Kevin is joined by veteran producer Monica Levinson to discuss producing award-winning blockbusters and giving back.
Monica Levinson, Producer
Monica Levinson is a renowned film and television producer known for her exceptional range and versatility in the industry. From the critically-acclaimed drama Trial of the Chicago 7 to the blockbuster comedy Borat, Levinson's productions have received both popular and critical acclaim. She is a highly respected member of the film community, as a member of the Producers Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Producers Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America. Additionally, Levinson is a dedicated advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the film industry and has established a training program for underrepresented groups on the films she produces, and regularly mentors young and emerging filmmakers.
Working with legendary producers (5:14)
Monica talks about her early years in the film industry, where she got her start working with legendary filmmakers like Alan Pakula, Sidney Lumet, and Michael Mann. She cites her work with Alan Pakula as a defining moment in her career, as it was then that she fell in love with the entire process of film production, from pre-production to post-production.
Early work on Zoolander with Ben Stiller (7:13)
Monica recounts her experiences working on the set of Zoolander and the challenges of producing the film within budget constraints. She credits her work on Zoolander with Ben Stiller as a major stepping stone in her career and believes it led to her being recommended to Sacha Baron Cohen and eventually producing the successful film Borat.
A raucous test screening of Borat (12:24)
Kevin and Monica talk about an early test screening of Borat and the audience reaction to “that scene.”
Working with Sacha Baron Cohen and spending the night in jail (14:25)
Levinson shares what it was like working with Sacha Baron Cohen, and giving him the freedom to let the creative process flow on Borat. She recounts the story of being arrested while filming Borat.
Turning Thanksgiving Dinner into a documentary (24:41)
Kevin asks Monica to talk about her recent documentary, The Stories of Us, an intimate portrayal of her family, her Jewish roots, and her upbringing.
Test screening her new project with Bill Burr (31:57)
Kevin asks Monica to share a time that an audience test screening led to a significant change in one of her films. Monica talks about her new project with Bill Burr, Old Dads, and how the audience response led to a reshoot.
Giving back (40:13)
Kevin and Monica delve into the topic of diversity and inclusivity in the industry, with a focus on Monica's efforts to advocate for and mentor underrepresented groups. Monica shares her advice for young and emerging filmmakers and highlights some of the projects she is currently working on that aim to empower and promote women within the industry.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Monica Levinson
Producer: Kari Campano
For more information about Monica Levinson:
For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenE
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: Veteran Film and TV Producer Monica Levinson
There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (00:24):
My guest today is a prolific producer, and her expansive career is reflected by this really diverse array of projects that she's produced, from the Borat franchise to award-recognized dramas like Trial of the Chicago 7 and Wander Darkly. But in reviewing her bio, her extensive work, and knowing her for as long as I've known her, what really struck me was just how much time she makes to sort of give back to others. She helps underrepresented groups, supports women, mentors young filmmakers, serves on boards and leadership committees, and in such a busy life as the successful producer that she is, I'm truly moved by all that she does beyond her work life. It's very much the precept that I subscribe to and try to live by in my own life. And so that really made me think of why I am so nuts about Monica Levinson, who's joining me here today. Hi Monica.
Monica Levinson (01:23):
Hi. Thank you so much. That's so sweet.
Kevin Goetz (01:26):
Well, it really was and is very important to give back, and you really do that. What is it that prompts you and motivates you to want to be so giving to the new generation?
Monica Levinson (01:40):
Well, first it was how I was raised. My family was very active in organizations, and my mother chaired a million things and committees and events. She worked, even her jobs were in nonprofit sometimes. I mean, she also started the first Woman's Bank of Maryland, so she was doing other things.
Kevin Goetz (02:00):
So, you're from Washington, DC?
Monica Levinson (02:01):
Washington, DC. Yes.
Kevin Goetz (02:03):
And tell us, so active. And by the way, a Jewish family. I say that because we share that as well. And we’re also going to talk about a documentary that you also did, which seems very important to you and speaks to your heart. But when did you realize that you wanted to be a producer in television and movies?
Monica Levinson (02:23):
Right. We spoke about this right before we started recording, but I did go to acting camp, took voice lessons, went to tap, jazz, ballet school, you know, acting school, which was all my mother's doing. My mother wanted us to be involved in the arts in some way. She was very involved at the Kennedy Center in DC.
Kevin Goetz (02:44):
You had siblings?
Monica Levinson (02:45):
Two sisters, one older, one younger. They hate the arts <laugh>, although my sister, my older sister did work for XM in the early days and started and until the merger for XM Sirius. So she was more in the music business. But yeah, it was just, you know.
Kevin Goetz (03:01):
Was she a single mom?
Monica Levinson (03:02):
No, my dad just wasn't into it. But my mom would like…
Kevin Goetz (03:05):
So mom was the driving force?
Monica Levinson (03:06):
Schlep us an hour away to the school that was like a top-rated school.
Kevin Goetz (03:13):
Anyway, if I'm not mistaken, you started in broadcast journalism?
Monica Levinson (03:16):
I did. So I decided I wanted to, I was the editor of my yearbook. I wanted to get into something communications, and I didn't know what that meant. I just knew that I wanted to be behind the scenes. I realized that acting was not for me very early on and went to Syracuse and got…
Kevin Goetz (03:32):
Great communications and journalism school, correct?
Monica Levinson (03:35):
Exactly. And it was, it gave me a really broad scope education. So I came out of there thinking I wanted to be in maybe entertainment law even, and I thought producing, entertainment law, I'm not sure. I applied to law school and was about to go and got this job at one of my internships, which was the Washington bureau for Entertainment Tonight. And also, Consumer Reports Television and a whole bunch of other, anything that came to DC that was entertainment based, would use this company to be their crew and book stories for that.
Kevin Goetz (04:08):
It was a production company, really.
Monica Levinson (04:09):
It was a production company.
Kevin Goetz (04:10):
Now, you and I, I believe, first met over 20 years ago on Zoolander. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> would, would that be fair?
Monica Levinson (04:16):
Kevin Goetz (04:17):
Oh my lord.
