Interview: Director Sam Levinson Has Another Happy Day

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival offers more than a few pleasant surprises and in the case of Another Happy Day, the directorial debut by Sam Levinson, it left quite a lasting impression. With an ensemble cast of big stars, one would think the movie would have gotten more attention but it was fairly overlooked, and we only happened to catch it on the last day since we knew someone who worked on it.

On the surface, it’s a dramedy about a dysfunctional family reunion for a wedding that goes from bad to worse with Ellen Barkin as Lynn, a woman bringing her sons, played by Ezra Miller and Daniel Yelsky, to the Maryland house of her parents (played by Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy). Everything slowly falls apart as family from Lynn’s past show up including her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and his new wife Patty (Demi Moore) and their estranged daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), who has been suffering from serious emotional damage since an incident from her childhood.

It’s a film that combines dark humor with even darker drama as all the different forces collide, but it has such a great screenplay–Levinson received an award at Sundance for his writing–and a strong cast all doing such great work, that you’re immediately pulled into their world the second you meet Lynn and her sons.

As you might safely and correctly assume, Sam is indeed the son of Barry Levinson, a filmmaker renowned for his politically-tinged comedies and classic character-based films like Diner and Rain Man, though Sam’s already on his way to pave his own trail by taking a rather unconventional approach with every aspect of making his first movie.

In turn, we ended doing something a little different from our norm by meeting up with Levinson at a West Village coffee shop for lunch – or breakfast in his case; being young and creative, he had been up all night writing. We ended up spending roughly 80 minutes chatting about the process of making his first movie, but because it was more conversational than our usual question and answer session, we’re going to share some of the more interesting bits. (And frankly, if we ran our entire conversation, it would be roughly 10,000 words and our editor’s head would explode.)

The film finished shooting in early September 2010 and like so many filmmakers before him, Levinson had very little time to finish the movie before getting it into Sundance. He submitted a 250-minute cut to the Sundance selection committee which got him an extension for the deadline, but the quick turnaround ended up being a boon for the filmmaker because the lack of time meant that he got to have his own cut, which rarely happens when you have as many producers on a film as this one does.

Fortunately, Levinson had a great partner in Ellen Barkin, who quickly came on board as producer after accepting the role of Lynn. “She really was the on the ground producer and she shepherded this project with CAA. She was very protective of my vision and what I wanted to do, but we had 27 investor/producers on this film. I always think it’s more but at minimum 27 who all weighed in with what they wanted.” He admitted it was hard watching the movie he wrote changing so much from how he imagined it just from the nature of working with actors and editing.

“I had one idea overall when I first sat down to write this,” he said. “It was, ‘a woman is riding a train from New York City to Maryland because her father is dying.’ I kept listening to that Box Tops song, ‘Neon Rainbow,’ over and over and over again and I couldn’t shake it. I had previously been putting together the financing for a documentary on Robert Rauschenberg and as the financing was coming together, I got a phone call saying he was going to pass away any day. I was very shaken up by that and sort of depressed because I had spent quite a bit of time involved in this and I cared a lot about him and the project and I didn’t know where to go. I said, ‘Okay, I need to do something,’ and I just sat down to write this script I was thinking of, this woman going down to deal with her father. What ended up happening was that the first line that came out was ‘You think Mom’s hot’ and naturally the next line was, ‘Eh, not really’ and it just unfolded from there. For this script – because it’s not applicable to other scripts I’ve written or to other writers – I didn’t want to outline it. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen. I had certain ideas and themes that get lodged in my head and because there’s been a lot of recent films about dysfunctional families, things of that sort, but I always thought there was a very judgmental nature to them.”

From there, he just started writing linearly, never even knowing how big a family Lynn might have or who might show up in the story, writing that first draft in roughly three weeks. “One of the things I knew as the story started to unfold is that I didn’t want to make any judgments about any of these characters and that informed not only the way the script is written, but the way I shot the film, the way I talked to the actors, the way I edited the film, all of it. It was this idea that I’m not going to manipulate anyone to the best of my ability. Whenever you set a camera down, you’re making a judgment. Objectivity is impossible to achieve, but I worked with my crew very hard to get as close to objectivity as possible.”

