Courageously exploring emotionally unfamiliar and challenging situations can initially appear to be a difficult struggle to overcome, but gradually coming to understand and appreciate the opinions of the other people involved can be a tremendous help in finding a positive solution. Not only do the main characters in the new drama, ‘Lullaby,’ debate over the medical care of their father and strive to find a reasonable treatment, but first-time feature film writer-director Andrew Levitas also fearlessly pondered how to best chronicle an important life dilemma and decision in an independent movie. The scribe-helmer smartly relied on the actors’ true sentiments and motivations to realistically showcase that no matter how problems people have with each other, their bonds will lead them to make a plausible decision that benefits them all.
‘Lullaby’ follows the emotionally struggling Jonathan Lowenstein (Garrett Hedlund), a musician estranged from his family, as he discovers his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), has decided to take himself off life support in forty-eight hours’ time. During this intensely condensed period, a lifetime of drama plays out, as Robert fights the difficult task of reclaiming all that his illness stole from his family. While a debate initially rages on between the Lowensteins about patients’ rights and what it truly means to be free, the group finally realizes that their wants and needs aren’t always the most important.
So Jonathan reconciles with his father, reconnects with his mother, Rachel (Anne Archer); sister (Jessica Brown-Findlay), and his ex-love, Emily (Amy Adams). He also reclaims his voice through two unlikely catalysts-a young, wise-beyond-her-years terminally ill patient, Meredith (Jessica Barden), and a no-nonsense nurse (Jennifer Hudson). Through this intensely life affirming voyage, an unexpected and powerful journey of love, laughter and forgiveness unfolds and teaches Jonathan and his family that people aren’t always necessarily who they initially appear to be.
Levitas generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Lullaby’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he was inspired to make the drama after going through a similar experience Jonathan was contending with in the hospital with Robert with his own father; how in independent filmmaking, the business isn’t set up to make the most challenging projects, but if directors find ways to finance these movies, they’re the most creatively rewarding films; and how the most important thing to him during shooting was highlighting the truth and honesty of the story and the characters, which actors like Hedlund and Hudson were naturally able to do.
Question (Q): You wrote the script for the new drama, ‘Lullaby.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the story, and what was the process of penning the screenplay?
Andrew Levitas (AL): Well, I had gone through something somewhat similar in my own life years earlier. When I actually sat down to write the screenplay, it was actually about investigating what had happened to me.
It eventually took a very different turn, and it became more of a universal story. There’s quite a bit of it that didn’t really exist, and the characters and story evolved. But it ultimately started from a place of personal discovery and aspiration.
Q: The film focuses on the debate over terminally ill patients’ decision regarding their right to die, and the emotional struggle it causes amongst their family members. Why was it important to you to explore that struggle in the drama?
AL: Well, at the end of the day, this is really a movie about human beings, and how we choose to live our lives. I found it’s best explained in how we choose to end our lives, if we have a choice. I found in my own experience with my father being ill, knowing who you are, and understanding your place in your family, and taking the opportunity at the end of life to create something positive out of something as negative as a long illness, is really beautiful and should be looked at in our society. In Western culture, we don’t consider death a part of life; it’s its own scary entity.
It was important for me to put an example out there of how great it is, or what’s possible, if you take matters into your own hands. There is a positive outcome to things.
What I created here was a story about a man who’s had so much taken from him by his illness. **SPOILER ALERT** But at the end, he ultimately decided to create his own fate. He created for himself the most beautiful death imaginable. He decided to take his own life, and as a result, he sees his family coming back together. He knows they’re going to go on and have a close family relationship.
He sees his children come into their own, because of the decisions he made. It put them in a place to grow and examine themselves. He’s surrounded by love on his own terms. That’s something you don’t really see in cinema, but it’s something that happens every day in America. So it was important to me to show that positive version, if you will. **END SPOILER ALERT**
Q: Besides writing the script, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to helm the drama as you were penning the screenplay? Did writing the script influence the way you helmed the movie at all?
AL: Absolutely. I don’t really identify as a writer, as I’ve been a fine artist my whole life-I’ve always painted, sculpted and took photos. Writing the script was about making this film. So as I was writing it, I was only thinking about making it; I wasn’t thinking about writing it.
I never viewed the screenplay as a finished product; I viewed it as a template on how to direct it. I knew I was going to be directing it (as I was writing it), so the entire thing was a blueprint for me as a director, as opposed to being a stand-alone piece of material.
Q: You made your feature film directorial and writing debuts with ‘Lullaby.’ What was your experience as a first-time filmmaker like as you were making the drama? Were there any lessons you learned while you were making the movie that you would bring to your next films?
AL: I would say the business elements of independent filmmaking, and tacking difficult and challenging subject matters, maybe aren’t the norm, and aren’t easy on the business side. It makes you question why you’re making the movie. The business unfortunately isn’t set up to make the most challenging projects.
That being said, the most challenging projects are often the most rewarding, and the easiest to physically make, from a creative standpoint. This movie is the perfect example of that. Once we were on set, every person who came on board, whether they were in front or behind the camera, was doing it for the right reasons. They were doing it because they cared about the material and subject matter, and they believed in what we were doing.
