Filmmaker Victor Levin’s smartly written feature debut, 5 to 7, is a charming and funny love story about an aspiring young writer (Anton Yelchin) and the beautiful, sophisticated French woman (Bérénice Marlohe) who befriends him on a New York sidewalk. Arielle (Marlohe), who enjoys an open relationship with her husband (Lambert Wilson), invites Brian (Yelchin) to join her in a passionate “cinq-à-sept” affair that he will never forget. The lessons he learns about life and love during their brief but tender courtship change him forever. Glenn Close, Frank Langella and Olivia Thirlby also star.
In an exclusive interview, Levin talked about how this was a passion project he’d always wanted to direct, why it’s not a romantic comedy in a traditional sense, how he found the best actors to tell his story, the film’s financing, how his television experience informed his approach, his visual style and the decision to shoot in widescreen, his inspiring collaboration with DP Arnaud Potier, Oscar-nominated production designer Jeannine Oppewall, costume designer Heidi Bivens, and editor Matt Maddox, the classical style score by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the wonderful NYC locations and celebrity cameos, and his new screenplay. Check it all out in the interview below:
VICTOR LEVIN: It was written as a spec script by me in 2007. I showed it to my agent, Adriana Alberghetti, at WME. She said, “I know who should produce this.” She introduced me to Julie Lynn. Julie read it. She said she wanted to do it, and we began the process of trying to get actors attached, which can take some time. A couple of years thereafter, as the process was unfolding, Julie partnered up with Bonnie Curtis in Mockingbird Pictures. And then, it was Julie, Bonnie and me, a sort of three-headed monster, trying to find out actors. These people have to be perfect for the part, but they also have to be muscular enough in terms of box office to interest your investors. So, it can be a fairly time consuming process.
What was it about this story that made you want to direct it as your first feature?
LEVIN: It’s a romance, but there are a lot of things that are also hopefully very funny, so it’s a delicate balance. It has one foot in each camp, and it’s fragile for that reason. It really depends on nuances of execution. I wanted to be responsible for that, for making sure that balance was struck.
Was this a passion project you had always wanted to direct?
LEVIN: Yes. There was never any thought other than that I would direct it. I said at the time, “If I can’t direct it, then it just won’t be made.”
This is not a romantic comedy in a traditional sense. How hard was it to get a script with this kind of premise to the place to make it all happen?
LEVIN: It’s always hard, but it’s always fun to attack a premise that you think is interesting. It does take a few drafts for sure. When your characters are not white hats or black hats but something in between, you do have to be very careful about your details. So, that takes a while. I’m not interested in white hats and black hats. I don’t think that’s how people are in real life. I think everybody has a little rule follower and a little rule breaker in them. It’s more fun to write about characters that are like that as well, but it does take more time. There’s no question.
Why were these the best actors to tell your story?
LEVIN: I just love Anton Yelchin’s work, particularly a magnificent movie he did with Felicity Jones in 2011 called Like Crazy. I saw Like Crazy and I called Julie from the car on the way home and I said, “Is there any way that we could approach Anton?” She said, “Let me look into it.” Bonnie and Julie being the very, very good producers that they are got us in a room and made it happen. And so, you really have to be struck like that, I think. You have to feel so strongly about an actor that you can’t stop thinking of them in the part, and that’s how I felt about Anton. And then, Bérénice Marlohe came later. It’s a very short list of internationally known French, funny, beautiful, box office eligible in this country leading ladies. It’s a shorter list than you think. But fortunately, she had been in Skyfall and she had made a movie with Terrence Malick so she was eligible. Within ten minutes of meeting her, I knew that she was the one I wanted and thank goodness she said yes.
Glenn Close and Frank Langella are so terrific. How did you convince them to join the cast?
LEVIN: What a blessing that was. Glenn had made Albert Nobbs with Bonnie and Julie. They have a close friendship. When they suggested her for the part, I said, “Yes, by all means.” Glenn read the script and she liked it. We spoke and she agreed to do it. I particularly loved the fact that she is not a cliché of the suburban Jewish mother. She’s a new rhythm. She’s a new look at that character. I did not want to cast someone who would be playing something that I felt I had seen in other movies, especially because Glenn’s character has a more evolved response to the situation than other characters in other movies perhaps have had. It was very important that her character Arlene be delivered with elegance, and Glenn is entirely and thoroughly elegant in everything she does. So, that was thrilling when she said yes. When you screen it with an audience and she walks into the movie, you can feel their joy at seeing her because they’re not expecting it. There aren’t any main titles on the film with the exception of the title of the film itself. To many people, it’s a surprise and they just sit up a little straighter. I always enjoy that moment.
