In Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020), filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) retreats to a remote lake house in the hopes of bridging her creative impasse. There she meets Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), the couple she’s rented the house from. The trio is cast and then recast in different roles as we watch a filmmaker play a calculated game of desire and jealousy in the pursuit of a work of art — a game that blurs the boundaries between autobiography and invention.
Levine’s third feature has shades of his debut feature Gabi on the Roof in July (2010), which is about an artist whose sister comes to stay. In each story, a visit is the catalyst for turmoil. His sophomore feature, Wild Canaries (2014), wherein he co-starred alongside his wife, filmmaker Sophia Takal, sees the couple suspecting foul play after they find their neighbour dead. It’s a nod to the murder mystery, which foreshadows Black Bear’s playfulness.
In conversation with PopMatters, Levine reflects on how artists are constantly revealing themselves through their work, the connection between film and therapy, and the filmmaking process as a traumatic experience.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It was childhood experiences. I remember my dad and I used to go to the movies a lot, and it was the heyday of the American blockbuster when I was a little kid. I was too young for the first Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), but not for The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) and Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983), as well as E.T(Spielberg, 1982). I was swept up in the magic of these big Hollywood movies, but I didn’t understand where they came from. They were like these magic tricks in that they just arrived.
I remember my dad showing me the Woody Allen film Annie Hall (1977) when I was 12- or 13-years-old. I don’t know if you remember that it starts with him addressing the screen. He seems to be talking about his life, and at that moment I realised a person made these films, and they didn’t just appear magically out of thin air.
I’ve no idea why this happened or why I thought because people make these films that I loved, maybe I can be one of the people who make them. Ever since that moment, I’ve wanted to become a filmmaker, and I’ve learnt everything I could about it.
I got a camcorder shortly thereafter and started making movies with my friends. It wasn’t a conscious thing, I just appreciated film, learned you could make films, and then started making them.
Per your reference to Annie Hall, there’s a moment in Black Bear when Aubrey’s character looks into the camera, acknowledging the presence of the audience. It’s interesting that you talk of the influence of Woody Allen because both have characters that break the fourth wall.
Most of the ideas in this movie occurred to me subconsciously. So when I’m discussing a reason for a particular choice, I’m interpreting that choice as you might. Why that felt right to me was, I looked at it as a way of raising the question for the viewer, What’s the relationship between the person creating the art, and the experience they’re presenting? Something was suggested when she looked at the camera, ‘These are my experiences, and somehow I’m going to transform them into art. Maybe it’s the art that you just saw, or maybe it’s some film you’re not going to see, but there’s some relationship between my life and what I’m about to present to you.’
It’s a confessional because I feel that no matter what we do as artists, we’re always revealing ourselves. There are degrees to which certain intentions are hidden, and there are certain works that are obviously confessional, and others that aren’t. There’s always a degree of self-revelation and self-critique, and certainly, for me, this movie more than anything was self-critique.
This moment in Black Bear reminds us that there’s the world inside the storyteller’s mind that can be inspired by their surroundings and the people they’ve met, and then there’s reality.
It’s a way of admitting some things about my process, or what I think is true about the artistic process. So much of it’s up to chance and has to do with your surroundings and what you encounter. When I’m looking for a name for a character, I’m thinking about who I met in the last couple of days. So it’s just about the connection between creativity and life.
The process of life is very chaotic and drama arranges it in an organised way we can understand. This movie is an admission that it’s not always the easiest process, or that it might not necessarily be true. Drama gives an order to things, but is that order really there? There’s a question to think about: Is the world orderly or chaotic?
For the audience, a film can open doors to our memories, allowing us to understand ourselves more fully. Do you view cinema as a form of talking therapy for not only the filmmaker, but the audience as well?
The dramatic arts are definitely therapeutic, certainly for the writer and hopefully for the audience. We go to the movies not only to be distracted from our daily troubles, but to also be transported to a world of feeling, to confront and process our emotions.
If there’s a connection between film and therapy, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It can be very therapeutic for people to watch films and that’s part of why we do it.
The people who are marketing films might not want to describe films that way, but they are. Even films like The Fast and the Furious (2001-) are therapeutic to the people who watch them. We have a lot of infantile feelings, a lot of rage, and a desire to see things blown up. Even watching these movies that are “mindless” serves a social purpose and a social good. They say on nights when these big action movies come out, there’s less crime in the street – think about that.
