'5 to 7' Director Victor Levin Talks Romance, Regret, and Making a Passionate Film

'5 to 7' Director Victor Levin Talks Romance, Regret, and Making a Passionate Film
5 to 7 is the feature film directorial debut for Victor Levin, who is no stranger to Hollywood having written and produced multiple television shows over the course of his career. The film follows a romance between two people, Brian(Anton Yelchin) and Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), who fall deeply in love. The only problem is that Arielle is in an open relationship with her husband and can only see Brian between the hours of 5 and 7. Shakefire sat down with Levin to discuss the film, his career, and questioning the choices we've made in our lives. 
Shakefire (SF): This is your directorial debut for a feature film, but you’re quite experienced with television and writing. Was this always a project you wanted to do or was this the natural evolution of your career?
Victor Levin (VL): This was always a project I wanted to do. I’ve always loved independent film, and I’ve always wanted to write and direct my own independent film, but it’s hard. It takes a long time. First of all you have to come up with a really good script that attracts people. Then you have to actually attract people. You got to get actors who are muscular enough, business-wise, to get you investment money. Then you gotta get the investment money. Then you gotta make sure everybody’s schedule can work. Then you gotta actually figure out a way to produce the film. You know, so it’s not easy. And in my case it took a long, long time, but it was always the goal.
SF: How did the film evolve over the years?
VL: The first draft was written in 2007, and my agents at WME gave it to Julie Lynn who read it and said she wanted to produce it. She had not yet at that time partnered with Bonnie Curtis and Mockingbird Pictures. She was alone at Mockingbird. Bonnie would come along a couple of years later. When Julie read it, she had a couple a thoughts; more than a couple. She’s a very literary producer, by which I mean she’s extremely concerned with story and character. It isn’t just concept; it isn’t just comedy. Even when she loves something she will take a really careful look at every page. So we worked together from March until October. In October we had what we called the distribution draft, which was what we sent out to actors.
I would say the biggest evolution was the reason that Arielle does not stay with him. That was a tricky one because I think you have to really be a parent to understand why you wouldn’t leave your children no matter how in love you are. That was the biggest issue. Why doesn’t she go with him if she feels this strongly about him. And given that she can’t go with him, because I felt strongly that it just wouldn’t work out in the real world in that happily ever after way that romantic stories tend to work out in Hollywood, given that she wouldn’t end up with him, what was the version of the bittersweet ending that would provide satisfaction for the audience? That might sound like a relatively small thing, but it took me a while. I found it to be tricky. When we finally settled on the idea that she simply would not have been happy being away from her children, that the guilt would have overwhelmed whatever happened as she might have been feeling during the relationship, then everything kinda fell into place.
SF: I’m curious to know why Brian didn’t end up with Jane. That felt like what the film was working towards, but that didn’t happen. Was that ever thought about?
VL: I was hoping you would ask that question, not you the interviewer, but you the audience. I wanted you to see that the person who it makes the most sense to be with is not always the person you’re with. I mean here they are. They’re pretty much the same age. Culturally they’re compatible. Intellectually they’re compatible. Emotionally they’re compatible. They’re both attractive people with good hearts. There is no reason on paper why they wouldn’t be together, and that’s exactly why they can’t be together, because life is messy and love is messy and you don’t always wind up with the right person according to the ledgers. Sometimes your heart takes you in a different direction even if the sensible thing is right there in front of you, you can’t reach for it because it just didn’t enter your life under that banner. It entered, in their case, under the banner of friendship and there it stayed. He was completely consumed by love for someone else and I don’t think a person under those conditions is really even considering anyone else on earth, even if she’s the perfect person for them. I wanted you to wonder. That was on purpose. And all those scenes where she’s driving in the taxi with him or comes to see him after the breakup, I wanted you to think, “Maybe now they’ll get together.” But it’s not false tension. It’s mostly just a signal for me that I know this is what most movies would give you, and I can’t give it to you.
SF: Speaking of the taxi, one quote that stood out was from Jane saying, “If you want to be a good writer, you can’t live a mediocre life.” I’m curious to know how your life experiences have influenced your writing?
VL: I don’t know how anyone else works, but I always start with theme. That’s the most important thing to me, not message, because I don’t have a message. I don’t considered myself qualified enough to give a message in a movie. But theme; what are the questions that I presume to think are worth asking the audience to ponder? In this case, the question was what do you do with regret? What do you do with memory? And what do you do with something that’s not quite regret but is at least a question mark from your past? Did I go through the right door? Did I make the right decision? Should I have gone through another door? Should I have thought twice? You know?
There’s nothing specific in my life that that relates to, but it’s a general sense. There are a thousand things that I wonder about having to do with every part of your life, professional, personal, athletic. I mean I can’t even begin to list them all. I don’t understand how anybody says, “I have no regrets” or “I don’t wonder about any decision I’ve ever made.” To me, that’s nonsense. How can you be a human being wandering around in the world, trying not to get yourself killed or do harm, experiencing new things all the time and wandering into situations where you really don’t know the rules without making a mistake here or there or thinking, “Maybe I made a mistake here and there.” It’s impossible as far as I can tell.
That sense, which I have always carried around, that we can’t really be sure that every decision we made was the right one, and it’s impossible not to wonder what would have happened if we made another one. That general sense, not confined by any means to romance, but that general sense was what I felt was worthy of writing a story about. What is the value of memory? What do we do with it? Is it alive or does it just lay there like a lump in the past? Does it have value? Does it inform what we do now even if we didn’t reach any conclusions about what happened in the past? Is it just baggage or does it have some worth? I thought those were good questions. They’re questions I ask myself in my own life, and I think they’re questions that every thoughtful person asks.
