If you spoke with 26-year-old Sam Levinson about how his debut feature “Another Happy Day” came together, you’d never know he’s the offspring of a Hollywood legend. (For the unaware: Son of director Barry “Men In Black” Levinson.) On the strength of his Sundance award-winning original screenplay alone, he managed to pull together a cast of acting greats and assemble an expansive and intimate ensemble dramedy on a shoestring budget.
Phase 4 Films releases “Another Happy Day” this Friday, November 18.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. How did you put together this cast?
I didn’t write the screenplay with anybody in mind for any of the characters. Then, when it was finished, I started to ask myself who would be good as Lynn [the film’s central character] and the only name that came to mind was Ellen Barkin. She’s so fucking enormously talented and she’s got a tough exterior with a well of rawness and anger and vulnerability as soon as you get one crack in her. I sent the script out to a friend in Los Angeles and he said, “Yeah, the script is good, but I’m doing this other genre film that needs a rewrite.” I needed to buy a new computer at the time, so I signed on to do a five-day rewrite. When it was done, they asked me to come out to the set and Ellen Barkin happened to be on the set. I got to know her and eventually I handed her the script and she called me a few hours later and said, “I’m in.” She took on the role of producer because I didn’t have an agent or a manager at the time. The first thing she asked was who I wanted to cast next. I wanted to cast the role of the family’s matriarch because I knew everything would fall into place after that. In a dream world, I wanted Ellen Burstyn. She said, “We’ll get it to her” and I didn’t even know that was possible. Eventually, I drove up to meet Ellen Burstyn in Nyack and she signed on.
When we go to the cinema, we bring all of our preconceptions of actors with us. You think Ellen Barkin, you think tough. You think of a tough New York girl, but if the film is good and the acting is good, slowly the preconceptions fly by the wayside and you believe the characters as they are. So in order to combat that, I tried to think of someone who could be a formidable opponent to Ellen Barkin who can deal with the emotional inner life of the character of Patty. Of course I thought of Demi Moore, who luckily signed on as soon as she read the script.
I felt like we could look for funding at that point. We continued the casting process with Cindy Tolan, and everything fell into place. We had the cast pretty much set for two years. Ezra Miller was one of the last people to come in. I thought he was too young when I met him, but by the time we started shooting, he was the perfect age. He turned 18 on the set.
The film is built with a really free-styled, improvised structure. Was the eventual form of the narrative present in the original script? Did it have any particular inspirations?
I think that there’s not enough theater in cinema and vice versa. For me, there’s far too many close-ups in film. They’re a television technique. Of course, there are examples to the contrary, but I wanted this film to unfold in a way that wasn’t necessarily subjective to any character’s point of view. It had to be non-judgmental, so you wouldn’t know who to sympathize with. If I’m going to the theater to see “The Seagull,” maybe I’m more interested in what the maid is doing than what Nina is saying, so if I want to look at her, I can look at her. Having that wide canvas was important to me. It provides a sense of freedom for the audience and it’s also unsettling, because you don’t know where you stand or where you’re headed.
The examples that I looked to were films like “The Best Years of our Lives” and films that had a wide depth of field, and also films that were shot in Cinemascope. I wanted that particular golden sheen over everything. I didn’t want to cue the audience and tell them which scenes are funny or upsetting. They had to figure it out for themselves.
It’s packed with naturalistic performances. What kind of experience did you have with directing previously?
I studied method acting for four years. I was never interested in being an actor. I just liked the process of discovering characters and thinking about characters and it benefitted me greatly in the way I could communicate with each actor individually, regarding their specific needs. Sometimes you can just have a dialogue with an actor beforehand and shape the performance then, but other actors need more guidance on the set.
We closed down the set for the entire shoot, which I think formed a very protective environment, and I think when actors feel protected and respected by the whole cast and crew, they feel like they can be open and go places that would normally make them uncomfortable. It’s something I set forth to do to set the tone for the film. With 11 actors, you never know if personalities are going to clash or anything. We had a really egalitarian set. No one had a bigger trailer, no one had their own chair. Almost every actor stayed on set for the duration of shooting. They would come to set whether they were working or not and run lines. There was a feeling of camaraderie. We were there to help one another through the process.
What was the biggest obstacle that you encountered during production?
Oh, definitely the budgetary concerns. It was a very, very low budget. It was difficult. It just got cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. No one wanted to invest in a film starring primarily older actresses that didn’t have an ending that was going to make audiences comfortable or happy. We successfully worked around it. I’m not someone who does many takes. We only shot 75% of the film allotted to us. We just did two or three takes and moved on. We shot 10 pages a day, so everything was planned meticulously. We had different versions of the script that made everyone’s jobs easer and a 3-D model of the house so we knew exactly what we could do photographically.
The real challenges came in editing. We had to cut the film, color time it, do the final mix and have it scored in a two-month period to get it ready for Sundance. That was a crazy time. The original cut of the film was two hours and 50 minutes. It was hard, because so much of material that I loved had to be cut.
What was your Sundance experience like?
I can’t wake up every day and not thank Sundance. They’re a great beacon of light for any independent film. Just to have a film that you made shown on a screen for an audience in a theater is beyond me, so I owe them everything in the world. It was a beautiful experience. After the first few days it was just Ellen and me, trekking through the snow like Lewis and Clark. We felt a real sense of community. I was in Deauville with Andrew MacLean, who did “On the Ice,” and someone asked us, “Aren’t you guys in competition together?” Andrew replied so beautifully: “We’re not in competition with each other. We’re in competition with the 16th ‘Transformers’ movie.” And that’s how I really feel about independent film festivals. It’s our only way of fighting back and getting these films that people would never see shown on a screen for an audience in a theater.
How are you going to follow this project?
Something completely different. It’s a strange, strange piece. I wrote “Another Happy Day” and it was a visceral experience. It just poured out of me. This one has taken nine months. It’s very plot-driven. I would call it a psychological, philosophical thriller-drama with a comedic undertone. If it turns out the way I hope, it would be a mix of “One From The Heart,” “The Tenant” and “Persona. If it succeeds. It’s a fucking weird combination. I don’t know if that clarifies anything or just makes it more confusing.