Sam Levinson, son of moviemaking icon Barry Levinson, makes his writing-directing debut with the Waldo Salt Award-winning indie feature Another Happy Day, a darkly comic film about a family, just not his own.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
First-time writer-director Sam Levinson, son of moviemaking icon Barry Levinson, might have some big shoes to fill, but he doesn’t seem bothered. He’s just glad to have grown up in a master class.
The Levinson scion is only 26 and a voracious student of film. You see it in his debut, the dysfunctional family drama Another Happy Day, which earned him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Though it’s not autobiographical, it does grapple with emotional themes he knows well: anger, love, loyalty and that old classic, fear of death. The ensemble cast is remarkable: Ellen Burstyn, Ellen Barkin (who also produced), Thomas Hayden Church, Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore, and newcomer Ezra Miller. They run the gamut from an emotionally distant grandmother to a troubled, drug addicted grandson.
Levinson spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how the script for Another Happy Day came out of nowhere, what his dad loves about Paddy Chayefsky, and why he carries a copy of Woody Allen’s script for Zelig almost everywhere he goes.
Tell me about the genesis of this story?
I have to be honest. I was trying to raise money to do this documentary on Robert Rauchenberg. As I was doing that, I got a call that he was going to pass away. I felt like all this stuff I’d been working toward had collapsed.
[At the same time] I just kept having this image of a woman heading to her father’s house because he was dying. As I was thinking about it, I kept hearing that song “Neon Rainbow” by the Box Tops. For some reason, I just sat down and said, “Well, maybe she’s bringing her kids along.” Then the first line came out: “Do you think mom’s hot?” I just kind of allowed this conversation to take place from there. Then I thought, maybe the mom should enter about now.
Photo: © 2011 Phase 4 Films
Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day.
To be honest, there were certain issues I knew I wanted to deal with and certain scenes and ideas, but I didn’t have…
You didn’t have an outline?
Right. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have an outline. In fact, I didn’t have time for an outline because the script kind of came out of me in such a visceral way [the first draft was completed in three weeks].
Previous to this script were you a big outliner?
No. It’s only after the script [was written] that I began to outline my work… Outlining a script is a great tool if the film requires it. Some films don’t necessarily require it. Some come easier than others. I’ve actually been learning how to outline a script in the last couple of years, which has been very difficult for me, I have to say.
So this one was more typical of your process, where you just kind of rode with the flow?
Yeah. I didn’t know how many characters there were going to be or what was going to happen from scene to scene. I would finish a scene and, if I knew what the next scene was, I would continue on. If I didn’t know what the next scene was, I would say, “Okay, there’s a problem with the previous scene or one of the scenes before that,” and I’d go back and start to work on it [until] I could move forward again.
Do you get lost in the woods with that approach, where you have to follow breadcrumbs back?
The way that I write is very dialogue heavy, and that’s true with this script in particular. Often I’ll write the beginning, middle and end of a scene and then just write the whole scene and not touch it. It could be nine pages long, and I’ll just move on. Then I go back and do revisions, and that’s when I’ll take that nine-page scene, and I’ll say, “Okay, seven pages of this scene are not moving the story forward.” Maybe we only need the end of the scene to move the story forward. I’ll just chop seven pages out. But I like to know the history of where [the scene] came from. So that’s sort of becomes a way to understand the genesis of each scene.
You’re kind of writing your backstory there…
Yes, and it’s very useful in dealing with actors. When they ask, what were we saying prior to this? I can say, in fact, you were actually saying these seven pages.
How much, if any of this film, became at all autobiographical?
None of it is autobiographical, except the emotion of it. In order to write an honest character, you have to have felt the emotion they’re going through in your own life. It doesn’t have to be that specific circumstance… That’s something I learned during the four years I studied method acting.
To really get into the mindset of, say, a character like Ellen Burstyn’s, which is about as different from me as humanly possible, I had to identify the emotions she was going through… I needed to find parallels in my life to write her.
Watching this film, I wondered, how important is Woody Allen to you?
He’s so important that I actually carry around a copy of Hannah and Her Sisters and Zelig in my bag at almost all times.
You always need a copy of Zelig nearby?
It’s hands down one of the greatest cinematic feats of all time. It’s just genius. I don’t think he’s appreciated as much for his directorial decisions as he is for his writing. Directorially he is an absolute genius… the way he’ll choreograph a scene, and it just seems so natural. It’s the type of directing that I really love because it’s so integrated into the story that you’re never aware of it. There’s never a moment where he says to the audience, “Let me show you my directorial brilliance here for two minutes, and then I’ll let you back into the story.”
You have acted as well. Have you always aspired to being a writer-director or did you want to be an actor at one point?
I never wanted to be an actor. I like the craft of acting, and I’m interested in it. The craft of acting really benefits the crafts of writing and directing. I also don’t separate writing and directing. I see them as two sides to the same job.
The same job being telling stories with film?
Yeah. When I write, I see the way it’s shot, and I can’t help it. I can’t divorce myself from it. I couldn’t pull them apart if it tried.
Is there anything about filmmaking that you’ve taken from your dad – one paramount lesson?
I bought him the collected works of Paddy Chayefsky a couple years ago for his birthday, ‘cause I know he’s a Paddy Chayefsky fan – I mean who isn’t a Paddy Chayefsky fan? If they’re not a Paddy Chayefsky fan, then they should stop writing. [My father and I] got into a conversation about The Hospital and, you know, I’m obviously influenced by my father because he’s a storyteller – not just in film, but at the dinner table.
He said, “What I love so much about Paddy Chayefsky’s writing is the real naturalism of the dialogue and the way in which it flows. There is a true rhythm to it. It wasn’t until after Diner that I was watching Marty again, and there’s this scene in the bar where Ernest Borgnine is talking and says, ‘What do you wanna do?’ And the other guys says, ‘Meh, I dunno. What do you wanna do?’”
He said it was the first time he thought, they’re talking just like me. It’s a movie and they’re talking just like us – that’s what we do. There’s that element of back and forth dialogue that he certainly has in spades in his work that has greatly influenced me.
To what extent do you find that all the many diversions you come up with, the modes of procrastination or the other things you do in the course of a day, are when you’re actually doing the bulk of the work?
It’s a fascinating question because the thing is, you never know if you’re being productive or unproductive and that’s what kills you. You’re in the shower and you’re saying to yourself, I’ve literally accomplished nothing in the last two weeks. And you might not have written a word in the last two weeks. You might have been watching C-SPAN, but you might in fact be getting closer and closer, you have just no way of measuring. There’s where the pain comes from, the fact that it’s unknown.