The Other 'Chuck'Interview by Christopher Stipp
Here’s something you need to know about Zachary Levi, star of NBC’s “Chuck”, ABC’s “Less Than Perfect”, and one of the stars of his latest film SPIRAL: He’s capable of multitasking.
I’ve interviewed him three times and each time he’s just been busy with projects with varying involvement. When you think that he’s just an accomplished television actor, that he’s been good on the silver screen, he’s gone beyond both duties as an actor and performer and has taken on the difficulty in making a film that has taken some of his own money, much of his own time and all of his drive as a filmmaker to produce a film that you wouldn’t expect out of a man who has made his name as one of the biggest bumbling nerds NBC has ever had the greatest ratings fortune to have on its network.
Zach is tirelessly kind and is genuine to the point that you can’t believe that such a person could survive in Hollywood with his kind of soul in tact but he has and managed to craft a character in SPIRAL (Now on DVD) that is sinister in ways that are slight, quiet. Zach, additionally, took on the responsibility of executive producer and gopher extraordinaire; getting his hands dirty to get the movie done, putting in enough sweat equity to quell anyone’s suspicion of whether he believed in the making of this film.
After having months to think about SPIRAL’s effectiveness I can say that this film shares some Hitchcockian elements in ways that are fresh, that genuinely try to take the independent movie beyond listless, self-indulgent filmmaking. Zach shares that view as well and has some words to say about the making of a film that he’s proud to have had a hand in and to have starred in as well.
If I can be assured he’ll be just as candid and honest the next time I’m able to talk to him here’s to hoping that there will be a fourth interview somewhere in the future.
Christopher Stipp: I’ve talked with [co-director, co-writer] Joel Moore. He told me he came upon director Adam Green while doing HATCHET. How long have you known Joel?
Zach Levi: Joel and I have known each other going on 6 years. We just hit it right off as we’re just kindred spirits, cut from the same cloth when it comes to comedy and acting – being in Hollywood, wanting to be filmmakers from many aspects, having production companies, we became fast friends – just really hit it off.
Over the years we would just watch each other, supporting each other in our own singular careers when jobs would pop up here and there. It was always with the idea of making our own stuff but never really knowing how or what that would look like. And [co-writer] Jeremy came into the picture about three and a half years ago and was also very similar – a great writer - and we all just started toying with the idea of a script here or there – whatever. And Jeremy and Joel were the first ones to sit down and decide to start something. Joel had already written a short film – it wasn’t really SPIRAL but it had some similarities to what SPIRAL ended up being.
I was working at a show (Less Than Perfect) at that time. When we were writing it we were all still working on individual things. When they finished writing that, Jeremy and I wrote a couple pilots and took one around and were reasonably successful but it didn’t get picked up by networks. But we did well with our first outing. Then Joel, a little while after that, had an epiphany, if you will (I think he was in the middle of taking a shit, I’m not sure), and realizes we can make this movie ourselves. We can independently produce it. And of course he thought it was going to be a hundred thousand dollars to make this film.
A hundred thousand dollars and a box of Red Vines. And actually that turned out to be true – we did have Red Vines on set.
But a hundred thousand was nowhere near what was needed to make it happen. But we did end up making it on a shoestring budget in comparison to the budgets of a lot of other films. And Joel called me and pitched the idea and asked if I would be interested in investing X amount of dollars and then he would invest the full amount as seed money, starter money to get things off the ground, start hiring the appropriate crew to get direction on this thing to then go talk to other investors that “Hey, we are putting our own cash into this thing”, we’re not just asking for your money and then going to run away with it, and then for me to play the role of Berkeley which we already talked about. We had basically an 18 day window between Thanksgiving and Christmas which was the only time we could do it between the schedule he was working on and the schedule I was working on. We had to find the crew and it all worked out for all to be in Portland where Joel and Jeremy wrote it, to have it shot there. Because it was shot between the two holidays, and because not much else up there that was big budget, we were able to get the best crew that Portland had to offer because they weren’t working and they were really good guys and an incredible crew as well. It was the most ridiculous thing to find a gaffer, a key grip. You don’t think of Portland and film and go “Oh yeah, they got a lot of talent” but a lot of commercials shoot up there. We were able to get the cream of the crop, they worked for peanuts but it was a real labor of love. I would compare this to community theatre in a lot of ways. Where everybody just pitches in and rolls up their sleeves and if something needs to be moved, you get up and move it. If we need a second meal, then you run out and go get it. As an executive producer, not that I’ve ever been an executive producer before, but I have worked enough with executive producers to kind of have an idea of what was expected of me in some regard, and aside from putting money in and being a part of making important decisions, I just wanted to be a cheerleader.
