There is trouble at New York’s Museum of Natural History. The iconic figures from the past, which come to life each night, are malfunctioning and wreaking havoc. Action-packed with breathtaking visual effects, the film has some delightful surprises.
Catch our interview with director, Shawn Levy on working with Ben Stiller, his friend and colleague Robin Williams and directing the final ‘Night At The Museum’ film.
The sun goes down on New York and the legendary museum exhibits turn into living, breathing people and creatures as always. But they are not acting normally. Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is shocked to find that his friends Teddy Roosevelt, (Robin Williams) the miniature Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and the two inch tall Roman centurion Octavius, (Steve Coogan) are on the rampage, fighting and creating pandemonium. They are all out of control. Larry discovers that the ancient Egyptian tablet, which brings them to life each night, is losing its special powers. He sets off across the Atlantic to London with his son Nick, (Skyler Gisondo) and the rest of the familiar crew. They are hoping that when they arrive at the British Museum, the great Pharaoh Of The Nile (Ben Kingsley), father of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), will be able to solve the problem and reboot the tablet.
Also returning is Patrick Gallagher as Attila The Hun and Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck). Mickey Rooney (in his final role), Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs are back as the retired security guards, and Dexter the Capuchin monkey is up to mischief again. There are some wonderful new characters, including the suave, debonair and very funny Sir Lancelot, (Dan Stevens). Rebel Wilson stars as Tilly, the British Museum’s security guard who falls for the primitively rugged charms of Laaa, a Neanderthal man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ben Stiller.
Director, Shawn Levy graduated from the drama department at Yale University. His early directing credits include THE PINK PANTHER and CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN. Levy produced and directed NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and the sequel, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN. So of course, we are thrilled that the filmmaker took time out for the following interview.
Q: What is the premise for this final film in the franchise? Why did you decide to go to London to the British Museum?
Shawn Levy: Well first of all, we worked very, very hard in an attempt to make this a deserving final chapter. Why the British Museum? In truth, over the years we’ve had scripts that would have taken us to Cairo and Paris, but we ended up in London for three reasons. First of all, it’s a global franchise and I wanted this chapter to go outside the United States. I wanted it to be an international adventure. Secondly, I needed a reasonable flight time for the plot, because we needed our creatures and characters to leave New York and then return to New York in a specific time frame. I couldn’t have them flying to the other side of the world. Finally we needed a formidable museum with a notable Egyptology department, because this movie explores the lore of the Egyptian magical tablet [that brings the exhibits to life]. So the British Museum with its world famous collection of mummies and Egyptian artifacts was a perfect fit.”
Q: How much can you reveal about the plot and the significance of the magical tablet?
Shawn Levy: “The tablet has brought the exhibits to life for all these years and is slowly corroding. As the tablet expires, the exhibits have started acting strangely and they are in worse and worse condition. So Larry has to figure out what’s wrong with the tablet and how to fix it before it’s too late for his museum friends. In the opening of the film we have a prologue that shows the discovery of the tablet in the tomb of Ahkmenrah. Ahkmenrah and the tablet have been on display in New York, but Ahkmenrah’s parents were shipped off to the British Museum in London. The mummies of Ahkmenrah’s parents are now on display in London. Ahkmenrah’s father, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, is the only one who knows the secret of the tomb, so Larry (Ben Stiller) takes the tablet to London to awaken the Pharaoh and ask him about the secret.”
Q: You and Ben Stiller have worked together on all three movies; how do you collaborate?
Shawn Levy: “I think that on a fundamental level Ben and I both work very hard on the films, and we have never viewed them as ‘kid films’. We never viewed NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM as just a franchise for children. We wanted to build movies that were funny and entertaining to us, as well as our kids. We’ve been united in our determination for these films to have multiple layers of tone and that’s been a big thing for us. So yes, we have monkey jokes, but we also have sophisticated verbal jokes for the parents and adults in the audience.”
Q: Seeing the late Robin Williams in the role of Teddy Roosevelt is going to be so emotional and moving to audiences, isn’t it? He gave a wonderful performance as always.
