Alumni Spotlight – IWD Edition: Chandler Levack

Posted: Mar 8, 2023

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Meet Chandler Levack—the talented and much buzzed about filmmaker who’s making waves in the Canadian screen industry with the release of her debut feature, I Like Movies.

Chandler studied cinema at the Universality of Toronto before joining the Writers’ Lab of our Norman Jewison Film Program, where she explored her creative talents while captivating peers and mentors alike with her unique gifts and charisma.

Upon completing the film program at the CFC, Chandler released her debut short film, We Forgot To Break Up, whichpremiered at TIFF in 2017 and won the award for Best Canadian Short Film at the Whistler Film Festival the same year. In 2022, Chandler returned to TIFF for the world premiere of her first feature, I Like Movies,which has received rave reviews both in Canada and internationally.

I Like Movies was named Best Canadian Picture by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle in February 2023. It’s gone on to play festivals that include VIFF, Golden Horse Taipei, the Santa Barbara Film Festival and the Glasgow Film Festival, and was selected for TIFF Canada’s Top 10. The film follows a socially inept 17-year old cinephile, Lawrence Kweller, getting a job at a video store where he forms a complicated friendship with his older female manager. I Like Movies will be released theatrically across Canada by Mongrel Media starting March 10 – be sure to check it out.

We recently caught up with Chandler to discuss I Like Movies, her upcoming projects, where she draws inspiration for her work, and more. Read more in the spotlight below in this special International Women’s Day edition of our alumni spotlight series.

Thank you for being part of this alumni spotlight! Let’s start at the beginning, how did your storytelling journey begin? When did you know you wanted to work in film and TV?

I made little movies in high school and studied film at the University of Toronto. But I actually began my career as a music and film critic in the mid 2000s as a very young person before transitioning to filmmaking. After dropping out of university to concentrate on cultural criticism full-time, I eventually decided that I needed to finish my degree. I decided to take a screenwriting class that completely changed my life, which was taught by Patricia Rozema and CFC alum Semi Chellas. The mentorship of those two brilliant women made me realize that screenwriting was what I wanted to do with my life and they encouraged me to study at the CFC. 

You’re an alum of the Norman Jewison Film Program Writers’ Lab. Can you share some takeaways from your time in the program?

It was really exciting for me. I’d never seen a camera before or written a short film and suddenly I was spending six months entirely devoted to writing scripts every day. The residents in my year were extremely brilliant and it was fascinating to write a script and immediately see it produced and directed. I had no idea what went into filmmaking and was lucky enough to work closely with the directing resident Virginia Abramovich who let me into her process. Due to Virginia’s generosity and great gift for collaboration, I got to sit in on casting sessions and hang around on set. It was very eye opening for me. It’s where I realized that I also wanted to direct because I had such strong opinions.

After graduating from the CFC, I started directing music videos with another resident there, Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, who was in the editing program. That was really my first introduction to DIY filmmaking as we created a series of award-winning punk music videos together. I got addicted to the chaos and joy of independent filmmaking and the thrill of creating something unimaginable with pure will and determination. I feel like I applied all of those experiences to the making of I Like Movies, which includes the efforts of two other brilliant CFC alumnae – my producer, Lindsay Blair Goeldner, and my editor, Simone Smith, who is nominated this year for a Canadian Screen Award for her work on the film! 

Congratulations on all the success of your debut feature film I Like Movies! Can you tell us about the genesis of the film?

The genesis was really Telefilm’s Talent to Watch grant. I was in my early 30s and really wanted to make a film and it was getting to a point where I knew I’d have to take matters into my own hands. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply to this microbudget program because a short film I had made in 2017 called We Forgot to Break Up played at SXSW, which made me eligible for it. So, I started thinking about an idea I could execute with a $125,000 budget. I knew I needed to write something that could mostly take place in one location that could be a showcase for great actors. And it got me thinking about my last year of high school when I worked at Blockbuster Video. I was falling in love with cinema then but my intense obsession also alienated me from other people. I was just about to graduate but also terrified of a future I had no control over. I’d never seen a coming of age film that took place in a corporate video store before. But there’s a funny irony to being a teenaged cinephile where the thing you most love in the world is just another product you’re supposed to sell. 

What were some of the biggest highlights and biggest challenges you experienced making I Like Movies?

