Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal have gotten a lot of great attention for previous works like Green, directed by Takal, and Gabi On The Roof In July, directed by Levine. The married couple’s latest effort, Wild Canaries — directed by Levine, produced by Takal, and featuring both of them as actors — is about a Brooklyn couple who suspects foul play when a neighbor drops dead in her rent-controlled apartment. It premieres at SXSW this Saturday. Levine is originally from New Jersey but went to high school in the Bronx. We caught up with him by phone and talked about growing into wider resources, such as a cast including Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, Jason Ritter, and Greenpoint fixture Kevin Corrigan.
More than half of the eight movies in the narrative competition are New York-connected. What do you think of that?
I think just a lot of the creative types in America are going to the coasts, and when you’re doing films on the independent, DIY level, you’re working where you are and writing what you know and working with resources that you have.
No. I would love to make films in other places as well. I’d like to do a sequel to this movie in Los Angeles. I’d like to do movies all over the place. When you’re starting out, you’re writing about what you know, your own life, and I grew up here, and my support networks are here, both professionally and family. But I like New York films, I like the tradition of New York films.
I think it makes the filmmaking easier. But it’s harder for the relationship. Sofia and I have both been very, very invested in each other’s projects, and our work has been tied together in that way. When you’re both working on a film, you’re both keeping those difficult hours, and the relationship suffers romantically because you don’t have as much time to spend together. The other side, though, is if one of us is doing a film and the other isn’t, you don’t see that person at all. I wouldn’t recommend it for people who don’t share a strong bond.
We feel like you have to do it that way — and it also organically worked out that way. Once you embark on directing, and writing, and acting, it takes a lot out of you, you kind of need a breather. Usually while one of us is finishing one project, the other is generating another.
I don’t often think about whether or not I’m better or worse [laughs]. I think that in a way Gabi and Green were impressive feats because we were working with such little money and had so little experience. This film was a different challenge. I had more tools at my disposal and I wanted to use them effectively. I was working with more seasoned veterans. That was new to me. I’ve progressed to making movies that are bigger, and I get to work with more resources.
Definitely. Now so many people are making films, it’s extremely competitive. And you really have to prove yourself before people are willing to work with you and get behind you. If you’re coming out of nowhere without anything to show, you’re at a disadvantage.
Our first coup was that we got a great casting director, Jessica Kelly; her belief in the project and loving the script, and us having a previous track record made her want to work with us. She had great access to agencies, and was able to get the script in the hands of these people. After that, they liked the script. Kevin Corrigan was the first person we had on board, he had been a fan of Gabi. The next was Alia. When she got on board it became easier to get other people involved, because we had the beginnings of a really solid cast.
I feel like she’s working on such a big scale now, I don’t know how many of her viewers have seen Gabi. I hope the fact that she’s in it brings people to watch it. But what I thought about her hasn’t changed. She was really funny then, she’s really funny now. I know she was a pleasure to work with.
All those people that I worked with on Gabi, so many of them have gone on to do great projects and great work. I feel really lucky and blessed that I was working with such a great cast at such an early point in my career. They were all really hungry and really fun to work with. Like Amy Seimetz, who was on The Killing, directed Sun Don’t Shine, which is like a do it yourself masterpiece of a film. Brooke Bloom is now in She’s Lost Control (playing at SXSW). And Kate Lyn Sheil [who’s also in The Heart Machine at SXSW] who’s now on House of Cards.
I love Austin. I feel like it has something in common with the Northside of Brooklyn. Maybe a little less so with the side I live on, which is a little more sedate and older. We live in Cobble Hill — a lot of the movie is shot in the building we live in.
It’s more laid back than New York, way more laid back, which I like, and it’s a great place to premiere the movie. The people are more interested in art that’s off the beaten path. It’s more youth-oriented, less celebrity-dominated than something like Sundance or Toronto.
I think it’s really easy to get discouraged. It’s very competitive right now, and it’s hard to get your work seen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not growing. I would say hang in there. Once there was a paradigm, where you made one film, and that was such a great accomplishment that you’d probably automatically get to make another. Now it’s not necessarily like that. Your first film may not get into any festivals. The trajectory is different. And people just have to hang in there and work longer and harder at it.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg”