Zendaya, John David Washington, and Sam Levinson talk to BOSSIP about their new film, Malcolm & Marie.
As the memory of Kobe Bryant and his famous Mamba Mentality lingers at the top of our minds following the one year anniversary of his tragic passing, his overwhelming dedication to constantly improving his craft is something you can’t help but notice about the people behind Malcolm & Marie. Zendaya and Sam Levinson were so eager to get back to work that they not only made it happen, but produced an Oscar-worthy film against all odds.
To the detriment of quite literally every other production in the TV and film industry, the pandemic rendered the classic definition of a movie set null and void. But for this crew, those constraints just sparked creativity. Who knows if Malcolm & Marie would have ever been made had it not been for the pandemic–but the necessity to simplify created the perfect environment to produce a film that puts all of its money on engaging dialogue and impeccable acting.
The choice to shoot the film in black and white is an ironic, yet undoubtedly intentional one, contrasting a relationship that Zendaya admits isn’t so black and white.
“I try to look at them in the least judgemental way possible, because that’s how we’re supposed to look at these characters, you know? We’re supposed to have a level of empathy and understanding for what it is, why they do it, and what got them to that moment,” she explains. “So, I kind of try to look at them not so black and white and not so good guy bad guy, or good relationship bad relationship, so much as…it’s supposed to be a little bit messy, and a little bit conflicting, and confusing, and you’re not really supposed to have an answer.”
While the infuriating dialogue between Malcolm and Marie is shockingly toxic at times, even the most solid couples can relate to the grievances being aired out over the course of the film. The basic plot was sparked from a real-life encounter between writer and director Sam Levinson and his wife, who he forgot to thank at one of his own premieres.
“The reality is, we didn’t have an argument about it, we actually had a pretty thoughtful discussion about it, and a mellow one on the car ride home, and never really talked about it again,” he reveals. “But it did spark a lot of thoughts in me about what happens when you don’t acknowledge the contributions of people in your life and to your work and your collaborators. And I thought that it was an interesting inciting incident for this sort of Socratic dialogue for these two characters and an investigation of their relationship and filmmaking in general.”
The only characters physically present in the movie are Malcolm and Marie, but talk of a Los Angeles Times film critic rears its ugly head more than once. Levinson admits, “I actually love film criticism. I think film criticism is as important to the future of film making as film making itself”–and though the characters in the movie are harping on the negatives of said profession, it’s clear how just how important it is by how this third-person entity weaves the entire story together.
“I think a great critic, and I think great critique can lay the groundwork for future filmmakers. It can help explain and illuminate why a story means something, what the themes are, what the ideas are, what its place in culture is. But I do also, at the same time, I am sometime dismayed with this kind of book report type of review, where it’s like just a synopsis with a few adjectives,” Sam reveals.
“But I also love the discussion of it, I love the back and forth of it, I love it in terms of Malcolm’s opinions, Marie’s opinions, her disagreements with him about it, his disagreements with the critic,” he continues. “It was a fascinating way of further investigating this relationship, because the film is based on Marie and, therefore, informs it.”
Throughout the course of the film, viewers will find themselves going back and forth between whether or not these two should have ever been together in the first place, but their painfully honest conversations do such a good job of convincing you the opposite of whatever you were thinking 5 minutes prior. These two aren’t so toxic that their love story seems impossible, but they’re clearly not too smitten to throw some seriously low blows that would stun anyone within a five mile radius.
This very gripe is something that Zendaya admitted to struggling with, too, not knowing herself if Malcom and Marie are the perfect match or a futile one.
“I don’t know, I think that’s the fun and beautiful thing about what Sam created is that I go back and forth all time,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like they’re meant for each other and there’s nobody else that could make them feel the way they feel, or bring these certain things out of each other, or understand them the way they do. And then other times, I’m like, ‘This is toxic, and codependent, and this is not how a relationship should function, like they’re not good for each other.’”
“But then you’re like, ‘But they are good for each other!,” Zendaya continues. “It’s conflicting, to say the least, and I don’t necessarily know if I have an answer for it, but I think that’s the beautiful thing, and I think, that’s the conversation people will have and kind of maybe examine their own relationships and what they maybe want out of a relationship and what they think a relationship should look like.”
While John David Washington refused to admit whether or not he relates to his character when it comes to using difficult life experiences for the betterment of his craft–“I shouldn’t tell you that,” he says, laughing–he does see where Malcolm is coming from. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that his abrasive approach made him concerned that viewers would automatically hate him.
“There was a section of the film–I’m not gonna say which section–but I had, basically, a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t even–the words, too–but it was some of the actions, the movement that triggered some things,” Washington admits.
“I remember, I would joke with Sam throughout, especially around day six or seven, like, ‘Yo Sam, they’re not gonna like me. People are not gonna like me at all.’ And he would say, “It’s gonna be fine, you’re okay, you’re okay.’” he continues. “So, I definitely felt that way a lot. But at the same time, I felt that way because of his approach. Now, where he was coming from, I understood, too, ya know? And I’m like, ‘He had some very strong points that I think are important.’ But it was how he did it.”
At the end of the day, this movie isn’t just about how lovers communicate, it’s about how we all communicate, and how seeing something laid out so candidly can cause us to do some introspection ourselves–Especially in the midst of a pandemic, where communication is really all we have.
“I think it makes us do our own kind of investigating of ourselves and, John David says this all the time, ‘Holding a mirror up to your own relationships’ and how you function with other people,” Zendaya explains. “Sometimes not even romantically, sometimes it’s the people that you work with, or your family, or whatever the case may be, those close personal relationships.”
Malcolm & Marie is available for streaming on Netflix on February 5.