LA Film Festival Interview: Richard Levine on Submission
Back in 2010, I lived in New Jersey and was always finding excuses to go into New York City aka The City to see independent films, Broadway plays, attend Film Festivals, etc. I was really big into Film Festivals at this point in my career and while I attended various festivals including Tribeca prior, I was looking for something new. I stumbled across the Gen Arts Film Festival which was a small 7-day festival that featured one film daily as well as an after party each night.
It was at the Gen Arts Film Festival where I was first introduced to the work of director/writer Richard Levine. The Festival hosted the World Premiere of his first feature film, Every Day which starred Liev Schreiber, Helen Hunt, and Carla Gugino. I really enjoyed Levine’s first film so I was excited to sit down and chat with him at the LA Film Festival to discuss his sophomore film called Submission which premiered at the Festival.
Scott Menzel: The first question I always ask, when you get accepted into a film festival, what’s your reaction to that?
Richard Levine: Thrilled. It’s always lovely when people like your film.
I really like the idea of premiering it in LA because I live in LA, and I have a nice community here. I’d heard great things about this festival, so it was really exciting.
Scott Menzel: How did this experience differ from that of the Gen Arts Festival in the New York City for Every Day?
Richard Levine: Well, it’s smaller.
It’s more intimate. That was my first one, so that had a level of, your flying in and other people are flying in. I think the theater that we premiered at had 900 seats. It was a much larger venue.
You know what, last night, even when I went for the tech rehearsal and I saw the movie on that huge Arclight screen with that extraordinary sound system, it was really thrilling. I really couldn’t ask for a better venue to show the film. It was great.
Scott Menzel: What was it about the Blue Angel novel that spoke to you personally and made you want to bring it to life on the big screen?
Richard Levine: That’s a really good question. I’d been introduced to the novel by my older brother who’s a sociology professor at a small college in New Hampshire. He gave it to me thinking, this could make a great film. It really captures the competition within the faculty and really explores this new wave of political correctness in the classroom, which is very challenging for teachers. It really impedes teaching for some. It creates a real fictional setup that’s very tricky and problematic. I really like that aspect of the novel.
But, I think what spoke to me in a more visceral way, was the character of Swenson, because he was someone that I really felt invested in. Then I thought, this is an interesting story about a, basically, decent human being who’s very flawed and he’s unconscious about the forces that are motivating his behavior. But he’s a decent guy, and he’s got a good marriage. It’s not a typical midlife crisis in that respect. He’s had a career and things are good. Here’s this guy who, sort of like his dad, sets himself on fire and destroys his life.
My experience reading the book was this stomach churning experience. It’s like a train wreck and almost like a train wreck in slow motion. It was sort of both gripping and so anxiety producing. I thought, “Oh, this could be great to try to replicate that visceral experience cinematically.” I read a review of the book, at one time, and it described the book as like a slow peeling off of a Band-Aid. I thought that was such a great image. I liked it. I like this notion of creative envy being, in a way, the source of Swenson’s obsession on this girl, with this girl. It wasn’t just a matter of middle-aged guy, hungry for this young, beautiful girl. It really was something much more complicated than that. I know something about creative envy, and I think that’s a really fresh angle that I found quite compelling about the story.
Scott Menzel: I thought the movie was really well done. It really keeps your interests, pretty much, the whole way through. Especially, towards the midway, where things start going awry. You’re wondering where is this going and how things are going to unfold. Just the little tidbits of information that you pop up along the way. Like, wait a minute, how’d you know this? Wait a minute, it sounds very close and similar to my life and things that happened to me. I love how you didn’t fully, explain that because I hate when movies do that. When they’re like, “Oh, and this is how this happened, and this is how this happened.” You, kind of, hint upon it.
Richard Levine: Good. Good. I love hearing that.
Scott Menzel: How did you go about getting the actors involved? I mean you really, I mean, you got a great cast.
Richard Levine: I had a killer cast.
Scott Menzel: You definitely had a killer cast. What I thought was interesting about that is you have two very known actors, Stanley Tucci and Kyra Sedgwick. But Addison’s terrific, but she’s a very indie girl. She’s cast in a lot of little movies. What was the casting process like? Was it, “We’re going to get the two big names and then all the other people were smaller, independent actors?”
Richard Levine: Obviously, Stan was the linchpin. Once he signed on, then, became the process of the wife. I think, Kyra read it and loved it and we Skyped. What I loved about Kyra and what was important to me, in terms of looking for an actress for the wife, was that it was really essential that the audience did not feel that it was a bad marriage. That they felt like, oh, she is fabulous. Juicy. Vibrant. Funny. Warm. All those qualities Kyra had.
So finding Kyra was great. Finding the right Angela was so crucial because, and a lot of women would come in, and they gave it away. They just telegraphed or you knew this was a bad girl. I, really, didn’t want to telegraph that. I really wanted the audience to have to keep regaining their balance. Like, is she legit? I wanted that mystery. Addison, I never even met Addison when I cast her. We had two Skype sessions, and I never imagined I would cast a lead on a movie from Skype. She so blew me away. She had this enigmatic quality, lovely voice, really a luring voice, and, then, she had danger when she needed it. She had this great balance between utter sincerity and being very genuine and, then, just danger. I really knew that would be satisfying. Stanley had to sign off. I wanted to make sure that he felt this was the one, which he did. I lucked out. I was really, really excited because you cast it wrong, you’re screwed.
Scott Menzel: Right. Kind of going off that. Stanley, obviously, is the linchpin. Was he the first person who came on board the project?
Richard Levine: Yeah. Well, besides the producer.
