Last Friday, the Brooklyn International Film Festival opened with a delightful film by Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal, called Gabi on the Roof in July. It’s the story of a 20-year-old art student named Gabi who leaves college for the summer to stay with her older brother in New York City. During her visit, Gabi’s academic idealism and stubborn refusal to conform clash with the mundane necessities of getting a job and paying the rent. Throughout the film, lies are told, conversations are misunderstood, and cell phones die as the characters strain to communicate with each other — a theme Levine is deeply invested in.
“For me, that’s the only issue I really care about,” said Levine over the phone, who directed, co-wrote, and acted in the film. “As human beings we have this clumsy device of language, and I think it keeps us apart more than it pulls us together. The struggle of life is to find connection, anyway.” We asked Levine to name five indie films that have influenced his method of filmmaking; check them out below, and catch the next screening of Gabi on the Roof in July at 8pm on June 12 at indieScreen in Brooklyn.
1. Shadows : directed by John Cassavetes
“Shadows was the first Cassavetes film I watched and I had a powerful response to its energetic verisimilitude and sensitivity. Unlike a number of other films I’d seen about the beat generation, Shadows seemed less like a celebration of beatnik culture than a nuanced examination of hipster posturing. I was so curious about the film that I read everything I could about it and discovered the work of Ray Carney, the world’s leading Cassavetes scholar. From Carney’s work, I learned that Cassavetes had developed the script for Shadows through a series of rehearsals which he created around the actors who were available to him. From that time on, I was fascinated by the notion of of doing movies “backwards” — creating the script around the actors as opposed to casting the actors around the script. This is the method I used to create Gabi on the Roof in July.”
2. Nights and Weekends : directed by Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg
“Swanberg, in his own quiet way, may be the most fearless filmmaker working today. His naturalistic films seem cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned pioneers, as is his practical emphasis on using improvisation as a tool for drawing profound meaning from ordinary situations. Unlike his predecessors, however, Swanberg does absolutely no character or back story work before he starts shooting. He merely selects his actors, casually discusses some themes with them as a jumping off point, and starts shooting. One would think the results would be uneven, but Swanberg’s work is remarkably consistent. Nights and Weekends, an emotionally exacting portrait of a crumbling long distance love affair, is his most mature and masterly film thus far. It also contains one of the most realistic and affective sex scenes in cinema history.”
3. Home Sweet Home : directed by Mike Leigh
“Once I’d finished all of Carney’s books about Cassavetes, I went on to another of the critic’s favorite subjects, Mike Leigh. Like myself, Leigh was initially inspired by the process Cassavetes used to generate the script for Shadows; however, Cassavetes later abandoned this process, while Leigh pushed it even further. Though almost all of Leigh’s films are miraculous, this ancient made for BBC movie is perhaps his most striking contribution to cinema. Home Sweet Home is a harrowing study of human isolation and casual betrayal that serves as one of the finest testaments to the amazing results one can obtain from collaborating with actors.”
4. Signal 7 : directed by Rob Nilsson
“Another Cassavetes acolyte, Nilsson only rehearses back story with his cast. Once the characters are formed and their histories solidified, the actors are presented with only an outline of the story. Since none of the onscreen dialogue has been rehearsed, every moment Nilsson captures has the raw immediacy of life itself. Though all of Nilsson’s films are worth watching, Signal 7 is the one I return to most often. Depicting the daily grind of two aging actors and best friends who work as cab drivers in late 1970’s San Francisco, Nilsson manages to wring the most most awe-inspiring pathos out of the most seemingly banal circumstances.”
5. The Wife : directed by Tom Noonan
“From 2001 to 2005, I studied acting, writing, and directing with Noonan on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Tom’s renegade integrity was a heady thing for a young kid just out of college to experience. Though his first film (What Happened Was…) may have garnered more acclaim, I still think The Wife gives one a better sense of Tom’s preternatural abilities as an actor, writer, and director. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do all three in Gabi had it not been for Tom’s example.”