I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s funny and charming Wild Canaries is a slapstick, screwball, romantic-comedy mystery set in contemporary Brooklyn. Levine plays Noah, a neurotic thirty-something guy whose live-in girlfriend Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s wife, who also produced) suspects their neighbor Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) of murdering his own mother Sylvia (Marylouise Burke). Barri opts to investigate the crime along with her best friend and roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat), much to Noah’s chagrin. As the amateur sleuths break into apartments and chase suspects, various suspenseful and romantic complications ensue.
Levine, whose previous feature was Gabi on the Roof in July, may be familiar to indie film fans from his appearances in such work as Jeff Lipsky’s Molly’s Theory of Relativity, or Joe Swanberg’s All the Lights in the Sky. He also co-starred in Takal’s feature, Green. But he distinguishes himself behind the camera with Wild Canaries, building tension and laughs in equal measure. The mystery here is as engaging as the banter between the characters. Levine displays his flair for both physical comedy and verbal sparring, as well as a talent for quirky visuals.
Levine spoke, via Skype, about pulling off this nimble comedic mystery.
Gary M. Kramer I know the old saw goes, “Write what you know.” As such, I wanted to start with a few “get to know you questions” to see how close you are to Noah, the character you wrote for yourself and play in the film. Noah plays poker with his landlord in the film. Are you a good poker player?
Lawrence Michael Levine No. I get bored. I don’t flop—I mean, fold enough. See, it’s been a while. I don’t even get the terms right! I stay in because I want action. I used to have a weekly game, and I would always lose.
GMK Noah is skeptical; Barri is suspicious and snoopy. So are you more skeptical or suspicious?
LML I am skeptical. I am a circumspect person—at least in comparison to Sophia. It seems odd to say. When you are an independent film artist in today’s climate you are taking a big risk—sacrificing money and security—but for me, that’s enough risk. I like to get my feet wet before I commit to things.
GMK There’s a great scene of Noah dancing in slow motion. You look ridiculous but also that you seem to be having a great time. Are you a good dancer?
LML (laughter) I’ve been told that I am.
GMK Are you, as Barri says, a “grouchy smartass?”
LML Sometimes. This character is based on the worst aspects of myself. I’d like to think I’m not like that. I try to be more open, and aloof, and blasé, but I do have that side.
GMK A running gag in the film comes from Noah having trouble operating his cell phone. Are you phone-phobic?
LML That’s really autobiographical. I am a technologically inept person, particularly with phones. It seems like an “old person” joke: “How do you use this thing?!” People aren’t frustrated by them anymore, but I still struggle talking on it, putting it on mute, etcetera.
GMK So all these questions are leading up to the overarching point. What goes into creating a character you play? Are you relying on your strengths, or do you challenge yourself here?
LML I feel like in this film, I played to my strengths, but in other ways, I challenged myself. My previous film, Gabi on the Roof in July, had a serious approach and I didn’t think about the audience much at all. I was trying to see if I could make a movie that reflected the world I was living in. I wanted to get something almost documentary in its feeling. With Wild Canaries, I wanted to create a movie that was fun and entertaining and suspenseful. It was a much more audience-friendly approach, a love letter to the kinds of films I grew up enjoying: old screwball comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen, and Pink Panther films—what I saw before I got into John Cassavetes and Scenes from a Marriage. I wanted to do something dynamic cinematically, too. I wanted to develop the camerawork to heighten the tension and suspense as well as to create laughs and be playful. That was a challenge, and was new to me. I also played to my strength in terms of physical comedy. I’ve done a lot of improv for years.
GMK Do you find it is easier to write, direct, and star in your own projects?
LML Sophia and I had a shared love of these suspense films/comedies and we’ve not explored that in our previous work. It started as something we wanted to do together. We were watching The Thin Man, and we wanted to update it. It would have been easier to attach bigger names. I had the opportunity to make the film with different actors, but I didn’t want to, especially in regard to Sophia. I made Wild Canaries the year we planned to get married. We set the date and planned the wedding and I wrote the movie while we were planning it. Then we got married, and then I made it. We were willing to sacrifice and struggle because it started as a joint project for us to have fun together. I didn’t want to do this film with other people. I won’t say it’s easier. One job is easier than three. When I’ve acted in films I’ve not directed, it’s like a vacation! I did direct something I didn’t act in—a film called Territory—and that was a cinch. Acting, writing, and directing is harder, in that it’s more work, and all on your back, but it’s also more fun and challenging.
