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“A Snapple Kind of Guy”: Co-Director Lev Kalman on L for Leisure

L for Leisure

A period piece best appreciated less for its historical relevance than its microscopic adoration of a forgotten pop zeitgeist, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L for Leisure is equal part class critique and deadpan laugh riot. Having previously directed the fantastical faux-’80s short Blondes in the Jungle, L for Leisure finds the team exploring the frothy, at times superficial daily activities of a group of well-off, young academics in the ’90s. The characters represent a type you’re fascinated by even as you remind yourself that you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in their presence — at one point in the film, the friends get high off of leftover bags of nutmeg because, apparently, “Malcolm X did it.” While a clear-cut, linear narrative is not easily apparent, with its dry humor, ethereal scene transitions and pulsating soundtrack the film develops its own kind of narrative logic. Former 25 New Faces of Independent Film Kalman and Horn are planning a third period film, Two Plains and a Fancy, set in the 1890s and featuring a female mystic/charlatan, a female French geologist, and a male dandy.

As L for Leisure opens for a theatrical run as part of IFP’s Screen Forward at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP (more information here), I spoke with co-director Lev Kalman about developing a signature style as one half of a directing team, the distancing effects of shooting on film, and how to take advantage of and market a memorable soundtrack.

Filmmaker: I’m interested in how you and your co-director Whitney Horn work as a filmmaking team. Could you speak a little bit about the necessary components involved in crafting a story when there’s two distinct voices at the helm?

Kalman: What’s nice about our situation is that we’ve only made films together. When we met in college, Whitney was doing some video art and I was trying a few things that I didn’t really like. We didn’t really have distinctive voices as artists, and so we went on to develop that voice together in the way we worked. In our case, our voice is so very tied to the DIY method in which we make films. It’s rare that we’ll have an artistic conflict in the sense of  “Well, I want to take the movie in this direction and Whitney wants to take it in another.” Because we’ve always been working together, we’re each other’s audience. If I propose a joke and Whitney doesn’t laugh, then it wasn’t a good joke. It goes both ways. We’re trying to make something we both like.

Filmmaker: How far back does the pairing go? Your shared Youtube channel goes back a number of years.

Kalman: We started collaborating back in college in 2003. Whitney’s uncle gave her a camera and we [got to work].

Filmmaker: How did the idea for L for Leisure come about?

Kalman: It’s hard to remember exactly what the genesis was! For a long time we were sitting on the title L for Leisure. We had the title, the vibe and the subject matter, and they all functioned as a container that we could put things in and get ready for. The vacation structure of the film was also something we had been interested in doing, and we agreed to make a feature. We wanted something digressive, [allowing] our feature to be our first, major long statement. At the same time, we knew that on a practical level, we would have to make the film while I had another job, and that we would have to cast a lot of people who weren’t actors. We knew it was going to take a very long time – it turned out to be four years – and so we used the time [to our advantage], to tell a story that would benefit from the ellipses that happen between the moments.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit more about the actors. When you cast them, was it important that they be of a certain look? By that I mean attractive by fashion magazine standards. These kids are so good-looking they could be modeling jeans, and in one sequence they lounge around and do just that. You get a sense of who these characters are just by looking at them.

Kalman: I think there’s two answers to that question. For the most part, we wrote the roles with the actors already in mind.  They were friends and people we had worked with on other films or had wanted to work with. Some considered themselves actors and others didn’t. There was a very minimal casting process. The big exception was all of the teen girls in the drive-thru scene. They were Tisch students at NYU and were found through a conventional casting call.

As for the look of the characters, we had to think about them from the outside-in. It’s not like every actor is like their character in real life, but we knew that they can make a certain “face” very well. For example, I love the way Libby Gery pouts, and so we wanted Libby’s character to do Libby’s pout. And while part of the casting was definitely with the actors’ appearances in mind, I also think there’s a tendency in the movie to shift in and out of a lux fantasy fashion world. It’s true of the music in the film, it’s true of the cinematography, and it’s true of the characters. At some point they inhabit this glamorous setting and the movie sometimes distances itself from that, wandering into this other kind of awkwardness.

Filmmaker: I think “distance” is the right word. The performances are at times endearingly stilted, somewhat Brechtian in the way they keep the viewer at bay. We laugh because there is a clear distance between us and them. How do you direct for performance?

Kalman: I think we work with our actors in very specific ways. Everyone has different personalities and different ways of preparing for a role. Whitney and I are very sensitive to that fact, and I think we’re very specialized in how we work with them. Part of the effect that comes across is then really a byproduct of that process. Nowhere in the shooting of the film or on the soundtrack are we helping the actor along to seem more convincing. We’re not cutting to make the pace work better. In fact, we sometimes cut late or a little early in the scene, and so it creates a rhythm that takes people out of the usual flow with which we usually consume narrative and characters.

