Q and A with Director Shawn Levy | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Shawn Levy, director of both Night at the Museum films, hopes his latest film will inspire people to visit America's museums. (Doane Gregory)

Q and A with Director Shawn Levy

The director of both Night at the Museum movies talks about the ups and downs of filming at the Smithsonian

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In the first film, the Museum of Natural History is a character in and of itself. How did you want to develop and differentiate the character of the Smithsonian from the Museum of Natural History?

Well it’s certainly different. I’m incredibly respectful of the Smithsonian and to get to play on a larger playing field was such a treat. It being the largest museum complex in the world, the Smithsonian didn’t just offer one museum it offered a variety of museums which can each one of them be individual characters. So part of our movie takes place in Air and Space, part of our movie takes place in the Castle where the bad guys hang out almost turning it into their evil clubhouse—so the varying traits and qualities of the different building were each themselves characters.

In the movie’s fantasy museum, artifacts literally come to life. Do you think there’s any magic to be found in a real museum?

I think there’s tremendous magic in just the world of possibilities and kind of launch pad for imagination that museums are—whether you’re looking at artwork or historical artifacts, you know there’s a whole life of history and “what ifs” of possibility in these objects or pieces that we’re looking at. And certainly the great thrill of having made the first movie is that it had a real world impact on attendance at museums—nowhere more so than in New York. So when I came to the Smithsonian the Smithsonian administration was no doubt aware that attendance had increased 20% in New York after our movie came out and to make a film that can inspire a curiosity and interest is a huge and really satisfying byproduct of making these movies.

So, this will be the first time that Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte have appeared together in a movie since Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. How do you feel about that?

Well, that’s auspicious company. But hopefully we can match or better that moment in film history. Part of the fun of this premise of the franchise is to explore history in ways that are both educational but also playful. So you have this collision of our three rogues: Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte—three guys who have no business conversing and hanging out together but it’s quite entertaining when they do.

Why do you think audiences responded so well to the first film?

I think it’s a few things I think there is a kind of collective fantasy as we look at these lifeless objects in museums. “What if they were animated?” “What if they came to life?” I think that whether you’re a kid or an adult, few of use haven’t had that thought. So to be able to explore that magical “what if” is a certain wish fulfillment that I think speaks to people. Additionally, I think that the first movie, like the second, has such an ensemble of comedic talent that we set out to make more than a family film we set out to make a comedy that happens to be appropriate to a broad range of ages. But to me I think it’s the wonder of the big idea coupled with a pedigreed cast of comedic talent that is incredibly diverse and entertaining.

Had you been to the Smithsonian before you worked on this second Night at the Museum project?

When we came up with the notion of the Smithsonian as an idea for the script I came to DC and I scouted it and I was thrilled to see that the real Smithsonian was cooler than what it was in my head. So in fact I came back to Los Angeles having scouted out the Smithsonian and rewrote the script including a lot of super cool stuff that I’d seen in real life that I couldn’t have possibly have imagined. The castle for instance was not in our movie until I saw that magnificent building and how well suited its gothic period forms were to our fortress of evil rogues.

Were there certain artifacts that you absolutely had to have in the film?

The Wright flyer was one. Amelia Earhart was always the costar of our film so there was no doubt that we were going to build and include her Lockheed Vega as a central element of our movie. I found the underground tunnels and corridors really rife with possibilities so we have a sequence that was inspired by them —the behind the scenes aspect of the Smithsonian. I would say those are the ones that come to mind.

No major film has ever shot inside the Smithsonian in Washington, until now. What was that like for you and the rest of the cast?

It was an honor. It was daunting because we shot not simply at night but in the middle of the day so there we were trying to shoot an intimate scene in Air and Space trying to ignore the two thousand civilians who were watching us work mere feet away. It was really cool and I will tell you that for me one of the great thrills and one of the memories I’ll carry with me always was shooting in front of Air and Space in the middle of the night and wandering through the halls of the dark and not open for business Air and Space museum with Amy Adams and Ben Stiller just wandering in the empty corridors of that monumental museum looking at the aircraft, looking at the rockets. It was an honor and a privilege and a memory that we’ll always cherish.

What difficulties did you encounter while trying to shoot a movie at the Smithsonian?

Lots and lots and lots of people. I would say that the administration of the museum was incredibly helpful and made things way easier than I expected, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of non-film people at every turn in every direction it just makes for interesting wrangling of humanity.

What was your favorite moment during filming?

One of the fun things for viewers will be trying to guess which parts of the movie were shot in the real DC in the real Smithsonian buildings and which parts were shot on soundstages and green screen and sets because its’ fairly seamless and I think our production design team did an exceptional job creating a seamless blend of reality and fiction.

My favorite scene was when the Air and Space museum comes to life and Ben Stiller has to be a one-man ground control trying to keep all the rockets and aircraft from escaping. That was memorable. Another sequence that was just filming at the Lincoln memorial all night long was epic and really compelling. And again being able to be in that memorial at 4 in the morning—alone—knowing that I was going to bring that statue to life was one of the coolest moments I’ve had as director.

What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing this film?

I hope they’ll come away with two things. The first is an appreciation for America’s museum. You know this museum of ours that is supported by our taxpaying dollars and houses such a range of priceless and impressive and cool and archival material—I hope that it will inspire an interest in checking out the real thing for themselves because it was certainly a thrill for me to explore the range and depth of the exhibits there.

And the other thing is the theme of the movie which is about a guy who has lost his way who is no longer enjoying what he does every day and who sparks up this friendship with Amelia Earhart—famous for having gotten lost but who ironically helps him find his way back to his better self. With a theme that is not coincidentally the title of Earhart’s autobiography For the Fun of It and as someone who gets to go to work and have fun doing what I do every day, I hope that especially young people will aspire to find that same niche for themselves.

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