Monica Levinson (04:18):
Absolutely. It's crazy, right?
Kevin Goetz (04:19):
How is it possible?
Monica Levinson (04:20):
I know, that was, we shot that in 2000 and by the time I was meeting you, it was probably 2001.
Kevin Goetz (04:27):
And you were an associate producer on that, which is sort of an entry-level producing credit. How did you get that credit?
Monica Levinson (04:33):
So I worked with Celia Costas, I did eight movies with her, and she was a line producer in New York, is a line producer in New York. Really smart. And she, she's like a non-writing EP on TV shows now.
Kevin Goetz (04:46):
And she plucked you out of the chorus?
Monica Levinson (04:47):
She did, she says that she plucked me out of high school because she likes to lie about my age.
Kevin Goetz (04:52):
Or her age.
Monica Levinson (04:53):
<laugh>. Yes, exactly. So we did Pelican Brief where I met Alan Pakula, and it was wonderful and I stayed on that movie. She brought me to New York on that movie. I met her in DC after my broadcast journalism days. I quit that job after an election period and an inauguration, and it was wonderful but I knew I wanted to do something different and…
Kevin Goetz (05:13):
And it was fun.
Monica Levinson (05:14):
It was really fun. It was really fun. It was a great job. So anyway, but film was calling me, and I had gone on a behind-the-scenes shoot, and it was like, oh, I need to do this.
Kevin Goetz (05:24):
And you worked with Sidney Lumet?
Monica Levinson (05:25):
Yes. Sidney Lumet.
Kevin Goetz (05:26):
Loved Sidney Lumet. Yes, I know. Oh, what a man.
Monica Levinson (05:29):
I know. It was really a wonderful time to be in New York and working on New York productions.
Kevin Goetz (05:34):
Did you do something with Michael Mann too?
Monica Levinson (05:35):
I did. I did The Insider, the New York portion of The Insider. So, I was already living out here.
Kevin Goetz (05:41):
Well, David Rosenbloom is a guest. He edited that.
Monica Levinson (05:44):
He was, and so did Billy Goldenberg. Yeah, I guess Billy Goldenberg did. Yes. I remember that. I think so, yeah. I was on it for so short of a period, I only ended up doing the New York portion because I wasn't available for the first portion. And that was when I was just a production person.
Kevin Goetz (06:00):
What a way to cut your teeth. Pakula, Lumet, Mann. Not bad.
Monica Levinson (06:06):
<laugh>. And with Pakula, I was able to stay on through post, and that's where I got my love of being there for the whole process. And if I hadn't had that opportunity with Alan, I don't know that I would be doing what I'm doing. I probably would've stayed line producing. I would’ve grown up and just been a line producer. But I loved post so much from being able to see the whole process unfold.
Kevin Goetz (06:27):
And you're so good at all of those elements. You really are. And I've watched you, what's amazing is that truly was a graduate school. That was a period of getting your master's or doctorate in full on producing from start to finish.
Monica Levinson (06:40):
Yes. And so with Ben, with Zoolander, Celia said to me, do you want to be the production manager or we have all these other things that we have to do that aren't budgeted? There are like the VH1 Fashion Awards, we need to shoot live there. We need to do the male model of the year packages. We have all this other footage that we don't have budgeted or scheduled, and we need to just figure out. I love that. And I said, put me there. I don't want to be a production manager. I want to do that stuff.
Kevin Goetz (07:07):
But it speaks to then the part of the education of how to make a day. Yes. How to move that crew. Correct?
Monica Levinson (07:13):
Exactly. The teamsters in New York called me Madame Bowfinger <laugh>, because we didn't have money. I would come to set and I'd be like, that's great. I need nothing tomorrow. I need nothing. And they're like, are you sure? Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then I'd come, and I'd be like, just that little stake bed. And then I want to put some of this grip equipment on and I'm just going to steal one grip from the crew. And they're like, Monica, just tell us what you need tomorrow, and we'll just add extra people. I'm like, no, no, no. I need nothing. So I was able to put together those units, and Ben sent me out and said, just go get footage of Owen. And it was really my own scrappiness of being in broadcast news that made that all work. Which then led me to Borat because I think Ben gave me a recommendation to Sacha. Danny Goldberg, I don't know if you remember Danny. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, Danny Goldberg, who worked with Todd Phillips, but he also worked with Ivan Reitman. And I knew Danny from Private Parts from the Howard Stern movie. And so, he had recommended me to Sacha for Borat, and I think Sacha and Todd called Ben also.
Kevin Goetz (08:13):
Ben as in Ben Stiller?
Monica Levinson (08:14):
Ben Stiller, yes, she's scrappy, go. With Ben and Stuart Cornfeld…
Kevin Goetz (08:20):
May he rest in peace.
Monica Levinson (08:21):
Absolutely. Who was a mentor to me and just such a dear friend. But they, they said, you have to come to finish the movie. You have to stay on through post. I stayed on Zoolander through the marketing, through the home video release. I had to do it all. And I did the same thing on Dodgeball with them because they trusted me. And so that was…
Kevin Goetz (08:42):
What did you do on Dodgeball? Because you don't have a credit on Dodgeball.
Monica Levinson (08:43):
So I was a production supervisor. I was supposed to get the associate producer credit.
Kevin Goetz (08:49):
For what reason?
Monica Levinson (08:49):
Long story, they didn't give out producer credits.
Kevin Goetz (08:52):
That was a good movie. That was a fun movie. Rawson.
Monica Levinson (08:55):
It was great. But I did the same thing.
Kevin Goetz (08:55):
Rawson Thurber, right?
Monica Levinson (08:56):
Yes. And I stayed on until the very, very end through the home video release.
Kevin Goetz (09:00):
Which makes you such an interesting producer. What I call a real producer. A producer that really earns the PGA moniker. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that means something. It means something. It means you've put all that time in, and you really show up. What I'm shocked and amazed is the diversity of the projects you've worked on, even though you've specialized in some of the greatest comic minds. I know you've been quoted as saying, yeah, but the dramas, I mean, there's always comedy in drama and you're, oh, we've been drawn to comedy. But talk to us about your relationship with Sacha Baron Cohen, which really started, I guess early on. When you saw Ali G, did you think, oh, his stuff could really be movie worthy?