If there’s the idea that some storytellers are retelling the same story, would you agree that what motivates this is they’re drawn to particular themes and ideas?
Filmmakers are often drawn to particular themes that recur in their work, but I don’t know about the thread you find in Stephen Frears’ films. He has made a lot of great movies, but I can’t tell you a single theme he’s focused on, whereas if you look at someone like Hong Sang-soo, literally the same things keep happening.
There’s a big difference between [Federico] Fellini and Sidney Lumet, but it’s the themes that are recurring. You can see in Hitchcock the stories are all different, but the themes are all similar, which is an obvious example.
The absence of the bear for much of the film is interesting because it becomes humorous, and yet it’s also a metaphor for how we look outward, rather than self-reflecting on our thoughts and feelings, our inner demons and anxieties. This ties into the creative process, in that you can come up with the story, but then comes the difficulty of writing, shoot and editing the film. If much of the story is about the act of imagining, it speaks to how we can work out problems in our head, yet applying it to our internal selves is when the problems begin.
The bear can be looked at as the unaccountable force of nature, which is then mirrored in the unaccountable animalistic aspects of ourselves. The writer is then trying to condense it into something they can have a confrontation with, and the audience can watch.
In other words, the writer has a confrontation with things that everyday people don’t know how to have contact with – that’s what the artist does. They see the world in a way that the everyday person can’t, not because many people don’t have the ability but because they haven’t developed the potential, or their life hasn’t taken that path. It takes a lot of special things to become a writer and an artist, mainly the time dictated to doing it and thinking about it. A lot of everyday people don’t have that luxury.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
It’s true, but I don’t know how that works when you’re thinking about films that went ignored that clearly shouldn’t have been. Films don’t exist in a vacuum, you’re making a film for an audience and that’s not something that should be avoided, although sometimes, and for example with Black Bear, I didn’t think about the audience much, and that was for better and worse.
I wanted to express something personal and I was tired of writing things for an imaginary commercial audience. I thought maybe I could write something that spoke person-to-person. That’s what I tried to do. But it’s also valuable to try to reach a wider audience.
In what ways did not thinking about the audience work for the better?
It was just better for me personally because I felt free. Most of the work I’d been doing for the previous five or six years was working with producers and studio executives. The work was was very collaborative and workshopped. It wasn’t particularly intimate or personal, it was much more like “were writing for this audience that we think is there” and asking, “What are they going to like?” This [Black Bear] was more, “Hey, this is the way I want to process my experience and put it out there and see if people are into it.”
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me, “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
It does in the same way that any traumatic experience shapes somebody [laughs]. I haven’t had a film yet that hasn’t been a traumatic experience, so I’m waiting for the day. The act of making a film is wrestling with God because you’re trying to bring order to a universe that trends towards entropy. You’re fighting against the fact that your focus puller went out and got drunk last night and can’t keep the movie in focus. You’re fighting against the domestic squabble that happened between the head of the production department and one of the grips. Your actor has had a fight with her boyfriend on the phone last night and isn’t focused today, or it’s raining when the forecast said it was going to be sunny.
You’re at war with the world, and you’re trying to impose order on something that’s totally chaotic and has no interest in you. You’re coming up against the absolute indifference of the universe towards you and your needs every time. To do that day after day and spending lots of money on that is stressful. It’s a confrontation with the universe’s indifference that changes you, and it can be for better and for the worse. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and it’s good to adopt that attitude.
If it’s such a difficult and stressful experience, why do you continue with filmmaking?
It’s interesting because so much of what this movie is about is the sacrifice that creative people make. I don’t know how different it is from people who engage in any difficult job. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and I’m energised by the challenge. It makes me feel present and alive.
There’s also a lot of disappointment and it’s also a competitive endeavour, where you’re testing your edge and seeing what you’re made of. It’s hard and it’s traumatic, but it’s also invigorating. I just deal with it.
Black Bear is released On Digital in the UK today, 23 April 2021.
Risker, Paul. “Carol Morley | The Falling”. Starburst. 24 April 2015.
Risker, Paul. Interview with Director Christoph Behl. FrightFest. (article lost)