Directors Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn on Their Sun-Kissed 90s Homage, ‘L for Leisure’

Directed by cinematic duo Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, L for Leisure is a witty and wonderful sun-dappled ode to the 90s. After playing BAMCinemaFest last June, it instantly became one of our favorite films of the year, and tomorrow, will finally begin its theatrical run in New York. 

Shot in locations around the world (from Baja to Iceland) on beautiful 16mm, L for Leisure tracks a group of graduate students as they go about their various vacations between 1992 and 1993. Like the cinematic equivalent to chill wave sonic pleasure, Kalman and Horn’s feature debut may be indebted to the iconic vibe of directors like Eric Rohmer and Whit Stillman—with its episodic adventures and stilted portraits of young, jet-setting elite—but its how they’ve filtered those influences through their own expression that makes the film its own brand of humor and intellect. 

Earlier this week we explored Kalman and Horn’s 8 biggest inspirations on the film, and now we’re pleased to share our conversation with the minds behind L for Leisure, diving further into what fascinates us about their approach and style.

How did you two meet and begin making films together? Did you start collaborating because you already shared a similar sensibility as artists or was that something that developed naturally in the process?

Whit and I met when we were undergrads at Columbia. They didn’t really have a film production track so we were other majors, but we just became BFFs pretty quick on. Whitney’s uncle gave her a 16mm camera so we started making movies together on that starting our junior—and that’s the whole story, because that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. A lot of the people who were in our very first movie are in L for Leisure, so we’re always working with the same little cast. What’s cool about our collaboration is that I wasn’t a filmmaker before, and neither was Whitney. She’d done some video work before, but it’s not like we came in as two different filmmakers with two different philosophies; we discovered our collective interest with each other.

There’s obviously a strong aesthetic and voice to both Blondes in the Jungle and L for Leisure. Where does that come from, and are you just as influenced by the people around you and the limitations of independent filmmaking as you are by film, music, and TV? 

For us there’s two different levels of explanation. From a practical point of view, we love working on 16mm. Whitney is the cinematographer for most of the films and hates using a tripod. We also like working with our friends, and we like going out of the city and shooting in these locations. But we’ve decided what we’re good at, and what we’re interested in is finding these simple, straightforward ways to shoot our movies—to make the viewer aware of the artist behind the camera, and to make them aware that there are people behind telling the story rather than a window onto the world. For us, it’s very much a drawing of the world that we’re doing, and that also comes across with the 16mm. Working with our friends, and a lot of them being non-actors, we’ve always been trying to find other ways to deal with how to show a character and how to develop what a persona is onscreen outside of the usual actor ways of writing or performing. We like the way we work and it also tends to be the thing that we’re good at: mining what’s interesting about amateurish work and how do you develop amateurish work and get good at it. 

L4L_Beer and Ball - A scene from Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

There’s a uniform affection and style to your characters—is that something you impress onto your actors or something you look for specifically in their personalities?

90% of the characters are written with the actor in mind, so in our heads we already have an idea of how they will be. Trevor Haav, who’s in L for Leisure and in Blondes, with him we always say, oh this character will be for him but we have no idea how he will deliver the lines. He’ll always bring something very strange and we can start molding the scenes around him. The characters are rarely based on the actual people, but they’re based on how each person can tell a different story or make a certain face that we know. So we’re like, okay, we can build that character around that facial expression that they can do or that voice they can do. Sometimes with other characters, like the teen girls in the drive-through scene, we wrote that to work with actors. Those girls were all from Tisch, so for them we knew we would have to write the kind of jokes that would work with somebody who we’d have to take through the more usual character building. Maybe what comes off in the movie is that there’s a uniformity to the voices of the characters, the kind of jokes, and the pace, but at the same time, there’s this real kind of mishmash in the style of people. Some are coming to it in a way more intuitive way and some people are trying to develop characters in a more traditional way—the division of those two are what creates the vibe.

What comes first: the locations and era or the narrative and characters you want to explore? 

Usually we have the title pretty early on and then it becomes a container for different things we’re thinking about. We like to set things in different times because it helps cordon off the rest of the world and lets us focus in on something that we really want to evoke. But some of the locations are accidental, and in the movie it changes and locations fall in and out. Some of the locations that we had planned on shooting in fell through and others emerged, but the approach for a lot of the movies is outside then in. We’re definitely first thinking about what context are all of these characters in and we’re thinking about them and their personalities and the worlds we’re trying to describe.

