At a time in which film and television production was on lockdown due to the emerging Coronavirus pandemic, Malcolm & Marie was the rare project heading into production. The $2.5 million indie about a late-night debate between a young couple got made because writer/director Sam Levinson answered Zendaya’s call to write a contained drama that might keep them and their Euphoria crew employed after the HBO drama was shuttered days before shooting a new season. They enlisted John David Washington to co-star and got him and others to invest in a project that has gone on to generate much awards buzz for all three. As the film hits Netflix, Mike Fleming Jr. meets the small team that came together to overcome the odds.
'Malcolm & Marie's Zendaya, John David Washington & Sam Levinson Talk Creative Challenges And Pandemic Production - Contenders Film
It was macaroni and cheese that convinced Sam Levinson Malcolm & Marie was on the right track.
With his actors and a small crew, Levinson was ensconced in a stylish glass house in Carmel, California—a movie-ready location, but also one of the only places in the state that allowed for the requisite lodging to form a Covid-safe bubble—watching his screenplay, about an insecure writer/director too wrapped up in the afterglow of a rhapsodic premiere to realize how much he has hurt his partner, come to life. As the night drags on, Malcolm waits patiently for the effusive reviews to roll in. But for Marie, the fact that he forgot to thank her in his speech, despite the inspiration her own path out of drug addiction provided to the story, clearly stings. A long clash between them ensues, and never was there a more contentious preparation of a late-night snack.
“I was shooting the mac and cheese scene, and there was this electricity between them,” Levinson recalls. “It was then I realized, Oh, this is lightning in a bottle with these two. And then I got out of the way and made sure I bottled up as much of that lightning as possible for the screen.”
Indeed, it’s one thing to overcome the massive hurdles faced when mounting a project during a global pandemic. But Oscar season is about quality storytelling that is brought to life by actors at the top of their game. And it is just these two actors filling the screen for the entire movie, each revealing themselves in emotionally charged monologue scenes, tearing down the relationship they hope they might be able to salvage, baring their souls and insecurities in the process. in John Cassavetes-style scenes, down to the black-and-white footage.
“This is a rare experience,” adds Levinson, “to have two people able to hold their own in such different and unique ways, and who are both so good with dialogue and so captivating and so f—ing charismatic. It’s like a jolt of excitement.”
Malcolm & Marie became one of a handful of films able to find a way around the daunting obstacles presented by the pandemic. It began when Zendaya—who had just recently become the youngest actress to win the Drama Series Best Actress Emmy—implored Levinson to write something that could keep them busy. Adhering to strict protocols in compliance with WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA, the film shot in a little over two weeks in late June at the environmentally-conscious glass architectural Caterpillar House in Carmel, one of the few places in the state where production was possible, and which was conducive to building a protective bubble that no one could leave. It became the first post-pandemic film to wrap, and no one got sick. As importantly, Euphoria crew and producers, who would have otherwise been unemployed, worked for ownership alongside the filmmakers and stars, who invested their money to make possible the $2.5 million film.
About 20 minutes of footage from Malcolm & Marie was screened for buyers in late August as the virtual Toronto Film Festival market ramped up. A bidding battle between eight bidders ensued, before Netflix won with a $30 million bid.
It is easy to see why buyers flipped for it, given it features two of the hottest young stars in Hollywood, in a contained relationship drama that at times feels like watching two prize fighters trade punches. In fact, Levinson used the back-and-forth exchanges of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fights as inspiration. This couple’s exchanges are so honest, it will remind viewers of their own regretful arguments with a partner, and almost make viewers embarrassed to be witnessing incredibly private moments. Seeing such gorgeous-to-watch, fast-rising actors raise their game with Levinson’s crackling dialogue elevates the drama above its pigeonholing as a movie about Hollywood.
That it worked out so well and came together in such a short period of time is just as remarkable.
“This started as, how can we get back to work,” Levinson says. “I talked to HBO and said, ‘Maybe we can do a Covid episode [of Euphoria],’ and they said, ‘Sam, just go home, and be safe.’ That made perfect sense, but I had been talking to Z a lot when we were gearing up to do this pretty intense season of Euphoria, and it grew from there.”
Zendaya is the central figure in Euphoria, which tells of teens navigating sex and drugs and dysfunctional upbringings. When a six-week shutdown became open ended, Zendaya implored Levinson to write a contained film she might fit in before starting her next Spider-Man film.
