CHANDLER LEVACK REALLY LIKES MOVIES
Chandler Levack is an award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, her short film We Forgot to Break Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. She is currently working on her first feature, I Like Movies.
Headshot by Cotey Pope.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Were you a creative kid? What kinds of art did you make in your childhood?
I was a very creative kid, almost to a fault. I was addicted to books and loved immersing myself in fictional worlds and in the headspace of memorable characters. I wrote a lot of short stories and picture books and devoured everything I could read. As a kid, I put on a lot of plays and forced my younger brother and the kids across the street to be in my productions, which were generally five to eight year olds doing interpretive dances along to the soundtrack of the Anne of Green Gables musical. I made a lot of claymation short films, and staged elaborate melodramas with a chorus of My Little Ponies alone in my room. I just wanted to be constantly making art, to the point where regular schoolwork didn’t interest me that much. I was hyper-creative and I was weird.
How would you describe your first experiences with storytelling? What kinds of creative activities did you engage with as a teenager? Did you have any high school classes or high school teachers who really inspired you?
Storytelling was the most powerful force in my life as a kid. As soon as I realized novels, movies, and music could give you access to other worlds and that acting and being creative could give you, in the words of my mother, “positive attention,” all I wanted to do was be and consume anything artistic. As a teenager, I got really into cinema and music and became very passionate about creative writing. I was lucky enough to have a history teacher in the 10th Grade who encouraged me. Her belief in me fueled my ambitions and made me want to pursue a career in the arts, but I was interested in way too many things. In high school, I had several very passionate career changes and ambitions including stand up comedian, jazz singer/trumpeter (I had a Harmon mute, and wanted to be Chet Baker), actor, filmmaker, and finally, pop culture journalist.
What were some of the first films you loved as a kid or teenager?
As a kid, it was probably The Simpsons. I would watch it four times a day after I got home from school; I think my frontal lobe has replaced Simpsons quotes with the part where math is supposed to be. As a teenager, I got a job at Blockbuster Video just at the time when my crazy intense obsession with cinema was really taking hold. This was super sick as Blockbuster employees got 10 free rentals a week! At that time, I was deeply obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s films, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies; I also loved coming of age movies and anything that could show me what growing up was supposed to be and feel like. Teen shows like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and Dawson’s Creek were very important to me and allowed me to have some sense of what falling in love or emotional catharsis could be like. I think I felt like if I wasn’t having an exciting adolescent experience, at least I could watch the fictional characters I loved have it instead.
How did you first get involved with filmmaking? What life choices did you make after you graduated high school? What were you exploring? What jobs or university programs did you take on?
This is a long and circuitous story… I made little movies in high school and thought I wanted to be a filmmaker but I wanted to have a foundation in critical theory, so I decided to go to the University of Toronto and get a Film Studies degree. But my education was so rigorous and academic, I got psyched out from thinking I was good enough to write and direct my own work, and I didn’t see a video camera for the next seven years. While in university, I started writing a lot for my school paper, The Varsity, which led to an unexpected career in journalism. By the time I was 20, I was basically freelancing full time for magazines and newspapers, was the editor of The Varsity, and had dropped out of school. I got a job as a staff writer for the now defunct alt-weekly EYE Magazine, and after being let go a year later, I decided to finish my long belaboured film studies degree when I was 24. One of the courses being offered that year was a screenplay seminar taught by the great filmmakers and writers Semi Chellas and Patricia Rozema. Even though I hadn’t done that much fiction writing and had never written a screenplay before, I enrolled in the course and the mentorship of those two women completely changed my life. I wrote my first feature script that year, falling in love with absolutely everything about the process. Writing screenplays just made sense for my brain and my background in journalism and structuring profiles helped. With their support, I applied to the Canadian Film Centre’s Screenwriters Lab and got into their 2012 program. Upon graduation, I started directing music videos for the Toronto punk band PUP, which led to me making a short film, which led to me finally believing that I could maybe direct a feature film that I wrote one day, all while continuing to work as a freelance arts journalist and film critic. While I’ve learned so much as an observer, short filmmaker, screenwriter, movie-goer, and reporter, making your first feature is very radically different of course.