GMK What about creating Barri? How did you keep a balance between creating a character your wife would play and working with her?
LML Sophia is funny. She’s a ball of energy: enthusiastic, emotional, passionate and she has a million ideas—some brilliant, some I don’t get. I’m a pragmatist. When we meet in the middle we create beautiful things together. There are times where we are too far apart and those are our struggles, and the film explores that. It’s a delicate thing.
I didn’t want the situation or the characters to be so credible that they left the world of comedy. There had to be the exact right level of suspense. There’s a fight scene in the film, which is really funny, that I like. We’ve had fights of that caliber, but in the film it’s about a much more ridiculous subject. It’s entertainment, not realistic. I only worried that our characters spent so much time disagreeing that I worried that the audience didn’t want us to end up together. I think some people might want some more warmth, and we did cut some scenes of Noah and Barri for pacing. But I intended it to be a loving portrait.
GMK You didn’t really make a film noir, as Wild Canaries unfolds mostly in daylight, but I like how you played with genre clichés and conventions. Can you discuss how you thought about crime film genres in this film?
LML It’s not in black-and-white but it was informed by film noir, one of my favorite genres. When I was kid I loved classic Hollywood films—Double Indemnity, Laura, Out of the Past, Hitchcock’s Notorious and Suspicion—those conventions were in my mind. I wasn’t picking specific films to reference, but they were in my head. But I also knew that I was making something fun, not nervy. I would love to do a noir, a dark thriller, but here, I wanted to have fun and reference these old films. Conjuring them comforts me. It reminds me of seeing them late at night as a teen by myself under a blanket and being swept into another world.
GMK What can you say about developing the film’s humor? You include running gags as well as slapstick, wordplay, and sight gags. How did you approach the comedy here?
LML I like to perform that kind of comedy. It’s not a struggle, it’s just really fun. Just like I love noir, I am obsessed with old films. Half the films I see are from 1950 or earlier. I love Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. I admire those guys and the women who do great slapstick, like Jean Arthur. I did a lot of improv, and you learn by being on stage in front of people making things up on the fly that you have to commit one hundred percent or they don’t feel it. It’s better in film—you can do more takes—but I applied the skills from improv to acting in front of the camera. The immediate reaction isn’t there, but later, you watch with your editor, and you have to trust your editor and yourself that it’s funny. In that live setting though, it’s clear.
GMK The scenes in Wild Canaries unfold almost organically. Noah simply walks down the stairs, and things turn in to a wild scene…
LML One of the things I love is to be surprised with where a film goes. Raymond Chandler wrote about Dashiell Hammett, “He wrote scenes that have never been written before.” If I have that feeling with scenes in a movie, that’s one of the great thrills of watching a movie or reading a book.
GMK Can you discuss the casting? Wild Canaries features Jason Ritter, who was in Peter and Vandy, which you and Sophia appeared in. Kevin Corrigan worked with Sophia in Supporting Characters. It seems like it was a bunch of friends getting together to have a good time and make a movie. Was that the vibe?
LML It’s interesting, a lot of people I’ve worked with on films I’ve been friends with after. Gabyfeels like friends making a movie about their lives, but it wasn’t at all. We had a six-month rehearsal process. I knew Jason Ritter, but not that well, and Jay DiPietro, the director of Peter and Vandy, said he was amazing. Jay was talking Jason up to me. I knew him only a little bit because I was mostly behind the scenes on that film. Annie Parisse, who plays Noah’s ex-girlfriend, I met because I worked with her brother. So I knew her, but everyone came through a great casting director. The actors were aware of me, but I wouldn’t say we were friends. We lucked into a good, cool, cooperative cast.
This was a small film. The actors were used to trailers, and a certain level of attention and accommodation. We didn’t have bells and whistles, and it wasn’t cushy. We all got along well though, and we were able to hang out and develop a rapport together.
GMK As an actor, do you consider yourself an actor’s director?
