Every indie filmmaker has their own distinctive way of capturing “naturalism” on film. In this exclusive, in-depth interview, New York filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine provides a step-by-step analysis of how he made his excellent 2010 indie, “Gabi on the Roof in July,” which is currently available on Amazon, YouTube and iTunes. The film stars Sophia Takal as Gabi, an unemployed idealist who disrupts the life of her ambitious brother, Sam (played by Levine). Takal and Levine’s status as an offscreen couple brings an intriguing depth to their chemistry. The ensemble features juicy roles for Amy Seimetz, Lena Dunham and Kate Lyn Sheil (star of Joe Swanberg’s “Silver Bullets”), who later collaborated with Takal and Levine in Swanberg’s “The Zone” and Takal’s own directorial debut, “Green.” Indie Outlook spoke with Levine about all of these films as well as his own thoughts regarding the modern microbudget movement in America.
Q: You adapted your stage play, “Territory,” for the screen in your 2005 feature debut. What inspired you to make this leap?
A: Filmmaking was always something that I was interested in, especially as a kid. I was making a lot of movies with my friends on weekends. We’d make up a story and shoot it on a camcorder. Once I was in high school, I became more intellectual and pretentious, and movies didn’t seem as interesting. It seemed like any movies that were interesting were older or foreign, so I started getting into novels. When I was in college, I was writing short stories. I didn’t actually write a novel, but I got into reading novels. I also happened to take a film course and it introduced me to the work of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. It showed me that there was another way of making films apart from the typical “Jurassic Park”-type movies that were big when I was in high school. When I watched the work of Cassavetes, it was the first time I saw a sensibility that resembled what I wanted to express but couldn’t in short stories and novels. It changed my life, and I decided that I wanted to learn about acting because that’s what Cassavetes did first before he became a writer and director.
I read everything written by Ray Carney, a Cassavetes scholar who also wrote books on Frank Capra and Mike Leigh. I guess I have the same tastes as the guy because those are my favorite filmmakers. He talked about a filmmaker who was currently working named Tom Noonan, who I didn’t know anything about. I watched Noonan’s films while taking acting classes in New York. I liked the classes, but it felt like something was missing. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish that someone like Tom Noonan was teaching classes. I’d really like to learn from someone I admire, not just some failed actor who was trying to have their own kingdom in their school.” I’m anti-authoritarian, especially when people don’t have a body of work that’s impressive. I found acting teachers egomaniacal.
Now I look back and think it’s good when you’re young and impressionable to admire people and emulate them. You take in everything they have to offer and then move on. But I just hadn’t found the right teacher. I was walking through the Village record-shopping and I stumbled on a theatre company that Tom Noonan was running. I ended up studying with him for three or four years and became part of the company. All my theater work, including “Territory,” came out of that period, and Tom had made plays that he later turned into films, which is also what Mike Leigh did with “Bleak Moments.” To me, it just seemed like I was doing what those guys were doing.
Q: How did you evolve as a filmmaker in the five years between “Territory” and “Gabi on the Roof in July”?
A: I was under the influence of Tom Noonan when I wrote “Territory” and when I made it. He was very writer-centric. There wasn’t any use of improvisation to generate material. He’s the kind of guy who had a singular vision that he wanted to express, and he was more interesting than any actor that was going to come in. “Territory” was just a very traditionally written script. I worked with the actors and let them be very free, but I didn’t rely on an improvisation-based method. When the film of “Territory” came out [in 2005], it was the same year that Joe Swanberg’s “Kissing on the Mouth” came out and Andrew Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” [received theatrical distribution]. I had no awareness of those filmmakers and I got a call from Matt Dentler at SXSW. He was interested in programming “Territory,” but I had already been accepted to another festival, so I had given away my premiere status. They only wanted the film if it was a premiere. I do wonder what path I would’ve taken if I had met people like Joe and Andrew in 2005. Would I have gone back to film school? I was very much on an island at the time. I didn’t really know any other filmmakers who were making low-budget work. This was right around the time where the technology was changing and DV cams became sort of passable. Film school still seemed like a decent idea because you could get access to equipment and the more traditional models for making films hadn’t been eroded so much.