Can you tell us about your experiences working as a film journalist? What has been your favourite film journalism project to work on?
I feel very lucky to have had the career in journalism that I’ve experienced. One of my favourite experiences was working as a Staff Writer and Digital Editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official blog, The Review. My favourite aspect of that position was getting to interview filmmakers about the movies and directors and works that inspired them; seeing them light up when asked about TIFF’s programming, and curating and cultivating conversations where directors and actors and other artists would interview each other.
Your short film 'We Forgot to Break Up' played TIFF and SXSW. What was your favourite part of working on that story? What did you learn from the experience?
My favourite part of that experience was the collaboration I had with the lead performer of the film, Jesse Todd. Getting to work with Jesse and having their input on the script and story was incredible. They’re an amazing actor and person, and it was so fun to go to film festivals with them and share our short film with an audience.
You're currently been working on a feature length film, "I Like Movies", in the middle of this wild pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about the story? What themes are you exploring?
How did your shoot go? What were the greatest challenges of shooting during COVID? What was your greatest obstacle? Your greatest reward?
My first feature, I Like Movies, made with support from Telefilm’s Talent to Watch Program and the Canada Council of the Arts, which I just wrapped in the middle of Ontario’s third wave of the pandemic, is a coming of age movie (set in Burlington, Ontario in the year 2003) about a teenage cinephile named Lawrence who gets a job at a big corporate video store (think: Blockbuster Video in its ultimate heyday) in his final year of high school. Terrified about his future, Lawrence strikes up a complex friendship with his older female manager, before a painful coming of age forces him to realize that he is a pretentious asshole. It’s a complex character study of a young male cinephile who is forced to reckon with his sense of entitlement at a very pivotal point in his life; the film is an early intervention for the toxic film bro and unpacks their cultural foothold in society and how they are made and scarred for life in their teens. Often female filmmakers are put into a box and told that they can only tell stories about female protagonists, and while there has been a severe dearth of complex female protagonists in cinema, and I love many of those films so deeply, I also felt like it would be interesting to write a young man and treat him with the level of emotionality and empathy that’s rarely seen in traditional teen boy coming of age movies. I guess I was interested in the idea of what if a very male story could be told by a woman that actually calls him on his own narcissism? I also worked at Blockbuster in my last year of high school and thought an early aughts corporate video store would be a really fun place to set a movie in as I have so much nostalgia for video stores.
Shooting the movie was the hardest, most intense, but purely gratifying experience of my life. I am deeply grateful to my producers Lindsay Goeldner and Evan Dubinsky who managed to pull off a 19-day shoot in the middle of a pandemic on a microbudget scale, in which the unforeseen costs of shooting during Ontario’s third wave had radical effects on our production. We worked with an absolutely incredible crew of true talented geniuses including our cinematographer Rico Moran, costume designer Courtney Mitchell (and co-costume lead Meghan Torrado), hair and makeup artist Andi Clifford, and production designer Claudia Dall’Orso who transformed an empty thrift store in a shopping complex in Ajax, Ontario into an authentic period-era video store, complete with shelving we obtained from abandoned Blockbuster Video in Northern Ontario. Everything about making a movie with no money in the middle of a third wave of a worldwide pandemic was challenging; my cast and crew were literally risking their lives to help me realize my first film, and I still can’t wrap my head around that. I’d say the greatest rewards were the incredible cast and crew that I got to collaborate with, especially my brilliant lead actor Isaiah Lehtinen who I firmly believe is the Phillip Seymour Hoffman of his generation.
Why are movies important?
They’re the best medium (other than the novel) for helping anyone develop a sense of empathy, and it is a shared emotional experience with an audience. Some of the most powerful and immersive artistic experiences I’ve ever had have been spent watching movies. They help us to recognize humanity in ourselves and in other lives and people who don’t look or sound or feel anything like us. And they encompass every great art form: photography, acting, writing, music, fashion, architecture and set design, all through one singular point of view. They’re the best!