But I kind of got a head of myself. So Joel has this epiphany, while squatting, and comes to me and I say “Yeah, let’s do it” and we go do a grassroots kind of thing, sounds pretty political, but we went to our friends and our friend’s family and said we are going to make this movie for this much money. If we can’t make it for this much money, we are still going to make it so if you want to be a part of the process… And it was great to see people come out of the woodwork. Joel and I have the greatest friends in Los Angeles. I would challenge anyone in the world to compare. We have the greatest circle of friends. It’s really incredible. They have come from all parts of the world and their families are aware of who their friends are. It’s like “Yeah, my buddy Zach he’s on this show Chuck” and that time it was Less than Perfect. So they were all aware of where Joel and I were in our careers and were very supportive of whatever this film was going to be. It was all about heart, about vision.
Just a lot of people without a lot of money just being very supportive of us.
We come through with a good distribution deal and I think we have a good chance at not just getting people their money back but hopefully a little better return as well, and that’s what we really want to do to just say “Thank you for believing in us, supporting us, and supporting our dreams.” Maybe we’ll have to go to them again but, hopefully, we can just say thank you for starting us out on this path and let studios take care of the rest of the investment.
CS: Walking away from a huge ordeal like this, did you have any of your ideas about filmmaking ideas get challenged by thinking that’s not the way I thought it would be? What kind of life lessons did you take away from it?
ZL: I always thought of myself as a bit of a sponge, an observant person and so everything that I worked on I’m always observing behind the scenes during production, so there weren’t a lot of “So wow, that’s how….” Certainly I’ve learned a lot about the financial aspect and being privy to some of the conversations was enlightening. I feel a lot of what I experienced wasn’t the first time for me, yes the first time I was an executive producer, but it wasn’t the first time I was aware of the process of making a film. With that being said, there was plenty that just being the point person on it, it’s just crazy, before being the executive producer on SPIRAL I’ve always said it really is mind boggling how many people it takes to put a film together. And then having done SPIRAL and being in that production kind of role, it really drives that home and just solidifies that. I think for us and certain independent film makers, there’s a lot of wheeling and dealing and beg, borrow and steal – you just really have to be dedicated – 100% passionate and dedicated to what you are trying to put together. More so for Jeremy and Joel, far more than myself.
I was working a lot of the time when things were getting put together, tied up with other things or whatever, Jeremy was the workhorse of our company and Joel equally in different ways, for better or worse I’ve been busy with my personal path especially with Chuck.
I can’t say that I’ve learned as much as Joel or Jeremy have but it really is mind boggling understanding the scope of what a film requires from inception to the final shot into post production…just so many steps and so many voices and fortunately Jeremy became the taskmaster and kept things on task as best he could or otherwise he could have been lost in this kind of independent film shuffle where some of these, they just freeze at a particular step of the way. Sometimes they don’t get past the idea or, if they do, they don’t get past writing it. Do they end up getting the money to shoot it? If they do shoot it, do they shoot all of it? Do they shoot pick up shots? We were so blessed that we were able to accomplish every step of this process and we are looking at a limited theatrical release.
We could be at a cool little indie theatre in Los Angeles where I’ve seen some of the most incredible films at or we could be on DVD. Or we could be anywhere you can think of. On-line or you can walk into a Wal-Mart and pick up SPIRAL. What the hell did we do? We didn’t know what the shit we were doing and we made it happen. I tip my hat – I curtsy to Joel and Jeremy more than anyone. More than anyone it was Joel’s baby and then after Joel it was definitely Jeremy’s. It wasn’t my baby but I felt like more of an uncle that got to hold the baby from time to time and promise it great gifts as it got older but it wasn’t my child to have to take care of from time to time. It was definitely Joel’s. It’s the risk and reward. Joel has and had the most to gain from this film as far as being its co-writer, co-director, star, executive producer. I’m so proud of him. It’s not an easy thing to do by any stretch of the imagination and for him to see it all the way through and master its release into the world is not an easy thing.
CS:You just mentioned about some films not finding their way to the daylight, literally. People will be able to buy this in a few weeks or see it in a theatre. What do you think, and obviously by you being a part of it, why was it a movie that had potential more than a lot of other movies out there?