And then the moment happens again when Frank walks in. They’re just so happy that these people are in the movie, as am I, of course. Now Frank we did not know, but Frank was someone that I had had in my head. Again, Bonnie and Julie worked and worked. One day I was in Atlanta working on another project and I got a phone call saying, “Frank will meet you at Henry’s Restaurant at 105th St. and Broadway tomorrow night. Get yourself to New York.” So I got myself to New York and went up to 105th and Broadway. Henry’s is a beautiful Italian restaurant. Frank is a regular there and he had the best table, and there he was sitting in the corner framed perfectly by the mahogany paneling and the lighting. It was really as though the whole thing had been art directed. I go over to say hello and he stands up. He’s tall, and he’s handsome, and he’s strapping, and his hand is massive. My hand disappears inside his hand when we shake hands. We sit down and just had a lovely conversation not about anything to do with the movie, and about 20 minutes in he said, “Yes, I will be in your movie.” It was really one of the nicest show business memories I’ve ever had. We’ve become great friends and he’s really been a mentor and a wonderful resource. He’s an amazing guy.
Can you talk about the financing of the film?
LEVIN: The budget is small. The financing was relatively easy to get after we had Anton and Bérénice, and having Frank and Glenn certainly helped also. I think most, if not all, of our financing was in place before we got Frank and Glenn, but getting Frank and Glenn really helps. People know who they are on every continent, and they’re definitely going to deliver more viewers, so everyone can breathe a little easier. The wonderful people at Demarest Films were the principal investors in the movie and they were great partners. There were a couple of private investors also in addition to them, but they were most of it. They’re what you dream about in terms of what your financial partners are going to be like. They really liked the material. They were extremely kind and trusting. If they had a question, they weren’t shy about asking it, but they were always friends. They were around a lot – Sam Englebardt, David Greathouse and Bill Johnson. I was so grateful for that collaboration also because it isn’t always like that.
How did your television experience inform your approach to this?
LEVIN: The television experience absolutely helped as did the television commercial writing that I did prior to series television, and principally in two ways. Number one, you have to make sure that you’re always telling the story, and it’s a very good discipline. Yes, you want the hunks of dialogue to be funny and moving. They have to be in service of story. That’s how movies are. You learn to do that on a second nature level in series television. You’ve only got 22 minutes and 39 seconds in a half hour, or whatever it is, and vaguely twice that in an hour. So you have to be efficient about story, and that discipline just becomes a background function that is incredibly good for the work. You learn to do your best writing on story rather than off story. Very often at the beginning of their careers, writers including me do their best dialogue writing off story – the best lines, the best observations – but they haven’t got enough to do with the plot to stay in. You learn to concentrate your efforts on those things that will stay in because they must stay in because they’re moving the plot along.
So that’s number one. Number two is it makes you accountable for your comedy. You learn to develop an instinct for what an audience is going to laugh at and what is not going to work. Now you’re not always right. You’re often wrong. But at least you’re looking at it as objectively as you can with as much experience as you can in the moment and saying, “Yeah, I think it’s funny” or “No, I don’t think it’s funny yet.” It’s not like you’re just writing a script and mailing it off and someone else has to worry about whether or not it really gets a laugh. I have stood there in front of a live audience when a joke has not gotten a laugh, and it’s an unpleasant sensation and not one I ever want to repeat if I can avoid it. You learn to have a sense of what’s going to work comedically, which I think is very important for any movie that has comic aspirations, and certainly for this one because it needs its funny moments to mix with the drama.
How would you describe your directing style?
LEVIN: I like long takes that are beautifully framed by Arnaud (Potier) in which the actors and the words are left to do their work and the director remains as invisible as possible. My job, as I see it, is to give you a window into another world and another story, and then to be as graceful as I can so that you don’t feel my work or the editor’s work or the lens or the light or anything. You should perceive that it’s beautiful, I hope, and you should be pleased by it, but I don’t want you to feel my efforts. That gives a lot of room to actors to be the center of things which they should be.
Can you talk about your collaboration with your DP Arnaud Potier and the decision to shoot in widescreen with longer takes and master shots?
