Given the recent burst of arts-driven culture in Miami, many of us are learning what it's like to live as artists. (Translation: we are creative and poor.) In the independent film Gabi on the Roof in July, which opens tomorrow at O Cinema, idealistic 20-year-old Gabi vies for her older brother's attention during a summer in New York. She also challenges his perspective as an artist.
We got in touch with director Lawrence Michael Levine and producer Sophia Takal who are a couple in real life but star as brother and sister in the film. They told us a little about why the movie looks improvised and why it's less about New York than about the characters "balancing their ambition and their morality, their ties to their family and their responsibilities to themselves." They also made a few mentions of John Cassavetes, of course.
Cultist: Lawrence, you used to write plays. Was the transition from plays to film a smooth one for you?
Lawrence Michael Levine: When I first got interested in the dramatic arts I always admired artists who explored both mediums such as Mike Leigh, Rainer Werner Fasssbinder, and John Cassavetes. For me, regardless of the medium, the same elements are crucial. My work is performance-centric as opposed to purely visual. So I imagine it is easier for me to go back and forth between the two mediums than it would be for someone who is interested in action sequences or someone who cares more about gorgeous cinematography. Visuals are important but only as a way of conveying the emotional realities of the characters that I'm portraying.
We've read the film has an improv-like style. Is this true, and was there a reason you chose to create the film in this manner?
Lawrence: I developed the script for this film through a six-month-long rehearsal period. During that time, I guided the actors through a series of improvisations geared toward generating characters and eventually the narrative for the film.
For the four years prior to when we began the rehearsals for the film, I had been in film school, where I had been encouraged to write more conventional stories: single protagonists, three-act structure, and external obstacle. I found myself feeling creatively stifled by these kinds of traditional ways of thinking about narrative and I wanted to break out of that and see if I could discover something truly surprising.
Do you live in New York? Could this film have worked in another city?
Lawrence: It's true that if we had set the movie somewhere else the story would be different but I think only in the most superficial ways. The jobs the characters had, the clothes that they wore, the phrasing of their speech. People of this age in any major city in America are going to face similar issues balancing their ambition and their morality, their ties to their family and their responsibilities to themselves, etc.
What about the sister/brother dynamic interested you?
Sophia: I have a lot of friends with older brothers who always say, "If my brother weren't my brother, I'd marry him." I don't have a brother so that struck me as kind of odd and I wanted to explore more deeply why that dynamic exists.
Do you have a favorite sibling movie (besides this one)? Twins?
Lawrence: I love Cassavetes' Shadows and also his movie Love Streams. I think both of those films had a heavy subconscious influence on this one.
Are you trying to comment on anything in particular? What it means to be young, to be an artist?
Lawrence: Yes, of course. I didn't want the movie to feel didactic in any way, but I did want to explore a troubling reality about the state of the artistic community in our country. I feel that it is an artist's job to be critical of mass culture and to force people to reevaluate the social presumptions that guide people's behavior.
More and more, I see artists chasing money and power, rather than challenging the dominant culture. I wanted to depict a character whose life is drifting in that direction and to have a younger more idealistic person come in and shake his life up, remind him of who he was. Though the character of Gabi may be difficult at times, her presence and her naive integrity really do end up having a positive effect on Sam's life and force him to look at the compromised person he's become.
When people watch this film in a few decades, what do you want them to have gotten from it?
Lawrence: Hopefully, Gabi will still speak to people many years from now. I think the film is really about the tension between what we owe ourselves and what we owe others, and how difficult it is to find that balance. The movie is also about the disconnect between the who we think we should be and who we really are. I don't imagine those issues will be irrelevant to the human experience anytime soon.
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Gabi on the Roof in July will screen at O Cinema (90 NW 29 Street, Miami). The schedule goes like this: June 9 at 8 p.m., June 10 and 11 at 7:45 and 10 p.m., and June 12 at 7:45. General admission is $10.50, students and seniors are $9, and it's only $7.50 for members. Visit o-cinema.org.
Liz Tracy has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has written for publications such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Ocean Drive. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.