“Over the course of those conversations, it got around to, ‘Hey Sam, what if we were to shoot something in my house? Make it just us. We could write something,’” Zendaya remembers. “We had no expectation of what that would be, or what it would look like. Then it was like, would this even be possible? Some very strange ideas started floating around and some concepts that definitely didn’t make it.”
“I was pitching Z horror films and psychological thrillers and all that,” adds Levinson. “And then at some point I thought, Well, what if it’s just a relationship piece that plays out in real time, and what might kick that off? And I remember the time I forgot to thank my wife at the premiere of the movie…”
Levinson’s wife, Ashley, is a producer on Malcolm & Marie, and was an associate producer on his previous feature, Assassination Nation. It was during that film’s premiere in Los Angeles at the Cinerama Dome where her director husband forgot to thank her. The personal incident between filmmaker and wife proved the key that unlocked Malcolm & Marie, even if the actual drama between the Levinsons over the slight wasn’t as traumatic as what we see onscreen.
“Sam and I have such open communication, and the basis of the relationship has always been friendship, trust and respect,” Ashley Levinson says. “I think it’s a very human thing to do when you’re anxious and excited, to forget someone. In the moment it wasn’t overwhelming. Then at the after party, people approached me and said, ‘You are so important to his work,’ and there it bothered me a little more. So, I talked to him about it on the drive home. But it was just human error, and I didn’t take it that personally.”
They laughed, she says, when he told her this moment had unlocked the door on Malcolm & Marie. “I felt an enormous amount of gratitude I had a partner that cared that much about acknowledgement that it had bothered him enough that he had shifted and grown. The beautiful irony was, a year later, in the same theater at a premiere for Euphoria, he gave this wonderful speech about my role in who he is as a person and an artist. I actually remember a friend of mine saying, ‘When in life do you get a re-do? How lucky is that?’”
The back and forth between Malcolm and Marie following the snub is so lacerating one is left to wonder if such a re-do would even be possible; Malcolm’s insecurity about how hard it is for a Black filmmaker to be accepted as a true artist would leave him feeling that crediting his partner might marginalize his accomplishment and would be a blow to his manhood.
For his part, Levinson’s omission is still something he can’t easily shake off. “[Assassination Nation] was a brutal process,” Levinson recalls. The film was a huge acquisition out of Sundance, but its complex themes made it difficult for marketers to find its audience. “I cut that movie for a year, hundreds of different cuts to take a four-hour film down to an hour and 45 minutes,” he says. “It took a toll on both of us. I sat down after my speech and I remember walking to the car, knowing I forgot to thank her, and I just felt so guilty. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might happen when you forget to acknowledge the contribution of someone so integral to the process.”
It was from there that Levinson fictionalized this debate taken to its extreme. “What happens if we then find out that the movie is actually based somewhat on his wife?” he says. “How can I make the problem worse and allow it just to peel back layers of their relationship?”
Malcolm gets existential in dissecting a rave LA Times review, and how the reviewer didn’t get him. Meanwhile, he is oblivious to the fact that his partner, Marie, is the one whose life is being dissected, since it is the plot of the movie. But no one knows her difficult life experiences helped inform the film because the aspiring actress was given no real shot at the starring role by her partner. And even the seemingly minor validation of a thank you for her role in his movie was denied her. While Malcolm tells Marie he loves the way she sees the world, it turns out that maybe he doesn’t really see her, and her own ambition, at all.
“It became an opportunity to strip back all of the layers of this relationship,” Levinson says. “I started in theater and I love dialogue; it’s my favorite thing to write. The director in me hates dialogue and I’m always trying to cut the dialogue I write. Euphoria is about young people who aren’t able to really articulate themselves, and so the camera and the music and lighting and mood does it for them. I was interested in going in the complete opposite direction and doing something that was just character, just dialogue, and finding a way to make that cinematic.”
That was most conducive to their plan to attempt to shoot the film despite the pandemic, because it could be a single location, with two actors and a small crew, everybody sequestered away after being quarantined.
“Sam calls one day and says, ‘Yo, Z, I think I got one,” Zendaya remembers. He gave her the elevator pitch and she said, “Go for it.” As he wrote, he would send Zendaya 10 or 15 pages at a time, “And we would talk for hours. And we both thought the only person who could ever be Malcolm would be John David Washington. But there wasn’t much there yet for John David to make a decision whether or not he wanted to do it.”
Even idled by Covid, like everyone else in Hollywood, Washington’s star has ascended with the same dizzying trajectory as Zendaya’s, following a breakout performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and a blockbuster turn in the Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet. “Who’s going to go toe to toe with Z, who’s a true heavyweight?” Levinson recalls thinking. “We needed a great actor and someone who would challenge her, but who was also a kind actor. And John David was the only one I could think of.”
