For five years, Victor Levin was a producer on the hit sitcom “Mad About You,” which famously documented the relationship of a slightly dysfunctional married couple, played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. The couple in Levin’s new movie “Destination Wedding” aren’t married, but they’re also much more dysfunctional as they find themselves stuck together at a destination wedding in California wine country, Paso Robles to be exact.
Keanu Reeves plays Frank, brother to the groom, who encounters Winona Ryder’s Lindsay, the groom’s ex, at the airport on the way to the wedding of the title. Unfortunately, they don’t get along and Frank’s brother has decided to stick them together from having adjoining hotel rooms to sitting at the same table. As they realize that they have more in common with each other than anyone else at the wedding, they go off exploring on their own, getting into all sorts of trouble.
Fans of ‘80s movies will be well aware of Reeves and Ryder’s work and might even remember them together in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” from 1992. In “Destination Wedding,” they share just about every scene, delivering Levin’s snarky barbs at each other with a deadpan wit that should greatly appeal to anyone cynical about romance and life in general.
I really enjoyed the movie, as it catered to my own cynical look at romance. I feel like a movie like this can be inspired by a couple things like a destination wedding you yourself went on or people you’ve met, so what got you started writing this?
Victor Levin: You know, for me, it always starts with theme, and the destination wedding of it came later. The first thing was that if you have two extremely grumpy people, what would be the funniest place to put them irrepressibly for 72 hours? Where would they be the most miserable? And the answer was at some endless parade of someone else’s happiness, like a destination wedding. At the same time, I had been to my share of destination weddings, as I guess we all have at this point. I’m honored to be invited, I love the people but it’s a lot, don’t you think? I mean, you’re traveling and you’re in a hotel, and it’s 3 or 4 days and all the expense. So those two things kind of came together, and that’s where the story started.
It’s weird because I don’t go to many weddings at all and never a destination wedding. I’ve heard about them, obviously, and that someone I know is going to Costa Rica to get married, and I’m always like, “Why can’t you just do the wedding here?”
Exactly! Are you the first people who ever got married, for God’s sake?! Just have a wedding in somebody’s hometown. I’m happy to go, and then go home. I think there is something a little self-congratulatory about a destination wedding, and a little bit presumptuous. You go to enough of them, and they do kind of wear on the soul, but I don’t want to suggest that I’m some curmudgeon who doesn’t like weddings. I love weddings, I’m happy to go, but I couldn’t help but see that maybe there was some comedy there.
I was going to ask you if any of these characters came from your own cynicism about life and love? I feel there are jokes that are so dark that you must have had them in your head wanting to say them for a long time.
Well, I suppose it’s a place that I have gone in my thoughts, but no, it’s not really who I am as a person. Life doles out its punishment, and everybody gets their share, and there’s certainly moments where you’re thinking, “Oh, this is hopeless, this love business…” as Frank, Keanu’s main character, thinks, or “This is incredibly dangerous,” as Lindsay, the other main character thinks. No, I have not in my personal life given myself over completely to hopelessness. I’m happily married, and we had a very nice wedding, which by the way, was not a destination wedding. It was in my wife’s hometown. It did not ask too much of the guests.
I feel like the movie is these two characters talking the whole time, and it could have easily been a play. Obviously, you wouldn’t have all those locations, but the two characters also act as a Greek chorus, which is something I haven’t seen before where the two lead characters are pretty much commenting on the rest of the characters. Had you thought about doing it as a play at any point?
I certainly understand the thought that it’s play-like, but the reason it’s like that is because the idea of the movie is that these people can’t participate in happiness, and they can’t participate in life. And certainly not in this parade of joy that’s taking place over there somewhere always. They’re there, they’re there out of obligation, but they’re separated. Hermetically-sealed off from what is going on. The shots are the way they are to create this sealed-off world that only the two of them inhabit, and there’s nothing left for people, is there, when they can’t participate in what’s going on other than cracking wise? So that’s why they do it. It’s a very small kind of existence, sitting on the fringes of something and making comments about it rather than participating in it and perhaps finding some happiness in it yourself. To set them up that way, I felt, was to best position them for the emotional journey they would make, which ends as you know how it ends.
How did you end up with these ‘80s icons, Keanu and Winona? Winona even had a retrospective at a local theater here, so there’s obviously a lot of love for both of them. What made you think of bringing them back together after Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”?
I mean, we were incredibly lucky. Our wonderful casting director Pam Dixon got it to Winona, and she felt the material was very well suited to her, so she said “Yes” and then she said, “I know exactly who should play Frank, and it’s Keanu Reeves. He’s a very verbal, bright guy with an encyclopedic mind. He hasn’t had a chance to play this kind of thing much, and he would love to do it.” She sent it to him, and sure enough, she was right.
I’ve spoken to Keanu and met him a few times – I don’t think I’ve ever met Winona – but Keanu has a charm to him, although he always seems very serious and deadpan, but he also can deliver these really hilarious lines. Were you immediately convinced they’d work or did you have to see the two of them together before deciding?
Oh, I was convinced before I ever saw the two of them together. First of all, they’ve known each other for 30-something years, so I knew that they’d have good chemistry, that they would be able to complete each other’s sentences, that they would be completely comfortable with one another. They have a great friendship, and that kind of thing always helps the movie. It’s not the kind of thing that a director can create really, especially in a short amount of time. You know, we shot this thing in 9 and a half days. You don’t have a lot of time to build relationships. It really helps if those relationships are there to begin with.
