Chandler Levack’s “I Like Movies” reaches through personal history to find reconciliation

The Toronto-based writer-director discusses her debut feature, which screens at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 20.
Writer-Director Chandler Levack is pictured holding her left hand up to her face, smiling.
Writer-Director Chandler Levack is pictured holding her left hand up to her face, smiling.

The Toronto-based writer-director discusses her debut feature, which screens at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 20.

I first encountered Chandler Levack’s name 10 years ago, in 2013. Levack and her former creative partner Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux had co-directorial credits on the music video for indie-punk band Pup’s “Reservoir.” The video’s level of honesty kept drawing me back into its orbit. At the end of that year, I successfully lobbied the editorial staff at PopMatters to let me name it as the publication’s music video of the year. Levack and Schaulin-Rioux would then commence work on a string of music videos for Pup that stands as one of the most memorable from a single band in recent memory.

In 2015, Levack and I briefly met in NYC to attend a screening of James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour. We exchanged pleasantries during the trailers, watched attentively, then said our goodbyes, and went on separate walks as the credit rolled. As years passed, I continued to make an effort to keep up with Levack’s work, as both a film critic and a director. Her 2017 short We Forgot To Break Up continued Levack’s run of honest, lived-in works that zero in on musicians. Following the relative success of that short, a feature-length project seemed like an increasingly realistic prospect for Levack. And the first time I saw the title of Levack’s debut feature, I Like Movies, in 2020, I grinned and thought, “I know.”

I wasn’t prepared for how forcefully I Like Moviesscreening at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Thursday, April 20 at 6 p.m. at Hilldale—would hit me. Levack was kind enough to provide a press screener ahead of our talk, and I’m thankful to have had the option to press pause. I went in expecting a relatively lighthearted film that expounds on how cinema can be transportive and transformative with a coming-of-age angle anchoring the sentiment. To an extent, I Like Movies still fits that description. It’s also an occasionally abrasive dramatization of a maladjusted, cinema-obsessed teen named Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen, in a career-making performance), whose outsized narcissism constantly wreaks havoc for himself and those around him. It’s a challenging, but knowingly empathetic look at a deeply flawed protagonist who is more prone to humiliation than to humility. And it’s a kind-hearted look at what it means to navigate trauma, providing space for its characters to awkwardly fumble through personal miscalculations.


One of the film’s meta-narratives rests on the treatment of women throughout film history, providing the groundwork for a few of those miscalculations. Levack expounds on male directors’ propensity to push messy protagonists—especially younger male ones—towards grotesque instances of deeply problematic reveries. In the film industry, sexism still sprawls, something I Like Movies presents both explicitly and implicitly throughout its 100-minute runtime. Lehtinen’s Isaiah is a direct reversal of what audiences have been conditioned to see: a young female character written from a male perspective. Levack’s lead female character, video rental store manager Alana (an electric Romina D’Ugo), encompasses a rare depth. Alana’s pointed monologue arrives at a critical juncture in I Like Movies, adding substantive weight to a few of the film’s more troubling reminders.

Making the film was also a labor of love and difficulty. “It was highly stressful [making I Like Movies during the pandemic],” Levack says. “It was filmed at the height of the third wave here in Ontario, when it had the highest case counts. And it was before vaccines, too. It was really all cards on the table. A weird context to be making art in, but in some ways nice, because it gave everybody something to focus their energy on and brought us together. People had been away from large groups of people for so long.”

As always, Levack writes and directs with a steady hand, imbuing the film with the same type of immediate familiarity that made those early Pup videos (“Reservoir,” “Guilt Trip,” and “Dark Days“) and We Forgot To Break Up so notable. Part of what makes I Like Movies feel so authentic rests in its semi-autobiographical nature—Levack has spoken at length about the events of her life that colored the film—but a good deal of that authenticity comes by way of its grounded relationship to wish fulfillment.

No one in I Like Movies is handed a grand destiny simply because it’s what their character desires. At most, they’re given a single rung of a step-ladder, and the opportunity to work towards their goals. And even then, the specter of failure is still nipping at their heels. Nothing on the scale of personal livelihood comes easy for anyone. At least we have movies to escape from the perpetual grind of human life. Levack understands this more than most, and provides ample reason for audiences to embrace this one.

Before I Like Movies‘ local premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Tone Madison connected with Levack over Zoom for a discussion about the DIY nature of production, the hyper-specificity of the screenplay, film bros, fellow Torontoian music-video director Graham Foy, the value of film criticism, and reconciliation of personal experience through her characters.

Tone Madison: Ten years ago you were directing music videos. Can you take us through your progression as a filmmaker, and at what point you realized making a feature at this scale was a realistic prospect?

