Richard Levine’s feature debut, Every Day, is tonally quite different from what we’ve come to expect from the writer, director and executive producer of the Golden Globe winning TV series, Nip/Tuck. Starring Liev Schreiber, Helen Hunt, Carla Gugino, Eddie Izzard and Brian Dennehy, the film is inspired by events in Levine’s own life and tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive and make the most of circumstances when they’re dealt a hand they didn’t expect.
Levine, who is currently the creator and executive producer of Scoundrels, sat down with us in an exclusive interview to talk about his new movie. He told us how he felt compelled to write about experiences that were deeply personal, what his strategy was for assembling a strong cast, and why he found the transition to the big screen incredibly challenging. He also updated us on his latest projects including a screen adaptation of the Francine Prose novel, Blue Angel, which he plans to direct.
RICHARD LEVINE: The genesis, the seeds of it, are somewhat autobiographical inspired by experiences that were happening in my own life at the time in terms of my older son who came out when he was 14, so that storyline was inspired by that. And then, we did actually bring my father-in-law out from Detroit to Los Angeles towards the end of his life and his relationship with my wife is a very fraught but very interesting one. So these were two elements that I felt compelled to write about. I just started from there and had in my mind a certain exploration of mid-life, I guess, or wrestling with difficult chapters in one’s marriage. And so, that was sort of the unfolding of the script. I had directed four episodes of Nip/Tuck and as I was writing it I thought well hmmm, maybe I should direct this and so I wrote it with an eye to directing it. I really tried to see it in the writing of it and then just decided I’d go for it.
How does the experience of writing and directing your first feature compare to working in television? Was it an easy transition adjusting to the big screen?
LEVINE: It really was quite different partially because the movie is mine and working in television, it hasn’t been mine. I did have a show on this summer called Scoundrels that I developed with my writing partner, Lynnie Greene but it really wasn’t original in that respect. I think part of your job in television is to find the voice of the creator and find the voice of the show and it’s a very collaborative effort. When you’re writing and directing a film, although the world of filmmaking is incredibly collaborative, the vision of what you’re trying to assemble is very particular and very specific. So, in that respect, it was a challenge, and also in the case of this movie, the budget is very small, the shooting schedule is very tight, so there are extraordinary challenges. I definitely got to strengthen what I’m good at and learn exactly how much I didn’t know and hopefully will continue to know more the next time. I loved it but it was incredibly challenging.
LEVINE: Yes, I approached it in a particular order. I went after Liev (Schreiber) first because I really wanted him and I thought he would be the perfect choice. So I begged and pleaded and wrote letters and finally he seemed to respond to the script and signed on. Then I went after Helen (Hunt) because I also thought she would be perfect for it. Once I had the two of them, the money began to come into place and then I went after everyone else – Carla (Gugino) and Brian (Dennehy) and Eddie (Izzard). In some respects, it’s always hard and miraculous when you go after these great actors and then you get them. That was extraordinary. But finding the kids was in some ways a more delicate and more difficult challenge because partially they’re based on my kids so the bar was really high, and also I really wanted original, special kids. I felt like if you didn’t love those kids or respond to those kids, you wouldn’t really love that couple, and because you’re seeing a difficult time in their marriage, you need to know what their value is. I think having those great kids really helps. I saw so many kids and sometimes I was quite bereft and wondering if I would find [them], especially for the older one. That was the harder of the two. But I lucked out because they’re both fantastic.
The relationship between Ned and his boss, Garrett, has some pretty funny and touching moments. Was any of that inspired by your own personal experiences or from writing for Nip/Tuck.
LEVINE: Yes and no. I would say that the character of Garrett was loosely inspired by Ryan (Murphy) because he’s just so original and so funny. I really enjoyed as a writer having fun with the writers’ room in that respect. I think that you always want to do justice to someone that you admire and I wanted that part to have some dimension. In terms of the Ned-Garrett relationship, I would say it’s quite a bit different than my relationship with Ryan but it served the story to tell it a certain way. I think that Ryan has so many different aspects to his personality. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t shortchange him and present a cartoon version. I did want Garrett to have some moments of humanity and that were touching because Ryan is a very empathic person, and although it took me personally a long time to share the fact that my son was gay, when I did, Ryan was an incredible resource and an incredible ear for that particular experience.