Monica Levinson (09:50):
That's an interesting question. I think when I saw it, I just thought, he's a genius. I love this so much. And when Danny Goldberg called me and said, I have a project, I think you might be good for it. Are you familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen? And I just went, uh, yes. Are you kidding? I love him. Oh my God. He's amazing. He's brilliant. And they said, you know, after I signed my NDAs, we're doing a Borat movie. And I read the outline, and I thought, huh, it's going to be interesting to do this process. But I was just coming in, he thought I was coming in as like a production supervisor or whatever I was coming in as. And ultimately, Todd Phillips left the project, which meant Danny left the project, which meant the rest of the crew pretty much left the project. And I was there with Jay Roach. The last woman standing. Yeah, the last woman was standing.
Kevin Goetz (10:43):
Oh. And Jay was on it?
Monica Levinson (10:43):
Jay was on it, but Jay was off directing as well. So they said Fox, Debbie Liebling at Fox said to me, you may not leave. I said, well, should I just take a hiatus? And she said you may not leave. This movie will not happen. You may not leave.
Kevin Goetz (10:56):
She is a dear friend. And she's so great with comedy.
Monica Levinson (11:01):
Yes. She's amazing. She's so great. She started at Comedy Central. I mean, she's…
Kevin Goetz (11:04):
I know. Yes. She's so smart. She's so smart.
Monica Levinson (11:06):
Yeah. I have a project with her now too.
Kevin Goetz (11:08):
Oh, good. So do I, I'm working on something with her right now. So talk to us about the beginning of Sacha Baron Cohen. How do you get into a mind like his, I mean, do you just let him go? Do you reign him in? Do you guide him? How do you guide him? Because he is such a force. And I also was so taken with when I first met him, and he was lovely. He wrote a beautiful quote for the back of my book, Audienceology.
Monica Levinson (11:35):
He loves you. And he's so, we're both so grateful. We're all grateful for all that you did for those movies because you really helped us. You know, you helped us figure out how to market it and how to put it out there. And we relied on, and you know, I think your way of doing the screenings and doing your, your focus groups, I think Jay Roach is like your protege. I don't know if you know this, but when we…
Kevin Goetz (12:01):
H tells me.
Monica Levinson (12:01):
His little friends and family screenings…
Kevin Goetz (12:03):
He told me he channels me.
Monica Levinson (12:04):
Jay totally channels you. He's so good at it. Thank you. He's a little Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (12:09):
So, well, it's so funny because that first screening in Marina Del Rey mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I remember that so vividly. And do you remember the wave, people got up in waves, you know, like the wave at a ball game.
Monica Levinson (12:23):
Yes. It was incredible.
Kevin Goetz (12:24):
In the audience, when he did the naked teabag fight. The teabag, yes. <laugh>, let's just say what it is. It was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen on film. And it played, it was just raucous.
Monica Levinson (12:37):
I've never seen an audience react in such a way. There was one guy, I don't know if you remember this, he got up on the aisle and just ran up and down the aisle.
Kevin Goetz (12:47):
I do. Screaming with his arms up. Yeah.
Monica Levinson (12:49):
Yeah. I mean it was, I know. Insane. I know.
Kevin Goetz (12:51):
And we just were, I know, I'm trying to tell the listeners, I'm trying to express the listeners. Yes, we sound hyperbolic, but we cannot, we cannot say enough. It was insanity.
Monica Levinson (13:00):
It was insanity. We all had to go out after that screening and just sit and reflect for a minute.
Kevin Goetz (13:06):
And the scores.
Monica Levinson (13:06):
The scores, and it was our first screening, it was our first screaming.
Kevin Goetz (13:10):
And I thought it was so genius the way Fox distributed it, because they were criticized for not going wide enough, if you remember.
Monica Levinson (13:17):
Well, yeah. It was a big internal struggle, too, because we thought that it was saying, and I think it was a little bit, that they were worried about the strength of the film and being able to work in the world.
Kevin Goetz (13:29):
Well, those of us who worked on it, I thought it was genius because I said they have a lot of faith in this movie, but nobody really knows this Borat character in the entire country. Therefore, let it sell out. Let it get word of mouth, and it'll explode the next weekend. And that is exactly what happened. Yes. That's exactly what happened.
Monica Levinson (13:49):
I got that call Saturday night from Sacha saying, you're not going to believe this, but we're number one. And I said, with 800 screens we're number one? And in that environment, back then…
Kevin Goetz (14:00):
It was like doing an advanced screening.
Monica Levinson (14:01):
Yeah. If you didn't have 2,800 screens, you were a limited release. So back in 2006…
Kevin Goetz (14:08):
But in retrospect now, do you understand my…?
Monica Levinson (14:10):
A hundred percent? Yeah, yeah, yeah, a hundred percent.
Kevin Goetz (14:12):
In the perception with the press and everything is that you are somehow less than, or the studio's not confident, but I knew a different conversation going on. Yes. So I actually couldn't corroborate that. That's really what they were doing.
Monica Levinson (14:25):
It was brilliant. It worked. It worked, it worked. But I will go back to your original question, what's it like working with Sacha? And I never want to say I came in there and had to figure out how to make those things happen that he was writing on paper. And I never wanted to say no. I wanted the creative process to flow, and still feel that way about a creative process. The writer's room needs to create, they need to keep coming up with the ideas. He needs to be able to have that umbrella and figure out how to either make it work or not. And sometimes we had to shoot things that were maybe not going to work, but we needed to be able to have that option and the ability to try.
Kevin Goetz (15:14):
Is it true that Sacha told me that in the latest Borat movie, Borat subs, what is it called?
Monica Levinson (15:20):
Subsequent Movie Film.
Kevin Goetz (15:21):
Subsequent Movie Film. Yes. Uh, I don’t know what accent that was, but…
Monica Levinson (15:27):
You were doing Bruno's accent.
