Laura Levine
How one small illustration got me on the set of a Big Hollywood Movie
posted: February 27, 2007
Edel commented in Marc's Johnny Cash article about how you never know where an illustration will take you, and I have a story I can share along those lines.
I'd done a couple of illustrations for an article on storytelling for the Utne Reader. It didn't pay terrifically, but it was a fun job. After the magazine came out, I got a call from Nora Ephron's production office. Nora was shooting a new film starring Steve Martin. One of the lead characters in the film was an artist, and she needed someone to "do" his art. She'd been flipping through the magazine and saw my work. They FedEx'ed the script to me to see if I liked it, and a few days later I was cabbing my way to the Silvercup Studios in Astoria, where they were already shooting.

The first thing Nora did was make me a nice hot cup of cappuccino, and we sat down and chatted and the next thing you know I was on the crew. The gig was amazing. The character I was "ghost-painting" for was played by Anthony LaPaglia. In the film, called "Mixed Nuts," he lives in a vintage clothing/thrift shop with Juliette Lewis and  is a wall painter who is despondent because he "can't find a wall to paint on." He decides to kill himself on Christmas Eve (yes, it's a comedy/farce), and calls a suicide hotline manned by Steve Martin and Rita Wilson. Hilarity ensues. The cast was pretty interesting - it also included Madeline Kahn, Liev Schrieber, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner, and had cameos from Jon Stewart, Parker Posey, and Steven Wright.

For the first three weeks I working on the soundstage in Astoria, designing and painting the interior and exterior of what would become the thrift shop. Fortunately there were two amazing union scenic painters on my team who were a godsend. It was great to hang out on the set every day and watch them shoot, and go backstage and schmooze with the cast and crew. The DP was Sven Nyquist (!) who'd even let me look through the camera once when they were rehearsing. I can't even tell you how nice everyone was. I think that's one of the hallmarks of a Nora Ephron set - she's a total mensch. She makes sure her cast and crew are always treated well, and REALLY well fed. (Meals are a big thing on her sets.)

Then they flew us all to L.A. for the next month or so, and put us up at the Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. My job there was to paint a huge 30 x 20 foot mural which ends up being the closing shot of the film (the guy - surprise! - doesn't kill himself after all, and he paints a mural depicting the characters and key scenes of the film). We painted the mural on the side of a building on Pacific Ave. in Venice, a block from the beach. Every day they blocked off a lane of traffic (we got a lot of angry horn-honking) and my assistants and I had to get on a very scary hydraulic lift to paint. My schedule was different from the shooting schedule (they mostly filmed at night) so I also got to hang out on set, and because I was painting actual scenes from the film, I was  allowed to watch dailies every day. (There's nothing like standing next to Steve Martin in a tiny screening room watching take after take...sigh....the girls might understand.....)

Anyway, it was a wonderful experience; I've stayed in touch with Nora ever since, and it's kind of amazing to know it all came from a quarter-page illo in the Utne Reader.

So, ya never know kids, ya never know!
rag February 27, 2007
More 'wows' from the gallery! What a great connection. It shows us that you should never say 'no' to a job JUST because it is low pay. Maybe other reasons, like the client is a Nazi or something. Now, if Nora is looking to do a movie of an artist who wants to kill himself for not getting on the cover of the New Yorker...
David Gothard February 27, 2007
What an exciting experience! Thanks for relating this story. I'm ordering the movie. Fresh outta school, I was lucky to be repped by legendary agent, Ted Riley. He told me a story that stuck fast to the gray matter. He repped an illustrator from England who'd been offered a small job for little pay. Ted argued and finally won the case for taking ithe job, much to the chagrin of the iller. A month later, the editor of Life magazine calls saying he saw the illo, offering a 5 page illustrated spread (full pages). The moral of the story is "you never know, kids". DG
A.Richard Allen February 27, 2007
Cool, cool tale. I must've been out when Scorsese's people rang after my recent Utne spot.
Nancy Stahl February 27, 2007
That storefront is fantastic. You've really had some great assignments, both in photography and illustration. Do you think your time as a photographer prepared you for working with people around? It was different in art school, but I'd have become frozen in that kind of company now. I saw Steve Martin walking down a side street in my neighborhood once and from a block away could feel his aura approaching. He's really something. Netflix is going to wonder why there was a sudden run on the movie, "Mixed Nuts".
Jim Paillot February 27, 2007
What a cool story! And some terrific artwork. I think the story of how your spot art became an epic adventure is worthy of a mural.
laura l. February 27, 2007
Thanks, Nancy. Yes, my time as a photographer definitely influenced my ability to feel comfortable working with people, directing them, etc. (Or I supppose one could ask, which came first the chicken or the egg? I was always comfortable bossing people around). : ) I never did go to art school or anything like that. If anything, life now as an artist is rather isolating. Steve Martin is definitely the artsy thinking girl's dream man......
Dale Stephanos February 27, 2007
Whoa, wait a minute. I thought us illustrators sit in little rooms all by ourselves all day. Between you and Marc B, I'm starting to think that maybe I have it all wrong. Great story Laura. I imagine a lot of the people hanging around here could dig some good ones up, so let's hear them.
Shane Harrison February 27, 2007
Great story! It'd be interesting to see the pieces for UTNE that got you the job...
Larry Ross February 27, 2007
Great story, Laura! And great artwork! I'm clicking on my Netflix link even as we speak. I usually freak out when people tell me the ending of a movie I haven't seen, but this time, I'll forgive you.
Mike Moran February 27, 2007
Let's see Richard Thompson,Joe Jackson,Santa Monica, Steve Martin. I'm going to cherish my signed copy of Honky -Tonk Heroes & Hillbilly Angels even more (everyone go out and buy one)! You have the best stories. As always the art is ace!
Robert Saunders February 27, 2007
What a super duper gig, Laura. Sounds like the compensation was worth it just in terms of huge boost in quality of life and pure thrills at the company you were keeping. Also, kudos for pulling it off. Not a walk in the park by any means.
Linzie February 27, 2007
Another great tale and post... I think my illustration got me a free magazine... once.
laura l. February 27, 2007
Thanks, all. Of course, this was back when I was younger and full of energy and nothing seemed too daunting. I wonder how I'd handle it today? The best part was staying at that luxury hotel on the beach. Seriously. I could get very used to that. Years ago an established (gallery) artist told me that the best approach is to just get your stuff OUT THERE. Nothing's going to happen if no one sees your work. First step is to get it seen. He had a good point!
Robert Saunders February 27, 2007
How beautifully simple and, for the most part true, I think. It all starts with focussing on that.