A Conversation with Black Bear’s Lawrence Michael Levine

I first saw Black Bear in September and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But the truth is, I didn’t know where to begin to write about it, so I didn’t. But then, I had the opportunity to watch the film again, and even though I knew what some of the surprises the film may have had, I loved it more. I had the great opportunity to interview the writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine. We do get into a bit spoiler territory as its hard to avoid, so please read (or watch) the film first. Black Bear comes out on Friday December 4th. For those who have seen it, here is our conversation that once again is transcribed as well.

Andres: So first off, I saw Black Bear last month… or two [it was near the end of September] at Cinéfest Sudbury, and was sort of blown away by it. And it’s also strange because it’s a movie that I feel is really hard to talk about while also I want to tell everyone to see it. And everyone always asks me what it’s about, and I’m like “uhh, just watch it please?”

Lawrence: [Laughs] Yeah.

Andres: I’ve always been like – I’ve always loved Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott and I know you sort of mentioned how you wrote with Aubrey in mind, but how did Christopher and also Sarah Gadon also get involved?

Lawrence: Well, I had seen, I saw Sarah in James Seamus’ movie Indignation a few years before I wrote Black Bear. I had never seen her in anything before, and I kind of had one of those crazy reactions where I was like “this is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life.” Like I totally have to work with this person. So I’ve always wanted to work with her, and the same is true with Chris, I can’t – I can’t, oh yeah, it was James White, that’s what it was. I had seen Chris in James White, which is a great movie, and he’s just incredible in it. But also knowing the other films that he had been in, I knew that he had a lot of versatility because, you know I had seen him in other things where he played very different characters than the one he depicts in James White. So I had seen them in those two films, and always wanted to work with them, and luckily, as it turned out, when I offered the movie to Aubrey and she wanted to do it, it turned out that her agent is the same also represents Sarah. And he was a big ally, guy’s name is Chris Andrews. And he showed the movie to – the script to Sarah, and she wanted to do it and that was awesome. And then Chris was at the same agency. We kind of went through the CAA channels to get to him as well. I offered Chris a part in another movie I was trying to get off the ground, and he said no, but I was not dissuaded, and I tried a second time. And this time, it worked out.

Andres: I think it’s funny that you bring up James White, cause I remember, I saw that film as well and it blew me away. And I think that was one of the films that first put him on my radar, but I talk to a lot of people about it, and they’re like I never heard of it. But filmmakers everywhere always are like “oh that’s where I saw him first.” It’s such a great like, filmmakers film as well.

Lawrence: Yeah, yeah.

Andres: I was curious because there was a lot of big intense monologues, was it a lot of rehearsal, or just on set?

Lawrence: No, there was no really rehearsal at all. We didn’t do any scene work. And any blocking rehearsal that we did was on the day, so really the only preparation that I did with the actors was some script meetings from a far. Actually Chris, luckily Chris and I were both in New York at the time so I met with Chris two or three times before we got to set to talk through the script. Which was a lot of fun, and he really got it, and I similarly talked to Sarah via phone before the shoot. And Aubrey as well. So I just had some preliminary conversations where we went through the script, and discussed any confusions that they might have had. And changed any lines that they didn’t feel would come naturally to them. And other than that, there was really no preparation at all.

Andres: I was going to ask, because I definitely could tell, I remember the first time watching it before I had any other knowledge of the film was that – especially in the first act it’s so clear, that it’s sort of meant for Aubrey. Like she flows so effortlessly in it. There’s a moment that she does in the first act where she plays with dominoes and setting them up, how inentional was that, because I feel like that sort of definitely about the gross manipulation in the second act. Where it’s sort of just setting it all up, and then waiting for it to happen.

Lawrence: Yeah, that was not in the script. Those were just dominoes that happened to be on set. And she saw the prop, and used it. Those easily could not have been used. That was just one of those happy, happy things that you discover while you were on set. When she did it, I realized why it was resonate, so I was cool with it. I thought it made sense. I think it was just one of those things that you discovered on set. Same is true for you know, in part two, the boom operator asks for silence on set after Aubrey has had her breakdown, so we have to sit in this awkward silence, that was something that Aubrey suggested on the day as well. So she’s really creative and brought a lot of great ideas to the movie.

Andres: Speaking of the set, it’s more of a joke-comment, but I’m hoping that some of the energy/experience on that set was a lot more lighter than you had portrayed in it. What was it like trying to film something within a movie as well.

