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Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Filmmaker John Levy

Today I am very pleased to present my first Q&A of 2013.  This one is with a man who I admire greatly as an artist and value dearly as a friend.  I first discovered the great short films of John Levy, the co-founder of La Belle Aurore Films, a couple of years back and I instantly felt a connection to his work.  We have since become great friends over at Facebook and I never tire of chatting up films, music and other similar interests with John over there.  John's an incredibly intelligent and passionate artist and filmmaker and I hope after reading this everyone will take a moment to visit La Belle Aurore's official site to watch some of his terrific films, as well as like the group's Facebook page.  Even more of John's work can be accessed at his Vimeo page as well. 
While I was reading John's great responses here I was reminded of that line in Night Moves where Harry Moseby sums up a connection to a new friend by mentioning, "I think we saw the same films".  I think any film fans who came of age in the late seventies/early to mid eighties period will really find a lot to connect and respond to here.  Thanks so much to John for participating in this! 

Hi John, Thanks so much for stopping by to participate in this Q&A. To get us started, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from originally?

Thank you so much having me, Jeremy. I’m from Novato, California. Just north of San Francisco. Where I still live. When I’m not doing anything creative I keep pretty busy as a caregiver. I work a lot of odd jobs as well while trying to get over as a freelance videographer.

 Before I asked what got you interested in cinema and who are some of your early influences, I was wondering if you could share with us your first film related memory?

I have very vivid memories of watching segments of Star Wars on an 8mm Brownie projector in my dad’s office. But my earliest memory is as a toddler, my folks buying this mammoth Sony TV that was also a very impressive piece of furniture. With it they got a Betamax player and a bunch of movies. One of those was 2001: A Space Odyssey. And my earliest memory is that film being on a lot in the house and my eyes being glued to it whenever it was. I had no idea what was going on, but it was a fascinating introduction to movies, history, and the future. As time goes by it continues to blow my mind. Other films I remember being on a lot were ‘Jaws’ a lot of Bogart films. ‘Empire Strikes Back’, ‘The Warriors’, ‘Raiders...’ and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter. 80’s horror in general was really present. When I was 9 I scored a VHS copy of Scream Greats: Tom Savini - Master of Horror Effects. That doc was a huge eye opener to the alchemy behind films and the actual “making” of them. That was the first time I realized, ‘Oh, this is really hard work.’

About those early influences, who were the filmmakers and films that meant the most to you as you came of age?

Oh, wow. I gotta be careful here or we may have to do this in volumes! Well, the earliest influences on me as a filmmaker would start with Sergio Leone. Particularly Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America. My favorite films and the first two I ever bought myself. You can study the hell out of those two films. The imagery, themes, pacing, scores, operatics and character realizations are of the highest level of artistry. I think along with Kubrick, Leone was one of the most visionary filmmakers we’ve ever seen. Hitchcock was top shelf. A wealth of visual storytelling technique. Alan Pakula, Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, John Carpenter. Scorsese and Coppola. Cassavetes. Michael Mann. Early Walter Hill and Ridley Scott. And later Kubrick and Altman. In the mid 90’s when I started working at Video Droid I was heavily influenced by the 90’s independent movement and classics like Wellman, Fuller, Ray, and Lupino. And especially Film Noir and “Neo” Noir.
Specific films that influenced me are Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Picnic At Hanging Rock. Rolling Thunder. Cloak & Dagger (82) Certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey. Deer Hunter. The Double Life of Veronique. Wild At Heart, The Piano. The Ox Bow Incident. The Third Man. Charade. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. That is a film I would love to have made. Happily with Roy Scheider too. Life really changed when I discovered the foreign film section though. It was a serious revelation. Melville, Antonioni, and Wong Kar Wai have definitely influenced me. The list is endless. There are a lot of great filmmakers in the past fifteen years and more recently to, many young ones, having a huge influence on me. There are some women filmmakers in particular making really gutsy films these days. I have certainly been influenced by the filmmakers outside the directors chair and camera frame as well. Editors Anne V. Coates and Walter Murch. Cinematographers like Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis. Costume designer Milena Canonero. Composers like Ennio Morricone, Michael Small, and Tangerine Dream. All these makers of movies are extremely influential.

Talk about your initial journey from film enthusiast to filmmaker.

