Director Shawn Levy talks 'This Is Where I Leave You'

He’s a self-described “Montreal boy” who has taken on Hollywood with aplomb. Director Shawn Levy has helmed blockbusters like Real Steel and the Night at the Museum movies, and now in his latest, This is Where I Leave You – a comedic drama about siblings who reunite for their father’s funeral – he hits closer to home.

“I have three brothers and two sisters. I come from the messy chaos of that kind of family,” he says.

Before its premiere at TIFF, Hello! sat down with the animated storyteller at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, where he gave us the scoop on bringing the star-studded cast together.

What was it like working with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman? Tina was the first person I cast. I realized I had the opportunity to take Tina, who’s such a phenomenal comedic icon, and do something a little different. She was up for it. Jason, like Tina, has had success in comedy but we’ve never seen him open up with the vulnerability he has in this movie. The three of us felt pretty unified, that we were all taking a moment to do something different.

How did Jane Fonda join the cast? It’s kind of remarkable actually. Fonda reached out to me and asked if she could audition. I said, “You have two Academy Awards in your house. You’re well beyond the point in your career when you need to audition.” She says, “I want this role, let me come fight for it.” Nobody does that. I think it’s unbelievably admirable and is a reminder to go and put yourself out there in in pursuit of what you want.

Did she surprise you at all on set? There was a lot of improvisation and when you’re in a movie with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, the level of comedic improv is the highest. Nobody is faster than those two. Just like it was in my family, if you wanted to be heard at the dinner table, talk. No one is going to stop to listen. Similarly, in this breed of comedy, that river is flowing. By the second week, Jane had transitioned from being uncomfortable to being a pro. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie are now things Jane improvised. It was really thrilling to see her step up like that.

Was there any one actor who you were especially excited to sign on? I think I was most excited to get Adam Driver on board because when I met Adam, I knew he was going to be a major star of his generation. I offered him the part and it didn’t work out because he was too busy doing his series, Girls. I proceeded to audition 70 other guys and all it did was confirm my gut feeling that it had to be him. I redid the entire shooting schedule to get him in the movie. It was actually my wife who said, ‘If you’ve waited 10 movies to make this kind of movie, no compromise. Not one.’ That’s kind of what convinced me to just make it work. It was a good lesson. He’s so great in the movie and every scene is more interesting because he’s in it.

What does your family think of your success? They’re thrilled. It’s a very different world than the one that’s lived in Montreal and Toronto. Everyone thinks it’s crazy and fun, and my parents and siblings have really selflessly celebrated that. It’s a rare and lucky thing.

Are they ever stunned to hear who your co-workers are? It depends, every once in a while I’ll work with an actor and my sister will say, ‘Holy, you know that person?’ I think a lot of them have become immune to it. When I did Real Steel, my sister-in-law could not stop staring at Hugh Jackman. On this one, I brought my step-mom, Lee, down to New York to have dinner with Jane Fonda. Lee, who had stayed in shape for 20 years doing Jane’s videos, was just on cloud nine sitting at dinner with this icon. It’s been fun to share some of that.

Have they seen the film? They have, but the only one who saw the earliest cut was my dad. I think my parents and my family knew I had this movie in me. Without begrudging anything that’s come before it, it’s been very gratifying to finally tell this kind of a story. It’s a love letter to siblinghood and I wanted to honour that.

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