Alan J. Levi, veteran film and television director, director of photography and producer is the featured filmmaker for Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema (IIFC) 2012. And given his professional credits and regimented preparation for becoming a filmmaker, he will have much to offer indie filmmakers at IIFC 2012.
“My junior year in high school I knew what I wanted to do in my life,” said Levi. While still in high school, Levi formed Petite Productions, financed by his schoolmates, and before finishing high school had produced and directed 43 films for such disparate organizations as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the St. Louis Board of Education, the National Safety Council and others that could not afford to hire a commercial company.
Before finishing high school and with a cache of completed films under his belt, Levi wrote to three Hollywood celebrities who had been known to mentor young filmmakers. One, actor, director and producer Dick Powell, responded. After high school graduation and before enrolling for his first year at Northwestern University, Levi traveled to Hollywood to begin his apprenticeship with Powell. “His wife, June Allyson, became my surrogate mom,” remembered Levi.
During that interregnum between high school and college while under Powell’s tutelage, Levi, demonstrated his penchant for thorough preparation. He studied film technique at various studios, direction under Andre de Toth, makeup with William Tuttle at the MGM makeup department, photography at Paramount and Warner Brothers on sets of shooting features, and editing with Warner’s editing staff.
At Northwestern, Levi, certain of his professional path, crafted his class choices accordingly. He minored in psychology so as to better understand and direct actors. He also minored in engineering, partly to please his father, but also out of his own interest in technology.
As a result of that minor, Levi helped design and build the nascent film and television studio in Kresge Hall at Northwestern. Levi also held patents for a process he invented in 1963, called Video Assist that combined a motion picture and television camera all in one, viewing through one lens.
Commenting on how the business has changed technologically, Levi noted the miniaturization of cameras and sound recording equipment has made filming easier by enhancing mobility and allowing cameras to be taken to places where they weren’t easily taken before.
“Everything can be moved and set faster,” said Levi. “It’s easier to make movies now with less equipment. Where in the early days of my directing I could do 22 to 23 setups a day, today I’ll do 45 to 60.” Levi’s engineering and technical background will enable him to discuss, with attending filmmakers, both the evolution of filmmaking as well as tips on field production, location scouting and non-linear editing.
Levi has directed commercials, episodic television, miniseries and movies of the week for the small screen including the series “NCIS,” “ER,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Quantum Leap,” and TV movies and miniseries such as “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Immigrants.” He produced pilots and series such as “Columbo,” “Airwolf,” and “The Invisible Woman.” Levi has directed the A-list of Hollywood royalty including actors George Clooney, Ernest Borgnine, Sandra Bullock, Ed Asner, Peter Falk and Frank Sinatra. He has also directed for film. Levi was, for 13 of 18 years at Universal, the only producer and director under contract to the studio. His peers have honored him with awards at Cannes, Emmy nominations and many others.
As a director, Levi said he belongs to the collaborative school, acknowledging that the final product is enriched by the contributions of all who work in the process, regardless of where the suggestion comes from. “That way it is more of a community,” he said. Starting young and moving fast, Levi learned the jobs of everyone on the set. “If you’re making an indie film you’re a jack of all trades,” he said. “Not because you want to — you have to. As a result, you learn how to talk to the crew from a point of understanding exactly what they do.”
Levi teaches filmmaking at UCLA, the University of Southern California and Brooks Institute. “I feel it’s important to give back and I enjoy doing that,” he said. “I currently have three young people I’m mentoring as well as teaching the courses I do.”