Alicja Jader interviews Argentine screenwriter Mariana Levy about her career and newest film, Lifeline.
I meet Mariana Levy in a small café in Caballito, just a couple blocks from her apartment. It’s a Saturday afternoon, but the place is quiet. She comes in fifteen minutes late, sporting a black-and-yellow shirt and a wide smile, that will not leave her face throughout the next hour and a half. She has just put her daughter to sleep and is worried about leaving her home with her under-the-weather boyfriend, but is ready to talk about Lifeline, a short that has recently been released and that she has scripted. It tells the story of Kai (Leehom Wang), a young Chinese man, who discovers that Emma (Olivia Munn), his American girlfriend, has disappeared overnight. He decides to look for her, all his hope resting on Emma’s phone that he finds abandoned in their houseboat apartment. The 30-minute film was sponsored by Qualcomm, a Chinese company producing phone processors, and follows the trend of long-form commercials, or, as others would prefer to describe them, short films commissioned by private enterprises. After David Lynch did one for Dior and Wes Anderson for Prada, it doesn’t surprise that Armando Bo (an Oscar laureate for Birdman) would decide to take Qualcomm’s offer and get Mariana involved in the project.
OCA: First, let me congratulate you on the success of Lifeline, I heard it was huge in China.
Mariana Levy (ML): Thank you! It was amazing, I think about 50 million people saw it.
OCA: Do you think the popularity of Leehom Wang, who plays the protagonist, had something to do with the success of the short?
ML: Definitely, with my friends we call Leehom the Chinese Chayanne – Chayanne is a Puerto-Rican singer very famous in Latin America.
OCA: Perhaps it was also because the action happens in Shanghai. Have you ever visited it?
ML: No, that’s such a sad story. I was going to go, but when the proposal for writing Lifeline arrived my daughter was a month old. Actually, I wasn’t planning on going back to work so fast, but Armando Bo, the director, wrote me an email saying “Hey, I have this proposal, we need to pitch an idea, are you up for it?” And I said “Yes, of course, let’s do it!” At first, I didn’t think that we were going to win the project, because we pitch all the time and 90% of the time it doesn’t work out. In the end, everything happened really fast and suddenly we were doing it, and when the shooting came in February, my daughter was five months-old, I was breast-feeding her, and Shanghai was 30 hours away, so I didn’t go. I wanted to have a different situation, but I didn’t. The other scriptwriter that we’ve been working with, Lucas Bucci, travelled instead.
OCA: So you were writing without having ever experienced the city. Was that also the case for the other screenwriters?
ML: Armando and Lucas? Yes, they had never been to Shanghai before writing. Well, Armando did travel, but he went there after we started the project to search for locations. He would be sending us the pictures he took all the time asking “I like this place, do you think we could write a scene for it?” So it was important that he went then. But before that, he had never been.
OCA: Was it hard to write scenes that would feel authentic in this foreign setting then? For example, there is one in which Emma records herself practicing Mandarin, and when I studied in Shanghai, I had to do it all the time for my Chinese class, it was extremely accurate!
ML: Oh, we invented that. We didn’t know that was accurate! We googled famous quotes from Chinese thinkers, and just chose one. Once you know how things are done, you realize that sometimes not everything is so thought-out. I mean we had a hard time trying to create the relationship between Emma and Kai. We wanted the things that appear in the cellphone to be meaningful, because we didn’t want to make a commercial. The idea was that it was a movie financed by a brand, but not a commercial, so we didn’t approach it like one, and we didn’t want it to look like one. For us it was really important that the love story has some depth. Of course, we didn’t have a lot of time to tell it, so we kept thinking and rewriting the script. But I think that part, in which she reads and records herself was there since about version five or something, so we always liked that one, we never cut it.
OCA: What kinds of scenes did you cut?
ML: We cut so many! The script was changing all the time, it was a live thing. For example, at first the film was set in Hong Kong, and we had a storyline that had to do with the British Empire, and the English part of Hong Kong, and that, of course, wouldn’t work in Shanghai.
OCA: Why did you decide to switch from Hong Kong to Shanghai?
ML: I’m just writer, I didn’t decide that! We had different actors in place. First, we had the advertising agency, Ogilvy, that sold this project to Qualcomm. They were the liaison between the client and the producer, Vincent Landay. And the thing was that the pre-production in Hong Kong was already happening and then they realized that the characters should speak Mandarin, and in Hong Kong that would not be realistic. First, they thought about flying all the actors in, but then that would be much more expensive than doing it in Shanghai. So that’s why Kai lives on a boat, because in Hong Kong that’s much more common. I mean, in Shanghai, it is possible, it isn’t something that absolutely can’t happen, but in Hong Kong we had already found a real boat, and in Shanghai they didn’t have any houseboats that we liked. So the boat you see in the film is real on the outside, but the inside was built by Argentine artists in a studio. They travelled a month before the shooting to create it.
