Home is where the art is: Dan Levy

Lead actor and co-executive producer Dan Levy plays David Rose on CBC’s Schitt’s Creek. Levy, who planned out much of the set design and decor via Pinterest, is seen here with Annie Murphy, who plays his sister and roommate, Alexis Rose.

There’s this super-rich family and they lose everything, except for all the punchline-friendly designer duds they can carry. They are banished to live in their single remaining asset, a small town with a punny name, bought as a gag gift in sweller times.

So how do you keep the audience from feeling too sorry for the fish unceremoniously hoisted out of their rarefied Comedy is about pressing on the discomfort zone, but there is a fine line between that squirmy feeling and picking up the TV remote. As the Woody Allen-penned character played by Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours says, “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny.”

And that is exactly why Dan Levy worries about our feelings. As both the co-executive producer (with his father, comedy legend Eugene Levy) and a star of the show Schitt’s Creek, the younger Levy uses decor to send out a reassuring message: “Even though we are displaced, and our family has gone from mega-mansion to motel, I want the experience of that motel to feel inviting. Because I want our audience to be at ease when watching the show.

“I don’t want them to feel disgusted, to feel like our family has been put through the ringer and now here they are in some roach-infested hovel. Making the motel retro-chic is a subliminal way to assure your audience that everything will be fine.”

Pinterest-inspired set design

The fictional Rose family’s growing-dated-by-the-second fashion circus is contrasted deliberately against a timeless set. To plan the set design for the show, Levy took to Pinterest. He used the curation engine to bring to life the fictional town, which is actually filmed in the real town of Goodwood in Durham County (for the mayor’s house, the gas station, town hall, graveyard and exteriors and street views). The motel itself exists IRL in the town of Mono in Halton Hills.

Levy, 33, was raised chiefly in Canada and identifies as a “real” Torontonian.

“My folks chose to raise us here, because this is real life and a real place, unlike Hollywood. I do go back and forth (to L.A.), but most of my life is here. I love to entertain, and to go out and eat in this city.”

He began his career here as a host on MTV Canada circa 2006, and along with fellow host Jessi Cruickshank, became immersed in the minutiae of MTV reality shows Laguna Beach and The Hills. One can only suspect his unique lens into California culture via Toronto helped him translate the then-emerging reality culture to Canadian fans.

Set design was inspired by real motels from the 50s and 60s.
The Schitt’s Creek set was inspired by real motels from the ’50s and ’60s and antique shop finds.

To translate Schitt’s Creek to screen, Levy says he collected images of mid-century motels and Prohibition-era typography, and walked around snapping pics of items in antique shops and online to help sell his vision to the Schitt’s team.

“One of the most fulfilling parts of the job is the creative experience of bringing something to life,” says Levy.

“Not many people get the opportunity to conceive of something in their head and see it manifest in the world. We have a crew of 141 people bringing what is in my head to life. That is so rewarding and creatively fulfilling. The first time I walked onto our set, I was thinking this is it, this is exactly what I had in my head.

“Production designer Brendan Smith is so good, and we spoke for months and months and months before building the sets about what we wanted the feel of the show to be.”

Turquoise wall

A standout element for Levy is the turquoise wall in the bedroom the grown-up Rose children share on the show.

“That turquoise wall is based on an image I saw from a roadside motel circa about 1955,” he says. “It is a sort of dull turquoise. And I thought, whoever thought to do that, it adds such a warmth and charm and quirk to the space without being obtrusive. That era was a magic time, and because it has become so familiar in decorating, it feels timeless, somehow. The typography, architecture, art — such a classic — never go out of style. It is comforting, because in a way it will never become dated.”

The iconic turquoise wall in the bedroom of the adult Rose siblings in CBC's Schitt's Creek was envisioned by Dan Levy after he saw it in a real life motel from around 1955.
You can’t miss it — the turquoise wall in the Rose siblings’ bedroom was envisioned by Levy when he saw it in a real-life motel that dated back to somewhere around 1955.

The depth of Levy’s research and commitment as an executive producer results in an authenticity on the set. To wit, the diner, which Levy says was based directly on an old South Pacific poster. “It is generic Pan-Pacific, like someone from a small town visited Bali and came back and thought, ‘I’m going to paint a mural and I’m going to make this cafe tropical themed.’”

The town itself is frozen in time. “It hasn’t been prosperous for a very long time, which is why you never see something totally contemporary in it. Like there was a boom a long time ago and then time stopped. Set design, like costume design, should say something without the characters having to say anything at all.”

Perhaps the most important set decision was sticking the two adult Rose children into the same room, a device that stirs up an emotional stew.

Regress into adolescence

“We thought, these are people so stunted and so spoiled by money and wealth and materialism that we thought there was something playful about forcing this grown adult brother and sister to share a room and regress into the adolescence that they never really experienced with their parents before.”

Once again, Levy is concerned with providing comfort through a visual dichotomy: “The twin beds are not only completely uncomfortable but at the same time there is a sense of comfort in knowing that they are together in this.”

Dan Levy and his personally concocted Ceasar (recipe can be found at the end of the story).
Dan Levy and his personally concocted Caesar entitled, Don’t Go Bacon My Heart (recipe follows).

And speaking of comforts, just in case you are wondering about the seasonal cocktail he is holding, Levy is taking a break from writing the show’s fourth season (just renewed on CBC and in the U.S. on Pop network) to honour Caesar Day, another great Canadian invention, on behalf of the folks from Mott’s Clamato.

The Caesar was invented in 1969, a classic of the mid-century vibe Levy researched thoroughly for the set design on Schitt’s Creek.

Levy crafted a very Canuck version called Don’t Go Bacon My Heart, complete with maple-dabbed rashers, an egg-wich and a (generic) doughnut hole to evoke that other classic Canadian food group, the Timbit (without cross-tainting the promotion by naming other brands).

Yes, the nostalgia and indulgence of this cocktail nicely mirror the Schitt’s brand he has created. In between careful sips (he was on duty at a downtown bar as Caesar of Caesar Day, all day), he discussed how the nostalgia-soaked mid-century modern motel contrasted with the characters’ modern designer fashions.

In terms of costuming, the idea is that the core four family characters all have clothing that they can’t now replace. Rabid fashionistas, only dad Johnny Rose has restrained style, with his neatly tailored suits punctuated only by those famous eyebrows and a pocket scarf.

SCTV alums Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, real-life father to Dan Levy, play the Rose parents.

Indeed, as compared to the comedic powerhouse’s seminal roles, from Earl Camembert on SCTV to Mr. Levenstein in American Pie among dozens of kooky incarnations, is uncharacteristically chic. Especially beside (the also legendary) Catherine O’Hara in her scenery-chewing turn as mom Moira Rose. The character, a former soap star, takes wigs, fashion-victim gear and operatic reactions to a new planetary level.

Trustafarian shopaholic

Sister Alexis Rose (Annie Murphy) embodies spoiled brat fashion — her wardrobe, while softer in hue than her mother’s, screams trustafarian shopaholic without borders — but as her character grows, she lets down her airs (to deliberately mix a metaphor).

David Rose, played by Dan Levy, is one of TV's first main pansexual characters.
Dan Levy’s David Rose, right, is one of TV’s first lead pansexual characters.

And Dan Levy’s David Rose uses fashion to break ground: his character is pansexual, which is a revolutionary sexual identification to be seen on TV, more so because the family takes his omnivorous sexuality with a shrug. His exuberant dressing style, exemplified by his Rick Owens drop-crotch pants and floral blouses, looked early on to imply a gay lifestyle (and indeed he indulges in many an “afternoon delight” with buff boys).

But David Rose takes it local and unexpected, developing an FWB (friends with benefits) relationship with female motel desk clerk Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire). Rounding out the cast of notables are funnyman and Letterman foil Chris Elliott as town mayor Roland Schitt, and Dan Levy’s sister, Sarah Levy, as a waitress.

The Levys, and the cast they have conjured and dressed, populate an idealized town brought to life from Dan’s imagination (and his Pinterest board). Because as a good showrunner knows — just like a good decorator — authenticity is about a balanced accumulation of details.

TRY LEVY’S RECIPE:

Don’t Go Bacon My Heart

1 oz (30 mL) vodka

4 generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce

4 generous dashes of hot sauce

1/4 oz (7.5 mL) green olive juice

1 teaspoon white horseradish

3 pinches of truffle salt

4 grinds of cracked pepper

Mott’s Clamato Extra Spicy and Pickled Bean Cocktail (half and half)

Garnish: Two strips of maple bacon (baked in the oven until crispy), one mini egg slider, two tater tots and a crueller doughnut hole

Rim a highball glass with juice from a lemon wedge and celery salt, fill the glass halfway with ice and add ingredients in the order listed above. Squeeze the lemon wedge into the glass, stir well, place bacon on top of the glass and use a skewer to attach the garnishes for placement on the bacon.

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