Exclusive Interview by H. Scott Bayer.
Marc Levin is a New York City filmmaking legend whose cred in the realm of social justice has reverberated throughout the world just as strongly. In a prestigious and prolific career stretching over three decades, this year he has attained the rare milestones of 50 projects as producer and 40 directorial credits, among them such films as Slam (1998) which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Brooklyn Babylon (2001), Protocols of Zion (2005), Hard Times: Lost on Long Island (2012) winner of the Audience Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival, Class Divide (2015) that earned the Metropolis Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC, Rikers (2016), Baltimore Rising (2017) and I Am Evidence (2017), an EMMY for Best Documentary.
This year, Levin’s I Promise opened commercially on September 28th on YouTube Originals. The film, available free to watch, was initially presented as a series on Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi before the channel’s untimely demise. I Promise was recently acquired as a 102-minute feature film by YouTube. The release blurb goes like this: The work provides an in-depth look at the first academic year inside LeBron James’ special I Promise school, which takes a STEM-focused approach emphasizing social emotional learning and the LeBron James Family Foundation’s “We Are Family” philosophy.
HSB: Marc, it’s always great when an NYC filmmaker has their world premiere in New York and it was particularly special this year.
Levin: Yeah, the I Promise feature documentary premiered at the Tribeca Festival in June, which was the first live major fest since the pandemic closed things down. Screenings were out of doors. That was new and actually very exciting.
HSB: You’ve had films at Tribeca before of course?
Levin: I’ve had a number of films at Tribeca. (Notably – Triangle: Remembering the Fire (2011), Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (2009), Stockton On My Mind (2020) I have always been a supporter. I was on the jury at one point, a while back. I think it’s a great thing what DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal put together after 9/11.
HSB: How did you get involved with this project?
Levin: I Promise opened 3 years ago and is the public school for at risk kids in Akron, Ohio that LeBron James and his foundation have helped create. I met with some of the people involved in Spring Hill, which is Lebron’s Company, and another production company was involved – Ryot, which was familiar with and liked my 2015 film Class Divide that was on HBO, which was shown through the eyes of kids. I pitched I Promise to also be told through the eyes of the kids and that appealed to them. I then went out and met the LeBron James Family Foundation – the people behind creating the school – and I guess they all put their heads together and decided to go with me and my company Blowback and I did it with my son Dan, who was the DP and executive producer. So that’s how it happened.
HSB: LeBron seemed very authentic. It looked like he really loved when he was getting results and communicating with the younger ones there. And so how do you feel? I mean, you didn’t really know him before.
Levin: I have to agree with you but I would say it like this: When I met LeBron, I had to say, you know, I’m a basketball fan. I played basketball in high school. I was co-captain of my team. So, it’s one of the passions in my life. But I said I followed your career since you were in high school at St. Vincent. But I’m going to admit, LeBron, you were always on the wrong team and I’m from New York. And so, I found myself rooting against you most of your career. But this endeavor that he’s undertaking, he himself described as maybe the greatest challenge of his career to create a school and make it work. I was moved and I am a tremendous LeBron fan now. And what he’s done in this school, with his production company, Spring Hill, in the entertainment industry, how he’s gotten involved in social justice issues and spoken out and become such a leader – it’s moving. And like you said, it’s authentic. He loves interacting with these kids. That scene in the film, which still cracks me up – when he sits down with little Vincent, you know, who was a horror freak fanatic at age nine.
HSB: Halloween every day…
Levin: Exactly, his father says, kind of ruefully, “it’s Halloween every day around here.” But when he and LeBron start talking about Halloween, Friday the 13th, it’s just remarkable how real that conversation is, how authentic it is and how he cracks up at this little kid that knows all this stuff. And I didn’t know at that point, that LeBron himself is something of a horror film aficionado, you know, that he’s into that genre.
So, it’s, for real, what he’s done there is inspiring. And they’re not done. They’re expanding, the school’s expanding. They’re creating possibly a high school. They’re creating housing for some of the families that are homeless as LeBron and his mother were at a time in his youth. So, it’s quite something.
HSB: So, your father was a great documentarian and now you’re going into the third generation.
Levin: You’re absolutely right about that. I was very lucky to work with my dad all those years. My father Al Levin was not only a documentary filmmaker and a journalist, but he was an extraordinary person. And he and I worked together for a good 20, 25 years. And now carrying on that tradition, I’ve been working with my son and it’s a rare thing to be able to work with your father and then to work with your son. And my son just had a son – Asher Levin. So, we’ll see where he’s at in 20/21 years.