I ended up going to grad school for film at Columbia University in New York, which is a decision that I have mixed feelings about. I spent five years doing film school things while Joe and all the others were making film after film and probably learning more than I was learning. I was listening to people who were thinking about film in ways that were going to become outmoded in a minute. But that’s okay because I got more classical-type training, so I feel like I can move around a little bit. I’m very familiar with formulaic storytelling, I can write for other people, I can put on that cap and think that way, even though that’s not my personal preference.
I was about 26 when I went into film school and almost 30 when I got out, so I had already been studying with Tom for about 5 years. I had already gotten through my period of emulation, and I was very resistant to thinking more conventionally. I didn’t find it exciting, I found it narrowing. I spent a year or two after film school not knowing what I wanted to say and being afraid to take a step. “Gabi on the Roof in July” was almost a way of daring myself to do what I had always wanted to do. By then, I was familiar with Joe’s work, Andrew’s work, Aaron Katz’s work and a bunch of other young people who were doing stuff that I felt a real kinship with. I was always interested in absolute naturalism and felt like those guys had beaten me. There are things that I still admire about what we accomplished in “Territory,” but I wanted a more extreme naturalism. I saw what those guys did and I felt kind of competitive. I thought, “I want to do what these guys are doing and do it even better.” I also just wanted to explode everything that I learned in film school, so I embarked on this crazy project.
Q: How did you go about capturing naturalism in “Gabi”? Did you utilize scripted dialogue as well as elements of improv?
A: Yeah, that was definitely a fusion of screenwriting and improv. It all started with Sophia. We had just fallen in love. I thought she was an incredible actress and she really believed in my talent as a writer and a filmmaker. We started making shorts together as test runs to see if we could work together. At that point, we wanted to spend every minute with each other, so we thought working together might be a good way to do that. Since we believed and trusted in each other, we really pushed each other to do this film, which ended up being two years of extremely hard work and financial sacrifice. I read everything I could about Mike Leigh and Cassavetes, and particularly studied the making of “Shadows.” The script for that film was generated through workshops and rehearsals with the actors who were going to play the roles. The majority of my acting experience comes from improv comedy. For about two and a half years, I was performing as part of an improv comedy troupe two or three times a week, so I knew a ton about improvisation and incorporated a lot of that as well.
I put together my own process. I wanted to start with the actors and create the story from characters that I created in collaboration with them. I didn’t have a story or any specific ideas or themes that I wanted to explore. My jumping off point was the character of Gabi that I created with Sophia. Then I met with as many actors as I possibly could, about 200 who were recommended to me by people from the theatre and film communities. The first thing I did in the audition process was give my actors a dummy script that was from a movie we had no intention of making. I just wanted to see if they had chops as a normal actor because eventually, they’d have to be doing something resembling normal acting.
I narrowed it down to 50 of the actors that I liked best, and each of those actors brought in at least five people from their real lives that they might want to play. I had meetings with them to discuss these characters, and was looking to see how they would fit in around this character of Gabi. I narrowed it down to one or two characters for each of the actors that I liked best, and I had them come back and give me five or ten minutes as those characters. I started to see potential avenues that the story could take, and I would jot down scenarios of how they could relate to Gabi. I created a relationship diagram where the characters flowered out from Gabi, and those were the actors that I chose. It wasn’t about who was the best actor or anything like that. It was more about how they were going to fit around this character.
