Photo: ‘Malcolm & Marie’/Netflix
Zendaya and John David Washington have already caught the eye of critics and the Academy for their performances in Sam Levinson’s black-and-white drama “Malcolm & Marie,” just weeks ahead of its release on Netflix. The film, entirely conceived of and safely shot during the pandemic, has been gaining serious Oscar-buzz ever since its trailer was released on January 8.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the showrunner of Euphoria, for which Zendaya recently made history for her Emmy win, the film stars Washington and her as Malcolm and Marie, a couple whose relationship becomes strained after they return home from the world premiere of a movie that Malcolm has directed. Taking place over the course of that one evening, it depicts the two clashing as they wait for reviews to come in, with the catalyst being Malcolm forgetting to thank her in his speech, despite his movie being based on her own past struggles. The emotionally-charged scenes are evident in the trailer, while the interspersed text reads, “This is not a love story,” amidst scenes of the two arguing in their picturesque kitchen while Zendaya makes mac ‘n’ cheese, “This is a story of love.”
The Origins of ‘Malcolm & Marie’
As it turns out, the idea behind the film was a product of a real-life experience that happened to Levinson himself. After Euphoria was put on hold as a result of the COVID-19 film and television production shutdown going into effect, he and Zendaya began collaborating on ideas that they might be able to film even despite the new production restrictions.
“This started as, how can we get back to work,” Levinson said to Deadline. “I talked to HBO and said, ‘maybe we can do a Covid episode of Euphoria,’ and they said, ‘Sam, just go home, and be safe.” Undeterred by this setback, the two continued to work on ideas, as Zendaya implored him to write something with hopes that it could provide jobs for the crew and keep everyone busy despite the unpredictability.
“I was pitching Z horror films and psychological thrillers and all that, and then at some point, I thought, well, what if it’s just a relationship piece that plays out in real-time. What might kick that off?”, he said. “And I remembered the time I forgot to thank my wife at the premiere of that movie…”
That movie was “Assassination Nation,” his debut feature that he directed in 2018, where he indeed failed to mention his wife, Ashley Levinson – who also worked on it as an associate producer, and is also a producer for “Malcolm & Marie” – during the thank-yous of his speech.
“…That movie was a brutal process,” Levinson recalled. “…It took a toll on both of us. I sat down after my speech and I remember walking to the car, knowing I forgot to thank her and I just felt so guilty. We only talked about it on the ride home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what happens when you forget to acknowledge the contribution of someone so integral to the process,” he recalled.
“That was the jumping-off point, and I pushed into a realm that’s purely fictional, like, okay he forgets to thank his wife but what happens if we then find out that the movie is actually based somewhat on her? How can I make the problem worse and allow it to just peel back layers of their relationship?”
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After Zendaya gave Levinson her approval for the script, he began writing 10-15 pages at a time, alternating between writing and calling her to discuss the plot. The nature of the film proved to be vastly different than both Levinson and Zendaya’s work on the critically acclaimed HBO drama, where most of the scenes and tension come from everything but dialogue, which “Malcolm & Marie,” on the contrary, is heavy with.
“‘Euphoria’ is about young people who aren’t able to really articulate themselves, and so the camera and the music and lighting and mood does it for them,” Levinson said. “I was interested in going in the complete opposite direction and doing something that was just character and dialogue, finding a way to make that cinematic.”
The Two Starring Leads
Both Zendaya and Washington instantly became enamored with the concept, although at first, it was not even guaranteed as to whether Washington would be a part of the film.
“We both thought the only person who could ever be Malcolm was John David Washington, even though there wasn’t much there yet for John David to make a decision whether or not he wanted to do it,” Zendaya told Deadline. Levinson expressed his hesitations at the time in attempting to get the actor to sign on, saying, “I knew him well enough to cold call but was very nervous because I was asking him to go from literally the biggest film of the year to the smallest, and I also knew that I was going to ask him if he wanted to put money into the movie.”