Kevin Goetz (15:29):
<laugh> I remember that particular scene at the festival and I, watching that film, I was fearing for Sacha. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, truly. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. You were there.
Monica Levinson (15:42):
I wasn't, I actually stayed back. What I learned, you know, I don't know if you remember this, but on the first Borat, I got arrested, so I was there when they said,
Kevin Goetz (15:53):
No, high five.
Monica Levinson (15:54):
I know. Alright. Right. I was like, who am I? This is my only chance of ever having…
Kevin Goetz (15:59):
Oh, your mother must have been so proud of her daughter.
Monica Levinson (16:02):
<laugh>. So honestly, it was kind of like a big badge of honor. Good street cred.
Kevin Goetz (16:08):
But tell me about that. Before you go onto the other, tell me about this, the arrest.
Monica Levinson (16:10):
So the arrest was the scene where, it's actually not in the movie, but the scene that precedes it is when he is checking into the hotel and he makes a deal. Yes. In the first movie, he makes a deal in New York for, you know, he spits in his hand and says, can we do it for less and he tries to bargain with him. So that scene, we then had a checkout scene that we were going to do next. We learned a lot because we learned you can't do that with the same person. It's never going to work, because as soon as you let them walk away, they're going to go, wait a second.
Kevin Goetz (16:45):
And didn't they sign releases?
Monica Levinson (16:47):
Yes, of course. Everybody signs.
Kevin Goetz (16:48):
But sign releases after the first time?
Monica Levinson (16:50):
They sign releases before we go on camera. Oh. So anyway, so, the guy walked away, probably talked to a couple people and realized that maybe something’s weird.
Kevin Goetz (17:01):
I'm being, I'm being played.
Monica Levinson (17:01):
Yeah. I think they asked if he was Father Guido Sarducci. And that was hilarious because that was a character from SNL from like 20 years prior. The greatest. <laugh>. So we were like, nope, it's not him. <laugh>. But anyway, so the idea was that he checks out of a hotel, and with the price of a room in New York, in Kazakhstan, that would buy you all the possessions within that room. So we shoved everything into the elevator. The idea was the elevator doors would open, the manager would be there, and he'd be taking it. And he would get out the line and he would say, what are you doing?
Kevin Goetz (17:40):
I'm losing my shit here.
Monica Levinson (17:41):
It didn't work. So, unfortunately, he just said, we're calling the police. Oh. Because he had walked away and he just said, I don't think this is real. Like, you know, and he was able to talk to other people and they were like, something's up. So when the elevator doors open, the whole thing is jammed with a bed and a desk and a thing. And he is trying to pull it out. He just said, I'm calling the police. And we talked to our lawyers right before we walked into the hotel and we said, okay, so we're about to do this. Anything we need to know? And they said, just don't have Sacha walk outside of the premises with any possessions. So he didn't, and he kept trying to get them to, you know, the way he does as the character. And finally, it's like, the police are coming. So we just sent him away, sent the crew out. And there were a couple times. You stayed? I stayed because there were a couple pieces that we had brought from another hotel to, because we didn't have an art department. We were selling the set dressing from another hotel room to say that it was the interior.
Kevin Goetz (18:42):
So, you were there to collect your pieces?
Monica Levinson (18:43):
I was collecting, and they finally said, okay. I said, you know, this isn't yours. I'm going to take it with me. The police were outside with me and Dale Stern, who was our first AD, and the two of us stood there, and they said, whose stuff is this? And I said, I brought it. He said, whose stuff is it? I said, you know, I brought it, it's rented. Whose stuff is this? And I said, it's from the Embassy Suite, Secaucus, New Jersey. And he said, cuff her, cuff him, we're going in. And I was in, we were both in jail for about 19 hours.
Kevin Goetz (19:14):
What was it like?
Monica Levinson (19:16):
Uh, the first 13, I was giddy like going, oh my God, I can't believe I'm here. This is ridiculous. Oh my God. And then the last six, I was like, get me the f out of here. I cannot handle this.
Kevin Goetz (19:27):
And Sacha called you as soon as you, he was like, oh, Monica.
Monica Levinson (19:30):
There's footage. There's very funny behind-the-scenes footage of Sacha sitting at my makeshift desk at the hotel and him saying, okay, who knows how to get Monica out of jail? And he was like, Monica knows how to get Monica out of jail. And it was, it's very true.
Kevin Goetz (19:51):
Yeah. So that is really funny. Of course it is. Yes. Who would solve this for us?
Monica Levinson (19:56):
It would be me, so I basically started, I said, can I call this person? I was on the phone with one of our lawyers when they arrested us. So he sent a lawyer down who happened to be, by coincidence alone, Jay Roach's lawyer's brother. It was crazy. So anyway, Alan Abramson came, and I just would give him things. I would say, okay, make sure this release gets sent in. Get this into the police so they can see that, you know, how did this happen.
Kevin Goetz (20:26):
What happened then on the second film, um, Subsequent Movie?
Monica Levinson (20:30):
So with that, I just learned and from that moment forward, on that show and on subsequent shows, including Bruno…
Kevin Goetz (20:37):
You could do more help…
Monica Levinson (20:38):
That I was better off away. Yes. Because they couldn't say who's in charge and point to me. And also I'm not a renegade.
Kevin Goetz (20:47):
They would've turned that ambulance over. It was in an ambulance, right? Yes. They would've turned that over and gotten, I mean, I was, you saw Sacha's face?
Monica Levinson (20:54):
Kevin Goetz (20:55):
Yeah. And I saw some footage I guess that wasn't in the final cut. It was really…
Monica Levinson (20:59):
I think we put it on deleted scenes. It's on Amazon now.
Kevin Goetz (21:02):
Yes, when you finally went back and did the deleted scenes, which I also worked on. Yes. We tested that as well. Exactly. Which is great. What I love about Sacha and you and the whole group that you all work with is that you listen, you listen to the audience mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which is the whole genesis of this podcast, which was about having the audience's point of view sort of brought into the conversation.
Monica Levinson (21:23):
Oh yeah. I mean, listen, Sacha did about 20 screenings on each of his films.