ZL: Well, it all starts with an idea and it starts with a great script – 99% of the time it has to be on the page. Joel and Jeremy really took their time and crafted a great script and when you couple that with the passion – the collective passion – the collective talent of people that make up the company you find the light. Fortunately for us it was a dream team. Really surreal. No one was throwing around ego. We were honest from day one – it’s as independent as it gets and “We wish we could pay you every bit of your rate but we can’t - but you can be with us for the journey and the dream or not and we won’t hold it against you if not” and everyone really bought it and little did they know were are making millions. No…They all were like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Why not? We’re not working.”
As well, the feeling of accomplishment. And I feel we absolutely accomplished that. I feel like when we were shooting it, my manager, who also represents Amber Tamblyn, and that was part of the beauty of it, said she would make a few calls and get Amber – so when I talked to Joel and Jeremy and I asked them who their dream names were for the role. When Amber Tamblyn’s name came up and they didn’t have any idea I had a connection I said, “Oddly enough…small world blah blah blah” – she was on their dream list the first actress we went to first one on their list and it just fell into place. I could tell from just the process of putting the thing together we had something special on our hands. The night we were shooting it, my agent comes up to visit. And we got our trailer out there, our generator is out there, and for all intents and purposes it looks like a bona fide film. And I remember her stopping in the middle of the street, which I wouldn’t recommend, just looking at it and said, “You really did this.” And I said, “Yes, we really did.”
I’d rather take a pay cut like we all did and put the money on the film. So we really all gave it our all. When we were shooting it so many things were coming together – it was just kind of magical. We had Sundays off or maybe it was Mondays off, I can’t really remember, but anyway were shooting up in the hills in Portland and there were some steep roads and we were shooting on our off day and we all come down from this house we were shooting out of and we woke up to a Winter Wonderland. It was snowing, it was beautiful, the roads were all slicked over and icy and of course we all wake up and we have the day off – but then half way through the day we were like “Fuck. what the hell happens if this doesn’t clear up?” because we don’t have any insurance days, we have to shoot it every day we were scheduled to shoot and we can’t make it up those hills if they are iced over – we are totally powerless and sure enough we wake up to a magical snow day and half-way through it started melting off and we were able to get back up the hills and continue on shooting.
All that kind of stuff – staying at this little hotel that was remodeled, didn’t have a lot to offer other than some cozy little rooms and a nice little restaurant bar down in the lobby. It was a gas. It was a freezing cold Portland/Melrose Place. That’s what it felt like for 20 days. A bunch of us road tripped up to start the film and road tripped back on Christmas Eve. I remember driving back with one of our co-producers and actor in the film, David Muller, who was also our set photographer, super talented, awesome dude.
And then in post, we hit our bumps in the road like everyone does and it all came out and the film came out, I feel, exactly like it was supposed to. It is a character driven, suspense-thriller, that as genre is concerned can only be likened to but certainly not equal to, by any means, like a Hitchcock film. And that’s what we wanted. It has that flow and style and likeness where you are watching a story and not just subject to a bunch of junk. It’s not a horror flick by any means, not meant to make you jump out of your seat – you are supposed to be drawn in by these characters and the relationships and feel like you are a part of whatever this is and keeps the audience active, I feel.
I’m really proud there is a lot of ambiguity but not in this masturbatory way like some filmmakers do, like “Nobody understands the deepest vision of my film and you never will.” Fuck you, don’t jerk me off like that.
I go and watch some films and I feel like they are so obscure and so avant-garde and they really don’t mean anything specific except to the filmmaker is probably sitting at home laughing about how everybody’s confused. To me I feel that’s not good entertainment. At the end of the day that’s all we are doing. To entertain is the purpose. Whether it’s to laugh or cry or creep you out a little bit or keep you on the edge of your seat – whatever the case may be. So if you are not really connecting to your audience and allowing them to have some clear answers, even if they are tough to get to, then why are you making your film? To show the world what a genius you are? Get off of it.
So I was proud of the fact that we made a film that wasn’t so much an exhibition that didn’t just tell the audience that this is who the people are, this is what the relationship was. It was vague enough to let the audience piece it together as they went along and still come up with correct answers. Sometimes they can get there from completely different paths and sometimes come up with answers that aren’t necessarily right – but who knows. I’m fine with it.
The point is it’s just a story. You’re telling a story. It’s not a weird obscure story. It’s a story that takes place in reality but it breathes and moves in an organic way without feeling contrived. Every step of the way that’s one thing we all fought for. Especially Jeremy, he never ever wanted to say anything that was too on the nose. He didn’t want any dialogue from the characters mouth explain anything. He wanted the sum of the dialogue and sum of the scenes and relationships to explain. And by doing that you keep the audience interested and connected to and an active participant in the film.
