TIFF 2022 Interview: Isaiah Lehtinen and Chandler Levack on Making a Coming-of-Age Tale to Love in “I Like Movies”

There’s a different director listed at the beginning of “I Like Movies” than at the end, though Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen) doesn’t seem like he’s in control of anything, in spite of the initial possessory credit. Filming what should be a two-minute video essay on bias in the media for a class project, the high school senior and insatiable movie nerd has made short comedy called “Rejects Night” with his friend Matt (Percy Hynes White) instead (complete with outtakes and a blooper reel) since he knows he’ll have a captive audience. The next Quentin Tarantino he isn’t, but he knows as a kid from the suburbs with no connections that the most reasonable path to making movies is starting with amateur videos first and renting out professional ones at the local Sequels Video, where there will be 10 free movies a week to learn from if he can snag a part-time job.

The real director of “I Like Movies” is Chandler Levack, who lived through her own video store experience before becoming an accomplished pop culture journalist and now a filmmaker worthy of celebration with this charming and heartfelt feature debut. Returning to the workplace of her not-so-distant past, the writer/director has created a coming-of-age comedy that coldest comfortably in the Staff Picks section at any given location, following Lawrence as comes to learn his dream job isn’t exactly what he imagined. His boss Alana (Romina D’Ugo) isn’t the film buff he is, more concerned with efficiency than what titles are on offer, and in order to spend time at the store, he no longer can work with Matt on the senior class video. However, not getting what he wants begins to reveal what he actually needs as he’s about to graduated potentially be on his own where a passion for movies could be limiting if that’s all he’s interested in.

If it takes a while to see Lawrence’s promise as he broadens his horizons, it’s far more immediate in Levack’s sensitivity to all involved as every character have lives of their own to think about and only when Lawrence starts looking beyond himself does he seem like he could grow into the artist he wants to be or at least a well-rounded person who could make it in the big city of his choosing. As the film premieres at the director’s hometown Toronto Film Festival where all three of its screenings went off-sale almost instantly, Levack and Lehtinen spoke about their collaboration, rebuilding a video store up to early 2000s standards, and how they were able to get the entire coming-of-age genre to grow up.

Chandler, how did this come about for you?

Chandler Levack: I really wanted to make a film and in Canada, we have this talent watch micro budget grant system where you can apply to get $125,000 to make your first feature. I was 31 and I was like, “I’ve got to do it before I’m getting too old to not reconcile this,” so I just decided I was going to try and write a script to make for that amount of money. I got to thinking about my last year of high school when I worked at Blockbuster and that’s how I started creating the world of the video store and thinking about Lawrence…

Isaiah Lehtinen: I just received the audition from my agent and from my understanding, it was a pretty extensive Canadian-wide casting, and I did three or four rounds of auditioning with Chandler and the producers over Zoom. About halfway through the process, I got the script and was really like, “Wow, I feel like a really deep kinship to this character.” I love film and media and television and such things, and I think my obsessions and my hyper fixations fall onto different things usually, more like video games and anime and records, but it’s pretty easy to just transpose that onto other things and this is a story that I personally have never seen like this before on the big screen.

What were the conversations between the two of you like about this time? It seems like you’re meeting in the middle with the early 2000s.

Chandler Levack: It’s funny because Isaiah and I are like 10 years apart and we’re very close friends now, and we have a lot of touchpoints, like our taste in music and film, but I also thought sometimes I’m this weird geriatric millennial, [saying] “In my day, they had video stores and you could go and rent a movie” and I think [Isaiah] grew up as a kid going to video stores at the tail end of things…

Isaiah Lehtinen: Yeah, I have some pretty fond memories of the video store in Nanaimo. I don’t remember it shutting down until after I moved away. There was a strip mall, much like in the movie [where] there was a dollar store next to a Blockbuster and then a McDonald’s and a Burger King in the parking lot, so my grandmother and I would go and rent a video game and a really inappropriate horror movie for my age and then go to the dollar store and buy a bunch of snacks.

Chandler Levack: Yeah, and I’m sure for you too Stephen, it’s a universal experience.

It was exactly the same in California – and I probably still haven’t grown out of it unlike the characters in this film. Isaiah, was there a detail that you could latch onto that opened it up for you?

Isaiah Lehtinen: As soon as I read the full script, I was like this movie is really about navigating that sour grapes mentality [where] I’m going to put up walls around myself and “well, I don’t want to talk to those people anyways, they’re fucking normies.” I grappled with that for a really long time and I totally soured lots of interpersonal relationships because of that, so when I read the script, I just felt so connected to Lawrence… and it felt like a story that really only I could bring to life. [laughs]

Chandler Levack: Yeah, it’s like you don’t want to make this movie with a Lawrence, so I think Isaiah also had just an incredible depth and understanding of the character, but also a lot of maturity and vulnerability. He really opened himself up to the process of making an independent film during a pandemic, which is exhausting and very intense and he really leads the movie. He’s in every single shot of the film. He has to do so many things, like an insane amount of dialogue he had to memorize and also be quite vulnerable, so I felt like every day I was just throwing him these humongous acting challenges that even really seasoned actors would have a hard time with and he’d just like knock it out of the park.

Chandler, I could imagine a different version of this where it was entirely in Lawrence’s perspective. What was it like bringing in Alana as a foil?

Chandler Levack: It was important, and I think this is what it’s like as a teenager. You have this hyper focus on yourself and your life and it takes a long time for you to realize – at least when I was a teenager – that other people exist. I wanted these little ruptures every so often when you realize you’re not just in Lawrence’s world. There are other people in his movie too. Like in the panic attack scene where you see the mom trying to coach [Lawrence] through the door and have a little glimpse of what her life is like, dealing with this kid and she feels like she doesn’t necessarily have the skills to cope, but she’s trying so hard and he doesn’t appreciate how she’s there for him or the best friend character Matt – in another movie, I feel he could have his own arc, leaving this toxic relationship and falling in love for the first time.