OCA: Recently, producing short films instead of traditional commercials appears to be a trend. Do you know why is that?
ML: It’s because people don’t care about ads anymore.
OCA: So do you think that’s the future of advertising?
ML: I don’t know, I’m not a specialist on advertising, I’m a scriptwriter. I do think though that there’s going to be more product placement and fewer traditional ads. Right now, on Youtube sometimes they put commercials in the middle of a longer video. In me, it creates a feeling of rage and not a positive attitude towards the product. So I think that needs to change. They are already doing it on Netflix. I always joke that you know which season of House of Cards you are watching, because of the brand of the technology they’re using. Season 1 – everything’s Mac, Season 2 – everything’s Dell. So I think that’s where we’re heading and I hope that more good content is produced, especially since we personally were quite free in the writing, it wasn’t that the grand executives were telling us to include this or that. I mean, they mentioned some features they wanted highlighted, but they were really respectful.
OCA: So it sounds like Qualcomm did not restrict your creative freedom much.
ML: Exactly! Mostly, and I don’t know if I should say this, it was the Chinese government who limited us. We had to face censorship. For example, we had a demonstration scene that we needed to cut, because in China you couldn’t say that. So the limitations that we had were not because it was an advertisement, they arose because we were filming in China and everything had to go through a committee there. For example the names of the activist group and the pharmaceutical company were rejected many times, and I don’t know why. So that was, I think, the biggest problem we faced.
OCA: And yet a lot of international films have recently been produced in China. I’m thinking, for example, of Spike Jonze’s Her and Dior’s commercial Lady Blue Shanghai directed by David Lynch. Have you seen it?
ML: Maybe, when we were watching references at the beginning. I mean we worked with a Lynchian, let’s say, imaginary, but not particularly that ad. Actually, we wrote that scene when everybody puts the phones in the box thinking of Mulholland Drive, we wanted it to have a Lynchian feel.
OCA: Did you have any other film inspirations?
ML: Yes, a big, big reference was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that’s a movie that really gives me the chills. And it happens to Armando too, it’s such a beautiful love story and so unique and we wanted to create something that had a similar mood. Writing, we were thinking about the journey the protagonist goes on, searching for his love in his mind and his memory, just like Kai searches for Emma in her cellphone. So it was like Eternal Sunshine, but modern, with a phone instead of the mind.
OCA: Perhaps that’s why some people compared it to Black Mirror.
ML: That was a reference too! I’m a big TV fan and I love Black Mirror. And Armando really likes it too, so, actually, we wanted to do something more sci-fi, but Qualcomm wouldn’t allow that. They said the world had to be realistic and that it had to be happening in the present, because the technology was real, and they didn’t want it to feel like it didn’t exist. So we had another version that was crazier, but that was something we couldn’t do.
OCA: Is that why you centered the film around the phone, to showcase the technology?
ML: Yes, but it was justified, because, nowadays, every movie has a phone. I mean, the idea that the phone had to have an important role was not difficult, it wasn’t an umbrella or something. We use phones all the time. Actually, I think that right now, it’s more difficult to have a script where you don’t have a phone than a script where you have one.
OCA: And what about the ending? It reminded me of The Truman Show.
ML: Yes, that was a big reference for us. We wanted it to be. I mean, The Truman Show was one of our first inspirations, another one was The Game, a 90s movie by David Fincher. Something we knew from the start was that we wanted to do something with a twist, and not a typical ending, you know, like Emma being abducted by bad people and then Kai rescuing her. Actually, that was a big thing for me, I didn’t want to write a girl that was a victim, I wanted her to be her own thing. If you think about it, Kai is the victim. I mean the two strongest characters are Emma and his mother.
OCA: Is this something you always think about while writing?
ML: For me, it’s really important that I don’t contribute to the idea that women are just a love interest or follow the trope that’s called Women in Refrigerators. It’s something from comics, and it occurs when writers use women as a motivation for a male character. For example, the protagonist’s girlfriend or daughter is killed and then he goes and gets revenge. In such stories, the woman is not a full character with her own desires and dreams, she’s just a catalyst for the male character to do what he needs to do. I didn’t want to do that. I am not saying that I wouldn’t write anything like that, I mean, sometimes it’s a job and you do it. But I think it’s better if women are seen as something that’s not just ladies in distress.
OCA: Do you think you share this concern with other Argentine screenwriters?