He also never thought twice about exploring the “dysfunctional family” genre we’ve seen in so many independent films in recent years. “To be honest, we’ve seen a lot of it for 2,000 years. ‘Oedipus Rex’ is a dysfunctional family. ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ ‘The Seagull,’ ‘Hamlet,’ it’s all a dysfunctional family. I think cinema makes more of an impact on us, for better or worse. It’s what we think about for the dysfunctional family and suddenly, we recall all these films instead of plays or books.”

Levinson shared with us how he first met the woman who would become so pivotal to making his first feature: “I had been hired to do this rewrite on this other film and I always loved Ellen Barkin’s work, I loved her as an actress. I finished this script maybe two months prior, so when I was doing a rewrite on it, they then asked me to be on set and work with the actors. Ellen Barkin signed on to do this other film. I didn’t have an agent at the time, didn’t have a manager and I thought ‘Okay, I really want Ellen Barkin in this role.’ I worked very closely with the actors so I got to know her very well, and after about a week, I just handed her the script and said, ‘Do you mind giving this a read and let me know if you’re interested?’ She literally called me three hours later and said, ‘I’m in, but it’s going to be a difficult road. I’m not Julia Roberts so the film’s not greenlit tomorrow and you wrote a film with a bunch of women of a certain age and no one’s going to want to finance it.’ I kept saying, ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Every character is over 40 with the exception of this young teenager and this girl who’s got a supporting part, so you’re not getting the financing for this very easily. It’s going to be a long haul.’ She took it to CAA and CAA asked to meet with me and they started this whole process.”

After signing on as producer, Barkin asked Levinson who he had in mind for the rest of the cast. When he told her in his dream world, he’d want Ellen Burstyn for the family matriarch Doris, she said she’d send her a script to see if she was interested. She was the second person to sign on, but Levinson was so nervous about being late for their lunch meeting, he borrowed a car and was driving around her neighborhood for four hours chain-smoking beforehand.

The next person to sign on just a few days later was Demi Moore as Lynn’s main rival. “I needed someone who looked like they could kick the sh*t out of Ellen Barkin,” Levinson said about the actress he chose to play the new wife of Lynn’s ex-husband, a former stripper who gets on Lynn’s bad side by taking charge of the wedding. The irony of having two of the strongest actresses from the ’90s going up against each other was pretty strong, but it really came down to having someone who the audience will think is as tough as Ellen’s character. “As an audience member, when we go to the theater, we bring all those preconceptions with us, no matter what character she’s playing so we need to be introduced to a new character because of the nature of someone’s body of work and how we think of them. Even though she plays a completely different character, I needed someone who was formidable enough that an audience can think that Patty can really f*ck her up if she does the wrong thing.”

“Working with Ezra, he’s not an actor that over-thinks things,” Levinson told us about the actor playing Lynn’s drug addict son Elliot, an actor who’s been getting a lot of attention for his role in the upcoming We Need to Talk About Kevin as well. “He knows what he’s doing, he knows what his purpose is in the scene, and I think if the dialogue is there and he has the character down, he doesn’t go off on insane tangents. When it comes to his work as an actor, he’s someone you only move in and help guide him to certain ways because he inherently just understood his position in the film, his relation to others and what boundaries were meant to be crossed. I found him to be an actor that was very easy to work with.”

“The way that I deal with actors as a director is I just talk to them forever before we even arrive on set,” he continued. “I just talked these characters in and out, so once you get on set, they already know they’re doing essentially. Depending on an actor’s specific needs, during a scene, you sometimes just sit back and say, ‘Okay, I’m just an audience member’ and you just watch that intangible, mysterious thing happen which is acting. It’s just amazing to watch.”

Some might be puzzled about how they should react to characters who are funny one moment and then getting into a really ugly war of words the next and whether or not we should like them. “I think that’s true with all the characters. You form an allegiance with them or you like them and then you watch them do something that goes against what you believe in as an audience member and you go, ‘That’s f*cked up. I can’t hang with that person anymore.’ That’s across the board. The film walks a very thin tightrope through a vast grey moral landscape. I don’t believe that characters are good and bad; I believe that every person has a valid point despite their actions, and that’s what I was searching for.”