Levinson got his number from the actor’s sister Katia, a producer on Assassination Nation, but he knew it would not be an easy call. “I knew him well enough to cold call him, but I was very nervous because I was asking him to go from literally the biggest film of the year to the smallest, and I also knew that I was going to ask him if he wanted to put money into this movie.”
He called, and Washington told him to send over the script. “I said, ‘Well, do you mind if I just read it to you, because it’s very rough?’” Levinson says. “I did, he was interested, and he said, ‘Well, just keep calling me and reading it I guess.’”
“Sam just started reading the characters,” says Washington, picking up the story of that first call. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He has great timing and really understands performance. He is a great actor himself in my opinion, and I was sold on everything he was saying, everything these characters were talking about, in this short excerpt. Then he said, ‘I gotta keep writing, I’ll call you back.’”
The process was like this the whole way, Levinson recalls. Scrappy. He put $80,000 of black-and-white film stock on his credit card when they had to press the button on shooting in Carmel. “It was like, ‘I’ve got to make this f—ing movie now, or else I’m going to be in real trouble,’” he laughs. “Ash comes in day five and says, ‘I’ve found this hotel, can I put it on the credit card?’ I said, ‘Please don’t put it on the credit card,’ and she says, ‘I actually just put it on the credit card.’ Some of this is scary to think about even in retrospect because I was still writing. But it made me write fast and get it done.”
For his part, Washington says he felt more or less committed on that first call. “We met through Katia at Sundance when I had Monsters and Men there and he had Assassination Nation. I was blown away by that film, thinking there’s nobody doing anything like this. It’s crazy to hear him say [that I was a question mark] because I felt like, if he calls me, it’s a yes. It’s not, ‘What are we doing?’”
Of course, the change happening in the world didn’t hurt. “I thought I had my year mapped out, selling the film I was in with Christopher Nolan, traveling the world. And then everything came to a halt and I was in this dire, desperate need to perform. Badly. When this came about, I felt like it was a godsend, because I’d never read anything this powerful before.”
Production jumped through every PPE hurdle, and crew mostly stayed outside; only a handful came inside the house where they filmed. Not having routine positions like script supervisor made continuity a challenge, but if anything, the bubble increased the intensity of the scenes between Zendaya and Washington.
“We were all cognizant of this being a time when many people were unable to work, and that added to the grateful feeling and the fact we were sharing that bubble with people who were also financially able to benefit from our film,” Zendaya says. “For me, I hadn’t been able to act in pretty much that whole year. I just was so grateful to be amongst these people and create with something that was written specifically for us. But it was also my dream role. I couldn’t believe I was able to make it the way I wanted, and not have anybody to answer to, except the people around me I admire and was working with every day.”
That sense of camaraderie extended well beyond the above-the-line triumvirate. “There was the sense that we were in it together,” she says. “Anybody who didn’t want to follow the strict protocols didn’t have to be there. Everybody there was responsible and safe, and we got to stay in this place in Carmel, the middle of nowhere. Yes, there were days that were emotionally exhausting and hard. I slept all day until we had to go to work the next night. But there was such a love and support built there.”
It encouraged a level of vulnerability that shows on screen, she says. “We were dealing in such rough emotional spaces and it was so important that we were able to do that in a space that felt safe. After John David would do his monologue or I would do mine, or he would cry or I would cry, there was a check-in, a support system with everyone there. That is how you’re able to do your best work. I was grateful we were able to create that space where we could just let it all out. It was therapeutic in some instances as well.”
The exchanges between characters grow more intense, taking on that Ali-Frazier aspect. Each character gets their shots, and after a retreat inside the fishbowl-like, glass-encased house, the other comes back and gives as good as they got in the previous round. As they do, they reveal two very likeable but damaged people who very likely belong together, but who maybe won’t survive this night.
“I wanted Malcolm to be more in line with Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, where he’s screaming and using the space,” says Levinson. “And I wanted Marie to start out more reserved so you’re not quite sure, and then over time you realize what a force she is. As we shot, I tried to leave it at a moment where I knew the other actor was going to go back to their hotel room, and go to sleep thinking, I can’t let her win, so I have to bring it tomorrow. Both of them have this competitive edge to them, but they also root for one another, so I wanted them to have to constantly feel like they’re one-upping each other while staying true to character. But I wanted there to be a joy to the fight.”