I had Jared and Wren. Wren partners with Stan, in terms of Olive Productions. She’s his business partner. First, I teamed with them, and, then, Stan came aboard.
Scott Menzel: Gotcha. Ok, there are a couple of interesting scenes in this movie, to say the least. You do this great thing where Ted (Stanley Tucci’s character) becomes fascinated with this girls story. He really doesn’t really want to read it at first because he doesn’t want to read this young adult nonsense. Then, he becomes fascinated. He gets sucked in. Then, you have this interaction with him and Janeane Garofalo’s character, where she’s, like, “Have you read her work? It’s really crappy. It’s very obscene.” Ted is like shocked by the negative reaction.
Richard Levine: Right.
Scott Menzel: Then, in a later scene, Angela (Addison Timlin) gets picked on for now bringing her work to class by the other students. After several students attack her for criticizing their work but not being able to read her work, Angela brings some of her chapters to class. The students all agree it was some of the worst storytelling that they ever read which upsets Ted and makes him stand up for Angela. Is that scene from the book? Or was that you, trying to show how much Ted valued and loved Angela’s writing?
Richard Levine: That was very much from the book. I’ll tell you, it’s so interesting that you ask that because what Stan brought to it, which actually heightened what was in the book and sort of made me see it with fresh eyes, was he really had a true passion for her as an artist. That changed an element in the movie, I think, very much for the better.
Because that made, here he is having writer’s block. Here he is feeling like he’s just totally stuck. He’s at this college, this provincial college, where people aren’t talented. People aren’t sophisticated. Here is this artist. This young, untrained artist. It’s really funny because he valued her writing, I think, in making the movie and the voiceover that plays and that you see him resonating with the audience also could buy that she is really legitimate. When he says in that dinner scene with Sherrie, “You know, I know it’s crazy but it was her book that attracted me.” It’s true. It’s crazy. He’s somewhat dense about his own psychology, but I think for him that is really true.
Scott Menzel: Speaking of that book, throughout the movie, there were hints that we were talking about earlier, where it seems like a lot of the book is being directed, specifically, towards Ted. It is based on things that he connects with and he’s familiar with. Kind of goes after his passion for writing. He becomes attracted to her because she’s so intelligent, and has this natural knack for writing. But, at the same time, I think he starts getting more intimately connected with her because of the fact that the book becomes very sexually explicit. Was that a thing that was made up by Angela’s character? Was she was purposely writing the book so that it was more attractive to him and no one else? Is that part of it? Where she wanted him to buy into it so that she could finish the book? Ultimately, what I’m asking is as the movie we’re watching is unfolding, is that ultimately what the book is about?
Richard Levine: That is such a good question …
I’ve thought about it. It’s part of the enigma of Angela’s character because we would go through the script and have to mark, okay, what do you know here? When do you make a chess move? So we could really be specific about these trading points. We didn’t do it, in terms of her actual writing of the novel, but it’s a really interesting question. Like the chapter where she describes the affair in just the most odious terminology. Well, first, she comes in and says I was up all night. It was so intimate. Basically, did you get sexually excited reading it? I think the answer is yes. I think that she was smart enough to be writing in real-time and sucking in his reaction. Or sucking in, writing to provoke a certain reaction, and, then, she’d write about it. That is, my answer would be yes.
Scott Menzel: Okay. The film also dabbles on something that you brought up earlier, a lot of sexual tension. A big topic over the last five or 10 years, is the whole student-teacher relationship in the news. In the film, it initially doesn’t seem like that’s the direction the story is going, but, when it does, I can’t say it was too surprising because you started to get the feeling along the way. I felt like you handled it very delicately. How important do you think it is to have subject matters like this, where it actually showcases that it’s not always the teacher in the wrong for sleeping with a minor because, in this film, they’re both adults. How important do you think it is to have this topic be unfolded, where it’s actually, she is an adult, and she made the conscious decision to go along with it even though the story changes later.
Richard Levine: I think it’s a somewhat dangerous story to tell because I think with sexual harassment being such a highly charged issue now. This is one story about specific characters. It’s not meant to represent all victims of sexual harassment or perpetrators of sexual harassment, but it happens. It happens that not all accusers are created equal.
The thing that is important to me, is less the fact that Angela connived and manipulated. Because even, regardless, this was interesting during the Q and A last night. Some people, we were talking about Swenson’s defense of himself at the trial, and some people were, like, I wanted the catharsis of him reaming her for the lies and the manipulation. But my feeling is, he did the deed. He was guilty.
I think for him to try to excuse it would have made him very small. I think it was, actually, an element of growth for him. He let them know the truth has been twisted, but it doesn’t exonerate him. I think, regardless of her being devious, he crossed the line. He was punished.
Scott Menzel: As a final question, what do you hope audiences take away from this movie? And, how would you personally pitch this movie to someone, if you were trying to pitch it to an audience member?
Richard Levine: I want them to be entertained. There’s an intimacy to the movie that, I think is, that I hope is, somewhat, transporting while you’re watching it. I love that element of intimacy. I also feel like it’s complicated. To me, there are so many movies out there that aren’t. I think it’s thought-provoking. I think it’s an uncomfortable story to tell. I like that, even in the screenings we’ve had leading up to this, it has provoked conversation. I think that’s of tremendous value. If I were pitching it to someone, I think I would say it’s about a decent but flawed guy, who is unaware of his own inner-life and psychology. Due to this lack of awareness, he really fucks up his own life.
Scott Menzel: Sounds like a perfect pitch to me.
Richard Levine: Thank you!
Scott Menzel: Well, it was a pleasure meeting you and best of luck with this film and I hope it goes on to play at other festivals and get distribution.
Richard Levine: Thank you for your time and it was nice meeting you.