Nutmeg Conversations: Shira Levin
Hi Shira, thank you so much for answering some questions for us. Would you mind giving a brief look into your career and background?
Currently I teach screenwriting part time at New York Film Academy. I am also a psychotherapist and have a small private practice in New York. I began writing and directing films in 2012. Prior to that I only wrote screenplays with no desire to direct. Before that, I studied acting for many years, which eventually segued into writing.
What drives you to tell stories?
I love to create things. One way of creating is to tell stories. When you write a script, you have to create a believable world and believable characters that seem to live and breathe, characters that draw viewers/readers in.
What is it about writing, in particular, that drew you in?
I loved acting but writing drew me in because I found it to be a way of self- expression that utilized various aspects of myself without having to be the focus of attention. It allowed me to become all the characters I was writing as I created them. I discovered that when I was fully engaged with what I was writing, time flew by and I could spend an entire day working. I actually look forward to doing it even though at times I get very frustrated. As I tell my students, writing is hard work but if you don’t enjoy the process, consider why you’re doing it.
As a screenwriter, teacher, and script consultant you see a lot writing, what is the one thing you think aspiring writers should keep in mind as they’re sitting down to the keyboard to tell their story?
There are probably many things, but if I had to choose one, I’d say that aspiring writers must remember that although the thinking phase of writing is crucial, there is nothing more important than actually putting pen to paper or fingers to the keys and writing. There is something magical that happens once you start to write. A part of your brain gets activated by the physical act. If you wait or aim for perfection, or for complete clarity before putting down a word, you’re not going to find it and you will only paralyze yourself. Writing begets writing. Writing begets ideas and more ideas. Don’t wait. Just sit down and start to write. Yes, thinking is very important but you have to do both.
Between 2012 and 2014 you wrote and directed your Trilogy (Last Day, Old Junk, Upside Down). What made you decide to transition to behind the camera work? And how did it feel to personally put your words to screen?
It was actually my husband’s idea for me to write a short script and direct it. Two of my feature screenplays had been optioned and in development over the years but ultimately never made. My husband knew my frustrations with this and therefore made the suggestion so I could have a chance to see my script come to life. To my surprise, I discovered that I love being behind the camera and feel that it utilizes more aspects of myself than anything else I’ve done. In terms of how it feels to put my words to screen, once the script becomes a movie I am not connected to the script in the way I was when writing it. It morphs into something new and it is exciting to see how it transforms.
After the Trilogy, you moved on to a feature project - what lessons did you learn directing those short films that helped you prepare for that?
Directing three short films introduced me to a different way of thinking that revolves around how to translate words into pictures. I learned about shot lists and how to pay attention to the frame of each shot. It was also the first time I auditioned and directed actors. My third short film was more complicated than the others with more actors, scenes, locations and dialogue, so that was helpful preparation for my feature. I also learned the importance of allowing “good accidents” to happen and the importance of working with people you respect and communicate well with. Of course there are always things you learn after the fact and see things you wish you had done differently, no matter what you’ve done before.
And this brings us to Starfish, your film will be premiering at the Mystic Film Festival on October 18th. Can you talk to us about the evolution of this project and what it’ll be like to see it on the big screen?
After completing my short film trilogy, the next logical creative step was to direct a feature film. I knew I had to write something that would be relatively simple to do for little money. What evolved was the idea for Starfish, which I wrote assuming it would be filmed in Westbrook and neighboring areas. The entire process from pre-production through post-production, has been a tremendous learning experience. Honestly, I do not enjoy the screening process because it is anxiety producing, but hearing audience responses has been gratifying. It is fascinating to hear laughter in different places and to hear and feel where people are silent and engaged. I am pleased when people tell me they were moved or that they related to things in the film. I always hope my films will strike a chord one way or another with viewers. Once a film is completed, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the viewers. For me, the rewards are in the creative process and in the journey of shaping the film in post-production. If the audience responds positively at Mystic Film Festival, that will be icing on the cake. Having the film chosen as the opening night film at Mystic Film Festival is a thrill and honor, particularly because I consider Starfish to be a shoreline film.
Why was it important to tell the story of Starfish now?
The impetus behind telling the story of Starfish was grief. I lost my father and then my rescue dog and was grief stricken. I know that grief is something all of us feel at different times in our lives though not often talked about openly. There are many kinds of grief and I wanted to tell a story that brought some of that to light and also explore the process of healing and how one woman learns to open her heart after it had been closed off. To me, the aspects of life that this story touches on are timeless and universal. I think it’s important to tell stories that reflect life in a genuine way as they entertain and offer chances for emotional experience.
Getting technical and going behind the scenes for a second, how big was your cast and crew, what did you film on, what was the total budget, and how many total shoot days?
My cast consisted of 10 actors- 6 major roles, 2 supporting and 2 minor ones. My crew consisted of 7 people – everyone had 2 -3 jobs. We filmed for 19 days, 16 days in CT and 3 in NY. The budget was extremely low – lower than anyone can probably imagine or believe. It’s kind of a miracle that we were able to pull it off with such limited resources.
You filmed pieces of Starfish in Westbrook, CT. What attracted you to that location? And how receptive was the community to the film and the filmmaking process?
I wrote Starfish to be filmed in Westbrook, CT because I live there part time and knew the area was perfect for the story. I was able to envision locations as I wrote. The community was incredibly supportive and I can honestly say that the support and generosity I experienced was one of the highlights of making this film. I was apprehensive to approach the owners of locations I wanted to use but was thrilled when they agreed. Two women I did not know, read about the project and contacted me. One allowed me to shoot in her home and the other, in tandem with the first, arranged to have their friends provide lunches to the cast and crew. Amazing that strangers would come on board like that. Everything from donating money, baking muffins or brownies, providing lunches, acting small parts and agreeing to stop mowing the lawn or drilling while we were shooting scenes outside, are examples of how the community joined in. I am forever grateful.
We always like to end this feature in a similar way: what advice would you give your younger self about the storytelling journey she will embark on?
I would tell my younger self to not be afraid to consider directing earlier. You will find it enjoyable and fulfilling. Also, write more and learn screenplay structure sooner.