We started with individual character work where the actors would flesh out their characters, and that was before they ever met each other. I would make sure that each actor knew exactly who their character was. Then I started to have them explore their relationship with the other characters while knowing only what their characters would know about the other person. Over time, the story started to suggest itself, at which point I filmed “story rehearsals.” I watched all the tapes and often transcribed scenes, editing and shifting things around, basically creating a script out of the taped rehearsals. I didn’t want it to be shot like a documentary. I wanted to have some control over the light and the images, and I wanted a script. But the dialogue, in my opinion, was very naturalistic, because it came from the rhythms of the characters’ speech. The actors knew the exact rhythms because it was all stuff that they had said verbatim in rehearsals beforehand.
Q: What was your collaboration like with cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik?
A: It was a very close collaboration. We set out shooting it with a very different idea of what we doing than what ended up being accomplished in the film. We went to the actual spaces where we were going to shoot, and came up with the shot list together. We wanted to have a lot of fluid, long takes because I wanted the actors to feel free to go off script and do spontaneous things. I didn’t want to do too much editing and I didn’t want any coverage. I just wanted the movie to be much more flowing and lively than the normal, average coverage approach, which I find boring. But when we looked at our first assembly, it was about four hours long. So we pulled a Godard and had to jump cut the long, fluid takes. While we were making it, I was like, “Who cares? ‘The Mother and the Whore’ is three and a half hours long and it’s a great movie.” And then I finished it and was like, “Well, I didn’t make ‘The Mother and the Whore,’ and this isn’t 1968. No one’s going to see this movie if I make it four hours long. Do I owe it to the actors who put in six or seven months of hard work for free to get this movie in front of people?” So we made an hour and 45 minute version. Sophia is a really good editor, and it took us a long time to edit that film. We spent about five months editing “Gabi, and that was a 9 to 5 job. She edited “Green” in 14 days.
Q: Was it challenging for you and Sophia to play siblings?
A: It really wasn’t. I didn’t create the role of Sam. I was working with an actor for many months who was unable to complete the project. It was a very lengthy process, and sometimes people had to quit their jobs or were at risk of being fired. I ended up taking the role because we couldn’t find anyone else who was willing to do it. Since I was familiar with it and I knew how to act, I seemed like the right guy for it. It might’ve been more challenging if we had created the story knowing that we would be playing brother and sister. The hardest thing for me was pretending to be repulsed by her body. Oftentimes, I didn’t seem repulsed enough, and people would remind me, “Larry, she’s your sister,” and I’d be like “Oh yeah, oh yeah.”
Q: I’ve seen Amy Seimetz in many films, and I’ve never seen her play a role remotely like this one. She reminded me of a young Judy Davis.
A: I’m really, really proud of the work that she did. I think Amy did a fantastic job, and I have a lot of resect for her as a talent. I think her film, “Sun Don’t Shine,” is incredible. We were creating this character, and I was interested in the idea of branding, because it just seemed so ridiculous to me at the time. I started to look into it and there was a girl I briefly dated in college who had a company that worked with other companies on their brand. Amy met her, and for me, it was just an informational meeting to learn about what she did, and it turned out to be pretty fascinating. I have a lot of issues with contemporary culture, but I can’t say that there wasn’t a lot of intelligence, skill and creativity at work. Amy took on her mannerisms and empirically sucked character details out of the meeting. Afterward, I asked Amy if the meeting was helpful, and she said, “You have no idea how much I got from those fifteen minutes.” She came to rehearsal the next day and just had this whole character. I think it’s one of, if not her best performance.
Q: Do you share Gabi’s views on art and her disgust at the ways in which the bourgeois of society attempt to place it on a pedestal?
A: I relate very much to Gabi’s ideas about art, while at the same time, I think it’s pretty funny that somebody who’s so young and doesn’t know that much about art is sort of parodying them. She’s really using it to antagonize her brother who’s not paying enough attention to her. I feel bad because a lot of the audience reaction to the Gabi character have been negative. People seem to enjoy Sam, even though he does more hurtful things, but because he’s funny and has an everyman type quality and is the voice of “reason,” they tend to see her through his lens. I thought it was interesting to have characters that were likable but flawed and I thought that they were pretty even in that sense.
