Not only is Shawn Levy a film director, with an entire trilogy of Night At The Museum films, Real Steel, this year’s This Is Where I Leave You and plenty more tucked under his belt, he’s also a producer and the man in charge of 21 Laps, a very prolific production company.
When we sat down to chat this week, we spoke both about his filmmaking approaches and style, but also his producer’s impulses. Finally, we talked about a whole string of 21 Laps projects, some of which you may not have heard of before, all of which sound incredibly promising.
Here’s our conversation, as it happened, with a few extra notes on the new, upcoming projects along the way.
Shawn Levy film director and Shawn Levy film producer live in the same head. Do they ever argue with one another?
There’s all kind of arguments that occur inside my head, but the director always wins.
Yes. Because while the producer has to be fiscally responsible and aware, when I know I need something as a director, I’m going to take the producer me and just beat him into silence. Directing is a very passionate enterprise, producing is passionate but also more cerebral. In my experience, passion will always trump intellect. That was a way more philosophical answer than you were probably looking for.
Not at all.
Okay, good. But you know what I mean? I knew I wanted the opening of this movie to be the origin story of the tablet, so I knew that I wanted it to look Raiders Of The Lost Ark big. No, that’s not cheap. And I also knew that the director me wanted to have a reality to this, so we went to the desert and we built this set; other than the pyramids in the distance, there’s no CGI, it’s all real sculptures, and a real dig site. I’ll fight for what I believe I need filmically, and the director me will always win.
So thinking that passion drives you as a director, I wonder when intellect comes into that. For example, how intuitive is your process with the camera?
When I was coming up directing television, I remember thinking ‘How do you know that you’re putting the camera in the right place?’ The more I’ve done, the more I realise… I put the camera where I imagine seeing the image from if I’m in the audience. That kind of makes it right. I didn’t think more about it… I guess what I’m saying is that you learn to trust your instincts.
My instincts tend to be driven by the audience experience, which I didn’t really put together until I read… there was an article about me in the Wall Street Journal and they had spoken to Steven Spielberg about my filmmaking. He said ‘Shawn directs as if he’s sitting in the audience.’
That was the first time I realised ‘Oh yeah, that is the kind of movie I make, and I’m making them for the audience experience.’ This has tended to make the movies populist and of a certain genre. I guess the short answer is, I’ve put the camera in the right place if it feels right to me.
I don’t put the camera in the same place where Fincher would, and I don’t put it in the same place as Ron Howard. It’s such a subjective enterprise, directing a movie, and it should be. This is why a movie by one filmmaker will not be mistaken for a film made by someone else. There’s no objective right answer.
In terms then, of some of the craft, things like screen direction and the axis of action, things like that, obviously you remain quite cognisant of those.
Those are cerebral decisions. Unless the point is to make the audience work on decoding, you want them to have a cogent understanding of who is where, and so screen direction and axis become text book decisions that, over time, do become instinctive. Occasionally, especially round a dinner table for instance, or we have many scenes in Night At The Museum with seven, eleven characters, you will have to stop and make a purely intellectual calculation about where the axis is and therefore where the camera should be.
This is where the back of an envelope comes into it, I suppose?
Always. And on my prior film, This Is Where I Leave You, which was nine people in a living room, that was particularly hard.
When you looked at that coverage in the edit room, did you ever realise that you’d got it wrong?
Occasionally I’ve gotten it wrong. My editor, [Dean Zimmerman] with whom I’ve done a half dozen movies, will say ‘Don’t worry, the audience is able to track it better than you think.’ And that is generally true. I’ve never gotten it wrong in a scene where it risked losing comprehensibility.
Sometimes you’ll get it wrong in an action scene, and there it rarely matters. Interestingly, I had to be particularly rigorous in the M. C. Escher sequence [in the new Night At The Museum] where they go into that world, because that world is so trippy. You need to give the audience certain anchors. It’s already crazy and hard to follow, that’s the point, but I need to know that when I’m looking at you and I’m looking camera left, you really do need to look back at camera right.
I guess it’s sequence to sequence. You go through film school or your early filmmaking years learning the rules, and then over time, you get a sense of which ones can be flexible and which ones really do need to be adhered to.
Let’s also talk about how you work with actors. I can only imagine that Sir Ben [Kingsley’]s process and Ben [Stiller]’s process are from totally different places.
The reason that directing is so endlessly fun and interesting is that you have to change your language, change your modality, dependent on the actor. The way I direct Sir Ben Kingsley is so utterly different from the way I direct Owen Wilson, the way I direct Ben Stiller is very different from Dan Stevens.
So, early on, as early as the first meeting or audition, you start gleaning, perhaps just intuitively, how an actor works. Where are they coming from? Are they coming from a heady place? Are they coming from a gut place? Do they benefit from a lot of words and an in-depth depiction of what you want, or is that actually counterproductive and you need to be three words or less? So, yes, you gauge the effective lexicon, and you are constantly shifting, actor to actor.
I’ve got a list here. A list of 21 Laps productions.
I know. I think the internet implies that I’m doing 39 movies next.
These don’t all come from the internet. I’ve got five here and I believe you’ve been attached to direct one of them. Let’s go down the list, starting with Story Of Your Life, Eric Heisserer’s adaptation…
Story Of Your Life starts shooting in April, Denis Villeneuve is directing with Amy Adams starring, and I’m producing.
I shouldn’t have read that script, but I did and it’s fantastic.
It’s awesome, right? It’s shocking to me that you read it, troubling slightly, but I agree. I just read the new draft…
Which I have not read.