Kevin Goetz (21:29):
And all the great comedy directors do it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> They just do. And they listen. They listen, they listen. And it's more valuable than the numbers. It's more valuable than what they're saying. They just listen and then say, okay, rhythmically, I need to do this. The cadence is off here, et cetera, et cetera. I find that fascinating.
Monica Levinson (21:44):
Well, Sacha always wants the social commentary, obviously, but his North Star is the comedy.
Kevin Goetz (21:51):
You bet. At the end of the day, it's a movie. Yes. And they're there to entertain. You know, you strike me Monica, so much as having this great core of compassion and empathy. I love seeing your face. Whenever I see you, you always put a smile on my face. And we always have that mutual sort of feeling with each other. A hundred percent. There's a safety, a certain sense of transparency and trust. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and trust. You're working with Bill Burr on his latest Old Dads, which you can talk about it. I can't because we're in the middle of production. You know, you're testing it. But I can just say that it is a terrific film. But the way in which you deal with your talent, your directors, has a universal quality of caring. Watching you with David Oyelowo, for example, watching you with Sacha, watching you with Bill, and so many others has just been a treat. Yeah. And honestly, it's, I have to, you gave me kudos and I'm throwing them back at you.
Monica Levinson (22:53):
Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin Goetz (22:55):
Does that come from mom too?
Monica Levinson (22:56):
Mom and dad. I mean, I think we're…
Kevin Goetz (22:58):
I know, now we’ve got to bring Dad into it.
Monica Levinson (23:00):
Yes. I mean, boy, no, I think that it's also being raised by Celia Costas in this business and having that respect and Stuart Cornfeld and it's just, I don’t know.
Kevin Goetz (23:12):
It's wonderful to have mentors, isn't it? Yes. It's great. You've just answered your own question then about why you give back, because you've been given. Yes. And so it's important to give back to the next generation. Right?
Monica Levinson (23:23):
Absolutely. And you know, I'm on this, there's this one initiative and I'm far beyond it helping me about production supervisors, which has been predominantly a female-oriented role in the industry, and there's no pathway for those people to get into the DGA, to the Director's Guild. Anyway, it's a long story and it's, it's a production-oriented issue. And people keep saying, why are you working on it? And I said, because the people that come behind me need to have a pathway. Why should it be as difficult as it was for me?
Kevin Goetz (23:54):
Same in post production supervisors. In fact, I have Nancy Kirhoffer as a guest. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> coming in a few weeks because…
Monica Levinson (24:02):
Yes, we work together.
Kevin Goetz (24:03):
She's so fantastic. And others like Lisa Dennis and Lisa Rodgers.
Monica Levinson (24:08):
Lisa Rodgers, yes.
Kevin Goetz (24:09):
There are so many great mm-hmm. <affirmative>, post-production women, post-production supervisors who are women. And I always…
Monica Levinson (24:15):
There's no pathway.
Kevin Goetz (24:16):
And also though a lot of people don't know the effect that they have on the success of the movie and bringing it home.
Monica Levinson (24:23):
Yes, post is so where the movie is shaped.
Kevin Goetz (24:25):
Oh, I love that you’re saying that.
Monica Levinson (24:26):
That's why way back when, when with Alan Pakula and with Ben Stiller, that's why when I was in post, I realized, okay, I need to be a part of the whole process because it's not fun for me unless I'm part of that whole process because post is so important.
Kevin Goetz (24:41):
I want to go back to the comment I made about your compassion, your empathy, and sort of talk about your documentary that you co-directed. Yes. About your Jewish roots and your upbringing. Can you speak about that? Why was that important for you to do? And I'm just going to say it has to be related to what we're talking about.
Monica Levinson (25:00):
Yes. I mean, listen, I'm very fortunate. I have a great family. I love them so much and they have done everything for us, you know, and they work so hard. My mom and my aunt and my uncle when he was alive. But they work so hard and my father and my uncles. But this one family kept us all together, and it's so important that the family all be a unit. And the cousins, this means the cousins, the sisters, the, you know, everybody. And so, I filmed a Thanksgiving dinner 14 years ago and just went around the table because my mother said, shouldn't we do the little book where we can fill out the family history? And I said I'm just bringing a camera home. So I was working on maybe Bruno and I brought home a camera from the office and I said, okay, everybody just tell your story. And it just went around the table. And much like Jewish families do, we all cross-talked and I just sat there and tried to follow the conversation. And then my uncle, about 10 years later, said where is that footage you shot? Are we ever going to see it? And I went to work with my co-director to just put something together for the family.
Kevin Goetz (26:13):
Who is your co-director, by the way?
Monica Levinson (26:14):
He's a dear friend of mine and he is a great editor. So the two of us started working on this family documentary, which I showed to my family in 2017. And then, during the pandemic, I was feeling very…
Kevin Goetz (26:27):
What did, did they say when they first saw it?
Monica Levinson (26:28):
Oh my God, they were blown away. They were blown away. And it's truly just a love letter to my family.
Kevin Goetz (26:34):
And so many families, correct? I mean, that's the universality of it. It's like we're all so the same.
Monica Levinson (26:39):
We’re all the same.
Kevin Goetz (26:40):
Of course, Shirley MacLaine always says, just when you think you've healed your life, you go home for Thanksgiving. <laugh>. Right. I love that quote. Yeah, it's amazing. I don't know if she came up with it, but I’ve got to tell you, I've used it so many times, and you know, nothing like a family to open those wounds.
Monica Levinson (26:56):
Exactly. We're a little unique in that way. But we're also, I think during the pandemic, it started to dawn on me the anti-Semitism that was starting to brew. And I thought, well, maybe I'll just put something out about my family and that we're a Jewish family. And look, we're all pretty much the same. We all tell stories around a Thanksgiving table. We're all connected in some way.
Kevin Goetz (27:19):
Were you religious growing up?
Monica Levinson (27:20):
Not religious. Culturally, it was very important for us. Sure. So our being Jewish was very important.
Kevin Goetz (27:25):
Did you go to shul? Did you go to Temple?