HSB: Usually it’s medical families that do this, I guess you’re a doctor of docs.
Levin: I like that. But both of my parents, my father and my mom, Hanna Alexander, they were activists. They were radicals in the fifties when I was just a little kid. In the sixties, they were in the middle of a lot of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. So, they both had a profound influence on kind of the way I see the world.
HSB: What was the most important thing you think you learned from your dad about making good documentaries?
Levin: I think my father had an almost saintly rapport with people. He was the most open person, the most encouraging. He used to call himself a hopeaholic. And I think it was being open to all people’s stories genuinely and to care and his level of compassion. In the documentary world, so much of the work comes down to trust – building trust between people you’re working with in specialty subjects that are difficult and touching. This project that we’re talking about, I Promise, you had to gain the trust of kids. First of all, kids who have been kind of labeled as at-risk kids. A lot of them, it’s not an intelligence issue, not even necessarily a learning disability issue. It’s the world they grow up in and the turbulent family life. And some are even homeless, its poverty, its violence, it’s all of that. Drugs…
Kids bring all the social problems that we face to school every day. So, establishing trust, being open and then getting their families to sign on knowing that for the film to work, you’re not going to just be able to show good stuff. You got to show the good, the bad and the ugly. And some of the ugly is painful. Sometimes when these kids are acting out and going off it’s tough to watch and it’s certainly asking a lot of them and their families to allow that to be captured and then to allow it to be used in the film. And so going back to what you asked about my father, my father was a man who built trust with people. People came to him seeking advice, seeking guidance and he had this aura really. So, whatever I took from that, it allows me to open up to people, allows me to be curious about other human beings, even if I don’t agree with them or they’re coming from other worlds.
I carried it into this world. And I would say finally, you asked, both my parents really, but my father – he had the Peter Pan Syndrome, which I certainly have. You never want to grow up. You want to be a kid forever. You want to be curious forever. You want your life to be new and adventurous forever. You want to play, then in play find the creative moment. You want to play with people but not play on them, play with them in a real dialogue. So, all those things came into play in this project. And that, I think, as I tried to explain it to both administrators and family members and the kids was: look, if you don’t show some of the losses, some of the hurts and some of the setbacks, then when you win, when there’s a triumph, it doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t have the power.
So, if we’re going to believe that hopefully this was going to prove a point. And the point being: that compassionate love and care, dealing with kids – what they call the social emotional learning, meaning – before you can teach 1 + 1 and reading, you’ve got to get these kids past the traumas in their lives. And so that takes a holistic approach. You’ve got to deal with the families. You’ve got to have a food bank. You have to have places where you can house them. You have to have legal aid. If they’re in trouble. You have the GED courses. All of these, what they call wrap around services, are part of giving these kids a chance. And then, you need to prove to the world that it works. And so, I admit that when I went out there, I was a bit of a New York, you know, cynic – like, is this going to really work?
You know, just hugging these kids, loving these kids, these wraparound services… is that enough for kids that, you know, are, are barely reading, you know, in third and fourth grade and then have had all these academic challenges? I don’t want to give away the whole film, but obviously you saw that the emotion and the power of what happens in the spring, when these kids finally face the moment of truth, was so moving that when it was happening and we were filming it – I remember turning to my son and saying, is this a Disney film?
HSB: Way much love here.
Levin: Yeah, this is hard to believe. And yet it was happening right in front of our eyes. So that’s the magic of this film that we were able to capture in I Promise. I hope the lessons are shared. That’s why we want the film to be seen by educators across this country, by families…
HSB: Well that begs a question – hugging. It seems to really work. In a public school, generally, that’s like an open invitation to some nasty lawyer to take you down. So, the question is, what will they do in the future? If they liked the concept, will they have like a release of liability or something?
