Timothy “Speed” Levitch is both an unconventional tour guide and a kind of indie film muse. Working on double-decker bus hosting sightseeing tours in his native New York in the ’90s, he attracted attention for his unique, philosophical take on the city and its history. He eventually became the subject of the 1998 documentary “The Cruise,” which launched the career of “Moneyball” director Bennett Miller and made Levitch both a fixture on the festival circuit and an occasional on-screen presence in films like “Scotland, Pa.,” “Waking Life” and “The School of Rock.”
Levitch’s friendship with Richard Linklater, director of those latter two features, lead to the pair conceiving of the new Hulu original series “Up to Speed,” a quirky, psychedelic half-hour travel show that showcases host Levitch’s personality and his distinctive take on a location’s past and present. He takes groups around to the golden fire hydrant at 20th and Dolores in San Francisco and the site of the underground Dil Pickle Club in Chicago, and sometimes these monuments chime in to tell their own tales. Indiewire caught up with Levitch over the phone to talk about the new show and his approach to guiding tours.
So where are you living now? You’re not in New York anymore?
Currently I’m in Kansas City. I’ve been living here. Clocking some family time. I’ve been out here with my mom. I moved here when my sister had a baby, so I watched my nephew grow up a little.
Are you doing tours in the area?
I’ve been wanting to do a Kansas tour. I’ve been developing one on my own. I think eventually it’ll be a money maker, to tell you the truth. I know a lot of people don’t move to Kansas City with dreams of making lucrative fortunes, but I think there could be real coin in doing a tour here. It’s one of those places where the food, the restaurants are some of the most famous landmarks.
It’s a big barbecue town, isn’t it?
It’s a beautiful thing. People love to nosh and tour, you know.
So can you tell me a bit about how “Up to Speed” came into being?
[Richard Linklater and I] had been talking about it ever since South by Southwest about three years ago. We were literally walking to a screening of his new film at that time, [“Me and Orson Welles”]. It was very literary to be walking with Linklater heading to his screening, he turns to me and says, “You know, we could do a little pilot about that thing you’ve been talking about.”
What we were talking about was a history show that would be funny. Perhaps one of the great alchemies of our age is turning tragedies into comedies. Our conversation at that time was not even that specific. It was more picking up some of the skits we’d been working on — “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor,” which was a short film we’d done at this point 10 years ago, was a tour of Ground Zero when the hole was fresh after September 11th, 2001.
A couple of months after that conversation we were in New York. Linklater funded it himself. It was very much his style. He had a bunch of meetings in New York, and we shot in between his meetings, guerilla-style. The pilot we put together at that time was called “Magical History Tour.”
Was the idea originally to go right to Hulu, or was it first conceived as a more traditional TV show?
It floated around for a while, it was all very vague. You can imagine the nebulous world of having a pilot. [laughs] Then it was incredible! The first day that I heard those two syllables I’ll always remember: Hulu. And right away our conversation was focused, concrete. The opening thesis for our conversation with Hulu — we were calling it a history show meets “The Muppet Show.” Hulu was way into it. We were all jumping up and down as we were talking about it for about seven or eight months until bingo, we got the green light.
One of the distinctive aspects of “Up to Speed” is that as you commune with these historical monuments, they often speak back to you. How did that become an element of the show?
That was one of those outlandish events that occurred during this eight-month conversation with Hulu as we were passing back dispatches. At the time I’d written the pilot with RL three years before, the one we shot guerilla-style in New York, I had written a bunch of scripts for different cities with different ideas. I had one, for instance, for San Francisco. One night, I took the old scripts we had already been playing around with when it was more of a pure tour guide show, then suddenly the things in the script, I had them help me tell the story. Pretty simple gesture. There was another script I’d written way back then that was for Jerusalem. It was similar. That was when I would walk around the old city of Jerusalem interviewing the walls. One wall had been a part of the Third Crusade, another wall was part of the Babylonian captivity — all those walls around there are so old.
How do you pick the history that you bring up on the show? There are a lot of unexpected, maybe even neglected stories that are not the ones that you immediately associate with these cities and these landmarks.
Well, a lot of the monuments that are featured in the episodes are old friends of mine. At this point I’ve been chatting with them for years.
How did you find these in the first place? There’s a real sense when you’re watching the show that you have an approach to these cities that’s usually associated with locals, as opposed to a visitor.
There was a maturation process for my tourism, if you will. [laughs] I was doing the tours in New York, and even then I was always passing around how New York City is alive and these cities are alive. These cities are built by humans, they’re lived in by humans, they are great stage sets for human drama — that’s for sure. After a while you begin to think of the city as a living thing. Of course it goes through transitions as a living thing does. It occurred to me as I got older and started visiting and touring other cities other than New York, that these cities are still alive and that there are such are such profound opportunities to learn about ourselves that literally the fire hydrants, the cracks in the sidewalks, the dumpsters, are speaking out about our lives.
