Director's Chair: Shawn Levy - 'This Is Where I Leave You'
Issue: September 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Shawn Levy - 'This Is Where I Leave You'

Although he may not be a household name, director/producer Shawn Levy is one of the most commercially-successful film directors of the past 15 years. To date, his films, including The Internship, Date Night, Real Steel, What Happens in Vegas, The Pink Panther, Cheaper By The Dozen and the blockbuster Night at the Museum franchise, have grossed over two billions dollars worldwide. And while Woody Allen’s a-film-a-year output is viewed with awe as the gold standard of workmanlike creativity, Levy is currently even more prolific, with three major films due for release in the next few months.

First up is the dramedy This is Where I Leave You, starring an ensemble that includes Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda. Then comes Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third in the series which once again stars Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan. And sandwiched in-between is the new kiddie comedy Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, which he produced. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Levy talks about the challenges of making three movies at once and his love of post and visual effects.

How do you handle all the challenges of directing and producing?

“I’ve been multi-tasking for so long now I confess, I’m addicted. I really enjoy the creative dexterity demanded by multiple projects, and I can give each full focus, whether it’s for a few hours or a few months. So I love the creative diversity, and I hope to keep working on a wide range of movies. I’ve been waiting for ten movies to make a human-scale, relationship-driven, character-based film like This Is, because although I’ve been very successful with these big broad comedies, you get pigeon-holed. When I first went to Warners about doing it, as I’d read and loved the book, they instead offered me The Flash. They had this perception about me only doing tent-pole-type films. So while I love the big movies, I also love doing smaller films.”

Let’s start with This Is Where I Leave You. Where did you shoot?

“It was a tight 32 days in New York, and totally do-able. Night films are more like 80 days. Even Date Night was 60 days. So we worked very fast, the budget was under $20 million, and we did it by shooting in a real house on Long Island. The only set is the basement. The rest is all real, and it was challenging to light and shoot, but liberating and you get an authenticity you can’t get on stages."

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

“Mostly all in New York City. We had space in the PostWorks facility and edited and did all our sound work and mix there, and the city gave it all a unique rhythm I feel. I could walk to work, whereas in LA you have to drive everywhere.”

Do you like post?

“I love it so much I actually spent July 4th weekend editing Night. In post you really remake your movie and find it, and I still find it amazing how in post things reveal themselves that you simply don’t see in the writing and shooting process. It’s always a big surprise.” 

Tell us about the editing process. You work a lot with the great father-and-son editing team of Don and Dean Zimmerman.

“After the second Night movie, I began working solely with Dean, and he cut Date Night, Real Steel, This Is Where I Leave You and Night 3, and we pretty much overlapped in terms of cutting the last two. So while I was editing This Is, I was simultaneously overseeing the rewrite and prep of Night 3, so that by the time Dean finished color-timing and delivering This Is in New York, it was time for him to join me in Vancouver where we shot Night 3 (Laughs). Like me, he has a very indulgent and patient family! Over the years we’ve developed this system where he edits while I cut. I spend many nights and weekends on the shoot in the edit with Dean, so our very first assembly has a shape and quality — it’s a slightly polished assembly. And now we’re back in LA doing the real edit of Night 3 on the Fox lot.”

What were the challenges of making the third Museum film?

“A level of spectacle and a diversity of spectacle, beyond what we’d done in the first two.” 

VFX have really evolved. Were you able to do stuff you simply couldn’t before?

“Completely. We really wanted to push it, and do far more than simply bringing statues to life. It has mythical creatures and constellations, and a huge action sequence inside a Surrealist artwork, and we were able to do all that with a level of photo-realism we couldn’t do before. I also wanted to honor the warm-hearted core of the franchise.”

How important are the VFX in the film?

“They’re a key element as they give the film its depth and spectacle, and I love working with VFX. Real Steel was my graduate school in VFX. Before that, I had so much to learn, and that film gave me the education I was missing in VFX. And in Night 3 we explore the idea — what if this magic and the tablet and the creatures all leave the museum? So this film goes out into the streets of London, which is very exciting to create.”

How many visual effects shots are there and how far did you push them? 

“Our show has about 820 shots and most of them were done by Moving Picture Company and Digital Domain 3.0, with the rest of the work done by Method Studios, Zoic Studios and Lola Visual Effects, and these shots give the film its spectacular backdrop, as we really pushed everything we could. But what’s really amazing in a way is that This Is, which is this little movie about family relationships, has over 100 VFX shots which no one will ever notice. Every time I didn’t like a background or a sky texture or a background movement, I could just use VFX to perfect the shot. And I always finish production under budget and rarely shoot overtime. So in all 11 of my films I’ve gone into post with savings, and that allows us some breathing room in the VFX and music.”

I assume that all your producing experience is also a big factor?

“Right. As I’m producing more and more, it’s taught me so much about managing your budget and assets. Some directors just seem to want what they want, whatever the cost, but I feel that if you can be judicious when you’re shooting, then frankly I don’t have to go to anyone to get permission to get a certain VFX shot or song I feel is vital to the film. I do it with my own savings from the shoot.”

How important are sound and music to you?

“It’s such a huge part of each film’s character and different movies call for different soundscapes, both in music and effects. In Real Steel I used Danny Elfman, as he seemed the right tonality. For This Is, my dream choice was composer Michael Giacchino, who won the Oscar for Up, but he was unavailable. So I started to consider other names, but then I thought, I’ve waited ten films to make this one, so I cannot give up on anything. So I emailed him, offered to screen it for him, he saw it and said, ‘I’m in.’ So for any young kids wanting to join this crazy business, my advice is, never surrender. You just have to go after what you truly believe in. We did the mix in New York and even though it seems like a straightforward, people-talking-in-rooms movie, there’s a lot of nuance and dimension to it. Then for Night 3 we’ll score and do all the effects and mix here on the Fox lot with Craig Henighan, who did my first Night film. He created unique sounds for every robot in Real Steel by going to all these junk yards and recording different pieces of metal, to get it right. So on this, we have a new dinosaur skeleton and a new quality to the magical tablet, and again he’s creating all these custom sound effects, never heard before. He really cares about his craft, which is why he’s the go-to sound guy for Ben Stiller and Darren Aronofsky.”

Did you do a DI on This Is?

“Absolutely — we always do one. I’m a huge DI fan and there’s no question it’s revolutionized the post process and has become a must-have for pretty much every director I know. In my early films we didn’t do DIs, and I got so frustrated by the lack of reliable control in timing sessions. So the idea that you can really tweak the details of your image and rely on them to lock in and carry on through the whole process is indispensable to me at this point. I can’t ever see doing a film without a DI now. We did the This Is DI at Technicolor with colorists Skip Kimball and Nick Hassen.”
Tell us about making Alexander?

“It’s a children’s book that my company and I developed with Lisa Henson from the ground up, and even before we got the deal with Disney to do it, I’d gone to Steve Carell. We’d stayed friends since Date Night, and I told him I wanted to make a family film in the tradition of Parenthood and Cheaper By The Dozen. So he and Jennifer Garner signed on, and then I went to Miguel Arteta, who’s made some lovely smaller films but never a big mainstream studio comedy, and he gave it all his enthusiasm along with great attention to detail. As a director who also produces, I try to be how Spielberg was for me on Real Steel — I won’t get in your way but I’m here for any council and advice you need. And I watch all the dailies, I’m there at the edit and mix, and share my notes.”