All the romanticism, naïveté and joy of life has been sucked out of Sam. He has ambition to “make it,” and because of that, he’s losing the sense of fun and adventure and rebellion that got him interested in art in the first place, and Gabi represents that. To me, I prefer Gabi’s character. Even though she’s not working, she’s trying to be free and rebel. It’s complicated because she’s mooching off her brother to do it, but regardless, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that she’s doing. Audiences are like, “She should just get a job!” and that was sad to me. Sam’s idea that everyone should just have a job and try to make it just seems so narrow. A lot of people, including myself, have many contradictory views about the characters because I wasn’t trying to make a overall statement about them. I was just intuitively telling a story that felt right. In a lot of ways, I’m interpreting the movie just like an audience member might.
Q: Lena Dunham has a small but funny cameo early in “Gabi,” which was shot prior to her film, “Tiny Furniture.”
A: She really hadn’t done anything. I saw her [web series], “Downtown Delusional Divas,” which I thought was funny. She was a really nice person and she wasn’t famous at all. When she came onset and saw our hamsters, she was like “Oh, there’s a hamster in a script I’m writing.” And then I later saw that [“Tiny Furniture”] opens in a way similar to “Gabi,” which was kind of annoying. I haven’t seen “Girls” yet, but I really liked “Tiny Furniture.” I saw Lena as more of a wit who was making a Woody Allenish, funny film. My movie seems more unhinged. It was cool working with her, but it was just weird that she made her movie after “Gabi” and it came out so much earlier than ours did. It took so much longer for us to get a deal, so it became a weird thing of comparing the two films. What happened to her and what happened to me are two different things, so I’ve had to deal with that. [laughs] It’s like, “Why her?”
Q: Do you find the term “mumblecore” to be a dismissive and inaccurate label for your work?
A: Yeah, I do feel that way, but it’s not like I don’t use the term. [laughs] It’s a mixed blessing. We live in a culture where there’s so much information and so much art available to people all the time that the reductive branding of “mumblecore” is helpful in terms of helping make people aware of our work. We’re just making these DIY films and if they didn’t have a catchy name, I don’t know if Joe Swanberg would be working with Anna Kendrick right now. Maybe that’s a stupid thing to say, but it seems that “mumblecore” is a brand for better or worse. I have strong opinions about why some people are against the movement, but so many others are for it. When Joe was in his “Silver Bullets/Art History/Zone” period, he’d talk a lot about how driven he was by the hatred of critics and how it had stopped him from wanting to make movies for a year. I was like, “How bad are the reviews for Joe’s work?” So I looked online, and they were overwhelmingly positive. If you go on Rotten Tomatoes and look up “Alexander the Last,” it’s like 83 percent fresh. It was the case of bad reviews making a bigger impression on you because, as humans, we tend to remember the negative stuff rather than the positive stuff. The idea that “mumblecore” is dismissed and that critics don’t like these movies is untrue.
Q: Do you feel more comfortable working on a microbudget, particularly since there any many online avenues to get your work seen?
A: It’s easier to make the projects and get them out there, but it’s harder to get people to care because of that information overload. That’s why people are starting to work with celebrities and bigger budgets. In a celebrity-dominated culture, that’s the only way to get people to pay attention. I feel more comfortable working on a microbudget after having worked on between 10 and 15 films. The next film that I want to make would be best optimized to have somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, and you can’t really raise that kind of money without celebrities. In interviews, Mike Leigh says that the second he casts a celebrity, he’s done for because the power dynamic shifts. I understand why he would say that, considering the way that he works, but in the case of my next project, it’s a more conventionally developed project. I don’t necessarily feel that somebody like Emily Blunt is more talented or more driven than Sophia or Kate or Amy. If you can forget the names and not be intimidated by a celebrity status, then it will be pleasant. And it can also be totally unpleasant with people who are not famous. [laughs] It’s not like every relationship I’ve had with an actor has been great.
