Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine appear to be at the crux of New York’s independent filmmaking scene. A duo, both romantically and in filmmaking, their first big feature was 2010’s Gabi on the Roof in July, which Levine directed, wrote and starred in alongside Takal. It featured other indie stalwarts like Kate Lyn Sheil (The Heart Machine), Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) and Lena Dunham (Girls). Since, they’ve gone on to make Green—which landed Takal the SXSW Film Festival Emerging Woman Award—and act in Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky and Tangerine Entertainment’s Gayby.
Most recently, they’ve collaborated on Wild Canaries. Levine again writes, directs and acts next to Takal, who also produced. In the film, Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) suspect a murder most foul after their neighbor, who enjoys a rent-controlled abode, suddenly dies. Both the volatile landlord Damien (Jason Ritter), who’s going through a divorce with his wife Annabell (Lindsay Burdge), and the woman’s strange son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) are suspicious persons. With help from their friend Jean (Alia Shawkat) and a knack for solving mysteries, Barri and Noah uncover a crime while confronting their own relationship troubles.
The film is a hilarious departure from the couple’s previous, more serious films. Paste had a chance to talk with Takal and Levine about their backgrounds and their relationships, both with film and each other, as well as how they got such a quirky movie made.
Paste: When did you two become involved in film?
Sophia Takal: Larry and I came at it from different angles. I started off really wanting to be an actor. I went to Columbia University for college and I decided to study film instead of theater. That’s where I met Larry. He was a grad student there. That’s sort of how I got involved in film, through Larry and acting in some short films he directed and becoming more involved in producing and also trying to direct on my own.
Lawrence Levine: I started studying acting because I knew that I wanted to make movies when I was in college. It wasn’t the same as today; I’m 10 years older than Sophia, when I first got out of school it wasn’t like everyone was making movies like the way it is now. You had to shoot on film. It was kind of a mysterious world that I didn’t know anything about. I started studying acting. I got involved in the New York Off Off Broadway theatre scene, writing and directing plays, acting in plays, trying to learn. When I met Sophia, when I was finishing film school, pretty much right away we started making movies together.
Paste: One of your first projects was Peter and Vandy. Is that when you first started collaborating?
Takal: Peter and Vandy was something Larry’s friend Jay [DiPietro] directed. I was already dating Larry and I showed up one day on set and they put me in the movie. Our first really big undertaking was Gabi on the Roof in July. We met Kate Lyn Sheil and through Kate we met Lindsay [Burdge]. It sort of spiraled from that movie.
Paste: There’s really been an evolution in your filmmaking since you started. Wild Canaries is much more funky, like Olsen Twins mystery movies meets this a darker relationship drama. Where did the idea begin?
Takal: We had made these two really small movies back to back. We had been traveling around with them and we were totally exhausted by the end of this two- to three-year period—not wanting to talk to anyone, lying in bed watching Columbo and What’s Up, Doc?. We were like “Why don’t we make a movie like this?”, make a movie people could sit at home and order Chinese food and watch with their significant other. Larry researched how to write a mystery, started writing a script that took a few years to write. We really love working together, we really love acting together. We had never been in a movie that either of us had directed where we had been in a relationship before. I really wanted to try that out. We recognized something about ourselves in the dynamic of the movies we were watching and enjoying.
Paste: Larry, how did you maintain the specific tone of the film, especially when writing it was spread out over a few years?
Levine:Because of the way independent film is now, you really have to spend a lot of time supporting your film, touring with it. It’s hard to find the time to write when you’re raising money for films or [you have] a day job or [you’re] putting together a business plan or helping out with other people’s movies. I wrote it over a three-year period. I wasn’t a huge mystery fan before. I really liked screwball comedy and thrillers but I never thought about writing one. I really studied them, [read] a lot of books that were either mysteries or ‘how to’ books about writing mysteries.
Paste: What were some of the films that influenced you?
Levine: Going back to Gabi, it was sort of [the] Dogme [movement] and Cassavetes—realism was really important to me. Once I got that out of my system I wanted to go back to what got me excited about movies. Hitchcock was a big one, Rear Window, it was a lot of that stuff. Stolen Kisses is a movie I’ve loved since I was a teenager. The main character is a private detective but it’s light and comic and blissful. For a lot of the action sequences we went back to ’70s films.