So creatively, it was a walk in the park to make this film. There were a lot of tears and high emotion on set, but ultimately, we had an entire cast and crew that were giving 120 percent at all times. After long days at work, they would go home and think of new ideas and how to make our project better. I think that’s the reason you see such a clear, thought-out final product.
Q: The drama features a diverse ensemble cast, including Garrett Hedlund, Richard Jenkins, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson. What was the casting process like for the main actors in the film?
AL: It was incredibly thrilling, because just about every actor in the film was our first choice. With some of my filmmaker friends, I can say that’s not always the case. We had a really amazing time casting this film. We would send the script to the actor, they would read it and they would meet with us. Pretty much everyone said yes, and that was a remarkable thing.
The film ended up being so organic. I think part of reason why you end up seeing a family that feels so right and well-cast is because we didn’t have to do what many films have to-we didn’t have to go down the list and see who else was available.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal time with the cast before you began filming to help build their working relationships?
AL: We were, and it was an incredibly positive experience. I think if we didn’t have an extended rehearsal period, we wouldn’t have had the same results. Quite a bit changed during that rehearsal time. The actors became more familiar with each other, as well as with the material.
Ultimately, instead of only having my brain trying to figure out how these characters should interact, and how the story should play out, I had four smart and committed artists who played the family members. About halfway through the rehearsals, they probably knew these characters better than I knew them, and I created them. So when it was time to actually walk on the set, so much had actually changed in who these characters were. They had evolved in a way that during all the time in between the words that were written on the page, they made their connections so much richer. That absolutely happened because of the rehearsals.
I shot the film in 21 days, and it would have been challenging with or without rehearsal. But the real benefit of the rehearsal was that I became convinced that the actors came to know who their characters were. Then when it came time to play their scenes out, I felt comfortable letting them do what they felt was right, because they knew who they were playing.
Q: Did you allow the actors to improv at all on the set while you were filming, or encourage them to offer any suggestions on their characters’ development and interactions with each other?
AL: Absolutely. All that was important to me during this entire experience was the truth and honesty of the story and the characters. Everything else was really secondary. So once we got to a point that it was clear all of the actors knew who their characters were, and how they would react to certain things, it honestly didn’t matter to me what they said, or how they expressed it.
What was most important to me was that they were expressing something that was honest and real in each moment. So there was quite a bit of improv and a daily evolution of these scenes and moments. I shot with multiple cameras specifically to capture that, because every take was different.
**SPOILER ALERT** During the death sequence at the end, for example, I told Garrett, “I don’t really care what you say. You know what’s going on here.” We did go over everything, especially about what he was supposed to be feeling. But ultimately, it didn’t matter to me how he expressed those feelings, as long as he was expressing them honestly.
So he was crying quite a bit at the end, but he could have just as easily been stoic, laughing or punching his father in the face; that was irrelevant to me. What mattered was him having an honest reaction as Jonathon. **END SPOILER ALERT**
Q: Before you began writing and directing, you also acted in films and on television, on such projects as ‘The Art of Getting By’ and ‘Party of Five.’ Did having that acting experience influence the way you directed, and interacted with, the cast on ‘Lullaby?’
AL: Without question. I approached this film not as a writer or director, but instead as an artist. From the different mediums I’ve worked in, including being an actor, I brought that experience with me onto the set. I didn’t really have any preconceived notions or plans. I did have a ton of plans on how I wanted to use the camera and express certain things.
But I was open to each actors’ methodology. Like I was interested in hearing about how Jennifer Hudson felt about the material, and how her mind works as an artist. I was also interested in hearing how Garrett’s mind works, and how Richard Jenkins’ mind works, and how they all approached their roles. For something as personal and human as this, to get what I required out of them, I really needed to understand them, more so than they needed to understand me.
Q: Like you mentioned earlier, you shot the film independently in 21 days. Did that pose any challenges on the set, or do you feel it added to the creativity of the story?
AL: I think it absolutely helped. Of course, I would have liked 41 days instead of 21 days. But I think when you create barrios, it forces you to problem solve and adjust what you’re doing. Instead of having every tool at my disposal, I had very limited tools, and that absolutely did influence the final product, and hopefully in a good way.
Q: ‘Lullaby’ will be released on June 13 on VOD, iTunes and in-theaters. Why do you think the platform is so important for independent films like this one?
AL: I think it’s absolutely fantastic. As I’ve learned more and more about it, the fact that people have amazing television sets at home has become clear. But I prefer, and I think this film and most films, are mean to be viewed in the theater on the giant screen.
But with VOD, you reach so much more of an audience. Independent movies can be made available to so many more people, and not just in New York, L.A., Chicago and Miami. People around the world can see films On Demand they may not have otherwise been able to see. As a filmmaker, your goal is to have people watch your work, and be touched and affected by it. When you get both the VOD platform and a theatrical release, every person in every town around the world will be able to see the film. That’s pretty exciting.