You don’t leave people in the dark but you also don’t just explain everything to them. It makes the movie to me a bit boring. And then also by doing that you giving the audience less reason to see your movie. We certainly tried and achieved in many ways – we threw in enough twists and turns – especially at the end where you are on the screen and you hear peoples screams and murmurs and I look at Mason in the final scene where he’s breaking down and I break down and the bomb drops.
CS: In the movie you seem to barely tolerate Mason. It seems like a different type of character for you to play. You carry on personal relationships with other people just fine, although you are genuinely abrasive, but you tolerate Mason, a guy who seems to embody everything you would eschew in yourself. I’m curious as to why they spun it that way? You play with women’s emotions, you don’t really care about them, but with Mason you sort of have a soft spot for him.
ZL: Yeah. When we were exploring the relationship between Berkeley and Mason we came to the conclusion - we decided to give the audience a little insight into but not too much - obviously these guys have had a relationship for quite some time and in that final breakout scene there are a few key lines that gives the audience that information at least in some way.
And the way that we discussed it, in a nutshell, Mason and Berkeley were, circa age 5, something like that, certainly before 10 – at some time Mason and Berkeley were the same kid. When I look at people in my life that I was best friends with growing up, we were the same kids, but growing up our paths went in two different ways and perhaps that very similar thing happened to me and my family and him and his family. So we became each other’s support in that we both dealt with it in two very different ways. I slip everything under the carpet, I blocked it all out, I created the strongest part of myself and moved on with my life and never to look back at my past, whereas Mason never knew how to deal with it so he’s in the constant state of not knowing how to let go and that causes his line of reality and imagination to blur. So through the years this is something that I think Mason and Berkeley are really the same guy in many, many ways. We both are very lonely. I deal with it by sleeping my way into comfort or feel better about myself or whatever the case may be. That’s where I get my strength. That’s where I keep going. I’m just that kind of a guy. But really, I’m just as lonely as Mason is and I feel Berkeley, because he’s become this kind of dick, his saving grace is that he looks to himself that he takes care of his buddy – never turns his back to his buddy – might treat him like shit but is there for him to help pick up the pieces and that’s his way to feel better about himself and because they experienced this life and I feel that Mason has probably come to Berkeley over the last twenty years or so doing the same thing – having imaginary people or imaginary girls.
And Berkeley at first would say you’re crazy, crazy, crazy realizing that if he just indulges him a little it would keep him happy – at least for a time so he just allowed the process to be what it was and obviously let it go on longer than it should have. And who knows, how many, if Amber was the first or if there were other girls. There are so many ways to deal with it…it does kind of leave it up to the audience’s interpretation or idea of how they felt it went. I love that we never show it. We don’t ever talk about it and then we leave that up to the audience.
CS:Were there people who told you that’s not a good way to go? Did people higher up on the food chain of things say, “You know what…you can do it that way but I wouldn’t.” Were you ever persuaded to change the ending?
ZL: For us, that was never an issue.
I feel like we did it well enough that the people who watched it agreed that it was a great suspense tool. It was a great tool in the sketchbook. It was like in RONIN (with De Niro, great movie, great acting, great car chasing), it was ultimately about this fucking case that everyone is trying to get to and at the end of the movie he and Jean Reno are sitting in the café and they open up the case and all you see is the back of the case – that’s the first time I’ve seen a movie like that where the movie builds up and builds up but you never see what’s actually in it. I fucking loved it.
Because to satiate everyone with everything in a movie is just – it takes the mystery out of it. Like in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, or any movie, that doesn’t give this nice wrapped up, gift-wrapped ending where everything is resolved – this person is here now and that person is there now, is more like a resolution. Life doesn’t always have a resolution. We all don’t have happy endings or even ones that are all tied up for you.
There are a lot of loose ends in life. And people die or disappear or never heard from or move – all kinds of stuff like that. And to go and make a movie like that and have people say “Hey, what about this or what about that” or “I disagree with the whole thing.” Not that it’s the same thing but to have the sketchbook and some people might call it a tease but I wouldn’t call it that. To me, a tease is just allowing the audience to participate in the film. So all of our investors and all of our domestic and foreign distributors said that it was great. As far as I know no one said anything like “Hey, we need to homogenize this.”
Everyone was behind the overall character of the film itself.