My brother and I used to shoot our own little movies with our Beta cam. I always wanted to make films or play music. And as much as I love music and came from a musical family, playing music wasn’t as much of a passion for me as listening to it and collecting it. My Mom had done some acting and painting and was more supportive about my artistic endeavors, but my Dad discouraged me a lot. That held me back for years. I wrote a lot of stories and bad poetry. I was interested in almost too many things, but nothing had a hold on me like film. You could explore anything in film. That’s how it trumped everything else for me. The real turning point was when I was about 16 or 17 years old. I was in a really dark place. And I remember I was sitting on the couch flipping through channels when I landed on Roman Holiday. It was the scene after Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn climb out of the water after their near capture by the secret police. It’s this beautiful night time Black and White photography. They are soaking wet and shivering and suddenly lock eyes and kiss. It’s a beautiful scene with really striking imagery. I could feel some kind of aesthetic transference occur. My love affair with film and filmmaking had been reignited. That scene saved my life. And I was so eager to make up for lost study time. I knew I really needed to do three things before I even started to set out as a maker of movies. I had been through a lot of heavy shit already and had narrowly escaped a bad path. I needed to really figure out who I was as best I could outside of my interests as well as in relation to them and what I thought about certain things and I needed to be very honest with myself about it all. Who am I, what do I want, what do I really think? Experiences means shit if you don’t have any perspective. The second thing I needed to do was study as much film as possible. My first day working at the video store I remember asking how many films employees were aloud to rent and my boss at the time said, “As many as you like!” I think she probably meant six to eight videos. I ended up taking something like twenty or thirty films home that first night. Entire filmographies. I was like Tony Montana burying my nose in a mountain of VHS. The third thing I needed to do was to find any cameras from 35mm to DV and start developing my own eye. This was in ‘95. I started recruiting really reluctant people into really bad videos I was trying to turn into short films. I still had no encouragement and no fellow cinephiles in my life at that time. I was juggling community college film courses with my job at Video Droid.
Then while working at Video Droid between ‘96 and ‘04 I met Terrence Kelsey (spektr, The Circle), Peter Heckel (Glimmer), Jack Graham (who’s debut feature Jake's Dead is about to premiere) and this whole crew of really amazing talented people. We were all film nuts and many of us were serious about making them. And we were often collaborating on stuff. Mostly student films. I would act in Terrence’s student films. Pete and I were working on stuff with our pal Chris Tomera. Pete was learning animation. Jack had made some shorts. Terrence and I were often collaborating on scripts. Pete, Chris and I were having writer’s groups regularly. Everyone was working on something or developing something.

Awesome, you know how much I especially dig Terrence (the link to our older Q&A is above). Now tell us about La Belle Aurore films.

La Belle Aurore is what happened when we got tired of letting mass amounts of money stand between us and our work. Instead of following the standard recipe we had been taught all our lives, we decided to come at the process from a different angle. Living on a low income forces you to make something from nothing and I truly feel film is no exception. Money outside of your livelihood shouldn’t stand between you and your art. It’s ridiculous. If we can’t be creative without money we aren’t creative people. So, first we decided to see how much can we do with nothing. And gradually with each film bring more money, more people, more of the standard requirements to the fold as needed. Strip everything down and start all over again from scratch. So far, so good. Tabula Rasa was our biggest budget yet and 75% of that was for the plane ticket to bring Lovelle up. Everything before that cost no more than twenty to fifty bucks. What you end up paying with is time. You miss a lot of meals and sleep, but that is pretty common in filmmaking anyway. We still don’t have any decent sound equipment. We’ve been doing most of the acting ourselves. We steal most our locations. Borrow props. We just work with what we have. It just means we gotta get outside the box and hustle another way. Forget about what everyone else is doing and how. I’ve been around a lot of people who like to “Play filmmaker” and they will never make anything. Nothing with a voice at least. And they’ll waste your time. There is no reason to waste time. It can all be done. There is no one way. Cinema is just coming out of it’s infancy in my opinion. There are no rules. It’s the wild fucking west out there!
There are a lot of different avenues one can pursue to make films. LBA is about creative freedom. We should make films because we’re filmmakers. However we can. We are compelled to. It’s creative sustenance.

Among your early films I am particularly enthralled by The Ghost of Love. Talk a bit about this haunting work as well as your first film for LBA, Coda.