How would you describe the Toronto independent film community? What Toronto-based filmmakers are you following right now?
Prior to the pandemic, Toronto was one of the most rich and exciting movie-going cultures in the entire world. The programming at TIFF Bell Lightbox, The Revue, The Royal, The Paradise Cinema, Hot Docs, as well as a variety of other independent cinemas and festivals, was a veritable embarrassment of riches. Every week there would be at least three to five screenings, usually on 35mm, that were unmissable to me, and so thoughtfully curated. While COVID-19 has put a lot of these cultural institutions on hold and at risk, I do think that there are amazing artists in Toronto, as well as other Canadian filmmaking cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax, who are true no-holds barred uncompromising independent artists. There is a spirit of generosity and true discovery in this community; a desire to learn and share in what we are building together, shaped by the idea that we can all benefit from each other’s successes. I am very deeply moved and inspired by my friendship with great Canadian filmmakers like Ashley McKenzie, Molly McGlynn, Mark Slutsky, Simon Ennis, Grace Glowicki, Ben Petrie, Peter Kuplowsky, and especially, Trevor Anderson and Matthew Rankin, and equally inspired by everything that filmmakers like Kathleen Hepburn, Pascal Plante, Kazik Radwanski, Matt Johnson, MDFF, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Heather Young, Thyrone Tommy, Jazmine Mozaffari, Denis Cote, and Martin Edralin are doing, amongst many others. While I don’t think I am necessarily making films in the same mode as a lot of other independent filmmakers in the Canadian indie scene which tend to favour subtlety, long takes, and a docu-drama aesthetic -- I want to make comedies, and my favourite filmmakers are people like Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks, and Billy Wilder -- I am immediately curious and excited to know anyone who has the audacity to make a film. I get so excited when I see a film that is uniquely someone’s own and comes from a deep and painful place inside their heart. I love when people take risks, and I am seeing so much of this in Canadian cinema these days, after such a long drought.
What do you think could be done to make Toronto a more artist-friendly city?
I think that there needs to be more avenues for cheap, queer, creative spaces to thrive that aren’t contingent on a bank, or media conglomerate, or some weird rich philianphropist funding them; that exist for art’s sake without any other ulterior motive or aspiration masking their support. Artists need to be able to meet each other, to hang out and collaborate and see and experience each other’s work in a setting removed from all the gross capitalistic scenestery things that is making Toronto such a boring, aspirational place to live these days. Sure there are seven million places to get a glass of organic wine next to a ficus plant, but where do we go to experience independent art? There needs to be spaces where you feel like you can do absolutely everything, where everything is permissible, where you feel free to create. I really miss the era where Videofag, Double Double Land could exist. I worry that, especially in the midst of the pandemic, that the kind of creative cultural drive that it took to put on a play, or create a concert venue, or start a comedy show, or host a literary event, is being funnelled into creating your own pop-up hipster banh mi shop. As someone who is now in their mid-30s who has been writing about the Toronto art scene since I was 17, the current cultural state of Toronto’s DIY culture makes me very profoundly depressed.
What non-film art forms are inspiring you these days?
I love cooking long and elaborate meals. I love listening to recordings of plays and podcasts by Kenneth Lonergan, and last summer, I started skateboarding for the very first time.
What are you looking forward to?
Watching films in a movie theatre again, seeing my friends and family, sleeping over at my grandma’s house, dancing to a perfect New Order song that comes on unexpectedly at last call at a bar packed with people, traveling to other countries, swimming in the ocean, meeting new people, participating in society again, and wearing non-sweatpants. I am excited about finishing my film and sharing it with an audience in real life, even though it is also very terrifying, and challenging myself to again write something new. I am looking forward to everything the future has in store for me, post-pandemic, where hopefully a Toronto can emerge that is better and more sustainable for everyone and isn’t so driven on Doug Ford’s fucked-up sense of capitalism, as well as fear and despair. I look forward to foreign bookstores, subways, and long walks with friends in cities I don’t live in. I would love to keep writing and making films... I really want to have an adventurous life.