As a visitor to a new city, what’s you’re approach to getting to know the place?
Well, it really begins and ends — and I think this is at the essence of the tour guide’s mission — in the illumination of the mundane. It starts with going under the hood of the mundane. And mundane is really the essential landmark that we’re touring, wherever we go.
But what does that mean? Where do you start? How do you begin to build a tour at someplace new?
Well, right after “The Cruise” came out, I started getting invited to these other film festivals. It’s funny, I guess if you look at it from the festival director’s point of view it makes a lot of sense. Get that quirky tour guide from that New York documentary and he can come and do a tour of our environment, of our location where the film festival takes place.
Of course, from the tour guide’s perspective it’s kind of a kamikaze mission. You’re just going in there and putting together a rough draft and you’re presenting that rough draft to people who’ve lived there for 20-30 years. But it was exciting! And interestingly, it had a domino effect. I got invited by the Virginia Film Festival to do a tour of the UVA campus. That became the Virginia episode, which is episode number four.
SilverDocs invited me to do a tour of Silver Springs, Maryland, and I had a Silver Springs, Maryland tour. And Columbia, Missouri — I still do one every year for the True/False Film Festival. A lot of this is that I get a free pass to go see the movies when I do the tours. And when you show up in these odd places, it’s real awkward! You know hardly anything, you’re working with indigenous people. A tour is just like theater — the more you do it, the tighter it gets. So much of it is entertainment, your own schtick — humor, philosophy. There’s a lot going on other than just historical facts. Over time you make each one your own.
How did you end up selecting the cities that you visit in the show? It sounds like some of them you’re familiar with from having done tours at film festivals. How did you end up picking the rest?
There are all different relationships. I feel like as these cities are places that are alive — and of course, some of the place that we visit aren’t even cities — at the essence of cruising is appreciating the beautiful in the biggest things and the smallest things. It was a giddy joy for me, after I’d been touring such a huge place like NY all those years, to suddenly be microscopically appreciating these smaller situations.
I also think that a lot of my tours start from other interests, more intellectual interests. A tour of Washington D.C., for instance, just because it’s been such a impact player in my life all along. It was even a personal romance, really, that started that one. L.A. because I just started going there — I found my way into the entertainment business.
In terms of that film and TV career, how actively have you pursued it over the years? Is it something you’re looking to do more of?
Definitely! Always have. I’ve been working at it for years. I’m really excited about this opportunity. “The Cruise” was a very interesting way to enter the entertainment industry. I’m sure you can imagine. Being a documentary subject — for a long time, you’re considered subject matter. You’re walking subject matter. It’s a good life [laughs] — the union benefits. Being a documentary subject was weird because I always thought of myself as a writer and a performer, never as a subject, and I still don’t.
Do you find that “The Cruise” has shaped how people think of you?
It’s hilarious! I’m the last person to be objective about it. I’m interested in your opinion about it. It probably could be a cool novel for somebody to write. You’re portrayed, and that portrayal is what people know. Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso both talked about how any portrait is also a self-portrait. I still hang out with Bennett Miller, he’s one of my friends, and it doesn’t come up that often when we’re hanging out, but whenever it does it’s always been the same conversation — that the film is a portrait and he was, in a sense, a portrait painter. A lot of the gravitas of the film is him. That’s what’s so funny.
It’s his interpretation of you.
Right, and that’s what lives in people’s minds. And when they meet me, that’s who they know. [laughs] You know, there are three hours of other scenes that didn’t make the final cut that Michael Levine, the editor, spliced together. He worked real hard on it and still can’t believe some of those scenes didn’t make the final cut. Eventually, when some of those other scenes get out there, I think everybody could have a good time deciding which “Cruise” they would have made. Had some of those other scenes gone in for the ones that are in there, you’d have a different impression of the character. I still think it’s a funny movie. It could have been even more comedic if these other scenes had been there instead of some of what is.
Do you have any interest in becoming a filmmaker yourself in that way? Of being the author?
Nope, no. I still find a thrill in surrendering to a certain extent, especially by the time of post production. For that matter, certainly don’t want to question Bennett Miller. He’s a master filmmaker and obviously made some good choices. People really like that film and so do I. That’s been an advantage, working with Bennett Miller, working with Richard Linklater, I’ve learned so much for my own craft, but I’ve also learned that I’m not a director. By no means. That’s not my personality. Wouldn’t be a good idea.
So as a tour guide, is there any city or location that seems unappreciated by tourists that you think people should visit?
I don’t know if it’s too general an answer, but one of the first things that occurred to me is the Midwest. I know a lot of our crowd are coast-wise. There’s always that joke that the Midwest is the flyover zone. Actually, the next episode, next week, is the Kansas episode. It’s called “In the Middle of the Middle of the Midwest.” We will see how interesting Kansas is. The Midwest is actually an amazing place. I recommend not flying over it every time.