Victor Levin’s Affair to Remember

Published January 8, 2015

ABOVE: BERENICE MARLOHE AND ANTON YELCHIN IN 5 TO 7.

“I like to write about love plus an obstacle,” says Victor Levin over the phone. “Not a really big obstacle; not too serious and not too funny. Just somewhere nicely in between—a combination of the two.”

5 to 7, Levin’s directorial debut, is exactly this: a delicate, optimistic romance that could never continue past a certain point. Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin), a young college graduate, aspires to be a writer in both lifestyle and profession. Walking the streets of New York he meets Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), a French former model happily married to a charismatic wealthy man with two young children. Brian is enraptured by Arielle’s beauty and sophistication; Arielle is charmed by Brian’s untainted sincerity and passion. With the blessing of Arielle’s husband (Lambert Wilson) and the reluctant acceptance of Brian’s parents (Frank Langella and Glenn Close), the two begin a traditional cinq-à-sept affair.

A native New Yorker and graduate of Amherst College, Levin began his career writing copy for advertising agencies such as Young & Rubicam and BBDO. In 1990, at the invitation of his childhood friend Allen Kirschenbaum, Levin moved to Los Angeles to work in film and television. His résumé is full of familiar names: he wrote for and co-produced shows like Mad About You, Dream On, and Mad Men, and penned scripts for films like Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and The She Found Me.

Since he first wrote the script in 2007, however, 5 to 7 has been Levin’s passion project. “It’s a very tender story and it needed to be told a certain way,” he explains. “It’s a very fragile balance between drama and comedy and go wrong in a lot of ways,” he continues. “I have happily had my scripts directed by other people in the past, but this one I really wanted to direct myself.”

In April, the film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and has since played at the Hamptons International Film Festival, Savannah Film Festival, and, just this week, the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

EMMA BROWN: Screenwriting is often described as a thankless job. How do you deal with handing over a script to a director and having to relinquish control?

VICTOR LEVIN: You have to accept that it is, as it’s often said, a director’s medium. You have to accept that the moment you hand a script to a director, even if you’ve written it as an original script, it becomes his or her movie. That’s the way it has to be because the pressures on a director are so staggering and overwhelming that if he or she doesn’t have that sort of level of decision making ability, that sort of free reign, the movie simply won’t get done. It won’t have a vision behind it. It may not be your vision as a screenwriter, but at least it will have a vision. If there isn’t one entity at the helm, you will sink. It’s hard, there’s no question about it. You’ve lived with these characters, you’ve started with a blank page, especially when it’s an original work and something not based on a preexisting piece of material. [But] if you don’t like it, write a novel.

BROWN: When you were in college, did you want to go into the film industry?

LEVIN: Oh yeah. I wanted to write movies like 5 to 7. It takes a long time; you have to write about 30,000 bad pages. I certainly wrote those. I may still be writing bad pages, I don’t know, but certainly the early pages were worse. I would write during the school year and I would write during the summers. When I started working after graduation, I would write at night. We worked pretty late at Y & R in the early ’80s but there were still a couple of hours left in the day when you got home. Gradually, you spend enough time and you get, in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, a little bit more confident.

BROWN: Did you ever think about moving straight to L.A. when you graduated from college?

LEVIN: It probably would have been a good idea, in terms of getting things faster. But I had to work for a living. I had to make money. I was not in a position to not be gainfully employed. And the good thing about being in advertising was a lot of the skills cross over: you have to be accountable for your jokes; you have to tell a story quickly. It’s the most expensive filmmaking foot-for-foot in the world, so it does teach you how to use all of the machines and how to think of things in terms of the physical process of capturing the images. And you have to sell your work. You have to walk into whatever it is and stand up in the middle of a conference room with a storyboard in your hand and make people laugh. There were a lot of good lessons learned there, but it would have probably been faster to just come out here after college and tend bar and try to write and meet people.

BROWN: You mentioned being “accountable for your jokes.” Do you think laughter is essential for a good commercial?

LEVIN: No. But most of the ones that I wrote were funny and there always seems to be an aspect of comedy in my long-form work. I think that’s how life is. I think even the more dramatic moments of one’s life are often punctuated by very funny comments or situations. I like to say, “Keep your comedy serious and your drama funny, and you’ll be pretty true to life.”

BROWN: Do you come from a creative family?

LEVIN: My mom was a violinist and there were several classical musicians in my family. My dad was a dentist but he was secretly a very good visual artist. He just passed away and we’ve been going through his stuff, and he really was quite gifted in pen and ink. No one’s really been in show business.

BROWN: Did you learn how to play instruments when you were little? Was there any pressure on you to go into classical music?

LEVIN: No, I was remarkably untalented in that regard. My mother gave me a few piano lessons and then gave up in abject frustration. But somebody’s got to listen.

BROWN: You had some pretty ambitious shots in 5 to 7. Was that something that you always wanted to do or did it come up when you were talking with your cinematographer?

