5 to 7: A Conversation with Victor Levin and Berenice Marlohe

We were luck to catch a screening of the film 5 to 7 from IFC Films and talk to the film’s director, Victor Levin, and lead actress, Berenice Marlohe. Be sure to check out the film in theaters now! Mild Spoilers

Usvsfilm: I love all the long takes and hearing the dialogue fill in the scenery throughout the film. Can you talk about some of the inspirations you had maybe in real life or movie-wise that created the whole environment in 5 to 7?

Victor: You know I personally believe that you should choose a nice master-shot and leave it alone. And let the actors and the words do their work. But you need a great DP because they have to make the frame beautiful and that beauty has to sustain. And you need great actors because they know that if any line goes down, the whole scene will be useless unless you go in and shoot coverage. So it really didn’t … that portion of it wasn’t inspired by any other film, I’m sure its been done by many people. But in my mind it was just about trying to create a window into another story and then showing the audience the respect to be able to look where they wanted to look.

Usvsfilm: The words speak louder than actions here of course. And that’s something that I think worked really well for the script and final product. Did you find room to improvise during the shooting or did you prefer to stick to the script overall? 

Berenice: We didn’t improvise, like you mentioned on words. How do you say shit in a polite way?

Victor: You would have been unique because it would have been hard. You would have been up the creek without a paddle. You would have been fine.

Berenice: Yeah so I didn’t improvise with that but the thing is the lines were so amazing. I could be just free saying the lines and being really in my thoughts you know? Living the situation. What is the moment? What do I feel now? And just saying the lines and I was surprised sometimes because I saw the movie and I was what … it was funny. I didn’t see that because I was in my world but the lines are so good that you don’t even sometimes need to do anything. Its fun! For instance there was this fortune cookie thing … or you know … Its all about rhythm. This is why its very subtle writing in the movie because its … there’s a lot of substance, emotions, connections, characters. But also the writing is so good that when once I saw the movie I discovered really the [inaudible 00:03:04] wow that is funny … its all about rhythm and writing. You don’t have to really push for anything in terms of acting. Just say the lines.

Usvsfilm: So when writing the film I’m sure you had an original vision but as post-production comes soon maybe sometimes there’s a different take on it. Did you experience that at all? Did it overall turn out to be the film you always envisioned or did you play with it?

Victor: It was pretty much the film that I envisioned but with one addition which was when we added the chapter markers using the benches.

Usvsfilm: Oh wow. That’s a major recurring image we see.

Victor: Yes, I had always intended to use the bench that said: “I will hold your heart more tenderly than my own.” That one we made. But Annie Curtis, one of the two producers on the film said, “You know you need an overture for this movie. You need something at the beginning of the movie that’s going to sort of tell the audience what the emotional and intellectual territory in which it takes place. So give that some thought.” And I said, “Can we use more of these benches besides the ones that we’re making?” So they did a little research and it turns out you can use the benches. And I’ve known about these for 15 years. They’re incredible examples of emotion and weird combination of exhibitionism and privacy. We had a few interns and we sent them through the park to write down the benches that moved them and the locations, which there’s nothing harder than finding a park bench. And we got a booklet so thick with the park benches that we liked, and we paged through the booklet and found the ones that we thought we relevant to the story, and then on the last day of shooting went out and shot them. And so in editing we had this wall full of benches and when … I sort of knew that we going to do this overture it quickly became clear that it would also work as chapter markers. Just a bench that says something that is relative to what you’ve just seen or what you’re about to see. And that reinforces the idea that every human life is telling an interesting story. The similarities between what those benches said about someone else’s life and what was going on in our story were uncanny to me and convinced me even more fully that there’s all kinds of drama for everybody. So we picked and we chose and we chose and we picked, and that was not in the original plan of the script but everything else was.

Usvsfilm: That’s surprising because it worked really well into the story. I would have guessed that those were all in the original script. That’s really cool.

Victor: I’m so glad to hear that, thank you.

James: I wanted to talk about the setting. The film could have worked in other places but was New York always the intention? 

Victor: Yeah. I mean its where I’m from. Its a city with a vibrant pedestrian life. You’re going to meet people on the street. You’re going to meet them again. You’re going to just miss meeting them. Its architecturally breathtaking. Its beautiful in its greenery. Its beautiful in its pulse-beat, it gives you so much real life at the edges and the background of your frame. Everything looks like a work of art as far as I’m concerned, even the “less attractive” things are beautiful in their own way. So there was never any doubt it was just, could we afford it? And fortunately, again, if you have great producers you can.

James: Great to hear that. You did a great job balancing the light-hearted moments. And there’s also the darker tones later on towards the end of the film. Was it hard to go back and forth or would you say or it came naturally?

Berenice: No it came with preparation I guess. We filmed the last scene of the movie the very first day right?

Victor: Yeah. It was weird. It was so weird. And part of what was weird was that Anton and Berenice’s people had gotten to know each other.

Berenice: Yeah that’s true.

Victor: So I didn’t know what was going to happen but it was the only way the schedule could work. And my rationalization was well, they haven’t seen each other for 10 years so maybe that will come into play.

