Nim’s Island is the second film directed by husband-and-wife directors and screenwriters Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. The first film was Little Manhattan in 2005 but the couple have been working as a creative team for over twelve years, when their first screenplay Drive was produced by Paramount Pictures. They subsequently adapt3ed the children’s book Madeline into a film and wrote the romantic comedy Wimbledon, contributing as screenwriters to The Perfect Storm and the upcoming blockbuster Speed Racer. The pair live in Los Angeles with their two children, ages eight and five.
Did Jodie really have to convince you all that she was the woman for the job? How can you do that with an Oscar-winning actress?
Mark Levin: Well, that’s very funny and very flattering that she would say that, because honestly, we did not consider anyone else at all as soon as we heard she was interested, we couldn’t imagine anyone else in it. I do think that studios like to put people into their usual backdrop and they thought of Jodie Foster as a giant star for a thriller, or for a serious drama. But Jodie Foster is excellent in everything that she does and we convinced
them to let her play true to the role, and what’s written in each moment, and that it would be brilliant, which she was.
Jennifer Flackett: But we also felt like Jodie Foster’s persona of who she is today was a great way to begin Alexandra, and to take that sort of withdrawn person, and have her discover her inner child. We really felt like once we heard about Jodie Foster wanting to do it, we were like, “It’s perfect!” There really wasn’t anyone else, because you need someone that, when you first meet Alexandra, you believe could be so withdrawn. And Jodie can give that to you in a way that another comic actress just couldn’t, it’s so very real.
How did you cast Gerard Butler?
ML: Gerard plays two roles in the movie: he’s a father, and he’s Alex Rover, adventure hero. We had always envisioned that we would have two different actors for the roles, and Jodie was the one who said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if they were both played by the same actor?” And we thought it was an interesting concept, but it didn’t really seem like the idea was taking root, because we didn’t have the actor in mind that could do it. But then we discovered Gerry.
JF: He was not only credible in both roles, but there was this weird thing where he was the best for both roles, and no one had been that person. There hadn’t been anyone else. We were the most excited for him to play Jack. We were the most excited for him to play Alex. And then, suddenly, it was like we had to have one person play both roles.
How did you choose Abigail?
ML: Abigail was the first child we met. She obviously was brilliant last year in Little Miss Sunshine, but at the same time, we weren’t sure, having seen that movie, that she would have the athleticism to do that this role required. But then we met her, and she was so funny, and so charming, and so self-assured. Abby grew up in New York City, and never swam in an ocean until we dropped her into one but that’s what the movie is all about, taking risks, keep going and finding that courage so she was perfect.
What made you fall in love with this project?
JF: I do think there was something about a “girl hero.” We have an eight year-old daughter, and I do think that this idea, from the very beginning, of this father and daughter, was very potent to us. And this idea of this girl hero is like our daughter -she is her own adventure hero, and you just don’t see that in movies. The idea of a girl who transcends her own gender, who isn’t defined by the people around her, who is just her, was very strong to us. The idea of these people meeting each other and coming together. We always say we make movies that we want to see; yes, it’s definitely for kids, but to us, I would want to go see Nim’s Island. I find that story of that woman trapped in her apartment, just with her Internet, and going across the world to find a
girl, is a story that’s universal to me. I find it hard to leave my house sometimes too!
You know what they say about working with kids and animals, and you had dolphins and seals and pelicans too. How challenging was that?
JF: Well, let us first say kids were not any problem at all.
ML: Yes, that was a huge relief with this movie. The animals were really challenging, but to a different degree. The sea lions were fabulous, they were from Sea World and they were well trained and had lots of tricks that they could do. And basically, when we met the seals, we had all these things that we wanted them to do, and we also wanted to know what they were able to do.
JF: Like Abby falling asleep on the sea lion - that was something they said she could do, and we thought that was fantastic! She had the most amazing connection with the sea lions, and she had that from the very beginning. So, we really wanted to create something that felt very real for the island and for the animals, and the idea was to see what Abby and the lizards and the sea lions do, and then let’s film that, as opposed to make them try and do something else.
Was the Pelican computer- generated?
ML: No, every shot is different, actually. A lot of times it’s a real pelican, and sometimes we would just make the beak open so it could respond, and sometimes, we would literally just take our camera out there, and we had a place on the coast of Australia where there were lots of pelicans, and we would just shoot them so a lot of the shots in the film came from that, which is the magic of movies.
