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A date? It’s really a ménage à trois.

For Steve Carell and Tina Fey, their Canadian director is more than just a matchmaker


 
A date? It’s really a ménage à trois.

Photograph by Myles Aronowitz

In Date Night, Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a harried suburban couple who try to shake up their routine with a night out at a posh Manhattan restaurant, and end up being chased by gangsters. In one of the funnier bits of physical comedy, they are held hostage in a sex club, and forced to perform on a stripper pole. Shawn Levy, Date Night’s producer and director, chose not to hire a choreographer. “We wanted the awkwardness of Steve and Tina having to make up an erotic dance on the spot,” he said last week, on the phone from Los Angeles. “I was standing behind the camera screaming at them: ‘Sex robots!…Intercourse caterpillar!…Lick the pole!’ I call it my little creative ménage à trois. They were doing the dancing but I was in the scene with them, breaking out suggestive moves.”

That kind of personal coaching is what has helped Shawn Levy become one of Hollywood’s most bankable talents—and the most successful Canadian director you’ve never heard of. A roll call of eminent homegrown filmmakers typically includes James Cameron, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand, and Ivan and Jason Reitman. The pantheon. But Levy, 41, who was born and raised in Montreal, has enjoyed box-office success outstripped only by Cameron and Ivan Reitman. His movies—which include The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, What Happens in Vegas and two Night at the Museum blockbusters—have grossed US$1.5 billion.

With Date Night, Levy played matchmaker for two of TV’s sharpest comedians, and hit on something that’s rare in studio marriages of convenience—genuine chemistry. Carell (The Office) and Fey (30 Rock) had never made a movie together. But from their first moments onscreen, we believe they’re a couple. Which is not to say their scenes smoke with carnal passion; it’s not that kind of romantic comedy. They find a comfort zone that suggests their love runs deep as they struggle to keep up some semblance of a sex life between raising kids and chasing careers. “They were so perfectly fit for each other from the first moment they occupied the frame,” says Levy. “From the minute they’re getting ready for their day in the kitchen you believe they have a life together.”

That’s no accident, according to the director who spent a year working with the two stars after his own marriage inspired the idea for the movie—he has three children, aged 3 to 10. “Steve and Tina and I were united,” he says “We didn’t want to do a movie about a couple in crisis, but about marriage as we perceive it. It’s so hard to stay vibrant as a couple within the laundry list of responsibilities of adult life. It’s not a honeymoon every day, but it’s not the precipice of divorce.”

Date Night is an odd hybrid. It’s partly a dialogue comedy barbed with some well-observed satire. Carell wears a nose clip to bed; she wears a mouthguard. And their typical date night features an unctuous waiter who asks, “How did the potato skins and salmon treat you?” But once the couple slips down the Manhattan rabbit hole, the movie drops its Woody Allen specs and flips into an antic, stunt-driven action farce, fuelled by car chases and a running testosterone gag featuring a shirtless, muscle-bound Mark Wahlberg. “I wanted to appeal to a broader bandwidth than a dialogue-driven audience,” explains Levy, who says his models were After Hours, Risky Business and Midnight Run. Defining his art with terms like “bandwidth,” it’s no wonder Levy doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Egoyan.

“I guess I’m guilty of having gone Hollywood,” says the director, who proudly retains his citizenship though he’s lived in the U.S. since he was 16. He remembers a Westmount drama teacher advising him to go to Yale. Nurturing that ambition from the age of 10, he got to Yale, where he directed a 19-year-old Paul Giamatti in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Graduating with honours, and earning a master’s in film at the University of Southern California, Levy found his niche in Hollywood, as an actor and then a director.

After working with Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams, he says the key to comic talent is intelligence. And being a good director means being a fan—appreciating his actors even if it means spoiling a take with his laughter. “It’s my duty to make them look great, to make them funny as heck, poignant and honest, and, above all, to put them in a big, fat hit movie. That’s my job.” And to think they teach that at Yale.


 

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