I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed that one. It was a personal almost therapeutic labour of love. That one came from a feature idea. Only to realize once again, I am not in a position to make a feature at the time. But I needed to explore it badly. Someone who was a very crucial and special part of my life up to that point had stopped being part of my life and we had lost this connection or burned it out I’m still not entirely sure. Who knows why such great things end so badly or live shortly. I was very unprepared to lose her in any case. You know how when you’re in love with someone, you reach this scary height of joy? For some people it dwindles over time or they run away, but in this situation, for me it was a higher and higher feeling. A reopening of closed chambers in the heart kind of feeling. It was almost holy to me. I’ve lived and loved through some brutal fallout in my time but nothing that just suddenly stops like that. It’s like death. Something otherworldly and galactic like a star just dies out of nowhere. It was insane emotionally. I began having weird dreams. But the incident that conceived the film was one of those experiences when you are right between being asleep and awake. You are awake but you are almost transitioning between plains of existence. All senses are fully functioning in a tangible “reality”. I was sleeping when I heard her voice. Her voice is what woke me up. I was already having another dream. I can hear her saying my name and saying, “wake up. You’re having a bad dream.” I wake up, my eyes tired and heavy and she is there. Her hair is in my face. I could smell her hair, her breath, I could feel her. She whispers, “I love you.” I then sprung fully awake and she vanished. I was freaked out. It was very real. Very frustrating. I continued to have crazy dreams, but I wanted to get back to that place in between. I felt like if I could get back there I could work this out there or figure out a way to sustain my time there. I never really did but I really thought a lot about it. I knew I should start exploring it on film right away. And maybe I can find some kind of peace from that. And I did. There was never a real script for that one. There was a couple pages of voice overs and some image description. But for the most part the whole process ended up being very experimental. And we shot for months. We ended up with enough footage to make it 60 minutes probably. But it played better as it is. The feature idea was much more haunting. I would still really like to do that now that I have a little distance from the short and source.
‘Coda’ was kind of the challenge that got LBA rolling. After having these writer’s groups for a while and having not shot anything since DV was the latest, Pete and I decided it was time for us to start shooting something again. We just didn’t know what. It was a major switching of gears. I had just spent the past decade writing a trilogy of three hour movies. That’s when Pete found out about the ‘Parallel Lines’ short film competition being put on by Phillips and Ridley Scott and Associates. It was a challenge that really appealed to us. As Ridley Scott fans and as filmmakers looking for a short form project. The film had to be three minutes and everyone had to use the same six lines of dialogue.

We didn’t care about the competition so much. What we wanted was to be cornered into making a 3 minute short. The same time we decide to do that we fly down to L.A. to hang out with Chris Tomera and Terrence Kelsey. On the 1 hour plane ride down we wrote a draft of the script. A completely different film than ‘Coda’. A Science Fiction noir. And we were set to do that one. The only problem was it presented some minor challenges. Special FX and suspended animation being a few of them. And we had fairly simple solutions, but we didn’t have much time or money. That’s when I started thinking about Coda. I wrote it. We read it. We set out on a regimen of shooting days. Adrienne Valentine, who also worked with us at the video store and is in most of our films came on board and we knocked it out in time for the deadline.

You have also worked on some music videos. I am curious as to how a filmmaker correlates their own personal visions with the work of musician (whose song is their particular personal vision) and what are the challenges that go into it?

I’m not sure I’ve done enough to really know too much about it yet. I will always want to hear their vision first. If we gel on the concept I will tell them what I want to bring or suggest taking away. I haven’t faced the challenge of vision collision yet though. The two videos I did for REAL TALK came about very casually. We were friends already and he had been at this music for some time but he had no videos. I ran into him at a party one night and told him he needed a video and I wanted to shoot one. I wanted to keep it simple. I haven’t watched Mtv in almost 20 years, so when it came to Hip Hop music videos I was old school. I wanted to just keep it simple, keep it about him and his message. Allow him to introduce himself. With the second video I mostly just wanted to improve on the previous one. I wanted to keep it about him again but bring much stronger visuals and representation. We didn’t have any budget or anything for those. I was fortunate to have a lot of help and ideas from my friend Babs. Between she, Jesse, and I we composed a series of nice shots.

I would love to do a narrative video and explore other genres of music visually. I want to mix the bag with projects and genres.

Okay, I have to ask you about your extraordinary tribute to The Deer Hunter. Please discuss this as it really is one of the most moving tributes to a film that I have ever seen.