LEVINE: Yes, I did. We had a couple of different [screenings]. I would like to have a lot of private screenings for friends and then I would make changes. Even as a writer, if more than two people have the same note, then I want to really investigate it and listen to it. I did the same thing in terms of the movie. Ambush did organize one screening which was the only time a group saw it. I would have liked more. I think they’re valuable. They’re tricky because you have to know what the proclivities are of the audience. If it’s not the right audience who would go to see this movie, I’m not sure that it tells you what you need to know. I do think that there’s value but you have to listen to the response and be very thoughtful about it.
How did you approach the editing phase and what was your collaborative process with your editor like during post production?
LEVINE: Very collaborative. I loved it. I loved that part of the process. I think that’s where screenings were very helpful because you can lose objectivity. We had a great editor, Pam Wise. I thought she did a great job. It’s quite a remarkable part of the process because movies can really change. I read this in the Directors Guild magazine and James Brooks said it. He said “You write the movie you want and then you edit the movie you have.” I just thought that was brilliant. But in the process of editing the movie you have, there are several different movies you can find. This movie did go through some major points of view and focus changes in the course of post. It was fascinating.
One of the major themes seems to be about recognizing what’s really important in life and appreciating what you have even if it’s not what you expected. What would you like an audience to take from this film?
LEVINE: That would be good. There’s also a relate-ability factor that I hope will be true and it has been true in the screenings that I have attended at various festivals, where I think although the specifics are very personal in any long term relationship, you go through hard times. There’s something I want that’s recognizable to people about “Oh, okay, yeah, I’m glad to see it out there,” that it can be hard and that you can go through it. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce and we treat it, as a culture, in a very blithe and blasé way, I think there’s something to be said for staying in the ring. So there’s that element of it and I think it extends to the father-daughter relationship which is okay. That is hard. That’s really complex and yet there is some sort of healing that takes place and it’s small. It’s not all is forgiven, all is great, but there is love there and it’s worth staying in that ring to touch it because then it’s gone. Then the opportunity is gone. There’s something about the relate-ability of what’s hard about our journeys as parents and children and mates.
LEVINE: Well, as I said, my son came out at 14. But the interesting thing I think about this movie and that I always admired about my son that made me want to write about him because I think he’s so exemplary is that he really never did struggle with his sexual identity and in the movie he doesn’t really. The father struggles with his son’s sexual identity which I think is really interesting, and it was something that personally was surprising to me that I struggled with it and that I was not as comfortable with it as I would have anticipated. It was really interesting to hear friends of mine who had daughters and their concerns mirrored some of my concerns having a gay son. It was a world I just was very anxious about and combined with the internet and the accessibility of everything potentially dangerous. There wasn’t a rule book. I didn’t have people to go to. It was different. So I really wanted to have that as a part of the movie.
You strike a much more true-to-life tone in this film that draws on deeply personal issues you faced in your own life. It’s tonally quite different from what we’ve seen on Nip/Tuck and other television.
LEVINE: Yes, I mean, that was the joy of doing this kind of a movie. There was a certain amount of courage I needed to stay with it for that very reason because you hear the critics in your mind going “Oh c’mon, you know, you’re going to write about that? Hasn’t that been done?” It’s the art of telling a personal story, of taking something that the genesis is real and I like to think that you’re turning it into an expression of art. It’s not just regurgitation. I like to think of it as a chamber piece, that I made a piece of music. So yes, tonally it’s so different than Nip/Tuck or really any other television. Television is its own medium and I think there are limitations and it was fun for me, partially because it was self-generated, to not impose those limitations on myself in terms of how real it could be, how gritty it could be when it was gritty, or emotionally gritty it could be and complex and understated. So that was a real pleasure. That was a great pleasure.
Can you talk about what you’re currently working on and what you have coming up next? Would you like to make another feature film?
LEVINE: Yes, definitely. I’m dying to. There’s so much I learned and so much I want to put into practice. Currently I’ve got two scripts – one that I wrote with my writing partner, Lynnie Greene, that’s out there and in some state of readiness. It seems to be gathering steam so I’m very hopeful about that. And then, I’m in the process of finishing an adaptation of a book that I love that I optioned. That one I definitely want to direct. So I’ve got those things happening while I’m also developing television shows.
What’s the name of the book you optioned?
LEVINE: The book option is a book called “Blue Angel” by Francine Prose so I’m in the process of adapting that and I’m very excited about it. It’s about a college professor whose life is undone by a student and his relationship with a student. It’s really about the ghosts of the past wreaking havoc on your present when they’re not dealt with.
Do you have anyone in mind for the cast?
LEVINE: I do have people in mind. I’m loath to say [who] but I’m excited.