We shot a 2003-era period piece in the third wave of the pandemic before vaccines existed on a minuscule micro-budget. COVID ended up taking out 15 per cent of our pre-existing budget due to PPE, the cost of having medics come to set to administer tests and hiring a COVID officer. Stores were closed down so we couldn’t buy any new props or costumes. And people in our lives were getting sick and dying. All of these factors impacted a very tight shooting schedule with lengthy dialogue-driven scenes to execute each day. When you are shooting in a charged environment where obviously the safety of your cast and crew is the first priority on set, it can be difficult to also create a warm, immersive environment for creativity. I think we found a good balance where having something to focus our creativity and joy on was a nice distraction from the horrors and boredom of the pandemic. My producer Lindsay Blair Goeldner really did an amazing job of implementing COVID protocols and we never had a case on set. 

I loved collaborating with this amazing team and this phenomenal ensemble of actors. For a lot of my keys, this is our first feature film credit. It was so fun to work with my cinematographer Rico Moran, production designer Claudia Dall’Orso, costume designer Courtney Mitchell, and hair and makeup artist Andi Clifford on this project. I felt like all the creative elements built off each other and it was exciting to see how I could keep telling the story all the way through post-production. Working with my editor Simone Smith was the most fulfilling artistic experience I’ve ever had. My composer Murray Lightburn brought so much to the story with his beautiful score and I loved working with my colourist Zach Cox and sound design team led by Michelle Irving, James Bastable, Jonah Blazer and Bret Killoran. 

What do you look for in a project you want to take on? What types of stories excite you? 

As a writer/director, it has to feel urgent and personal for me. I’m always interested in telling stories about people who are misguided, who’ve maybe inherited the wrong messages from popular culture or are looking to the wrong people to tell them who they are. I love writing stories about narcissistic young people who are obsessed with popular culture at a dark crossroads in their life. Losers who don’t know they’re losers and people who won’t admit their pain are big character tropes I’m attracted to in genres like rom-coms, dramedies and coming of age stories. 

Can you walk us through your creative approach to writing? Also, do you have any advice for writer’s block?

I think that a lot of the scripts I write are based in some aspect of my personal experience. So many times, it’s about using that as the foundation of a story and then heavily embellishing it or fictionalizing it. There are so many periods in my life and weird relationships that I’m only able to understand through making a movie about them. So it has to come from an urgent primal place for me to get excited about a script. 

I am such a bad procrastinator and am currently terrified that I don’t remember how to write a screenplay so I’m probably the worst person to ask for writing advice! Having gone to therapy for a bit, I’d say that probably what is masking those feelings is my fear or anxiety about not being good enough, and worries about hurting people I love by honestly expressing my own truths about my experiences. Doing something physical like going for a walk or cleaning my apartment has helped me in the past. The best thing you can possibly do however is sit down at your computer, hide all your devices and force yourself to write, even if it’s for only a page or two. You have to trick your brain into doing work or write first thing in the morning before you are hardwired into unhealthy patterns. It’s only then that I remember how much I love to write and how effortless and joyous it has always been for me. When you really love your characters, I also find screenwriting becomes really easy. I just want to hang out with my friends! 

What’s next for you? What projects are you working on?

I just applied to Telefilm with a new film that’s set in 2011. With every film I make, I’m slowing edging up to contemporary society. It’s about the Montreal music scene in the early 2010s and it’s based on my experiences as a young female music critic there. It’s kind of a generational hangout movie and a rom-com with shades of “24-Hour Party People” and “Reality Bites.”

I’d also really love to write a TV pilot about my mom’s experiences managing the crazy building that my family owns in Kensington Market. Our building is the only thing my family has left and it feels like a good story to explore themes of generational trauma (wassup!) and Toronto’s gentrification. My mom moved to Kensington after the collapse of a 30-year marriage and the death of her father. She’s just a nice lady from Burlington (Ontario) who is now constantly fighting with police officers and going on Tinder dates. She’s had to do everything from bust illegal grow-ops to hiring a bailiff to change the locks on an after-hours rave that was going on in the basement. My dream is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays my mom. 

March 8 marks International Women’s Day; what advice can do you have for other women creators? 

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to make your art. You have to give it to yourself. Grab a camera and the two most charismatic people you know and shoot a scene with them. Write something short and compelling in your own true voice and get it on camera. Your career as a filmmaker can only progress if you make films. I can’t wait to watch your movie. 

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