Levin: That’s a great question because, in the film, a number of the teachers talk about how in their other public schools, they were told they can’t touch the kids, especially because of issues of abuse and harassment in the past. But at this school, since it was a special public school, they were allowed. How they’ll negotiate rolling this kind of program out is a great question. How it can be adopted on a mass level by school boards, all across the country – that is a very key question that I think they’re wrestling with now. I don’t know the answer to that. But certainly, you put your finger on one of the real challenges. Okay, LeBron James, his foundation teamed up – this was a public private partnership – they teamed up with a public school. LeBron was advised, when he first discussed wanting to do a school, in Akron, for kids that were like him – he was advised to do an academy, a private academy. There, you don’t worry. You set your rules. You can touch kids. You can help kids. You don’t have to deal with the board of education. You don’t have to deal with the teachers, but he said, “I didn’t go to private academy. I went to public school.” So, then they said, he was advised, well do a charter school. You know, we have a little more freedom. He said, “I didn’t go to charter school. I went to the regular elementary public school.”
HSB: And it demonstrates better that way.
Levin: And that, you know, in terms of the majority of kids in this country, that’s what they go to. So how you scale up an idea like this, that is the next step. But first, in that step, everybody’s got to see this film. So, people will be asking their school boards and their communities: Why can’t we do something like that? Now, of course, not every community has a LeBron James, but it doesn’t take just a LeBron James. Every community has successful business people, successful entrepreneurs that can help out and help work out a deal between the private sector and the public sector. Every community has got leaders.
HSB: You weren’t getting bureaucratic pushback in Ohio, from like government officials or educational union powers or something?
Levin: I had to negotiate with the board of education and the head of the board of education. And look at first, it was interesting there. One of their concerns, their main concerns, was that they didn’t want it to appear that their school system was hurting so bad that LeBron had to come save them. That was a big concern, you know that they were trying innovations – it’s actually a very innovative school district. So that was a major concern, obviously. Also, as we discussed earlier, seeing kids act out is a touchy thing and you know there are moments, in the film, where you do see kids acting out and misbehaving and they were concerned about that. But I tried and was lucky enough to succeed. I told them, look, I’ve worked in the public schools in New York City, in Newark, New Jersey and Chicago. So, I mean, we understand these problems and we can work with you on them. And I think they’re very happy that they eventually decided – let’s go for it.
HSB: How did you pick the four kids?
Levin: Casting was interesting. I went around to every classroom and tried to explain what are we doing – you see this small crew running around you, what are we doing? It’s not a news show. Have you heard of a documentary? Do you know what a documentary is? And then started explaining and saying, we don’t want to force anyone to be in this film. It’s all voluntary. But if you would like to come to, we set up a classroom, like a small studio, like a freestyle studio. And so, we said, anybody that wants to come there can come. And you don’t, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong. You could sit there and make faces. You can tell jokes, you can dance, you can sing, you can do whatever you want. And you know, we’ll take it. So, you know, not everybody came, but obviously there were kids that were ready, like Vincent, the kid that is obsessed with horror films.
HSB: From that set up where you had them, how many were you interested in possibly?
Levin: We met, I would say two of them that way. Nate, who is a main character in the film – Dan and Jackson were on the bus with him on day one, first day of school. They were on a bus and we were following another kid, but the camera just somehow kind of drifted to him. And then once he was on camera, the camera stayed there and they knew this kid had a spark that he had something. And then Scout, the young girl that you know, refused to read in front of us and was insecure about kind of her mom’s health and everything that was happening – I met her through her grandmother, who I met on my first trip out there. They introduced me to some of the parents and the guardians and she invited me into their home, got to know the daughter Scout. So, I was with her on day one. And Dan and Jackson were on the bus with another young man, a young student or a young scholar, as they say. But then they saw Nate and they said, you know, you need to meet this kid Marc. And as soon as I met him, I agreed. Yeah. You know, let’s follow him. Now we also have two other young scholars that we follow that, you know, just in making the film and in the demands of time, we had to cut back on. Just to make it work, four was enough.
HSB:We see that when LeBron comes there, like little trips or pilgrimages, and the kids love to see him. Was there a system involved? Did they know, did anybody know when he was going to come? Or did he surprise them?
Levin: He surprised them. We didn’t often know. I mean when the Lakers had a game in Cleveland, obviously that was: is LeBron going to be able to make it by here? But sometimes it was a surprise. Some of the teachers may have known, I mean, I want to say one thing about the teachers also, because this whole idea of scaling up and how do you do this? You know, I come from a family of educators. My mom was a teacher, a professor and two of my sisters. One is a professor at city college now. And one is in early childhood education up in Westchester. And I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated really what they and what teachers do. The first day of school, we were filming and it was exciting. And we came back to the hotel and we’d said, you know, let’s all clean up and meet for dinner and discuss what we’re going to do on day two. Well, we all collapsed. We all just collapsed. We were so exhausted. And then the morning after at breakfast, we all looked at each other and it’s like, how did these teachers do this every day?
