Former Upper Westsiders Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett worked on such favorites as The Wonder Years, Beverly Hills 90210, and the short-lived sci-fi series Earth 2. Now plotting their return from Los Angeles, Gothamist sat down with this talented married couple to discuss their latest film, Little Manhattan, the best cafe to spot filmmakers, and why their latest female lead could kick the crap out of Winnie Cooper.
You wrote and produced for The Wonder Years, Madeline, Wimbledon, and now the two of you recently took the leap over to directing, about, of all things, pre-pubescent love. What led you to this project? What was the inspiration (was it just a very emotional childhood)?
JF: Well, we had the idea in a very early form – it was really just a sentence in a big list (because we keep a list of ideas that interest us) and one was a 4th grade love story. We knew that we wanted to direct, because that was very important to us, so we sat down to think, 'well, what would it be?' and it soon became a 5th grade love story. We understood what the movie was and it came together very quickly. And we felt that it would be an easier movie to get made with us as the directors because we wouldn't need to find a star to sign off on us as directors. It was a world that we really knew and we could make it for a budget, and we just loved it. We kept thinking, 'my G-d, this just has get made because I love it so much.' So in two months – from sitting [and thinking about it] to it being written, it was done. And we got the greenlight very soon after that.
ML: It was a rather rare and blessed experience but it’s one of the challenges of first time directors is to be able to get the confidence of the cast to agree to be in the movie…Now hopefully, having the made the movie and using this as a calling card, that'll be an easier conversations with our next movie.
Was it autobiographical?
JF: Well, it’s all autobiographical.
ML: This one drew a lot from our own experiences, obviously. The pain and the all consuming wonderfulness of being in love for the first time…A lot of people who see the movie, walk out and remember 'oh yes, my Gabe was so and so or my Rosemary was this person' because everyone has a first love. It doesn't matter if you're 11 or 70, everyone can relate to the experiences in this movie. Maybe it might seem foreign to 8 or 9 year olds who haven't experienced it yet ,though after that, everyone seems to get it and appreciate it.
The film was beautifully filmed in NYC – with shots of Fairway, the Planetarium, and Riverside Park. Was it obvious from its inception that it was to be shot on the UWS?
ML: Riverside is the forgotten park and it’s so great, so much apart of the people’s lives who live west of Broadway. And the little 'Riverside park vs. central Park' thing is just a NYC detail. But yeah, Fairway and the entire world of New York are just so specific and special to us.
So you prefer Riverside over Central Park?
ML: Honestly, we're major Central Park fans and the tour of central park in the movie is a highlight for us. We have such affection for Central Park, and to be able to show a tour of it through a kid's eye with his specific view Central park was such an important part of the movie. Though we have equal affection for both. I'm not gonna take a side on this issue!
Though the film is about children, it really feels more like an adult film.
ML: Well it is!
JF: And it certainly fits that paradigm. I mean, as we laid down what would happen between Gabe and Rosemary, we looked at romantic comedies and it’s all the same. There's 'boy gets girl, boy loses girl' and 'boy (in this case) almost gets girl again.'
ML: It’s an adult movie about kids. It’s made for grownups -- made for the same people who see romantic comedies – Sandra bullock or Kate Hudson movies or whatever. It just happens that this romantic comedy stars kids. Hopefully, it’s fresh and surprising because of that. Our intention is to reach beyond kid audiences, and that's a challenge too because many people see kids in a movie and assume it’s for kids. To make a movie for grownups but about kids is what we set out to do.
One of the standout lines was “maybe not everything is supposed to last forever.” Would you say it’s an optimistic film? Or all we all doomed to lose our first loves to sleepaway camp?
ML: Well, it’s probably true that people’s first loves will not be their last love. I’m sure the examples of where that’s not case are very few.
JF: But I think we definitely come down on the side of love.
ML: I think it’s very optimistic, ultimately. The thing is that love takes work and you have to refresh it every now and then, and that, if anything, is what really comes through. The [main character] is discovering this emotion, and it's an emotion that left his parents' lives, and through his discovery of it, he brings love back into his home and that is a very optimistic idea.
Are you each others’ first loves? If not, does the film tagline depress you?
JF: It's a funny thing because in a certain respect, well, of course we are, because it’s that kind of love of when you feel it's the deepest love you ever had. But at the same time, when you're talking about Gabe and Rosemary with that kind of crush and that fixation of 'will he or she call", we've each had, (though maybe I’ve had a few more. Certainly in the double digits). We all have these feelings over and over again, until you hit on that person whom you can really be emotional with and learn how to say 'I love you' and have them say it back to you.
ML: She's my first real love, definitely. I might have thought I was in love a few times before [thought] it’s true when you’re feeling it – when you're feeling it, it’s real and painful. But [the female lead character] Rosemary was the person who introduced [the main character] Gabe to the idea of love and that is what the move is about: discovering, lifting the veil on this world that you didn't know was there. Being blissfully unaware of it and then it hits you and its a wonderful and complicated whirlwind and all consuming all at the same time. So that's what the main character is dealing with. We very consciously wrote it from a boy's point of view because a lot of romantic comedies aren't -- they’re written from a girl’s point of view and here it might have made the movie too soft. But it give it the boy's jaded, not-wanting-to-falling-love attitude and then succumbing to it gave it a little bit more of an edge. It’s a little less saccharine.
