“A Poisoned Valentine to New York”: Talking to Wild Canaries Writer-Director Lawrence Michael Levine

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02/25/2015 9:22 AM |
photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

Wild Canaries is the third collaboration between husband-and-wife team Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal, following Gabi on the Roof in July (written and directed by Levine), in which they played a brother and sister, and Green (written and directed by Takal), in which she plays the potential other woman in his relationship. Here, they play Noah and Barri, an engaged couple, who find themselves fighting over money, work, real estate, and their relationship when Barri (but not Noah) begins investigating the possible murder of their elderly neighbor. Perched on the edge of reality and fantasy, Wild Canaries brings out intimate anxieties via low-budget screwball pastiche: a polished, effervescent riff on Manhattan Murder Mystery, transposed to Young Brooklyn, where the couple lives—for now. Wild Canaries opens February 25; Levine answered a few questions over email.

Gabi on the Roof in July, your previous film, was the product of extensive, Mike Leigh-style improvisation and character-building exercises with individual performers, from which the story was ultimately developed. Wild Canaries, as a mystery plot, must have started from its premise–were there elements of Gabi’s preproduction methods, or elements of the way you worked with actors, or even just things you learned from it, that made it into Wild Canaries?

Gabi on the Roof in July may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity. When I look at the actors Sophia and I were able to get to commit to an extensive six-month script development and rehearsal process, I can’t really get over our luck—people like Aimee Seimetz (who was in The Killing and is now co-creator of The Girlfriend Experience), Brooke Bloom (Louie, Alpha House), Kate Sheil (House of Cards), Louis Cancelmi (Boardwalk Empire) and Lena Dunham?! Someone up there must have liked us. We could never get those people to give that much of their time for no money now. They’re too busy. So the timing was right and we got very lucky with the cast. Sophia and I saved up for a long time to make Gabi. Since we did it all with our own money, we had complete creative control over the process and really made the movie entirely for ourselves and the people we were working with. We just weren’t getting the kind of oppotunities we wanted, not from a career perspective, not from a creative one either, so we created an opportunity for ourselves. We didn’t think about our audience, we didn’t think we had one. We just wanted to have fun and be creative.

After Gabi and Green, we were out of dough. I knew I was going to have use other people’s money for the film, which meant I needed to have a script for potential investors to read and I was going to have to attach a cast that had commercial appeal, so I needed a script for that too. I can’t really ask Kevin Corrigan or Jason Ritter to take six months off to help me develop a character and a script for free. Maybe someone like David Fincher could, but I’m not Fincher obviously. So yeah, Wild Canaries was entirely scripted. That being said, I learned a ton about working with actors on Gabi, making them feel comfortable, appreciating them, listening to them, using them as resources for how to tell if my scenes are working or not.

 

Barri and Noah go to see a Hitchcock film at the Nitehawk, and the film’s style is distinguished by retro touches like iris effects and Teddy Blanks’s Bass/Bond-esque title sequence. These references, which are echoed by the film’s Hitchcockian dual structure (solve the crime and solidify the relationship, like in Rear Window), are among the more playful, pleasurable elements of the film: the sense of a knowing, maybe aspirational reenactment. But were you conscious of the influence of classical Hollywood technique when dealing with the thriller elements, making them work on their own terms? In matters of camera positioning, shot sequencing, pacing, were there films you looked at to figure out, How should I handle this?

Sure. Since I was making the film with other people’s money, I embraced the fact that I was making a film for a larger audience. I love Carl Dreyer as much as the next cinephile, but I grew up loving Hitchock, Blake Edwards, Spielberg, Woody Allen, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, George Cukor, Paul Verhoeven—very “entertaining” commerically viable filmmakers. So those are the kinds of directors that inspired me here—comedians, genre people, but smart and good at what they did. Yes, the film has an apparent post-modern referential quality to it, but mostly during the suspense, action and physical comedy set pieces. The “normal” scenes of relationship could have been pulled straight from Gabi, but even those could be viewed as refering back to Cassavetes or Altman. It’s hard to do something now that doesn’t have an evident antecedent. I was just trying to mix up these influences in an interesting way. It isn’t like I said, “I’m going to shoot this scene exactly like Truffaut,” but I did show my design people Stolen Kisses because I thought the colors he used would work very well for the tone of our film. My DP (Mark Shwartzbard) and I watched a lot of 70s suspense films (The French Connection, The Thomas Crown Affair) just to get a sense of vibe. We didn’t copy them, but we did absorb them.

 

You’re shooting in your own neighborhood, Cobble Hill, as you shot Gabi in Greenpoint when you were living there. What are the advantages, aside from not spending money on a location shoot, of shooting where you live? What inspires you about the place where you live, and how would you say we see that on screen?

Yeah, we had to do the film the way we did. We needed to shoot in our own apartment because we couldn’t afford to rent someone else’s. It was challenging to shoot so much where we lived. Sets are very chaotic and it’s nice to have a home you can retreat to when you aren’t shooting. We didn’t really have that. Our place was turned upside down. I guess the advantage would be that somehow our familiarity with our surroundings informed our performances and made them more grounded, but Alia Shawkat, who plays our roommate in the film, seems totally comfortable and grounded and she never spent a night in our place, so… I’d say the advantages are nil.

Looks like we’re probably leaving New York indefinitely in a few months, so your question is interesting in light of that fact. I’d intended for Wild Canaries to be love letter to Brooklyn, but all the stresses of the city are what actually dominate the film. New York has become a very difficult place for middle-class people to stay afloat and that kind of financial anxiety is what motivates much of the film’s action, so I guess you could say Wild Canaries is a kind of poisoned valentine to New York.

 

At what point in your writing process do you share your work with colleagues and solicit feedback—how far along are you? As you can maybe guess, I’m asking this partly because your producer and co-star here, playing your fiancée, is also your real-life wife. I remember seeing you and Sophia play meta versions of yourselves in Joe Swanberg’s Zone, a film with some second-half psychological meltdowns inspired by the premise that to make art is to reveal deep, true, potentially hurtful parts of yourself that you can’t take back. In general, is that a premise you’d dispute, or something you embrace?

I would not dispute that premise at all. Art is a an endeavor that calls for artists to share their deepest truths and that can be complicated when you are working with loved ones. In everyday life, we often dissemble or equivocate to make our day go smoother, but if you do that in art, you make boring work. When I work closely with Sophia, we often argue because the things we’re revealing through our work make the other person uncomfortable, but we endure it, either because we love making art or because we’d rather argue and live in our truth than not argue and live in a lie, or maybe both.

Sophia was really the only person that I could have the kind of relationship I had on Gabi with, because we live together and talk about our projects constantly. She had a lot of input on the script and her character from the very beginning. She was always reading what I was writing and giving me feedback and encouragement. Her influence is all over them film.

I’m always open to input from actors and crew members, but in the case of this film, with the exception of Sophia, that all happened on set. We didn’t have the money for rehearsal time, so any discussions about the material occurred during the shoot. They happened, but it wasn’t like Gabi where these kinds of conversations went on for months.