Berenice: It was great. Because this is one of the most … I mean this is the end of the movie and one of the most beautiful and emotional … Its very emotional, this moment. It was great actually that we filmed that the first day. It would have been great otherwise but I like that because I could just connect in my imagination with everything that will move me or what I see when I see it. And telling my imagination to be cooked emotionally. And that was great because then I could just … The rest of the film connect you to present moment.

Victor: She did such an amazing job. Its all on her, that scene. And she did such an incredible job and I remember thinking, How does she know how? What a gift for an actress to be able to imagine the rest of her performance in that advance. So that she could make it match to stuff she hasn’t done yet! I can’t even find my shoes! So it was a marvelous day and I remember thinking when Anton and Berenice got to know each other even better than they did on that day two, that the scenes between them would be that much more smooth.

Usvsfilm: So between takes then, during the darker moments of the film, between takes are off. So what were some of the things that you guys did to bring you back into regular life and lighten the mood would you say?

Victor: Well these are serious artists these two. And they don’t like to be disturbed between takes unless there’s a reason. You know? Anton is very … They are both extremely open to notes when you have a note, but there’s a lot of talking in these scenes. They’re carrying a lot of exposition, a lot of emotional content, and a lot of laughs so they are working in between takes. Berenice has her earphones in, she’s working. And Anton has a faraway stare but he’s working. And so you have to be respectful of that. In 20 seconds you’re going to ask them to come out and cry or get a big laugh or whatever it is. So if you’ve got a reason, they love you, go in and say it. But if you don’t have a reason, you guard their privacy.

Usvsfilm: That’s great to hear. Was there anything in particular on set that you guys learned or experienced that was a task that was really hard to overcome that you’d want to remember for the rest of your careers that you want to remember for your next films? Like “Luckily I had that experience on 5 to 7.”

Victor: Great question.

Berenice: You know what is amazing? Is that … What I love of this job is that you prepare for two or three months before you speak you know? I’m constantly doing the research, what could bring me to that emotion and that colors in my life, Berenice. And then always, as Victor said, I never … between takes I’m always with my music connecting with my imagination to … In order to bring life when the moment is action, to be there. And I don’t want to be … I want to be willing. I cannot work otherwise. I have to still connect to the universe. What I have learned is that always, I am searching, searching. Still after 3 months searching what moment works for me now so that its real on the screen in the moment. And I always find after all that preparation for months, in the last half hour before filming the ultimate inspirations come to me. And I always find that the things you know that is, Oh this is that! And its fascinating because you constantly learn on yourself with interaction with other people because … For instance Vic brought up that story, I to myself question those topics and then I learn more. And this is the magic of movies: you learn on yourself thanks to other people, thanks to a story that is in front of you. And then you can evolve and eventually after that because you had authentic moments and authentic emotions. People are going to be touched and can carry something with them that they will make their own with their own understanding organically and go forward. And this is all about that.

Usvsfilm: So musical choice is something that can change a film completely. Can you talk about some of the ideas that went into the score and soundtrack?

Victor: Yeah. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans did the score. I’m sure you know the movie Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Usvsfilm: Love that film.

Victor: Which they did before our movie end. Subsequently they’ve done several films. I think they had 3 at Sundance this past year, they’re extremely hot. And deservedly so. But there was nothing on their reel that was classical per se. And I didn’t know for sure. My original thoughts about this were that it was going to be something in the Jazz family. But I wasn’t sure. And you never know until you start throwing music up against the picture what general musical family you’re in. It became clear that it was in fact going to be classical. We love Danny and Saunder. Actually some of their demo music was the only stuff that looked even remotely at home against our picture. So we had a bunch of meetings with them and finally I said: Listen are you going to be … Do you want to do classical? Can you? Do you want to be conducting 97 musicians in a little studio in Brooklyn? Do you own a baton? And they were like, Yes! We really want to do it. Its not something we’ve done for movie yet, we really feel like its a strength of ours and we play also. Danny plays the cello. Saunder plays the guitar and other instruments. And if they didn’t play the instrument they knew people who did play the instruments who were fantastic. We got a great flutist, we got a great trumpeter. And so they said, “Yeah we want to do it.” Its that thing where all of us in the independent film business aspire to the moment where hunger crosses over with ability. Right? Where hunger crosses over with ability. Where you’re at that point in your career where you’re ravenous hungry but also where your ability, your skill, and your talent have been brought to some level of expertise. Right? In that range of time is when most people do their very best work. But it does not last forever. People become less hungry because they become successful; or they become so skilled that they venture off into more fringey areas because they become less concerned with what the audience might be thinking. But there is a sweet spot when hunger meets a certain amount of accumulated skill. And Danny and Saunder are in it. They’re in it right now. They are all over that sweet spot. They work til’ three in the morning, four in the morning. I’m telling you that they would get phone calls from me saying, Could we move this thing 5 frames … Which is … In a 24 frame second what are we talking about? Barely a fifth of a second. And that was all sweet and they were, Yes I see why we should do that. It was a dream partnership. They have a studio on 11th St., they probably spent more time there than we spent shooting the movie.

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