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

Shawn Levy, director of both Night at the Museum films, hopes his latest film will inspire people to visit America's museums. (Doane Gregory)

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.

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