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Shawn Levy Interview: The Internship Director Talks Comedy and Success

Shawn Levy Shawn Levy

How did Shawn Levy go from being an aspiring actor in Montreal to a big time Hollywood director? From humble show business beginnings, Levy has managed to find himself at the helm of a hit movie franchise (the Night at the Museum series, starring Ben Stiller) and working with such comedy stars as Steve Carrel and Tina Fey (in Date Night), as well as the legendary Steve Martin (Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther).

His recent film, The Internship, will be out on DVD/Blu-Ray on October 22. We caught up with Levy to talk about working with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in that film, as well as to get a sense of how it feels for a kid from Montreal to end up working amidst the Hollywood elite.

Rosebud: With The Internship, there was a lot of excitement about seeing Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn together for the first time since Wedding Crashers. Were you able to recapture their Wedding Crashers chemistry?

Shawn Levy: Well, obviously chemistry is such a hard-to-define thing, and this was a very different movie with a very different tone. But I think that Vince and Owen do have a pretty unique dynamic between them. And I know they certainly loved reuniting and playing of off each other again in that way.

Their rhythms, their energies are so different. And yet they combine in a really interesting way, and in a way that I think is really enjoyable and really funny. So it’s never going to be exactly the same as some other movie, but I do think there’s a very unique and enjoyable chemistry between these guys. That was a big part of the appeal for me to direct the movie.

In terms of that playfulness, what was the level of improvisation versus sticking to the script?

Well, nobody who works in comedy, certainly at the movie star level that I’ve been lucky enough to work at for the last many years, you don’t do it by sticking strictly to the script. That means that when you’re in preproduction, you’re constantly checking in with the actors, and through the prep process and through rehearsals you’re improvising and incorporating that improv into the screenplay.

And then you do another wave of it when you’re shooting the movie. You almost always do several takes as scripted, but then one would be a fool, I think, to hire this caliber of comedic mind and then shackle them to simply the scripted words. Even the greatest scripted jokes aren’t quite the same as what can happen in the moment.

I think the best example of that is the scene where Vince and Owen interview via webcam for the job at Google. That was a really funny scene, but the scene in the movie is 50% improvised on top of what was scripted.

On the DVD/Blu-ray, can viewers expect to see some extra moments of improvisation that didn’t make the theatrical cut of the movie?

Yes. There was a huge amount of R-rated improv that happened every day on set, and a lot of it couldn’t make it into the PG-13 theatrical edit. But a lot of it is there in the unrated cut that we’re releasing with the Blu-ray.

Your career has an interesting arc. You’re Canadian and an actor originally.

Yeah, I mean, the Canadian-ness is still very much a part of me, but the actor part is much less so. When I was in high-school and college I acted, and then I came down from Montreal to the States to go to Yale, but by my senior year as an undergrad, it was becoming more and more clear to me that directing was going to be the path that would be more fulfilling.

I started having success as a director, and one thing has led to another, and I’m on my tenth movie right now, which is startling to realize.

A lot of your early professional credits are as an actor. Did you use the acting as a springboard?

It’s a helpful background because so many directors know the technical stuff, but when it comes to helping an actor get to a performance, that’s a different language and it’s a language that a lot of directors are never taught. So certainly my background at Yale Drama as an actor gave me a really useful foundation in what an actor does and how to help him or her do it. It was not so much a springboard, but it has definitely remained a very, very helpful piece of my background.

You’ve been able to make the climb from directing TV to making feature films and working with great stars. Do you have pinch-me moments or does it feel natural to you?

I have pinch-me moments at least once a week, and very often more frequently than that. Literally, in the last ten hours I’ve been in New York working with Ben Stiller on our next Night at the Museum movie, and I’ve just come from the editing room of my current movie with Jason Bateman. Working with filmmakers and actors of this caliber is a huge thrill to me, and it’s constantly fun and educational.

The experience of working with people like Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, and Robin Williams is constantly thrilling. I never get used to it.

You mentioned that the process is educational. How do you feel you’re still developing or learning as a director?

Two things: One is that it’s a constant lesson that you need to tailor the kind of humor to the actor. What works for Steve Martin may not work for Ben Stiller or Vince Vaughn. Customizing the tone of the humor to the talent that you’re working with onscreen, that’s a constant kind of reboot of sensibility. And figuring out what is going to be the right joke for this particular performer.

And the other education certainly is – whether it’s things like Date Night or Night at the Museum or Real Steel or my new movie This Is Where I Leave You – I’ve really enjoyed changing genres and making films in different tonalities because that’s a way of constantly learning as well.

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Levy’s recent film, The Internship, comes to DVD and Blu-ray on October 22.
Last modified on Monday, 14 October 2013 18:39

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