EXCLUSIVE: One of the final unseen films with awards season potential presents itself tonight as Netflix unveils the Sam Levinson-directed Malcolm & Marie in its first industry screening before a February 5 release. John David Washington plays a writer/director who returns home with his girlfriend after the triumphant premiere of what he hopes will be his breakout film. Zendaya plays that girlfriend, whom he forgot to thank even though her difficult life experiences informed much of the movie. The drama unfolds from there, just the two of them over an evening in a picturesque house shot in 35mm black and white film, as the fight over a slight forces them to reveal themselves and how they really feel about each other. They bare their souls and insecurities, sometimes with brutal emotion, in John Cassavetes-style scenes.
Before anyone even got to see it, Malcolm & Marie was already one of the most uplifting movie bright spots in a terrible film year in which many big films abandoned the 2020 calendar because of Covid, and theaters and production shut down. This movie was born from the pandemic, after Sam Levinson was forced to halt the start of Euphoria, the HBO/A24 series, days before production when every film and TV project shut down. Anxious to keep the crew from the unemployment line, that show’s star Zendaya — who recently became the youngest actress to win the Drama Series Best Actress Emmy and wrapped the Denis Villenueve-directed Dune – implored Levinson to quickly write something that could keep all of 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 glassy Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel. It was one of the few places in the state where production was possible, and where they could build a protective bubble no one could leave during the shoot. Malcolm & Marie 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.
After 20 minutes of footage was screened for buyers in late August, an auction between eight bidders ensued, before Netflix won with a $30 million bid. Crew cash big checks and a participation led to a generous check for Feeding America.
I’ve seen the film and it’s easy to see why buyers sparked to it. It’s an acting tour de force for two of Hollywood’s hottest most watchable young stars in a contained relationship drama that at times feels like watching two great prize fighters trade punches. As the filmmaker and the snubbed girlfriend who was the backbone of his breakout film tear each other apart, the exchanges feel so honest. It reminded me of many of the dumb, regrettable and insensitive things I’ve said to my wife over 36 years of marriage. Seeing that duo go toe to toe with Levinson’s crackling dialogue elevates the drama well above being described as a movie about Hollywood.
That it worked out so well and came together so quickly is just as remarkable.
“This started as, how can we get back to work,” Levinson said. “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, and it grew from there.”
Zendaya is the central figure in that raw drama about teens navigating sex, 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 said. We had no expectation of what that would be, or what it would look like. Then it was, would this even be possible? Some very strange ideas started floating around and some concepts that definitely didn’t make it.”
Said Levinson: “I was pitching Z horror films and psychological thrillers and all that, and then at some point I thought, well, what if it’s just a relationship piece that plays out in real time. What might kick that off? And I remembered the time I forgot to thank my wife at the premiere of that movie…”
Levinson is married to Ashley Levinson, one of the Malcolm & Marie producers who was associate producer on the Sundance sensation Assassination Nation, the film where her director husband forgot her in his thank you speech.
“And by the way, that movie was a brutal process,” Sam Levinson recalled. “I cut for a year, hundreds of different cuts to take a four hour film down to an hour and 45 minutes. 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. We only talked about it on the ride home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what happens when you forget to acknowledge the contribution of someone so integral to the process. That was the jumping off point, and I pushed into a realm that’s purely fictional, like, okay he forgets to thank his wife but what happens if we then find out that the movie is actually based somewhat on her? How can I make the problem worse and allow it just peel back layers of their relationship?”
That concept lent itself to scenes like the one where Malcolm gripes about how he was treated in a rave LA Times review, oblivious to the idea that his partner is seeing her own painful life experiences dissected, anonymously because she was cut out of the creative process. Though Malcolm tells Marie he loves the way she sees the world, even a caveman like me can see that he doesn’t really see her, and her own ambitions, at all because he’s too caught up with his own.
“It became an opportunity to strip back all the layers of this relationship,” he said. “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 and dialogue, finding a way to make that cinematic.”
That was most conducive to shooting in the pandemic, because it could be accomplished in a single location, with two actors and a small crew, with everybody sequestered away after quarantining.
“Sam calls one day and says, ‘Yo, Z, I think I got one,” Zendaya said. “Black and white on film, after they get home from the premiere of his work and he forgets to thank her and the night happens and when they turn off the light, you don’t know if they’ve figured it out, or not.
“I said go for it, and he started writing 10 or 15 pages at a time, and he would call and we would talk for hours,” she said. “And we both thought the only person who could ever be Malcolm was John David Washington, even though there wasn’t much there yet for John David to make a decision whether or not he wanted to do it.”
Said Levinson: “I thought, who’s going to go toe to toe with Z, who’s a true heavyweight? We needed a great actor who would challenge her, but who was a kind actor and John David was the only one I could think of.”
Levinson got Washington’s number from the actor’s sister Katia, one of his producers on Levinson’s Assassination Nation, but he didn’t expect it be an easy call.