JF: Girls grow up with a whole different type of fairy tale. The idea of love is introduced to them at a very young age. It’s not like a boy, who goes from thinking girls are disgusting, to something else, and that's what is funny and why it is so transformative. I mean, [the female lead character] Rosemary had probably thought of these things before even if she hadn't felt them before. And truthfully, Rosemary is mature that she's be able to know 'I’m not ready for this.'
Josh Hutcherson, who played the main character of Gabe, came across so naturally. He really carried the film.
ML: He’s a great actor. Very effortless, and he does carry the whole film through being in almost every frame and the voiceover etc. It's a pretty evolved performance. Josh, who has been in a few movies already, is a bit of a Mozart type of character, where he just gets it. He got it from day one. And he knows where the camera is and what he’s supposed to do and he’s got a filmmaker's intuitive sense of what needs to be done at any moment. He takes direction beautifully. Charlie Ray [who plays Rosemary] has never done anything before. She never auditioned for anything before this movie. She's growing up in Tribeca and is a very authentic New York kid. She is a very instinctive actress – not with Josh’s craft -- but with a method of instinct, like feeling and living the emotions as she's experiencing them, as well as very easy to work with. We were blessed, because a lot of times you're warned against working with children, especially for your first movie. But it was just fantastic.
JF: I know, it’s not like seeing a child actor.
What draws you to the young-adult genre?
ML: We're attracted to so many genres. But there’s a sense of openness and discovery that you can portray; to see the world through those young eyes. It allows you to see things in a fresh way, as if for the first time, and you can really examine issues. To do a real examination of the concept of love from any other point of a view – from a 20 or 30 year old's point of view – would not be as compelling as to see someone who doesn't have these feelings and then has the door opened and walks through it, discovering it for the first time. It's just so relatable. Childhood is the one thing everyone has in common.
What is your next project?
ML: Our next project is not about childhood. It's a romantic comedy involving supernatural elements that were doing with the same studio that did this picture.
[The character of] Gabe very much resembles Kevin Arnold, and not just because of the voiceover narration.
ML: That's funny. Well, both of them have an "everyman" quality, an emotional accessibility and vulnerability that most boys don't have, whereby, like all of us, they want to make a good impression , they want to be loved and well liked and they're a little nervous about achieving those things. Both of those characters have that in common. So I guess there are some similarities. They'd probably like each other and hang out. They’d be good friends.
Who would win in a battle of [The Wonder Years'] Winnie Cooper vs. [Little Manhattan's] Rosemary Telesco?
ML: That's a tough battle.
JF: I'd have to go with Rosemary. She knows martial arts.
ML: Yeah, she'd kick the crap out of Winnie.
If you charged each person who claimed to have a ‘great idea for a movie’ a beer, would you suffer from liver failure?
ML: We would be very drunk. I'm such a lightweight that I'd be passed out long before my liver gives out. But yeah, we hear it all the time.
JF: And every now and then you hear a really good one.
ML: But you can’t do much with it because you have so many of your own ideas you want to do. More often that not you'll meet someone who works in a deli who says you should do a movie about someone who works in a deli.
ML: You may or may not be able to tell we're greatly enamored with Woody Allen, as any NY loving person would be. George Roy Hill is a great filmmaker who made the only other film about the subject of young love that we can remember which is called A Little Romance, which is Diane Lane’s first film from 1979. We love so many different people but in the genre that we're working in: François Truffaut - his movie Small Change was beautiful and just so honest about childhood. I would also say, Lasse Hallström of My Life as a Dog, which was a beautiful movie about childhood, and it flatters us to even compare any of these movies to our own. And since ours is a romantic comedy at the end of the day, we look at the work or Nora Ephron, who's had many smart, successful, urban movies.
It’s not by accident that the main character is running to a wedding at the end of little Manhattan. That's kind of staple of the romantic comedy genre. It’s all very specific and somewhat paying homage to the genre were working in.
Preferred NYC eatery?
JF: It would have to be the Fairway café. Upstairs.
ML: It’s our favorite place and so many filmmakers actually eat there as well. We can go there any morning and see Nora Ephron or the Coen brothers. It’s just this little UWS place, right above Fairway and it has the best pancakes in NY. That's our place.
The soundtrack to the movie of your life would consist primarily of:
ML: Probably a lot of songs from the Little Manhattan soundtrack. I would also say Simon and Gurfinkel.
JF: The Beatles. We really liked the Beatles. We listen to them a lot.
ML: No shame, no shame. We’re also listening to Bob Dylan compulsively now -- we had a late life discovery of Bob Dylan. These are all pretty traditional answers, but true nonetheless.
You’ve recently relocated, trading Gray’s Papaya for In N Out. How do we know you’re a true New Yorker?
ML: Well, you can look at Little Manhattan! No one's going to leave a stronger footprint than that, I think…We are plotting our return to the city. But just in the way we reflect our affection for NYC in this movie, one would hope it would only be done by a true New Yorker...Our hearts are here.
JF: We miss it here a lot. It’s been very hard. And whenever our daughter comes back into town, she'll walk down the street, by Barnes & Noble and scream, "I love this city!" She’s only six we think 'good, we've done our job well.'
Photo Credit: KC Bailey