Shawn Levy

The Internship is kind of a bizarre comedy. It removes the potential for mean-spirited humor by not featuring two leads consistently bust each other’s balls. Director Shawn Levy‘s film is somewhat of an anti-ironic comedy, to the point where that type of self-impressed smirking is literally put down in the movie itself. That makes sense when you consider Levy’s body of work. His movies are as innocent and audience-friendly as one can imagine. From The Night at the Museum movies to, a personal favorite, Big Fat Liar, there’s zero cynicism in their content.

For his reunion film between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, Levy explores potentially depressing material: two friends whose lives fall out from under them and, once they start interning at Google, the possibility of failure is always high. In spite of their low chances of obtaining a full-time position at Google, the two characters, and Levy, remain optimistic.

This comedy represents another new direction for Levy, who doesn’t want to remained branded as “the family comedy” guy. With Real SteelThe Internship, This is Where I Leave You, and a slew of future projects on his plate, Levy says he’s “just getting warmed up” as a filmmaker.

I briefly encountered Levy a few years ago at the premiere for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian where his enthusiasm level was high, and now four years later, speaking with him at 5 a.m. his time, that enthusiasm was still somehow intact.

Here’s what came out of our early morning discussion:

Did you go to film school?

I did. As an undergrad, I went to Yale for the theater department. Then I went to USC’s master program for film school.

Were they positive experiences?

Yeah, they both were. I felt like, it was the best combination imaginable. At Yale I learned all the fundamentals of narrative structure, directing performance, and the general approach to drama, theme, and character. USC was there for, at least in my experience, focus on technical educational and leaning how to communicate your vision with the tools of film. Anyone who’s tried to make a movie knows you think it’s really clear to communicate what you intend, but it’s actually trickier than it seems.

Learning the tech at USC, does it feel like you’re experiencing that all over again with digital filmmaking?

I feel like every year or two, in my career, it’s a new film school. Frankly, that’s one of the things I love about the job. You’re constantly able and, in fact, challenged to learn new things. The first wave of that was the Night at the Museum movies. Those were a crash course in visual effects. The transition into digital was with Real Steel and Date Night. It turns out I’ll be going back to film school if I make a third and final Night at the Museum, which would be shot in 3D.

That’s great. Looking at The Internship and your other films, your voice is clear in those films, in terms of tone and the theme. When you were in film school, did you already know those were the type of movies you wanted to make?

I think that’s a good point, because, it’s interesting, the head of Searchlight just commented on a review in Variety. I usually tend to not read reviews, but it was a generally positive one and that critic pointed out I don’t have a cynical bone in my body. I guess, as I’ve made movies, with my point-of-view on the world and my own imperative, I do begin to see a unifying voice, which tends to be uncynical, humanist, and, ultimately, aspirational. These are the values I try to live with and put out there. I’m giving you such long-winded answers and I’ll touch back on film school, but it was interesting for me on Real Steel. That was a departure movie, which was rougher, edgier, more violent, and more science-fiction. While it was those things to an extent, it was still a warm hearted father-son movie.

I thought that combo of the father-son stuff and the underground robot fights made it feel like a movie you’d see in the ’80s.

You know, the movie got compared to that kind of Amblin film, in some corners. There’s something about the “boy and the creature” story that feels very Spielberg. When I do go back and speak at film school, which I do every year or so, people always ask about my beginnings. I made my thesis movie in the mid-90s, which was when everyone was doing Tarantino knockoffs. Everything was violent, pretty rough, and dark. I made a thesis film about a 14-year-old boy and girl who live in a small town where nothing exceptional or interesting ever happened. They ended up getting married, to get into the Guinness book of world records. It was a very funny, warm-hearted film about first love and the aspirations to have something redemptive in your life. In the case of that film, which is called “Broken Record,” they think the record is going to change their lives, but it’s the friendship with each other that changes their lives.

I can tell you that a lot of my buddies were like, “Dude, why are you making this soft, sweet, funny movie? It’s all about Pulp Fiction and darker shit.” I told them it was a story that interested me and these are the films that interest me. That’s not to say their family movies, because my favorite films include Goodwill HuntingJerry Maguire, and Little Miss Sunshine, but, ultimately, those are very redemptive, humanist, hopeful movies. To answer your question, my voice and world view…it’s not that I see the world in those rosy tones, but I want to put into the world the possibility of that. As soon I started making movies it was pretty self-evident [that's what I wanted to do].

It’s funny you mention Jerry MaguireThere’s a great line in that movie about how brave it is to be uncynical. I imagine that’s hard to do when you make movies.

You know what was fun about this movie? The scene that I wrote between Owen Wilson and Dylan O’Brien by the Golden Gate bridge. That whole scene was motivated by what I encounter everyday since going to Yale. The world in general, and certainly the Internet, is a hotbed of skepticism, snark, tonality, and all of that. Those are default settings. That’s why we created the character Dylan, someone always defaulting to this sarcasm. Owen is a surrogate for me, saying it doesn’t make you cooler to act like you don’t give a shit. It’s much more courageous to admit you like or love something. That scene, which is my personal favorite, really articulates that viewpoint.

