouldn’t have had to do all that work to get investors, but we couldn’t have been in the film. It was like, “We’ll give you $300,000 but you have to cast Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza.”
Takal: A lot of the actors they were suggesting were people who had put themselves in their own movies.
Levine: I was like, “You’re only telling me to cast Mark Duplass in my film because he put himself in his and proved himself, which is what I wanted to do.” There were two weeks when we were wondering if that was the right decision [to star in the film ourselves]. Production companies kept telling us “no one is going to be in your movie with you guys as the leads. They don’t know who you are.”
Takal: That’s the other big industry thing: you’re never going to get someone more famous to play a supporting part than the leads.
Filmmaker: So when you say you made it with other people’s money, you mean private investors?
Levine: Yes. Our other movies, we paid for. They were made for very little money, but that money was all ours. And then, of course, we had complete control.
Filmmaker: What were the budgets of the other films?
Levine: Gabi ended up being $30,000 at the end of the day, and we made Green for, maybe, $15,000.
Filmmaker: Can you say what this one was?
Takal: I think it will end up at $300,000.
Levine: Really? That much?
Takal: We shot it for a little under $200,000, and then, between the festival expenses and all of that….
Levine: Okay, so it was ten times as much as Gabi. But, anyway, when we were done with those first two films, our savings were gone. We had sold everything.
Takal: We sold our CDs.
Filmmaker: You sold your CDs?
Takal: Yeah, on Amazon. We raised money for our movies by selling our CDs.
Filmmaker: It’s hard to sell CDs these days.
Levine: It was easier, then, seven years ago. And we had savings. Sophia got cast in a commercial. She made $28,000 for that, so that was a big chunk of Gaby. I had some money saved up from working as a teacher. I have this apartment that I own that we moved out of and rented out. We lived someplace way cheaper.
Takal: With a roommate.
Levine: We did all sorts of crazy stuff that was totally disruptive to our lives. So, I knew that my next film, whatever it was going to be, I wanted to go ask other people for money.
Filmmaker: How did you find or connect to your investors?
Takal: A lot of them were people Larry had grown up with, who became bankers or entrepreneurs and had money.
Levine: Real estate people.
Takal: A few people came through a couple of our other producers. People gave little chunks, but they all added up.
Filmmaker: And how did having these outside investors impact your process?
Levine: One way they impacted our process was that we brought a casting director on. When we decided to be [the leads], that meant that in order to go to these supporters of Larry’s and show that we were doing something different, we had to approach more recognizable actors [for the supporting parts] — actors we thought were really good and who were on TV. These investors had nothing to do with film, but they watched TV. That’s something I found really interesting: the idea of who is recognizable is so different for each investor.
Filmmaker: I think the charm of the film is that you guys are in it.
Levine: That’s what I thought.
Filmmaker: The movie feels personal because of that. If you weren’t in it, I think the distance between the form of the film and your own personal themes might have been too much.
Levine: It might’ve ended up being a film that was more popular.
Filmmaker: I’m not sure it would have been. That’s what I’m saying.
Levine: I’m not either. And that was my argument at the beginning: it’s not going to be special if we’re not in it. The whole thing is about us. If we had Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick playing our parts, maybe it would’ve played Sundance and maybe somebody would’ve bought it [there], but I wouldn’t have been happy with that film because I wrote it for Sophia and me to do. We were lying in bed, watching The Thin Man, and I was just like, “We should do a movie like this.”
Filmmaker: I think you guys do a good job of pulling off screwball comedy, which is hard. What were the challenges of hitting those rhythms, those beats, that timing?
Takal: I thought it was really difficult. [Larry] was always telling me to talk faster and to keep my eyes wide open when I was scared, and I just felt like I was being a bad actor. I was really attached to the idea that my strength as an actor is that I’m really natural, and that I’m doing a good job when I really feel it. But holding a [fake] dead person’s head and acting in this very theatrical way, that was very, very difficult for me. I ended up getting really frustrated with myself, with having to do so many takes. And the notes I was getting from Larry, they weren’t about actions, about the scenes. They were like, “You need to open your eyes way wider. You need to look really scared.” I was so resistant to these notes, but then, when I was watching the footage, I saw what [he was doing].
Levine: Pretty much every time we did coverage of Sophia, I would be like, “Okay, now do one that you think is the wildest, most horrible, most exaggerated, worst acting that you could ever do.” And then, she would do it, and that would be the one we would use. Her idea of the most terrible overacting worked for the kind of life and death comedic situations we were in.
Filmmaker: I was struck by the amount of physical humor in the film, which, Larry, is something I don’t associate with your work as an actor.