LEVIN: I knew I wanted to work in Cinemascope because I find it much more beautiful just in terms of the shape of the screen, the wider image, and it’s also less like television, which is important. In this day and age, you need to distinguish yourself from the other media that are similar to yours but not the same. I made that decision early on. Arnaud was in strict agreement. I chose Arnaud from about 70 directors of photography who were New York eligible, because when I saw his film, Les Adoptés (The Adopted), which he shot for Mélanie Laurent in her directing debut, it was so close visually to what I wanted to do – not the same but certainly a close cousin. When I spoke with him, I was able to use this film as a reference point for our conversations. Even though his first language is French, which is my second language but it’s not very good, and there was that language barrier, we were able to communicate very well by using Les Adoptés as a touchstone.
And then, we just became really good friends and he revealed himself to be an extremely funny and openhearted person. By the end, he was in every sense my creative partner. I was asking him, “Do you think this is funny? Do you think that works?” and he was asking me, “What do you think of this shot? What do you think of this lens?” It was really a wonderful collaboration. At the moment, he’s something of a well-kept secret in this country although not in France, but sooner or later he’s going to be a very big name here. He’s wonderful. There are people who are put on this earth to do everything. This is a guy who from the age of six was positioning lights inside a shoebox to see how the shadows would fall and that is what you want. You want to surround yourself with people who are as dedicated to their discipline as you are to yours and let them do what they do.
What inspired the classical style score? What was your collaborative process like with composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans?
LEVIN: I love those guys. I had a completely different notion of what the music was going to be like at the script stage. I was thinking something in the jazz world. But, it’s funny when you put music up against picture, and all your preconceptions go away, and you start over. You just realize that that doesn’t work at all. Saunder and Danny’s reel was one of the reels that I had been sent. They were New York eligible guys who were considered very strong. There were five or six other people who were also in the mix who were wonderful. But Saunder and Danny had just done Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was a very different soundtrack than this but very interesting. They sent over their demo reel, and there was a cut on the demo reel that I loved, and I put it up against the first scene because I just had a feeling. It was the first thing we looked at that felt even close to right. It was not 100% right, but there was something about what they were doing and what we were doing that went together.
I brought them in when the film was only half cut, only half of a rough cut, and I showed it to them, and I said, “I think it should be classical. Can you guys even do that?” because there was nothing on their reel that suggested they did. “Do you want to be in a studio conducting an orchestra? Is that even something you care to do?” They said, “Yes, it is. We love it. We’ve been hoping to find a project where we could do a classical score. We think we can do a really good job. We’ve been chomping at the bit for that opportunity.” So I said, “Great.” They were tireless and brilliant. First of all, they wrote two themes for the movie that I just loved as pieces of music, apart from whatever use they would ever have, the one love theme and the other main theme for the film, which I just loved the second I heard them and so did Julie. But, of course, it’s much more complicated than that. You’ve got to tailor it to the theme. You’ve got to make it fit. You’re torturing these people with, “Can you move it a frame and a half?” But they were so lovely about it and they worked with me well into the night time and time again. They were extremely collaborative, extremely inventive. They brought us great musicians. There are a lot of instrumental solos in the score, which as beautifully as you may write them, you’ve still got to know the perfect trumpeter to come in and play it, and they did. So that was as strong an example as Arnaud, or as Jeannine Oppewall, our multi-decorated, brilliant Production Designer, or surrounding yourself with people who are really good at what they do and just letting them do it.
How was it working with an Oscar-nominated Production Designer like Oppewall?
LEVIN: I can’t tell you what an honor that was. You’re talking about a world class Production Designer at the top of her game. If you liked what Arnaud filmed, a large portion of the reason you like it is what he’s shooting, and what he’s shooting is there because she said it should be there. “The wall should be this color. It’s got to have this painting. It’s got to have this piece of sculpture. This is the kind of table they should be sitting at.” She’s unbelievable. She goes over everything with that level of detail and it shows. There’s a real elegance to the mise-en-scene and it’s because she slaved over it. She made sure that every room I was in looked exactly like it was supposed to look. We would go on location scouts together and she would say, “No, This one is not going to work. Let’s get back in the taxi.” She’s been doing this a long time at an extremely high level. So, even if I couldn’t see the reasons why, she could see the reasons why. What a relief to just know. I was very blessed to have somebody like that. It just makes you feel so calm because you know this person is at the height of her powers.
