Caged Animals: Interview with Black Bear director Lawrence Michael Levine and star Sarah Gadon. Read our review for Black Bear here.
There’s the weird time thing where it seems like 1000 years ago, but also just yesterday, because nothing’s happened” director Lawrence Michael Levine says of his film’s Sundance premiere on a December night as we discuss Black Bear over Zoom. The film debuted in Park City in January 2020 where it wowed and surprised unsuspecting audiences in equal measure. Over a year later, the film is finally ready to make its UK debut in the Spring of 2021, after a tumultuous year for the world. “It’s certainly been a lot to take in over the past year, that’s for sure” says Sarah Gadon, one of the film’s stars.
The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Allison, a filmmaker looking for her mojo who goes to stay with a couple (Christopher Abbott and Gadon) at their cabin and over one boozy night, the trio’s troublesome dynamic starts to wear on each and every one of them. What follows is one of the year’s most surprising and original films that touches upon a variety of timely subjects, including gaslighting and the creative process.
Levine describes his love of film starting in the 80s. “I used to go to the movie theatre religiously with my dad, and I can remember watching E.T. and The Empire Strikes Back and just falling in love with that cinema magic. But I didn’t know that anyone directed movies, they just kind of arrived by magic.” Levine describes his dad showing him Annie Hall when he was 11, which turned out to be a turning point for him personally. “Now, he’s (Woody Allen) controversial, but that doesn’t really affect this epiphany that I had, which is in Annie Hall, Woody Allen is just talking to the camera about his life, seemingly. And that was a moment that it dawned on me that human beings made these things that I was watching. I never knew before that there was actually a human being involved in these films. And as soon as I knew that, I was like ‘Wait, this is something maybe I could do.’ And I started to make films with my friends on VHS cameras and stuff on weekends or holidays, made little movies and that was always what I wanted to do, it wasn’t a late life thing. It was definitely something I wanted to do from the second I knew that it was an opportunity that you can take.”
Levine’s career started as an actor and he starred in a few shorts because making his feature debut in Peter and Vandy. Levine is also married to writer-director Sophia Takal, with whom he often works with. The couple’s first film together was Gabi On The Roof In July, which was directed and co-written by Levine and the director also starred in the film with Takal. Levine describes Gabi as “very inspired by Mike Leigh.”
“I started out as an actor, because I’m not a very technical person. I always knew that I wanted to make films and I always hoped that I could act in them. And all of the filmmakers that I admired in my earliest film enthusiast years, my early cinephile years, directors that I really focused on, all of them seem to also act or at least come from an acting background. I’m thinking of Mike Leigh and (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder, John Cassavetes, people like that. Their approach to cinema was through performance, as opposed to the more technical side of things like cinematography or editing.”
Gadon plays Blair, Abbott’s Gabe’s pregnant wife who clashes with Allison and eventually, Gabe. Gadon first came across the script after being give it by her agent. “I just remember reading it and I remember laughing out loud at how outrageous the dialogue was, and just feeling so uncomfortable at the tension between the characters. And I just thought I’ve never read anything like this. And I think these days, it’s more often than not that you’re reading an adaptation, or remake or a franchise and it’s really rare to read something that’s original” the actress describes.
While Levine started his career as an actor, Gadon found her way into acting by way of dance. “I was a junior associate at the National Ballet School Canada. When I was a kid, six or seven and I remember I was chosen to be in the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. And I just remember, loving everything about it, I loved rehearsals, and going down to the theatre, I loved the costume fittings, and I loved the sense of community backstage with the other girls playing and waiting for time to go on stage. And I loved being on stage and I just everything about it and after that, it just always felt like that’s what I would do.”
The character of Blair feels quite far removed from Gadon’s own persona and the actress describes herself as a “generally a very happy person” but seems to be often drawn to complex and dark characters. “I do find it kind of ironic that I’m always playing really traumatized women, or women who are going through a lot of shit. But I have a lot of empathy inside of me as well, I think because I’m a really happy person. I always find a way into characters by empathizing. And by understanding them and finding through that process of finding an understanding rationally, I can always then come to the character emotionally.”
Gadon has starred in films such as the fantasy-actioner Dracula Untold, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature Antiviral. The role of Blair might be the toughest the actress has tackled yet, due to the part’s duality and ambiguousness. “Here’s a woman who is powerless in this dynamic of a relationship. She’s so desperately and foolishly and inappropriately trying to cling on to and assert some kind of power in the dynamic of her relationship. And then the next role is a woman who’s very aware of the power that she holds. And in the relationship, she’s very aware of her function in the power dynamics. And I think as women we can relate to being in both of those situations and relationships, be it personal relationships, or work relationships, or both.”
Levine wrote the part of Allison with Plaza in mind and Black Bear relies heavily on the trio’s ever-changing dynamic. “I think Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying 90% of directing is casting and I think it’s true. There’s just a certain sense that you have about a person and whether they’ll be able to do a role. And it’s very important, because it’s one thing to put someone in a role who’s going to do it, because many actors can do a role. It’s another to find someone who’s really going to shine in something” Levine describes.
