Make a Movie For Yourself Because It Just Might Work

Black Bear
Lawrence Michael Levine has made many movies, but the one that took the most risks personally and professionally landed him at Sundance.

How can you balance a creative career with a marriage? Many try, many fail. Lawrence Michael Levine takes it day by day, collaborating with his wife Sofia Takal, and being inspired by her. After making a lot of movies for the Industry, he decided to liberate himself and write one for himself, speaking to his truth, refusing to spell out meaning explicitly. 

And that movie, Black Bear, premiered at Sundance and stars Aubrey Plaza in a performance you won't forget.

How did Lawrence find this story, trust in it, and push through to get it made? He tells us about his career, his process, and how he makes the relationship at the core of it work. 

No Film School: Can you tell me a little bit about where the inspiration came from? It feels like a very personal film.

Lawrence Michael Levine: It is very personal, although it's not autobiographical. 

NFS: That's good to know. Let's get that out of the way.

[Laughter]

Levine: I have never done those things. But I have been afraid of doing those things, and the chaos that it would wreak in my life. So it is about those fears, you know?

My wife is a filmmaker, and also an actor and a writer, and she acted in a lot of my films, and we worked very closely together. Always Shine came out about four years ago and it's a very strange movie. I wrote it under her guidance, so I worked with her really closely on it.

It was a very brave film. I was a more conventional voice in all our conversations, just worrying that an audience wouldn't go with it, wouldn't get it. She just always advocated for just doing the weird thing, and everybody loved it. 

So it was really inspiring. Her bravery was really inspiring and I just thought, "Okay, I'm going to be ballsy like Sophia [Takal], and I'm going to make the movie I want to make." Just trust that an audience, if you go deep enough and you write about things that are really meaningful to you, an audience will meet you there. 

And it's not like, "Fuck the audience." It was more just faith in film-goers' sophistication and adventurousness. The fact that Uncut Gems is such a popular movie is an example. People like movies that are different.

 "if you go deep enough and you write about things that are really meaningful to you, an audience will meet you there."

NFS: One of the things that's interesting is Black Bear really explores what it's like to be a creative, and in a creative couple.

Levine: Even when you're having your biggest fights or your best times, it occurs to you, "I could put this in a movie." And that impulse is sort of perverse in a way because it abstracts you from the present moment, but it's also something you need to do as an artist. So, Sofia wrote a movie about her fears and encouraged me to make a movie about my fears.

NFS: Is it hard to maintain the relationship through creative collaboration?

Levin: It's actually pretty challenging to have two directors and creative people in a relationship. It creates a lot of problems.

You're separated a lot, you're working closely with other people. There's competition, you know? Who's doing better, who's making more money, because you're doing the exact same thing. So all that stuff was kind of tearing us apart, and I just wanted to process it and kind of move on. The movie helped me do that.

But I also was cognizant that it needs to be a movie for an audience that an audience can enjoy. So there's a lot of humor in there too.

NFS: I was struck by how painfully and accurately it captured what the hard part of a relationship is. Was it hard to mine that part of like your own experience? It's hard to watch at times, because if you're familiar with those kinds of moments. Very Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Levine: I love Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I love that movie and the play. Just an incredible piece of work, and no. It's interesting, I've never enjoyed writing a script, maybe period. And I enjoyed writing this one.

"For the last five or six years, I've just been writing stuff for money. Not to say it isn't fun, but you get a lot of notes and you're writing things that are more conventional. Writing Black Bear was just really liberating."

NFS: Wow. Is that because of the personal nature? Because you decided to let go of the thing of "I'm writing for an audience"?

Levine: I think so. Also, In the last six years, Sophia and I made nine movies, if you count both of us in the last 10 years. The first five of them were... we didn't make any money on them, they were just total losses.

Then for the last five or six years, I've just been writing stuff for money. Not to say it isn't fun, but you get a lot of notes and you're writing things that are more conventional. Writing Black Bear was just really liberating, because A) I didn't know if it was ever going to get made. B) there was nobody looking over my shoulder, and most of the time there is. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it just puts pressure on you.

This time I just didn't have that same kind of pressure. It was really for me. I wanted to do one for me. I wrote this in private for myself as an experiment to see if I could still write that way.

NFS: And now it's at Sundance, which is really cool, by the way. When in the process did it become a reality?

Levine: With writing it. I just wanted to shoot from the hip. It kind of came to me subconsciously and subliminally. I wrote the script in about five months or so, maybe six. Then it took about a year and a half to find the money for it. It was very challenging to find the money for it.

NFS: You took this script out saying, "This is what it's going to be. I'm going to make this movie and I'm going to direct it." Right?

Levine: Yes. I went out there saying, "I'm going to pay for this movie." I found executive producers eventually and it took a while, and it took a while to work out the deal with them. But eventually, they were like, "No, no. We'll pay for it."

NFS: That's awesome. That's certainly what you'd like for someone to say. 

Levine: I was planning to pay for it by myself and looking for help, looking for a partner, and then eventually we found executive producers who were awesome. They really gave me a lot of creative freedom, which is cool, but it just took a lot to find them.