Monica Levinson (27:27):
Oh yeah, we went to High Holidays. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we were all Bat Mitzvahed. It was, that was all important. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know mm-hmm. <affirmative>, my father and mother really wanted to make sure that we had that cultural experience in our household. But you know, if you watch the documentary my father tells, you know, I said, what's a family tradition? And he said sneaking out of Shul and going to lunch on Yom Kippur <laugh>. And we just all kind of were sitting silently. And I said, dad, I think that's a secret <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (27:58):
So, well, God knows.
Monica Levinson (27:59):
Yes. Yom Kippur, you fast for those not Jewish, you're supposed to fast that day.
Kevin Goetz (28:04):
Oh, that's so funny.
Monica Levinson (28:04):
But we started it because my grandmother needed to take medication, and she needed to take food with her medication. So we all didn't want to disappoint my grandmother and not go to lunch with her.
Kevin Goetz (28:14):
Monica Levinson (28:16):
Kevin Goetz (28:16):
And have a pastrami sandwich in the process.
Monica Levinson (28:17):
We don't cook. No. We wouldn't go to a place where there were other Jews discovering us.
Kevin Goetz (28:23):
So the Chinese restaurant, oh no, no, sorry, that would be other Jews.
Monica Levinson (28:26):
Exactly. So anyway, so during the pandemic, I talked to Steven Hentges, my co-director, and I said, what do you think about trying to turn this into something that might be more for the general public than my family? And so we worked on it.
Kevin Goetz (28:40):
Did you bring them back for additional footage?
Monica Levinson (28:42):
I did. I went, I shot more in 2017, and then I shot more in 2021. And we edited it, and I premiered it at the Annapolis Film Festival in April.
Kevin Goetz (28:52):
Because of home, right?
Monica Levinson (28:53):
Yes. Because in DC it was very well received, and my family had a great time and it was amazing for them to see our family on a massive screen. And now it's being released February 1st on Apple, Amazon, and Google Play. Then on March 1st on Tubi.
Kevin Goetz (29:13):
All right. Yeah, congratulations.
Monica Levinson (29:13):
That's as a producer, nobody bought it. You know, that's as a producer. Oh, amazing. That's how we distribute. Absolutely. We figure it out. Absolutely. You figure it out. And I wanted them to be able to say our documentary is out there. And honestly, Stuart Cornfeld was a dear friend, and he left me some money in his will, and I used that money to finance that.
Kevin Goetz (29:35):
Oh, that's great a great thing to share with us..
Monica Levinson (29:36):
Yeah, because I think with Stewart, he would've been so proud of me for putting myself out there as a co-director and doing this. He was not somebody, if you knew Stewart, he would be like, oh, it's a little earnest for me, <laugh> because he was a little more cynical. Yes. Yeah, but he would've been proud that I did something.
Kevin Goetz (29:58):
Oh, I did every movie that he did.
Monica Levinson (30:00):
Yes, of course.
Kevin Goetz (30:01):
I think I really worked on every one. He was terrific. Terrific. Ben and I, Ben Stiller and I talked about him very fondly about a year ago. It's nice to keep the memories alive, you know?
Monica Levinson (30:12):
A hundred percent.
Kevin Goetz (30:13):
Going back to, if I could, the diversity of your slate, if you will, of your bio, over the last two years, I think you've done something like how many movies and how many TV shows?
Monica Levinson (30:25):
Oh, there was a year that I did nine. Nine productions came out in one year. Now I'm a little quieter.
Kevin Goetz (30:33):
<laugh>. No, but I don't think I, well it all goes in cycles, but I don't think I've ever heard that. Like, was that when The Trial of the Chicago 7 came out?
Monica Levinson (30:41):
It was Borat. I did a Women in Film special that we sold to the CW. I called up a friend at the CW, and I said, would you want this? Because we couldn't do our gala. And so Amy Baer, who is the board president, called me.
Kevin Goetz (30:54):
Oh, Amy Baer is coming in as a guest.
Monica Levinson (30:57):
I love Amy Baer. She's one of my dear friends.
Kevin Goetz (30:59):
She's one of my dear friends.
Monica Levinson (31:00):
We did Brian Banks together, which was one of those movies that you're talking about that veered away from comedy.
Kevin Goetz (31:07):
What a story that was. Yes. And for those of you who haven't seen it, it's a beautiful story of a guy who…
Monica Levinson (31:13):
Aldus Hodge stars in it.
Kevin Goetz (31:15):
Monica Levinson (31:16):
And Sherri Shepherd’s in it.
Kevin Goetz (31:19):
It's a great story because it's about a guy who is wrongly accused and imprisoned right out of high school, giving up his shot at the NFL. And he was in prison and come to discover he was innocent and was released, and the NFL gave him a shot to play in the NFL. So what a story. I mean God.
Monica Levinson (31:40):
It’s a great story, and he wanted to prove his innocence. He knew that he would never be free until he was able to, he worked with the California Innocence Project to get himself a new trial and to be able to go out there and be exonerated.
Kevin Goetz (31:57):
So, speaking of that, you and I have been through so many previews together. What significant moments do you remember that the audience's response really informed a big change in the movie or TV show?
Monica Levinson (32:13):
Hmm. I mean so many. You definitely feel a lull in the audience. You feel when things are going too long, you feel when an ending's not working.
Kevin Goetz (32:27):
Was there a reshoot that particularly worked well because the audience said it's not landing? You went back and suddenly it popped, something like that?
Monica Levinson (32:36):
Well, I'll just use the Bill Burr movie, for example, because we did screen it and there was a lull where people weren't laughing. Because there's a serious moment, we needed it for the emotional arc.
Kevin Goetz (32:48):
But you don't want to stay down emotional too long.
Monica Levinson (32:50):
Yes. Yeah. And so we needed a laugh, and so we went and we reshot something and it just kind of infuses a big laugh in a place where we really needed it.
Kevin Goetz (32:58):
And drives the engine then. and so you don't dip, you just sort of keep the cadence. You go as long as you can. So genius that you did that.
Monica Levinson (33:06):
Yeah, I think it worked. With comedy it's easier to tell. With drama, it's, I mean, gosh, there are so many different instances of where…
Kevin Goetz (33:16):
Well I remember even.