L4L_Blake on Boat - Blake (Bro Estes) on a boat in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

Following up Blondes in the Jungle, how did the initial conception of L for Leisure begin?

We wanted to do an exploded version of Blondes in the Jungle, and we wanted take those three or four characters in that film and break them up into a bunch of different characters. So here it becomes less about those specific three and more about their whole type and all the varieties within that type. We knew the title early on and we knew we wanted to do a bigger ensemble thing. We were trying to focus in on the early 90s being the next moment we were going to look at, and we knew we wanted to have music by Jon Atikinson, who we worked with a little bit before and wanted to really do a whole feature with him doing the music. We had this structure in our head of these different vacations, so that started to structure the way that we would tell the story. Then a lot of the characters were built on these parts.

We knew that because of our limitations and because of the way we work that it was going to take four or five years so we were like, let’s make something that we can stay interested in. We had a broad outline when we got started and then certain scenes weren’t written until they we were shooting. We knew where it would fit in the puzzle, but we didn’t know what exactly it would be. Like the Iceland scene, that was going to be a whole different thing; we were going to do a whole scene in Silicon Valley in the early 90s and it would be a about a roaming pool party. Then Kyle, the actor that was going to be the star of that scene, was like, hey guys I’m sorry I gotta bail I have to go to Iceland on a residency. So instead of Silicon Valley, me and Whitney said we’ll just go follow you over there, and we changed the point of that scene to fit one person by themselves. 

Your influences are very much on the surface, but it’s how you interpret them that make your work so enjoyable and interesting. Can you tell me about how you go about absorbing those influences and expressing them in your own way? 

We’re interested in all sorts of things. We’re interested in independent films that are just on the side of being art films, like Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley or Eric Rohmer. There’s also experimental films and Andy Warhol and then also tons of TV that we watch. In a way, we’re always picturing a different movie than ends up being made—a lot of those influences are high-fab or big productions. When we’re watching Melrose Place, we’re like, we should do something like that and then it gets filtered through our process. When we’re working just the two of us with our actors, it mutates into being part of our tone. It’s lucky that the films allow us to wear our influences lightly because our execution of it ends up being totally different. It’s more reinterpreting or re-performing certain vibes more so than us being able to quote or steal of those things. But also some parts of things that happened to us or real people we know, and then they just get filtered through the process just as much as a scene we’re trying to steal from 90210. So it all ends up sitting together.

L4L_Kennedy_JockBoy - (R) Kennedy (Melissa Barrera) in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

In terms of the cinematography and overall look of the film, how does shooting 16mm enhance to the kind of films you make?

Somebody watched the trailer and said that they liked that even traveling from location to location there’s something about the rhythm of the way that the camera moves and shakes throughout. I think that has to do with being intentionally limiting; Whitney limits what she wants to be right for what she wants to do and for the movie. So a lot of it is shot in the same way and approached in the same way.  We use artificial light really sparingly, we’re usually using available light, and we shot the whole movie on  a single camera with a single zoom lens on it. So there wasn’t a whole lot of moves we could do with that. In general, the way work on any scene is we usually shoot the narrative part, and then there will also always be time given for Whitney to go and film around and just photograph different things she’s finding. At the same time, I will go out and record sounds around there. It was built into the movie that we could give space to the location itself that’s totally separate and divorced from the story itself; so it was part of the process that we’d always be finishing off rolls of film or going off on these little side trips to shoot extra things.

There’s also a lot of real benefits of shooting on the film that we shot on. We were talking to to the techinition on the film and he was saying how cool it was that with all of the neon on all of the bathing suits, you didn’t have to pump up the color digitially, it all in there. With film you can get these really rich kind of colors and these poppy sort of looks of it just reflecting off the sunlight and giving you these intense colors. Also with the Mexico scenes, we didn’t really have to enhances that, it was just there and the film was able to pull that out. Also another aesthetic thing about he movie was that it’s in a 4:3 ration, the 16mm ratio, so it looks more like underground films or more like comic books or like 90s TV. It has this more modest square thing than a wide commercial or slick looking 16:9.

What are you two working on right now?

We’re hopefully doing a couple short things soon to just keep busy, but the big project we’re working on is an 1890s movie called Two Plains & a Fancy that is going to be a spa western. It’s going to be about some city people looking for the best hot springs spas in the old west. 

L4L_Trevor_Boojum_Dunes - Kelley (Trevor Haav) in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

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