Director Sam Levinson breaks down the Malcolm & Marie scene that nearly broke him
After several failed attempts, the drama's tense first scene came in just under the wire.
Sam Levinson had a clear plan for the opening scene of Malcolm & Marie, in which the title characters — played by John David Washington and Zendaya — return home from a glitzy Hollywood after-party celebrating the premiere of director Malcolm's new movie. Shooting on 35mm film, every movement "would be motivated," Levinson tells EW. No second left unorchestrated. And then production started: "We shoot the first day; everything is out of rhythm. Nothing seemed to be working — the blocking, the movement. Something wasn't clicking."
Levinson and his crew left the set that day feeling depressed. The next morning, the filmmaker decided to radically change course: shoot the scene handheld, which is unusual for black-and-white films. "We get to set, I see J.D. and Z, and I go, 'Okay, we're going to throw everything out. We're going to reshoot everything,'" Levinson recalls. A few hours in, after looking over at his cinematographer, Marcell Rév, Levinson again second-guessed himself. "I can tell Marcell is sweating, because he's been carrying this camera the whole day. He lost six pounds just from shooting that day."
Dispirited, Levinson put the brakes on the planned opener and shifted focus to a later moment. While Marie is in the bathroom, a tracking sequence follows Malcolm exploring the house. There, Levinson saw a new beginning. "This is how the whole [opening] scene has got to play out," he remembers thinking. "This is what we've been looking for."
Much to the horror of Washington and the crew, Levinson announced that day 2's handheld footage would be trashed too, in favor of a newly improvised scene. Zendaya gently assured her costar, "This is how he works," later joking with EW that "In Euphoria, it's like 60 billion scenes in one episode." With no blocking, no rehearsal, and an hour until the sun would be coming up, Levinson had a short window to capture the shot — and regain the confidence of his crew.
The scene would start from Malcolm's wandering, and go from there: "I just said, 'J.D., you're in the zone. We'll keep up with you.'" After two disastrous takes, it finally fell into place: a rhythmic introduction to the two lovers as they talk (and walk) around each other, with resentments simmering. Levinson nailed the scene's brilliant capper — wherein Marie abruptly starts preparing a late-night snack — in the moment, midshoot. "I'm watching the film, it's getting [to] 995 feet, 996 feet, and we're right toward the end," he says. "I'm screaming, 'Z, grab the mac and cheese!' She grabs the mac and cheese. Film roll's out. We get the shot."
"It wasn't no editing," Washington says of the sequence. "We did that all in one shot, all the way up till she puts the damn cheese in the pot. That was extremely challenging, nerve-racking. We got that right before light was coming up… It was like it was meant to be. The universe said, 'You guys deserve this take.'"
All's well that ends well in the world of DIY filmmaking. After all, under more traditional circumstances, throwing out two days of footage would have been a tall order. Or, as Levinson concedes, "I literally would have been fired."
Malcolm & Marie is now streaming on Netflix.