Chandler Levack: I feel like I owe Pup—basically, I don’t think I would have been [here without them]. That was my first formative film education. My film school [was] just making these super DIY punk music videos with exceptionally low budgets, where I was doing so many different roles. Everything from stunt coordination to makeup, special effects. To producing, location scouting, directing. I really credit Jeremy [Schaulin-Rioux] and the band for letting me sink my teeth into different aspects of the process.

I certainly applied a lot of that experience to this project, because it was a microbudget filmed in the third wave of the pandemic. Similarly exceptionally DIY, all-hands-on-deck, and very, very punk rock in a similar way. Since the first time I met you [via Twitter in 2013], I’ve been doing some odd combination of directing music videos and working as a film critic and as a journalist and writing feature screenplays and getting this project off the ground. It started in earnest—I wrote the first draft of the script in October 2018, so it’s been a long time coming.

Tone Madison: If memory serves correct, you wrote at least one version of the I Like Movies script in an A&W.

Chandler Levack: Yeah, there’s an A&W very close to my house. And they have Wi-Fi and a lot of root beer. It seemed spiritually apt for the project. You can smell the A&W coming through the screen, I think [laughs].

Tone Madison: Because of the small-budget projects you’ve been involved with before, you brought a level of acute awareness to navigating the production of I Like Movies. Were there any specific cost-saving decisions you knew could work to the film’s advantage or something you would’ve loved to include but had to nix?

Chandler Levack: We tried to structure the production in egalitarian ways. All the crew members got paid the same amount, no matter what position they were on the call sheet. We did things on a pretty grassroots level. Our set was literally from an abandoned Blockbuster. Somebody told me it had been sitting vacant in southwestern Ontario for the last decade. I called the property manager, and he agreed to meet me. [When I] walked in, it was filled with all the shelving and computers and TVs that you see in the movie. We put it in a cube truck and drove away. It wasn’t like a regular movie set, where people have trailers and lengthy recording schedules [laughs]. It was more like making a student film, but on a feature scale.

The employees of Sequels, the video rental store in "I Like Movies," are shown huddled together, smiling in front of a wall of DVDs. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media / VHS Forever Inc.
The employees of Sequels, the video rental store in “I Like Movies,” are shown huddled together, smiling in front of a wall of DVDs. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media / VHS Forever Inc.

Tone Madison: You weren’t just approaching this from a background of directorial experience, but journalistic experience as well. You’d previously brought up the potential conflicts of interest that could emerge as a result of having a foot in both worlds. Do you think there’s an explicit demarcation line between film journalist and film director, or do you think the experience gained from one should be seen as valuable to the work in the other?

Chandler Levack: Yeah, I don’t see why not! Like, this is the most meta film-critic movie of all time. It’s basically about a boy [who] reveres auteur directors and never stops talking about film. There’s a film reference like every three lines of dialogue. It’s literally called I Like Movies, so… [laughs]. I do feel like it’s innately born of my love of cinema and observing cinema, as kind of a third party, or approaching it the way an audience or fan first loves cinema.

The reason I wanted to make Lawrence a young man, because I really feel like I’ve observed this archetype of film bros still in their 40s and 50s [who] are behaving in some of the ways he does now. I was interested in this idea of “What were those guys like in high school?” and “Is there a way that, if they’d had someone speak to them in a different way or formed different kinds of relationships or been called out early on their own obsessive fandom and narcissism, that maybe they could go into a different path?” If there was an early intervention for them. I think that’s the archetype I was interested in exploring.

Tone Madison: Definitely. All of that reminds me of the Fiona Apple quote about Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino.

Chandler Levack: Totally. I think about that all the time. About how she was just basically like, “I can’t do this.

Tone Madison: Given the nature of your experience as a critic, have you been tempted to key into the early reviews, or have you been trying to avoid them?

Chandler Levack: I’m absolutely obsessed with Letterboxd. I check it multiple times a day, it’s actually quite unhealthy [laughs]. It’s made me think about what reviews are and what the dialogue is with the filmmaker. Sometimes the ways I’ve said something flippant and maybe didn’t realize there was someone on the other end, reading the review like, “What do you mean the continuity’s off?! That’s not true!” It’s also interesting to see how many reviewers have gotten basic facts of the movie wrong, like characters’ names or the setting or time of year. I don’t know.

I still hope film criticism continues to exist and thrive. I feel like we’re at a really dangerous time. When I was coming up as a critic and a journalist, it played a really valuable role in how culture was disseminated and tastemaking. You could have someone rate an album on Pitchfork and it’d completely change the trajectory of that band’s fate, and now it feels like a lot of cultural criticism happens immediately online. On Twitter. As soon as the trailer for a movie gets released. The way people are already deciding what the new Wes Anderson film is going to be like. And that idea of a lengthy, long-form, really well thought-out piece—we just don’t have the mental space or energy for it anymore.

Tone Madison: Apart from those basic facts, on the opposite end of the spectrum, have any reviewers caught things that have surprised you?