Q: In your top ten list of 2011, which you posted on your “Gabi” site, you wrote that “the American micro-budget cinema movement is the best thing this sullied nation is contributing to international film culture at present.” Care to elaborate?
A: If I started rattling them off, I could come up in a heartbeat with 25 filmmakers who are doing interesting stuff for no money that people aren’t paying much attention to. Part of me feels like, “Maybe the films are so good that we have to work hard and sacrifice so much,” and another part of me feels like, “If we were nurtured and given bigger budgets, who knows what we could do?” You have a bunch of filmmakers who are not waiting around for permission to make their films. They’re avoiding the conventional ways of thinking about making movies, which is writing a script with a great part for a celebrity, casting a celebrity, raising money, taking producer’s notes and doing whatever you can to make sure that you can make your million dollar movie so you can go home and tell your mom that you worked with a celebrity and you’re patted on the back at Thanksgiving.
Instead, these people are saying, “I’m going to make my movie with my friends for no money and if nobody sees it, I’m cool with that.” The process and the expression is more important than making money and getting the film seen. The results, in my opinion, are more interesting if you consider the resources. It’s not like there aren’t interesting films being made in Hollywood for big budgets because there are. It’s just that if you look percentage wise at where the interesting work is being done, I’d say it’s in the microbudget cinema. I think that’s the biggest contribution we have in America. It’s self-expression in art and it’s a different kind of art when you’re doing it by committee with a commercial goal in mind.
Q: What was it like working with Joe on “The Zone”?
A: It was crazier than any other film I’ve ever worked on. Joe knew that we all lived together and he wanted to work with us. It would be easy because we all lived together and could stay in the same apartment and make the movie there. At that point, Joe was interested in making movies very quickly, so we made the movie in about five days. He and Kentucker [Audley] were staying with us, and we had two other visitors. Joe had made a film with a couple friends of ours who were calling themselves, The Shumanski Brothers. It was a gritty exploitation film [called “Blackmail Boys”], and it was playing at the reRun Theater. Joe and the guys who made it were going to the screening and he just figured, “I’m in New York for a weekend, so I might as well make this film with Larry, Kate and Sophia.”
So we had all those people stay in our house and it was really crowded. It was kind of unclear when we were shooting and when we weren’t. Joe would leave and edit for hours, and we’d all be waiting for him. Then he’d come back and tell us what to do. He was shooting and editing the film in four days. I would say half of it was editing time, so we really shot the film in two and a half days. It was really fast, and it wasn’t a conventional movie where you read the script and try different things in different takes. There was no character or story that I was following. It was really the craziest, most chaotic way to make a movie. It was like riding a wave and it didn’t even seem like anyone was in charge of the wave that much.
Q: Is it easier to perform such intimate scenes with Sophia?
A: Yes it is. It actually would’ve been really hard on the relationship otherwise.
Q: What was your reaction to the film when you saw it? To me, it seemed like Joe was deconstructing and questioning his own method of directing intimate scenes, and the consequences they could potentially have on an offscreen relationship. There’s a finality to it that’s intriguing.
A: It does seem like the completion of that cycle. I’m sure he had an intuitive agenda while he was making the film, but it was pretty oblique to me. I didn’t know what he was trying to say until I saw the film. What I was interested by was how amusing I thought the film was. It struck me as more of a comedy than anything else. There’s humor in all of the films in that trilogy, but I think that would be the funniest.
Q: You collaborated with Sophia and Kate in “Green.” What has drawn the three of you to working together so frequently?
