There are two types of people in the world: chaos muppets and order muppets.
For Wild Canaries writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine, an order devotee, his wife, actress and director Sophia Takal is the chaos variety. “It can be very, very funny sometimes for the two of us to be in a living situation together. I think that was something he wanted to explore in a comedy,” Takal told EW. Levine agrees: “Sophia is just so funny and wacky in our everyday life and I really wanted to do a movie that would show that off.”
The result? Wild Canaries — a screwball murder mystery in the vein of The Thin Man series, about a newly engaged couple Barri and Noah (played by Takal and Levine) who both react to the death of their elderly downstairs neighbor in different ways. Barri suspects murder. Noah thinks that’s insane.
“It’s really based on our dynamic. Our real dynamic,” she said. Barri enlists her roommate Jean (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) to aid in the amateur investigation. Everyone is suddenly a suspect — from their deceased neighbor’s son (Kevin Corrigan) to the suave, hipster building owner (Jason Ritter) — and relationships become more fraught than ever as the riotous, high-stakes caper evolves.
“[Levine] wrote it right before we got married, so I think a lot of commitment phobia is in there, too,” Takal says about the film, which is premiering at SXSW. Levine says, “I think a lot of those anxieties that exist as you approach marriage — fear of being betrayed, fear of making a mistake, thinking long and hard about if you really trust somebody — these were things that were on my mind. So when I started to write a murder mystery, the one I came up with reflected those fears.
Adds Takal: “We’re exploring things that are relatable but also couching it in a fun mystery.”
“There’s a tradition in movies of brassy women who are wild and unhinged or don’t play by the rules,” says Takal, especially Barbara Streisand’s What’s Up Doc? heroine Judy Maxwell and The Thin Man’s Nora. “Myrna Loy is so sassy and fun in that movie. We definitely wanted to follow in the comedic tradition of women in those old screwball comedies.”
“Noah is feeling inadequate because he’s not making money,” says Takal. “He’s struggling with masculinity. Barri’s challenging him. How do you cope when you’re not living up to these ideas of success that you thought you were supposed to be living up to?”
For Wild Canaries, Levine knew because of budget and time restrictions that he needed actors with “engrained comedic chops who could do it without much rehearsal and just knock it out of the park,” he says, which led to the casting of Ritter, Corrigan, and Shawkat, seasoned actors who could hit their marks and improvise when needed.
Depending on how Wild Canaries is received, Levine has already dreamt up a Los Angeles-set sequel. “It’s sort of a send up of James Ellroy and L.A. noir,” he says. “L.A. has so many far out character types and new age-y people and this whole history of hucksterism. I just think it’s a great place to set a murder mystery.”
Ultimately, Wild Canaries is meant to be fun. “We were going through a time where all we wanted to do was watch fun movies in bed eating takeout for like a year of our lives,” says Takal. We thought why not make a movie that people can eat Chinese food takeout to and just really enjoy themselves?”