In today's video-on-demand universe, it doesn't take much pointing and clicking to unearth footage of an 18-year-old Shawn Levy in his feature-film debut, Zombie Nightmare, a grade-Z 1986 horror opus less terrifying for its walking undead than for Levy's mane of teased and frosted Night of the Living Pop Idol curls. “Respect must be paid to the hair. I was deep in the midst of my John Taylor/Duran Duran phase,” says a more conservatively coiffed Levy as he sinks into a chair at Giant Studios, the aptly named Playa Vista motion-capture facility where James Cameron shot Avatar, and where Levy is now directing Real Steel, an $80 million sci-fi movie starring Hugh Jackman as a boxing promoter in a future where human pugilists have been supplanted by giant sparring robots.
Though the CGI-intensive Steel won't hit cinemas until next fall, Levy began prepping the film while he was still in postproduction on Date Night, the Steve Carell–Tina Fey mistaken-identity comedy that opens this weekend, which he in turn started shooting while he was still putting the finishing touches on last summer's blockbuster Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Not that the wiry 41-year-old filmmaker (who somehow also finds the time to be a husband, and father to three young daughters) seems the least bit worse for wear. Even sitting down, he's in constant motion, wriggling in his chair, gesticulating wildly. If he were a cartoon character, I remember thinking of Levy when I first met him last summer, on Date Night's downtown L.A. set, he'd be surrounded by one of those perpetual energy fields — a mass of jagged, shifting lines.
“I only have one setting and it's full-on Go,” he says. “And I thank God I managed to build a career in a job that allows me to be this guy, because if I were at a desk in an office somewhere with this kind of mojo, I'd be insufferable. I'd be the guy people avoid.”
To the contrary, in just less than a decade, Levy has established himself as Hollywood's “it” guy for a certain brand of wholesome, highly profitable family entertainment — movies, including the Steve Martin–led remakes of The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen, that have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide, become staples of in-flight entertainment and preteen DVD collections, and remained largely foreign objects to childless intellectuals, the PG-averse and pretty much everyone else who doesn't write about movies for a living.
Even then, as Hollywood A-listers go, Levy has been generally critically ignored, with reviews of his films routinely assigned to second-tier stringers who might be considered the journalistic equivalents of Ben Stiller's night watchman in the two Night at the Museum films. Nor have those reviews been particularly kind, saddling each of Levy's six features to date with a less-than–50 percent average on those nexuses of critical opinion, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
While a lot of directors like to say they don't read reviews (only to then rattle off a list of every critic who ever slighted them), when Levy makes the same claim, he does so with greater conviction. As a graduate film student at the University of Southern California in the early '90s, he got a firsthand lesson in the chasm between popular taste and canonical approval when one of his student films earned him almost as many film-festival rejection letters as it did major-studio pitch meetings. “If I was setting out to make art films, or to gain admission to festivals, I would care a lot more, because the lifeblood of those movies is that critical response,” he says today. “My movies have found and connected with audiences, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do.”
So, Levy is the sort of unapologetically popcorn, populist filmmaker one defends at one's own peril, and yet, I would argue, there is more to him — and his best work — than meets the eye. The Night at the Museum movies, in particular, are fascinating, self-reflexive pop-culture objects that deliver the elaborate special-effects mayhem they promise while making lots of satirical hay out of the audience's presumed historical ignorance. In the end, both films celebrate the power of the imagination over 3-D razzle-dazzle, which helps to explain why such august institutions as the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History would willingly give themselves over to such ostensibly lowbrow shenanigans.
“There is, in fact, a tremendous amount of thinking that goes into the way I lay these movies out, and that's the Yale student in me,” says Levy, who did his undergraduate studies in the Ivy League university's drama department. “I like thinking about how things are made, and how to use visual rules to tell the dramatic narrative, so that there's a narrative to the visuals in addition to the plot.”
In the case of Date Night, that meant opting for a locked-down camera and a drab, beige-and-gray color palette for the early scenes, in which we first meet Carell and Fey's complacent, suburban–New Jersey married couple, Phil and Claire Foster. Levy then switches to more vibrant, saturated hues and mobile compositions in the film's antic second act, when the Fosters' impulsive decision to poach another couple's chichi Manhattan dinner reservation sets off a string of escalating screwball complications.
If the ribald (by PG-13 standards) farce, described by Levy as “After Hours with a couple,” at first seems a departure for the director — a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the parents who have logged a dozen or so hours schlepping their young 'uns to Levy's other films — in other respects his third “night” movie in a row sticks to the Museum series' successful template, confining its comedic action to a single surreal, madcap evening in which anything can happen, and frequently does.
“There's almost a fablelike quality about stories that happen in a compressed time frame, and that applies as much to After Hours as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles,” Levy says. “I just like the idea of a contained adventure, the effects and the fruits of which the characters have forever thereafter. They go back to the suburbs, but they don't go back the same.”
Levy himself grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, a self-professed drama geek who set his mind on Yale from the age of 10, and enrolled there a mere six years later, skipping his senior year of high school. Acting jobs like Zombie Nightmare, along with guest stints on Beverly Hills, 90210, thirtysomething and 21 Jump Street, helped pay his tuition, but it was while directing his classmate Paul Giamatti in a student production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Levy experienced a kind of epiphany regarding the future course of his career.
“Two things became very clear,” he says. “One, I saw the difference between a great actor, Paul, and a good actor, me. And I wanted to do something I could be great at. The other thing is that I found it really satisfying to help get Paul to a greater performance, and the satisfaction of directing actors, and the kinship and protectiveness that you develop vis-à-vis your actors, which I feel today for Ben and Steve and Tina and all my actors, was really gratifying.”
He went on to hone his chops directing dozens of hours of youth-oriented TV series, like The Famous Jett Jackson and The Secret World of Alex Mack, which Levy says taught him to “do the work, be efficient, be decisive. On a television schedule, you can't aimlessly meander through the shooting day and hope that you'll figure it out.”
The curious polarities of Levy's career thus far, however, may be best understood through his work with Giamatti. Two decades after Virginia Woolf, Levy reunited with his erstwhile muse for his 2002 debut feature, Big Fat Liar, a playful updating of the boy-who-cried-wolf story starring Giamatti as a despicable Hollywood producer who steals the idea for his latest movie from a compulsively truth-stretching 14-year-old boy. Only in the latter of their two collaborations was the actor required to play several scenes covered from head to toe in blue body paint.
Today, from his perch near the top of the Hollywood heap, Levy says he's lost none of the hunger that got him here in the first place. “I want to do so much more,” he says with a broad grin. “I want to build a company that becomes a brand. I want to direct countless more movies in a wide range of tones and genres. The shift from Night at the Museum to Date Night to Real Steel, and turning 40 … it's all of a piece, I think, to challenge myself and to frankly show myself and others that what I've done is not fully indicative of what I can do.”
In parting, I ask Levy if he could imagine himself making a serious, straightforward adult drama on the order of 1979's multiple-Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer, a “family” film that also happened to be an enormously popular mainstream attraction in its time. At that, Levy brightens and tells me that Kramer is a movie so dear to him that he could quote large sections of it from memory. “And you better believe that before I'm done, I've got one of those in me, too.”