Levine: I really enjoy that kind of acting, and I’ve had a lot of stage improv experience. I was very, very serious about improv comedy for about two years. I did a lot of shows. When you’re on stage in that improv context, if you don’t really commit to something — if, the audience feels that you’re joking or half-assing or putting quotes around something — it’s not funny anymore. The audience doesn’t laugh, which is a mortifying, humiliating feeling. But, if you commit, they start to feel the energy and laugh. So, I just brought that [experience] to the movie.
Filmmaker: What about the issue of narrative complexity? Wild Canaries has a much denser plot than many independent films. There’s a point in the film where you could have been done with the narrative material you had, but then in the third act you take it even further.
Levine: Handling the complexity of the story and the suspense was the thing I was most concerned with. It’s difficult to do a mystery. If you don’t reveal things in a very specific way, the audience will feel like you either tipped them off too much or not enough. You have to make things clear for people so that they know what’s being talked about. And [audiences] don’t absorb things just by hearing — you have to show them.
Filmmaker: What types of things were you worried audiences would be confused by?
Levine: In test screenings, it took a long time for people to understand that everybody lived in the same building, which totally surprised me because [as a director] you know everything. It’s very hard to put yourself in the position of an audience member who knows nothing. People would struggle to understand that Kevin’s character wasn’t the landlord of the building, which to me was perfectly obvious. So, we had to do all this stuff in post, like adding ADR and doing a reshoot just to establish very basic things that seemed to be super fundamental.
Takal: But also, I thought that we made the mystery a little overly complex, on purpose, almost as if we were poking fun [at the genre]. We’ve been reading a lot of Hammett, where you finish the book and you don’t really understand the mystery. And I thought that’s what we were doing.
Levine: It was. It’s like a joke about how these movies traditionally leave you with your head spinning. I wanted everybody to be with it and then to [be thrown] a bit of a confusing twist at the end that would leave them feeling a little dizzy. But, if they think about it for a second, it all makes sense, which it does. I mean, it’s not like I don’t know what’s going on, and it’s not like the information isn’t there in the movie. It’s just that it comes at you really fast.
Filmmaker: Tell me about how you worked with your DP.
Levine: Aside from Sophia, the person I worked with the most was Mark [Schwartzbard, the DP]. He was the most invested person in the film besides the two of us. Maybe that’s just because of the way he is. He really cared about the film and cared about his work.
Takal: Mark is very much like a DP/producer. He talked to me a lot about logistical concerns like crew size, and not just about his own crew, and not in a way that felt bad, but in a way that felt really helpful. Because he has experience working on bigger movies, not only as a DP, but as an AC, he had a lot of suggestions for how to arrange the production that I found it really helpful.
Levine: Because I was acting in the film, and because I really wanted to do something that was suspenseful, I knew that the camera was going to be way more important than it was in the previous stuff we had done. Mark came out about three and a half weeks before we started shooting, and we would get together almost every day, like a normal work day, eight hours. Oftentimes, we would be in the locations: my roof, my apartment, my hallway and the streets near our house make up the majority of where we shot the film. So, we were able to scout the locations and think about logistical concerns and shot list. We were able to storyboard a lot of the action and suspense stuff. I wanted to be prepared because I knew that when I got on set, I wanted to basically give the camera department to Mark and not micromanage him at all. I had enough on my plate with my performance, the other actors and the other department heads. So we decided very specifically how to shoot this movie beforehand.
Filmmaker: As compared to Gabi, were there certain rules of coverage you adopted due to the more complicated storyline?
Levine: Well, we just had so many more tools this time. We had a Steadicam and a dolly.
Takal: We had a zoom lens.
Levine: We had a zoom lens, which we used a lot. So, there were fewer limitations, and we were trying to get the most out the tools that we had, especially during the suspense sequences.
Takal: Gabi was just on a tripod, moving around.
Levine: Gabi had two or three setups per scene — basically a roving tripod head.
Takal: I remember you sitting there one night watching Stolen Kisses and talking about trying to do things in [Wild Canaries] in as few shots as possible. But then, once you got on set, you realized that wasn’t right for comedy. I remember you would always add shots as the day went by. You’d always be like, “We need this insert shot of this thing and it’s not going to cut together unless we have it.”
Levine: I do that on every movie. I did that on Gaby, too. I was [originally] like, “We’re just going to play out these long, fluid, roving tripod shots.” And then there are jump cuts all over the movie. With this one, I was like, “Yeah, we’ll try and do amazing masters and that way, we won’t need this other coverage.” And then when I was watching it actually happen, I was like, “It’s not going to be funny enough.” A lot of scenes that were supposed to be done in one shot ended up being 12.
Filmmaker: What about all the zooms, which harken back not to ’30s screwballs but to ’60s and ’70s films by Altman, Lester, Roeg. The zoom seems to be having a resurgence in independent films today.
