Director Sam Levinson on Another Happy Day, Learning from Dad, and Ellen Barkin's 'F*cking Genius' Twitter Account


In his debut feature Another Happy Day, director Sam Levinson (yep, Barry's son) worked with a cast including actors who've been legends since before he was born in 1985: Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, George Kennedy, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, and newcomer Ezra Miller play stubborn, dysfunctional family members who bicker, spar, and essentially fail to communicate at a tumultuous wedding. Levinson garnered the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Waldo Salt screenwriting award for penning Another Happy Day, and -- like Barkin on Twitter -- is proving himself to be a fearsome, perceptive, and honest voice. We phoned Levinson to discuss his father's influence, why he screened Carnal Knowledge for his cast and crew, and Ellen Barkin's amazing candor.

How are you today, Sam?

I'm doing OK considering I'm in Los Angeles! I have a hard time acclimating to L.A. Going to get a bite to eat is so fucking difficult. It's like a four-hour journey. I mean, driving! Then parking! You can't just walk to the deli -- it kills me! It literally kills me. I swear to God, if I lived here -- I mean, I now understand anorexia. Because it is so fucking inconvenient, you just starve to death. I understand why the girls are terribly skinny here.

We need you on AMA panels.

Yes! I would love to argue with a good psychologist about my thoughts on anorexia.

What was your experience like with movies and moviemaking growing up? Did you have to discover a love for film independently of your father's influence, or were you so familiar with his job that becoming a director was a natural step?

I didn't grow up on movie sets. My father went away to work like most people's parents do, except he'd go away to work for two or three months instead of nine to five or six. Maybe we'd visit him for two or three days, but that's just like "Take Your Kid to Work Day." It wasn't like I was on set and he was saying, "So now we're going to be shooting this on a 35mm lens, and we'll be doing a tracking shot." There was never any of that. I didn't grow up in that environment, but I grew up with two artist parents who were storytellers. My father is a director, and my mother is an abstract expressionist painter. In terms of how I discovered films, I can't remember an age when I wasn't watching as many films per day as I could. It was literally anything from a very early age. I remember sneaking downstairs to watch HBO and Cinemax and Showtime. I was five, six years old and watching zombie films, softcore porn, and classic films. It was just a bizarre mixture, and then I'd go upstairs and go to sleep. As I got older, I continued to watch film and pretty much dropped out of high school in ninth grade when I was 14. I did a form of home-schooling which was called, "Read the newspaper every day." I went to this little art school for three hours where I studied printmaking and photography and painting. But anyway, I became informed about cinema, and then I'd talk to my father about it. We'd actually have discussions about film, this and that. I don't think I was encouraged to go into this deal, but I do remember my mother saying to me, "I hope this works out because if it doesn't, you're fucked. You're not particularly good at anything else." It's what I always wanted to do, make film. I don't remember when I didn't. I credit both of them for saying to me, directly or indirectly, "It's OK to be an artist." I think that was a really beautiful gift that they gave me. It's OK to be an artist, but you need to earn a living. "We're not gonna support any bullshit." I worked in advertising and architecture as I went to school -- method acting. I did rewrites on other films so I could earn a living. I think that answers your question. Actually, I know that answers your question and more!

In Another Happy Day, you chronicle a family's dysfunction. I've read that you sat at your parents' kitchen table and just spat out the script in no time. Where did this idea come from?

I actually didn't really invent the characters -- I invented the character of Lynn (Barkin), but I had no idea where the story was going to go; I didn't invent the rest of the cast. As each scene would progress, I would say, I might say, "I'll have this character here." I would sort of figure out who they were as I followed this journey. It was a visceral writing experience, and not all writing experiences are like that. I wrote this in three weeks. It just poured out of me. I did two days worth of revisions. But in reality, that's rare. The script I'm almost finished with at the moment has taken me about a year to write. It's also a very different type of film. With this, I'd just write a scene and see what comes next. If I know what comes next, I know that the scene before it works. If I don't know what comes next, I know I've written something that doesn't quite work, so I would tweak until I could figure out which scene comes next.

Writing this script was a really beautiful experience, which was nice because writing is usually a fucking horrible experience. As much as I love it, writing is just painful. I wanted the characters to find their own way. The only thing I begin with when I write is a certain theme, or a certain idea. I have shots in my head. But I don't know how I'm going to get to this idea -- how I'm going to work underneath this theme, or how I'm going to get this specific shot. I want to find it organically. I wanted to deal with a group of people who have to figure out how to communicate -- or not! I wanted to deal it in a very nonjudgmental way. I mean, we have 2,000 years of writing that deals with family. Hamlet is a dysfunctional family. But I wanted to talk about things I was feeling at the time; there were a lot of judgmental films being made [when I wrote the film], and how those actions reverberate -- and once they reverberate, how other characters react to them. Are they able to take a step back and try to understand the motivation behind the action before they just respond? That was very important to me. That was a theme I really wanted to deal with. I feel like this is reactive way of communicating is what is truly eroding our country and this world. There is no real discourse anymore. There is just reaction and judgment. We're slowly kind of crumbling because of it. This family is nothing but a microcosm for the country we live in. We're fucking stuck with our family and we're fucking stuck with our country. We have to find way some to communicate or we're just going to float off into the sea.


Sounds like you're talking specifically about the media, to a certain degree.