Shawn Levy: “Well, that is true. Obviously, following Robin’s passing, I screened the movie a few times, not knowing how people would react. It’s been both a relief and deeply gratifying to discover that people find his performance and the dynamic of his character in this movie so poignant and so moving. It’s sad to be sure, but it’s also strangely cathartic. Robin was my friend; I was his fan long before I was his director, and I’ll be always be his fan. He was a genius and I defy anyone to name a performer who could be equally hilarious and heartbreaking. That the same guy could flourish in crazy, funny roles like the genie in ALADDIN, in GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM, MRS. DOUBTFIRE and also FISHER KING, GOOD WILL HUNTING and DEAD POETS SOCIETY is amazing. Those are six classics I just named. They are eternally memorable performances all from the same actor.”
Q: He is also wonderful in the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM films.
Shawn Levy: “Certainly I feel very proud to have been the director of the sole franchise in Robin’s life. That was pointed out to me only recently and I hadn’t realized that Robin never did another franchise. This was it. He loved suiting up as Teddy. He loved putting on this bold character. When you ask what I have to say about his performance in this last NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM movie, it is a tribute to his talent and it is typical of his ability to be crazy funny and deeply moving. I’m glad that he got a chance to show both sides of himself in this particular film.”
Q: Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are back, among other familiar faces. Can you discuss their roles?
Shawn Levy: “I was thrilled that everyone came back. We have a real family feeling about this franchise and we love this thing that we’ve built together. I literally love all of them from Sacajawea, Attila and Ahkmenrah, to my little Jedediah and Octavius. I found that with every movie Owen and Steve have grown closer and closer and they both love the big-hearted bravado of these little two-inch tall guys. Their chemistry has been honed to such a point that you’ll notice in this movie for the first time I didn’t even bother shooting a single close up! I only shoot Owen and Steve in two shots. It’s taken me three movies to realize that what is unique about those two characters is their chemistry together. So it is always the two of them together on screen.”
Q: Also returning in great form, is Ricky Gervais as McPhee, who is in charge of the museum.
Shawn Levy: “I think that Ricky has been amazing in all of these movies. Ricky’s performance is obviously big and funny but also strangely and surprisingly sweet. I really wanted him to get a chance in this third film to dig in on both fronts, so he is absurd as always as McPhee, but he is also finally given an opportunity to marvel with wonder and emotion at this museum he oversees and the magic that happens.”
Q: Ben Stiller plays two roles in this film – both quite different.
Shawn Levy: “Ben plays the two roles brilliantly. He plays Larry, of course, and his primordial doppelganger named Laaa. Laaa is the Neanderthal and Ben really inhabited that character. It was incredibly hard for Ben to shoot scenes with himself playing two roles, but he did it magnificently.”
Q: Can you talk about the casting of Rebel Wilson as Tilly, the security guard at the British Museum, who has a romance with Laaa?
Shawn Levy: “I knew that I wanted Tilly to be a little strange and slightly unpredictable in the same way that Jonah Hill’s character was in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN. It literally took me about one instant to think of who I wanted in the role. Rebel came to mind immediately. We had lunch together and it was done by dessert! Rebel is lightning quick in her comedic instincts and she is willing to commit fully to an absurd idea, which by the way is a critical component of comedy: the willingness to commit to an absurd idea.”
Q: What do you think Dan Stevens brings to the role of the dashing Sir Lancelot?
Shawn Levy: “Well, I will just say that we had a lot of famous names on the list for Lancelot. But Dan Stevens came in, auditioned with Ben Stiller and claimed that part in the room. He is shockingly good at comedy, as well as drama. Also, he is so insanely handsome that he became our Lancelot as soon as he read the first scene. Of course, he was in DOWNTON ABBEY (as Matthew Crawley). It was interesting though that when we filmed at Trafalgar Square in London, I thought we’d have hordes of people around, but I think that the rainy night conditions, combined with Dan’s beard and long wig helped to keep the crowds at bay!”
Q: Sir Ben Kingsley joins the cast as a very commanding Pharaoh.
Shawn Levy: “Sir Ben is a lovely, warm guy. Like everyone I’m a huge admirer and he brought a commanding presence to the role, but again, with a willingness to be silly. There is in particular a surreal run of dialogue in which he talks about his ownership of slaves that is consistently one of the biggest laughs in the movie. It is an edgy, edgy joke. Sir Ben is obviously formidable in his presence, but he is also deliciously silly.”
Q: Can you explain the challenges of orchestrating a huge production like this, with complicated special effects and action and comedy?
Shawn Levy: “A lot of it is intuitive at this point. I know that I need to keep one hand on the rudder for the spectacle and special effects. But the truth is, I devote most of my heart and my attention to my actors because they are the soul of this franchise, not the special effects. I really believe that the spectacle is critical, but the characters are what people love. So I just make the time for all the actors and keep my eye on my ball. And the ‘ball’ is my actors.”
Q: The effects in this film really are spectacular. How has technology progressed since the first one?
Shawn Levy: “I’ve got to say that returning to this franchise with the benefit of 2014 visual effects capabilities was a dream. We are in another era of computer-generated possibilities and the effects in this movie are consequently way bigger and much more photo-real than in the other films. That has been thrilling. For example, there is a nine-headed Chinese snake dragon that comes to life. There is a huge Triceratops skeleton that is far from the friendly puppy that Rexy [the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton] was in the first film. There are galleries of Greek marble statues. There’s a golden Garuda from Tibet. There is the great court of the British Museum, which by the way, is the largest covered indoor space in Europe. It was literally filled to the brim with over 20 different exhibits coming to life.”
Q: It seems that nowadays you can create practically anything you can imagine, with the cutting edge effects at your disposal…
Shawn Levy: “Well, that’s the truth. After I made THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, people asked me: ‘do you want to keep doing small movies?’ But in this day and age, the fact that anything I can dream up as a director I can now put on screen is amazing. It is the greatest sand box in the world. It is a privilege to create a world on a big canvas like NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.”
Q: This time I believe a lot of the filming took place on location; did that add to your challenges?
Shawn Levy: “Yes and this is worth mentioning, because it’s notable: we filmed more on location on this film than on any of the previous films. Whereas we spent a day or two in New York and Washington D.C. on the prior films, this time we were in London for over a week and we filmed entire scenes at the real British Museum. It was amazing. People ask a lot about Robin Williams on this film, so I’ll just tell you this true anecdote. When we filmed in the great court all night at the British Museum, Robin came up to Ben and I, and he looked around in wonder as we stood next to the Rosetta Stone in an empty museum at three in the morning. He pointed out how amazing it was. Perhaps more than any of us, Robin was keenly in touch with the wonder of it all. I’ll always remember that.”
Q: With all these legends on the film, I imagine there was a lot improvisation. Were there any moments that stood out for you?
Shawn Levy: “One of the thrilling ones for me was a romantic moment between Rebel Wilson’s character and Ben Stiller’s caveman that you will see at the end of the movie. I’ll just say that we were in the middle of shooting and Rebel started grabbing onto Ben and dancing with him. The music’s playing and the cameras are rolling and Rebel Wilson is like: ‘you’re going to dance with me right now’ and it created this very fun, spontaneous moment. Ben as his caveman double, dirty dancing with Rebel Wilson was something I’ll long remember. It was all ad-libbed. They weren’t even supposed to dance.”
Q: What is the magnetic draw of the films do you think? Why do they resonate so powerfully around the world?
Shawn Levy: “I think the reason why these films have been so successful is that at the root of the idea, there is a collective human wonder with the secret lives of objects and people. It is about the fantasy that we all have of interacting with historical figures, so this movie gives life to universal human wishes. I think that this film has a scale of spectacle that goes way beyond the first two movies but it is very loyal to the warm hearted center of the franchise.”
Q: There are so many wonderful historical characters in the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM FILMS. If you could meet someone from the past, who would it be?
Shawn Levy: “For me a lot of the people I admire are historical figures who were artists. For instance, I’d love to converse with Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’d love to hang out in Alberto Giacometti’s studio while he sculpted. Also, historically, and probably because for me he is enmeshed in my friend Robin Williams, I would love to spend a few hours with Teddy Roosevelt, because I find his ‘can-do’ bravado so inspiring.”
Q: Finally, you have achieved so much already in your career. What direction would you like to take from here?
Shawn Levy: “Well it’s taken me 11 films to realize and to know very clearly that I love diversity. I love being able to work on different scales, so I will never stop making big movies like NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM or REAL STEEL. It’s incredibly fun to be creative on that level. But I also now know that I adore making more blended tone, character based movies like ‘ THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU’ and so I’m genuinely ambitious to keep doing both.”
Night at the Museum is in cinemas from 19th December.
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