“I knew him well enough to cold call but 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 the movie,” Levinson said. “I said ‘hey, I got this thing’ and he said, ‘great, send it over.’ I said, ‘well…do you mind if I just read it to you, because it’s very rough? I did, he was interested and said, well, just keep calling me and reading, I guess. The whole movie was that way. Kevin Turen, my producer, calls and says, ‘Sam we needed to buy film if we were going to be able to shoot in Carmel. So I just put $80,000 worth of black and white film on my credit card. Whatever you do, you’ve got to make this fucking movie or else I’m going to be in real trouble.’ My wife Ash comes in and says, ‘I’ve found this hotel, can I put it on the credit card?’ I said, ‘please don’t put it on our 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 faster.”
For his part, Washington said he felt more or less committed emotionally on that first call. “I remember feeling blown away by Assassination Nation, 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? It’s a yes, and then, okay, what are we doing?
“Sam started pitching me a bit, and by that I mean he just started reading maybe 10 pages, and just started reading the characters,” Washington said. “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 these characters were talking about, in this short excerpt. Then he said, ‘I gotta keep writing, I’ll call you back.’ I said, ‘can you give me something? Can I read something?’ He said, ‘no.’ But I was all in. 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.”
They jumped through every PPE hurdle, and while crew mostly stayed outside, only a handful came inside the glass house where they filmed each night. If anything, the bubble increased the intensity of the scenes between Zendaya and Washington in rehearsal.
“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 said. “For me, I hadn’t been able to act 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.
“There was also the sense that we were in it together,” she said. “Anybody who didn’t want to follow the strict protocols, didn’t have to be there,” she said. “Everybody there was responsible and safe and we got to stay in this place in Carmel, in 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. The first day we were able to see where we were shooting, John David is so detail oriented and had all these questions about things I hadn’t thought of. And so I had to say, wow, I have to catch up to these things and be better prepared.
We were dealing in such rough emotional spaces, and you have to be so vulnerable, it was so important that we were able to do that in a space that felt safe. Where you could try things, not be afraid to be vulnerable. After he would do his monologue or I would do mine, or he would cry or I would cry, after that 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 and try, maybe fail or maybe have a bad idea, but everyone had each other’s backs. Hard days or not, I was just so grateful to be doing it. It was therapeutic in some instances as well.”
As the exchanges between characters grow more intense, the film takes on the prizefighter aspect. Levinson said he had the great Ali-Frazier brawls in mind as a model.
“I wanted Malcolm to be more in line with Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, where he’s screaming and using the space and I wanted Marie to start out more reserved so you’re not quite sure about her, and then over time you realize what a force she is,” he said. “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. 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.”
When I suggest the Ali-Frazier imagery to Zendaya and Washington, the latter said he didn’t look at it that way.
“I did,” Zendaya quickly interrupted.
If anything, 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 progression of the characters.
“We had 12 days of prep, where ideas were exchanged and we were in the think tank discussing stuff,” he said. “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’d never felt this way before. 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.
“I didn’t get Malcolm’s voice and mannerisms down — and I was working on it hard, believe me — until that first night. And then it clicked, when he yelled, ‘Action.’ It felt crazy, and I’m not sure I want to do that again. I would rather know, before I get in there. But this was so unique. I didn’t know.”
He found personal touchstones worked in making his mark in the scenes. A standout running back at Morehouse who once signed with the St. Louis Rams, Washington displayed some of those balletic moves as he scampered along a window sill or 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 said. “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 in Spider-Man, here she takes a very adult turn with a character she helped shape.
“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 said. “Sam writes female characters that are so layered and flawed and conflicted, but 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. I liked that they had the relationship they do, though even now I am still conflicted over whether they should be together or not. 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.’ That was exciting to me as an artist. To think, I don’t even know how to feel about this relationship. 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.
“That was extremely terrifying,” Washington said. “There were so many words, the pages kept building. And then add the movement in these monologues, as 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. It’s all there, so good and deep, and as an actor, I would think, there is more than one way to do it. I can try things. Sam welcomed that. It was one-takes, but I got to love it and leaned into that fear and terror. I went for it and hopefully it worked out.
“Sam wrote great text, and both Zendaya and I each make great points and I knew as long as I trust the text, I would be fine,” Washington said. “However I react, there will be naturalism. Like the Cassavetes movie Faces, which I thought about a lot. It was free flowing. Malcolm, in his head, rattles off a lot of things and a lot of times he’s having conversations in his head that go at a certain pace, and his walk and demeanor and movement contradicts his speech pattern. What he says often contradicts what he means. He can be a full on walking contradiction. Those characters to me in cinema are the most fascinating, but you don’t often get to that because it’s all in the text. In this case, it was all there.”
Levinson, Zendaya and Washington all felt relief when the effort was validated by last fall’s auction, which established the film as very profitable, and brought ownership checks to all involved, who otherwise would have been hard pressed to pay their bills like so many in the industry.
“It’s crazy that more films aren’t made this way,” she said. “The crew, 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. Maybe this can help change the model a little bit in the future. It has been a tough time for so many people and we were 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.”