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Writer-Director Chandler Levack on ‘I Like Movies’

A note before this article. This interview took place September 2022 during the Toronto International Film Festival. As this website is based in the UK, we were requested to hold the interview for a time when I LIKE MOVIES would be widely distributed there. Unfortunately, mostly for those audiences because it’s an excellent film, that so far has not happened. Since the writing of this article, Levack’s directorial debut would go on to screen at multiple film festivals, including the Glasgow Film Festival, where it had its European premiere. The film is currently available on demand – and I highly recommend you watch it! As TIFF 2023 is now upon us, I decided to finally release this interview piece as a reminder to seek out indie films in your festival schedule!  The big studio films you know are coming to a theatre near you.  We were lucky in Canada that I LIKE MOVIES could be seen in theatres (and even now on airplanes!) but you never know where, when or for how long the indie films will play.  Support them at your local theatre and festival where you can so gems like these continue to get made. – Hillary Butler

Chandler Levack is ready for her moment.  In 2017, she was present for the premiere of Lady Bird at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  “I’d always have these moments where I would see a filmmaker come out on stage for the first time after their movie premiere and just this shock of recognition was on their face that they just made a film that people love,” she notes.  “That movie spoke to me so deeply.  Greta Gerwig came out and the audience was applauding.  You could see there were tears in her eyes and it was one of the most profound moments of my life because I was just like, ‘I want to have that moment myself.  I really want that.’”

It’s proof that if you set a goal, really put it out into the universe, it can happen.  Levack, writer and director of the film I Like Movies had three sold out screenings at TIFF herself this year.  The movie met with audience and critical approval alike, (you can read our review here) making her one of the exciting new voices that the recent festival brought to light.  That voice is, like her film, smart, thoughtful, and witty as I discovered while chatting with her over Zoom before the festival.

I Like Movies is a love letter to Levack’s adoration of everything cinema, influenced by her work as a critic with film references frequently dotting the dialogue.  The main character, Lawrence, played by Isaiah Lehtinen (deservedly named one of TIFF’s Rising Stars this year) is a narcissistic, film obsessed high school student.  His one dream is to attend NYU’s film program where he will, obviously, become the next big thing.  The only issue is, he needs to make the money to pay for tuition.  So, he gets a job at his local video store, Sequels, where he also has (hilariously) happened to rack up a huge late fee for 1998’s Wild Things.  It’s at the store where he befriends his new manager, played by the wonderful Romina D’Ugo and where they both uncover traumas previously buried. 

Levack, started off in the industry as a critic, writing professionally as early as 18 years of age, though one of her first forays was music journalism after seeing Almost Famous when she was 15.  She still does write about film, often for the Globe & Mail newspaper, but this project seemed to be calling to her, even when she wasn’t too sure how to go about it. 

The Burlington, Ontario native, like Lawrence, made films through high school and worked at her local Blockbuster, though she admits she would have been more likely to wrack up a late fee for Can’t Hardly Wait or Cruel Intentions.  She eventually attended the University of Toronto where she took Cinema Studies.  She remembers, “I think it was just so theoretical and academic that it intimidated me.”  She never thought she could become a filmmaker, not knowing anybody who had done it themselves, so movies became more of a scholastic endeavour.  But at 25, Levack went on to the screenwriting program at the Canadian Film Centre and afterwards started directing music videos.  

Isaiah Lehtinen in I LIKE MOVIES.  Image courtesy of TIFF

It’s on these first projects where she got her real film education, getting behind an actual camera where she co-directed with an ex-boyfriend.  Though, she learned that things on set weren’t always the same for her and her male counterpart.  “Sometimes people would forget that I was also directing the project,” she says.  When trying to explain the next shots to the extras she was working with, she remembers one asked if they should wait for the director to get there despite her obvious leadership.  She adds, “I’d been directing all day and I was wearing my biggest baseball hat. So it was very clear.”

That said, Levack believes that we have seen a shift in the last decade.  “We’re seeing this huge visibility, especially at TIFF where almost all the Canadian movies this year are directed by women.  It’s really extraordinary to see that, and non-binary filmmakers as well,” she says.  Yet she still has moments of self-doubt.  “As a director on set, there would be these moments where I catch myself asking for something and then having this wrestling dialogue of, ‘You were too mean when you asked that. They’re not going to do it. You’re being too demanding. You can’t make them go back to the store to get six more gorditas because the one gordita that you got isn’t reading on camera,” she says, referencing a scene in I Like Movies that utilizes the Mexican street food.  “I’d have this internal battle with myself. Second guessing everything, even though I knew that’s what that scene needed.”