“I knew Chris (Abbott) before we made the movie, which I think was really helpful, because we weren’t afraid to just go at each other. I knew Aubrey as well and had a lot of love and respect for her work as an actor. There was already that kind of foundation of trust and respect. The way that we shot the movie, we all lived together, we travelled to work together every day. We were shooting nights, we were isolated together in the woods with no Wi-Fi or cell service. We became the centre of each other’s universes in a really intense, borderline unhealthy way” says Gadon of the group’s dynamic.
Black Bear was shot in 19 days with a tiny budget and a “gruelling” schedule according to Gadon, who says she loves to rehearse. “I think that it’s really important to sit down and talk through the script and talk through the scenes, because moviemaking, especially independent film has been squashed and whittled down to such an intensely, almost impossible schedule, you don’t get the time for exploration a lot of the time on set anymore” Gadon says of rehearsing.
“There was really no rehearsal for this movie at all and I think the performances are still pretty spontaneous. So one wonders about rehearsal, if you really need to do it or not.” Levine says. Instead of rehearsals, Levine went through the script with his actors and answered any questions they might have had. “I made some changes based on the actors’ feedback. I think it’s interesting to get feedback from actors, because they’re the ones who are going to have to play the role, and they’re thinking of it through a different lens. And oftentimes, it’s instructive. I would have liked to do two weeks of rehearsal. But I can’t tell, to what extent that’s just because I’m insecure as a director and want to be reassured that everything’s going to be okay. I don’t know who benefits from it, whether it’s me or them.”
Black Bear is deeply rooted in filmmaking in itself; it’s a story about filmmakers, filmmaking and actors, the entire creative process and Levine wanted to write the kind of film he would want to see. “My wife and I had been making films together for about a decade. A lot of our struggles, although unfortunately, none of our triumphs really made it into Black Bear. But a lot of our struggles did.”
“It definitely speaks to a reality that I think exists in the film industry, I’ve definitely been on sets with people who are blurring that line between personal and professional. I’ve been on sets where people are not acting in the most professional way. I don’t necessarily think that’s indicative of all moviemaking. But I do think that there is a lot of truth there, that Lawrence is tapping into”, Gadon muses about the film’s truthful depictions of the film industry.
“There’s a lot of poetic license in this, this kind of nightmarish quality is hopefully not real. It’s heightened and dramatized but I couldn’t have written this movie without that knowledge of sets, and without that life experience.” Levine says.
Black Bear hits especially hard in the era of #MeToo and portrays gaslighting and cruel methods used in the creative process. When I ask Gadon whether there still is value in a performance, or indeed, the final film, that stems from potential abuse of power, she takes a moment to wonder. “I think that any artist can tell you that they’ve been a part of a process where they feel coercion and fear have driven the process, and that there have been good results or decent results. And people have been able to deliver things out of fear. But I definitely have also been a part of the process where directors and producers have injected their crews and their performers with love, and freedom and autonomy and just as good, if not better results ensue. And I would say that I would much prefer to be a part of that process.”
When asked what part of the filmmaking process he is most comfortable with, Levine, who writes, directs and acts, says he isn’t comfortable with any of it. “But that’s different than saying I don’t enjoy it. There’s a mixture of joy and insecurity, frustration. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Levine also believes directors would benefit from understanding actors’ process more. “I think most directors would benefit from having taken an acting class or two, or really as many as possible. I treat actors the way I would want to be treated, but that doesn’t always work out because not every actor wants to be treated the same way. And certainly not every actor wants to be treated the way I want to be treated as an actor.”
Gadon agrees. “I think that maybe directors who come to directing separately from acting, there can be this disconnect, especially if they’re obsessed with the technical side of filmmaking, sometimes they can forget that there’s this entire system of emotional work going on, in the midst of that technical work, and that those two sides of filmmaking need to kind of be in harmony in order for you to achieve something special. But I think that every actor is so different, there’s intellectual actors, emotional actors and the intuitive actor and the studied actor, and they raw actor, and there’s just so many different kinds of actors that taking a class, I don’t know if it would necessarily equip you to work with every actor’s technique. But I think it would maybe at the very least, draw attention to the fact that there is this very vulnerable emotional work happening while you’re making a movie.”
The ending to Black Bear is delightfully ambiguous, as is most of its narrative and part of the charm is seeing it blind and simply watch the events unfold in front of you. It’s also a film that almost feels designed to be watched again and again, thanks to the ambitious and layered script and the trio’s performances, but Levine says he doesn’t think about rewatch value when writing. “I did think about trying to create something that was dense and layered. Not necessarily because I thought it would be good for subsequent viewings, but just because that’s the kind of cinema I enjoy, like Robert Altman’s for example. Or the Safdie Brothers or Cassavetes where there’s a lot of texture to sift through. There’s a lot of little things that you can appreciate, I like a lot of detail. I think when you’re interested in detail that does reward subsequent dealings.”
Gadon hopes the film will inspire conversation amongst audiences. “I think that we’ve become accustomed to watching things that help us escape or help us feel better. But for me, films are there to make us think and really, whether you like the film or not like the film, I definitely don’t think there’s a moral compass to be found in that. I really just hope that you look at your partner or look at the person that you started watching the movie with and start talking about relationships, about power dynamics, about finding meaning in art. And those are the kinds of things that I hope people do when the credits are rolling.”
Black Bear -released in cinemas and digital Spring 2021