Paste:b> Levine: It’s different for each filmmaker and film. First comes the script and then you have to put together a business plan and a lookbook. You have to sell the world on your film. You have to go out there and raise the capital for it. Then after that, once you’ve got your money, you start to hire your team and that’s when those types of conversations begin. When you sit down to talk with the DP, or your production designer, you try to see if they’re speaking your similar language. As far as the music goes, while I was in pre-production with my DP, I did have an idea. I really like psychedelic dub reggae. I thought that’d be really interesting to incorporate that into a thriller because it is upbeat and light but it also might work for sinister suspense scenes.
Paste: Sophia, how involved are you in that whole process?
Takal: I produced the movie, so I helped assemble the crew. I had worked with Mark Schwartzbard previously on a short film that he shot that I acted in and I knew he’d be the perfect person to work with Larry and to shoot the movie, so I recommended him. Because Larry and I live together, I was in the house while he and Mark were talking about the shots. I was always listening and knew how they were shooting the movie [and how that] would affect the schedule. I was involved much more from a logistical view than a creative perspective. Lawrence has more experience and I always really like to watch how he works because I get to learn.
Paste: I love the DIY feel to the film. I’m sure you all planned ahead of time, but were there any moments where you had a more sneaky, run-and-gun type situation?
Takal: We had a much bigger crew than we’d ever worked with before and a truck and a van so it was kind of hard to sneak in and out. There was one night though that was really crazy. It was a very long day because our camera truck’s battery had died. We were shooting in this area of Staten Island where supposedly they drop dead bodies! It’s really hard to get to shoot the subway and there’s a shot where one character gets on the train and someone else gets off. It was like 2am and we had one chance to get the shot otherwise the train wouldn’t come for another hour. We had a splinter crew. The car with the camera and the actors get there and it’s 90 seconds ’til the train gets there, everyone is rushing around. There’s someone counting: “45 seconds!” Hair and make up is pulling the masks over peoples’ heads, the gaffer was dragging them by their hands to the subway platform. [The train] comes and goes and we have no idea if we got it. The DP looks up and starts laughing hysterically, like “We got it!” That was the scariest moment!
Paste: Hearing that story and Larry, you talking about fundraising, what was the biggest challenge of making the film?
Levine: It was a lot more ambitious than any film we have from a production point of view because we have action and suspense sequences and both of those eat up a lot of time. Time is the most expensive thing; we didn’t have a lot of it. Things that would take maybe three or four days, or even a week, on a big budget, were done in an hour or two hours or half a day. I’m pretty happy with the way it came out with the limitations that we had. It’s really those suspense and action sequences that were a big challenge.
Paste: Jason Ritter was so great in the film. Did you also have to work around his schedule?
Takal: I don’t think he wasn’t shooting Parenthood at that point. We worked really hard to schedule all of the actors in consecutive days. The shoot was 22 days so we were able to squeeze everyone in and they were all really generous with their time.
Paste: The title: Tell me about it.
Levine: First of all it has a ring to it that sounds old fashioned. It’s zany and also canary is slang for somebody who rats in old gangster movies…or a nightclub singer. I think that the two main characters, when they’re fighting, they’re always swinging their arms and flailing around, fluttering around each other in a sense. At the beginning of the film they’re in that cage, which represents their domesticity. The movie lets them out of the cage and then at the end of the movie they’re sort of brought back into it with a new understanding of each other. It’s sort of a bittersweet image of domesticity in a cage.
Paste: You all are a couple in real life and also in this film. How do you shoot all day, and then decompress from the day and from each other?
Levine: It’s pretty challenging. For those 22 days you don’t really function as you normally do as a couple. You sort of put your romantic lives on hold.
Takal: There’s a lot of crying and yelling and then the day the shoot is over you lay in bed all day together and remember why you’re together in the first place.
Paste: You aren’t a couple in Green but it does deal with this sort of “other woman” jealousy thing. How do you manage being on set as a couple when your significant other is having an intimate scene with someone else?
Takal: It sort of gets easier every time. The sex scenes have become more tame! We just trust each other for the most part. It’s easy to get jealous in the moment but once we each experience it with other people, we realize that it wasn’t as big of a deal when you’re in it as it seems for the person watching it. I think we’re able to bring that awareness now as we move forward.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.