Coming off the worldwide success of Real Steel, director Shawn Levy had his pick of projects. And while it seemed like a few other movies might have gotten to the starting line first, after meeting and collaborating with Vince Vaughn on The Watch (which Levy produced), the actor pitched him on the idea of The Internship, and they started filming soon after.
During a break in production on set last year, I was able to interview Levy with a movie reporter from Yahoo. We talked about getting Google to sign off, how he edits what he shoots that day, the soundtrack, filming for both a PG-13 or an R rating, having actors that are great improvisers, why he’s using a digital camera, future projects such Project Aloha, Night at the Museum 3, 39 Clues, Fantastic Voyage, and Real Steel 2, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say, but be aware that there are some spoilers regarding cameos in The Internship.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the trailer, I’d watch that first.
Note: This interview was done on set last year. The status of future projects may have changed.
SHAWN LEVY: First, to answer your question about Alexander, we have a script that’s co-written by Lisa Cholodenko and a writer named Rob Lieber. Obviously, like pretty much everyone who has any taste, I loved both Laurel Canyon and The Kids Are All Right. And the whole idea was to not make this a family film programmer, but to take this beloved book and do something different with it. So we brought in Lisa Cholodenko who really responded to the book and to our ideas about how to make it into a movie. She co-wrote the script, she’s directing, Steve Carrell wants to star in it, and we are trying to put it together to shoot in the first quarter of next year, which would be thrilling. So many family films, I happen to have just been talking about this with Lisa yesterday, but family film now seems to most often mean animation or vfx tent pole. It’s like the days of Parenthood, or even Cheaper By the Dozen, as family film, it’s kind of given way to an era of 8 to 10 animated tentpoles a year, and family films can mean Night at the Museum, or Bedtime Stories, or Men in Black. So the idea of doing just a humanist, character centric family film, about family, and for the whole family, it almost feels like a return to that might be welcomed. And that’s certainly our hope. So that’s the status of Alexander. I hope were inviting you to the set by March of next year.
Was this one easy to get in the studio?
LEVY: This one was pretty easy. No studio green light is totally easy, but this one lined up pretty easy and pretty quick. It was easy for a few reasons. One, it was the first re-teaming of Owen and Vince in what, eight years? That’s something audiences have wanted to see for a long time, and every studio has tried to replicate. So the fact that this was baked into the DNA of this, that was a big appeal. I think the idea of this two-generation comedy is a very timely idea. I think that, if you open any newspaper, plug into any cultural dialogue – the idea of where are the opportunities now and what is the state of our economy and what is the hope on the horizon – it’s very much in the conversation. The movie is about that, and it’s centered around the workplace of one of the world’s biggest companies. So that seemed like a big idea to the studio, and also they have a certain modicum of faith in me, so the fact that it was me, Vince and Owen coming as a package together with this big idea – Vince and Owen as interns at Google – it’s clean, it’s strong, it’s timely, and it was a pretty quick yes.
How did the package come together?
LEVY: It started off as conversations on set between Vince and I. I produced The Watch, and Vince and I spent a fair amount of time together on that set. In fact, two movies came out of that video village schmoozing: one of which has been reported it’s Project Aloha with me, Jonah [Hill] and Ben [Stiller] and the other was, Vince kept telling me about this idea – this script he had written called The Internship. And he always pitched it as “me and Owen, interns at Google.” And at that point, as you know, I was seeing whether Fantastic Voyage was going to come into shoot-able shape or Frankenstein was gonna come to reality or any number of the other things that had been reported. And it felt like this was a big idea at the right moment. I wasn’t committed to another movie and so, from those conversations on the set of The Watch, we quickly moved to a yes, and then Vince, me, and Jared Stern, the co-writer, spent four months significantly re-writing the script together.
LEVY: Yeah. It just feels like, in my experience, there’s always a point in the post process where the movie kind of tells you what it wants to be, and I don’t know what the trends are. Some people argue that we’re in a Golden Age of R-Rated comedies. Some would argue that there have been as many hits as misses this past summer in the R-Rated comedy field. So we’re just going to kind of shoot multiple versions. By that I mean, we do multiple versions of jokes, but we do multiple versions of ratings. So that means, some runs of dialogue are filled with swearing and some scenes in nightclubs are filled with partial nudity, and then we’ll do a version of that dialogue and those sequences that could fit into a PG-13 so that we have the editorial flexibility. That being said, there’s no question this will be right on the edge. It will either be R or it will be a highly edgy PG-13.
I know you guys have some cameos in this film. When you tell Owen and Vince to call at will, how easy is it to get those cameos?
LEVY: I learned fairly early, but especially on Night at the Museum with Ben that talent tends to draw talent, and so when you have Owen and Vince, a lot of these cameos came more easily than I would have imagined. So in the case of Will [Ferrell], you know, he had cameo-d in Wedding Crashers. Vince had cameo-d in, I wanna say, Anchorman?
