The surreal manipulation of "Black Bear," a comic thriller with answers that "hover out of reach"

Lawrence Michael Levine spoke to Salon about his ambiguous movie, how we lie to ourselves & his filmmaker wife

Published December 2, 2020 4:46PM (EST)

Aubrey Plaza in "Black Bear" (Momentum Pictures)
Aubrey Plaza in "Black Bear" (Momentum Pictures)

"Black Bear" is a meta film about filmmakers and filmmaking. This compelling, funny, and offbeat drama opens with Allison (Aubrey Plaza), an actress-turned-director, arriving at a retreat run by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). It is irresponsible to reveal anything more than this setup except to say that a love triangle develops. 

Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine — who last helmed the hilarious mystery-comedy "Wild Canaries" — plays with genre, mixing suspense and romance with slapstick. "Black Bear" takes viewers on a ride, and the film addresses issue of control and manipulation. 

The filmmaker spoke to Salon via Zoom about his film, his relationship with his wife, filmmaker Sophia Takal, and how he directs. 

What do you think is the appeal of films about filmmaking? 

I don't know what the appeal is. I tend not to think that way. I tend to think: What kind of movie would I want to see and do it. But in the case of this movie, I didn't even think of that. It was a much more intuitive and spontaneous process. I know that I love backstage drama. I can't really say why. I have always been drawn to films about movies and theater. I think it's beyond being a practitioner. It's something I have been interested in for as long as I can remember.

The film's tone is very intimate; as if we are eavesdropping on the characters. Can you talk about your approach to the material? 

I like that kind of observational cinema where the directorial hand isn't particularly heavy. Not that I don't like the other kind of directing too. I love Scorsese. "Goodfellas" is a heavily directed movie, for example. I just watched "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." I loved it. I read a review of it after, and one reviewer, in a positive review, said, that "[Director Cristi Puiu] doesn't direct movies as much as observe his characters." I think that understanding is really inaccurate. The choices that [Puiu] made were just as innovative, unique, and interesting as the choices Scorsese makes. They are just less flashy. Most of the directing in a movie like that has to do with staging and placement. When you have only one camera angle, you're really directing the blocking, so the actors keep the scene interesting and move in sync with the camera. My own approach is not a virtuosic type of cinema in terms of camera movements. It is more observational. But that doesn't mean it's not directed. I take more care with performance, dialogue, tempo, rhythm, and things like that.

The tone also shifts from intense drama to slapstick comedy to something surreal. Can you talk about that aspect of "Black Bear"?

Every time I do a movie, I try to put everything that I love about cinema in the movie. I'm not cautious about genre conventions, or saying, "This is a comedy," so it can't have any serious moments, or, "This is a drama" so it can't have any comedy. Although, it was something that we looked at in the edit. We thought a lot about the balance between comedy and tragedy and not overwhelming one with the other. 

I thought about life, and in my life, there's never been a time when comedy and tragedy weren't occurring simultaneously. And in that spirit, I wanted to create that tone in the film. There is a lot of humor in the first part, too, which has less physical comedy, but I think there's some wit in there. I don't like films that don't have any laughs — even if it's a drama, I'm not interested. And if the film is a comedy, and doesn't have anything that moves me, or engages my intellect, the same is true. 

What are your observations on the central love triangle between Gabe, Allison, and Blair?

I don't write from outside of my characters. I write from inside them. Which means that I try to make them all have a justification to themselves. I don't have an overarching attitude about this love triangle, other than the patently obvious, which is that love and desire are not always productive forces or joyful forces, but also destructive forces as well. The power of passion can ruin a life as much as it can make a life. I write from the inside and try to put myself through what each character is going through in that moment. I have total sympathy for my characters.

You dedicate the film to your wife Sophia Takal. What can you say about your relationship with her and moviemaking?

The reason why I dedicated the movie to her was manifold. She wasn't able to produce the movie, which was the first time that's happened since we met. She was off making a movie on her own. I wanted her to know her spirit was with me. I also wanted her to know this was a movie about my fears of losing her, not about some wish fulfillment, or something like that. You could look at this movie and read this film a lot of ways. I thought she should know that's what it was.

When I was done with the film, I was proud of it in a way I had never been about my films before. I did it uncompromisingly. I didn't do it to please anybody else. In my other films, there was some imagined audience in my mind. When I made "Wild Canaries," I wanted a movie my parents could enjoy, or that would be palatable to the public because it had a lot of laughs. I thought, I'm getting somewhere with this finally, after years of trying to become a writer/filmmaker. I was really aware I couldn't have done it without her support and help. When we first met, I was thinking of quitting, and she inspired me to keep going. It was important to acknowledge that. She believed in me really before I believed in myself. So, at the end of the process, I had finally gotten to a place that she thought I could go. 