Washington, for his part, said that once he got the call he was immediately invested, citing both his admiration of Levinson’s prior work on “Assassination Nation” and of the depth of the Malcolm and Marie and their conversations.
“I was all in,” he said. “I thought I had my year mapped out, selling the film I was in with Christopher Nolan, traveling the world and then everything came to a halt and I was in this dire desperate need to perform. Badly. When this came about, I felt like it was a godsend, because I’d never read anything this powerful before.”
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Zendaya shared similar sentiments about the storyline and her collaboration with Levinson. “What was cool about my relationship with Sam is, he wrote it with me as the woman he’s grown to know, in front of his eyes, but still I’m very different from Marie and don’t handle things the way she does,” she said. “Sam writes female characters that are so layered and flawed and conflicted but have such depth to them. I might say, well I would never do that, I would never say that, or go there, but that’s the point of doing it. I’m existing through this character. Also, it’s fun to have a character you can dig into, and the more you dig, the more layers you find. I liked that they had the relationship they do, though even now I am still conflicted over whether they should be together or not.
“I see a romance and a beauty to their relationship, but it can also be so dark and awful, happening back and forth the way that probably a lot of people watching it will recognize. I felt that way when we were shooting, and it was hard for me, that conflict, that indecisiveness, the ‘I don’t know how I feel about this.’ That was exciting to me as an artist. To think, I don’t even know how to feel about this relationship. Ironically, these characters are the opposite of black and white.”
A Pandemic-Shot Film
“Malcolm & Marie” was eventually shot in late June, over the course of around two weeks, and inside the Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California. The glass-windowed and open concept house surrounded by rolling hills made the perfect spot for a film that took place in strictly one location, ensuring the safety of the two-person cast and small crew, that included Euphoria’s award-winning cinematographer Marcell Rév, as they created a quarantine bubble during filming. Thankfully, no one got sick, as a result of their strict adherence to the Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, and SAG-AFTRA COVID-19 protocols, and the film became the first to wrap during the pandemic.
The film was not without its risks, as huge amounts of money had been invested into the project from the pockets of the cast and crew, but it quickly proved that it would be lucrative after its first 20-minute footage screening during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A bidding war between distributors quickly ensued, ultimately ending in Netflix winning and purchasing it for a whopping $30 million. This in of itself was telling of the film’s potential award-winning factor, and the release of the trailer has only added to the chatter ahead of awards season, with four ceremonies leading up to the Academy Awards.
Both Zendaya and Washington are already making the prediction lists for the Golden Globes (Feb. 28), Critics Choice Awards (March 7), and Screen Actors Guild Awards (March 17), leading up to the much-awaited Oscars that will air much later this year on April 25.
John David Washington has previously received both Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” while Zendaya is still riding on the wave of her Best Actress Emmy win, so it would come as no surprise if either of them racks up nominations or wins for their work on this emotional film. Fresh off of his role in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Washington has become a similar sensation to the former Disney star, proving that the two are among the strongest of the up-and-coming in the next generation of Hollywood.
At 24, Zendaya could easily become the first actress since Helen Mirren to win both an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year, and could also become the first woman to be nominated for acting and producing if the film picks up a Best Picture nomination, though Frances McDormand is also on track to potentially break that record as well. However, she’ll undoubtedly face a tough race from contenders including Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). Washington will likely be competing with the late Chadwick Boseman, (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Anthony Hopkins, (“The Father”), and Riz Ahmed, (“Sound of Metal”) among others.
“Malcolm & Marie” itself is slated to compete with frontrunners such as “One Night in Miami”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, and “Nomadland”, although there are still more films set to screen in the upcoming weeks before the February 28 Oscars eligibility deadline.
In the meantime, its awards buzz will surely continue to ramp up ahead of its highly-anticipated Netflix release.
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Christine Feeley is a writer for Hollywood Insider and as a fan of all things film and television, she is very passionate about gender equality within the entertainment industry as well as how it can be used to promote social change. She hopes to bring an enriched perspective to the world of entertainment through her alignment with Hollywood Insider’s mission to share meaningful and positive content with audiences.