Levity : Production Notes

It's always gratifying to a filmmaker when others share his dream. .. and in attempting to bring his original screenplay of Levity to the screen, Ed Solomon discovered that many other talented people, both in front of and behind the camera, were willing to take a risk on a smaller non-Hollywood film.

Executive producer Lori McCreary, who's partnered with Morgan Freeman in Revelations Entertainment, knew Solomon long before she had the opportunity to discover his script for Levity: "I've known Ed for quite a few years," she notes, "because we went to UCLA at the same time. Some years back, Ed brought us the script, in particular for Morgan to play a role. We really liked it, and about a year ago Ed brought it back to us saying that he was ready to go out with it. "

McCreary had been impressed over the years with Solomon's considerable accomplishments as a screenwriter, and the tenacity with which he clung onto the desire to bring Levity to the screen. "It's a labor of love for Ed," she says, "that he's been carrying around for years, and wouldn't stop until he made it happen. "

"Ed wrote a wonderful script," declares producer Richard N. Gladstein. "Although he's a first-time director, he's written a lot of scripts and he's had great success in the film business. I think Ed was very smart to wait a long time before deciding to direct a film. I'm sure he had opportunities earlier, but he waited until he had a story that he really wanted to tell, and until he had the right actors.

"It's a very personal film for Ed," Gladstein continues, "in that it's a single person's vision unlike some Hollywood films in which a studio buys an idea and then hires a succession of 16 writers. Ed wrote the script, which is his own, original idea. He's the director. It's very much his movie. "

"I would certainly consider it a hopeful film, one which takes place in a universe where forgiveness and redemption are possible. I think it has a central character that you don't see in Hollywood films. Manual is someone who has made a terrible mistake, who is grieving, who doesn't believe in God yet anticipates a kind of divine punishment for his actions. I wanted this movie to live in that uneasy space between the secular and the spiritual. As the character Miles (Morgan Freeman) asks Manual: "Why be afraid of a God you don't believe in?" I wanted the boundaries within the film to be at least as unclear as they seem to me in my real life. "

Solomon himself is no stranger to massive commercial success as the screenwriter of such megahits as Men in Black, and the two Bill & Ted films. "Levity is certainly different from those films," notes Solomon, "but in most ways it's actually closer to reflecting who I am as a person. It's just harder to get these more personal films made. But Levity is something that I fought for, for years, hoping that others would be willing to take a chance not just on the project, but also on me as a first-time director. "

Billy Bob Thornton had absolutely no reluctance to "take a chance" on the first-time director. "I've had good experiences with young directors, like Marc Forster, who made Monster's Ball," Thornton notes. "I think that Levity can be a very powerful independent film, and much of the reason is that Ed’s so passionate about it. I tend to play a lot of characters who have more going on inside than they appear to, and I also seem to play loners and outsiders. What I liked about Manual Jordan is that he’s obsessed with getting forgiveness, yet he doesn’t know if it’s possible to find redemption.

Thornton was drawn to the power and mysteriousness of Manual Jordan, and even felt a kinship to the character's sense of alienation. "I related to the idea of being someone who doesn't really know how to fit into society, because I feel that way, particularly in the film business. I don't really participate much in the Hollywood world, and I don't know much about it. I work and I stay home. Those are the things I do. When I'm at a film industry party that I have to attend, I don't really know how to behave. I just stand there, unsure of what to do.

Thornton was drawn to the power and mysteriousness of Manual Jordan, and even felt a kinship to the character's sense of alienation. "I related to the idea of being someone who doesn't really know how to fit into society, because I feel that way, particularly in the film business. I don't really participate much in the Hollywood world, and I don't know much about it. I work and I stay home. Those are the things I do. When I'm at a film industry party that I have to attend, I don't really know how to behave. I just stand there, unsure of what to do.

"So in that sense," Thornton continues, "I feel like Manual, just walking around the streets, not knowing exactly where to go or what to do. I feel a little bit lost in those circumstances, just like he does. "

"What makes Billy Bob unique," notes Richard Gladstein, "is that he's a leading man who has a chameleon-like quality to reinvent himself for each film. He can do a huge action movie, and then segue right into a small, intimate story like Levity. And he always finds something in his characters that connect to him personally, and where he can live inside the character's skin.

