An Intimate Conversation With the Duo Behind Indie Film “Wild Canaries”
Brooklyn natives Sophia Takal and Lawrence Levine are sitting in a Silverlake bar on Sunset, debating a permanent move to Los Angeles. The married pair of filmmakers weigh the pros and cons, but the affordable cost of living isn’t enough to quell Takal’s fear of California running out of water in the near future. She’s so scared, in fact, that she doesn’t let the waitress refill her water glass. They’re going back to New York in May.
But for now, they’re here taking meetings and making next moves because their breakthrough film, the murder mystery Wild Canaries (out now) has made them indie darlings to pay attention to.
A SXSW ’14 premiere film, the movie (written and directed by Levine) follows the couple, here named Barri and Noah, as they try to solve the death of an elderly resident in their apartment building. With the help of their third roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat), and Noah’s boss Eleanor (Annie Parisse), the duo track down the sketchiest suspects, one being their landlord, Damien (Jason Ritter) and the other being their late neighbor’s son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan). A departure from their previous films (mostly quiet dramas and understated explorations of twentysomething life), Wild Canaries is an homage to screwball comedies of decades past.
As they navigate the space between fame and anonymity, Lawrence and Takal mull over their old, freewheeling ways of the past, now that Wild Canaries has basically put their names in every agency’s rolodex.
What’s a day in your life like now?
Sophia Takal: We wake up between 7 and 8 am and walk to go get coffee. On the way, we’re great.
Lawrence: When we walk back, that’s when we get into an argument.
Sophia: We always get into an argument about some sort of plot. And when we get into the house, we start screaming at each other. Then we make up. Then we spend the rest of the day sitting next to each other writing either together or in separate rooms. But Larry does most of the writing so when it comes to that part of the process, I usually just stare at the Internet.
Lawrence: Well, you’re underselling yourself. You do the producing stuff. For instance, we’re working on a project right now, and [Sophia’s] putting together the look book. We’re doing a pilot, but I can’t give anything away about it, and we came up with the idea for the pilot together, for the episodes and the season arcs together. She laid out the pitch book which involves a lot of work, like lining up pictures.
Sophia: But it involves a lot of looking at the Internet for things, which I would call staring at the Internet. Then we cook dinner, exercise, have a drink and watch an old TV show, and then fall asleep. Then it starts over again.
Lawrence: Until someone says we can make a movie.
Is the goal to make something big or mainstream?
Sophia: I don’t want to go mainstream. I want mainstream to go me. [Laughs.] I feel like that’s what everyone actually wants. Like, this is who I am and I really want the tides to turn so that my aesthetic or what I want to talk about or explore is what everyone else is interested in talking about or exploring. And then you make tiny compromises along the way so that you can try to fit your thing into a larger group of other work. That’s true with Wild Canaries. How do we make a movie that can appeal to a wider audience but still has the things we love about movies in it that are maybe less standard?
Lawrence: Yeah. I wanna have freedom, so if I have a project that needs to be big budget, I don’t want that to hinder me and I want to be able to do it. The more successful you are, the more free you can be, or you can be trapped by that. It’s a constant negotiation between figuring out where you’re giving yourself away and where you’re not. I don’t really want to give myself away and start doing things I don’t want to do just for money or because more people will love me or like me because of it.
Sophia: But could you see yourself just doing something for money if it meant you could do some other thing exactly the way you wanted?
Lawrence: I always feel like it’s going to hurt me in the long run because I can’t do a good job with it if I’m not really passionate about it. I want to make all the money in the world and I want to reach all the people in the world and make the most popular movie ever.
Sophia: The most popular movie?
Lawrence: Sure! I would love to make a movie that everybody loves, like The Godfather, but I would also want it to be good.
Larry, did you write Wild Canaries for Sophia?
Lawrence: I wrote it for us to work on together. We could’ve gone a different direction after the script was done and we talked about that, but we didn’t end up doing it for better or worse.
Sophia: I mean he could’ve cast Anna Kendrick, and then all the reviews would’ve just said Anna Kendrick is in this movie instead of ‘someone who looks like Anna Kendrick,’ which drives me crazy. It’s just like, ‘That has nothing to do with the movie.’
Lawrence: I don’t see the resemblance. I looked back on what changed between the script and the final movie, and the script was a more three-dimensional portrait of Sophia than what ended up in the movie. That was the one thing I regret. You get what you get when you shoot indies. You don’t really have the time or the money to reshoot. That sadness to me is--
Sophia: Is that I didn’t get to seem as awesome as I really am in real life? [Laughs.] You’ll just know for next time. It’s cool. It actually really hurts my feelings when people call my characters annoying because they’re so close to who I really am.
Lawrence: But with all the nice parts cut out because we didn’t have time for that.
Sophia: Yeah! I feel like [Larry’s] less like his [Wild Canaries] character than I am. He’s not as grouchy. He just had two fucking tequilas man! He’s loose!
How quickly after you met did you guys start working together?
Sophia: We made two shorts together in really quick succession. One was called The Empress. I edited it, too, and I had never edited anything before. We printed out a thousand DVDs with this beautiful artwork, and the DVDs were all out of sync by 10 seconds because of the way I had outputted them onto the original DVD. So we never played that anywhere.
Lawrence: I liked the movie, too. I just wrote something for us to do.
Sophia: Then Larry had this other short from a long time ago that I thought was really funny called Fat Friend. That one I’m really into and I want to put on the Internet, and we made before <em>Gabi on the Roof in July</em>.
Lawrence: We directed each other in that one.
Sophia: What happened actually was that I got $30,000 in royalties from this commercial I did and we were like, “Let’s make a movie together.” And I was really paranoid and I made Larry sign a contract that I was gonna be the lead of the movie because I was paying for it. [Laughs.]
Lawrence: You obviously had a trust issue at that time.
Sophia: [Laughs.] That was our worst working experience. It was my fault. I was really young. But the fact that we worked through that gives us perspective and it makes every other conflict we get into seem like a piece of cake.
What’s changed since you made Wild Canaries?
Sophia: Well, Larry has this new idea for a movie, and I misunderstood something and thought he was writing it for me to be in. He had to tell me, ‘No, I want to be able to cast whomever I want. We don’t have any money left to spend on our own movies, so if I need to cast someone else in order to raise money, I want to feel like I can do that.’ I cried really hard, not because I wanted to be in the movie, but more because I feel like there’s a period of time that’s over where we’re just being creative and not thinking about anything beyond that. We have to think more about the business side of things now.
Lawrence: It’s just best to keep an open mind and be flexible because you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Basically, we spent a lot of our own money on our early films and it’s a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice that landed us in a position where we don’t have the same kind of freedom but we do have different freedoms. We can reach a broader audience, but we have to play by some different rules for particular projects.
When did you guys realize you could do this full time?
Sophia and Lawrence, simultaneously: We haven’t.