Toronto: Shawn Levy on His Jason Bateman-Tina Fey Dramedy, Entering R-Rated Territory and Robin Williams' Death

Tommy Garcia
Shawn Levy

The director is hitting the festival with 'This Is Where I Leave You' and has the third 'Night at the Museum' out in December

This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"I don't make festival-type movies," Shawn Levy freely admits. The 46-year-old producer/director, who lives in Brentwood with his wife, Serena, and their four daughters, ranging in age from 3 to 15, is most closely associated with such family comedies as 2003's Cheaper by the Dozen and effects-driven fantasy films such as the hit Night at the Museum franchise. "And I made a vow early on that I would only attend a film festival if I had a reason to be there," he says. Finally, though, that reason has come along for the Montreal-born director (who became a U.S. citizen in 2008). His newest film, the dramedy This Is Where I Leave You, which Warner Bros. will release Sept. 19, will have its world premiere in Toronto on Sept. 7. Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, as well as rising talents Adam Driver and Corey Stoll, the movie was adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own novel about a group of siblings who assemble for their father's funeral. "Tina has said that people will describe this as a dark comedy, but it's not dark. It's an emotional comedy," says Levy. "And I thought that was on point."

How did you become involved with This Is Where I Leave You?

I read the novel in 2009 and I fell for it. It had the blend of funny and poignant that I like. I had a great meeting with [producer] Paula Weinstein, who had optioned the book, and got her support, but when the time came to talk to Warner Bros., the message I received was, "Great that you love it -- do you want to direct The Flash?" So, I would read the movie was going to be made by different directors, different actors. But there came a moment, in the fall of 2012, when it was like there's a fumble in football. That ball got loose and I threw my body on it and said, "I'm going to make it for under $20 million and I'm going to cast who I want. And I'm going to return it to the more dramatic tone of the novel."

Why did you connect so much with it?

The book is about marriage, mothers, fathers, love and siblings. But the movie is most of all a sibling love story. My five siblings were my life preservers. The pull of history and the imperative of the present is really alive in adult sibling relationships.

As a smaller, adult-oriented movie, it's not a typical studio movie …

I was maybe slightly surprised, but [Warners worldwide production president] Greg Silverman always got that this is a beautiful story. It's small in its stakes, not about super­heroes saving the world, but it's big in its aspirational heart. I want to believe character films don't have to be the sole domain of indies.

How did you go about casting?

With Jason and Tina, my whole approach was, we all have done well working in comedy on a big commercial scale. I said, "I want to try something a little different here and I want you to try that different thing with me. None of us are going to get paid what we normally get paid." So we really linked arms in an economic model that kept the budget low and a creative aspiration that would be different.

Did you always plan to direct Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, which Fox is releasing Dec. 19?

Yes, it took five years to come up with a story and then a script that felt worth making for the third and probably final chapter of Night at the Museum. Ben [Stiller] and I threw out lots of drafts. But I was never going to let someone else direct it, because it's been a defining franchise in my life and career and I'm very, very possessive of it.

What was it like returning to the editing room for Night at the Museum after Robin Williams' death?

Molding his performance, the sadness hits me in waves. This performance is less improv-heavy. Robin brought his beautiful, crazy spirit to these movies, but it was always in the service of this vigorous, vital Teddy Roosevelt character. As the closing movie in the trilogy, the movie's theme is magic living on through these creatures at the museum, and that's been on my mind in terms of the magic of Robin's own performances outlasting his own life span.

Your production company, 21 Laps, has a first-look deal at Fox, but you've been branching out, producing the work of other directors. How consciously have you been leveraging your commercial success to produce and direct a wider range of movies?

21 Laps has given me an infrastructure to explore any idea that I want. It's allowed us to nurture and collaborate with different filmmakers, like James Ponsoldt, who directed The Spectacular Now. My guys were also turned on to a Ted Chiang short story, and now it's going to be a movie next year, Story of Your Life, with Amy Adams and Denis Villeneuve directing for Paramount. Sometimes I use the infrastructure for my own purposes, and sometimes I use it to explore these other collaborations. Fox sees an idea and decides if they want it, but if they don't, they've never stood in the way of my exploring it elsewhere. We're still in the comedy business, but we're in a broadening moment.