Exclusive Interview: Jack Levinson

At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to go see a Marvel Universe movie and understand anything that’s going on without having seen the hundreds (?) of other mediocre films in the series. For avid fans, staying after the credits to watch Captain America talk to a personification of Cold War PTSD is totally worth it — it’s an amuse-bouche for the next IMAX bonanza. This is gargantuan fiction, made to sell an infinite amount of tickets by encouraging people to be in the know. What’s particularly fascinating about LA-based writer Jack Levinson’s ongoing “Square Circle Story” series is that he has applied this all-encompassing, universe-creating approach to writing a screenplay about the mid-2000s indie-rock scene, a movement that was small and eventually dissipated into Urban Outfitters nothingness. The project tracks the career trajectory of Square Circle, a band that emulates your Coachella faves of yesteryear and would fit neatly into a nostalgia ™ playlist.

Levinson’s project is dualistically approachable and intimate; he has made his work digitally accessible and also hosts small readings with friends where everyone has a chance to a play a part in his universe. A few days after releasing the second installment to his series, “Early Days of the Archetypes,”  I shared a Google Doc with Levinson and discussed the novelistic screenplay medium, Gone Girl, and where Square Circle goes from here.

Dish Rag Magazine: What inspired you to start the Square Circle Story project?

Jack Levinson: I’ve always loved panoramic narratives where there are a zillion characters with a huge variety of interests and perspectives. Even in high school I remember thinking that a big epic story about the most famous band in the world would be a great way of telling multiple stories at the same time – not just about the band members but about everyone else they encounter, from lovers to fans to people who don’t give a shit about them. I started developing the fictional history of the band Square Circle almost seven years ago, when I was nineteen. First it was in terms of their discography and then using that to figure out how they would move through the world. Where did they write this album? Who were they dating? Were they getting along? Etc. I actually haven’t focused on them specifically very much yet – I’ve been more interested in other characters in their orbit. I’ve been working on several installments at once, which are all part of a collection called Ladies of the Canyon – it’s essentially Season 1 of this series and is an anthology of stories (episodes) focused on a group of female friends adjacent to the band in the years 2006 and 2007. But the band is the still backbone of the project, and the folk singer Libby Ames, who figures prominently into the first season, was part of that history pretty much from the get-go.

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Dish Rag Magazine: Your project is in screenplay form but you're releasing as an online serial novel. Why did you take this approach?

Jack Levinson: At first, when I started writing this I thought it was going to be a novel, but I was having a ton of trouble figuring out how to move the story along using traditional prose. I realized that writing in screenplay form really just solved that problem for me. I really consider literary writing to be the craft I’ve been developing, but I sort of think in cinematic terms, so this was a way for me to pretty intuitively do both. I still definitely do things that aren’t approved of in actual film production – I go into pretty novelistic detail about what my characters are thinking, about historical background, etc. The format is able to do a lot, and has come to very much reflect a mentality that I think my characters have: they’re characters in a story who imagine themselves as characters in a story, which I think is kind of a cultural condition of the present – we all have moments of seeing ourselves that way.

Dish Rag Magazine: This project covers the mid-2000s, what drew you to this period of time?

Jack Levinson: Originally I was totally just being sentimental about my adolescence, riffing on the very recent past. Things like The O.C. and Uffie and Howard Dean were just far enough away to satirize. As more time has passed, though, more serious political dimensions have emerged. That era simultaneously feels so distant from the present and like such a horrifying harbinger of it in some weird uncanny ways. It’s also really interesting with today’s hindsight to think of indie rock as the last pop cultural zeitgeist in which a group of white men were championed as subversive – that feels wildly antiquated now, and rock music is basically dead as a cultural force and as a market. There were some indications of that already in 2012, when I started working on this, but as time goes on it becomes more and more clear to me that Square Circle, despite conquering the industry in their heyday, would go on to sort of throwback triviality. I love what that does to their story; it’s funny and I think kinda profound.

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Dish Rag Magazine: As a writer, what compelled you to make your work an all-encompassing, digital experience?

Jack Levinson: Extreme financial limitations compelled me to make this work digital! Lol. It wasn’t really a decision. This is what I’m able to do with the resources that I have. I do enjoy graphic design and building websites – it made it fun for me to make the Square Circle Press Archives, which is a whole extension of the website that has blog ephemera about the band. That felt like sort of a comic book world-building move.