Morgan Freeman, who like Billy Bob Thornton has always combined star magnetism with an extraordinary ability to breathe life into a panoply of diverse characters, was drawn to the role of Miles because of the role's enigmatic qualities. "I like the mystery of Miles," Freeman notes, "because you don't really know who he is. You don't really know what's driving him, or even what he's after. It's a challenge, because an actor must plumb the character, get to know who he is. But if you admit that you don't, that you really are going moment to moment for the character, it makes it all edgy, which is good. "

Holly Hunter concurs with Freeman's attraction to the more enigmatic elements of the script. "I think that one of the things that attracted me most to the script, in general, is a kind of mystery that I think revolves around the character of Adele," she notes, "and the story as a whole. Generally, all questions are answered in most scripts, all things are made very clear. I think that Ed Solomon was very comfortable with inventing a kind of unknown quality about his characters.

"The pedigree of the entire project was attractive to me," Hunter continues. "I thought the script was beautifully and subtly written, and that Ed has a great eye and ear for detail. It's a small story, and Ed was very happy for it to be a small, intimate story. And of course, the idea of being in a film with Billy Bob Thornton and Morgan Freeman drew me in as well, because they are both wonderful actors.

The fourth major star to be drawn into Levity was Kirsten Dunst, who felt that Levity represented another fine opportunity to diversify her talents. "I can barely believe that Kirsten is only 19," says Lori McCreary, "because she has the wisdom of someone much older. " Adds Richard Gladstein, "Kirsten is a great addition to the movie because she adds a young, wild vigor to this story. A lot of young actors get trapped playing high school forever, but Kirsten has moved on to playing young adults in adult movies. "

"I've been so lucky," says Dunst, "because I've been getting some good scripts lately, so it's all about what you do with them. After Spider-Man, I really wanted to do a smaller, independent kind of film, and Ed's script was great. It was the perfect movie for me to do after something so big. It's amazing to be part of this cast. "

Echoing her fellow Levity stars, Dunst was intrigued by the characters' multi-dimensional qualities. "Sofia just kind of floats by through life," Dunst notes of her role. "She doesn't really care. She lives with her nutcase mother, who used to be a singer and is now just a drunk, in a house with no furniture. Sofia just goes and parties every night, and lives a very promiscuous life. She's a lost soul, until Manual shakes some reality into her. What I like is the fact that you know that after the story is over, Sofia still has a tough road ahead of her, that it's not a conventional 'happy ending. ' But it's kind of like she's being awakened into trying to figure things out and work towards some goal, instead of just wasting her life. "

Along with his remarkable group of actors, Ed Solomon was also successful in attracting some of film's most respected artists, including director of photography Roger Deakins, a four-time Academy Award nominee perhaps best known for the six films he's shot for Joel and Ethan Coen. "Levity truly is an independent film that wasn't backed by a studio or financing entity when we put the movie together," notes producer Adam Merims. "Ed always had a vision of Billy Bob Thornton and Morgan Freeman when he wrote the script, and despite the fact that many people said that he would never get them to agree to do it, Ed got both of them to commit to the project on the strength of the script and his passion. And since Billy Bob and Morgan are two of the best and most talented people working today, Ed was able to attract the likes of Holly Hunter and Kirsten Dunst to the movie as well.

"Another big piece of this movie--and I'd call him the fifth star, if you will--is Roger Deakins," adds Merims, "which was a huge coup for a movie of this size. Then, Ed was also able to bring production designer Francois Seguin and costume designer Marie-Sylvie Deveau into the movie, and they're two of the best artists that the Quebec film industry has to offer. And in post we were joined by Pietro Scalia, which was especially exciting for us, because not only had he just won his second Oscar (for editing Black Hawk Down), but he read Ed's script and really got behind the small character driven independent film we were trying to make. "

"I've known Ed for a number of years," notes Deakins, "and we've kept in touch on and off. I really liked the script of Levity, the way the characters are woven together. It's not a direct, straight, driven narrative. It's interesting the way one character relates to another, to tell you about the main character. I like doing smaller films. I think you've actually got more freedom and have to be very focused on what you're doing. Whereas, often on a big picture, it's more sprawling and the cinematographer's job is kind of like organizing a battle, really. You have to kind of hang on to the reins of the thing before it gets away from you. And sometimes, creatively, I don't think you've got as much freedom as on a small film with a smaller crew. "

Also a part of the creative team, the film was scored by Mark Oliver Everett (Eels front man E). Everett was attracted to the story. "I've been asked to (write scores) over the past several years," Everett says. "The Requests come in fairly regularly and it's almost always something I'm not interested in doing because of the movie. But this one I felt like, 'alright, I'm gonna give it a whack. "

"Having these actors and creative artists involved with Levity is like being given a Ferrari for your first car," says Solomon. "When it came to really putting the film together, one of the greatest thrills for me was sitting down with Roger Deakins and developing the visual style for the movie. He has such an evolved way of looking at not just film, but at life. Coming up with shot lists or ideas of how the movie would look, was just amazing. "

