Daniel Perlmutter was riding public transit a few months ago when his cellphone rang. He didn’t recognize the number and, amid the urban cacophony, actually had to get off the bus to properly listen to the message.
He was very glad he did. Actor Eugene Levy – a bankable veteran of more than 50 Hollywood films, including American Pie and Best in Show, had chosen to mentor him as part of a joint program involving the National Arts Centre, the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards and (this year), the Canadian Film Centre.
The mentorship is given to one recipient a year and the terms are flexible, although it does come with a $5,000 stipend. Essentially, Perlmutter says, it’s whatever the two parties decide to make of it. So far, it’s meant a single breakfast with Levy and a follow-up chat this week.
But Perlmutter is not complaining. Over breakfast at Toronto’s Patachou, he says Levy “humbly offered wonderful suggestions” for changes in the draft script of Fit to Print, Perlmutter’s projected, $1.5-million feature film – about a struggling small-town newspaper editor who starts inventing stories in order to boost circulation. The second draft, incorporating those ideas, is just days away from completion. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Perlmutter, 35, has written a part in the film that he hopes to convince Levy, 64, to play.
The Globe and Mail’s Michael Posner sat down with mentor and mentee on the lawn of the Film Centre.
Have you ever done this mentorship thing before?
Levy: No – and I shouldn’t have done it. I have no idea what I’m doing, to be honest. But it’s a little late now.
You’ve read Daniel’s script? What did you think?
Levy: It was a great first draft with lovely subject matter that I found funny and charming.
Perlmutter: The second draft is a different beast. A lot more grounded, more real.
How many American Pie films have you seen?
Perlmutter: Just one – the first.
Levy: [Levy has appeared in seven other films based on the American Pie story, four of which went straight to DVD.] The last four were done for money. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’ve never seen them. But if you’re going to see one, the first one is the one to see. I don’t enjoy seeing myself on screen, but I was pleasantly surprised by the first American Pie when it came out.
I told my wife when we went to the premiere that I thought my scenes were kind of funny, but I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the entire film. But we realized right off the top this was a really great movie – done with intelligence, with a fantastic cast. American Pie was originally called East Great Falls High and when we shot it, I was actually shooting another film called American Pie.
Growing up, what films or TV shows of Mr. Levy’s influenced you?
Perlmutter: SCTV was everything to me. It was a magical thing to catch that. In my house, TV was very restricted, so I’d have to sneak it in, when my parents were out. The show seemed to be always changing, but yet its universe was consistent.
Who were your favourite characters to play?
Levy: The regulars were kind of fun – [TV newscaster] Earl Camembert, who I had created with Joe Flaherty at Second City. And Bobby Bittman, the comedian who crashes The Maudlin Show. We created that first as an improv in Pasadena in 1975.
Perlmutter: In a talk you gave, you posed a question about whether comedy was still funny. Because there’s so much bad comedy out there, stuff that’s lazy or tiring to sit through. Do you still feel that way?
Levy: Well, the stuff I did with Christopher Guest is the kind of stuff I enjoy doing and watching. Grounded comedy, where you are not afraid to go broadside. Chris and I are looking for a new project, but not more of the same – not a fake documentary. Every television program is using that device, badly, so it’s not as fresh as it was when we did Waiting for Guffman.
How do you fell about the Judd Apatow school of film comedy?
Perlmutter: I enjoy those films. I’m a fan.
Levy: Freaks and Geeks was one of the great comedies on TV. His films are funny, but at times they possibly appeal to a younger sensibility. He goes to places – the mad diarrhea dash to a toilet – okay, is that the comedy set piece here? Is breaking wind the best way to get a huge laugh? Obviously the answer is yes. It’s made him a billionaire.
Perlmutter: Second City was major for you as well.
Levy: Second City was the turning point, comedically, for me – it was the comedy school that was an eye opener. [We learned] very simple ground rules of comedy – always play at the top of your intelligence level. Do everything as smart as you can do it, even if you’re writing the cheapest character.
Perlmutter: That’s easy to forget.
Levy: Right, and it’s why Second City is still going in Chicago, now in its 53rd year, eight shows a week. And in Toronto since 1973 – coming up on 40 years and we opened the first show.
What advice would you give to the next generation of comedy filmmakers?
Levy: There’s only one bit of advice, really. You have to do what you think is funny – believe it and put it out there. That’s why comedy is hard to talk about, because it’s so subjective.
There isn’t a right way or a wrong way. But you can’t write comedy the way you think someone else would write it. You have to write it the way you live it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.