Director Sam Levinson discusses his feature debut Another Happy Day, working with Ellen Barkin, and much more
As the son of acclaimed filmmaker Barry Levinson, Sam Levinson, naturally, grew up in the movie-making biz. He even appeared in a few of his father's films (Toys, Bandits, What Just Happened), before forging his own path as a writer-director. Sam Levinson makes his directorial debut with the fantastic family drama-comedy Another Happy Day, which opens in New York and Los Angeles November 18. I recently had the chance to speak with Sam Levinson over the phone about Another Happy Day.
Here's what he had to say below.
First off, I just have to say that I really loved this movie.
Sam Levinson: Oh, thank you, man. I very much appreciate that, seriously.
It's been awhile since I've seen Ellen (Barkin) in a role like this. I was just blown away.
Sam Levinson: Yeah, you know, it's one of those things where you write a script, and she was also the main producer on this project, all the way through. You write a script, and you imagine it a certain way, and for three years you're talking to that actor, and you arrive on set and, I thought I had a pretty clear sense of how Ellen was going to play this role, and suddenly, she just turns over a royal flush, and you go, 'Holy shit!' It is a gut-wrenching performance to watch. It's unbelievable. She's brilliant, and I say that with no complement to myself, she is astounding.
Can you talk a bit about how that relationship first started, with her coming on board as a producer and actress?
Sam Levinson: I had written Another Happy Day and I was subsequently offered to do a rewrite on this other project. I did the rewrite and they had this cast attached. I had always had her in mind, after I wrote the script. I love Ellen's work, and I had no agent or manager at the time. I didn't really have a way of getting it to her, really, and what happened was she ended up being cast in this project I did this five-day rewrite on, and they subsequently asked me to go out to set and work with some of the actors. After about a week of working with her and talking with her, I thought enough time had gone by that I could sort of hand her a script, and not feel awkward. She called me about three hours later and just said, 'I'm in.' From that point on, she took the reins, along with CAA, and really started to produce this film and help package it. She said, 'Well, who do you want to go to next?' I said, 'Well, in a dream world, Ellen Burstyn.' She said, 'OK, we'll get it to her.' I said, 'No shit?' (Laughs) Then I met with Ellen Burstyn a week later and she signed on. Then she asked who else I wanted to go to, and I said, 'I needed a formidable opponent for you. I mean no disrespect, but as an audience member, when you go to the theater, you bring certain preconceptions about an actor.' I said, 'Look, that's not saying that you're not a complete fucking chameleon in your work, but it's a preconception that people have, so I need a formidable opponent, not just physically, but someone who can have a valid emotional inner life as well, like a good boxing match.' The only person I could think of was Demi Moore. She said, 'OK, we'll send it to her agent,' so it went out and I meet with her and she signed on. That's sort of how it went. Throughout this process, the script basically remained the same. Every time an actor signed on, the more I would communicate with them, I would tweak lines here and there, just because of the dialogue I would have with the actor. It was a great experience and a very collaborative one, working with Ellen and all the actors on this.
It's got to be great for someone as a first-time director, to have someone like Ellen championing this thing. Was this whole cast pretty much all your first choices?
Sam Levinson: Yeah, it was an absolute dream, truly. I really didn't expect it. I was about 23 at the time, and I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to direct this film, and no actor said to me, 'I want to see a short before we meet.' I feel very grateful for that, because I have no short. I wouldn't have been able to meet with them (Laughs).
I was really taken by Ellen's performance throughout the film, but another thing I was really impressed with is Kate (Bosworth)'s performance at the end. I've been a fan of hers for awhile, but that scene towards the end really blew me away. What was that day like on the set, to explore all those emotions in one scene?
Sam Levinson: You know, Kate is such a receptive and wonderful actor to work with, because she's so willing to go anywhere. Every actor is sort of like that, as long as you set a protective environment, they'll feel comfortable to explore their craft. She was very easy to work with, and with that final scene, she's kind of the only person in the film that really learns how to protect herself, in some way. She does it in a very understated way, and, because of the way it's shot, and when you communicate that to the actors, it changes their performance. I said, 'Look, this is a three-shot. I'm not shooting a close-up.' It was just played very beautifully. Maybe the only thing I was nervous about, in making this film, was that I was going to have to deal with 11 principal actors and their personalities. I was thinking, 'Well, what happens if they start to clash?' It can literally go off the fucking deep end, but, with the help of Ellen, who was not only the lead actor but also the producer, I was able to set a very egalitarian tone on the set, and say, 'Look, no one is getting a trailer that is bigger than Daniel Yelsky's trailer, who is a 13-year-old boy.' No one is getting special makeup, no one is getting this and that.' We all get the same thing. I also asked every actor to be there for the duration of the shoot, whether they were in it or not, so that every actor sort of felt like this was their family, and that they had a duty to help one another. I'd be shooting a seen with 'Burst' and 'Bark,' as they asked to be called, because they're both Ellen B, in one room, and then in another room, I would Jeffrey DeMunn running likes with Daniel Yelsky, or Kate (Bosworth) running lines. It was just a wonderful experience. I cut video village and closed down the set for the entire shoot, which I think was very beneficial, so that the entire cast and the entire crew felt like they had the ability to make mistakes and fail and not be judged for it, because we were ultimately going to get to where we were going to get to. It was a really wonderful thing, you know.
Is there anything that you're currently working on, as a follow-up?
Sam Levinson: Well, there's a script that I'm almost done with. Once this film comes out, I think I'll be able to crawl back into my little creative cocoon, and finish this other piece up, which is wildly different from this one. I was trying to explain it to someone earlier today, and they were saying, 'Well, what's it like?' Well, if everything works out, the way I hope it works out, it would be a mix of Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and Roman Polanski's The Tenant (Laughs). Then I said, 'So, I don't know if that clarifies anything.' In a dream world, that's what I hope this film ends up being, an amalgamation of those three.
Do you have any cast members in mind?
Sam Levinson: Yeah, I do have cast members in mind, but i don't want to jinx myself.
What would you like to say to anyone who's curious about Another Happy Day about why they should check it out in theaters on November 18?
Sam Levinson: Because it's good (Laughs). Because it's a good film, and there is nothing short of blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. In this marketplace, basically every film except giant tentpole films will disappear unless people go out to support them, so go out and take a look at it. It's like life. It is what it is.
Great. That's about all I have, Sam. Thanks so much for talking to me. I really loved the film.
Sam Levinson: Oh, well thank you very much for talking to me. I really do appreciate it. It means a lot to me when people respond to it, and I don't say that in a cavalier way. I really do mean that, so thank you.