I"ve heard Jef Levy describe himself as a recluse, and indeed the Los Angeles-based film producer, director, writer and actor may be reclusive and enigmatic, but after a long and illustrious career in television and feature film work, the cinematic scholar continues to make edgy movies.
A former faculty member at USC's film school, the attorney turned independent film director released two indies last year, which really speak to the scope and breadth of this creative talent in Hollywood. When he says he experiments with film, he means that he explores both with new content and new processes in making movies. Most people think of experimental films in terms of introducing new material, but Levy brings novelty to all aspects of film making.
Levy's also rather self-reliant. He has his own equipment and his latest work demonstrates an ability to make films at his own studio -- his house. His last two films ME and The Key were shot at his home in Beverly Hills. How's that for making the most of a micro-budget film studio?
Levy is fiercely independent and resourceful and scholarly. In an era when more people have access to making films, we often lose sight of the professional artistic discipline that movie making is and we fail to recognize those formally trained in the craft. I had a chance to talk to Levy about his recent films and his dedication to the profession.
Jordan: I thought it was impressive that you produced a hit show as a graduate student in film school. Most people are lucky to finish a thesis. Is it common for graduate students in film making to see such early success in their career?
Jef: It is not very common, and was especially not common in the early 80s. Also, I was a critical studies major (which is to say, I watched and wrote thousands of films, genres, directors, etc.), which made it even more uncommon. I think I was unconsciously trying to relive my own personal version of the Cahiers du Cinema writers (most of which, after writing about films, went on to direct films in the French new wave).
Jordan: One of your last films The Key was inspired by a book written by a Nobel Laureate. I've heard film adaptations of books are challenging endeavors. Is that because it is hard to translate the media accurately or does it just involve an extraordinary attention to detail? What is it?
Jef: This was particularly challenging because I was going to make what is essentially a "silent" film -- entirely composed of voiceover, which perfectly played into where I am trying to take my own work. So few films that I see use imagery, images, leitmotifs, etc. (in the way that, for a commercial example, Alfred Hitchcock used to do) - most popular films I see consist mainly of talking heads. I have a literary background (I majored in poetry as an undergrad at UCLA), so I am very obsessed with the use of images and symbols to make meaning -- developing visual motifs that express the themes of the film. That is what I tried to do in The Key--
Jordan: You produced, directed, wrote and acted in ME and you filmed it out of your house. To me that speaks of thrifty and resourceful film making. People struggle to finance films everyday. I think it is fair to say that as veteran in the industry, you demonstrate that an otherwise expensive craft can be catered to on a very meager budget.
Jef: I have done enough indie film and television to really know how to make resources work. Since the 80s, I dreamed of a time when technology would allow me to be completely and utterly independent. That time is now.
Jordan: ME is an interesting film, pushing the envelope in regard to both content and process. Can you tell us a little bit about the film and what inspired you to create this project?
Jef: While doing research on another project I was writing, I accidentally stumbled across the Truman Syndrome. I was doing camera tests for The Key, and decided to turn the entire testing period into a big experiment. It was only natural that I play Levy. I was terrified of doing a performance art/piece film about myself, but Susan (Traylor), my production partner, really eased me into it. I tried to work as much stuff in about the current popular culture situation as I could.
Jordan: You've helped launch the careers of some prominent actors and actresses. Are there any individuals whose story you are really inspired by or anyone that you are particularly proud to have worked with? Are there any people in the business that you'd particularly like to collaborate with in the future?
Jef: I think the Heath Ledger story is particularly interesting, and should be the subject of an entire interview with regard to my personal taste. I love big commercial films as much as I love small personal, interestingly done "art" films -- I really enjoy the films of all the usual American suspects -- Spielberg, Scorcese, Tarantino, Abrams, Soderbergh, Ridley Scott (Tony was a good friend) etc. And I would love to work with any of the director driven production companies. I have never done a genre film and am dying to do one, but I need a bit of a budget for that kind of production.
Jordan: I have to ask how receptive your family is to having the home converted into multiple movie sets in the span of few years. Your wife Pamela Skaist Levy has a busy career herself and I imagine must cater to guests of professional and personal interest. Is is chaotic and at all inconvenient filming at your house?
Jef: We shoot a Wednesday to Sunday schedule -- Euro hours (12-12). On Fridays, during production, I get my wife and son to leave and spend the weekend at the beach -- so we have managed to work out strategy. I built a sound recording and design studio, as well as two 4K editing suites away from the house, so post production is completely non invasive to my family.
Jordan: Can you discuss any future projects or direction you are taking in regard to film making?
Jef: Yes, I am doing two film projects this year -- both of which are currently casting. Ziggy Eisenstein is a script I originally wrote for Sandra Bullock and her then boyfriend Tate Donovan (he was one of the stars of my second film Inside Monkey Zetterland -- and they were living together at the time). I have been working on
that script for 25 years. The other film, which I am going to shoot first, is a very experimental film about a brother and sister (just two characters in the entire film) -- and that is about all I can say about it right now. I think I have the cast in place, but still need to deal with contracts, etc.
Dr. Jordan Schaul is a zoologist, natural historian and animal trainer. He was a regular contributor to National Geographic online, an affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska and curator at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He has worked for numerous zoological facilities in the US and internationally and writes about animal related topics and popular culture.