Interview: Sam Levinson on the Unlikely Education of “Another Happy Day”

The filmmaker who took home the Waldo Salt Award for screenwriting at this year's Sundance Film Festival has plenty more to say about his first feature, growing up watching...

SamLevinsonAnotherHappyDay

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, it’s arguable there weren’t even that many movies more entertaining than the teary-eyed acceptance speech Sam Levinson gave after he took home the Waldo Salt Award for screenwriting. Wondering aloud whether he would have a heart attack considering how easily he’d give into his emotions after just one of the screenings of his first feature, “Another Happy Day,” Levinson’s speech was heartfelt, vigorous and verbose in all the ways the film is itself.

A sprawling family drama with a searing Ellen Barkin at its center, “Another Happy Day” concerns a clan as spread apart as the Annapolis estate they find themselves stranded on together for the nuptials of its most well-adjusted member. Contrary to its title, there’s little happiness to be found amongst Lynn (Barkin) and her relatives, her children (Daniel Yelsky, Ezra Miller and Kate Bosworth) all seemingly addicted to something unhealthy and her relationship to her parents (Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy) as equally fractured as to any of the other wedding guests, ranging from her ex-husband (Thomas Haden Church) and his wife (Demi Moore) to her sisters (Siobhan Fallon and Diana Scarwid).

The brutality of the conversations between them all are in stark constrast to the manner in which they’re depicted, elegantly unfolding often in long tracking shots that refuse to break the tension with editing and pensive closeups that take full advantage of the gifted ensemble Levinson’s assembled. In some ways, that dichotomy seems like a fair analogy for the filmmaker, who has an innocent, winsome charm about him even when he’s casually dropping F-bombs into the conversation. On the eve of the release of his first feature, I was fortunate to have one such conversation with Levinson about his moment in the Sundance spotlight, his unusual education, and why he has no interest in crafting perfect moments onscreen.

EllenBarkinAnotherHappyDayI was watching the awards ceremony for this year's Sundance online and was really touched by the exuberant speech you gave after winning the Waldo Salt Award, which seemed to capture the agony and elation of every director who has completed their first film. What’s this experience been like, traveling with the film for the past few months?

The last few months? You watched that Livestream in fucking January. [laughs] Look, there’s not a day that I don’t wake up and thank Sundance because they made this film into something that’s tangible. Without them, I have no idea where this movie would be. I think of Sundance as this beacon of light for independent cinema. It’s a home for the kind of thousands of outcasts who don’t have the money or the access to make fuckin’ “Transformers 10.” It’s a place where you can take a film and tell the story you want to tell and they’ll support it. It’s a really beautiful thing, especially in this day and age when it is so, so difficult to get a film financed, to get a cast together, to get it made, to get it finished, to get it sold. In a way, these festivals have become the sort of local arthouse theater. You’ve got to travel a little further, but if you want, you can spend 10 days watching really interesting and distinct films.

In your travels with the film, has the meaning of it changed for you as jumped from festival to festival?

Yeah, we’ve always had really interesting Q & As where people have either vehemently disagreed with each other in the audience whether a character was good or bad and you think wow, that’s actually something I never thought of 6000 times I’ve watched this film, in the 3000 times I’ve read this script and every line that I wrote, I never realized that specific point and the reverberations of that point and how that encompasses so much more than I ever thought of. I’ve only made one film, so I don’t know how it normally is, but there is something about this film where it really evokes a tremendous amount out of the audience. For instance, I’ll get questions sometimes about Paul [Thomas Haden Church] and Alice [Kate Bosworth], they’ll [ask] was there some sort of sexual molestation thing going on there? Which is something I never thought of, nor intended to put in there. Then other people will say things about the mother and how horrific she is and other people say she’s just an angel and you start to realize it’s the film and the audience members’ baggage combined that’s making up their experience [of the film]. That’s a really interesting and special thing for me as a writer and director to witness are these varying reactions that may be informed by things I have no knowledge of.

AnotherHappyDayI couldn’t help but notice that like your screenwriting debut, “Operation Endgame,” this film has an incredibly eclectic cast and characters that would seem to be very separate from your experience, though surely because of age, you may have been compared to Ezra Miller’s character in “Another Happy Day.” Has it been a challenge to write for such a diverse group of characters or is that why you’re drawn to it?

I never intended to write this many characters when I sat down to write. I actually didn’t know where it was going to go, but I love characters and I love actors and I love writing material for actors. I studied method acting at Lee Strasberg for four years, so I’ll really get into the emotional minefield of a character’s head and not be able to really break it for some time.

I love writing sprawling character pieces, I would say that they’re all me – I think that Ellen Burstyn’s character is as much me as Ezra Miller’s character as is Ellen Barkin’s character. At the same time, I think yeah, there’s probably more of Ezra Miller’s character in me than any other character because yes, he is closer to my age. There is one scene in particular that are really my own thoughts between Elliot [Miller’s character] and Doris [Burstyn’s character] where he talks about whether death is a more unifying force within a family than love because of his experience with 9/11. That’s about as close to me as anything on that screen, so I do think he may be slightly closer, but not by much.