What can you say about the relationship you had as a director with your actors, and  especially Aubrey Plaza? 

As a director, I am very much present and involved and invested — it's just that I don't have any sort of didactic interpretation of the way that a scene should go. I keep my mind open to things the actors can bring that usually go beyond what I imaged when I was writing — new interpretations, surprising thoughts. I don't direct the actors before we start shooting the scene. I wait to see what they bring. Way more often than not, their interpretations are either spot on, or better than I could have imaged. In that sense, part of my style is staying out of the way when things are going well.

That being said, there were lot of conversation with Aubrey and the other actors before the shooting started. But they were more just reading through the script together in case there were any questions or things the actors were unclear about or if there were any lines they didn't want to say. It's usually an interesting conversation when actors say, "I don't want to say this line." Either it's not a good line, or it won't feel natural coming out of their mouth, or it's an unnecessary line you could just cut. Or, there's some deep discomfort that they have with saying the line that will illuminate something about the scene that will help them understand it better on an emotional level. That was really part of the directing. The other part was keeping the energy up and being collaborative and offering ideas back and forth My relationship with Aubrey was similar to the relationship I've had with almost every actor I have worked with — which is to say she brought of most of that herself. I worked to accentuate. If she went in a direction I liked, I encouraged her to go further. 

As a director, do you play mind games and manipulate your actors?  Why/why not?

I've never played a conscious mind game with anybody. I may be manipulative — that's possible — but you'd have to ask the people around me. I'm not thinking, "OK, I need to knock this person down, so they feel they need me more," or some kind of tactic like that. The only thing I am conscious of while directing is trying to be patient and kind. I need to marshal my better angels when I go on set. I've acted in all my films over the last decade until this one. It was kind of a different experience, but I still felt I was playing a role as director. It's a very parental kind of role. 

My parents raised me in such a way they didn't put their s**t onto me. They never sat me down and said they were having a hard time — will you help me? They were there for me and they didn't ask me to be there for them. I think that's pretty adult. Things changed as I got older, and our relationship deepened. I feel like on set, that's the attitude I try to marshal, which is put your own s**t away. These people don't need to hear it. They are vulnerable in front of the camera right now and taking big risks that you're not taking. You need to protect them not only from yourself, but all the craziness on the set. That's my intention. I'm not saying I've done that well. But that's what I am conscious of. The other stuff is unconscious — the manipulation, the lying. That's what I'm working to get ahold of. That would be a more interesting question for the people I work with.

On what occasions do you lie, make a joke, or manipulate a situation as the characters do?

In my life? All the time! It's not just me. It's the reason why human beings open up their mouths. They talk to get something. And very rarely are they saying specifically what that thing is. People think of language as a means to communication, but more often than not, it's actually a means for obfuscation. Particularly if you look at political speech, and what's going on now, you can see it really obviously.

If you look at a conventional movie, people say the things they mean, and you as the audience are expected to take them at their word. But in life, that's not my view of how people talk or why they say things — and my characters certainly don't. And a lot of times we're lying to ourselves. Or we don't even know ourselves that we are making this joke because we feel threatened or defensive or to get status over somebody. We're just in the flow of experience. It's only afterwards, or when you're watching a movie and see that people are doing this, that you can think about it. It is hard to speak directly and communicate effectively. It is one of the biggest challenges of life. The challenge consists of actually knowing your own truth before you speak.

The film is ambiguous in places. You ascribe symbolism to the title bear. What do you think about ambiguity?

Nobody likes a heavy-handed symbol. I didn't think the film was particularly ambiguous. I did work to make it a little harder to read and a little more mysterious. I'm pleased that people can have conversations about it and wonder what it all meant. To me, it's really obvious, and I felt vulnerable about how obvious it was. There are certain things that are ambiguous. I wanted the movie to feel like a dream, and dreams are not really very clear. There's an emotional reality and vividness to them. But their meanings often hover out of reach of your conscious mind. I like movies that feel that way. 

I did have it in mind to tell a story in parts. I thought it was going to be two or three. I like this way of telling stories. I did a lot work in Hollywood with studios after "Wild Canaries." There are really reliable formulas you can use in screenwriting to tell a conventional story. I guess I got tired of using them and in some ways, I am tired of seeing them. Once you understand these structural rules, it's very easy to tell where most movies are going. I just didn't want that to happen with this one.

"Black Bear" is available in select theaters and VOD on Friday, Dec. 4.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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