Hitmaking producer/director Shawn Levy has had a long and varied career in Hollywood. For many years, he was primarily known for helming family-friendly comedies; including, all three Night at the Museum films, Cheaper By The Dozen and the remake of The Pink Panther. Levy’s resume also includes the 2011 sci-fi/boxing robots flick, Real Steel.
In more recent years, Levy’s image as a director has begun to change. First, in 2014, he directed the adult drama/comedy This Is Where I Leave You; then this year, he served as a producer on Sicario director Denis Villeneuve’s highbrow first (alien) contact drama Arrival and season 1 of the smash hit Netflix series Stranger Things (featuring two episodes directed by Levy).
We interviewed Levy about his role on Arrival and discussed some of his upcoming projects – among them, Stranger Things season 2 and the Uncharted video game movie adaptation (which Levy is directing). Read on to find out what he had to offer:
You’re mainly known for producing and directing comedies, which [Arrival] is most definitely not. How did you first come to this project?
I always had a very specific kind of aspiration for [production company] 21 Laps ever since I founded it over ten years ago; and the goal was always to produce a wider range of tones and genres than the comedies I became known for first. I’m certainly grateful for the success I’ve had, but the reality is that I’m always thought of as the Night at The Museum guy, but my tastes are far more eclectic than that – so we’ve put real energy into finding material in other genres. So when we came upon this short story, “The Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for Arrival… it was so incredible we decided to develop it and get a movie made.
How soon in the production did you decided to go with [director] Denis Villeneuve?
Well… it was was about five years ago that we came upon the short story, and around the same time we saw one of Denis’ first movies, Incendies, and it was clear to us that he was an emerging maestro. So we took a meeting with him and learned that he had always wanted to do science fiction; and coincidentally we’d just found this amazing unheard of sci-fi story. So we began – I guess you’d call it an “arranged marriage” between us, Denis and the short story. He went on to make Prisoners and Sicario while we developed and packaged this movie, but then it was waiting and ready to go when he came back up for air after Sicario’s release.
We knew that with this material, and with this filmmaker, we were making a scifi movie unlike almost every other; because while it’s got a big conceptual hook it’s a deeply thoughtful movie. And it’s science fiction that’s very cerebral, but also very emotional. The collision of all those elements felt really… to us, it felt like a movie well worth making.
There’s been some criticism – not so much of the film itself, but of it’s marketing; with some feeling that the studio has opted to advertise the film more like an action thriller than the more cerebral film you’ve actually made…
Yeah. Well… look, every studio is going to have its own challenges helping a film go into the culture and represent it as a movie. There’s no question that the marketing materials lean more heavily into the “global war science-fiction” emphasis than the movie does. And years ago, I knew that that big hooky idea of an alien invasion that requires a linguist to figure out how to communicate would be very likable – the age-old messaging of the movie.
What I’m excited for… I’ve read those criticisms, I don’t know if it’s a mistake or not. But what I’m excited for is in the weeks to come seeing the movie be around for awhile thanks to these great reviews and hopefully equally good word of mouth, I think you’re going to see a follow-up marketing campaign that reflects the broader truth of the movie and its character-based, emotional nature. But I understand that when you’re initially trying to plant the flag selling a movie you need to go with a big idea like the invasion, and I think you’re going to see that message broadened in the coming weeks.
Quite a few big-name stars show up in the film. Is it at all especially difficult to arrange shooting with someone like Jeremy Renner, who has such a large ongoing commitment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies otherwise?
There’s an entire generation of actors who’re basically busy year-round on various Marvel pictures. Every single thing I direct or produce, we have to balance around commitments to Marvel – it’s just unbelievable how ubiquitous those movies are, and they have really made for tricky scheduling with what is now well over a dozen different actors.
