Director Sam Levinson on making ‘Malcolm & Marie’ in just 10 days: ‘This was a movie that we couldn’t totally predict’

Though Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” only has two cast members — John David Washington and Zendaya — there is a third character in Netflix’s romantic drama about a filmmaker and his girlfriend and muse. The third participant in the drama is the gorgeous and isolated window-filled house located in Carmel where Malcolm and Marie spend the night after Malcolm’s film premiere bickering, confessing, making love only to start fighting again.

Levinson (“Euphoria,” “Assassination Nation”) said the film has an “element that feels a little unsettling that anything could happen,” he explained during a recent Film Independent zoom interview which also featured Zendaya, Washington and cinematographer Marcell Rev moderated by Film Independent president Josh Welsh. “It’s like two snakes in a jar and we’re not going to take the lid off,” he added. “There’s no place to go. I think that’s brought out in the location which is designed by Jonathan Feldman. Our production designer Michael Grasley found it.”

Levinson acknowledged they looked at some 1,500 different houses until Grasley said,” ’Why don’t we just look at architects whose work we love and then just go to those houses, knock on the door and see if they let us shoot there for two weeks.”’ Because the shooting schedule was just 10 days — it was shot like summer during the pandemic under strict rules –Levinson and Rev decided to plan out every shot of the black-and-white film. “We’re going to shoot this whole thing, well-choreographed,” Levinson noted. “it could be like an Otto Preminger film. Blocking. Everything’s going to be on a dolly. “

So, they shot the whole first day in that method. “We do 20, 30 takes of John David in the living room, acting the s-t out of Malcolm and Z smoking a hundred of those kind of terrible herbal cigarettes.” But at the end of the day, neither Levinson nor Rev were happy with what they shot. “I’m like ‘it looks like a whiskey commercial.’ We were depressed about it.”

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The next day in the car on their way to the location they decide to throw out all the first day’s work and shoot the entire film handheld. That was easier said than done. Near the end of the second day of production, Levinson looked over at Rev and “he’s got a thousand-foot mag on his shoulder. He’s been shooting handheld. He’s covered in sweat. He’s lost ten pounds. I know in that moment that we’re throwing this day out. “

They decided not to tell the cast on the third day they were throwing out the footage, but just go on to the next scene which “was a connecting shot from outside of Z in the bathroom and JD coming in and dancing into the living room. When we set up the shot and started shooting it, I looked at Marcell and said ‘I feel like this is the shot. We should play the entire scene out this way.”’

They realized shooting that scene that was needed “was the sort of objective lens that we are going to look at this couple kind of work out their stuff out throughout the course of this night and we weren’t going to be taking sides on it. We were just going to let it unfold naturally. This was a movie that we couldn’t totally predict. That we needed to figure it out as it went along. We’d really have to be in service of the performances.”

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Washington relished the freedom he received from Levinson and Rev’s shooting style. “Marcell and Sam never made me feel restricted,” he explained. “It’s almost like Sam definitely was whispering ‘Let it out. There’s a beast in there and we haven’t seen it yet. Go ahead. Get it out.’ So, I’m like ‘Really?” I’m stripping off NFL experience, I’m stripping off being called the ‘N’ word in the South when I was seven, all kinds of feelings. That all helped inform what to do and what to do was stay out of the way and let the words and spirit take you there.”

“Malcolm & Marie” was also shot chronologically which Zendaya, who won an Emmy in September for best dramatic actress for Levinson’s HBO series “Euphoria,” helped her and Washington find the “flow of the argument of these characters as we went. Nothing was ever set-in stone, like this is how we are going to do it. Clearly things got thrown out. We figured things out on the day; things are being rewritten if we feel that it’s not right. We did a lot of prepping of the material, but you don’t really know how it feels until you’re doing it.”

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