Emerging filmmakers Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal’s new feature Gabi on the Roof in July premieres in New York this week with two showings at the Brooklyn International Film festival. An ensemble comedy set and filmed almost exclusively in Greenpoint, the film centers around the arrival of Gabi (played by Takal), a provocative and idealistic Oberlin student who comes to spend the summer in the apartment of her older brother Sam (played by Levine), a 30 year-old painter awaiting his big break. Nudity, whipped cream and Fluxus art ensues.
But Gabi on the Roof in July is much more than just a collection of scenes of Gabi and friends cavorting around in states of undress under the guise of transgressive performance art. What the film does so successfully is its evocation of that particular time of modern confusion that exists for many North Brooklyn residents aged 20-30. It’s a period envisioned as some vague point between leisure and indulgence, a series of never-ending social gatherings—rooftop BBQs, gallery showings, picnics in McCarren Park—casual alcoholic interactions accompanied by a nearly constant stream of vacuous artspeak and networking while the larger questions of existence and morality remain unspoken, if not unconsidered.
Despite any potentially unflattering self-indulgences—Gabi on the Roof in July is a movie about people not dissimilar to Levine and Takal: young, artistic hipster-types who reside in Greenpoint—the movie manages to remain admirably sober and lucid in its depictions of its characters’ lives and day-to-day interactions. It is, as one succinct reviewer put it, a film about indulgence that is not indulgent.
“I didn’t want to celebrate this area,” said Levine, in an interview conducted at an outdoor café several blocks away from the filmmakers’ apartment. “[But] I didn’t want to condemn it either. My real feeling is, I like it here. But it’s not like Sex in the City, where it’s like, ‘It’s so glamorous and funny!’ Or, ‘Look how creative everybody is!’ It’s like, even the creative people are infected by the larger culture, where you have to sell yourself, or sell what’s real about you, to make a living.”
On a related note, it’s worth nothing how the two young filmmakers have managed to make a smart, emotionally realistic film with only a limited budget (the film is defined as a “micro-budget” film—Gabi on the Roof in July was produced for under $100,000). The move is something of a reaction to Levine’s experience in film school, as well as a reaction to the larger film culture of big-budget star vehicles with flawless protagonists and vapid concerns. Eschewing more traditional routes—funding from investors, big-name cast members, major distribution and all the various pitfalls and comprises that inevitably accompany anything where large sums of money are involved—Levine and Takal took a big financial gamble to maintain the integrity of their film.
“We didn’t even think about getting investors for this project,” said Levine, 30, who, in addition to playing the lead role of Sam, directed the film, which is his second feature (his first, Territory, debuted at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA, in 2005). “I had just finished film school [at Columbia University], and I had listened to teachers for five years telling me what I could write or what I couldn’t write. I just wanted to do something intuitive. I just wanted to listen to my collaborators. And I had produced a couple things, and I had seen how having a lot of money can put a lot of pressure on a director to make certain decisions and inform the art. I just didn’t want to deal with it.” Instead, they pooled their savings (with a substantial portion coming from Takal’s residuals from a serendipitous national television spot), held fundraisers, and went the independent route.
“We were tired of being told that the only way, was this way of getting famous people and making this kind of run-of-the-mill, non-offensive movie,” said Takal, 23, who, in addition to playing the title role of Gabi, edited and produced the film. Levine agreed. “It’s not like I’m going to be able to call up Jennifer Aniston and say, ‘Hey, you want work with me for a while?’”
And yet, there’s a sense that a film like Gabi on the Roof in July couldn’t have been made with actors who are household names of a Jennifer Aniston or even, say, a Zooey Deschanel. Part of the movie’s charm and authority lies in its creation of a world that so closely resembles our own, from the cast of deceptively autobiographical characters to the casual looseness and verisimilitude of the dialogue, which was generated through rehearsal and improvisation, as well as surreptitious character studies based on real-life people and acquaintances. The film is a convergence of necessity and subject matter, like so many independently-made films.
“We had no script that could be produced for the amount we had,” explained Levine. “Sophia remained nonplussed, suggesting we cast the actors first, come up with characters in collaboration with them, and generate the script through rehearsal and improvisation.” Though technically “unscripted,” rehearsals for the film took six months, followed by one month of shooting and six more months of editing/post-production. The result is neither haphazard nor lazy, and Gabi on the Roof in July succeeds with a balance of looseness and focus, a seemingly effortless yet engaging exploration of human flaws, compromise and posturing.
“I feel like movies should explore the kinks of life,” said Levine. “Movies [usually] don’t admit that people are that bad. But people are that bad. But you know what? It’s not even a big deal. This is who we are. You look at it, and that’s when you start dealing with yourself and your problems.”
Gabi on the Roof in July will screen twice over the course of the Brooklyn International Festival. The first showing is opening night, Friday June 4, at 8pm, at Brooklyn Heights Cinema 1 in downtown Brooklyn; the second showing is Saturday June 12, at 8pm, at indieScreen in Williamsburg.