Oh, man. Thanks! I really appreciate that and am glad someone likes it as much as I do. Every once and a while I get this editing fever and I’ll be listening to a song and suddenly I start seeing images and moments from either a movie I’m conceiving or a movie I‘ve seen. In this case it was The Deer Hunter. It happened with Klute and Coming Home as well. I was just listening to that Johnny Cash song a lot. And the images were cutting together in my mind while I’m listening to this song. And then repeating and I stop what I’m doing and just cut it together. I had to. I love the film so much. So little is ever said about it beyond the Russian Roulette scene and Vietnam in general. I wanted to try create a tribute that captures what the film as a whole is really about to me. Love, friendship, home, and how unnesecarry and destructive war is beyond the battlefield.

Okay, onto the incredible Tabula Rasa. Tell us about the genesis of the film.


It began as a feature. About six or seven years ago I was in the middle of writing this trilogy I’ve been working on for some time. I had this character of Ray Hauk, that felt like he needed his own movie. I had also been researching a lot about the world of debt bondage and sexual slavery in America for a small scene in one of the films. I knew nothing about it at the time. I knew it was very common in many countries, but I had no idea how bad it was here. I questioned it initially because you never hear about. It’s the kind of thing that should be on the front page every day. But the deeper I dug the more I discovered how horribly true it is and how far it reaches. I knew I had to explore something about it more. It was almost impossible to determine what approach to take to the subject because there are so many different facets and factions and I prefer not to be too political or preachy and just approach things from a very human place. I knew I had to start with character as opposed to plot with this particular project. And I started writing this story about a woman in such a position. That had been in this world through her entire twenties and decides to fight her way out or die trying. That became Joanie’s story. It was strange how the two characters came together. Their lives were existing separately in this world of my trilogy outside of it’s central plot. And the characters separate backstories led them to a convergence. It was great because in the back of my mind I had really wanted to tell a story about two minuses that made a plus. Two people who each made a single bad decision at the beginning of their adult life that resulted in the loss of their innocence and sale of their soul. And then being resurrected by each other. The only people they can trust are each other, flaws and all, but even more, the only people who could ever understand them, on a deep level, are each other.
I began writing it with two specific actors in mind. Eventually I realized I would never get them for it and then made another pass at the script, removing the sort of tailored scenes. After many drafts I felt I needed to explore the material live. See other people in the roles. But as far as doing it short form I clearly couldn’t abridge the whole story. I decided to take the first act and rewrite it as a three act short. Focusing on the convergence of their lives and pasts and ending with the forging of their friendship. The first act of the feature script ends almost the same way the short ends. What follows in the feature from that point is a whole other movie almost. About these two dim and distant lights (Joanie and Hauk) drawing nearer and nearer.

Can you tell us a bit about the two stars, Lovelle Liquigan and Peter Heckel?

Well, Lovelle is a Los Angeles based actress. She’s done theater for many years and the occasional short film. We met back in 2006 on the internet. We discovered each other through our mutual love of Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer. And more specifically our love for Romy Schneider. We always wanted to work together and over the years I was fortunate to be able to see brief clips of her performances and shorts she’d been in. She is very driven and passionate about her work. When it came time to do Tabula Rasa I knew she could do it, I had a feeling she would want to, and I knew it would be worth it to fly her up for it. She brought a lot to the project. I am often reluctant to work theater actors because they often want a lot of dialogue and I am not a huge fan of dialogue. I left a lot of dialogue in the script in hopes of workshopping it down with her. When she got here she wanted to cut a lot of the same dialogue I did. It worked out well. She rewrote a line or two and best of all delivered them some times in ways that would surprise me and really elevate the scene.
Pete is the other half of LBA. He, along with Frynrare Fletcher go back to the video store days with me and Terrence. He’s composed all our music up to this point. He’s been there for me as an actor, producer, composer, and brother. And he has his own worlds and stories he’ll be sharing through LBA. La Belle Aurore’s next short will be a Peter Heckel original.

What were some of the biggest influences on the film?

