At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, first-time director Chandler Levack’s I Like Movies tells the story of Lawrence, a teenager from early-2000s Ontario who gets a job at Blockbuster in an effort to afford NYU film school. It captures the experience of being a teenage film nerd waiting for their life to start so they can go off and become the next Paul Thomas Anderson already — to say nothing of its glimpse at the video store rental culture’s last dying gasp. We had a chance to sit down and discuss what Blockbuster means to her, the role of class and gender in the world of film, and what it was like seeing her directorial debut come to fruition.
Audrey Fox: I read that you based a lot of the film on some of your experiences working at Blockbuster when you were a teenager, and it occurred to me that we’re, and the characters in the movie are, sort of the last generation to have that full video rental store experience. And I wanted to ask you how you think that impacted your development as somebody interested in film and your relationship with film?
Chandler Levack: It is interesting how it’s so seismically changed and how there’s a whole generation growing up now that will never be inside of a video store. And there’s something about the way that when you touch analog forms of media, and you have this like… I think it makes your emotional relationship to film as an object or an experience so much richer.
Because you have to pick the movie, you have to take care of it for the weekend, and you can only pick one, and which one are you going to decide to get? I find on Netflix… I feel like I just see the same 10 movies presented to me over and over again in my algorithm, whereas at Blockbuster, be constantly getting introduced to films that I would’ve never seen or known otherwise. And just even the images of certain movies on the shelf are just burned into my brain. [laughter]
I also think that our generation just had to work so much harder to find out about stuff and learn about media. Even with music, I remember I was obsessed with The Strokes in high school, and then I read an interview with them and found out that they liked the Velvet Underground on television and then had to go to the library and check those CDs out and burn them to my family computer. And it was just a lot of work to find out about media and culture.
Whereas, now you could just literally look it up on a Spotify playlist and have access to everything. But I think having to find out about media that way, it did make my relationships to those things so much deeper because you had to actually spend money on them, or go to the movie theater to watch a film, or when you bought a DVD, you were gonna own that thing for the rest of your life.
AF: 100%. I feel even like you were saying about just seeing the movies on the shelf, I know when I was a kid, just the casual wandering past movies in Blockbuster. Even if I was just going to the kids’ section, I feel like I saw so many other types of movies, I remember I was terrified of certain horror movie covers, they scared me so much. So yeah, that emotional response, it’s real stuff.
CL: Yeah, me too. I remember someone at a sleepover just described the plot of The Exorcist to me, and then, it was enough to make me scared of the movie for like three weeks. And I would see it in the video store, and I would actually have to shield my eyes from it, ’cause I felt like that DVD had just an evil power over me. [laughter]
AF: Oh, my God, it’s so true. I was thinking about the way that you depict the video rental store, and it made me feel like you maybe had some interesting stories from when you worked there. Do you have a most memorable moment of your time at Blockbuster?
CL: It was definitely at the height of when Blockbuster was really about selling stuff. So I remember having to just walk around the floor of Blockbuster and try to get people to buy memberships, or “Get three movies, and you can rent an old release for only 99 cents. And you get two popcorns.” All these weird package deals that made no sense.
And almost everyone would be like, “No, I’m good.” But then if you didn’t sell things, then you were like a bad employee and stuff. And I just wanted to talk about movies. Some highlights were, I remember one person accidentally put a porn DVD in their kids’ movie when they returned it, and I had to call them and be like, “I’m so sorry, but you have MILFS 4 in your copy of Veggie Tales, and if you want to pick that up, I’ll leave it on the counter for you.” [laughter]
Or, like, I would feel such a thrill if I got someone to rent a movie that I loved. I’d be like, “You have to watch Lost In Translation, it’s the best movie ever. I promise you’re going to love it.” And they’re like, “Okay, well, I just kind of want to watch Mr. Deeds.” And then I’d sort of convince them. And then they came back and were like, “Hey, that movie was really good.” I would feel so special.
AF: There’s a lot of film buff adjacent characters in the movie. Lawrence, obviously, but also his friends, and the girl at school, and Alana, to a certain extent, with her involvement in the industry. When you were writing those characters, which of them did you see yourself most in, if you did at all? Or if there were certain elements of them you saw yourself in?
CL: Yeah, I think I saw myself in all of them, really. I think… Lawrence is both really close to me, and then also just kind of this weird creature that came out of my head. And then Alana, I think the more drafts I wrote of the script, the more I feel like I got to know her and the more I started to channel my own experiences with past trauma into her.
And so I feel like the film’s a bit of an exercise where it’s my 16-year-old self talking to my 35-year-old self now and asking these questions of, “Is this the way you thought your life was going to turn out? Are you happy?” And also, what have you learned as an adult that you’d want to tell your high school self, and how can you see the person that you were and both feel pity for them but also really love them and want to protect them and make sure that they’re okay.
So I feel like that relationship, which is really the heart of the film, is sort of myself split in two. But also the mother is… I hope my mom doesn’t… She’s already like, “When can I watch it?” and “How much is based on me?” and stuff. It’s a very different character, but there are certain things that she’s told me over the years, or things that happen with us, or arguments we had, or speeches she’s told me like 95 times that I couldn’t help but put into the script. Just because my mom’s voice is so close and always in my head, you know?
AF: How important was it for you to have Alana challenge Lawrence’s rose-colored glasses about the film industry?