Perhaps in contrast to his character, Washington came in feeling squarely like the underdog in this emotionally bruising match. After all, Zendaya and Levinson had spent so many hours of talk time working out the beats of the story and the characters even before this was an actual movie. “We had 12 days of prep where ideas were exchanged and we were in the think tank discussing stuff,” Washington says. “I was trying to catch up and I would hear her say words and think, Well who wrote this, did she or did he? Because they are so fluid and simpatico together. I had no idea how I was going to do this. I never felt this way before that moment. No way in; I was playing with accents, doing all kinds of weird stuff. I think even Sam admitted to me he wasn’t sure. I wasn’t reading right, I couldn’t read aloud, because the text was so deep and I was connecting with it so much that there was stuff happening emotionally to me, even before I could get the words out.”
But just as Levinson had rolled the dice on last-minute gambles to nudge the shoot past the point of no return, so Washington too found his in at the very last minute. “I was working on it hard, believe me, until that first night,” he says. “And then it clicked, and Sam yelled, ‘Action.’ It felt crazy, and I’m not sure I want to do that again. I would like to know, before I get in there. But this was so unique, and I didn’t know.”
He found ways to place himself into the scenes. A standout running back at Morehouse, with a brief stint with the Rams, Washington displayed some of those moves as he scampered along a windowsill and moved gracefully from room to room, and he channeled his famous family into one of the film’s most touching scenes.
“The bathtub sequence,” he says. “I don’t like to push for emotion, and I didn’t have to because the words had me under a spell. A quiet moment, and I wasn’t myself, I felt like I was representing people related to me. I was representing the love and bond of my parents, in that poetic moment where he confesses his love to her, and I tapped into the true, unconditional love I saw in my grandparents. I would love to be able to say those words to somebody I love someday. But I don’t have the penmanship that Sam has.”
While Zendaya has shown her range in her series and the Spider-Man films, she breaks new ground here in a very adult role. She said she was most gratified by not just being the actress, but being able to help shape the character and the whole film.
“What was cool about my relationship with Sam is, he wrote it with me as the woman he’s grown to know, in front of his eyes, but still I’m very different from Marie and don’t handle things the way she does,” she notes. “Sam writes female characters that are so layered and flawed and conflicted, but who have such depth to them. I might say, ‘Well I would never do that, I would never say that, or go there,’ but that’s the point of doing it. I’m existing through this character. Also, it’s fun to have a character you can dig into and the more you dig, the more layers you find.”
She cares for Malcolm and Marie. “I liked that they had the relationship they do, even though even now, I am still conflicted over whether they should be together or not,” she says. “I see a romance and a beauty to their relationship, but it can also be so dark and awful, happening back and forth the way that probably a lot of people watching it will recognize. I felt that way when we were shooting, and it was hard for me, that conflict, that indecisiveness, the, ‘I don’t know how I feel about this.’ Ironically, these characters are the opposite of black and white.”
The scenes between them sometimes encompass pages of dialogue that were accomplished in single long takes. “There were so many words, the pages kept building,” says Washington, who says he found it intimidating. “And then add the movement… In an early monologue, I am circling and doing all these things. But as an actor, this is what I wanted. It is what I needed. It is how I would love to work. When you get to say words like this, the pressure is on you to trust it.”
As much as Washington wondered if he would ever get the right handle on his character, Levinson went through his own crisis of conscience as the footage started coming back. After rehearsal, as cameras started rolling on the first of 10 planned shooting days, he and cinematographer Marcell Rév had an approach. “Marcell and I wanted to go into this movie with a slightly more formal idea in terms of how we would approach it. All dolly work. We had certain references in mind like Bunny Lake Is Missing, by [Otto] Preminger. That very well-choreographed look.”
They shot all day, with no AD or script supervisor in the pared-down crew. At the end of the day, they looked at what they’d shot; some 30 takes. “I’m looking at Marcell and I can tell we’re both not feeling great,” Levinson recalls. He told Rév he felt the whole thing looked like a whiskey commercial. “It was too clean, not enough life in it.” So, they threw it all away.
“The biggest challenge was how to shoot a film that was very dialogue heavy, very emotional, and make sure there was a progression to it dramatically, and that it didn’t just end up being two people screaming at each other,” Levinson says. “How do you shoot in a way where the house doesn’t begin to feel tired, and it doesn’t just feel like two heads in a room? We had to figure out how to block it in a way that allowed us to highlight the performances, and to allow for a minute and-a-half stretch without a cut, and be moving and dancing with them.”
