By its very nature, “Malcolm & Marie” — a dialogue-driven story about the relationship between two characters that takes place in one location over the course of a single night — had the potential to feel like a stage play. But what writer and director Sam Levinson was reaching for was something quite different: a visually dynamic film that told its story through the camera and use of space, as much as it did through his words and the two actors’ performances.
When Levinson was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he discussed how finding the visual language and style of his new Netflix movie was a process of trial and error.
“It’s funny, we initially started with ten shooting days, [cinematographer] Marcel [Rev] and I had this very specific formal plan of how we’re going to shoot this thing,” said Levinson. “I always loved [director Otto] Preminger’s blocking and movement, specifically ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing,’ which I think is just terrifically choreographed. [I thought] we should do something like that, because you don’t really see that in films right now, and maybe there’s a way to do it energetically.”
The first day of the shoot involved doing 30 takes of the film’s long opening shot capturing Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) arriving at the house after the premiere of filmmaker Malcolm’s new film. The performances were spot on, according to Levinson, but the director and his cinematographer were unhappy.
“We get in the car, I turn to Marcel, and said, ‘This movie looks like a fucking whiskey commercial,'” recalled Levinson. “It’s so clean.’ He’s like, ‘I know, I know. This is depressing.’”
The two long-time collaborators decided to scrap the footage from first day and attempted to reshoot the film’s opening handheld on the second day. The results were no better. “We get into the car,” remembered Levinson of the end of day two. “‘Marcel, this thing has no design, it’s a fucking disaster.’ He’s like, ‘I know, I felt the same thing.’”
On the third day, and still at somewhat of a loss, Levinson decided to just pick up where they left off, and do the next shot, which starts on Marie sitting in the bathroom and dollies over to find Malcolm dancing to James Brown in the living room. “It was only in that moment that I realized that it worked because we were looking at him in one world, and her in another world, inside this broader universe,” said Levinson. “You understand the division between the two, emotionally speaking and also too, this isn’t reality. It is a bit of a stage play; in design I hope it’s more cinematic than a stage play, [and] finally that clicked in.”
Seeing his creation in a new way, the small crew raced against the soon-to-rise sun and reshoot the entire opening at the end of the third day of production. Seeing the characters’ emotional separation in terms of framing and space meant that the team had to further utilize and lean into the the architecture of the film’s carefully chosen location. Michael Grasley, Levinson’s long-time production designer, went through an exhaustive search of houses for “Malcolm & Marie,” which initially didn’t produce any viable options.
“We didn’t want to be shooting just heads against walls, we needed a sense of the outside world and also this feeling of two snakes trapped in a jar,” said Levinson. “It’s really difficult [to find], especially now, particularly modern spaces that aren’t just all white walls — these Apple Store-like locations. Finally Grasley was like, ‘Why don’t we just go through architects that we like and just see what houses they’ve built,’ and that’s how we found Jonathan Feldman, who had built the Caterpillar House.”
The Caterpillar House in Carmel, California — one of the only cities where a shooting permit wasn’t required for a private residence in the early days of the pandemic shutdown — gave the filmmakers incredible angles and subtle separations of space, inside otherwise open modern design. The largely glass house also allowed for a visual separation between the exterior and interior. During the film’s opening moments, Marie stands in the outside doorway smoking a cigarette, while the camera is able to look into the house from the outside, tracking an animated Malcolm walking in circles around the living room as he relives his film’s premiere.
DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021
“I think my greatest fear is that it’d be a movie that exposes every part of the house in the first 10 minutes,” said Levinson. “It’s those imperceptible things that lead to audience fatigue and exhaustion.”
As the “Malcolm & Marie” team worked chronologically through the script, each scene became an exercise in rediscovering the space and how to use the location in new ways that were in service of the story. Sometimes that even meant reshooting whole scenes.
By way of example, Levinson pointed to a scene in which Malcolm is outside yelling at the trees. It was bit that initially came about toward the tail end of that scene, as Levinson and Washington — whose physicality, in contrast to the stoic Zendaya, become a huge part of the film’s staging — were trying to get the blocking right. Liking the image and perspective from the house, they came back the next day, laid some dolly track outside and redesigned the shot to be in sync with the actor’s movement, thus getting the best composition required of the story.
“Part of that also just comes from working on ‘Euphoria,’ and working in television,” said Levinson, who created the HBO show starring his “Malcolm & Marie” lead Zendaya. “Where you’re doing eight episodes and you keep going back to the same location, and you’re going, ‘Again? We’re going to shoot another scene in this room? I can’t take it any more.’ And you lose your mind. So I keep changing the sets, even as we shoot, because it’s too boring. Let’s cut this wall off, let’s change the wallpaper, let’s to do something so it has a little bit of a different feeling.”
While on the podcast, Levinson also talked about creating the script around Zendaya’s personality, on-screen persona, and her abilities as an actor; the film’s unique use of needle drops, the pandemic-shot stand-alone episodes of “Euphoria,” and how he doesn’t necessarily agree with what Malcolm says about film critics in the film.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.