Barri (Sophia Takal) and Noah (writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine), a newly engaged Brooklyn couple, are disheartened by the death of their elderly downstairs neighbor, Sylvia. Though Noah sees nothing unusual about the old woman’s death, Barri suspects foul play and sets out to investigate, enlisting her roommate Jean (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’S Alia Shawkat) to join her on a reconnaissance mission to trail a possible suspect. Tensions mount, however, when the investigation uncovers unsettling secrets throughout the building—including in their own apartment—and suddenly everyone seems like a reasonable suspect. Boasting a stellar supporting cast including Jason Ritter (PARENTHOOD), Kevin Corrigan (THE DEPARTED), and Annie Parisse (THE FOLLOWING), WILD CANARIES is a freshly comedic take on classic film noir.
Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Wild Canaries’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Writer/Director Lawrence Michael Levine. ‘Wild Canaries’ screens as part of the Narrative Competition program on Saturday, March 8, Sunday, March 9, and Wednesday, March 12, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Wild Canaries’ at SXSW Film – HERE
What was the very first aspect of the ‘Wild Canaries’ script that came to you in its conceptualization stage? Was it a specific character, setting, theme…?
I knew I wanted to make a film that was in an established genre because my previous films had not been traditional in that regard. I’m a cinephile and my tastes are pretty far ranging, but my favorite films tend to be either classic Hollywood screwball comedies or film noir, so I thought it would be fun to mix and update those genres. I wanted to make a love letter to the history of popcorn-type movies, focus on having fun, rather than, say, make a political statement or do something tragic. My previous films were on the heavy side, so for this I wanted to see if I could take a lighter approach.
Though the film is a high-stakes murder mystery, the themes are loosely autobiographical. For instance, the film deals with the fears that might manifest after a couple has decided to get married and, indeed, I was writing the script while my wife and I were planning our own wedding. In writing the film, it seems I was processing our own concerns about marriage, though I wasn’t necessarily conscious of this fact as I was writing. The story just came to me once I’d chosen the genre. Only now, do I look back and see why the story took the shape it took.
As ‘Wild Canaries’ is your third feature as a writer/director, how has the creative process from conceptualization to production evolved for you, personally? Do you have a certain protocol you follow in producing your films?
I’m not sure that I’d use the world evolved to describe what has happened because that implies that I might not want to go back to a previous way of working, but the process was different for this film in a few significant ways.
My last film, Gabi on the Roof in July, involved a deeper level of commitment from the actors because they helped create the characters. Massive amounts of rehearsal and improvisation culminated in the final script — a process that took six-months. Then on set, even more improvisation was incorporated. Wild Canaries ‘ gestation was more conventional. I just wrote the script like a normal screenwriter and the actors, more-or-less came to set and said the lines as written.
The casting process was more conventional, as well, for Wild Canaries. I worked with a great casting director, Jessica Kelly, and she helped us find the best people for the roles. With Gabi, we did the casting ourselves, so the process was way more time-consuming and difficult. The results were great in both cases though. With Gabi, I was able to work with several amazingly talented actors who were just starting out and were very hungry, so they really gave it their all — people like Sophia, Kate Lynn Sheil, Amy Seimetz, Brooke Bloom and Lena Dunham, who have since become break out performers. With Wild Canaries, I was able to work with seasoned veterans like Annie Parisse, Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter and Kevin Corrigan, which was also exciting.
I can’t say I really have a protocol for producing my films. They’ve all been really different and, accordingly, have required different approaches. For instance, Wild Canaries has action and suspense sequences, stunts, tons of locations, etc. The film just required more money, so we had to think about that in every decision we made from casting to schedule. Our other films were so small that we could absorb the costs of production ourselves, but for this one, we couldn’t do that, so we had to spend a lot of time finding money.
From a visual perspective, can you explain what you wanted out of the Cinematography for the film? What was your first conversation like with its DP Mark Schwartzbard?
I can’t remember the fist conversation we had because we had so many. Our relationship was extremely collaborative. We made every decision regarding the look of the film together. I can’t over-emphasize his involvement. Mark flew out to New York nearly a month before the shoot and we spent a lot of time preparing. We’re both film geeks, so we spent a lot of time watching our favorite suspense films from various eras and discussing things we liked about each of them. Once we had a common understanding which devices we liked, we set out making shot-lists, camera maps set in renderings of actual locations, and storyboards. At the end of our process, Mark had created a giant workbook containing all these materials that we were able to refer to during the shoot. Being extremely prepared was important because action and suspense require an enormous amount of orchestration and our schedule and budget were tight. Not only that, but I was acting in the film, so my attention was divided which left a heavier burden on Mark. Most of my aesthetic work as a director happened in those weeks of preparation. On set, I was mainly preoccupied with performance issues, my own as well as everyone else’s, while Mark implemented the shooting strategies we planned during prep.
What was the most difficult part of getting this film shot, especially being in New York City? Was there any aspect of the films production you had anticipated as being difficult but turned out executing easier than expected?
Actually, no, everything was as hard if not harder than I expected. New York is great to shoot in because of the access it provides to great talent in terms of performers and crew, but every other thing about it is a nightmare. The most difficult part of shooting here is the difficulty of company moves. The amount of time that gets eaten up moving your trucks around and ensuring they have a place to park is ridiculous and the whole time you’re thinking about the fact that you could be shooting. The film commission is great about making it easier for you, but they can only do so much.
In your opinion/impression, why is SXSW a natural destination for the World Premiere of ‘Wild Canaries’?
SXSW is kind of like a giant party. It’s almost like Mardi Gras for indie people. Since the point of this movie was to have some fun and make people laugh, SXSW makes sense. I also love that SXW is open to comedy because some festivals really aren’t, which doesn’t make any sense because almost everyone I know loves comedy.
SXSW has also risen up hand-in-hand with the DIY film movement, which I am very connected to, so I feel at home there. I’m not sure if DIY film would even exist without SXSW or, at least, whether anyone would have any awareness of it. When I think of the list of important independent filmmakers of my generation whose careers have been fostered by SXSW, I’m extremely impressed and grateful for the festival’s existence. SXSW has helped break the careers of Andrew Bujalski, Bob Byington, Zach Clark, the Zellners, the Ross Brothers, Amy Seimetz, Hannah Fidel, the Safdie Brothers, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Dustin Guy Defa, Mike Tully, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, Jonathan Lisecki and so many other great writers and directors. Without SXSW, my wife, Sophia Takal’s excellent but challenging film, Green, would probably be a complete obscurity, so needless to say, I have a ton of personal respect and gratitude toward Janet and Jarod. I couldn’t be more honored and thrilled to be premiering at SXSW
About Lawrence Michael Levine
Lawrence Levine is the award-winning writer, director and star of the critically acclaimed feature film, GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY. Lawrence also produced and starred in Sophia Takal’s GREEN (SXSW ’11). WILD CANARIES is his third feature as a writer/director.