”Never work with children or animals.” It’s an often-referred to Hollywood credo attributed to W.C. Fields. But film director Brian Levant, raised in Highland Park, has spent the last 35 years of his life building a film career that he loves by directly ignoring those supposed words of wisdom.
Photo courtesy of Universal Studios
Brian Levant has the kind of “breaking into the biz” story that is the stuff of legend. At 12 years old, he was growing up on Sheridan Road in Highland Park, making movies with the family camera, and dreaming of being a Hollywood director.
“I was very naïve [after college],” says Brian. “I thought [Hollywood] would be sitting there waiting for me with open arms and I quickly discovered otherwise.” He was pitching stories around Hollywood when another Highland Park native, Steve Zacharias, who was writing for Happy Days, the number-one show at the time, invited him to play basketball at Gary Marshall’s house. After blocking a couple of Gary’s shots and shooting an unusually good game, he got a story meeting at Happy Days. He sold them the first story idea he pitched, “the town sheriff wants to run Fonzie out of town,” and he joined the writing staff.
That led to more writing jobs on shows like The Jeffersons and Mork and Mindy. When he got into directing on the show Still the Beaver, a revitalization of Leave It to Beaver, he won a Cable ACE award, and got his ticket into the feature film world.
Brian’s family-friendly films typically experience the seemingly disparate distinctions of achieving box office success while being mercilessly vivisected by film critics. He launched the Beethoven franchise, directed the live action Flintstones movies, and led Arnold Schwarzenegger through the family holiday romp Jingle All the Way. His latest films include the family favorites Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet?, and this year’s The Spy Next Door starring Jackie Chan.
“I’m attracted to the most visual material, usually where story and character converge in chaos,” says Brian. “That’s from growing up watching the silent masters and the Marx Brothers. That was their trade: The big memorable physical comedy scenes that defined their careers. That’s what I look for. And I appreciate films that play to mom and dad and the kids, that don’t alienate any segment of the audience.”
Brian is currently getting ready to direct the second of four Scooby Doo movies for the Cartoon Network. The first in the series, Scooby Doo! The Mystery Begins, had the highest ratings of any show in the history of the Cartoon Network, even beating the premiere of George Lucas’s Clone Wars series. And on March 13 he was inducted into the Highland Park Historical Society’s Hall of Fame alongside Michael Jordan, Steve Zacharias, and former CIA Director Stansfield Turner.
For a man with his history with critics, one would expect him to have a well-refined mistrust of journalists during interviews. But his initial response to my first hard-hitting question: “How are you doing?” was met with “Functioning on a high level, thank you.” And I knew he was a perfect candidate for the Sheridan Road Interview:
What was your biggest childhood fear?
What’s your greatest fear as an adult?
Choose one: Money or respect?
Well, gee, I’ll never get respect.
What do you like most about yourself?
I wake up happy.
You’re locked in the trunk of a car, which is then driven into a river. What’s your escape plan?
Wait for the commercial. laughs If it’s a post 1994 car, it should have an emergency escape hatch. You should always wait until it fills with water though, so that the pressure is equalized between the outside and the inside. It makes things much easier.
What’s your personal catchphrase?
Cut. Print. Moving on.
Do you have any nicknames?
For a while my kid’s friends called me Mr. Flintstone.
Where is your relaxation place?
A sand volleyball court. I play in masters tournaments.
What do you think is the worst way to die?
Without ever having accomplished what you set out to do.
What do you think is the best way to die?
In the 23rd century.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Modern Times. The last silent Chaplin film.
If you had access to a time machine, when would you go and why?
Wow. When I was about 12 my answer would have been to go back to 1939 to buy a rack full of Superman no.1 and hang on to it.
You’ve worked with some amazing actors like John Ritter, Charles Grodin, John Goodman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who has been your favorite leading man to work with?
We just did The Spy Next Door with Jackie Chan. He was amazing. He is just an incredible human being. The most generous man I have ever worked with—so incredibly talented, a great athlete, a humanitarian. That experience just rose above many other quality ones.