Shawn Levy is what happens when someone who has never forgotten what it means to be a boy becomes a dad.
The director of Real Steel, the Night at the Museum movies, and the new bittersweet family comedy This Is Where I Leave You (in theaters now), is an undeniable family guy. The father of four girls, he’s known for making movies about households run amok (2003’s Cheaper By the Dozen) and parents who desperately want an evening away (2010’s Date Night,) as well as fathers who redeem themselves in their kids’ eyes with the help of boxing robots or magical museums.
At 46, he looks like he should still be carded when buying a six-pack, and he has the irrepressible energy of a teenager who hasn’t yet hit the surly stage.
Having built a career on high-concept visual effects movies and straight-up comedies, the filmmaker has been yearning to do something a little more grown-up. That brought him to This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel about quarreling siblings (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver) who are all drawn back home after a family death. Their pushy mother (Jane Fonda) wants them not only to bury their father, but a few hatchets as well.
Here’s what Levy (pictured at far right in the photo above) had to say about growing up as a filmmaker …
Entertainment Weekly: How long have you wanted to make something like This Is Where I Leave You, which is about a family, but aimed at older moviegoers?
Shawn Levy: I feel like I waited a long time to make the kind of movie I assumed I’d be making out of the gate. I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t ready to make it 10 movies ago. It’s gratifying to finally get to do the thing you were always dying to do.
There seems to be a pattern in your filmmaking …
It’s always about family. Some of my other movies, they Trojan-horsed the family subject matter into a movie that looks like it’s madcap, like Date Night, or just about boxing robots or museums come to life. But it’s always about family. Fathers, mothers, kids … To finally devote all the real estate to the funny, sad stuff that happens to us, it’s very gratifying.
It’s also new ground for people like Tina Fey, and even Jason Bateman to an extent.
Jason, Tina, me, we’ve done a lot of comedies, but this is blessedly low-concept and we’re just playing the tone a lot more naturalistically. There’s no set pieces. There’s no visual effects. It’s just people and relationships and the unearthing of emotional stuff that needs to be taken out into the light.
Bateman plays Judd, whose wife has left him. She’s having an affair with his boss and is possibly pregnant. Judd has lost his job. He’s a mess. Then his father dies. Few experience that kind of event cascade. What makes him relatable?
Judd Altman has had all his bearings obliterated. The irony is that this process of grieving returns him to life. His father’s death ultimately saves him because this shiva ritual forces reconnection with the people who know him best and first and longest.
Why is that so frustrating? Getting back together with your family — even if you basically get along?
That is always hard for all of us in real life. It’s hard spending time with your siblings and your parents because you’re imprisoned in their notion of who you are, which is different than the self you’ve built as a grown up. But those connections can be redemptive. For me, that’s very much what the movie is about. These people who drive Judd the most crazy ultimately save his life.
You have four daughters, so do you have them in mind when making your kid-friendly movies?
I’m making a third and final Night at the Museum movie now [it’s out Dec. 19], but the fun of having multiple kids is my 6-year-old is only now coming to those movies. And she’s obsessed like her sisters were eight years ago with Rexy, Teddy Roosevelt, and Sacajawea and all that. It’s fun to be saddling up with Ben Stiller one last time, because — without giving too much away — it’s really a farewell story. It’s about letting go, your kids going away to college, and the magic that defined you is waning.
Who did you have in mind from your own family while making This Is Where I Leave You?
My wife. It really affected her. We all want our wives to be proud of our work. Serena, she was with me on that Christmas holiday when I read this book five years ago. She was with me when I almost made The Way, Way Back, and one or two other smaller movies. She really knows this has been a long road.
And it’s a detour from the career you’ve already built. So when did that turn happen?
Real Steel was a pivot point for me. I caught a glimmer of how gratifying and maybe suited for a different movie I could be because I’d made a lot of family comedies. Real Steel was about father and sons, and this one is about fathers and sons and brothers and sisters and mothers. It’s been really gratifying not only that I was able to make it finally, but that my wife loves it as much as I do.
What was your own family like as a kid?
[Laughs] I’ll only answer you semi-honestly. [Pause.] I had a rough childhood. There were certain aspects of my childhood that were great, and other parts were real spotty. There were some tough spans of time, in terms of struggles my mom was going through. It was a really dysfunctional upbringing in certain ways, and in other ways – remarkable.
What was remarkable?
My relationship with my siblings. Long after I had reconciled being disappointed by my parents, my siblings carried me through.
What did the family look like?
I have one full-blood sister who is a year and a half younger than I am. But I have five siblings – steps and halves – and I’ve lived with all of them at various points. There’s this line from a David Mamet play where a husband says to his wife regarding her brother: “Why are always cutting him slack? Why do you give him that pass?” And she says ferociously, fiercely: “Because he was there.” For me, in the darkest moments of my childhood and adolescence, my brothers and sisters were there. They bore witness, they lent their support, and they needed my support in return.
That’s what it was! They were there for shared good times, but also shared bad times. I would contend in family bad times are as unifying and bonding as good ones.
Okay, so why are your movies not bursting with cynicism about families?
My view of family is not dark because ultimately I believe familiar relationships can be as close to redemption as we get in life. Brothers and sisters especially. There’s a version of This Is Where I Leave You that I know could have been more about the mother and the kids, or about marriage, but the movie that interested me the most was the love story of the brothers and sister.
It sounds like this film is much closer to you personally than other projects you’ve made.
These Altmans should not be like your family or mine, but something in there should feel like your family or mine. It’s going to be brutal letting this out into the world.
Because you’ve lived with it for so long?
I would love to live in this movie forever. When you send your kid to school, it’s agony because you love her to death but you don’t know how the world is going to treat her. This movie, I love it to death, but I don’t know how the world is going to treat it. You go through that with every movie, but I’m going to go through it in a unique way on this one.