When Victor Levin was 27, he traveled to Paris with his girlfriend and stayed with a couple who had a rather interesting marital arrangement. Or at least a very French one. Both the husband and wife each had respective paramours, neither of whom was a secret. In fact, everyone was friendly with one another. “It was holiday time, and the husband was there, and the wife was there, and the girlfriend was there, and the boyfriend was there, and they’re all in the same room,” Levin recalls. “And I was like: What is this? I’m a middle-class kid from suburban New York, and this was not on the menu.”
The cinq à sept relationship, as it’s known in France–referring to the hours set aside for maritally blessed extramarital interludes–has largely faded from tradition, but the memory remained alive in Levin’s mind. Now, nearly 30 years later, it’s the subject of his new film, 5 To 7, which the former TV producer wrote and directed. The movie stars Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy) as a young, aspiring novelist in New York who meets an intriguing, slightly older French woman played by Bérénice Marlohe (Sky Fall) smoking on the sidewalk one afternoon. Despite her status as a wife and mother of two, a love story ensues, one that is both conventional (champagne-soaked afternoons at the St. Regis Hotel; leisurely strolls in Central Park) and not. The film’s ending, in particular, does not neatly solve the problem of what to do when Mrs. Robinson and Romeo and Juliet collide.
Levin’s own career has its own share of unconventionality. He got his start writing Jell-O and Dr. Pepper commercials for Young & Rubicam in the 1980s, before moving to Los Angeles in 1990 and writing on series like The Larry Sanders Show and Mad About You. He’s also written screenplays, such as Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!. With 5 to 7, he made the leap to independent filmmaking, a process that he calls “a marathon, not a sprint,” referring to the amount of time it took he his producers to package the film–which he wrote back in 2007–get investors on board, and cast it. “I am not a patient person by nature, but you have to tell yourself to take the long view or you will go out of your mind,” he says.
Levin spoke to Co.Create about his career trajectory and how all of his various writing jobs have taught him lessons that he applies to his work today.
When Levin graduated from Amherst in the early ’80s, he knew he wanted to be a writer, but he also needed to support himself. This dilemma was solved when he was offered a job at Y&R.
“Ed Ney, who was running Young & Rubicam, was an Amherst grad, he later went on to be Ambassador to Canada. He used to hire a bunch of kids from Ivy League and Little Ivy schools to come in and work for $13,500 a year as trainee copywriters. And I thought that was great. Somebody was going to pay me–I had no idea how little money that was, even then.
“I shared an apartment with the late (TV producer) Alan Kirschenbaum, my dear friend from New York, where we had grown up around the block from one another. We lived on the Lower East Side at 475 FDR Drive in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Housing, which we were in because his aunt had connections. We were the youngest people in the building by 75 years. I mean, you would get off the elevator and there would be ear-splitting smoke alarms because the residents couldn’t hear it!”
Levin describes the atmosphere at Y&R back then “a later iteration of what you see in Mad Men,” a show that he’s written for. “Merger mania was going on, things were becoming a lot more corporate and a lot less rebellious. Y&R had huge clients. I worked on a lot of packaged goods and big service businesses like United States Post Office. I worked on Jell-O pudding, I worked on Dr. Pepper. These were not small clients. So business was being done. It was a pretty grown-up place. But there were a lot of other people in my position and we became this sort of band of kids wandering around this fantastic building, 285 Madison, which was 26 stories. It was like a college campus. You knew where everybody sat, you knew where the pretty girls were. You knew how to ride the elevators to flirt with them. I mean it was really like being in college except somebody gave you a paycheck.”
The biggest lesson from those days, he says, was “to be accountable for your writing. It’s one thing to make it look good on the page and make it read really well. That’s hard. But it’s only half the battle. You have to be sure that when it gets on a screen, it works. Y&R had a philosophy at the time which they called ‘the whole egg.’ I do not know why they called it that. But what it meant was, the writer had to carry through the production from start to finish. Now on a commercial, let’s say it’s a comic commercial, which is most of what I wrote, maybe you’ve got one joke. If it doesn’t work, it’s a bad commercial. And there’s nothing worse than sitting in the daily trailer and realizing the joke isn’t funny. So you learn to not just be a writer and write things that seem nice on the page, but also to continue to work with those things until they are funny in actual, filmed life. And I think that’s a big divide, I really do. You need to be accountable, particularly for your comedy, but also for your drama. Does it feel real? Does it move me? Being able to do it not just on the page but also before the lens, that’s the biggest lesson.”
