By Lisa Horan.
A film about diaries. That’s what Writer/Director Jefery Levy had his mind set on doing when he started searching for a diary that was public domain and had the substance and heart worthy of being transformed into a film. Instead of a diary, however, he stumbled upon a novel about diaries – the diaries of an aging husband and his younger wife and their dark, twisted sexual relationship. He knew he had found something special, but he didn’t realize at the time that The Key would become the “most unique project” he’s done to date.
And Levy has three decades’ worth of projects to compare his experience to. He first entered the Hollywood film scene in 1984 when he co-penned the classic horror-comedy, Ghoulies with Luca Bercovici. Since then, he has assembled an impressive list of TV directing (CSI, Ghost Whisperer, Numb3rs) and screenwriting (Invincible, S.F.W., Rockula) credits.
But The Key is something wholly different. “As a director, I was looking for something that would enable me to use a fine arts photography approach and free me from having to record dialogue on set,” explains Levy. His goal was to focus solely on creating images, which would provide him the flexibility to work the script around what he shot and edited.
“I had this vision in my head of how I wanted the film to be, but, honestly, I didn’t know if it was going to work or not,” says Levy. “The process of making this film was unlike anything I had ever done.”
This process involved Levy writing a very long, full working script, as opposed to an outline and working in a backwards sort of approach to the filmmaking process. “I gave the script, along with handheld recorders, to my actors (David Arquette and Bai Ling) and asked them to read all of their dialogue into the recorders at their leisure – while they were at home or at a coffee shop or wherever,” explains Levy. The recordings were transcribed, and what resulted was a three hour long script.
“We knew we’d have to cut it down by two-thirds, but we shot the script – this time with no dialogue.” After Levy put the scenes together, he cut the film down, created a brand new script, and wrote new VO dialogue for the actors. “It was a very unique process. The actors actually got to see the film and themselves in it while they were recording their voice overs, and that’s where the real ‘acting’ was done,” he explains. “Both David and Bai told me it was an amazing experience for them – like nothing they had ever done – and I have to say, their performances are pretty fantastic.”
Visual Artistry with a Deeper Purpose
The visual quality of The Key is equally fantastic. Driven by intense images, the film is a concoction of Levy’s vision of creating the look and feel of a dream that had been captured in images, buried in the ground, and then later found and dug up. This vision wasn’t solely based on reaching an extraordinary aesthetic objective, but also to vividly depict the film’s underlying theme of aging and mortality. To best communicate his very detailed vision, Levy developed an intricate visual manual, much like the one Francis Ford Coppola had once used for one of his films. “I had worked with Sophia Coppola on a film, and I knew that Francis had made an in-depth visual guide to capture his vision for Dracula, and I thought it would be helpful to the crew to do the same for The Key.”
Levy’s 300-page “visual bible” was filled with visual references, from photos he had taken, to photos he had found, to artwork he had experimented with, to one artist’s renderings of aging.
It was Levy’s intent that the images would visually represent the marked arc of the film’s main character, played by David Arquette. “David’s character is not only losing his health, but he’s going insane more and more throughout the film,” explains Levy. To represent this self-destructive character arc, Levy gives the film a proportionately arcing destructive quality, applying a more destroyed, battered look to it as the movie progresses.
While the overall result of Levy’s deliberate efforts is both stunning and palpable, reaching that visual plateau was challenging. “Since there was no dialogue and we shot the film out of order and the actors only shot together for about a week, I had to take copious notes to keep track of what part of the arc the actors were in and what their emotion was supposed to be at that point in the film,” says Levy. “That was probably the most difficult aspect of the process – keeping track of the story arcs in each scene.”
Challenging or not, the film’s images are impressively rich. Surprisingly, its major motion picture quality was not achieved at a high end studio; it took Levy and three additional editors nine months to edit the film from his home-based editing suite, which consisted of a laptop, a desktop, and Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Photoshop.
Solace in Screenwriting
While Levy is most known for his success in network TV, directing shows like Profiler, Sliders, Monk, and Rescue Me, his heart has always been in film. “I got my start in screenwriting and prefer writing features to writing for TV,” says Levy. “I’ve worked in the business for a long time and tried my hand at writing for TV shows, but I never seemed to get into that world for some reason – maybe it’s because it’s more of a group thing, and I’m more of a solitary person,” he admits.
In fact, Levy attributes an introverted personality and a passion for paperbacks for driving him into the writing world. “I was a weird kid who loved books and read all the time,” explains Levy, who says losing himself in books and music was what got through a rough childhood. Writing would become the crux of his adult life.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in poetry from UCLA, he went on to film school at the university, and, at the age of 18, co-wrote Ghoulies, sold a handful of other screenplays, and was accepted into the Writers Guild.
In spite of his obvious talent, however, after S.F.W. in 1994, for one reason or another, circumstances prevented his films from being made. The screenplay he had written for the then-dating Sandra Bullock and Tate Donovan, for instance, got shelved because the couple broke up. Not long after, the film he had adapted from a novel and spent five years trying to get John Cusak and then unknown Cameron Diaz to star in was just about to go into production when Cusak decided he wanted to direct the film and Diaz blew up in Something About Mary, so the film was never made.
He was writing consistently, but for a long stretch, his screenplays never made it from the paper to the big screen and he spent the majority of his time in the director’s chair. Invincible, his last produced screenplay (co-written with Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, creators and executive producers of Chicago Fire for Dick Wolf) is perhaps the most fitting title for Levy, who never stopped writing or aspiring to get his films made. Instead, he tapped into his own inventiveness and technological advances in filmmaking to bring his stories to life.
And he’s got more stories to tell. In addition to The Key, he recently completed Me, a film about a washed up actress who sells a show about her delusional friend to reality TV. He’s also in the midst of a brand new film project, which is expected to go into production in 2016.
While Levy may not again take on a project quite as unique as The Key, his body of work is proof that whatever the project, it will be creatively stimulating and cleverly. Like Ghoulies, perhaps it will even become an unexpected classic.