That representation isn’t just something that Levack is concerned with behind camera.  She’s also looking to create stories that reflect different points of view, one of the reasons why I Like Movies centres around a teenaged boy even though it closely parallels her own life. “Women often get placed in a box where we’re only allowed to tell stories about other women,” she explains. “I think there’s an interesting gap in representation right now where we’re not seeing a lot of works directed and written by women that actually examine young men at a really pivotal age in their development, and maybe even hold them accountable for some of the harm that they can do in culture.”  She notes that, especially in the early 2000s, most of pop culture and these coming of age stories, concentrated on young, isolated but brilliant young men where nobody understood them – like Dawson’s Creek for example.  I Like Movies takes this time period, introduces us to a similar, yet exaggerated character and does a deep dive. 

Levack explains it best: “The film in some ways is maybe playing on a certain cultural trope of film geeks or film critics or men in society who know a lot about movies and how they use that as kind of a cultural currency, and treating those guys with maybe a little bit of humour, but also empathy. I was always wondering when does their ego and identity get formed?  What’s the most crucial age for them? I feel like it is in high school when they’re watching Stanley Kubrick movies in their parents’ basement. And I just wanted to make a movie where I was like, ‘Is there a way to set those guys on the path of healing and redemption before it’s too late? Can they change? Can we give them the opportunity to change and tell them that there’s a different way for them to be in the world before it’s too late?’”

So then came Lawrence, a character that is deeply flawed, somewhat unlikeable and someone Levack is deeply protective of.  “His voice was just so clear and immediate to me as I was writing him and I feel like I didn’t even write his character. He kind of just talked at me and then I just typed really quickly. It was almost like I was taking dictation like I was a secretary or something,” she notes.  She knew that she wanted to have his character change and grow, to go through redemption.  “If characters are perfect and they only have cute nonthreatening problems, then why are we watching a movie about them? I want to see really flawed, complex people that are really struggling with something and then don’t want to change and are forced to and learn lessons the absolute hardest way imaginable.”

It was really important then to have Isaiah Lehtinen, whom she credits for being a real leader on set, embody Lawrence in a way that she says brought “vulnerability, bravery and a lot of charisma” to the character.  Shooting the film during COVID didn’t give the ensemble much rehearsal time, but Levack says “I think when you have an actor that good, everyone rises to the occasion to match his energy levels and intention.”

Isaiah Lehtinen and Romina D’Ugo in I LIKE MOVIES

I Like Movies is set in Burlington, Ontario and Levack adds a lot of detail and nuance to the film.  It is, as she calls it, “hyperbolically Southern Ontario, 2003.”  Those like myself that also grew up in this time period will find a lot to love in the little bits of nostalgia that the director remembers from her childhood.  From the Swiss Chalet festive special Lawrence and his best friend are chowing down on to the “Cashman” advertisement on television there are a lot of specific references to be found.  “I just think Canadian culture needs to be more specific about where it’s from. Even last year with Scarborough, we saw how much the industry responded to this movie that was directly set in this one neighbourhood in Toronto, not pretending it’s Chicago or New York or anywhere USA.  I just wanted to give Burlington, Ontario its close up.”

To re-create the time period, Levack sent out messages on her Facebook page asking who had a PT Cruiser she could use.  Friends dusted off their old Mac computers from their attics.  She even went to the same Value Village where she used to get things in high school.  “I feel like I’ve probably found some of my cool stuff that used to be in my house,” she laughs.  She even got the mini DV camcorder from her parents’ house that she used to shoot her films in high school, everything coming full circle.  

Levack’s detailed work doesn’t stop there.  I Like Movies uses a very specific aspect ratio with purpose.  The director perks up at what she calls a ‘dorky dream question’ when asked about it, exuding enthusiasm.  “The film is actually Academy aspect ratio. It’s 1.33:1, which is how old movies, Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind used to be shot.  I just thought there was this kind of funny irony about a movie that is set in a video store being in the same aspect ratio as Citizen Kane.”  She notes Andrea Arnold uses it often in her own films like Fish Tank and that the influential director once noted that small frame size ‘honours a person’s face’ in close up.  While it had some advantages in also being able to crop out people with COVID masks and unwanted background, Levack adds, “I really just wanted people to be synced into Lawrence’s reality and feel that kind of anxiety and claustrophobia of the cycle of the suburbs.”

Levack calls her film premiering at TIFF, which she first attended as a student in 2005 the ‘greatest honour of my life.’  She’s been there as a critic and a movie fan and says that the festival is, “Responsible for some of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had, interviewing filmmakers who are heroes of mine. I got to interview Agnès Varda in person the year before she died. I got to talk to Mike Leigh and Michael Haneke, Sean Baker and Armie Hammer,” she then adds jokingly, “and luckily survive.”

And thank goodness she did. Chandler Levack, as much as she’s been inspired by the festival and the films and filmmakers she has seen there is now part of that inspiration herself.  She can now encourage a new generation of filmmakers to follow their own dreams, no matter what path they venture on, or how long it may take to get there.  Says the director, “The last decade has really been this long journey through many different kind of forays and evolutions to realize that the thing that I was scared the most to do, and the thing I wanted to do the most in my life, was write a movie that looked and sounded like myself.  To direct and work with great actors and tell a story that was really personal to me. It just took me 35 years to do it.” 

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