The costume design provided strong visual support to the story. Can you talk a little about what Heidi Bivens brought to the project?
LEVIN: The whole movie takes place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and, with the exception of Brian’s apartment, it’s confined to 59th Street on the south and about 88th or 89th Street on the north, and Central Park on the eastern portion. I think once we were on Park Avenue and that was as far east as we went. That’s a pretty specific area of the world. We were very strict about this is the way he would walk. This is the route he would take. These are the kinds of things they would do with their time period, because if you only had two hours, you wouldn’t go to the West Side. There wouldn’t be time. And just as those things are specific, the clothes also had to be specific. There is a particular way that elegant women on the Upper East Side of Manhattan dress. If you’re a costume designer, you have to know what I mean by that when I say that, because all I can say is, “She needs to dress in that elegant way that women on the Upper East Side dress.” I can’t say, “It’s this combination. It’s this line of dress.” I can just say, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
But she knew what I meant, and she had great relationships with both clothing makers and the larger couture houses. So, we were able to get a lot of clothes into the movie to make it look much more expensive than it is. Heidi is really gifted. She’s extremely elegant herself. She has a great style. She knows these women. She knows what they wear. She knows when they wear what, which is just as important. It extends also to hair and make-up and to making sure that Arielle’s character is put forth with understated elegance that these women are known for. It’s never heavy make-up. It’s often an understated hairstyle, a ponytail if you will. It’s not fussed over. It’s elegant. It’s really helpful when your department heads understand that that’s what you’re going for. It’s a very specific thing. In a carefully made movie, there’s nothing that hasn’t been considered.
How did your editor, Matt Maddox, help you bring your vision to life?
LEVIN: He’s really a secret weapon. He’s a young man, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of not just film, but of film music, of comedy, and of a way to cut comedy that doesn’t feel jokey, where the lines meant to cause laughter are just part of dialogue. They’re not hammered home by the cutting pattern. That’s very important if you want an elegant movie, and it’s very important if you don’t want to look like a TV show frankly. You have to have someone who has the confidence as an editor to say, “It’s okay to deliver this laugh on the cut or on the person’s back. It will still work. Just let’s be easy about it. Let’s be graceful about it. Let’s not beat people over the head.” That’s a very good voice to have in the editing room. He’s like that with all the dialogue. He has a light touch, but it’s effective. It’s firm. He just knows when to do action and when to do why. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie were times where I said, “I’m going to leave you alone. You need to be working without me sitting on the couch behind you. Do what you feel and I’ll come back and I’ll see it in the morning.” I would come in the morning, and this happened three or four times, and just watch it once and give him a big hug and say, “That’s it.” He’s really gifted. Editors do so much. It isn’t just cutting the picture. They’re with you all the way through until the last day of post. You begin to trust them on a level that goes far beyond what might have been true years and years ago. It’s basically, “Is that too loud? How’s that sound effect? Does the music swell in the right place?” These are all things you wind up talking about. He just has expertise in all those areas, so he was a wonderful find.
How did the finished film compare to what you had originally envisioned? Were there any surprises?
LEVIN: Oh yeah. There are always surprises. I’m very happy with the way it came out. There are some things I wish I’d done differently. There are some things that came out much better than I had ever expected. There are some things that came out pretty much as I expected. It’s never exactly what you planned. We were very lucky in a lot of ways. We had good weather. We had good cooperation from the unpredictable hordes on Manhattan Island. Believe me, you can be in the middle of a beautiful take and the next thing you know you’re awash in people crossing the street. You can’t even find your actors. All of that was lucky. We had great location partners like The Guggenheim Museum, the St. Regis Hotel, Le Charlot Restaurant, Crawford Doyle Bookstore, etc. There were wonderful celebrity cameos like Julian Bond, thanks for Julie Lynn who is an acolyte of his at the University of Virginia; Daniel Boulud (Chef-Owner of several award-winning NYC restaurants); Alan Gilbert, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. A lot of things fell into place beautifully, and I think that luck and good fortune are always an element. So, I was very happy that the cards came up well for us in a lot of ways.
Did you have a friends and family screening for this film?
