Nikki Levy grew up in New York and Eddie Murphy was her idol. Now a Vice President of Wedge Works World Wide at Fox, she also acts on the side as part of her show Don’t Tell My Mother! where writers and performers share true stories they’d NEVER want their moms to know.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to want to make movies, and what led you to your current position at Wedge Works?
I was always an animal lover. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I heard about goats in the circus having horns stapled to their heads so they could look like unicorns, and I was moved to action. Then I went to Los Angeles when I was 12, took a tour of Paramount Studios, and wanted to work in movies. I saw Eddie Murphy’s golf cart. It was a Rolls Royce cart. I had been in love with Eddie Murphy. My fate was sealed. I loved comedies – Coming to America, Parenthood, and National Lampoon’s European Vacation were staples in my diet. I pored over them in the living room and wore out the VHS tapes. I went to Northwestern University for film – to work behind the camera, in development. I knew about development because I landed an internship at Columbia Pictures when I was 19 and saw how it worked. I interned somewhere every summer, and when I graduated I got a job at the Oxygen Network before it launched. I produced and edited for them. But I never wanted to work in television, and moved to Los Angeles when I was 24. Through the Northwestern network, I landed a job in the Endeavor mailroom, and then on a desk, making $500/week and getting yelled out 22 hours/day. I hated it, but I learned a lot. Rolling calls is not something “a monkey can do.” It was an invaluable experience. Then I assisted an amazing producer named Alison Greenspan at DiNovi Pictures and learned about storytelling from a master. She mentored me and helped me get my first executive job at Gold Circle Films. From there I went to Imagine to work on comedies, and ended up helping oversee the Academy Award winner, Frost/Nixon. Working with Ron Howard and the brilliant Mr. Frank Langella was a gift. Shortly thereafter, Chris Wedge signed a deal at Fox Animation and I came over to run development and production.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
Getting the job working for Alison Greenspan. I knew I wanted to work for a young, hungry producer; someone who wanted to teach because I wanted to learn. I found that in Alison. She knew story, valued my opinion and was KIND to me. I can’t stress enough how much the latter mattered. Asshole bosses don’t do their assistants or themselves any favors. I worked hard because I felt valued by someone whose opinion was valuable to me.
In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also a performer. Which do you prefer – working behind the scenes or on a stage? How has your work as a performer influenced what you do at Wedge Works?
I always loved writing, and so working with writers is an extension of that love. I started the show Don’t Tell My Mother! in October where writers and performers share true stories they’d NEVER want their moms to know. I get to use screenwriters, TV writers, actors, comics, storytellers, and people I meet randomly who’ve never spoken in front of a crowd in their lives and help them craft their story. It is a very democratic process and I work with the performers in much the same way I do my screenwriters – scene by scene, line by line sometimes. The same principles in screenwriting are at play in a 10-minute story – just on a micro level. A good story is still a good story with a first, second, and third act; characters that need development and arcs, conflict that an audience or reader feels, and a plot that is at once relatable and new. Working so closely with writers on the show, and writing and performing in every show have given me a new respect and appreciation of writers. We put our work out there – our hearts, our souls – and it’s always a risk. Throwing notes at writers is disrespectful and careless. I have learned through receiving notes myself, to be calm and respectful of the enormous risk writing is.
How did you find out you could make people laugh? Your mother’s an organic chemist. Has she seen “Don’t Tell Your Mother”? If so, what does she think of it?
My mother is indeed an organic chemist. She worked at Estee Lauder in the 70s and helped troubleshoot Dramatically Different Moisturizer (it kept clumping). She then became a science and Spanish teacher when coming home with chemicals on her hands proved too dangerous with a baby (me). My father is a mathematician. Having two parents who excelled in math and science, I moved SO far away from those fields, and found my talent in writing and learning languages. My mother and father both nurtured that…and got me tutors for chemistry, physics, calc and bio! My mother has seen Don’t Tell My Mother! and loved it. She saw a show where I did my tamest material. It had to do with stalking. I’ll leave it at that. My mother is the prototypical eccentric scientist, and I get tons of my stories from our relationship.
When watching a movie or (scripted) TV show, do you ever say to yourself: A woman would never have written that line? Although women have made progress recently, why do you think women are still relatively scarce when it comes to the creative process in the entertainment industry? Does having a woman or women involved make a difference?
I disagree that women are sparse. I work in feature films, and I see many women at the top of the food chain. A female runs Fox Animation, Fox 2000, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and others. Maybe I live in a bubble, but I have always been drawn to females as mentors – be they executives, managers or agents. Someone I admire greatly in this business is Blair Kohan who represents Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and a ton of writers and directors. I seek out women to emulate as role models and that is how I learn – by watching, meeting, and asking. And there seems to be a lot of women available for that. Or maybe it’s my winning personality that warms them up. That was a joke.
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
Science scares me. My mother is the scientist, not me. But, I learned from her that fiction is only an approximation of the magic of nature. I know that if I read and study the natural world, I will get my answers for plot ideas, funny character quirks and organic conflict. The natural world is the greatest teacher and storyteller.
How important is it to you that the science in a film is accurate?
To me, not so much. I like to use fact as a springboard, and if we can embellish or shape it to fit the story, wonderful. Science is a wonderful source of ideas, and then the creative can take that information and spin it into gold.
How do you know when you need advice from a scientist? What are the advantages of working with a science consultant? At what stage of the development process is the decision made to seek input from a science consultant?
Chris Wedge and I have been trying to crack an evolution project. Rick suggested we talk to some evolutionary scientists. Chris, a number of animation artists, and I sat down for some incredible conversations and were astounded by what was actually happening in nature like the nuances of survival of the fittest. I could always speak to a scientist because their knowledge and expertise give me the building blocks for ideas, characters, and plotlines.
What can you tell us about your current project? Your next project?
I am working on the next Fox Animation movie titled EPIC with Beyonce, Josh Hutcherson, Amanda Seyfried, and Colin Farrell. It is an animated adventure in the woods. We also have two very science-based books in active development. The first, Wings of Madness, is about an esoteric man who created winged flight in Paris. The second is Lives of the Monster Dogs about a race of dogs genetically and physically engineered to be human-like. Both are hatched from the yolk of science, and the rest is up to our imaginations to create into a good story.