SF: The film has a lot of wide, uninterrupted shots and not too many close ups. I thought it was a great stylistic choice.
VL: I’m a big fan of making an attractive master - that’s what we call the wider shots that contain all the action in the scene - and then letting the actors and the words and the actions do the work. You can’t do it in every scene, but you can do it more than you think. I don’t believe in slamming in for close ups and directing the audience’s attention. And I don’t believe in finding the comic timing in editing. I would rather the actual human beings find the comic timing. I think human beings are funnier than machines. Every time I cut when I don’t have to I’m reminding you that we’re watching a movie as opposed to leaving that one image up there and saying, “Here’s a window into a story. Would you like to watch?”
You’re an intelligent audience. You can decide where to look. In the champagne scene, for example, you can look at Arielle or you can look at Brian. Or you can look at the room. Now Arnaud Potier, the director of photography, is extremely gifted. He’s very much fond of this philosophy. He doesn’t do it in all of his work, but he certainly is really good at making frame, at preserving composition, even if he has to move the camera a little. For example, in the champagne scene again he has to slide over just a bit to accommodate both parties in a way that’s pleasing to the eye. He does it very subtly and slowly. He doesn’t make a rapid adjustment, which might have necessitated a cut. He just eases over. He gets there in plenty of time, but he doesn’t rush.
So you have to really be on the same page with your DP, or it starts being very self-conscience. The minute the audience is noticing it in a bad way you’ve defeated your own purpose which is to not be visible as a director. I want you to forget that I’m there. I just want you to enjoy and watch. If you notice me and my fancy camera moves then I’m stealing focus from the story and the characters. I think it’s an artistic error
We didn’t cover many of those scenes in close ups because I knew that’s how I wanted them to be in the film. The actors knew that this was going to play, as we say, in one. They knew that they had to deliver not just a hunk of the scene but the entire scene in order for it to be usable. That includes everything from the first action to the last action. It’s not enough to say all of your line perfectly if your exit isn’t exactly where it should be, because there isn’t going to be a cut anywhere. It does ask a lot of the actors, but I think they enjoy it because they have the ball. The stars are really treated like stars. “Here I am. I’m going to perform this scene, and I know what it is. It’s not going to turn into something else in editing.”
SF: It also gives a more realistic feel to it because you get their whole body and their entire movements and reactions. It feels much more real.
VL: I think that’s true. The costumes, the backgrounds, the light; all of these things are hopefully pleasing to the eye, and I’m in no hurry to rush off them.
SF: Did you end up having to do a lot of takes with these long scenes?
VL: I wouldn’t say a lot. Our actors were extremely well prepared as you can imagine. This style requires either extremely well prepared actors or actors who are able to on the spot put a sentence together that is in the same rhythm and means the same thing with the line that was written. Those are both significant skills to be either 100% off book and really solid on lines or to be able to make those lines your own in a way that works for the scene without having to pause to formulate something in your head. Because we don’t as humans. We just speak, mostly. They were great. We rehearsed. Especially Bérénice Marlohe, who was speaking in her third language. I considered it a heroic effort on her part. I’ve never seen anyone better than her. If you have actors like that you can do it, and I think they enjoy it.
SF: How did you land on getting Bérénice Marlohe and Anton Yelchin for the roles?
VL: Well I saw Anton’s movie Like Crazy, which he made in 2011 with the wonderful Felicity Jones, and I just loved it. I thought his performance was thematic and funny and real to the last detail. So I called Julie from the car on the way home from the Landmark in West Los Angeles and said, “Could we approach Anton?” and she said, “Yeah, I think we can.” He’s been Chekov in the Star Trek movies. He’s got a very big body of work for such a young man, and I think he’s one of the best guys working right now. I really do. I’m so impressed with his authenticity. He never feels false. That comes from hard work and a real curiosity about the character.They both are lovely people. If you feel in the movie that you’re watching very good souls I can tell you that that is who they are as actual humans.
SF: They definitely have great chemistry together.
VL: It is difficult to find, and it is also a representative of their commitment because you have to understand as an actor that screen chemistry in a movie like this is hugely important and then you have to know that apart from what the director is telling us it’s our obligation to hang out, to like each other, and become friends so that the warm between us has that extra layer of authenticity. And Bérénice is exactly the person you see on screen, not that she’s not acting, she is. She give a very nuance performance, but she is as warm as Arielle. She is as compassionate and caring as Arielle. So it was a fairly easy thing for these two excellent people to get to know each other and to become friends. If they have screen chemistry that’s a major part why. You can’t just ask two actors to suddenly start making out and expect that it’s going to look and feel perfect. There’s got to be a human element to it, and as a director, you can’t say, “I need a human element here.” That’s not a note. It’s on them to understand that and to extend themselves to one another and to build that relationship, both because that’s the decent thing to do as a person in society and because they know that it makes a big difference in what’s on the screen.
SF: Regarding the romance. You don’t actually see many love scenes. Most of the romance is before or after, but you can definitely see the passion there.
VL: I won’t say always, but most of the time I think when it comes to sex in movies, from my tastes I like to imply as much as I can without showing. I like the element of mystery and grace. I want the eroticism to be there, but I think what audiences process in their imagination is usually superior to anything you can actually shoot. I find very often love scenes in movies don’t live up to what I would have hoped, haha. It’s just two beautiful people and they seem to be really in love and then you watch the love scene and you go, “alright.” I didn’t want that to happen in this movie. I wanted to give you a little bit. I wanted to give you a scent of it, but I wanted you to connect the dots yourself.
Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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