 Definitely a lot of 70’s American and International crime films. Klute in particular. Visually, the most prominent influence for the interior scenes was Gordon Willis’ work. As far as embracing darkness and using singular practical lighting. Having been influenced by Noir as well and even some of the Val Lewton stuff, I tend to have as much love for darkness as I do light. Mystery, concealment, and ambiguity are important to me. The delivery of light and information has it’s time and place. Klute even more so influential that there are specific shots from it directly influencing shots in the film. A lot of shots from other films were used to reference a shot. The wide shot of Rilke and Hauk looking out over the city during their meeting is in part inspired by a shot of Peter Cable in his office in Klute. And Joanie and Hauk’s first scene in the bedroom is inspired by Klute as well as an airport shot of Barry and Lena silhouetted against a window in Punch Drunk Love. The film as a story wasn’t really influenced by anything particular though other than the research.

 I know you are planning on turning it into a feature. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It’s a struggle. This is where we do actually need some kind of budget and we’re broke. But thankfully, right now, I’m really just preparing mostly. The short was really part of that preparation. It’s a labour of love. For six years it has lived with me and I am just inching my way along with it right now. I’m looking forward to bigger strides. I’m finishing the rewrite right now. And now that I have explored the material live, I know what I need to do with it. Once the re-write is done we’ll start a search for our feature cast and crew and private investors. Once I have a production team together I won’t be spread so thin. I juggled way too many jobs on the short. We’ve done a lot of location scouting already, but we still have some more. Then sometime next year we’ll launch a crowd funding campaign. We have a lot of work ahead of us. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve lived with these two characters for years. They are very dear to me and I want to tell their story.

Finally, outside of Tabula Rasa, are there any other career plans you want to share with us?

Well, LBA will keep making an assortment of short films. Terrence and I have a horror/action script we’d love to sell. And aside from the trilogy I have a few other small feature scripts in the works. All in pretty early stages though. Ones a western. Another is a kind of coming of age love story. And a post-apocalyptic thriller. I have a couple spec scripts I want to develop as well. And an Easter Island project I want to try and get a grant for. But I am really itching to do some sci-fi. Too many things. I have always had a list of projects I want to do, but as I get older I find myself looking at it and crossing some stuff off because there simply isn’t enough time left to do it all. It’s coming down to essentials and opportunity. It’s all part of the journey. We’ll see.

Thanks so much John! I love your work, appreciate your time and wish you all best!

You’re welcome! Thank you for having me. I appreciate your interest and support. It means a lot. And as a fan of MOON IN THE GUTTER and all your extended columns, best wishes and good luck to you!!

-Jeremy Richey, John Levy 2013-


Joel Bocko said...

Loved reading this and connected to it on many levels. Where to begin? Right now I'm really trying to push myself forward on as a filmmaker despite the challenges and indifference John speaks of. I'd love to see some of his films - are they available online? (Sorry if you mentioned this above & I missed it).

I also found the description of being awakened by a friend who wasn't actually there moving and evocative; in an uncanny way it echoes a passage in my recently-completed short film. Which, by the way, I think both of you guys might enjoy/relate to given what you express here (it's in the front page of my blog this month).

And I know that half-waken, half-asleep state well - many of my most distinctive ideas have come to me then.

Finally, as someone who also loves paying video tribute to movies (and is inspired to do so by music) I'd love to see the Deer Hunter thing. Not to sound redundant, but how can I do so?

Thanks for this, Jeremy. A great read and good timing for me right now.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks so much for your kind comments Joel. The links to each film are located within the post or they can all be found at John's Vimeo page:

John Levy said...

Thank you, Joel! Keep on pushin' man!
I'm definitely gonna check out your blog and short!

TABULA RASA is not actually on our vimeo channel yet, but it is viewable at our Youtube channel at this link:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Wow, you guys, what a rich conversation. My brain is whirling right now.

I have also loved getting to know John through Facebook (and one epic comments thread on my site about the movie DOGFIGHT). But this!! I was so moved listening to him talk about his influences, and the struggles to get started with something - I think we all can relate to that. I was unaware of John's Vimeo page, however, and I will go there immediately.

Thank you, Jeremy, thank you, John - this was amazing.

John Levy said...

Thank you so much, Sheila!
You know, DOGFIGHT got it's DVD release, only it's not Criterion.

We missed you at the FB, hope you stick around, my friend!

Moon in the Gutter (Month By Month)

BLOG CREATED, EDITED and WRITTEN BY JEREMY RICHEY: Began in DEC 2006. The written content of all posts (excepting quotes from reviews, books, other publications) COPYRIGHT JEREMY RICHEY.