But also you have very long uncut scenes of dialogue. A lot of times with a movie like this you’d shoot a lot of coverage – you’d shoot him and then you’d shoot her and both of them and then edit it together. Here, you have good long uncut scenes of ten to twelve minutes of dialogue which is flawless. Was that the idea from the beginning to have them know the material enough to just film them together?
Yes, that’s exactly right. They put a lot of time into memorization. They did learn it as you would learn a play, more or less, large chunks of the script at a time, so that they could be performed at a time. The more camera angles you have, the more time it takes to get a scene, so there’s really a bare minimum of camera angles. This shooting method, which is faster and which allows you to shoot a feature film in nine and a half days requires actors to just be masters of the material. They did the work. They’re very talented and skilled. They put in the hours. They knew it down to the syllable, and they were able to do those long takes and have them be in the movie.
Some of the lines are so hilarious that I’m surprised they could deliver them so deadpan without cracking up all the time. So they’re so well-trained, that they can do that without breaking out of character?
Well, thanks. I mean, yes, they’re really good actors, and they know that in a perfect world, all five minutes of this take would be in the movie. They know they have to stay in character, and by the way, a little bit of naturalism is good. A little bit of talking over each other and rolling with the punches within a given take is good. It’s all part of what I wanted to evoke, which is this feeling of just watching these two people for an hour and a half. It didn’t have to be letter-perfect, but they sure came close. I mean, it’s amazing to me how honest they were.
Probably one of the big clichés when doing an interview is where someone says the location was another character in the movie. In this case, the Paso Robles winery is literally another character. Where there a lot of different options for where you could shoot this? Or had you been there before and knew you could get what you needed there quickly?
We knew that we had to have some sort of beautiful location, so as to add to what we were saying before this idea that they were in paradise but unable to participate in paradise. Trespassers in paradise, if you will. One of our producers, Elizabeth Dell, knew these winemakers, the Dubost family, knew the property and suggested it as a primary location. When we went up there and had a look, we thought she was absolutely right. It gave us everything that we needed.
The other major character is a mountain lion, who I assume you just shot that separately and cut that in? That seems like it would add another layer of difficulty. How did you find such a well-trained mountain lion?
You can find a well-trained almost anything in Hollywood. Whatever you want, I’m sure somewhere there’s a horse that can tap dance, but this was a trained mountain lion with a very experienced and well-known mountain lion training outfit who came to our set. We told them what we wanted the mountain lion to do, and it took a while, but we got the mountain lion to do it. And yes, there is basically a split screen involved where Winona, Keanu, and the mountain lion appear to be in the same shot. That’s what they call a composite – I’m simplifying – but you leave the camera in place, you shoot Winona and Keanu’s half, and then you shoot the mountain lion’s half
By the way, that noise that Keanu makes with his throat throughout the movie, was that something he just brought to the table that he could do that?
Unfortunately, that noise is slightly auto-biographical on my part. I have been known to make that noise. I’m not proud of it and it’s not something I make in public, but I did it for Keanu and then Keanu did it remarkably well enough in fact that I became retrospectively horrified by the other times I had done it and perhaps my wife had heard it from the next room.
Would you consider this movie a good date movie? I think it might be since you should have some interesting conversations afterward, but it could be a relationship wrecker if you start agreeing with some of the things said. How do you feel about that when you made it?
I’m happy for anybody who comes – if they happen to be on a date, that’s terrific. I wish them a good date and hopefully a second date. I would say this. It is about relationships and about the arc of these people within their relationship, but in the course of the movie, there are a lot of conversations that cover love and happiness and the chances of them sustaining, etc. If you’re interested in those kinds of subjects, then yeah, it’s a terrific date movie. If you want a movie with more action and less talking then I would say you’ll be going to the restaurant early, but hopefully, that won’t be the case.
I’m sure you’ve been hearing while doing interviews about the “Mad About You” reunion which seems to be moving forward with Paul and Helen. Is that something you’d want to be involved with?
I don’t know anything about it. I’m not involved with it, so I can’t comment unfortunately. I just read this and that in the trades, but I don’t know any more than you know.
What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll do more TV in the future or that you’re working on?
Yes, I go back and forth between features and TV. I have a couple of pilots that are in contention now, and a couple feature scripts that I’m trying to move through the production pipeline. You sort of never know what’s next until it gets its greenlight so it would be premature to comment on anything. In my job, you just write things that you believe in and hopefully get them into the hands of the right people and then see what happens. So I’m in the “see what happens” stage.
It’s great talking to you. I enjoyed your last movie “5 to 7” when I saw it. It was a strange French film set in New York but it was tragic when Anton Yelchin passed away because it was one of his undiscovered films which I hope people have since discovered.
Thank you very much. I miss Anton every day. He was a great friend – obviously, an incredible actor. I would be hard-pressed to name anyone whom I’ve worked with closely who is more beloved in this business than he was, and he had such a bright future. I can honestly tell you that not a day goes by without thinking about him. I really miss him.
“Destination Wedding” opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 31, and in other places sometime in September.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW