Shawn Levy is having quite the run over at Netflix. Not only is Stranger Things still an absolute juggernaut, but he’s also an executive producer on the streamer’s Unsolved Mysteries reboot and just had loads of viewers fall for the adaptation of I Am Not Okay with This. Of course that series did wind up in an unfortunate situation due to the pandemic, but Levy continues to forge forward with yet another series that will no doubt brighten your day, Dash & Lily.
Based on Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, the show stars Austin Abrams and Midori Francis as the title characters, respectively. Dash has little to no Christmas spirit, but Lily may be able to change that through a notebook. Without meeting face to face, the two share a string of correspondence that dares them to try new things, bringing them closer in the process.
This series is peak sweetness and Levy knows it, celebrating the fact that Dash & Lily is the “warm-hearted escapism” you might need right now. With the show arriving on Netflix on Tuesday, November 10th, I got the opportunity to hop on the phone with Levy to talk about what he learned from the I Am Not Okay with This experience, how they assembled their team of directors for Dash & Lily, the key to supporting his cast, producing alongside Nick Jonas and so much more! You can check it all out in the interview below.
Huge congratulations on Dash & Lily! I feel like it was just the light I needed in my life right now.
SHAWN LEVY: Good, yeah! That’s my short answer on this one. You know what? The whole point of Dash & Lily was some warm-hearted escapism. And my god, all of us in this world can use that more than ever in the tail end of 2020.
I did want to ask you about comparing your experience EPing I Am Not Okay with This to working on Dash & Lily. They have different tones and styles, but is there anything you learned from working on that show and seeing the response to it that wound up coming in handy on Dash & Lily?
LEVY: That’s really interesting. I would say Dash & Lily is so different on so many levels from I’m Not Okay with This that I can’t say I was able to carry over lessons from one into the other, other than what I’ve learned on every single movie and show that I produce that I don’t direct myself, which is my job is about finding and linking arms with talent and a vision that I believe in. And from that day forward, whether it’s Denis Villeneuve or the Duffer Brothers or Jonathan Entwistle or Joe Tracz, my job is to advocate, defend, protect and empower that vision. And so, that was very much the job on Dash & Lily as well.
What would you say to someone who falls super hard for Dash & Lily and then becomes very concerned that things could come to a screeching halt, like what happened with I Am Not Okay with This?
LEVY: First thing I want to say is the heartbreak that our fans felt on I’m Not Okay with This was shared by those of us who made the show. That was brutal and really disappointing because we did really well. That’s the killer! I’m Not Okay with This was a hit with both critics and audiences, but we missed a certain window and the world shifted and had all kinds of shitty ass fallout on every level. And one of them was a reassessment of what was gonna move forward versus what wouldn’t. And so, our season two became a not-gonna-happen. Not even not gonna happen – was gonna happen and was then a not-gonna-happen after all.
So what I would say to our fans is, like every relationship we have in our lives, you go into them knowing they might end. Most love affairs end with series and with humans, but you go into it and you have a willingness to fall all over again because it feels really good when you’re in love. And so I invite fans to do that with Dash & Lily because it is built for audience falling in love. And I also think that, god-willing, as we emerge from this year and Dash & Lily has god-willing built a fanbase on Netflix, we will no longer be in circumstances where second seasons are reassessed in the way that they were three, four months ago.
Leading a series comes with a lot of pressure and then, on top of that, I’m sure shooting a lot of on-location material at night was also quite the challenge. What can you do as a producer to help support Austin and Midori through that so that they can keep their focus on the performances?
LEVY: On everything I’ve ever directed or produced, I tend to have a one-on-one with the actors before we start, and the message I try to deliver is, you’re here because you deserve to be. You’re here because you’re ready for this. You were made for this so just own that with confidence and do your thing. I have found that that kind of pep talk tends to calm nerves, bolster confidence and give performers the focus they need to do their best work regardless of where you shoot, regardless of the pressure. Just letting someone own their power and feel really confident in their abilities, that’s the key. I would just add that Austin and Midori, they’re very different individuals from each other, but they both came with a desire to do great work and a really good fundamental self-confidence in their own instincts.
I also really appreciated the dedication to establishing real New York City geography. Did you ever consider shooting any of this show elsewhere or was New York always a must?
LEVY: No. From day one we felt it was essential and a non-starter to even consider other locations as a cheat. Lord knows I’ve made a lot of shows and movies that cheat one city for another, but in both the book and the show of Dash & Lily, New York City is such a core part of the DNA. It’s not just the backdrop; it’s in the DNA, in the bloodstream of the storytelling and so doing that right and in an authentic way was a cornerstone of how we approached production.
Was there ever an instance where you weren’t sure if you were going to be able to lock a location and you had to have a second option in your back pocket, just in case?
LEVY: There was always a sequence where two characters spend the night in a museum and we definitely explored a half dozen different New York museums before we landed on the one that we shot. So calls were made to the Met, calls were made to the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and ultimately, we ended up with a more modest overnight in a museum. But having done big nights at the museum, I thought there was a certain appropriate scale to a more intimate setting. But yeah, for that one museum, we looked into 10 museums, because you can never assume you’re gonna get the yes.
Was there anything about Nick’s work as a producer that surprised you? Or maybe a certain tool in his toolkit, so to speak, that really came in handy here?
LEVY: Not much surprised me because I’ve known Nick since he played a singing marble cherub in Night at the Museum 2. So I’ve literally known Nick since he was 13, 14, and even then it was clear that this kid was super talented and very ambitious. Ambitious, not for money and fame, but for creative fulfillment in a lot of different areas. So, I expected Nick to be really helpful on the music front and with suggestions of soundtrack and score and stuff like that, but the fact that he was also so clear in his opinions and input on casting notes, script feedback, editing notes – he is a natural producorial talent. It didn’t surprise me, but it was impressive to watch.
I was also very curious about what it takes to have a mention of Pixar like that in the show. What does it take to get the OK to do that?
LEVY: That mention was less tricky to get approved than you would think. It actually surprised me. Because we weren’t showing a movie that was claiming to be Pixar. It was like a verbal name check and a marquee. They’re just really cool people at Pixar!
What goes into assembling your team of directors and then deciding who is best to direct each episode?
LEVY: Sometimes we hand-pick directors for specific episodes, but more often than not in television, you base the episode pairings on people’s schedules. What I did know about Dash & Lily is that we needed directors who had a stylish instinct, but above all, a facility with actors. Some shows are pure visual pieces, and you can hire a music video director or a commercial director or a cinematographer because they are shows that are predominantly about spectacle, special effects and visual wow factor. Dash & Lily needed humor and sensitivity in every performance, so we needed directors who spoke an actors’ language, who loved actors, respected their process. And so this group of directors had that skillset, which you would think is common, but let me tell you the truth, it is way easier to find visualist directors than actor directors.
I think you could see that sensibility come through in the performances quite a bit. In particular the pairing in Episode 3, the one with the dance sequence.
LEVY: That was not only beautifully directed by our director, but Midori from her very first audition had this abandon and this confidence that allows her to be free as a performer. And so pulling off that underground dance sequence, which we thought would be really hard, Midori just crushes it because she is that free spirit and she is that kind of person who is comfortable living out loud.
As someone who’s terrified of dancing, the fact that that enthusiasm radiated off screen and kind of made me want to dance impressed me quite a bit.
LEVY: Well, I am glad, because ultimately the theme of the whole season is push outside your comfort zone and see what you might become, see what you might find. So I love that scene because that single scene encapsulates the theme of the entire show.
I always get real awkward and unsure whenever I’m talking about this so I did want to ask you, how do you go about depicting teen drinking in a show? What kind of conversations do you have about bringing that to screen appropriately?
LEVY: Whether it’s Dash & Lily, Stranger Things, I Am Not Okay with This, it’s really important to us as producers at 21 Laps that characters be authentic. And I don’t really know how to do a contemporary older teenager story in a way that sanitizes that experience. The reality is, most of us don’t wait till we’re 21 to have our first drink, and so I’m insistent on authenticity. And this is where I’m very grateful to be with a partner like Netflix because they’ll give notes here and there, but above all, they empower the filmmaking team and they’re after that same authenticity. So we wanted to portray it appropriately, but above all honestly, and sometimes that means a drink in hand.
We also did want to ask you about Stranger Things 4. Has the pandemic significantly impacted production on that?
LEVY: I’ll just say the pandemic definitely massively delayed shooting and therefore the launch of our current Season 4, date still TBD. But it impacted very positively by allowing the Duffer brothers, for the first time ever, to write the entire season before we shoot it and to have time to rewrite in a way that they rarely had before so the quality of these screenplays are exceptional, maybe better than ever.