Levine: I was excited about using them. I think [that resurgence] might have to do with an appreciation for Altman that people are having. We were also watching a lot of 1970s suspense and action films, like The French Connection, Bullit and The Getaway, and they all had a lot of zooms. I thought it would be funny to see Sophia and I running around in footage like you’d see in The French Connection.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest part of the production?
Levine: It wasn’t that hard, right?
Takal: I found it really difficult.
Takal: [Laughs] I had a really hard time letting go. We brought on a few people to lighten our load so we could focus on performing, but I found it really hard to let go.
Filmmaker: Because you were producing too.
Takal: Because I was producing. It was also the biggest crew we’d worked with — there were 30 people, and sometimes, things weren’t properly communicated to everyone, and that was really frustrating. There were a lot of production, logistical things that were really difficult for me, and I think it might have been because I have a lot of anxiety, and I have a hard time letting go. For example, I would notice that the PAs weren’t giving people water when [the crew was] in the middle of working, so I would do that. And then, rather than asking the PAs to do it, I’d be grouchy that I was doing it. And then I would come to Larry with my anxiety, and he would be like, “I don’t want to deal with your anxiety.”
Levine: She’s much more sensitive, observant, and competent than I am. She’s aware of things — problems with production — that I am just not even perceiving. She’s very sensitive to people’s vibes. We each have nicknames for each other, and my nickname is “Space,” because a lot of times I’m just out there on my own trip. Sometimes it really serves me because I’ll just have one thing to do, which is act in this movie. Because I’d done all that prep work with Mark, I was basically acting and paying attention to other people’s performances, and that was it. I’m just able to compartmentalize a little bit better.
Filmmaker: So, Larry, for you, the split between acting and directing wasn’t a problem?
Levine: My only problem with this shoot was that when you’re an actor in the movie, some people almost feel like the movie has no director. I don’t like to micromanage people on set. I only talk to the actors if they need something because I feel that they’re competent and know what they’re doing. If they have an issue, I’m very prepared to answer.
Takal: And there were some nights when there were logistical issues, and all of a sudden the AD was chiming in, the DP was chiming in, and the actors are chiming in, and the script supervisor….
Levine: Yeah, and then I’d pop out of the scene and be like, “Guys. This is what we’re doing!”
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to adapt your way of working from Gaby and Green to this larger scale — with crew members who were used to even bigger budgets than what you were working with here?
Takal: A lot of the crew had made tiny movies before, and they were great. But there were some people on the crew who didn’t have as much experience making small movies, and their idea of the way things are supposed to be done really conflicted [with ours]. I feel like there were days when the tone of the set was off because they thought we didn’t know what we were doing but it was actually just that we have a way that works for us. But then, on days like the ones with the car stunts, where we had to block off entire streets or handle of a bunch of PAs, it was really helpful to have those people.
Levine: I just feel like people [on film sets] complain, and you felt like this was your production and maybe you took it personally since you were at the top of the food chain in terms of the production. And you’re a young woman, too, and some of these people were older men who were not necessarily the most respectful.
Takal: Yeah, I guess. I wanted everything to be cool. I wanted everyone to be happy. I forgot that, no matter what, they’ll complain.
Levine: I actually think they were happy. I think you did a great job.
Takal: Yeah, there was just a little bit more chaos than I would’ve liked, sometimes. Everyone was crammed outside in our hallway while we were shooting inside. They didn’t have space. And people were on their cell phones a lot, sending Snapchats to each other, or being in our eyeline while we were acting. Stuff like that bothered me.
Filmmaker: That’s Film Set Etiquette 101: Get out of the actor’s eyeline.
Levine: I don’t even notice those kinds of things. I feel like if people aren’t paying attention, the more free I can be.
Takal: But I felt like there was something wrong that I was paying so much attention, and I didn’t have anyone to bring my anxiety to. I kept asking Larry to take care of things for me because I don’t like confronting people. I’d be like, “It’s really annoying that this guy’s texting on his phone. Tell him not to.” And Larry would be like, “You tell him not to, you’re the producer.”
Levine: I’d be like, “I don’t give a shit what he’s doing.” So it was kind of an interesting dynamic. I think we both had a point.
Takal: I learned a lot. The next time, I’ll be comfortable being more of a boss. And if I don’t think certain people are helping us make the movie, I won’t be afraid to tell them to go away.
Levine: The bottom line is that the most challenging part of the shoot was how much we took on. She was the lead producer of the movie, the one with the most answers, and she was the star of the movie, so it was a lot. And I was directing and acting, and that was a lot, and I had to conserve my energy, which is why I was reluctant to take on the anxiety that she had.
Filmmaker: So let’s cut to the film being finished. You premiered it at SXSW, and you went there with certain expectations based on making a more commercial film. Or, at least, you were conscious of the fact you had investors to try and repay. Now, a year later, how do you think it went? Were your expectations met?