A: When we did “Gabi,” Kate was one of the last people we cast. All the other parts had been filled, and I needed someone who would be a close friend that enabled Gabi to show a more tender side of herself. Kate had been working with Joe on “Silver Bullets” and Amy recommended her to us. She had such an interesting quality and we thought she was so talented. While working with her on the film, I realized that this girl is such a great actress and that this was a nothing part for her. I wanted to give her a role that gave her more to do. Because we spent all our money on “Gabi,” Sophia and I had to move out of our Manhattan apartment and moved to Greenpoint. We were looking for a roomie and around the same time, Kate was looking for a place. She was one of the people that we really bonded with during “Gabi,” so we moved in together. The impetus for “Green” came after the dust settled from “Gabi.” Sophia just wanted to go to a country cabin and shoot a movie. She was like, “I’ve got three good actors, let’s just go and figure it out.” In this case, it became a successful movie.
Q: Because of their thematic similarities, “Green” and “Silver Bullets” would make a killer double feature.
A: Yeah, we thought that too. We hadn’t seen “Silver Bullets” when we made the movie, but we later thought they were interesting counterparts.
Q: What inspired the film’s ominous, unsettling atmosphere?
A: That came from a break in the shooting. The first week was difficult. Sophia was learning the ropes as a director and we took a week off to go to my friend’s wedding in France. When we came back, we watched the footage and it had this dark, ominous quality that we weren’t aware of. We thought of it more as a straight drama, but the footage was so creepy and ominous that we started to wonder if we could make a monster movie where jealousy was the monster. So when we went back to shoot the next week, the conception of the film had become clearer, and Sophia was dedicated to exploring those creepy undertones.
Q: Do you feel like you’re a member of a community in New York? When I was looking at the listings for this year’s BAMcinemaFest, I was struck by amount of collaboration between filmmakers.
A: I feel like I’m a member of a small community. When you’re working on microbudget films in New York, it’s a small world. We work on each other’s films because we’re willing to and we know the deal. If we help somebody, they’re going to help us. When you do the same thing as somebody and you think that they do it well, it’s an attractive thing. It really draws you to the person and usually if I like a person’s film, I end up liking them a lot.
Q: You recently starred in Onur Tukel’s very funny ensemble comedy, “Richard’s Wedding.” What was that shoot like?
A: Nothing in life prepares you for the insanity of a low-budget film set. In the case of “Richard’s Wedding,” that was a 140-page script that we shot in seven days. We shot so many pages a day, and the cast was so big. The more people you have on a film, the more complicated it is to get everybody on the same page at the same place at the same time. If you have 12 people in your cast, the chance that somebody’s going to show up late and disrupt the whole thing is much greater than if you have three in one location. This was the only film I hadn’t done with Sophia or Kate, so I was looking around going, “Where are they?” That was a crazy set, and Onur Tukel is totally out of his mind. He’s more extreme in person than he is in that movie. That depiction of him is a slowed-down, mellow version of him. Something about being on camera actually calms the guy down. He was hilariously funny and really fun to work with. Very open-minded to actors and their ideas. It was a blast.
Q: A rainstorm occurs during the outdoor wedding ceremony, and ends up complimenting it beautifully. What the rain scripted?
A: That wasn’t scripted at all. Maybe other people might remember this story differently, but the way that I remember it is, nobody knew what to do. Everybody was like, “We can’t shoot in the rain,” and I was like, “Why not? Don’t you think that would be even better?” And Onur was like, “Yeah! Can we?” We looked at the DP and the sound guys because it was the equipment that we were worried about, and they were like, “We could put some plastic bags over the cameras,” and he said, “Let’s do it!”
The craziest thing about it is we weren’t going to shoot the whole wedding that day. We needed to come back and do more coverage the next day. So Onur was worried that if we shot during the storm, the rain wouldn’t be back tomorrow. We discussed it and decided that since everyone was there, we might as well shoot it in the rain. If it’s sunny tomorrow, we can just shoot it all then, and if it rains tomorrow, it will match. The next day, it hadn’t rained at all, but as soon as we set up the cameras, it started raining. It was like magic. Maybe Onur Tukel is a black magician.