The South By Southwest Film Festival kicks off Friday with the world premiere of Jon Favreau’s new low-budget comedy “Chef,” with some other high-profile films debuting over the next few days, including “Neighbors” with Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Rose Byrne, and the much anticipated big-screen continuation of the cult television show “Veronica Mars.”
But SXSW also serves as a vital launching pad for talents on the verge of discovery. While Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” remains something of the platonic ideal for a SXSW film and its afterlife, the festival also launched lesser known talents and their films like Adam Leon’s “Gimme The Loot,” Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather,” Robbie Pickering’s “Natural Selection,” and last year’s ”Drinking Buddies,” from festival veteran Joe Swanberg.
One of the most distinctive films to emerge from the festival in the last few years was Sophia Takal’s “Green” in 2011. That film, a mood-piece meditation on identity, jealousy and fidelity, also served for many as an introduction to the ongoing collaboration between Takal and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Lawrence Michael Levine. The couple went on to star together in a few projects for other filmmakers, including Swanberg’s “The Zone.”
Levine has written and directed his new “Wild Canaries,” which has its world premiere on Saturday as part of SXSW’s narrative competition. Levine’s previous film as writer-director, “Gabi on the Roof in July,” was cast largely from a pool of friends; he and Takal move in the same circles as stalwart indie starlets such as Dunham, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil, who also all appeared in the film. For “Wild Canaries” Levine expands further, casting Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Jason Ritter and Kevin Corrigan.
The new film is something of a screwball farce. Takal and Levine play an NYC couple who think they may have stumbled on a murder plot when their kindly elderly neighbor dies suddenly. When their amateur sleuthing quickly gets the pair in over their heads, the film becomes something of a Brooklyn answer to “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”
In some ways the new film came out as a response to the time spent on the festival circuit supporting the flurry of projects the couple were involved with over the last few years. As Levine explained, “There was a time we were traveling a lot, and when you’re out on the festival circuit you see a lot of movies that aren’t entertainment movies.
“And when we got back to our lives, we were exhausted by all the traveling and planning a wedding and all this different stuff,” he added. “We just started watching a lot more comedies and entertainment films. We were watching lots of ‘Columbo’ and’ ‘The Thin Man’ and ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ and I really wanted to try out something like that. Definitely I was watching ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ and thinking it would be really fun to do something like this with Sophia.”
Takal added, “I think something we talked about when Larry was writing was wanting to make a movie that a couple would want to watch in bed eating takeout Chinese food for a really fun night at home. Which is what we really like to do.”
With evocative cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard and an inventive dub reggae score by Michael Montes that Levine described as “Augustus Pablo meets Henry Mancini,” the film is also a step up production-wise for Levine. The exaggerated acting style required of the film’s screwball stylings was also a change from their naturalistic roots, with everyone daring to go big. Takal’s character adopts something of detective drag, with a trench coat, fedora and dark glasses, while Levine’s character finds himself continually under physical threat, acquiring a neck brace and bruises as the film moves along.
“The idea was that there’s two movies happening. These very real people get involved basically with a pulp novel, a dream version of their own lives,” he said. “So the same concerns of the murder mystery are hanging over the more naturalistic place.
“This movie, when I look at it after, it seems to be very much about things I was dealing with in my life, fears that someone might have before getting married. In a way it’s as personal if not more so than anything I’ve done. It’s also personal to say, look I like these kinds of goofy films. I feel vulnerable in that way, admitting I’m a goofy guy.”