“Look, I wanted this film to serve as a mirror to their own lives in the sense that [the audience] bring their own baggage to it, so that people start to say, ‘No, that’s about something else. This may have happened or that may have happened’ and let the audience form their own allegiances based on life experiences. I think that’s why it’s emotionally polarizing and I think that’s why people respond very differently. There were certain Q&As where people would start screaming at each other whether Lynn was a good mother or not.”

“To put it simply, I’m not interested in making comfortable films, and I don’t want to crush the audience’s imagination,” he admitted. “I want them to feel like they might have missed something.”

It may be surprising to those who see Another Happy Day and know the films made by Sam’s father that he not only didn’t go to film school but hadn’t been on as many of his father’s sets as some may think. “A lot of people assume that I grew up on sets because that was his job, but I can only remember a few times in my life going to visit him on set. It would be for two or three days maybe. I was young for most of it so I would just hang out with the Teamsters and we’d go do some sh*t. I never sat with him and he talked me through how to shoot a scene or anything like that. There was never any of that kind of discussion. To his credit, he is a storyteller, and he’s a great storyteller in cinema and also at a dinner table, so if I have dinner with him, he’s always telling a funny story. That’s something I can’t deny, but as far as the craft of filmmaking, I really learned how to shoot a film and what I wanted this particular film to look like by watching five films a day since I was six years old. By reading, by listening to director’s commentaries.”

“I always had a very clear idea as how I wanted this film to be shot and I was fortunate enough to work with really talented people,” Levinson confessed. “Michael Grasley, my production designer and Ivan Strasburg, who is an absolute genius cinematographer, very old school, but also shot ‘Bloody Sunday’ which ushered in a whole new wave of how to shoot an action sequence, how to make a docudrama feel like it’s just a documentary.”

To prepare to shoot the movie, Levinson’s team made 3D models of the entire house in which the movie is set in order to figure out how they were going to shoot everything. “When you’re working on a film where you’re shooting eight to ten pages a day, everyone, myself included, needs to be prepared and come with their f*cking A-game, so it keeps the momentum moving.”

To keep the budget down, Levinson forwent the customary “video village” with monitors set-up for visiting producers and banned cell phones on set “because they’re a f*cking distraction and I can’t stand them.” Because visitors to the set couldn’t bring cell phones, didn’t have chairs to sit in and there was no monitor to look at, “it gets boring very quickly unless you’re involved in the actual physical production,” Levinson told us with a chuckle.

Levinson has an equally unconventional way of directing, not doing as much coverage as some might expect for such a complex ensemble piece with very few close-ups and often only doing one or two takes of a scene from a single camera angle. “I really wanted to create a wide enough palette that people could form their own allegiances. I didn’t want it to be from any character’s point of view, because therefore I’m manipulating the emotion of it in a way. Not only that, but I’m also constraining the actor to just act with their head. If you’re working in close-ups, then an actor is only able to act with his head. I like an actor to act with their entire body. I also like to see the immediacy of a reaction so if there are four or five people in the frame and someone is saying something then the others all react differently to the same thing.”

The ambitious filmmaker also told us how he worked with Gus Van Sant’s sound guy Felix Andrew on set, using multiple microphones, sometimes up to 12, to record every scene from different locations in order to have diversity in the ambiance while mixing the sound, though that’s something that will probably only be of interest to tech-head sound guys such as myself.

Levinson is currently writing a movie he claims will be the polar opposite of Another Happy Day in that it’s very isolated, involving four characters in four locations with an even darker mood, and that he hopes to explore a genre he’s dubbing a “psychological-slash-philosophical thriller.”

Another Happy Day opens in New York (at the Village East Cinemas) and Los Angeles (at the Laemmle Sunset 5) on Friday, November 18. Look for our video interviews with Ellen Barkin and Demi Moore later this week.

(Photo Credit: News Pictures/WENN.com)

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