Monica Levinson (33:17):
Tell me what you remember.
Kevin Goetz (33:18):
You remember, well, David's movie.
Monica Levinson (33:19):
Oh yes, of course.
Kevin Goetz (33:20):
I mean, just the reveal, I don't want to give it away, spoiler, so I don't want to give it away, but the reveal of the quote-unquote monster.
Monica Levinson (33:28):
Kevin Goetz (33:29):
Was up for a great discussion, right?
Monica Levinson (33:31):
Yes. And we really just listened to the audience. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
Kevin Goetz (33:36):
It’s a beautiful film.
Monica Levinson (33:36):
It's beautiful. And David is a wonderful filmmaker. And he also is just so thoughtful, and he allowed the audience, you know, he was able to take it in and digest it and come back and say, okay, let's try this.
Kevin Goetz (33:53):
He's best friends of course with Nate Parker who happens to be very close with me, and so we shared that, and they have a really exciting business that's going to be announced pretty soon, I think. Oh great. Right. They’re starting their own sort of streaming service.
Monica Levinson (34:07):
Oh, I didn't know that. Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah, David is very enterprising and incredibly smart.
Kevin Goetz (34:13):
And so lovely.
Monica Levinson (34:14):
Kevin Goetz (34:16):
Monica Levinson (34:16):
Great. And he was another one who, you know, there was another piece of that movie that wasn't quite working and he called and he said, I think let's, let's do this reorder. And it was something that I had suggested and he was resistant to, and he came back and he digested and thought about it and he said, I think that's going be the better way.
Kevin Goetz (34:41):
That’s why you're so good. Because as you said before with Sacha, you don't say no, you guide. You know, the great acting teachers, the great directors don't give line readings, they don't tell the actor what to do. They guide them to get there themselves, which is essentially what you did, even though you put the notion forward. Right. You knew that he needed to arrive there himself.
Monica Levinson (35:07):
He absolutely needed to get there. And we were producing partners, he was a producer on it as well. And so we're all working together. As you know, film is so collaborative and if you don't look at film in that way, or television, if you don't look at it as a collaborative process, forget it.
Kevin Goetz (35:24):
What was it like working with like Betty Thomas?
Monica Levinson (35:26):
I love Betty Thomas.
Kevin Goetz (35:27):
I love Betty Thomas.
Monica Levinson (35:28):
I love her. I got to do two movies with her. Yes. And she was somebody who, speaking of collaborative, she would look when we did Private Parts, the Howard Stern movie, which was amazing because I was…
Kevin Goetz (35:41):
I thought it was sort of genius.
Monica Levinson (35:42):
It's such a sweet movie. And Howard's so amazing. I was the biggest fan. And I'll tell you the quick story, Celia who…
Kevin Goetz (35:50):
The line producer from New York.
Monica Levinson (35:51):
The line producer. She said to me, I just went to LA I'm going to meet with the people doing Titanic, and I'm meeting with this Howard Stern movie, but I don't like Howard Stern, so we're not going to do that. I was like, oh no, no, no. Howard Stern's amazing, and you have to read his book. She's like, I don't know Monica. And she got off the plane, she called me, she goes, okay, I laughed the whole way. I was embarrassed. I had to cover up the, you know, the book title that said Private Parts. And I said, okay. So she came back and she said, okay. I had two good meetings, one with Ivan Reitman and Danny Goldberg and Betty and one with the Titanic team. And I said, please, let's do, you know, Howard, please, please, please. And she said, okay, let's do it. And meanwhile, she'd be a very, very wealthy woman had she just done Titanic. But it was, we both had one of our best experiences in our career working on that movie.
Kevin Goetz (36:40):
Were you at that screening in Seattle when the film broke?
Monica Levinson (36:43):
Kevin Goetz (36:44):
We went up to Seattle or Portland.
Monica Levinson (36:47):
No, I was not because I was in New York. I went to the Madison Square Garden premiere.
Kevin Goetz (36:52):
Oh, the film broke and it was really quite harrowing, it was in the middle of a really good scene too. But the movie didn't come back up for 15 or 20 minutes. Oh wow. And I had to go and keep them warm, you know. And then I might have shared this already on the podcast, but I, it's worth repeating because it was one of my worst moments, and I learned everything from that moment of how to deal with an audience and what not to say. And I had them in the palm of my hand. Sherry Lansing was back there with Betty, and it was really, I kept going back and saying, they're great. Go back down, tell them it's going to be five more minutes. Go back, you know, go back down. Tell 'em it would be another five. So finally, when I went back, I said, you guys have been just absolutely amazing. I don’t know about that projectionist, he must be from Seattle.
Monica Levinson (37:38):
Kevin Goetz (37:40):
Boo, boo. I get up there and Betty said to me, dude, you idiot. Never insult the audience, the people. I did it again on another movie. And I remember saying, I was out of town, so I remember saying, gosh, that projection must be from Hollywood. And the audience went berserk and laughed. And I said, perfect, thank you, Betty Thomas.
Monica Levinson (38:05):
So back to Betty being collaborative, we'd be filming, and if somebody wasn't laughing from the crew, if the grip wasn't laughing, she'd point to the day player grip and say, why don't you think that's funny? What's not working for you? Why aren't you laughing? And she would listen. She would listen while we were filming to see what that was that was making the crew not respond the way that we hoped the crew would. She always has been super collaborative. But speaking of breaking the film, you probably weren't there, but when we premiered Borat at Toronto.
Kevin Goetz (38:41):
No, I wasn't at the premiere.
Monica Levinson (38:42):
We premiered, and we did the whole thing. We brought, you know, it was our premiere of the movie. We bring everybody, you know, we bring Sacha in with the women dressed as, you know, the Roma community, the gypsy community, walking him in on a plow and whatever, and him coming in and doing his big arrival. And we screen and about 20 minutes in the film breaks, the projector breaks. And Michael Moore was at the screening, and he went upstairs, Jim Gianopulos and me, not that I could do anything. And we're all like just talking.