Filmmaker: Adding to this aspect of alienation is the audio track. At times it sounds as if there are different layers of audio being laid on top of one another. Was there a significant amount of ADR work? Some of your scenes involving dialogue keeps the camera focused on one person, rather than the typical shot-reverse shot method of shooting dialogue sequences.

Kalman: It comes from the way Whitney and I learned to work and continued to approach sound. Our first films were shot with K3. It was super-noisy and we didn’t do sync. Thus, we learned to always be thinking of our sound as being completely separate from our picture, as something we needed to build up rather than take for granted.  That’s something that’s become part of our practice. While we had a quieter camera and the audio was synced on L for Leisure, we approached things in a similar way. We thought of the dialogue and sound design as its own thing that we were going to make, outside of the picture. If a scene had to be boomed while being shot, we didn’t believe that that take had to be the sound take we used. We could use another or a different kind of microphone to create a slightly different effect. There are different ways you can produce sound for a scene and that’s something we’ve become sensitive to.

The scene in Mexico, featuring the film’s final monologue, was recorded a few different ways. We had been sending the actor several drafts of the script and he did his first reading for us over Skype. It was a very dirty recording, but we layered it with the waves [in the scene] and it created, for us, the right emotional feel, much more so than having a clearer version that we could have recorded in the studio. It wouldn’t have worked with the picture in the same way.

Filmmaker: You’d previously mentioned that you’re not too fond of shooting on digital video. There’s no question that celluloid, with all of its wear-and-tear, plays a crucial role in defining the tone of your films, as does the 4:3 aspect ratio.

Kalman: Yeah, the use of celluloid does play an integral role in our films. I believe that there’s fine digital work that one can make and fine film work that one can make. There’s also plenty of work that could be independent of those things to produce a great looking image. For our part, however, celluloid is one of the many subtle distancing techniques we use. It’s a constant reminder to the viewer that this is an image being produced to an end. The film being shot handheld is also one of those techniques, the fact that you can feel the rhythm of a body holding the camera even when it’s a relatively still shot.

The 4:3 ratio really works for us. We’re actually going to be trying to shoot something in Super 16mm, so we’ll see what else we can do. 4:3 is great because it’s stemmed in the idea of going back-and-forth between glamorous and impoverished aesthetics. The ratio undercuts any easy beauty or glamor. While the 16:9 or wider formats makes everything look like a movie, 4:3 makes everything look like it’s on TV or in a comic book. It doesn’t have the same cachet to it. Our images tend to just have the main subject in the center, as we don’t have the wide sides to work with. It’s another way of undercutting any kind of easy pleasure that could be received from enjoying a movie for its surface alone.

Filmmaker: One of the most humorous aspects of the film is the way you implement on-screen title cards that provide geographical but not necessarily narrative information. I started to keep track of the many locations the film features, but I realized that perhaps that was a thankless task. The announcing of locations becomes a punchline in and of itself.

Kalman: We were going back and forth about what to do with those titles and how much information to provide. The philosophy that guided us was that we wanted to be crystal clear about the things the audience would understand and then withhold  the information we thought would be extraneous or ambiguous. That’s why, for example, there’s no title for the Future Warz sequence. That’s supposed to be set in a more ambiguous state that the viewer could think takes place in contemporary times (they could be playing laser tag in the ’90s or in the ’00s, for example) [or in the future]. For other scenes, we thought that providing a geographic specificity would help ground the scene in the world of the movie and have people think about this goofy fictional space that has a very specific geography to it.

Filmmaker: Contemplative establishing shots that make the landscape seem foreign and unfamiliar often accompany these title cards. Watching Blondes in the Jungle and L for Leisure back-to-back, I detected a peaceful stillness in the way you film green foliage. Whether you set your story in a jungle in Honduras (as you do in Blondes) or primarily in California (as you do in Leisure), nature’s presence really stands out. It’s very quiet and serene. It’s a little removed from the narrative while also finding an interesting way into it.

Kalman: You know, someone had been talking to me about how they really loved the first few shots of L for Leisure. You have what would appear to be an establishing shot in any other movie — there’s shots of the ocean and you hear birds chirping — but then you keep getting more shots and more birds chirping for three or four minutes! It loses the narrative motivation of being an establishing shot and takes on a life of its own. Blondes begins in very much the same way. It goes back to what we’re trying to do with the landscape in the film. We like to question the extent to which the characters are aware of the space that they’re in and interacting with, while at the same time establishing that the space is indifferent to them as well. There’s a tug-of-war between the space being an evocation of the mood in the scene while also serving as a punchline.