ML: There’s an awakening right now and it is shared by some women, not all of them, and some men say they share it, but not so many. I think we’ll get there in a couple of years, we’re not there yet.
OCA: Have you always wanted to be a screenwriter?
ML: It was one of those things that maybe you want so much that you don’t dare to dream it. I mean I’m 35 right now, I’m going to be 36 in April, so I always say I feel I have lived many lives in one life, because I was an actress, then I was a playwright in a theatre, a director, and now I’m a screenwriter, so I think of course all those parts of me fed the next incarnation, but they were different lives. When I was an actress I had different dreams and my day-to-day was different. But I have always been a cinephile, I’ve always loved movies. I’m just a slow learner in my personal growth, because I think I usually first see what I want in others. For example, I dated a lot of writers and then one day I said, “Well, maybe I don’t want to date a writer, maybe I want to be a writer.”
OCA: And do you continue to act, or did you abandon that once you started to write?
ML: I don’t actually. I say that I am still an actress, but I don’t practice. Acting will always be inside of me, and I think I would like to do it again sometime, but differently. I stopped acting because I had very bad experiences with several film directors. And it wasn’t pleasurable anymore, I felt horrible and judged. It was like being in a meat market and everyone was making comments about my weight and my looks, and I didn’t feel free doing that anymore. I was really frustrated and I felt that all the parts I was casted for were so stupid. I remember, I was in a play I hated and I thought “Well, I have to write my own material if I want something different.” I’m not a beauty, so it’s not like people were standing in line to offer me roles, and I struggled, so I started writing my first play out of desperation. But when I finished it I thought “Well, I feel this play so intimately, I don’t want to give it to someone else to direct,” so I chose that, and I wasn’t on it as an actress, even though one of the characters was written for me. Later, that happened with my other two plays as well. I just felt so much more free as a writer, and as an actress I had always felt like a conman or a con-woman, an imposter. Whenever people told me “Oh, you were so good,” I felt that I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t sweated for that. The success as a writer, and for me, if someone likes your work, that’s a success, is much more fulfilling to me. I really admire actors, but I just couldn’t identify with that so when I started writing, it was a big change.
OCA: Was going from theatre-writing to scriptwriting an equally significant move?
ML: I think that wasn’t such a big change for me, because when I wrote theatre everyone said it was very cinematographic. I never knew if I had to take that as a compliment, or as an insult, but anyway, I don’t see the two things so differently.
OCA: Both are ways of telling your story.
ML: Exactly! Actually, usually my works are autobiographical. I write about my life. I am a big fan of Paul Auster, a novel writer, who always writes about writers and Brooklyn, because that’s his life. Now, the people who don’t like him say he can only write one story, and I always reply that that’s true, but I like that story, so I always read his novels. I feel I’m the same way, I always write about the same things, the things that move me.
OCA: Was Lifeline perhaps different in that way?
ML: Yes, and no. I have made some projects with Armando, that maybe were not exactly my projects, but I was closer to their birth. This wasn’t even Armando’s project, it was Qualcomm’s, but I think we tried to make it our own, to tell a story that we would like to watch, and that was close to our hearts. Actually, we always use our own experiences. When we talk about ideas and brainstorm, we tell each other personal stories and discuss our feelings. The first thing for Lifeline we had was this guy waking up and realizing his girlfriend was gone. That’s an obsession of mine, the idea that you close your eyes and you sleep and it’s like you die. Then you wake up and something has changed and you don’t know why. I have a short film that talks about that too, so, I mean, that was very personal for me. Actually, another reference was Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen. The premise of that movie is that a woman one day finds out that her husband, had been, sometime before she met him, a professional assassin. We always liked that idea, and I feel that that it’s a metaphor, it’s not literal. Of course, it’s unlikely that my boyfriend is a professional assassin, I doubt that, but you never know who the other person is, not even the father of my child, I don’t know what’s going on inside his mind. So we worked with this fear for the script and that’s, for me, very personal. I’m being honest, it’s not that I have to sell something, I really do always try to make it personal, even if the project isn’t mine, because otherwise you don’t care and it’s difficult to write.
OCA: Are you working on any projects right now?
ML: Of course, I do, all the time. I have many, many TV shows in my drawer. You know, it’s really hard to get your show made, to get into the club. It’s like when you get your first job and people ask you to have experience, and how do you create experience if you don’t get that first job? That, and being a woman, of course, it’s even harder. When you look at the writers, it’s mostly men. And in Argentina, it’s changing right now a little bit, but usually the TV that’s done here is in the soap opera kind of style and I’m not saying I wouldn’t write for that, I would, but that’s not my dream. So yes, it’s hard, but that’s where I see myself in the future.
This article was written by Alicja Jader. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Youtube