Thank god, because that was just finished, like, three days ago. That script is one of the most special pieces of material that 21 Laps has ever developed. I’m very proud of it. We developed it from a short story by Ted Chiang, and I think the quality of that screenplay is what attracted a filmmaker like Denis and an actress like Amy.
[Extra note: Story Of Your Life is a very smart sci-fi story about our attempts to communicate with an alien race that see the universe in a very, very different way from us. These will be some of the most alien aliens in all of cinema, and Amy Adams has a plum of a part, much unlike a lot of her more famous roles.]
Have you read that one? Echo is another rad script.
I haven’t. It’s a good concept.
Echo is another sci-fi drama, actually more of a paranoia thriller. It’s going to be directed by Christopher MacBride who wrote it. He’s a second time filmmaker out of Toronto, he made a movie called Conspiracy and we are right now out to an actor that I can’t name but I hope to see that get made next year.
Conspiracy or The Conspiracy? The one with the guys going undercover?
Yes. The found footage one, that’s exactly right. I think Chris MacBride, there’s a kind of young, early Rian Johnson quality to his tone, and to the tone of this screenplay. Echo is something I am very, very bullish on. The good thing about being a producer is that while movies might not be my exact cup of tea, but it’s great to empower these writers and directors and bring these other stories into the world. Like we did on The Spectacular Now, for instance. That’s very gratifying.
Oh, you should be proud of that film.
I’m super proud and I know I’m going to be equally proud of The Story Of Your Life and Echo.
[Extra note: Echo was placed on this year’s Black List, the industry roster of best-liked but unproduced screenplays. The lead character is a drone operator for the CIA who stars to wonder if his wife hasn’t been taken away and replaced. There are lots of twists here, and some of the ideas are quite Black Mirror-like. I really hope MacBride can pull this one off.]
So, while we’re talking about The Spectacular Now, let’s jump to Rosaline.
Rosaline… is in a vague moment. It’s at Universal Pictures now. It has had various actors attached and, right now, our director is a guy called Alex Timbers who directed Rocky on Broadway. We are casting that movie. It’s a revisionist Romeo And Juliet. It will require the right blend of actors to get made.
And that’s the trick, getting the right combination of actors at once.
That’s the whole trick. It’s written by Neustadter and Webber, who wrote Fault In Our Stars, who wrote Spectacular Now, who wrote the new John Green adaptation Paper Towns, they wrote  Days Of Summer. These guys know that audience. It’s a great script, I need to find the right actors.
[Extra note: Rosaline is the story of how Romeo’s ex contrived to pair him up with Juliet, based on Rebecca Serle’s novel When You Were Mine. Felicity Jones was linked to the role of Rosaline for a while, but it seems like there are no actors attached right now and this one could take some time to come to the big screen, if it ever does.]
Table 19 is going to get made this coming year. I don’t know… I’ll just fucking tell you, are there any actors publicly known on that one? I’ll tell you. It’s Anna Kendrick.
Hang on… I’ll look…
That is going to be Fox Searchlight making that movie with Jeffrey Blitz, the writer-director.
Who first bought us Anna Kendrick.
That’s right. Rocket Science, Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz wrote Table 19.
Are Jacki Weaver and Kodi Smit McPhee onboard?
Well, possibly Patton. The only hard casting is Anna Kedrick. It will shoot this Spring and Summer for Fox Searchlight, it’s a small movie with this great concept of ‘the leftover table at a wedding.’
We’ve all been there.
We’ve all been there. It’s The Breakfast Club at a wedding.
[Extra note: There was a former draft of Table 19 by Mark and Jay Duplass. Kendrick’s character would be Eloise, who was going to be maid of honour at this wedding until she split up from the best man. If Oswalt does join in, he’d be playing a man on parole, doing his best to avoid a violation but… well, that would be telling. As you might expect, everybody at this table has their own arc and they all pay off towards the end.]
The last one I have here on my list is the one film you were attached to and I heard nothing about this, and I don’t think it appeared in a single one of the trades. It’s Aloha.
Okay. Funny you should say that. That was a codename for a project, Project Aloha, arbitrarily codenamed. It was the seed of an idea that I was developing with Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill. That movie has now been rewritten by John Hamburg, the great John Hamburg of Along Came Polly and Meet The Parents, and I Love You Man. It’s called Why Him? and John is directing himself, we’re casting right now.
Why Him? I don’t want to say any more than that but John is casting it and he’s going to make it this year.
So what’s left for you? What can you do now?
I know! I didn’t want to give away all my movies. The maybes for me now are The City That Sailed with Will Smith; Forty Thieves, which is a live action Arabian Nights; and Tinkerbell, which is a subversive, revisionist fable.
Starring Melissa McCarthy. How long as this project been alive?
A month and a half. I literally came up with it then. I called Melissa out to breakfast, I pitched her this vision I had. It will be Night Of The Museum-esque in tone, in that it will be big visually but very much grounded in real characters, and issues. It’s something that Nick Stoller is writing right now. It’s kind of a dream to get Melissa and Stoller. I don’t know if it will be next.
In general terms, then, why do you choose the ones you choose?
I direct the ones I think I can direct in a unique, and the best way. If I can picture someone else directing a script phenomenally well, better than me, then I just produce it.
Thank you very much, Shawn Levy. Now, if we get to vote on which project should come next, I’d put an X next to The City That Sailed. It’s been long enough.
Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb opens across the UK and US from the 19th December.
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