Part of that visual design, of course, would be determined by the filmmaker's locations in Montreal, one of the most unique cities on the American continent. In a sense, Montreal belongs to two worlds, as a typical North American big city, but with strong architectural and cultural links to Europe. This was entirely suitable for Levity's amorphous urban setting, in an unnamed "everycity. "

"I never identified the city in the script," says Solomon, "but I had originally written the film to take place during the summer. But when circumstances demanded that we film in Montreal in winter, it gave a whole different look and feel to the story. Montreal in winter is not a city where people are out in the streets walking all the time, so Manual Jordan became a much more isolated character. In the original conception, Manual was isolated amongst crowds of people, but in the final version he's more like a ghost haunting a more desolate city. "

"The story's simple but it needs to be done in bold strokes," declares Roger Deakins. "I'm using less light sources than I normally do, utilizing more direct light than I did on A Beautiful Mind, which had big, soft, naturalistic sources. This is much more directional light, and we're using color a lot more. Sometimes the colors are almost garish, like a scene in which Billy Bob Thornton's Manual is at the phone outside the convenience store. The store is a kind of off-color green, with florescent tubes, and the phone booth has this sort of very warm orange glow to it. We're doing things like that quite a bit, and it's great to go for a sort of surrealistic take. "

In addition to the artists behind-the-camera, the actors also found the location to be inspirational. "It was fantastic working in Montreal," declares Holly Hunter. "There's a certain kind of exoticism about Montreal that is unlike any other city that I've been in. The script had a slight 'other world' quality about it which made it a perfect location. "

While the filmmakers were justifiably concerned that the often brutal Montreal midwinter would make it almost impossible to shoot--there was a considerable amount of night work to be done on Levity--in fact, they found themselves in an unusually temperate season. "It was an odd winter in Montreal," admits producer Adam Merims. "Everybody said, 'It's going to be incredibly cold, you'll never be able to film. ' But it was usually 15 to 20 degrees warmer than usual, and the Montreal crews are great. They're very experienced, and really care about the script. Even the third grip will talk to you about a scene, which is kind of refreshing!" That kind of concern really translates into the film. "

"This is as good of a crew as you'd get anywhere," concurs Roger Deakins. "Montreal has got a lot of variety, so it's been really good for the movie. The only thing we haven't had is enough damn snow! It was a bit like Fargo in a way. .. we were in Minneapolis and there was no snow that year. We had to create it every day, and we did the same thing in Montreal. "

"Who'd have thought that in Montreal in February we would have to create snow," says Ed Solomon. "It's been really strange. There was one day when it was actually 50 degrees warmer than they told us it was going to be. We had to truck in a lot of snow from northern Canada so that we didn't have somebody walking out of a building in a middle of the snow, and then cut to a reverse with them walking on blacktop. "

Ultimately, all parties, both in front of and behind the camera, were satisfied with the entire process. The actors had a mutual admiration society in all directions. "I had great fun working with Billy Bob," says Morgan Freeman. "He likes to try things, he's edgy, he's an emotional gambler. "

"It's amazing to be part of this cast," adds Kirsten Dunst. "I'm so honored to be working with all of them. Since Billy Bob is also a writer and director, he has a way of making things as truthful and simple as possible, which is always the best. And he likes to do things on the first take, with usually no rehearsal, which is great because it's more spontaneous. "

Holly Hunter found that Ed Solomon remained absolutely true to his original vision for Levity: "What I love about this movie is its intimacy. It's very small, and doesn't make any pretension about being anything else. There are no action scenes thrown in to reach a certain kind of audience. It's written by one guy, Ed Solomon, so it has the voice of a single person. He has a fantastic ear, a wonderful sense of dialogue, and is also very funny. I think that Ed's writing has an inherent sense of what is truly comic in how people behave.

"And then, Ed directing it as well as having written it, gives a wholeness to the entire project," continues Hunter. "Ed is a very giving, generous person, so he's been a great collaborator on this movie and it's been a great experience for me from beginning
to end. "

"It's important that everyone share a vision of what's important about the film," concludes Ed Solomon. "But in terms of achieving that final goal, I think that if you have really talented people around you, you're a fool not to let them do their art and their craft.

"A movie that you create and then make in collaboration with other people is never what you imagine it to be. There is the movie you thought of. There is the movie you were actually able to write. There is the movie you designed. There is the movie that you shot. Then there is the movie that you edit. They are all different films, and hopefully, at each stage, it becomes better. That's the hope. "

Author : Sony Pictures Classics