“I always wanted to write and direct films for as long as I can remember.”
Notwithstanding allusions to “Goodfellas,” Sam Levinson seems like a born filmmaker, possibly because he was practically brought up on movies. His father Barry is one of Baltimore’s great cinematic champions, and has worked for decades on many of the most important and memorable films made in Hollywood. In spite of that sort of mainstream matriculation, Sam seems eager to forge his own directorial path, as evidenced by “Another Happy Day.” The film stars Ellen Barkin as a struggling, emotionally fragile mother who tries to heal old family wounds and protect her children from new ones at a family gathering. And while the end result has the same honesty and intimacy of many of his father’s films, including “Diner,” “Rain Man” and “Liberty Heights,” Levinson told The Playlist that his idea for the film developed intuitively, and worked itself out naturally.
“I was working on putting together the financing for a documentary on Robert Rauschenberg at the time,” he remembered during a recent interview in Savannah, Georgia. “As the money was coming together, I got a phone call that he was going to pass away. I went back to New York, and I thought, well what the fuck have I been doing? I was very sad because Bob was such a kind of amazing figure and I just I felt like I lost something really special that needed to be captured on film.”
“So there was a big void in my heart, and I had had this idea for a film about a woman who goes down to Maryland from New York City to deal with her dying father,” he said, hinting at the unpredictability of his inspiration. “That was just simply the idea, and I just kept imagining her looking out the window and I was listening to that Box Tops song, 'Neon Rainbow,' and so I just sat down and just started writing. The first line was 'Do you think Mom is hot,' and it just sort of unraveled from there.”
Watching the film, it has an odd, compelling stream-of-consciousness feel to it, capturing the unpredictable melodrama of everyday life where intense moments clash with mundane ones. Key to that feeling, it seems, was Levinson’s process of writing it, which was itself unstructured. “I didn’t plan it out at all,” he admitted. “I didn’t write an outline. I didn’t really know or want to know where it was going to go. I didn’t know how many characters there were, [or] what the specific dynamics were going to be, and just allowed the characters to kind of find their own way given certain parameters."
“It just started to get more and more complicated and I had certain themes and ideas that I wanted to hit on and it just came out of me,” he continued. “I wrote it in about three weeks, and then I took about a two-day break and went back and spent maybe two, three days just doing some editing on it. And then that eventually was pretty much the shooting script.”
In the film, Barkin’s character has two young sons, played by Ezra Miller and Daniel Yelsky. Yelsky’s character is a budding filmmaker, and Miller’s is a bipolar teen with an incisive eye especially when it comes to sizing up his family. When asked which of the two – or of any of the characters – was his on-screen proxy, he suggested that his connection to the ensemble was decidedly less specific. “I know that’s a cliché to say, but in a way they all have to be a piece of me, because their emotional inner life needs to be autobiographical in order for it to be honest,” he revealed. “I need to have felt those emotions in order to write those characters. So whether it’s Ellen Burstyn’s character the grandmother in the film or whether it’s the 13 year-old Daniel Yelsky, I needed to identify with them on a very visceral level or else I feel like they would come off as sort of fraudulent. So yes, there is a piece of me in every character.” At the same time, he suggested any more specific similarities were due to the actors’ performances rather than his artistic intentions.
“I think that there is certainly probably more of me in Elliot, the Ezra Miller character than any other character,” he admitted. “But that could also just be the way that I sort of see it because of Ezra’s performance, and the fact that he just kind of imitated my body language for the entirety of shooting.”
Levinson said that ambiguity of design extended to every part of the film, most of all the ending. In particular, he didn’t want to overly explain, clarify, or otherwise wrap up the conflicts the characters endure. “I feel very strongly as a writer and as a director it is not my job to crush the audience’s imagination,” he said. “I want them to walk out of the theater and continue to discuss this film or to discuss their own life. I'm not particularly interested in finding those conclusions, because those conclusions don’t exist in life. And whether that makes this a good film or a bad film by anyone’s opinion is fine with me, but if I tied it up by the Hollywood standards of 'they all come together in the end and everyone sort of solves their issues' then it would just it would undermine everything I'm trying to accomplish and trying to say, which is it’s fucking difficult to communicate with the people you love.”
Levinson demurs when asked how carefully planned he wants his career to be. “I'm not sure where it will go,” he admitted. "I made it when I was 25, and it’s one of many different sorts of scripts I've written, but I just don’t necessarily want that to be the next film I make. I'm all over the fucking map when it comes to what I'm interested in. I would love, love to make a fucking horror film. It’s like it’s something I've dreamed of since I was a kid, but it will be a horror film in the way that I want to make it. Just at this point in time I can’t imagine getting a script from someone else and falling in love with it so much that I decide to direct it.”
“So I don’t know where I’ll end up,” he continued, “but I think it will be sort of all over the place. I mean my fucking brain is all over the place, so the next film I plan to make once I finish it up is very, very different from this film. This I shot in a very specific way because I wanted to capture the messiness of life. I searched for the mistakes. But each film has its own sort of voice and sort of cinematic narrative as well and you learn. I mean I've learned so much from this film – just a fucking wealth of knowledge that I hope I can carry on to the next.”
"Another Happy Day" opens in limited release on November 18th.