Kevin Goetz (39:15):
What was Jim going to do? Jim could only just be like you want a job tomorrow?
Monica Levinson (39:20):
Sacha's like, go, go help.
Kevin Goetz (39:23):
And did Sacha go down front?
Monica Levinson (39:23):
Yes. He was still in his Borat outfit. So he and Larry went down and entertained for about 20 minutes to half an hour.
Kevin Goetz (39:31):
That was worth a break.
Monica Levinson (39:33):
And we could never fix the projector. They were like, we need this part from this other theater.
Kevin Goetz (39:36):
Monica Levinson (39:37):
No. We finished it, we did it again the next night.
Kevin Goetz (39:40):
And did everyone come back? I wonder?
Monica Levinson (39:41):
Yes, <laugh> and we had a bigger theater the next night. Oh wow. But it was insane.
Kevin Goetz (39:46):
That’s an insane story.
Monica Levinson (39:46):
I remember saying to the projectionist, I said, where's this part? And he said, it's probably at this other theater. And I said, I just made this movie. We, I have people here. We can go into that theater and get that. He's like, it's locked. I was like, we will figure it out. We will do it. You know.
Kevin Goetz (40:02):
We’ll break the goddamn door down.
Monica Levinson (40:04):
Yes, exactly. Yeah, we will do it. He goes, no, no, no. I'm going to have to do it. You know, so he wouldn't tell me where it was because we were like, we're going. Right. Oh. But anyway, so we ended up just…
Kevin Goetz (40:13):
Let me bring this as we wind down now, let me bring this full circle back to the fact that you are so involved with women in film and other organizations that help young people and women in particular. What advice are you going to give young women that are in positions like production supervisors that want to go up that next level, that next rank, or getting more women editors or getting more women DPs, and what can we do to increase those particularly, you know, more male-centric jobs?
Monica Levinson (40:49):
Right. Well, I'll say that Mike Miller at the IA is very interested in diversifying the unions. So I've been part of the Low Budget Agreement, the independent contracts at the IA in the past. And he really wants to have more diversity. So I think the unions are…
Kevin Goetz (41:11):
What does that mean? Lessening, lessening the restrictions.
Monica Levinson (41:14):
Yeah, allowing, allowing people to come into the ranks if they have the support of somebody in that department to move in and get into the union. So he's been great. And there's a clause in the Low Budget Agreement where you can do just that, where a union can allow at least one person per film to join. So that's great. And I'd say my advice is just, you know, find yourself a mentor. Mm. Look for people that are doing what you want to be doing, and trying to find the people that are doing what you want to be doing in the industry. And then start talking to them and start trying to figure out how you're going to maneuver your way. Because the one other thing is to have a little patience. And with time, it will happen. Because I used to be in such a rush as a kid.
Kevin Goetz (42:02):
Well, you know what I say now to my friends who have kids in their twenties, and they're so stressed? I say, guys, it's a different world. I said, there are no mistakes in your twenties, that you can't make any mistakes. Right. In other words, any job you do is going to inform you and help you grow and learn as a human being.
Monica Levinson (42:19):
A hundred percent.
Kevin Goetz (42:19):
And then in sort of when you get to your early thirties, like then you, that you sort of put your stake, you, you claim your ground, you lay your stake in the ground. Right. And you say, I think this is the area I really want to be in.
Monica Levinson (42:32):
A hundred percent, but even more so, my father, he was about my age now, and I was in my early twenties, and I was leaving my broadcast journalism job. And I thought, okay, what am I going to do with my career? And I always felt like I had to be doing something. Like if I wasn't in law school, I had to be having that job. I needed to know exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And I said, gosh, dad, I don't know what I'm going to do. And he looked at me, and he said, well, I don't know what I'm going to do for the rest of my life in my career. And I said, what are you talking about? You've had a lamp store, you've always had a lamp store.
Monica Levinson (43:06):
You're a lamp store owner. He's like, yeah, well, the business is not doing so well right now. I need to reinvent the business or maybe go work somewhere else for a minute and make some money and figure things out, and I'm applying to law school in my fifties. And he was just trying new things and trying to figure out, and he said, keep a couple dollars in your pocket because you're going to have to support yourself, but take chances because whatever you do, whatever business you go into is never going to stay the same. It's always going to change. And if you're not willing to change with it and be willing to pivot, then you're not going to be able to get ahead. So know that, that nothing is forever and take your chances.
Kevin Goetz (43:49):
Well, you just took a chance because you joined, in late September, Color Force, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson's company.
Monica Levinson (43:57):
I came in as an in-house producer, which is great.
Kevin Goetz (44:00):
Which is fantastic.
Monica Levinson (44:01):
Because I'm getting to do television. I'm getting to go into more television.
Kevin Goetz (44:04):
And they've had a great track record, so that all of you together, I can only imagine the damage you're going to do <laugh>.
Monica Levinson (44:09):
Well, I'm really, I'm really excited to do it because I really wanted to, I've been developing my own TV, but it's just harder and harder to get those off the ground and to be working with such pros and to be able to be brought into that company as an in-house producer. I'm really excited to be working with them.
Kevin Goetz (44:26):
Well, I would work with you any day of the week, any day, any day of the year. I adore you and love you, Monica.
Monica Levinson (44:34):
I feel the same way. Kevin, I'm so grateful that you had me here, but I am more grateful that you're my friend and whenever I see your face when we're screening, I'm just, okay, everything's going to be okay, Kevin's here.
Kevin Goetz (44:46):
Monica Levinson. Thank you.
Monica Levinson (44:48):
Kevin Goetz (44:50):
To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview today. Follow Monica on Instagram at MonLev, that's M O N L E V, and check out her upcoming project, Bill Burr's Old Dads, and her current documentary, The Stories of Us. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology at Amazon or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. And you can also follow me on my social media at KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don't Kill the Messenger, I'll welcome the Academy Award-nominated film editor David Rosenbloom, who worked on films including The Insider, All Good Things, The Black Mass, and The Way Back. Until next time, I'm Kevin Goetz. And to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Monica Levinson
Producer: Kari Campano