Lawrence: Well I wouldn’t say the energy was light but I also wouldn’t say it was like a four-on-four sadistic torture which the movie is. No, it was a very difficult shoot, we only had 20 days to make the movie, and we were shooting all overnights. So, and there was no over time either because eight hours night is eight hours long, when the sun comes up, you’re done shooting. So and when it goes down, you’ve gotta start. If you need night, if you need real night. So it was 20 eight hour days. Which is not a lot of time to make a movie. So it was very stressful for me and I’m sure for the cast who had to do these difficult scenes. So it was a very hard working set. You know, it was very dedicated focus set. So I wouldn’t say no, the energy wasn’t light, there were some moments of levity, and I think probably but everyone had to work very hard and so it wasn’t easy.

Andres: Have you been reading some of the reviews or like statements, reactions about people saying how they love the film, but they don’t really know if they get it. Because that’s something I felt after seeing it twice and I keep trying to dive into it and figure it out, and there’s so many layers and aspects.

Lawrence: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I don’t read my reviews but I’m aware of that reaction just from talking to friends that have seen it, or people, actual people that I’m talking to. Not that critics aren’t people but [laughs] you know, conversations cause I don’t read my reviews.

Andres: [Laughs] Right.

Lawrence: You know, it’s interesting. Some people find it exciting and some people are alienated by it. I’m one of the people whose excited by ambiguity, I think it’s more true to life. You know, life doesn’t boil itself down to simple meanings. Life is confusing and tough to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a handle on the truth, something happens that undermines it. So I wanted the movie to reflect that reality. And some people you know, they’re used to movies spoon-feeding non-comforting truths and certainty. But I didn’t want to do that this time. I think it’s more interesting and truthful to go a different direction.

Andres: Were some of the characters sort of meant to represent parts of yourself, or other people you may have worked with on set or stories from friends of friends.

Lawrence: Yeah, yeah. You know, to say they were meant to be anything in particular is kind of difficult to parse. The movie was written very intuitively and it came out of me from a mood I was in. You know, it kinda came out of my feelings. My pain or whatever I was going through at the time, so the writing process was pretty subliminal. That being said you know, I’ve been on movie sets for almost twenty years, and I’ve seen all sorts of shit. And you know a lot of it made it into the movie. Also, you know, I read a lot about film sets, I love backstage dirt. I love reading about Jean-Luc Godard’s film sets, or Stanley Kubrick’s film sets. Or Alfred Hitchcock’s film sets, so you know. There’s some of that in it as well. So combination of you know, Hollywood lore, real life, experiences and imaginations.

Andres: Speaking of Kubrick, that something that always stuck out to me was like, was Gabe sort of like, an indictment of filmmakers like Kubrick or Cassavetes who were famously known for belittling and attacking female actors into a great performance, but then still walk away revered from it instead of being known as these potential horrorible toxic people.

Lawrence: Yeah. I think so. I’m certainly not condoning that behaviour.

Andres: It’s clear, especially there’s a – there’s a shot when everythings done where you see all the cast, or the crew just sort of in silence just stunned at what they just saw and you’re like “how are we,” again you can look at someone like Kubrick who is someone I admire but at the same time, the things he’s done, you can’t look at that and think “oh that’s a good person.” There has to be a fine line between that.

Lawrence: Mhm, yeah.

Andres: I wanted to ask about the bear, did it represent – to me it sort of just represented this eventual impending doom? Was it something else in your mind?

Lawrence: I think that’s a good way to read it. At the time I was looking for an ending, and you know I wanted, I thought “oh a car crash would be a good way to kind of to resolve this.” And I was looking for something that would be in that environment. That would cause them to swerve off the road, and bear was the most interesting choice. You know, it could have been a coyote or could have been any other beast of the forest. But bear was the one that seemed and felt right to me. But I didn’t really know why. And then after I’ve written the script, I sort of wondered why that came to me and it had occured to me that bears are a symbol of death and rebirth. You know, cause they hibernate every year. So in a sense, to me, to me, that’s what this film is about. It’s about how we suffer things, that we feel have killed us or some part of us and then we find a way to be reborn. And in the case of the lead of this movie Allison, she’s channeling her pain into her art.

Andres: Do you find that – also, to jump from that, so how long until you had an actual title for the film cause if it seems, was it not connected at first?