Levine: I have one big regret, and one that I would really caution other filmmakers to take seriously, and that is, if you’re lucky enough to play at a big festival, pay attention to the audience at your premiere. Our premiere was 90 percent industry, and that ended up hurting us because it was a very jaded audience who was doing a job. Out on the street, there was a line around the block of fans [who couldn’t get in] and they just wanted to see the first narrative competition film play at South By. It was an unruly situation, but I blame myself.
Takal: I think it’s a South By particular thing, because they don’t have press and industry screenings, and that’s really cool, but the sales reps and publicists do feel some pressure.
Filmmaker: And the rooms at the Alamo Ritz are small. I wasn’t at the first screening; I saw it at the Rollins Theater.
Takal: That was a good screening. People were laughing. But no one seemed to realize [at that first screening] that everyone [there] was industry. It just seemed like a weak premiere, which shook our confidence a lot.
Levine: It shook our confidence, and I think it also had negative consequences for selling the film because all of those people didn’t have a real gauge of how the movie was going to do [with a regular audience], and nobody recommended it to their companies to watch. Cinetic had to fight to get [IFC’s] Jonathan Sehring to watch the movie [after the festival].
Filmmaker: What’s the solution, though? You want buyers to get in, and, as you say, SXSW doesn’t have press and industry screenings.
Levine: I feel like I should’ve been more perceptive and watched [the line] and said, “Do we need 10 people from the Weinstein Company when the Weinstein Company is not going to buy this movie? Can we have just four? Or one? We just needed one person from IFC, one from Oscilloscope and the rest fans. Cinetic was doing their job getting industry in there. Brigade was doing their job getting press in there. But, whoever was running the theater was maybe inexperienced and got a little steamrolled so no fans got in. But, like I said, it was on me. I should have paid more attention and made sure fans were getting in.
Filmmaker: What were your thoughts when you returned to New York, then?
Levine: Well, I was hearing things from people that if it didn’t sell out of South By, it’s not going to. So, I basically prepared myself for the worst, that even though I had asked all these people for money and made all these decisions like casting known people and making a comedy, that I had made no career advancement from Gaby. It was just going to be another movie that had a marginal sort of release. I had to accept that, and it was very humbling, and it made me more grateful when this [IFC deal] happened because I had already accepted that I was a total failure. You know, when you make a film, you get obsessed with it, and you almost act like what happens to it is the exact same thing as what’s happening to you. Like, my movie’s getting passed on, so I’m a loser. I had to learn how to separate myself from what I did and be like, “I’m all right. I’ve got a great wife. I’ve got a loving family. I have all these blessings. Just because the movie didn’t do well, that doesn’t mean that I’m a complete nonentity.”
Filmmaker: But it all worked out in the end.
Levine: I am happy with what happened to the film. I’m thrilled that it’s coming out on IFC. We ended up getting what we wanted out of the film. We wanted to play better festivals, we wanted to find more of an audience, and we wanted to have the movie distributed by a really good company, and all of those things happened.
Takal: It just took a little longer than you thought.
Levine: It took longer.
Filmmaker: Going forward both as individuals and as a filmmaking couple, where have you landed after this movie?
Takal: Well, with my new movie, we tried to cast famous people.
Levine: We had no choice, really.
Takal: Yeah, I guess.
Levine: Or we could’ve done an $800 movie.
Takal: I’m really glad I didn’t act in that movie. But, I really want to act in another movie, and I want to direct myself in some other thing. But, right now, I think the idea is just maybe thinking about things less as immediate gratification — like, “I want to make a movie that I’m in because I feel anxious about time passing” — and more [accept that] every project is a different thing, and that everyone’s path is different. I don’t need to constantly be comparing myself to other people and their processes, or how quickly they are producing things.
Levine: I’m very interested in working with Sophia again. I’m interested in directing her in a movie I’m not in. And, I’m interested in acting with her in stuff again, and I’m also interested in doing something that neither of us are in.
Takal: I think it’d be fun to just produce another movie.
Levine: Every time I do a film, it’s a reaction to the last one. So, okay, I did a really funny movie, I’d love to do a dark thriller now, something like Claude Chabrol.
Takal: But also, he has a bigger script.
Levine: Oh, right, I always forget about that. It’s so much bigger. It’s one of those where it’s like out of our hands.
Takal: We also keep talking about not wanting to get sucked into some sort of industry thing, where we’re waiting for permission to make a movie. In general, we always want to have something we can make for no money if we have to.
Levine: I think both of us have lost a lot of time fretting about whether our movie’s going to get made, and that anxiety can eat you up and make you unproductive. We’re not likely to go down that road again. If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, but in the meantime, we’re just going to keep working.