"Wild Canaries" is maybe the first of its kind: a screwball indie comedy that owes just as much to "The Thin Man" series and "Manhattan Murder Mystery" as it does to any mumblecore favorite made in the last decade.
"We have the classic, three-hour films that we get on Netflix DVD, and the discs sit on our counter for a month or whatever. Meanwhile, we're watching 'Columbo,'" Sophia Takal, star and producer of "Wild Canaries," told HuffPost Entertainment after the film's world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. "We thought, 'Why not make a movie that we'd actually want to watch?'"
The "we" in that equation is Takal and her husband, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. The real-life partners, who have often appeared together in films before (most notably in 2010's "Gabi on the Roof in July," which Levine also wrote and directed), play Barri and Noah in "Wild Canaries," an engaged couple living in Brooklyn whose life is thrown asunder when their downstairs neighbor dies. Barri suspects foul play, first focusing on the neighbor's son (Kevin Corrigan) until other suspects -- another neighbor, played by Jason Ritter, his estranged wife, played by Lindsay Burdge, and even Noah himself -- begin to materialize. Or maybe nothing untoward happened at all. Maybe Barri is just channeling her commitment fears into the mystery, while Noah uses interactions with an ex-girlfriend to deal with his own pre-marriage panic.
"I'm not sure why more people don't make movies like this," Takal said, before acknowledging that raising money for "Wild Canaries" was particularly challenging.
"We were really picky about who we took it to," Takal said. "A big conversation we had was whether or not Larry and I should be in the movie. Some people felt that we weren't famous, so they would only give us money if we weren't in it. Larry felt really strongly that what would set this movie apart, in a way, was to have a real couple at the center. It just felt like such an extension of our relationship and our working relationship.
"There's a question of integrity in a way," Takal continued. "We're making a bigger movie, but what parts of ourselves are we going to sell out? We always made movies with each other in them, so we want to keep doing that. That became the non-negotiable."
As Takal noted, it helped that actors such as Ritter, Corrigan and Alia Shawkat, who plays Barri's best friend, were onboard as participants. "We were lucky they are real artists. If they respond to material, it seems like it doesn't matter [who's the star]," Takal said. "We were nervous [about drawing that line], but it was a chance we took and it ended up working really well."
Shawkat and Takal star in "Wild Canaries."
None of that would matter, of course, if "Wild Canaries" didn't deliver on its high-concept premise. The film's central mystery is strong enough to keep audiences guessing until the third-act reveal, an impressive feat considering the small cast limits the amount of possible outcomes.
"Larry was reading a lot of screenwriting books about how to write mysteries, and they say to start on the mystery within the movie first, and then that will inform all your other scenes. You have to become a foolproof, no-holes mystery," Takal said. "I don't think we were worried about fooling people. There's something playful about the movie. We were like, 'Let's come up with a murder mystery and explain it at the end.'"
In that way, "Wild Canaries" serves almost as a campfire story for urbanites who like to spend their Friday evenings around a bottle of wine and cheese plate, discussing neighbor horror stories.
"When I used to live in New York, I lived in a shoebox apartment in the West Village, and this woman below me used to pound on her ceiling, even if I had one person in my apartment and we were being quiet. It would drive me crazy," Shawkat told HuffPost Entertainment about her most memorable building interaction. "Finally, I went down there once [to stand up for myself], and when she opened her door, she was this crazy robe lady with insane hair. She had posters of Marilyn Monroe literally covering her walls. Like a psycho killer. I was like, 'Um, I'll try to keep it down.' I was terrified of her. She was probably harmless."
"Wild Canaries" was in competition as a narrative feature at the SXSW Film Festival. It does not yet have distribution.