Sam Levinson is not a teenager. He’s just really good at writing them. In his critically acclaimed high-school drama Euphoria, the writer-director is careful not to patronise his adolescent characters – nor the actors who play them. During lockdown, Levinson has spoken on the phone with his now Emmy-certified lead Zendaya – whom he affectionately calls “Zee” – almost every other day. They would talk about anything and everything, speculating on when HBO would give the green light to start production back up or whether Levinson would need to rewrite the scripts. Or they’d simply chat about whatever mundane thing they had done on that nth day in quarantine. A few months into their calls, Levinson recalls, “Zee said: ‘Well what if we just shoot a movie at my house?’”
Malcolm & Marie is that movie – although it wasn’t filmed at the actor’s home but at a handsome property plucked from the pages of Architectural Digest. Written and directed in quarantine, and arriving on Netflix this Friday, the film is Levinson’s third professional outing during the pandemic. Over the past three months, the 36-year-old has released two bridge episodes to tide over Euphoria fans. Now though, Levinson – who has the floppy hair and slightly dishevelled look of a graduate student – is taking a brief pause from his schedule to field questions, and criticism, about his new film.
The newfangled notion of pandemic-filming is tricky. Levinson describes the process as “reverse engineering”: the feature must first be considered from a safety perspective “before I start dreaming about its narrative”. That meant one location, two actors and a skeleton crew, logistics-wise. After “kicking around some crazy ideas” – including a meta-horror in which Zendaya would play a fictionalised version of herself mentally stuck as her childhood Disney role in KC Undercover – they landed on a “relationship piece” pinned to an argument Levinson had with his wife in a car three years ago.
They had been driving home from the premiere of his ultra-violent social satire Assassination Nation when his partner Ashley Levinson – who had also served as producer on the film – pointed out that he had forgotten to mention her in his acknowledgements. “It didn’t turn into a full blowout or anything, but I did feel really guilty about it for a long time,” recalls Levinson, cringing in a way that suggests he still does.
Zendaya and John David Washington (last seen in Christopher Nolan’s time-bending epic Tenet) star as the film’s titular lovers. The former is a compassionate ex-actor, and the latter is her boyfriend, a conceited filmmaker whom you are begging Marie to dump within the first seven minutes. The pair return to their luxurious rental property after the successful premiere of Malcolm’s debut feature, but Marie acts cold, and we soon learn it’s because he failed to thank her in his speech – the tip of an emotional iceberg the duo hack away at for the next two hours. We’re granted ringside seats to the screaming match that ensues. When they are not screaming, they are weeping, sniping, being passive aggressive or whispering in barely concealed rage.
The film’s tight schedule (writing took six days; production spanned two weeks) meant that Levinson didn’t have as much time to think about specific references as he usually would. He does, however, cite several films as general influences: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 classic Le Mépris (Contempt), starring Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance; Joseph Losey’s tormented psychodrama The Servant – scripted by Harold Pinter – from the same year (“for its depiction of class and power”); Ingmar Bergman’s six-hour dissection of domestic life Scenes of a Marriage. And obviously, Levinson says, there are notes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Hollywood adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, which pitted a ferocious Elizabeth Taylor against her real-life husband Richard Burton, and became a paradigm for the theatrical power that just one relationship can harness onscreen.
Four weeks ago, Malcolm & Marie had been Oscars-bound. Early reviews pegged the movie as a potential late entry in multiple categories – although its recent shut out of the Golden Globe nominations does not exactly bode well. The snub is one of many roadblocks standing in its path to awards season and Levinson – who opens many answers with an explanatory “Look…” – has been put on the defensive.
First up, the age difference debacle. It only took a few hours and a handful of retweets for the 12-year age gap between the film’s co-stars to drown out any awards chatter. On this count, Levinson empathises with his critics. “In fairness, it’s something that historically happens a lot in films with older male actors and younger female ones and it often has nothing to do with the story,” he says. “I’m just not sure the criticism is applicable to this particular project because [the age difference] is part of its DNA.” Levinson adds that he was writing for Zendaya and Washington specifically – “two phenomenal actors that could go 12 rounds with one another” – so the age gap, which is explicitly referenced in the film, was always going to play a role in the imbalance of power depicted onscreen.
In the movie’s happier moments, when bowls of Kraft Mac & Cheese are consumed and Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him” plays in a sonic wink to the audience, Malcolm takes a break from railing against Marie to rant about film critics. Reviewers, he says, talk about “authenticity” and “identity politics” to cover up the fact that they don’t know the difference between a dolly shot and a Steadicam.
Critics have been quick to interpret the character's views as representative of Levinson’s. “I’ve been asked this question a lot” – I bet – “and there’s this automatic assumption that because I’m a filmmaker and Malcolm’s a filmmaker that this must be how I feel about everything. But I also wrote the character of Marie who vehemently disagrees with almost everything Malcolm says in the film.” By way of further explanation, he adds, “I think if you’re not able to listen to critique, you’re not able to grow as an artist and more importantly, as a human being.”
Still though, the numerous references to “the white lady from the LA Times” are begging to be interpreted as a nod to the freelance journalist who notably panned Assassination Nation in 2018. “Look,” he pauses. “It just sounded funny. Every time Malcolm says it, it just makes you laugh.” And to be fair to him, one of the film’s best moments is when Marie puts on her “white voice” to impersonate said lady.
At the heart of Malcolm’s tirade against film critics is a dialogue about Black creatives navigating white Hollywood. Malcolm is angry that his work is continually seen through a political framework that’s not imposed on his white counterparts. He is also sick of being compared to Spike Lee and John Singleton, and not William Wyler (the Swiss-American Oscar winner behind Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs Miniver). The conversation is no doubt important, but eyebrows have risen over whether it’s one that Levinson, a white screenwriter and the son of Rain Man director Barry Levinson, should be fictionalising. His defence, however, is that it’s not a conversation he is having alone. He and Zendaya would “go back and forth talking about expectations and limitations. How do people perceive an artist based on their race, their class, their gender, their orientation?” He concedes that “there’s certain things that I’m not going to get 100 per cent right about what it feels to be a Black creative but what I can do is write what feels true to the character and have faith in the collaborative process of filmmaking”.
The controversies and speculation surrounding Malcolm & Marie threaten to not only obscure the film’s technical flaws but its genuine accomplishments. Early on in our conversation, Levinson had said that his film was born out of the question: “Can we tell a story that’s emotionally engaging during this period of time when no one’s able to do anything beyond Zoom?” And in that regard, owing to Zendaya’s convincing lip-trembling and Washington’s formidable gestures of rage, the film succeeds.
Malcolm & Marie arrives on Netflix on Friday 5 February