LEVY: We had this idea. There’s this character that is so funny and we always pictured and discussed, wouldn’t it just be the best if it were Will Ferrell? And, Vince reached out to Will as a friend, and once again it was a pretty quick yes, so he’s joining us in about a week for a couple of days, in what should be an extremely funny character. I don’t wanna say more. We were gonna try to keep it a secret but I think it broke online about a month ago. I feel like nothing is actually kept a secret anymore. Although I was surprised because that one stayed a secret for like two solid months before it broke. So that was Vince calling Will. Rob Riggle came in and did something yesterday. John Goodman came in and did something. Then we have the left field cameo of Missy Franklin. She’s coming to Google next month to cameo in a sequence that I don’t wanna speak about, but it should be extremely funny and strange. And, maybe a few other surprises.
How did that one come about?
LEVY: Missy? Well this is how it came about. If you go to Google, they frequently host great thinkers or athletes or musicians or humanitarians. And they will either tour Googleplex or give seminars, or host symposiums. And there’s actually a big screen where you see all of these great thinkers or celebrities of note who have visited the Google campus, so it’s a true fact of Google culture. And so, as Vince and Owen arrived, part of the paradigm that I alluded to earlier is this Wizard of Oz paradigm, this arrival in the Emerald City. And part of that is like, “Holy shit, there’s so and so leading a song circle strumming a guitar. There’s Missy Franklin giving a motivational lecture. There’s so and so.” We’re populating it with a few cameos, A) because it’s cool, B) because it’s accurate to what happens at the Google campus.
Talk about getting Google to sign onto the project. How much did you have to compromise with them, etc?
LEVY: Well, for one thing, I would say there wasn’t compromise. There was a lot of back and forth, but it started before I came on the scene. Vince had this idea well before me. Vince had written a script and Vince had had a meeting with the Google executives and talked about this generational comedy set at Google. And they were on board in concept. They were on board regardless of rating. They were on board regardless of content. They simply wanted their company and culture represented accurately and not degradingly, ‘cause the truth is, it’s a pretty noble culture. The people who are there are there because they actually wanna make the world better, so to make it look like a shitty place would not only be unfair, but inaccurate. They read drafts of the script, but there was never a moment where they were like, “No you can’t do that.” It was “maybe” and “hey, does your character have to say this? This makes us a little uncomfortable.” And in the case of a good joke, I would fight the good fight and preserve the line. If it were something that was a painless change for me, I would find a middle ground that felt comfortable. They were pretty respectful of the creative process but I in return was trying to be respectful of the fact that Google is much bigger than one movie. I wanted to be respectful and I wanted to honor the fact that they have a value system that should be treated fairly. I never felt hamstrung, I just felt like we were collaborating. Since that day of “here’s our script, we’re gonna get going,” I haven’t felt any interference.
Other than, to give you an example, there’s a whiteboard in the corner, and you see dozens of these at Google, and it’s literally puns, mental games, mind twisters, and throughout Google you will see these huge whiteboards where one Googler will write a riddle for any other Googler to come by and work out. And it’s a bit like that Good Will Hunting thing where the professor writes down the math problem and someone needs to solve it and it really happens at Google where, people will just piggyback on either a line of thinking or solving a riddle. And so, a lot of those very specific elements of set dressing, we went to Google, we took photographs of what was actually on the whiteboards at Google, and we replicated them here. For instance, tomorrow we’re shooting a scene where the kids are working on finding the bug in two million lines of code. Of course Owen and Vince have no freakin’ clue how to do that, and you’ve got four Ivy League interns who are furiously scribbling away this glass wall you see here, Good Will Hunting style and, I have no fucking idea what they’re supposed to write but I know that these actors need to look really goddamn smart. So I called Google and I said, “you need to tell me what these little geniuses would be writing to figure it out.” So Google people are telling me, are you saying come on? I’m being beckoned to go shoot. So Google people helped me out with some of the touches of realism throughout the movie.
What is the limit of takes for you in this movie? Because when you have actors that are such good improvisers, do you know when to stop, or do you think that with more time you might get something else?
LEVY: It’s a really good question, and you don’t really think it through, at least, I don’t really think it through in a formal way. I guess I always have a sense of the clock, but so many times, I’ve learned that if you just go that one more take – you will often sit through 5 minutes of mediocrity. It happens. Everyone’s human and they’ll try riffs that aren’t that funny. You saw some of them today. But then, on the last take, I mean you saw a perfect example. We tried some improvs and it was only moderately funny. Then, three hours later, while we’re doing a close up of the yo-yo character, Vince, whose shoulder was in the frame, started finding a lane of improv. And you saw me recognize that it was happening, change the shot on the take, pan over, zoom in – not a shot we’d planned for, lit for, or prepared for – but I guess from experience you get a sense of when it starts to happen. I didn’t anticipate it, I guess I’m always willing to indulge that one extra take because the worst-case scenario is that I sit through mediocrity and I’m a little bored. The upside is there might be one great joke that makes the scene. And that was a great example because it wasn’t even on Vince, and Vince started coming up with that titty stuff, that will probably be in the movie. You know what happens sometimes? They start coming up with stuff when they relax because they know they’re off camera. This happens to Owen a lot too. I’m off camera. I can letdown. I’ll feed them the lines. No sweat. But from that looseness comes new ideas, and suddenly they’re back on camera and I spring it onto them because of what they’ve stumbled onto. So, I’m always kind of hoping for those surprises.
LEVY: Yeah, that’s why I made them read with Vince. Some people, and I won’t name names – some finalists, including some very famous ones – they gave great auditions. Then I brought them back for the final callback with Vince and I literally saw people choke massively. I mean, I saw one very famous actor just freeze up, and every time Vince tried to lob improv softballs, they couldn’t do anything with it, so I wouldn’t have cast these unknowns if I hadn’t seen that they can roll with the big cat.
I thought Will Ferrell was the big cat.
LEVY: Well Vince calls Will that, we all have, someone’s always a big cat to someone. To Vince Vaughn, it’s Will Ferrell. To me, it’s Vince Vaughn.
I’m gonna ask a nerdy film question. You’re obviously shooting digital, are you on the Arri Alexa or the Red Epic?
LEVY: I’m on the Alexa, and first time on that.
What was your decision making on going digital, and also, why that camera?
LEVY: Two things really: I think the combination of having shot Real Steel digitally, and the fact that that movie looked so good, arguably better than any movie I’ve ever made, sold me on what digital can do aesthetically. Nine months of prep on Fantastic Voyage with Jim Cameron cemented my belief in the future and capabilities of digital. So I never really considered film for this. As far as why the Alexa, that was my cinematographer’s selection and I deferred to him.
There’s been a lot of talk about if someone will ever make a 3D comedy, walking down that path which no one has really done yet. Was there any talk on this one? Is it something you think the audience cares about?
LEVY: I’m really uncertain how much domestic audiences care about 3D, particularly in its application to comedy. You know when I see a guy like Baz Luhrmann shooting Gatsby in 3D, that’s really intriguing to me. I myself am neither for nor against it. I’ve seen amazing 3D movies that benefit massively from it, but it only really benefits massively from 3D when it’s in the hands of a maestro, someone who understands what that extra plane can do. I think Cameron is kind of without peer in his instincts on that front. And then you have people like Nolan who are kind of virulently resistant to it, in fact, resistant to digital, and I respect the hell out of him as a filmmaker as well. So, I think that day will come. Certainly the conversations I’ve had regarding a third and final Night at the Museum, are very much centered on it being 3D, but that almost is semi-applicable, because that’s a VFX comedy, and its really spectacle-based. I’m not ruling it out, however, that I would do a pure comedy 3D. Although in the broader picture, what I’ve learned is that I like going from Date Night to Real Steel to The Internship. I think that I’m never going to want to pick one genre lane and work exclusively in it. There was something really refreshing about bouncing from a comedy to a VFX action-drama to a straight comedy, etc, and I’m going to try and keep mixing it up.
Before Real Steel you were perceived among cinephiles and among fandom a certain way, and after there was a lot of positive critical, commercial reaction. Did that change you at all? And also, what is the status of possibly doing a sequel, because I know financially it was right on the threshold…
LEVY: Right on the cusp. Yep, right on the cusp. The first question… when you learn, as one must, to not care too much about critical response, you can’t be hypocritical and shut yourself off from the negative and then open your heart up to bathe in the positive. So while I’m human and I absolutely will admit that it felt good to get such positive feedback on Real Steel, I was wary of taking it too seriously, because then Ill have to take whatever bad reviews I get in the future equally seriously. So I’m trying, with only moderate success, to guard my heart from the good and the bad. I’m pretty transparent, it’s been said of me that my heart is well out there on my sleeve, but yeah, it felt good. More to the point, I’m really, really, really proud of Real Steel; it’s very much the movie I wanted it to be. That pride felt good. That pride is something I want to replicate in all my future work. So that’s my answer to that. Real Steel doing $300 million worldwide is right on that cusp of sequel worthiness.
It’s the G.I. Joe number. It’s exactly the G.I. Joe number. They made a sequel. Their distribution of domestic/international was a little more even. Ours was 85/215. So the numbers put us on the cusp. The fact that we’re now on the third round of manufacturing and still selling the toys keeps telling us something. I literally just approved the new line of toys. DreamWorks is still very bullish on the sequel. I’m getting the script in the next three and a half weeks. I saw a first draft that had real promise in some areas and missteps in others. And I’m getting the new draft from John Gatins in the month of September. And it’s one of a number of projects I can count on one hand that I’m really seriously considering to shoot in 2013. The script has to be really good. And DreamWorks is inclined to take that shot.
I spoke to Stacey Schneider about it and she said it was right there.
LEVY: Yep, right there. And look, DreamWorks has been influx as a studio, and we all heard those rumors about Stacey and the future of DreamWorks and all that… they’re very much a studio that’s intact but there making fewer movies and very few tentpoles. So I know, for them to pull the trigger on an expensive movie like Real Steel, they’ll need to feel, as will I, that it will be truly great.
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