How tough was all the filming on and under water?
JF: You know, we were so frightened about filming on the water, and that’s the thing you’re most scared of, and you really prepare, so those were the days that turned out to be our easiest days. It was so funny cause we just hunkered down, and then all of the sudden we were done for the day and we had finished early!
ML: It’s ironic. We had to create hurricanes at sea, and then have Jodie Foster steer a boat in the middle of it, and row away. But there were so many wonderful tricks that we were able to employ, like working in a tank or a wave pool, and then you composite that into a larger shot of the ocean and it looks amazing.
Each character has many scenes on their own. How challenging was that?
ML: Well, there’s a great deal of solitude, and Jodie, actually, in many roles, works alone. It’s just her nature for some reason. But, it was challenging, especially for Abby, because on the days that she worked, she was the only actor there, and she could only work nine hours because of child-labor laws, so you have to be very focused to accomplish everything that you want to do in such a short period of time. And then, obviously, for the actors, to have to work alone a lot can be tough.
JF: But it was very focusing, at the same time. Each of their stories were so clear and so pure that you really always knew what you were doing. There was never a kind of “What’s going on today?” attitude. The father’s goal, and only motivation, was to get back to his daughter so that drove a lot of his performance.
What did shooting in Australia bring to the experience?
JF: First, and foremost, I really have to say the crew. I just found the people in Australia wonderful; we had the most incredible time!
ML: It was a very, very experienced crew. Fiji, for example, a place we considered, is a gorgeous setting, but it didn’t have the infrastructure to support the making of a movie. It didn’t have stages, and it didn’t have an experienced crew.
JF: Here, we had great stages, and right around our stages, we had rainforests and oceans within a half an hour. It was all right there.
How difficult was it to film on Hinchenbrook Island?
ML: It is very protected, there were a lot of rules, and we couldn’t touch a tree or fix a tree. We had to actually leave it better than we found it so you had to have a real Nim’s Island experience. It was funny because we were making this film about these crazy tourists who invade Nim’s Island and we didn’t want to make it where we were the tourists!
What was the best part about working as husband and wife? And how difficult or easy is that?
JF: You know, we always say we couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
ML: We’re side by side from the moment we read the book. We sit, we write, we talk. We tape our
conversations, and we grow the esthetic of the movie together, and then we’re just side-by-side. If we disagree with each other, we’ll openly disagree, but not in a vitriolic way, and we work it out.
JF: You’ve got to figure it out. And you know, it’s great because we always say you get to get to a second draft right there, and you have immediate perspective. You have this person that you trust next to you at all times, and I don’t know what it would be like to direct by yourself. But to me, it feels like it would be a little lonely, and it is so much pressure. All these questions and all these things to decide at any given point, and to always have someone to turn to and say, “What do you think?” I can’t imagine a better gift.
Do you bring your work home with you?
ML: Yeah, we do. And you know, it’s the children who suffer. They say, “Mommy, Daddy, please stop talking about the movie!” And we have to force ourselves to do it sometimes. But creative people, they live in this dream, this place in your imagination. And a lot of times it’s very wonderful, but it’s a separate place, it’s its own island, and when you go there, you separate yourself from your spouse, and loved ones. It’s that secret place, and now we live in the same secret place, and we try to bring our children to that place.
JF: If anything, what we really do with our kids is to try to get them to understand what it is that we’re doing, and ask them what they think and if we’re lucky, they’ll give us their thoughts and end up having an experience like Sofia Coppola had, in which they would get inspired and grow up around it, and understand it, and maybe want to do it themselves one day.
How did Abbie and Gerard come up with the special handshake they have?
ML: It was actually created by them in their very first rehearsal, they came up with it all by themselves, and it was a magical thing. But that little gesture of discovery saidso much about them as a father and daughter, and their relationship. Little gestures like that speak volumes about their characters
What is your background in Hollywood?
ML: Well, we’ve been working in Hollywood for 18 years now, and worked on television for seven years.
We worked on a show called The Wonder Years, and another called LA Law, and they were wonderful shows to work on. And then we made a children’s movie called Madeline, and the romantic comedy called Wimbledon, and we’ve worked on other movies like The Perfect Storm, and Speed Racer, and this is now our second film we’ve directed.