Chandler Levack: There’s been a lot of really moving, personal reviews of the film. Where it feels like it’s really struck a chord with the reviewer and they’ve really gotten it on a deep, core level, which has been exciting. I think criticism is such an important craft that’s undervalued, especially right now. It is deeply meaningful when you feel like someone’s evaluating your work and really sees it, and gets it, and is putting their own personal experience into it and sharing something of themselves. That’s been one of the really unexpected joys of this movie, because I felt like it was so hyper-specific to my own experiences and tastes. It was just the kind of film I wanted to make. I really made it in a vacuum, [and] there’s so many hyper-specific details. But it really feels like people are connecting with it around the world, and that’s extremely gratifying. Because I didn’t expect that. I just made it for me [laughs]. It’s wild that people are writing about it on Letterboxd, like “I cried for 45 minutes after.” It’s beautiful, it’s kind of intense.

Lawrence (Lehtinen) and his video rental store manager Alana (Romina D'Ugo) share a tender moment, sitting on the curb of a parking lot late at night. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media / VHS Forever Inc.
Lawrence (Lehtinen) and his video rental store manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo) share a tender moment, sitting on the curb of a parking lot late at night. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media / VHS Forever Inc.

Tone Madison: And you did pull a lot from your own personal experiences for this, beyond the basics of the premise? There’s a powerful scene that arrives a bit into the film involving Lawrence being coached through a panic attack, which was reflective of your personal history. Did revisiting harder chapters of your life ever feel daunting?

Chandler Levack: I feel like the script came out of me kind of quickly. I wrote the first draft in a month. And the character of Lawrence was immediately clear to me. I don’t know what part of my subconscious he comes out of, and I feel like I maybe need to figure that out [laughs].

Some of it was an extrapolation of things that happened to me during high school, then maybe some relationships I was working through. The Alana character is a woman in her 30s, so it’s clearly two different aspects of me, in different parts of my life, trying to reconcile with each other. That’s what I like about the movie. I’ve never seen that kind of relationship between a high school boy and an older woman that wasn’t immediately sexualized—where it wasn’t “This is immediately romantic or sexual” but more “You’re a mentor figure to me.” Where an actual person is way more complicated, if not more flawed, than the kid that they’re trying to show what life is like [to]. I liked that dynamic.

I feel like I made the movie in such a fever-dream state. We only had 19 days to shoot. Every day was this crazy challenge of “Okay! You’re going to recreate this moment where you had your first-ever panic attack in Blockbuster, your mom had to coach you through a door.” But, like, we had four other scenes that day and 12 other fires we were trying to put out [laughs]. You can’t really dwell in it, you’re just on. In the moment, you’re trying to make it feel as truthful and real to you as you can, but there was also this context of the pandemic, where you’re learning to work with people for the first time [after] eight months of isolation. So all of [production] feels charged and intense. You’re not even thinking of the film at some points, you’re just worried about people’s safety.

Tone Madison: Being that Lawrence and Alana are both semi-fictionalizations of yourself, did you hit any points during character creation where it became clear you needed to scale back how much of your life was baked into those characters in favor of expanding their own unique backstories?

Chandler Levack: I was just writing a story, and I owed it to the characters in the story I was telling to follow [their] threads. I’ve never had a personal firsthand experience with a family member that’s committed suicide, but when I was writing the script, I was just writing a scene and Lawrence goes, “Well, my dad committed suicide.” And I was like, “What?! He did?!” [Laughs.]

At certain points, it was like the characters were talking to me, and I owed it to them to understand and help express what they felt about things, or what they were going through. I don’t want everyone to take this as a direct reading of my life, it’s very obviously not. I think there are ways to fictionalize things that help make them seem more true, if that makes sense.

Tone Madison: It does. You come from a music video background. Are there any other music video directors you think our audiences should be aware of?

Chandler Levack: Graham Foy is an incredible music video director from Toronto. He just released his first feature the same year I did. It played at Venice in Critics Week and then at TIFF with [I Like Movies]. It’s called The Maiden, and it’s exceptionally beautiful. I think it’s in “New Directors, New Films” coming up in New York. And shot on 16mm film. People are saying it’s kind of like Apichatpong Weerasethakul meets Stand By Me. He has these really incredible coming-of-age tropes but then these ellipses of time and mysticism and beauty. I’m in total awe of him as an artist. Just as an up-and-coming music video director to keep your eye on.

Tone Madison: Was there anything we touched on that you’d like to expand on or otherwise express about I Like Movies?

Chandler Levack: I’m excited that the film’s playing in Wisconsin! I feel badly that I can’t be there, but I’ve heard so many cool things about Madison as this cultural beacon. And I think two of the most seminal film professors of all-time, [David] Bordwell and [Kristin] Thompson, they [have taught] at the University of Wisconsin. So, if there’s any film theory students that want to watch a really obnoxious teen cinephile talk about Paul Thomas Anderson way too much, maybe this is the film for you [laughs].

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