HSB: I think they gave you their trust. You could tell that when they let you come to that beef session.
Levin: That’s true. You’re referring to the scene where the teachers themselves had kind of an encounter session, because I think all of them had taught in inner city schools in Akron but none of them had ever dealt with the challenges they face at the beginning of I Promise and they were overwhelmed. They did allow us; and you know, I have so much respect for teachers and what they do, you know, what they give and you know, what’s interesting is: the pandemic, I guess, made us all aware when so many parents were home and the kids had to do virtual learning. And, you know, you were reading about, you know, fathers who work on Wall Street and lawyers, and them going: “Wow! I never knew this is what it takes to teach – teachers should be making more.” Yeah. Hello, wake up. Yes. Teachers deserve a lot more respect, a lot more rewards than we, as a culture, provide them. And that was one thing that came out of this, is realizing how much they give, how much they sacrifice.
HSB: So how much did you go through, I mean, what were the adjustments you had to make to function during the pandemic as a filmmaker?
Levin: Well, we shot the film before the pandemic, but in general, like everybody we closed down – we were out of the office for a year till March this year. But we were lucky – we had this project. We had another film that Sonja Sohn directed called The Slow Hustle (2021), that premiered at the American Film Institute Doc Festival. We’ve got the Kevin Garnett Anything Is Possible documentary that will be on Showtime this fall. And we have another HBO film that we’re doing. So, we had a lot of material in post-production. The other film is called Adrienne which is about actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly. And that’ll be coming out hopefully later this year. So, we had all these films in post-production and we were able to work remotely, our editors were able to work remotely. So, we lucked out in the sense that we had all this post-production work that we had to do. Production was really hard. The K.G. Project, the Kevin Garnett project, that was tricky. Protocols, COVID protocols, the whole thing. But the fact that we had so much post-production work saved us.
HSB: Which leads to technical questions: did you shoot 4K?
Levin: Yes, we shot 4K on the Sony FS-7. We edited on Avid. We have a Terrablock you know, so it also allows us to edit remotely and I think just for I Promise that the main technical strategy was small. Keep the crew small, intimate. There were times it was almost like a one-man band, like what you’re doing right now, because if you’re with kids and you want them to interact naturally, you don’t want a 10-person crew, lights all over the place, stands, gobos. So, it was trying to strip down to get to the basics.
HSB: Well, you seem to like the subject so much and its potential, that you mentioned before we had the interview that you were considering following the footsteps of Michael Apted, and his Seven up! in which they went back every seven years of these young people, they were following since youth. So, in this case, what would it be like? Five up! and you’d count LeBron? – see where he’s at in five years too…
Levin: You’re right. I mean, from the moment I first went out to Akron and met some of the kids. I definitely had the idea that, wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to do what Michael Apted and the British did in the Seven up! series, which was really a landmark series in the second half of the 20th century, following these kids from when they were seven and then every seven years through their lives. Wouldn’t it be amazing to do a 21st century version of that? Because one of the things that got me was the diversity of the student body and of Akron, that I didn’t expect it to have. It’s a refugee center. So, it’s got people from Southeast Asia, from Latin America, from all over the world. It was much more of a mix of the student body – it was like the new America. And so, I’m still pushing for I guess it would be more like Four up! You know every four years checking in with some of, you know, we had four kids in the beginning and there would be new kids too, but it would also be how a community changes, how families changed and the pace of change…
Levin: …that we’re living through now, just think about it, that we’ve all witnessed as you know, it just accelerated. So, I’m still hoping that as I Promise goes out, this documentary, this feature documentary that maybe not this year, but next year, we could go back to Akron and start this process of what they call the longitudinal documentary over time. And even when I’m gone, that my son and Jackson, who’s a key producer…
HSB: You can’t just go like that – We need you!
Levin: Laughs – LeBron is only 35 or 36. And obviously these kids, when he started, they were in the third and fourth grade. So yeah, you know, I want to see Nate. I want to see Deshana. I want to see Scout. I want to see Vince. I want to see where they’re at when they hit eighth grade and they’re about to then move on to high school. I want to re-engage with them. I want to reconnect with them. I want to go back to Akron. I want to do I Promise 2.
Photos Courtesy of Marc Levin.