Filmmaker: Both Blondes and Leisure are period pieces (Blondes taking place in the ’80s and Leisure in the early ’90s), and so you feature specific cultural references. The characters are influenced by materialism and products that are designed to be sold directly to them. Whether it be mineral water, Crystal Pepsi or Snapple Iced Tea, they are vocal about their consumption of popular products. At times the film feels like a commercial for ’90s pop products codified for blatant consumption.

Kalman: I think we were trying to create a collection of products and objects of a type. This type was newly emerging in the ’90s, a mass product for the sophisticated consumer. Someone was telling me how they remembered when they first got a Costco in their town. They could get all of these “fancy” products like San Pellegrino, products they associated with New York culture that were now available to them in the suburbs. I think that’s kind of the moment that L for Leisure is playing on. It mentions those specific products that are mass-produced but that suddenly found a new niche to explore with the “sophisticated customer.” I think that’s part of the joke. And it’s also the shorthand that everyone uses in conversations, associating people with certain brands or certain looks. We even do it to ourselves, with a drink or something like, “Yeah, this is kind of my vibe!” We used that shorthand in the film to tell our audience about the characters, that this is like a “Snapple kind of guy.”

Filmmaker: Basketball is definitely a notable influence on the film as well, being set during Michael Jordan’s memorable first threepeat with the Chicago Bulls. Along with a humorous scene featuring a pickup game between two friends on Long Island, the film features numerous NBA iconography, including a Chicago Bulls hat and a Larry Bird Boston Celtics jersey.

Kalman: In L for Leisure specifically, we were looking at the emerging trendiness of basketball in the ’90s, specifically as having a black aesthetic and the white consumption of a black sport. White Men Can’t Jump was released [around that time]. A large part of the monologue we had for the pickup game scene came from a Michael Jordan interview where he talked about his style of play as being a “black style,” a style rooted in jazz and improvisation. That was part of what we were interested in, how people talk about race through basketball. And then of course, basketball is a fun game to shoot cinematically, a fun game to have characters discussing. I’m a basketball fan and John Atkinson, who did the soundtrack, is a huge basketball fan too.

Filmmaker: Speaking of John Atkinson, one of the most memorable and addictive aspects of your films are the musical soundtracks. The nondiegetic music sometimes even seeps into the characters’ world itself, playing on a radio as the characters hang out. Could you speak a little bit about how you worked with Atkinson and how you’ve found ways to market these scores as standalone pieces?

Kalman: In terms of how the soundtrack works, I think it’s more explicit in Blondes. It was like we were in demo mode, trying to cut the space between a narrative movie (and the diegetic music) with something that was resembling more of a music video. We tried to nuance that idea a bit more in Leisure. John was the de facto supervisor on the Blondes soundtrack. It was made by a collection of musicians, but as it came time to solidify it into one thing, he was our point person. If one of the songs needed lyrics, we would send it to John to write. He helped keep everything together rather than having it sound like a compilation of eight or nine songs. We were obviously very happy to work with him as our central guy on L for Leisure.

In terms of marketing, we didn’t really know what we were doing for Blondes. We were never able to market that soundtrack on its own. The soundtrack helped with press, giving people another thing to hook on to, but we didn’t work out the rights in the right way, in terms of ever being able to sell a tape or CD. However, that was always part of the plan for Leisure. It’s been very fun. It’s not bringing in huge money or anything, but purchasing cassettes has allowed people to support the movie in a small way. The soundtrack [which can be found here] is a very solid, standalone soundtrack that itself has a very ’90s feel (the songs are intermixed with snippets of dialogue from the movie). I’m really happy with it as a product.

Filmmaker: The film premiered at Rotterdam last year and has since been traveling the globe. What has the experience been like traveling with the film?

Kalman: The response has really exceeded our expectations. Rotterdam was the first international festival to invite us anywhere with Blondes. When Leisure premiered there, they positioned the movie very well. We had Friday and Saturday night screenings and all were sold out. It was way more than we would have ever expected for a small film like ours to do at a big festival like Rotterdam. Large things started happening for the movie internationally, after that, which was great as we didn’t have a sales agent and didn’t know how to push it. A lot of things started to fall into place. We didn’t get to travel as much as we would have liked to, but we did get to travel a bit. It’s especially interesting to see the film with international audiences, as they see it through such different lenses. We see the film as a very mannered and specific reenactment of a specific moment, while international audiences see it as a self-portrait of now or as an autobiographical movie about the ’90s. I was talking to a friend who was a graduate student in Mexico and she mentioned how fascinated she was by how there are American intellectuals who are also somewhat fashionable. In her experience in Mexico and Chile, those two things are worlds apart. You have party kids and then you have the academics. That’s not our experience here in the U.S. [laughs].

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