"When we started to make the movie and cut the movie and everything, then you wonder like, 'Oh, but is this too weird? Is this even a movie?'"

NFS: Also I want to talk about the cast. It feels like an actor's piece in a lot of ways. The performances are huge and it's kind of about performances. Aubrey Plaza is amazing.

Levine: Yes. I got my first choice in every role in the cast. I loved Chris and Sarah, as well. But yeah, I worked on a TV show with Aubrey as an actor called Easy. We did an episode of that show together. I got to know her, though we were friends before the show. I got to know her a little better while we were making it, and I just saw a different side of her that I thought hadn't been explored in other movies. I thought it'd be interesting. I thought she had more range than people had seen yet. But they're definitely seeing it now.

NFS: They're seeing it this week! On that note, I want to transition to the second half of the movie. My first question is, I think my audience, certainly I was sitting there at the end of what is the first half just thinking, "It's not over, but what on earth is going to happen now?"

Levine: Right, which is really why I wanted you to give the spoiler alert to readers.

Editor's note: SPOILER ALERT! Do not read beyond this point until you've seen 'Black Bear'.

NFS: Ok so from a writing standpoint, was it always viewed as the two parts? How did that evolve?

Levine: No, it wasn't always viewed as the two parts. Although, I thought it might go that direction. I was really, really interested in ... I love [Luis] Buñuel but he's got such a different tone than I do. That's not me, but I admire his films so much.

And there was another director, Sang-soo Hong. They just do this great stuff with identity swapping, having one actor play different roles throughout the course of the film, or having two actors switch roles in the middle of the film without explanation. 

He'll do a movie where it's like, the first half is the story, and then the second half is the story told again with minor differences. I just think that stuff is so ... I just think it's so interesting.

I was really inspired by those movies, and I was also writing about certain aspects of my life. 

"I really wanted the movie to feel like a vivid dream."

NFS: Right. The movie is about relationships, and it's about relationships in filmmaking, and those two things play out in these odd ways and they intertwine. As far as meaning goes, I always feel like it's such a gift to walk into a movie and be seeing something you've never seen before, which is absolutely the case in his movie.

Levine: I hope so too, and that's what I always want to see when I watch a movie. However, when you're doing that, when we started to make the movie and cut the movie and everything, then you wonder like, "Oh, but is this too weird? Is this even a movie?" You know what I mean?

NFS: Yes. It's bold.

Levine: It is to me, but- what would my mom think? 

NFS: Right. No, well that brings up the big question which is: What do you want people to think? You mentioned Buñuel. This seems like a movie that is very open to interpretation, and I think people will read a lot of meaning into it.

Levine: Well, it was definitely cultivated. I wanted the movie to feel like that. I really wanted the movie to feel like a vivid dream. I don't know if you have dreams like this, but I do, where you have a dream, it's really powerful and vivid. it feels very real, but it's also slightly off, and you come back to it again and again. Being like, "What's that dream about?"

NFS: Yes, or it's like a flip of your real life. It looks like a mirror of your life in a way, that's like it's almost right, but it's a little off.

Levine: Right, and you think about why. I have dreams, I keep coming back to them. Why do I keep dreaming about that staircase that's in the middle of the house I live in now, but it's my childhood staircase. Why? Why is it there when I walk up? Why do I see this teddy bear that I never had?

I like that feeling. That's deeply pleasurable to me, to wake up, remember a dream and think about it. I kind of wanted the film to have that feeling, and I think Buñuel's films really feel like that. It's not about a message.

I intentionally obscured the usual things that filmmakers give you clarity on. I purposely kept a lot of those things out so that people were just immersed in an experience, and then left to kind of grapple with that experience. It's not so much about like, what does this movie mean overall? It's more just like, what was Chris Abbott's character? Did he really mean the things he said in that conversation, or was he just trying to piss off his girlfriend? 

NFS: I kind of felt like he didn't even know. 

Levine: I don't think he did either.

NFS: And that is part of what was so haunting.

Levine: I think that's true. We live in really dogmatic times. People are very ideological and very dogmatic, at least as they present themselves on social media or television or whatever, but actually people are confused. 

"I intentionally obscured the usual things that filmmakers give you clarity on. I purposely kept a lot of those things out so that people were just immersed in an experience, and then left to kind of grapple with that experience."

NFS: We all get into the habit of reciting a belief system with such passion, that we may not really have any passion or conviction about.

Levine: Yes.

NFS: As we discussed, there is some realness in how this movie relates to your actual life, because there's a couple making a movie in the movie

Levine: Yes.

NFS: There's a point where they talk about, "This movie will destroy us." Did that almost happen in the real relationship?

Levine: Well as I said there is a gambit the director plays within the movie, and this is getting into spoiler-land, but I would never do that in real life. That is just too cruel and brutal. 

But like I said earlier, our relationship has not been destroyed yet... but I was afraid that it would be. It's every day... it's a conversation about balancing career and marriage and figuring out ways to keep making it work.

NFS: I've seen a lot of questions in the filmmaking community, where people say, "How do you really have a career in this industry, and have relationships that work and last?" At this point, I would say... "You should see this movie."

Levine: It's not easy. It's not easy. So far, so good. 


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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