Of course, your father Barry is also a filmmaker, but it seems like this film comes from a very different cinematic sensibility. How did you develop an interest in directing perhaps apart from your roots?

To be completely honest, I dropped out of high school in ninth grade and I did a form of home schooling, which consisted of just reading the newspaper every day. Then I just watched five movies a day. In terms of how to tell a story cinematically, there were just things that hit me on a very visceral level that I couldn’t quite shake. Certain films. I remember the first time I watched “Scenes from a Marriage,” the six-hour version, and just thinking okay, I need to watch that again. I watched it about four or five times back to back, where I slept for 10 hours or something and woke up and watched it again and again. There were things that really hit me, realizing how unmanipulated and nonjudgmental it felt, and how both the characters traversed this morally grey landscape where you’re not sure who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator or whatnot.

When I was writing this film, one of the ideas that was embedded in me was that I was not going to make a judgmental film. I try to get as close to that as possible to provide a framework where we can, as audience members, start to form our own allegiances with certain characters, to fall in love with certain characters and then by the nature of them being human beings, they will fail us or do something that evokes some kind of unease within us because people don’t do what you want them to do.

Then again, as a first-time director, that can be a good thing – were you surprised by what everyone else was able to bring to your script?

Which is exactly what I wanted. That’s the key to all of this. If I thought I could do everyone’s job, then I wouldn’t have Ellen Burstyn, I wouldn’t have [cinematographer] Ivan Strasburg, I wouldn’t have [sound mixer] Felix Andrew. I wanted to say, okay, here’s my idea of how I want to do this and then have Felix Andrew, who’s a complete genius throw down a royal flush and say okay, this is how it could be accomplished by having three booms on set, we’ve got three mics, we’ve got three clamps here and everyone has got a lapel mic on, so we can then in post play with the depth of the sound. The same with every actor. You hope that whatever you bring to the table, they’re going to elevate it to something beyond your wildest dreams.

That was certainly the case with this film and I hope it’s the case with every film that I make because I wouldn’t want Ellen Barkin to show up and do exactly what I imagine Ellen Barkin would do. I want her to do what she knows how to do and I also don’t want to get in the way of it. I want that process to unfold organically. Naturally, going into this, one of my biggest concerns was I’ve got basically 11 principal actors and I don’t know their personalities that well, so if they start to clash, all hell can break loose very quickly. So I knew going into it that I had to set a very specific tone for how this movie was going to be made and it became a very egalitarian environment very quickly.

SamLevinsonAnotherHappyDay2The long tracking shots brilliantly hold the tension of an intimate drama like this, but they must be an incredible challenge to stage since the actors have to such a firm grasp of pages of dialogue. Where did the idea come from to make the film like this and did it make filming more difficult?

Specifically, it came from three films that greatly influenced me in the way in which I was going to shoot this particular movie, which were “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Carnal Knowledge” and also “Some Came Running.” But I don’t want to get something perfect. I don’t want the actors to get it perfect because one, they never can get it down perfectly. We can never shoot it perfectly. It can always be improved. But I also like the sort of messiness of life itself to seep into the film. If lines overlap in a way that literally muddies both lines to the point which you can’t hear either of them, I’m fine with that. If an actor moves into a shadow during an important line, I’m fine with that too. I wanted to search for those moments…let me rephrase that, I actually did search for those moments. When I got them, I not only cherished them, but actually used them in the film.

I remember early on, there was someone who said to the bond company, “From my understanding, the way he wants to shoot it with all these tracking shots and no cuts, this movie is going to be three-and-a-half hours long and you’re not going to be able to cut it.” This big frenzy happened because of that. [laughs] I think sort of a naivete and cockiness or arrogance that it was just going to work that allowed me to shoot the film that way and get away with it because I really did not shoot any coverage. I shot maybe two, three takes, but I wanted to keep that wide palette and I also firmly believe in that Eisenstein school of thought of just you shoot what you need and nothing more. There were a few times in the editing room where I was sitting there going, “Jesus, I really fucked myself on this one.” Then you find a new way to overcome it with sound design, with the way it plays or just the order in which it’s cut. But I’ve learned a lot since then. In terms of the tracking shots and those long masters, that was part of the genesis of all of it.

It was surprising to me that you were thinking of doing a documentary about Robert Rauschenberg before this and it seems like a big transition to make going from planning a documentary to a narrative. What kinds of things are you interested in as a filmmaker?

I’m fascinated and also greatly influenced by a lot of documentaries, but I don’t see myself as someone who will stick to a very specific [course]. The next film that I plan on directing, which I have to finish writing it in the next few weeks actually, is wildly different from this film in terms of plot, in terms of structure, in terms of character, in terms of the way in which it’s shot. I just believe in storytelling in whatever form it can be accomplished. I’m interested in so many different subjects, it sometimes becomes overwhelming for me because I don’t focus on one in particular. I don’t know what’ll eventually happen and if I’m able to make more films, but they’ll all be personal films, that I know. And I also firmly believe that no matter what kind of film I make as a writer and a director, I shouldn’t crush the imagination of the audience. That’s the one rule I feel I’ll always abide by.

"Another Happy Day" is now open at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

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