So there were challenges there, but it all started with this script- which was developed over a year in our little bungalow here at 21 Laps. But when it was finally exposed to the world… the strength of the writing became like a magnet. So Amy [Adams] immediately said yes, so did Jeremy, and what I’ve found is when there’s a will to participate on the part of the artist, all the business people will find a way. And Jeremy really wanted to be part of this picture, and the picture is that much better because of him, Michael Stuhlbarg, the incredible strength of Amy at the center… and the supporting cast is equally exceptional.
Speaking of supporting casts, you also had big success this year producing Stranger Things for Netflix. Can we talk a little bit about Season 2?
I’m going to be very judicious when it comes to talking about Stranger Things, because I live in the land of spoiler paranoia these days. We’ve been sitting on some additional actors, which got announced this morning [November 7th], two of whom are very well known, one of whom is not. All I’m going to tell you about Season 2… look, as much as people are dying to know what happened, I think the reason Stranger Things has become the phenomenon it has is because no one knew what was coming. No one knew, frankly… much like The Force Awakens, I think there’s this delicious torture in not knowing.
So what I will say is, having heard the first half of the season at our table read at the end of last week, that I’m very excited even as I’m trying to tune out a lot of the news of the culture and just focus on our instincts, our actors, or producorial and directorial instincts that brought us to this table. We want to follow the same guidelines we were following last year when we made this show that no one knew about and no one cared about. But I will say we have some very interesting ideas cooking for Season 2.
You were also recently announced as the director of the Uncharted movie, yes? That certainly seemed to come as a surprise to many.
[Laughs] We’re very much still in the process – me and [writer] Joe Carnahan – working very closely together regarding story, regarding casting (which I really can’t say anything about yet and won’t). This is the kind of movie… as a game, I’ve loved it for a long time, I think it’s got an exceptionally cinematic nature. And as a movie, y’know… we’ll deliver on the action, the adventure, the wit that people expect from this great treasure-hunting franchise.
I feel like, really, in each of its four iterations – it’s evolved of course – but it’s kept the DNA of its tone and its characters, and (to tie it back to Arrival and Stranger Things), at this point in my career I am partial to character-driven, high-concept entertainement. And what I love is that, just as Arrival is an alien invasion movie that’s about a linguist and Stranger Things is a fantasy/mystery series about kids in early-80s Indiana, Uncharted is a globe-trotting adventure series; but it is always above all rooted in Nathan, Sully and Elena. They’re such great three-dimensional characters, and that’s the way the movie is going to be built as well.
An earlier film of yours that’s developed quite a post-release fanbase was Real Steel. Fans have heard various rumblings of a sequel for years now – has there been any movement on that front?
[Laughs] Well, you’ve caught me on fortuitous day, because I just got asked to do a symposium – a Q&A – tonight on Real Steel in Los Angeles. And I only agreed because Real Steel has a profoundly special place in my heart; and Hugh [Jackman], Evageline [Lily] and all of us who made this movie love it and feel for it in a really unique way.
What I’ll say is that what would have to go into a sequel script would make it original and fresh, not a repeat of the first and – now more than ever – given what I see in our culture, I won’t make a sequel unless it feels like a new experience; and it’s really hard to craft a sequel that honors the original but stands on its own two feet. So, while I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, I won’t say it’s highly likely. But I absolutely have a deep, burning love for this movie – and potential franchise – in my heart.
[Final Question] Are you still developing the Mr. Men & Little Miss movie as a producer?
Yes I am. And also Seasame Street!
Wow! Any movement on those particular projects?
Mr. Men & Little Miss is with Blue Sky and Fox Animation. We do have a script, and we should know within a few months whether that’s going to take the big pivot toward production. So there is a script, and that’s being done in collaboration with Blue Sky.
Sesame Street is at Warner Bros, and we are right now working on a treatment for what I think is going to be a really imnaginative and entertaining take on that beloved and decades old global brand. The trick there is to honor these characters that are beloved but in a movie that feels entertaining for the kids who we might bring to the movie but humorous on that second level for those parents who bring their kids. It’s early – we’re still at the treatment stage, but very bullish on that.