Lawrence: No, the title for the film was actually – I didn’t know what to call it, I had no idea what to call it. I had some working title, that was like “Allison by the Lake” or something. But when I came up with the bear, I think it was a suggestion from Aubrey that I think she said, well what if we called it “The Bear” or “Bear”? And I went that’s okay, but it’s missing something. Then I thought, put Black before it. Because it seemed to convey a certain darkness. And a certain, like you were saying, there was a certain deathly quality to Blackness and uncertainity and confusion. So I added the Black, and that’s how we got the title.

Andres: Do you find that its – I think I do, but if the film’s sort of hard to talk about, cause for me it was – when I try to tell, even I told my partner about it, and I was like try not to watch the trailer. Cause I want them to go in as blindly as I did.

Lawrence: Yeah.

Andres: Do you find it also hard to promote and talk about sometimes?

Lawrence: Yeah, I do. I mean its kinda agony. I mean I kinda gave up, it’s kinda agony to market a movie like this without giving away certain things that are supposed to be very surprising within it? The whole point of the movie is for the audience to never know where it’s going, and now that a trailer exists, I think, the audience will encounter it in a slightly different way. But I guess the other option was they’re not going to encounter it at all cause we can’t cut a trailer, you know? It’s just one of those devil’s bargains that life has a way of forcing us into.

Andres: I think, it’s strange because I had seen the film prior to seeing the trailer and when I watched the trailer I was like “oh why are they showing the filmmaking part?” but then, I had posted about it to inform people to be like “hey go watch this movie, but avoid the trailer, and keep an eye out for the name at least.” And a few people did end up watching the trailer, and one of them was my partner who watched the film with me, and she had said “oh, I didn’t get any of this stuff” – so it didn’t spoil anything, but I think because I was aware of what happens, and you so ingrained and understanding the film watched the trailer and went “oh it’s spoiling everything” because that’s how I felt as well.

Lawrence: Right, right. And so when the trailer first, when the distributor first sent me the trailer I was concerned about this, and I sent it to a bunch of friends of mine who hadn’t seen the film yet. And they, when I asked them what they thought had happened in the movie, none of them knew. So I thought “eh, okay. This is fine.” I would prefer if you didn’t know there would even be a filmmaking element in this movie, you know? But it didn’t seem like it would ruin it for them.

Andres: Was that one of the aspects when you went into the second act, to sort of decide to go – because the first act is all static, or tripod, or dolly, but the second is a lot more handheld? Was that part of the early decision, or more on set when they came up with it.

Lawrence: Yeah, I think since we were trying to play with notions of what’s real and what’s fiction, it was important for us to establish a really realistic tone and within that tone, have surrealistic things happen. So, in order to keep people – I wanted people to think that they were watching something that felt very real in part one and then when they saw something after when part one unfolds, you know, and when something happens next, I was worried the audience was gonna think “okay, well nothing is real now.” So I was aware that I needed to make the second part even more than the first, and my solution to the problem was in the first part, I would have very, very naturalistic performances, but I wouldn’t use any handheld. So I would shoot it simply, and keep the performances as naturalistic as possible. And then when part two happened, for a time at least, I wanted the audience to think they were watching a documentary. Or could be a vérité documentary, so the second part is all handheld. Anyway, that’s the only aesthetic difference between the two, the lighting is very similar, the colour palette is very similar. The music draws elements from part one, themes from part one and builds on them. Adds layers of complexity to them, the same way part two does for the visual and dramatic concerns.

Andres: Well, it’s not often that I feel that I watch a movie that like causes so much stress, and I try and then go and praise it and tell all my friends to watch it. Cause that’s something that I have been doing.

Lawrence: [Laughs] Thank you.

Andres: Because I think I relate it to when you’re hanging out with a friend whose in a relatioship, and while you’re hanging out, they get into a fight, and you’re stuck in the middle of it, and you’re just waiting it out. That’s what it feels like for an hour and forty-five minutes.

Lawrence: [Laughs] Yeah.

Andres: At the same, there’s so much – the writing and everything is impeccable, and the conversations that everyone is having with one another, you can’t look away, so it’s like a car crash as the same time. So there’s so many things happening at the same time in it.

Lawrence: Yeah, thank you, I appreciate that.

Andres: Well I loved it, and look forward to everyone else also talking about it as the year ends and such.

Lawrence: Yeah, thanks a lot Andres, I appreciate it man.

Andres: You as well, take care.