CL: Really, really vital, because I think we’ve seen this kind of coming-of-age movie about a young boy who’s an artist and he’s stuck in his small town, and he dreams of making it big. And there’s some unattainable, older woman that he loves, and she helps him usher him into maturity. I feel if this movie was made by a man, Lawrence would lose his virginity to Alana in the back room of the video store. Or she would take him to the prom or something.
And I didn’t want to do any of those things because I’ve been watching those movies my whole life and reading myself into the main character. And the female characters in those movies are always either these empty vessels or muses, or they don’t have an interior life. And they certainly don’t call that young boy out on his entitlement and privilege and delusion. They’re only there to fuel his fantasies and make him feel special. And I think those movies can actually be really dangerous because women both have to watch them and not see themselves in them, but also men then feel like all of culture is intended to just fuel their own fantasies. And I think that’s really dangerous.
So I kind of wanted to make a movie where that woman goes, “hey, actually, you’re not a good person, and you need to change.” And then maybe the parallel relationship of the other woman in his class who’s making films, Lauren P, who’s actually talented and has a voice and is doing the actual work instead of talking about it. That was important for me, too, to make a less talented boy who just wants to talk about movies all day actually realize that he’s maybe not that great.
AF: I feel like in a lot of movies like that, there’s this idea where, if I like something, I deserve to have it, I deserve to excel at it. And everyone who surrounds me should be supporting my dream. And yeah, that’s nice. But I appreciated this interpretation of it.
CL: I think also it’s very clear that she’s unraveling at the same time that he is, and they’re triggering each other too. So I also wanted to make it very clear that even when she’s calling him out, she’s certainly guilty and responsible and culpable for all the same things. And there’s something about their dynamic where they’re kind of mirror images of each other in some way.
AF: I was thinking about how the film deals with class. Obviously, the big one is [Lawrence’s dream to go to] NYU is really, really expensive, and not everybody can afford that, but I feel like class and access to the arts pops up throughout the film in a lot of different ways.
CL: In so many teen movies, class is just never an issue. Right? They always live in these palatial suburban homes and if there’s any conflict, it’s not really foregrounded. And it wasn’t really, even until I saw a movie like Ladybird, where you realize how much class… It certainly is central to American culture, but also Canadian culture too, and North American culture in general. And it’s just obviously one of the most foregrounded issues, all movies are about class in some way, even if it’s not addressed. And yeah, I wanted to make it really clear that not only is Lawrence’s dream of going to NYU unrealistic, it’s not a possibility.
And it’s like, he’s sort of holding onto it, almost to want to be something other than he is, and transcend his station in life or this thing that’s happened in his past. And it’s like escapism, and yeah, I think he gets a job, and he thinks that maybe getting a job is enough to solve the problem. And it’s abundantly clear that it’s just not going to be possible for him.
And I think that class should be more worked into these kinds of content. I’m really tired of watching all of these teen movies where they live in comfortable middle-class existences, and there’s no tension, and their parents are completely understanding, and they don’t have lives of their own, and they’re just there to kind of wear sweaters and give their kids a nice family meal. It’s certainly not the way that I think anyone’s experience has ever been, and I’d like to see it more reflected in teen movies.
AF: So now that you’ve done this film, what advice would you give, and it could be practical or emotional, to a female director who’s about to start making her first feature film? Whatever you think you would’ve wanted to know that you didn’t, and now that you’ve done it, you’re like, “I wish I had known that before.”
CL: I guess I would say, for me, I think I felt so much pressure just that my first film was going to have to be perfect. And really what it’s about is just making something, making your first thing that sort of sounds and feels like you. Your career’s not really going to move forward unless you start making things because I think I spent a really long time in this suspended animation of being like, oh, I really wanna make movies, kind of like Lawrence, but not actually doing anything about it, and reconciling the fact that if you want something, you have to go out and get it.
And I think you could spend years of your life trying to navigate a Hollywood system and waiting for that million-dollar green light, and it may never come, but if you make something really small with your friends and a small group of close collaborators, it doesn’t have to cost a million dollars, it doesn’t have to have celebrities in it, and you can invent new celebrities. It’s just about getting your voice out there and making something.
And even if it’s flawed, if there’s like a couple of really great scenes in it or a moment that feels like you, you’re still leaps and bounds above where you would be if you were just talking about how you want to make a film. And obviously, it’s going to be extremely hard. Making this movie is 100% the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It took half of my thirties to do, I broke my leg like two weeks after the production. We shot it during the third wave of the pandemic, and none of it was how I expected I was going to go in and make my first feature. And I was really lucky to have producers, especially my lead producer, Lindsay Goeldner, who were constantly, no matter what was happening, they were like, “Okay, well, yes, you just lost your lead actor, and we’re supposed to shoot him for the next two weeks, but, what are we going to do next? How are we going to move forward?” You have to constantly be just going, “Okay, this movie doesn’t get made unless I now recast the actor,” “Okay. Unless I now call 17 sub shops across Ontario and find somewhere we can shoot tomorrow.”
And it’s so hard to pivot and just constantly move forward. But if you don’t, it’ll shut down. There are these inner organic things that are like quicksand, and they’ll just drag you down if you don’t make a snap decision and always keep moving forward. And it’s worth it in the end because you have your first piece of art, and yeah, I guess I just say, don’t give up and don’t be afraid to make things. It’s very vulnerable and terrifying. I’m super terrified to put this out there, but I’m really grateful that I did it. I think I learned so much as a filmmaker just from the act of doing something and it’s not hopefully going to be the last movie I ever make forever. You know, it’s just the start of something.