Interview: "Up To Speed" Star Speed Levitch Talks Times Square's Shame & Conversing With Inanimate Objects

Interview: "Up To Speed" Star Speed Levitch Talks Times Square's Shame & Conversing With Inanimate Objects

How did you narrow down the scope of Up to Speed's tours? There are so many different monuments you could’ve focused on in each of the cities you visited.
So true. There could be a thousand different Chicago episodes. Well, a lot of the monuments that are featured in these episodes are old friends of mine, I’ve been chatting with them for years. [Laughs.]

Were any of these cities new to you?
Yeah. After The Cruise, I did my own walking tours between 1998 and 2004 out on the streets for New York; it was street theater. It was fun. I met amazing people. The other thing that was happening in that time period was that film festivals started inviting me to do tours of their locations.

 

The Marriott Marquis was responsible for the revitalization of Times Square and yet the word 'revitalization' has never felt so stale in my mouth.

 

If you think about it from a film festival director’s POV it makes sense: Get that quirky New York tour guide to come to Virginia and he could do a little tour of Charlottesville for the Virginia Film Festival. But from my POV, it’s an insane assignment. It’s a kamikaze mission for a tour guide just to go to some place, do research, basically get your rough draft up and going and present it to people who have lived there for 30 years—it’s crazy. It’s awkward! 

But I did it. I did it over and over again and I tried it out. I was invited to Charlottesville and that became an episode of Up to Speed. In Chicago, the film festival I was working for was a radical one, so that’s where I started developing the Bohemian Tour. I was invited to Silver Spring, MD. Lawrence, KS. Champaign-Urbana, IL. Columbia, MO. As a New Yorker it was cool to go from this huge place to start microscopically appreciating these much smaller places.

Your show encourages appreciating the beauty in the unexpected and noticing everything around us, especially in cities like New York, where people tend to keep their heads down.
It reminds me actually of a guru who was famous for a one-liner I always loved: “Have you noticed that the anticipation is never showing up?“ The only thing that’s around is the unexpected. When you anticipate, you’re on fast-forward mode. We can anticipate but what we’re anticipating isn’t around us; the unexpected is what’s actually happening.

I think it comes back to that theme of the tour guide’s mission, which is promoting vacation and illuminating the mundane. There is profound history right in front of our eyes all over the place, often in the small cracks, and it’s really just about being awake. It’s quite fascinating.

Were there any things you learned while doing the show that blew you away?
The fact that Thomas Jefferson could read seven languages is a small detail that I never knew, but it’s just a good reminder that he was a Renaissance man.

What locations interest you for future episodes?
I’d love to do a Burning Man episode and go to Black Rock City. I’ve always thought that Burning Man is a real live city. It’s got all the basic ingredients; even though the population brings the water to the city a lot of cities these days have waiters, they need water brought in. It’s got a gridded system of streets. When its active it’s like the 19th or 20th biggest city in Nevada, I think. [Laughs.]

It'd be fun to go to a place like that and investigate it as a city, but then there are other cities that already exist. A no-brainer would be Vegas. I mean, clearly there are so many monuments needing to cry out. [Laughs.] One idea that Linklater had that I love is Isle of Man, which is where he shot his film Me and Orson Welles. It’s this bizarre ancient island off of the coast of Wales. He was talking about how it would be particularly fun to go to places like that where people take their history so seriously. [Laughs.]

In the New York episode, you discuss the “Great Theater Massacre of 1982,” the controversial demolition of five historic Times Square theaters to clear space for the Marriott Marquis hotel. You describe the hotel as having its back turned on Times Square. With such condemnation, I assume the Marriott higher-ups didn’t approve of you filming inside their hotel.
The last line of that shtick is “The Marriott Marquis is given credit for Times Square’s current revitalization,” and I like to think that’s one of the more complicated uses of the word “revitalization.” It was responsible for the revitalization and yet the word “revitalization” has never felt so stale in my mouth. [Laughs.]

There is an attempt to give some objectivity to the story in that we mention that it was a dicey neighborhood in 1982 and that the Marriott being a hotel inviting visitors to the city, the visitors to the city would’ve been intimidated by the neighborhood just as much as the Marriott. I also agree that some of those guerilla shots that we got inside make it look kind of like a Death Star. [Laughs.]

At the same time, another thing you can say in the defense of the other side is that there is not even a plaque or anything commemorating the theaters. In a way we were creating the plaque and whoever takes on that responsibility has to have a little bit of an antagonistic relationship with the hotel. [Laughs.]

They didn’t make it difficult to mock them. The entrance that’s closed off to Times Square, the conference rooms named after the playwrights whose works once lit up the theaters they destroyed….
Isn’t that hilarious? It was all strategic. In 1982 it would’ve made more sense, but it’s kind of fortress-like. I think it would be such a fun, theatrical fantasy to do Waiting for Lefty or one of those great socialistic manifestos that Clifford Odets wrote in the Clifford Odets room. [Laughs.]

I’m not sure there’s enough room.
We’d move the furniture. [Laughs.]

Were there any other situations during filming that were antagonistic?
When we were working in [Thomas Jefferson’s plantation] Monticello we had to be careful. We were given profound access to the grounds. The historians there are wonderful. They are a huge help, but what you’re careful about is that this is their specialty and also it’s their job to protect Jefferson’s legacy. 

It can get sensitive when you start talking about, for instance, the peculiar revolving serving door (right), which is a major character in the Virginia episode. All throughout Monticello you can seen these little architectural shticks Jefferson developed to kind of hide the injustices away from his guests and probably from himself.

He maintained throughout his life that he was schizophrenic. He knew the tragedy of the peculiar institution of slavery, but he didn’t feel there could be anything done about it. His famous comment: “Freeing the slaves is a luxury we cannot afford.” Of course, other landowners in Virginia  freed their slaves, so they didn’t find a luxury they couldn’t afford, and they were Jefferson’s contemporaries.

When we were in Monticello there were always people watching us. Historians would be there, so it was sometimes walking on eggshells, because I’d make a proclamation about the peculiar revolving serving door and a historian would come over and say, “You know, Jefferson’s butler was African American and he probably would have sometimes taken the food off the shelves and put it on the table.” It became like a negotiation. [Laughs.]

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

Click here to watch episodes of Up to Speed.

Tags: up-to-speed, speed-levitch, hulu, richard-linklater, tourism, san-francisco, times-square, new-york-city
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