Shawn Levy, a product of Yale’s drama department and USC’s graduate film program, paid his dues doing one-off acting jobs on many hit TV shows from the late 1980s. And he says acting roles on shows like thirtysomething, 21 Jump Street, China Beach and Beverly Hills 90210 only fueled his aspirations to stand on the other side of the camera. Such ambition led to directing episodes of 1990’s era shows that were not quite as crucial in the cultural zeitgeist – The Secret World of Alex Mack, The Journey of Allen Strange and whatever iteration of Lassie was being produced a decade ago. However, Levy says he did hone his craft, learning the true importance of preparation when blowing through eight or more script pages a day. By the time he got to direct features with more resources and well-known actors, such as Just Married with Brittany Murphy and Ashton Kutcher, he no longer needed to feel his way through the job. That film led to two major studio remakes, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther, both starring Steve Martin, so by the time of his breakout hit, Night at the Museum, with Ben Stiller, he was cementing a reputation directing and producing tentpole comedies with top tier talent. With Date Night, an action/comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, he builds further on that specialty, as Jon Silberg reports.

ICG: A lot of directors who just built a huge, effects-y franchise movie like Night at the Museum would want to go even bigger next time around but Date Night is smaller in scope. Was that a deliberate choice? Shawn Levy: Date Night was an idea that came to me while I was making the Museum movies. The basic story just came out of my head as a married-with-children guy. The scale of the movie fits the ideas I wanted to explore about the relationship of these two people in the middle of all this action going on. The theme and idea really dictated the scope but the one I’m doing now is back to monstrously huge filmmaking. I didn’t make Date Night as a calculated attempt to move away from the big effects scale, but I will say it was refreshing to be able to devote the lion’s share of my energies to performances, actors and script rather than spending half my energy minding the visual effects store.

The film seems to straddle different genres. Sometimes it’s more a romantic comedy and others it’s a straight-out action movie. Did your choice of Dean Semler [ASC, ACS] as cinematographer have something to do with that? It’s true that we didn’t want to limit ourselves to one genre parameter. That tonal blend was at the heart of what I wanted to do and Dean’s eclecticism worked in our favor. From Dances with Wolves to Get Smart to Apocalypto, there is such diversity of aesthetics. And I knew I wanted Date Night to look different from my Museum movies. But I also just admire all of Dean’s work and now, having worked with him, I can say I love the guy personally. His warmth and his approach to the work was very helpful when we were shooting nights on the longest days of the year and in one of the rainiest months in New York on record.

Can you point to any influences for the kind of feel you were going for in Date Night? Well, over the course of this one night, the lead characters become un-tethered to the life they know and enter this increasingly surreal world of Mark Wahlberg’s strange apartment and the strip club. So I’d say it’s a bit like After Hours; this long night’s journey through increasingly unfamiliar worlds. We allowed the design to skew more extreme as it got deeper into the storytelling. That was a big one and then a few others. Risky Business was one. Films that take a contained timeframe that forever changes the protagonists.

Would you call yourself a film buff? Not a Scorsese level film buff. No. But I have studied film history, most intensely American films from about 1970 to the present.

There’s an interesting scene right in the middle of a tense escape by the heroes where you stop the action and they have this serious conversation about the state of their marriage. Did you want to approach the look of that scene differently from what comes before and after? Of the people who’ve seen the film, that scene is the part that for certain people is startlingly more dramatic than they’d expected but it’s also the scene people quote and remember. The visual approach isn’t designed to look very different. For a scene like that, my thinking is when the writing is strong and I believe the acting, the director and cinematographer owe it to the writing and acting to get out of the way.

How was your experience with the Panavision Genesis HD system? I’d never shot digitally so I was intrigued. It was certainly a good project to try it on – a comedy with great improvisers that was largely night exterior. The night scenes in New York shot digitally were incredibly dynamic and zippy. The colors pop. Dean understood that I wanted the audience to relate to the themes and issues so I needed a level of realism, but I also wanted the movie to look prettier than real life. I was going for a kind of thematic realism but aesthetic idealism. The Genesis was a good camera for that, but, of course, the technology’s only as good as the person whose hands it’s in.

Did shooting digitally make you feel more comfortable letting the actors improvise? I like actors who bring a lot to the table – who do the script plus a lot more, which they certainly did. We often shot coverage and let the camera roll to get many alternative jokes. I didn’t feel the need to cut so often. Good comic actors want to riff and every time you say cut you’re letting air out of the balloon. So digital filmmaking allowed longer takes, more re-racks ‘back to one.’ We also shot a lot of this in two-shots of Steve and Tina. That’s the luxury of having two brilliant actors who carry their weight equally and stay present in a scene whether they’re talking or not. So much of this movie is about “couple-hood” so we played out a lot of action in single shots with both members of that couple in the frame. So it definitely helped to not have to worry about keeping the camera rolling.

I’ve heard stories about some big comedies recently where the director just rolled for 15 or 20 minutes and let the actors try everything they could think of. Did you do any of that? My approach is more disciplined than that. I hone a script for at least a year. I hone it with the writer and actors. This applies to my last 3 movies. By the time we shoot, the script has been vetted and filtered by the stars and myself, so we’re all familiar with every word. I wouldn’t [let the camera roll] to fix a scene or create a scene, just to punch it up.

You started your career as an actor. Do you bring that training to your work directing? If you start off as an actor, you’re always an actor in your heart. You have that language and that sensitivity to what actors do and the way in which they’re putting themselves out there every day. It helps immensely every single day that I go to work.

Any specific examples of that training in your directing come to mind about Date Night? Not specific examples but having spent years doing a lot of television and the occasional movie, I used to marvel, even in my teens and early 20s, at how rarely you came across a director who knew what the hell to say to actors. I remember realizing while I was in the USC graduate program in film, that directors spend so much time learning about editing, cinematography, sound and all the technical aspects of filmmaking where we have a great deal of help. The only thing that a director does alone is get performance and yet it’s the most overlooked skill set among directors. At end of day, the stuff that counts is story, character, and performance. Working on Date Night was fun that way.  It does get big and loud and zany in its action, but we also set out to make a mainstream, hopefully entertaining, movie that explores adult relationships. In some ways Date Night was a return to basics for me as a director.

photo by Myles Aronowitz