Was there a specific incident or encounter that led to that scene or has this just always been on your mind? 

I think it’s been on my mind for a while. It used to be the domain for hyper-educated, literate, too smart for the room types. Back when I was in film school that kind of “let’s stand in the corner and make fun of shit” position was the popular position. The Internet has made pervasive that hotshot culture. As soon as you become successful in something, you know the Internet will become a nightmare where people anonymously tear shit down instead of championing something. Particularly in comments, the Internet is so much more populated in negativity than positivity. That’s fine, but, you know, if you’re lucky enough to get paid for what you love doing, which is the life I’m living, I don’t have the time, patience, or usefulness for that negativity.

There’s always going to be the “trolls,” but where do you look for real criticism?

I’m not at all closed off from criticism by people I respect. In fact, one of the great lessons of USC was how they literally get you making films from your first week onward. As much as you might learn in a lecture hall, you learn a thousand times more from making something and getting it critiqued. I am incredibly receptive and grateful for criticism from respected sources, which is fellow filmmakers, actors, or, on occasion, a really smart critic. A smart critic is really different from the cowardly anonymity. The Internet is really a “throw negative shit at the wall” culture. Before you’re in the public eye making public work, it doesn’t matter. As soon as your name is out there, you’re eventually going to come across mean shit. That applies to me, J.J. [Abrams], Steven [Spielberg], Todd [Pillips], and Judd [Apatow]. No one is immune.

If you go on the IMDB board for Steven Spielberg, you’ll immediately see someone calling him a hack or overrated.

Yeah. Or, like, I’ve loved everything J.J. has made. He’s both a friend and colleague I respect the shit out of. Eventually, if you get your little cursor and scroll for 10 seconds, even a filmmaker as good as that will find someone in some basement saying shit. That’s ridiculous. I figure, guys, no one in safe. I try to wake up, make the best movies I can, and recognize they won’t be for everyone. I know so far they have been for a nice broad audience and expressed a positive worldview I believe in.

Your movies definite have an unabashed commercial quality to them, and I think you either find that charming or you don’t.

It’s interesting. Right now I’m making the smallest movie of my career and having the time of my life. A part of the privilege of making movies that have been profitable is to take a moment and do a book adaptation I’ve wanted to do for five years. This is a 20 million dollar movie with no special effects and big comedy set pieces, but it’s a very funny, extremely emotional, and has an ensemble cast I fucking adore. I needed to do this and speak from this part of myself. Maybe it’ll be commercial or maybe it won’t, but I suspect it will be. Making This is Where I Leave You, even though it’s more poignant, sad story, I’m finding it’s connected to my other movies in that it’s, ultimately, about the redemptive connection to family. That tends to be a frequent theme for me.

Did you always see yourself as becoming the “family film” director?

No. As I’ve said, with that short I made, I was young when I made it. I wasn’t even thinking about having kids, but that was a story I responded to. I worked with my friend Mark on it and made it, but then I quickly became the family film comedy guy. It was not by design, but it’s why for 10 years I’ve been saying, “No, no, no, I meant to do other stuff.” Finally, now ten years later, I’m making that other stuff and doing this new film.

Is it tough for you to steer away from that tag, for people to accept you as a different kind of filmmaker?

Occasionally. I was grateful Spielberg didn’t lock me into the family film box and gave me Real Steel. I was happy that Fox responded to my desire to make a film about marriage and let me make Date Night. Now, similarly with Warner Bros., they’re letting me make This is Where I Leave You. Let me put it this way: I get sent many scripts a week that are tent-pole family comedies. It’s generally assumed I know how to do that. I do know how to do that, but that doesn’t mean it’s all I want to do.

It’s why The Internship was fun. It was really about fun, comedy, and that ensemble of six actors and Max Minghella as the dick. It was about finding a fun comedy dynamic for teens. This new movie is about digging into emotional stuff with a bunch of actors I adore. If I do Night at the Museum 3, that’ll be a whole other challenge with the 3D and the visual sequences; it would be unlike anything we did in the first two movies.

Obviously The Internship is very different from those two movies, because, not to say the Museum movies don’t, but this really relies on its script and cast. If there’s a lull, you can’t cut to a set piece. With that in mind, does coming to set and the work feel different?

Yes. It feels the same in that, everyday you’re balancing getting the work done and making every moment as good as it can be. What was interesting about The Internship was that there was these comedic set pieces, like Vince and Owen playing pingpong or going into these current pools for swim training. They were much more conventional comedy set pieces. We shot them, but as soon as we put the movie together, it became clear the “red and green paddle” scene and the Google hangout scene are much funnier than physical set pieces.

The movie ended up getting rid of the broader physical stuff, keeping the much more verbal humor. This illuminated for the 100th time in my career that, no matter what you think the movie wants, the movie is going to tell you what it wants in the editorial process. The movie shows you what it is. It’s critical, as a general filmmaking tip, to get different versions of things. Doing 10 takes of the same thing isn’t nearly as useful as having 10 different versions of a movie, so when the movie reveals itself, you can calibrate accordingly.

The Internship opens in theaters on June 7th.


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