LEVIN: Yes, we had a couple of them, very informal, very rough cut state, with people we knew and trusted, people whose tastes we knew so that we could frame their comment in the proper context. You always want to know the source so that you can figure out exactly what the note means. Every reaction is valid, and if there’s something in there that’s bothering you, you don’t have to tell me how to fix it, just tell me what’s bothering you and what you’re feeling. Are you bored during this section? Did you think that section was not as funny as I did? Were you moved by the drama at the end? Whatever it is, if you tell me what’s bothering you, then I’ll figure it out. So, I think in that sense, it’s very helpful. But I try not to do it too much because at a certain point there’s a pretty clear consensus on most big issues anyway. You’ve got enough information and it’s time to be a grown-up and make a decision. Sometimes you go against what they say because you believe in it anyway.
How long was the first cut of the movie? Did you have a lot of deleted scenes?
LEVIN: No, it was not too much longer than this. Since so many of the scenes worked in master, a lot of the trims were accomplished by taking a little bit off the head or taking a little bit off the tail of scenes. In some cases, we dropped the scenes completely. In other cases, for example, in the long walk-and-talk in the library, the Steadicam shot where Olivia (Thirlby) goes up the stairs with Anton, we had it in one take, but there was a digression in the monologue that she had learned so beautifully which ultimately was slowing the story down. We had shot that second camera from the parapet just in case we wanted to go between takes and speed things along. So, that was a case where we got stuff out in the middle of a scene. There were a couple of other cases like that, but for the most part, it was just removing scenes wholesale or trimming them from the head or the tail.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
LEVIN: I have written the next script which Bonnie and Julie are in the process of giving me notes on and sending out to our principal actors. Hopefully, it won’t take seven years this time. They’re really good note givers, and so I listen and I craft. I try to get it to a place where the three of us all are 100% with it because I really trust them. But as I said before, that does take a little time and now I think we’re almost ready. It will be another romance with comedy for grown-up people. I don’t want to use the words “romantic comedy” because it’s not that. It’s something else. But it’s a similar story of love plus a large obstacle that has to either be overcome or not. It doesn’t have a title yet. That is the subject of some debate between Arnaud, Bonnie, Julie and myself. There are a couple of candidates, but I don’t want to say them in case they turn out not to be the title.
How did you find the directing experience?
LEVIN: I loved it. I think it’s the most fun you can have. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was 17, but the ebbs and flows of your career take you in different directions. You kind of have to go with it, especially when you’re starting out. So, it took a little longer than I wish it had to get there, but I can honestly tell you I’ve never had more fun. It was incredibly satisfying to be able to get something on its feet the way you see it in your imagination, and to have people who are helping you and who understand what you want to do, and have ideas in service of that and who are your friends and your creative partners and business partners. It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re like a little army of people with one clear purpose marching through the shoot and post trying to get this thing right. I made great friends on this movie who I know will be friends for the rest of my life, and I think everybody had a lot of fun and is proud of the work, and that’s very satisfying also.
Which filmmakers have inspired you? Who are your influences?
LEVIN: There are so many, but certainly on that list would be Whit Stillman, François Truffaut, Woody Allen, and Lina Wertmüller especially for the original Swept Away. I remember seeing it on HBO when I was very young, and thinking I’d never seen anything like that. It’s just the way she can go from comedy to tragedy to real heartbreak. That really stayed with me. And then, I watched another movie of hers, Seven Beauties, which has that incredibly brilliant opening with the black and white footage of the war and the guy doing the voiceover. It’s a prologue that lasts a few minutes and it’s one of the most brilliant things you’ll ever see. And then, there’s Barry Levinson, particularly the Baltimore movies, especially Diner, which was where I first discovered Paul Reiser who I later would work with. Diner, Liberty Heights, and Avalon really conveyed a lot of what was in my heart about what I wanted to say as a writer and how I viewed life.
The things that those characters said to each other in Diner felt very current to me, even though I was growing up 20 or 30 years after those fictional characters. My friends and I from high school repeated lines from Diner to one another forever. We still do. It’s become a sort of shorthand for us. He’ll just say, “You ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?” or “I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times. I never saw death walking on the beach.” We’ll just say that and everybody knows what it means. And Bill Forsyth also who directed a movie called Local Hero. It’s a fantastic story starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster about an oil baron and his corporate underling who attempt to purchase an entire Scottish town, and what happens when Riegert’s character becomes so enamored of the town, and the lifestyle, and the people that it completely changes his philosophy of life. It’s very funny and very subtle and very much about America at that time where he had just lost perspective and money was the only thing. So those are a few of them.
5 to 7 is now available on VOD and in select theaters.