Even as he was promoted from copy writer to creative director at Y&R, Levin dreamed of writing for television. And so he spent nights and weekends diligently cranking out spec scripts.
“Of course, these scripts were terrible. I had to write 10,000 or 20,000 bad pages before what I was doing was even respectable. That’s not false modesty. It was bad. I didn’t know anything about story structure. I was very young in my point of view. There was absolutely no wisdom to my pages. The comedy was not sophisticated. And I’m not saying the comedy is sophisticated now or everything is wine and roses now, but it was bad then. You have to go through this Malcolm Gladwell period of just trying to get good at something.
“I was disciplined, I did have that. I wrote every night and most weekends. And then Alan got a job writing for TV in Los Angeles. And now it’s 1990, so it’s three years after that French trip. So the phone rings and Alan says I’m working on this show, Baby Talk, I’m running it for Ed Weinberger. I think I can get you a job if you want to drop everything and move out here. So I did.
Levin quickly worked his way up the TV ranks in Hollywood, landing a gig on The Larry Sanders Show and then hit ’90s sitcom Mad About You, where he says, “I really grew up” as a writer.
“The thing that you rapidly learn is that the most important thing you have is your cast. I mean, we worked very hard on the scripts for Mad About You. But if the show worked it was because of the way Helen (Hunt) and Paul (Reiser) blended together, because of their onscreen chemistry and their immense talent. We would send the script to the stage and if the script was good, the show would be very good. And if the script was very good, the show would be fantastic, and the reason was them.
“We did an episode in season 6, by which time I was running the show, which was a one shot, a one-take episode–“The Conversation,” in which the couple “Ferberizes” their crying baby–which meant that not only did Helen and Paul have to learn 22 1/2 minutes of material, but they also had to perform it plus or minus 10 seconds in length. And you can’t forget a line, if you do, you’ve got to do that just on instinct, because it’s before a live audience. And they did it on the first take.”
Levin says that with the right performers a writer and director’s job is to give them the tools to do their job and then step aside. This applies to 5 to 7, in which he says, “there are so many long takes where the camera stays wide and the actors and the words are allowed to do what they do. The audience is smart, they know where to look. My job is to make a beautiful frame with my DP, Arnaud Potier, if I possibly can. And be invisible. And let the actors and the words and the actions do what they’re doing. Let the story work. Let the comedy work. Let the drama work. Stay out of the way. And every time I cut when I don’t have to, I’m reminding you that you’re watching a movie and not real life. I don’t want to do that. I want you to be in this world for a couple of hours.”
After his Paris trip, Levin says he “filed away” the experience “as a great obstacle for a story if only I could figure out the rest of it. Because when you’re writing romances, the most important thing its he obstacle. So when you find an obstacle that you think is interesting, it stays with you. But it takes time to figure out what the story is because these things don’t present themselves in a three-act structure.
It wasn’t until he was much older and further along in his career that he figured out how the obstacle would resolve itself in a way that felt truthful. “I didn’t want to have them ride off happily in the sunset. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think that was going to happen. And I need to have enough experience in my own life to know that even being in love with someone is not a guarantee of a future. So what is the version of the ending that feels true but also honors love? That was a tough question for me. How do you make it so that the audience understands how much they love each other but also understands that they can’t be together?
“Well, for one thing it helps to have children of your own. I have two girls. One was born in 2000 and one was born 20 months later. This is the first time I’ve ever answered that question, but I can bet you that I didn’t figure out the ending until I had my kids. Because then I had a reason why she would not leave (her husband) no matter how much she loved him. And then I was good to go. Then the rest of the pieces fell into place.”