I guess I should also note that it’s very important for me to self-produce right now, because I really want to maintain the experimental aspects of this project. It’s more important to me right now to build this world on my own terms, which involves sort of constantly subverting expectations for it, than to try to make money off of it. I think about JK Rowling all the time... I’m only just past the Starbucks-napkin phase of my career. The napkin is sacred! I wanna protect it!

Dish Rag Magazine: What are some themes in your second installment — Early Days of the Archetypes?

Jack Levinson: Hmmzies! Y’know, I’ve stopped asking myself what my stories are about – I try to approach it like an object that I’m building, making sure it works as opposed to means something. But I guess as I started editing this one, I saw consistent themes of power and masculinity and storytelling itself. I dunno. It’s exciting to put this out and hear what people think I’m saying, ‘cause I have no fucking idea. I’m trying to take away the goal of “saying something” from my storytelling and treat it more like music or abstract painting – pure formal questions, total psychoanalytic content. Random myths.

Jack Levinson’s “Square Circle” notes at his studio apartment.

Jack Levinson’s “Square Circle” notes at his studio apartment.

Dish Rag Magazine: You have told me that someone compared your new installment to Gone Girl. I love that movie. Top 5 faves. Actually, fine — Top 3.  Do you think this is apt? Were you going for that kind of tongue-and-cheek, thriller vibe?

Jack Levinson: I loved the comparison and I think it was referenced for that exact reason. And yes, this work is partially a cold-blooded, trust-no-one thriller in that vein (though it’s also partially an erotic love triangle story and partially a rise-to-power narrative). But the comparison also made me think about something Gillian Flynn said about that book, that writing an evil female character was for her, as a female writer, an expression of autonomy. I really related to that in writing Early Days of the Archetypes – the main character is this totally toxic gay guy whose homosexuality is a pretty central part of why he’s so horrible and manipulative. As a gay man, it is truly cathartic for me to write exactly what it feels like I’m not supposed to write. I honestly feel affronted by the gay angel narrative that seems so prevalent in pop culture right now – these sweet-faced white male victims who are misunderstood but so pure, for whom agency means something so innocent. It doesn’t surprise me that so many straight people buy into it, but it freaks me out that so many gay guys seem to believe that about themselves, too. That narrative props up another phenomenon of the latter-day privileged gay male: the wholehearted and uncritical embrace of hunger for power. I say this in a self-implicating way – these are forces acting on me in my own life. I don’t mean to stand on a soapbox; I’m mainly making jokes about it. I’m also not trying to dismiss the trauma and violence that’s genuinely part of the gay male experience, even among privileged people, and I don’t think this story dismisses it either. But it is just a fact that we’re capable of being fucking awful, just like anybody else. We’re not beyond reproach.

Wow, I cannot believe that was how I just answered a question about Gone Girl.

Dish Rag Magazine: What other creative works have inspired you?

Jack Levinson: I used to draw caricatures of the poster for The Royal Tenenbaums when I was in fourth grade even though my parents wouldn’t let me see it. And then I literally petitioned them to let me see it and they did and I didn’t like how it was directed because it felt too detached. I don’t know if that answers the question, but I feel like there’s something in that anecdote that’s extremely pertinent to my artistic journey, lol.

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Dish Rag Magazine: You’ve held intimate readings of your work and you’re holding a group reading very soon. How do your friends factor into your creative process?

Jack Levinson: This is an example of when the complete absence of a budget was a totally amazing thing for my art. I finished the first full installment when I was 23 and just out of college. It was about 120 pages long; I sent it around and found out how difficult it is to actually get people to read something that long on their own time. I wanted to put up a theatrical production of it but I absolutely couldn’t afford to do that. So I started hosting dinner parties where we would do cold readings of the script just so I could know people had read it. As soon as I did one, it became a really central part of what this project means to me – community building, untrained acting, and people being summoned to use their imaginations in real time to morph their beings and surroundings. I’ve always thought of this project as a parallel universe – it’s pretty amazing to me that you can see a group of people be transported all together through text alone.

Dish Rag Magazine: What’s the future of your project?

Jack Levinson: I have a bunch of other installments of this project half-finished and I want to take the reins on them and start releasing them way more regularly. I also want to develop new stagings and presentations for these scripts in whatever format makes the most sense… I want to explore what’s possible for these texts and involve as many people as possible. And I want to be guided by the resources I have at my disposal – I’ve learned a ton about storytelling from working with what I have.