It's the internet, it's also the reflection of -- I mean, there's a specific reason why there's a different news channel in each of the parents' and grandparents' bedroom [in Another Happy Day]. Cable news has created this idea that there's no such thing as a fact. Or just truth. There's always "two sides" to it. There's always an argument that can be had over a fact, which doesn't make any fucking sense whatsoever. I mean, everyone gets an equal box. You can have a fucking lunatic like Pat Robertson who has no credibility whatsoever -- I mean, whoever sold him his suit should be taken out -- of the suit-making business [laughs]. I'm glad I said that. Pat's up there with Richard Dawkins, who's an evolutionary biologist. These two people do not exist on the same plane; they do not exist in two equal-sized boxes. One is a credible human being and the other is not. There's no argument here. It becomes like a soap opera. You just wonder, "What would happen if suddenly Pat Robertson had a moment of rationality for the first time in his life and said, 'Richard Dawkins, I never thought of it that way. I think you're right.'" Chris Matthews would just melt. It would just all come to an end. It would be stunning.

You're waiting for the anti-Network! A triumphant moment of reason.

Well, I'm never waiting for the 'Anti-Network.' I mean, Network is my savior -- to put it lightly. You can't get any better than Paddy Chayefsky in any realm in any film. What's great about that movie is the only way you actually understand this culture is through literally the kind of -- and he did the same with healthcare in The Hospital -- the health of our citizens is through screwball comedy. Same thing with The Americanization of Emily. Same thing with Preston Sturges in Hail the Conquering Hero. And the same thing with Network -- it's just too fucking absurd. Or Margin Call -- which just came to mind. I really liked it. I watched that and wondered, "I wonder what the screwball version of this would be -- of the banking crisis." The flipside of it.

I read that you really had Mike Nichols and Woody Allen on the brain when you were directing this. Did you recall specific scenes from Carnal Knowledge or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when you were working?

Yes. In fact, I screened Carnal Knowledge for a lot of the cast and key crew. I screened Carnal Knowledge and They Shoot Horses, Don't They -- which is mind-blowing.

Only the best movie ever!

The direction is mind-boggling. Michael Sarrazin? Just heartbreaking. Such an amazing, amazing film in every way. We look at it now, and we think, "That's where we're about to go as a country." Dance 'til you drop. That movie really, really destroys me. But Mike Nichols for sure, especially when you look at Carnal Knowledge and how effortless that film feels in the way in which it's shot and edited -- it just seems so clean and simple and beautiful. And yet, you realize the amount of preparation that a film like that takes. And in Hannah and Her Sisters, with Carlo de Palma and Woody Allen, those gorgeous shots, that fluidity is what I personally want to strive for, in filmmaking. With Virginia Woolf too, there's never a scene in these movies where the director says, "I'm sorry to everyone who's watching the film -- take a two-minute pause and check out this amazing shot. Then we'll get back to the story." It's like a commercial break for the director. There's no commercial break for the director. It's just integrated into the characters in order to push the story forward. You just don't even notice it until you watch it over and over again. You keep realizing all these new things.

What's it like as basically a first-time director to direct actors who've been veterans since before you were born. George Kennedy? Ellen Burstyn? Even Ellen Barkin was in your dad's Diner before you were born.

I'm not basically a first-time director -- I am a first-time director! My chief job with any actor is to make sure the environment they're working in is one that is protected -- err, protective. Let me get my grammar together! But truly, it's about creating a place where every actor feels like as much time as they need in order to flourish and fail and make mistakes and find their way. I studied method acting for four years, and not because I ever wanted to be an actor, but because it helped me to be a better writer and director. It helped me communicate in their language. Once you create that protective environment, and once the actors feel safe and like they won't be judged, you will always get the best out of them. You're dealing with something mysterious and intangible, that moment when an actor moves from who they are in real life into this character. That leap that none of us quite comprehend, you want to make sure that when they take that leap, everyone around them is ready to catch them.

Let's talk about Ellen Barkin's Twitter account. Did you help inspire her decision to tweet?

To be honest, no! Not really. I think she somewhat inspired me, as I think she has a lot of people. I joined Twitter a couple months ago and never really understood it. Now I think it's a great way to read the news. I follow print journalists I like, and their articles get posted immediately. I'm able to read The Times and Mother Jones, etc. etc. In terms of Ellen's Twitter, it's just fucking hysterical. I don't know! It is who she is in many ways. Having worked with her, I know when she's being somewhat playful. I also know when she's disturbed about things that are going on. But as a human being, she's got a certain tough exterior, but at the same time she wears her heart on her sleeve. It's sort of a great insight. She's also maybe the wittiest person I've ever met. It's funny to see some of these tweets. I just saw that she was on CBS's The Talk, and she took a picture that they have backstage, and it says, "Please tweet about The Talk." Then it said, "@cbs" or whatever. So she tweeted, "Don't tell me what to do, motherfuckers!" It's pure, unbridled, unfiltered genius.

Another Happy Day opens in New York and L.A. November 18.

Follow Louis Virtel on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.


  • Really? says:

    You really never asked him about living with Ellen Barking? Really?

  • Morgo says:

    hmm oh dear way less interested in seeing another happy day now

  • The WInchester says:

    Interesting... at first glance at the red-band preview, I criticized the actors' constant use of "Fuck", likening it to John Travolta's overuse of it in Pelham 1 2 3 and From Paris With Love (where he used it all the time, like he was 6 years old and just discovered the word).
    But having read this interview, I have to draw the conclusion that all the "Fucks" were in there during the oh-so difficult process of fucking writing, and this fuckin kid needs to broaden his fuckin vocabulary.

  • I love what you guys are up too. This sort of clever work and coverage!
    Keep up the fantastic works guys I've added you guys to my personal