Then with Alana especially, I’ve watched a lot of these coming-of-age stories and I feel like if a man directed this movie, Alana would just be this quirky muse for Lawrence. They would have his first kiss in the back of the video store and she wouldn’t say a goddamn word. [laughs] I think even in the first couple drafts of the script, just because of an internalized misogyny or because I’ve watched so many coming-of-age stories that were written and directed by men, that stuff subconsciously sunk in, she didn’t have as much of an active role in the movie. It took me a couple of drafts to realize, “No, her perspective is so important and her insight could be the linchpin into Lawrence’s coming of age. His trajectory is defined by his relationships with women and his big lesson is actually to recognize other people exist.

Isaiah Lehtinen: And Romina was really fantastic and super fun to work with. We pretty much got along right away and it just felt really comfortable to work with her and the rehearsals went super smooth. Chandler went over this script with a fine-toothed comb and in the months leading up to the film, we worked it out to death, working on the character development and where Lawrence was coming from and the relationships with women in his life, so it was really all there on the page and there wasn’t too much for me to do other than just do my thing.

What was it like to recreating this home base of the video store? Corralling 5000 copies of “Rules of Attraction” must’ve been fun.

Chandler Levack: I feel like it took a year off my life because I just remember really wanting the details to be exactly as I remembered them. [laughs] When you’re working in a pandemic with not a lot of resources and you’re trying to recreate an impeccable 2002-era video store from scratch, you have to be super industrious and scrappy, so our set is actually taken from this abandoned Blockbuster Video that I found out. Someone told me, “Oh, there’s this Blockbuster that’s sitting in Northern Ontario vacant for 10 years, you should try to shoot there.” So I tracked down the property manager and he opened it up for me and it was like a museum time capsule. All the shelving was still there and all the props that you see in the movie were in this abandoned Blockbuster, but the ceiling was caving in and it was probably leaking asbestos, so we couldn’t actually shoot there. We ended up putting all of that stuff in a truck and installing it in this empty thrift store in a suburb of Toronto and that’s how we constructed our set.

And for a while now, I’m like, “Why hasn’t this movie already been made? It seems so obvious that someone would make the coming-of-age Blockbuster movie,” but it’s because it’s actually really hard to track down entire video stores’ worth of clearance titles and go through all of those distributors. We had to reach out to a lot of distributors and independent filmmakers themselves. My producer Evan made a deal with Lionsgate so we could have “Rules of Attraction” and “American Psycho 2” and then we reached out to a lot of Canadian filmmakers who were more keen to promote our film and it’s nice because there’s a lot of inside shoutouts to Canadian filmmakers like Guy Maddin and Don McKellar.

Isaiah, what was it like for you walking into this place for the first time?

Isaiah Lehtinen: It was very shocking actually, like the super long ride from the city with the anticipation was just killing me and I got in there and it was just like wow…

Chandler Levack: Yeah, and then we spent the day with Romina and Alex [Ateah] and Andy [McQueen], who play Shannon and Brenda at the video store. We did video store training, so I was like, “Here’s how you stack the shelves, here’s the order of how you greet customers and what you say and here’s how you deal with someone who has a late fee on their account.” And [I asked] what’s your walk – you need a cool strut when you’re pushing around that DVD cart, so “show me your character walk” and stuff. That was fun.

Did you have any sense of PTSD from that?

Chandler Levack: No. [laughs] I really loved that job so much and I miss video stores so much that I feel like selfishly a big part of this process was trying to create a moment where I could go back to Blockbuster. The first day I walked on set and the carpet was installed and the video store was just there, it was so surreal because my production designer [Claudia Dall’Orso] did such an amazing job. I was like, “Oh my God, here I am, I’m back.”

What’s it like getting this to TIFF?

Chandler Levack: It’s extraordinary. I’m from Toronto and I’ve been going to TIFF for 17 years in so many different capacities ever since I was a university student, so I feel like the festival has made such a huge imprint on my life. It’s introduced me to some of my favorite movies of all time and directors, so to be at the same festival that Steven Spielberg is at is utterly extraordinary. Also, just to have this incredible spotlight shone on the movie and to be part of the Canadian film community this year is really exciting and Isaiah has been recognized as the TIFF Rising Star, which really means the world to me because I just think he did such a brilliant generous performance. He worked so hard that to have this talent recognized like this is really cool.

Isaiah, is there more pressure or less when you know you’ve got an award coming?

Isaiah Lehtinen: Honestly, it’s a bit of a load off my shoulders. The initial stress of getting into TIFF was greater than the rising star stuff. I feel like the bottle is full. I’m at capacity. [laughs] Honestly, it’s just a nice pat on the back and a point in the right direction that maybe quells the thoughts of, “Man, did I just suck really bad in the movie?” I haven’t seen the movie yet.

Chandler Levack: Yeah, he hasn’t seen it. And also I’ve never watched it with more than two other people in a room, so the thought of watching it in a room with my friends and family and people who have worked on the film that have never seen it before and also 300 other people, it’s very exciting and very terrifying because I don’t know what to expect. I think I’m still a little bit in shock because I feel like I made this in such a weird vacuum and it’s so personal to me and so much about my life growing up and exactly the kinds of things I was obsessed with, so the idea it could resonate with other people completely blows my mind.

“I Like Movies” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 14th at 6:30 pm and September 16th at 9:45 pm.