On the second day of shooting, they decided to try shooting again handheld. “We wanted everything to be messy, to have a certain life to it.” This meant leveling with the actors that all their work of the previous day would be thrown away. “They got on board, and we shot the whole day handheld. That whole opening scene.”
By the end of the day, dread was setting in. “An hour before we’re supposed to wrap, I’m looking at Marcell and he’s got a 1000-foot mag on his shoulder, he’s drenched in sweat, he’s lost 10 pounds and I’m shaking my head and so is he. We get to the car and I say, ‘Marcell, there’s no design here, it’s a mess. This isn’t working either.’”
Rév told him he completely agreed but wasn’t sure what they should do. “We couldn’t just move on because we were shooting everything in order,” says Levinson. The realization of another wasted day of shooting hit hard.
The eureka moment that followed allowed the house to be the third character in the two-hander. The style asserts itself in the opening moments. When the couple returns from the movie premiere, she fixes him some instant macaroni and cheese, and she becomes frosty as he tucks into his victory meal. “We set up outside the next day, for that tracking shot from the bathroom as he’s coming in, dancing to the music,” Levinson continues. “It was supposed to be a connective piece. I realized that in that moment, you can see the world of the house and that Malcolm is in one universe and Marie is in another universe and there’s this separation. Clearly, she’s not having the night that he’s having. I said to Marcell, ‘This is it. This is how we should shoot this whole scene.’ He said, ‘I don’t disagree, but we have an hour before the sun comes up.’”
The shot that now opens the film is the shot they stole in that final hour of their second day. With a single key grip, Jeff Kunkel, and with the help of Katia Washington and Ashley Levinson, the director and cinematographer laid down a dolly track. Levinson explained the choreography of the scene to Zendaya and John David, and they rolled camera. “The last take, we had one foot in the mag, and I’m going, ‘Grab the macaroni!’ She does, and we roll out from there and that’s how that seven-minute take ended up in the piece. She’s in the bathroom and JD’s dancing, and that shot continues and then she’s outside smoking, and it’s all one scene.”
That style lends the film cinematic gravitas, a jazzy cool feel that plays to the power of its leads. You understand how difficult Washington would have been to tackle when he wore shoulder pads as the former running back leaps catlike atop a windowsill, or dances in the kitchen, giving Malcolm a physical aura to offset that of Zendaya’s Marie, whose character reveals herself over the course of the drama and the brutal emotional revelations to come.
Levinson credits Zendaya and Washington with allowing him to find that look, even if it took scrapping one-fifth of the original planned 10-day shoot (they found the extra cash to shoot four more days). “This was not normal,” he says. “If this was a regular production, I most likely would have been fired. But because everyone was putting their own money into it, there was even then a certain amount of trust we had in one another. We were figuring this out as we went along. Throughout the piece, that became the nature of it. We’d shoot a scene and if things weren’t clicking, we’d come back and reshoot it the next day. It was a ton of dialogue, a lot on the performers just on an emotional level. We just had to figure it out together and we were always mindful of trying to understand how the movie would fit together.”
All three—Levinson, Zendaya and Washington—say they felt the effort was validated by the auction last fall, which made the film immediately profitable and brought ownership checks to all involved. “It’s crazy that more films aren’t made this way,” Zendaya says. “Crews—all the people who literally put their blood, sweat and tears into making these films—don’t really see this level of compensation and ownership in something they put so much into. They took a risk being there with us and we all felt they should be compensated in such a way. Hopefully, maybe this can help change the model a little bit in the future. I was grateful to be a part of that. It has been a tough time for so many people and we were also able to carve out points that went to Feeding America, which was huge. We put this movie together out of our pockets and were able to do pretty well with it. And we were able to look out for other people who haven’t been as fortunate as we are. I’m proud of the movie, but especially the way it was made. You often don’t get to say something like that.”
Washington felt the same about the end result. “The quality of this film speaks to how it was made, and how so many in the business contributed,” he says. “I was proud to see an African-American stills photographer there; I think I’ve seen maybe two in the history of my short career. Ashley Levinson, Katia Washington, Zendaya, the producers, it was diverse, and everybody’s ideas counted. This was proof positive that you can pick the right people, get along and make something viable, and that can appeal to the masses. That’s very encouraging moving forward.”
He remembers watching Zendaya deliver a thank you speech in the movie. “I was just sitting there watching this performance from this person and it was so impactful,” says Washington. “I think people will not be ready when they see Zendaya this way, in those moments. Those moments really hit home.”