Aubrey Plaza turns in a revelatory performance in Black Bear playing a filmmaker who visits friends of friends in a remote house in upstate New York. Creating a further rift between warring couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), Plaza’s ability to balance outward sarcasm and inward toil creates an unnerving tension at the heart of this psychological thriller. Behind the strings, director Lawrence Michael Levine – who last joined us alongside Sophia Takal for a conversation about subverting horror tropes in Green – has even more mischievous ideas, turning the film on its head in its mind-bending metafictional second half, asking the audience to contemplate the relationship between art and life. We sat down with the director to discuss writing the script with Plaza in mind, finding the perfect location and the tragic-comic nature of film sets.
Black Bear has a very striking woodland location. Tell me how you came across it?
It’s interesting. A friend of mine has one in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. There are a lot of lakes up there and a lot of older families in America have camps around those lakes where they would go in the summer before there was air conditioning. He showed me some pictures that his family had. I wrote the movie to be set in these pictures because I figured that there was going to be a synergy there. By the time the money came together for the movie, the camp was no longer available, so we had to find something else. I had written the script specifically tailored to those pictures so I needed three separate structures and I needed them to have a view of the lake with nothing on the other side of it. My wife Sophia Takal looked at a lot of places on Vrbo and turned up a place that was even more appropriate than the original camp.
I went into the film completely blind. I initially thought it was going to be a full-throttle horror movie where the relationships go wrong and people start killing each other. But then Black Bear has this great switch… did you want to start in a horror/thriller zone and then see how you could subvert those tropes?
Sophia and I have made a lot of films together. One film we made was called Green and then there’s Always Shine. In those movies we were kind of floating the idea that this is a horror movie that’s not about slashers or actual murderers. The horror is coming from within the characters. In a way Black Bear is a continuation of that exploration, so I wanted it to be very suspenseful. It’s a hard movie to categorise. I guess you could call it a thriller, but I think it’s more of a suspenseful drama. Definitely the idea that something horrific was going on was present in my mind, but it was just the horror going on within the pain of the characters. That was definitely a balance, especially with the music too where we didn’t want to push it. I thought about horror a lot, but I don’t think this movie was a horror movie. I think this was an emotional horror movie.
The film is a brilliant example of how a great actor can change the tone of the film through their performance. Aubrey Plaza does this really well — bringing so much personality and attitude to the film like she’s creating something in the process. Did you give her leeway or did you have strict notes?
It wasn’t strict notes but I had her in mind when I was writing it. I wrote it with her speech patterns and particular persona in mind. Her persona is very sarcastic and remote but underneath that… I think that’s just a mask for a lot of inner turmoil. So I wanted to explore that dichotomy and her persona was kind of ideal for that. I don’t give actors specific notes because I have the luxury of writing my own scripts. I’m ready to answer them if they’re confused or have questions, but otherwise I give them a lot of leeway. I don’t think that’s how they felt, you know. I hear they had a different view of it.
I wrote it with her speech patterns and particular persona in mind.
The second of the half then acts as a recalibration of what we have seen before. What I like is that it’s not just a rerun of the same scenes, but that it has a more angular approach. Was it important that it didn’t fit too nicely?
I made it more ambiguous and open to interpretation. The initial idea was that I was going to tell a story in two parts. I was going to tell one part where the protagonist was a homewrecker, then tell another story where that same character had been betrayed. Then I was going to invite the audience to think about the connection between the two. Because in life I think we are all victims and persecutors and it’s more complicated than good and bad. That was the animating idea, initially.
I thought that I could tell one half then make the second half the backstage drama for the movie that we had just watched. But I thought in some ways that was too tidy, too pat. And it would’ve invalidated the first part as not real. In this situation you’re invited to think about the relationship: which may have happened first or second, or even if either of them happened at all and they were both in the mind of the writer. I felt it was more interesting to make it more inconclusive.
This difference is expressed in the filmmaking itself. The first part is controlled with neat blocking and slowly gathering tension; the second half is more handheld, like chaotic documentary filmmaking. How did you think about separating these two parts in terms of style?
After watching the first half, I think it builds to a pretty great climax. I didn’t want the movie to then dip in part two. I didn’t want to move it up to a climax, then back down, then up to a climax again. I wanted to keep the tension going. I thought: “OK, we finished part one on a big, climactic event. What’s the way that I can maintain that momentum?” I thought it was by going more handheld, being more kinetic and making the stakes really clear up front that there’s this game being played. It was more about matching the energy. I wanted part two to feel even more real than part one because if it didn’t the audience would assume that part one was the one intended to be real, whereas neither of them is real ‘or’ not real. They’re both fictions that have some relationship to this writer’s life.
Which films about films had an influence on the second half. I felt a bit of a Day for Night-vibe here…
There weren’t any movies that I was thinking about specifically. But I do really like backstage dramas and movies about movie-making. Day for Night is a great example. I love that movie. My wife and I have tended to watch that one after we make a film. Then: Living in Oblivion is a great movie, you should check it out; Irma Vep is a really good film about filmmaking. All About Eve, Stage Door, Opening Night. I’ve seen a lot of these films and enjoyed thinking about them.
Would you say that the second half is an accurate representation of what life on a film set can look like?
I don’t know what they would look like to an outsider. What I was interested in conveying this mixture of high stakes and human frailty. There’s a lot of tragedy and comedy intermingling on film sets, particularly when you’re a director who is doing something very personal. The movie can feel like the most important thing in the world but there are crew members around where it’s just another job for them. It’s a hard job and they’re trying to get through it the best they can. Sometimes this means romance and drugs, but to the director these things represent a grave threat.
There’s a lot of tragedy and comedy intermingling on film sets.
I was just interested in conveying the mixture of intensity, high stakes and a lot of slapstick comedy. People carry drinks that get spilt, people get sick, people throw up, people fart, people have to go to the bathroom at an inopportune time. I was doing a movie where we needed the AD at a crucial time and he had the runs and was unavailable for 45 minutes. We had to manage without him… you know things like that. I think they’re even funnier because of how high stakes the situation is.
What are you working on next?
I’m pretty busy right now. We’re casting a movie that I wrote for Sophia to direct and I’m writing a new script for myself. I’m working on a TV pilot and I’m attached to a couple of things. So a lot of stuff.
Black Bear is released on digital 23rd April.