LEVIN: It was something that I wanted to do and that he was enthusiastically behind. We had a happy confluence of preferring longer takes and masters that stay active without cutting, and a limited budget, which means you have to make some choices. Every time I cut I am reminding the audience that it’s a movie. So I like to create a window and let you watch what the actors and the words are doing. We had about a seven minute walk-and-talk on Fifth Avenue, which is in the film—I think we did cut it a little bit in the beginning and the end—but we did it in all one shot. Hilarious things went wrong with the takes that we couldn’t use. During one of the takes, I remember thinking, “We’re going to get it! We’re going to get it!” Then from the bottom of the frame I see a little American flag, and the American flag is on a little stick and this stick is attached to a recumbent bicycle ridden by an elderly woman in a helmet. I don’t know how she got past the people who were trying to keep out the crowds. She started peddling directly towards my leads who were in the middle of the conversation—you can see them eyeing her while they’re still trying to perform the script; they’re worried because she’s coming at them at a considerable rate of speed and she’s showing no inclination to turn away. Eventually they just parted, and this woman went weaving through them. It was hysterical, but you couldn’t use it. It was so distracting. Particularly when you shoot in New York, if you want to do long takes you better be prepared for people wandering around in the background, people taking pictures.

There was one scene that we shot—the one in Grand Army Plaza—where a bystander walked up to Anton and Bérénice in the middle of their scene and took a picture with a camera! Did they not notice the 70 people standing over here with the camera and the big truck and the tent? We dealt with all that. What you get in exchange is the fantastic, no-pulse beat of New York, which is always there. You look in the background and everyone’s always running and talking on their cellphones and intensely walking somewhere. This was the way I wanted to shoot it. I like being as invisible as possible as a director. I don’t think that you should feel me. I don’t think that you should be aware of what I’m doing. I think that’s a mistake; you should just be enjoying the show.

BROWN: It’s interesting that you want to be invisible as a director. I heard a cinematographer talk recently—Rodrigo Prieto—and he was saying how he never wanted to have a signature style, he never wanted people to know that he was the cinematographer because it isn’t his film. I would assume that a director would feel differently and would want to have more of a signature.

LEVIN: I think [he’s] correct. Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t try to make everything beautiful. That doesn’t mean that you don’t sway over every detail; that everything in that frame isn’t as perfect as you can get it; that you don’t ask for another take to get the performance just the way you like it. It certainly doesn’t mean that your director of photography can be anything less of a genius. [Our cinematographer] Arnaud Potier is, at this point, a well-kept secret, but I don’t think that’s going to go on for long. Arnaud is responsible for the painterly look of the film and that’s a hard thing to get for seven minutes when focal lengths are changing and people are walking through 18 different kinds of light under a canopy of trees. It’s harder than it looks to do what Rodrigo was saying, but I think it’s an admirable role.

BROWN: Glenn Close and Frank Langella are amazing actors. How did they get involved? Was it an easy process?

LEVIN: First of all, they’re both extremely lovely people, so in that sense, it was easy. But it’s never easy. In Glenn’s case, she had been the star of Albert Nobbs, which [our producers] Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis produced. So Bonnie and Julie knew Glenn and were great friends with her and they suggested her, which was a wonderful suggestion because it was an off-the-nose suggestion; she’s not someone you would expect to be playing the suburban Jewish mother and I loved that. Glenn was given the script and she liked it and we chatted and she said she would be delighted to do it. In Frank’s case, I got a call from Julie saying Frank Langella had read the script, and he was so perfect for it in exactly the same ways as Glenn. I was in Atlanta at the time working on a television show. I flew up to New York and I went to Henry’s Restaurant on 105th Street and Broadway, which is an old-style Italian restaurant. And there was Frank, in the nook in the center of the restaurant overlooking the whole place. I was slightly terrified—he’s incredibly impressive physically. I went over and sat down and he could not have been nicer. We chatted generally, not about the script, but about life. He’s funny and smart and a great conversationalist. At some point without warning he said, “Yes, I will be in your movie.” He’s so important to the film.

BROWN: Did you ever do any acting when you were in school?

LEVIN: Yeah, I did a little bit and I did a little stand-up comedy. The stand-up really helped because you know the feeling when something feels true, and you know the feeling when it feels false. You don’t ever want to give an actor the feeling of it being false, because you know how unfair that is.

BROWN: I know that the term romantic comedy is a dangerous one because it can mean so many things, but is that how you would describe 5 to 7?

LEVIN: No. It would have been if the genre hadn’t been destroyed. “Romantic comedy” has come to mean such a formulaic and simple-minded kind of movie, where you know they’re going to get together in the end and they’ll be five set pieces and two musical montages and throw three coins into a fountain and you’ll fall in love with the next person you’ll see. It’s just awful. And it’s too bad, because it represents a genre that includes some of the best movies Hollywood has ever made. But for the moment, at least, it’s not doing well. I don’t want to associate 5 to 7 with that genre because it’s completely different in tone. What I like to say is that it’s a romance for grown-up people and hopefully it has some very funny things in it.

BROWN: Do you think that 5 to 7 is an optimistic movie?

LEVIN: I don’t know. I think that’s up to the audience. It depends on how you feel about impermanence. It depends on whether or not something has to be happily ever after for you to think it’s an optimistic movie. I don’t think that. I accept impermanence as a positive. I think every time you love intensely it’s a worthwhile and wonderful experience—perhaps the most important thing we’re put on earth to do. And they do love intensely in this film; in that sense it’s certainly optimistic. It speaks to an extremely rewarding aspect of our lives