LML I’m not a micromanager. I leave them alone. In that sense, I’m an actor’s director. If they need help and come to me, I try to be prepared and know what’s going on, and figure out how to help them if they need it and be productive. For the most part, I try to build bonds but let them have a lot of freedom—unless it’s an awkward moment. I do try acting exercises and make sure the performers feel safe. Once the scene starts, I watch, and I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with really good actors. Sometimes an actor won’t want to go as far with comedy—they don’t know how far you can push things. A lot of things are determining the right look, as when Barri sees a gun and is terrified, or when she sees a cell phone on the floor and is worried that it will be discovered. Should I go like this (mimes a scream) or like this (mimes being scared)? You have to moderate.
GMK Can you talk about the visual style and editing of the film—the use of irises, the cross-cutting that builds tension as when Barri gets trapped on the roof, and the pacing?
LML Choosing the right performance, and pacing—especially with comedy—is important. We had a lot of test screenings to get the timing right. The edit was six months. Our rough cut was 140 minutes, and it ended being ninety-eight minutes long. I enjoy the editing process. It’s peaceful. Production is a real shit-show. Sophia is an incredible producer—excellent at scheduling and logistical stuff, which is amazing since she’s in almost every scene.
GMK What about the use of music? At times it is meant to provoke tension, but it’s also used to underscore the action.
LML That was something we worked on a lot. We tried to find just the right tone. In general, I had never scored a film before. Gabi was supposed to be documentary-style, so the only music was diegetic or interstitial montages. So I didn’t work with story. It was intentional, and I was going for reality and didn’t want to manipulate reality.
On this one I went deep into the score, and did everything I didn’t do before. All my temp music was from the Pink Panther or dub reggae, which people think is upbeat, but there’s something sinister and dark to it. I wondered if it would work, and I wanted Augustus Pablo meets Henry Mancini. My composer, Michael Montes, was into it, and he did a sketch and I loved it. It was a theme for the film.
GMK Can you discuss the costume design?
LML We chose birds for each character and used the colors of each plumage to dress them. I was a mallard duck. Sophia was a wild canary. As for the title, “bird” is slang for women, and women surround Noah. Canary also has connotations of a nightclub performer, or to “sing” or “rat.” It was also an allusion to that old mystery, The Cat and Canary.
GMK There are several “boo” moments, from Jean finding a mouse to Barri jumping out of the closet to startle Noah, to the breaking and entering scenes. Are you trying to keep viewers as off guard as the characters?
LML That’s right. Sophia does that to me. It’s one of her great pleasures in life, to “boo” me. So I wanted to throw that in the movie. Thrills and laughter go well together. There’s something energetic about both feelings. Laughter and nerves go hand in hand—I was trying to do thrills, chills, and laughs.
GMK What can you say about shooting the chase scenes? There are several in the film—on foot, in cars, and around buildings. How do you breathe new life into such familiar scenes and make them engaging and exciting?
LML I don’t like chase scenes. I watched the last Fast and the Furious because those car chases are incredible. I don’t know how they did that, but ultimately I’m not that interested in them, because there’s nothing character-driven about them. The chase scenes we did are funny, and had something to do with the characters. The movie doesn’t stop for a car chase. We did a grab bag of 1970s tropes—The French Connection, Bullitt, The Driver, etcetera—but I get bored during them unless something character-wise happens.
And Sophia thinks I’m a terrible driver, but she crashed the car, and I’ve never had an accident. That’s in the film and from real life.
GMK What can you say Barri and Noah both having romantic encounters with lesbians?
LML That’s also from my life. Two of my exes became lesbians after they dated me. I’ve had seven or eight girlfriends though, so it’s only twenty-five percent!
GMK How did making Wild Canaries help you grow as an actor and a filmmaker?
LML I did grow a lot in all faculties. It was a monumental leap. It was much more difficult, logistically, with physical comedy, action sequences, suspense sequences, and a bigger crew. Managing one hundred people and getting them fed and paid correctly and understanding overtime rules … Your movie dictates what happens to it. For one scene, we had fifty-eight shots and we did it in one day. That was the hardest and most challenging aspect, especially with the budget we had. But it was exciting that it all came together.
Lawrence Michael Levine is an actor, writer, and filmmaker whose work includes Territory,Gabi on the Roof in July, and Wild Canaries, out February 25.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee