In The Cruise, a 1998 documentary about a double-decker bus tour guide, we meet Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a precocious, frizzy-haired, motor-mouthed eccentric who roams the streets of Manhattan on a quest for existential answers. He comes off almost gimmicky at first, too much of everything to be a real person. But about halfway through the film, when he's shown reminiscing outside the jail or on the Brooklyn Bridge, Levitch starts to seem achingly human.
The film was and is a cult favorite, and on watching it, you couldn't help but wonder what happened to Levitch after the credits rolled. Was he still guiding tours of New York, springing philosophy on unsuspecting tourists?
Sometimes, Levitch told us. But he's also been working on Up To Speed, a travel TV series which he describes as, "an episode of Sesame Street orchestrated by the Beastie Boys." His first episode showcases some of San Francisco's lesser-known landmarks. We thought we'd be experts on all his destinations, but there were some we didn't recognize at all, and a few we'd heard of -- like the Bay Bridge -- but didn't know the weird history behind them.
There's a lot about the series, directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), that's surprising, even for die-hard Levitch or Linklater fans. For starters, there's the weird crowd that mutely trails Levitch from destination to destination, apparently nonplussed. Then, there's the fact that Levitch's incessant, unfiltered monologue is absent, replaced by dialogue with the historical objects he introduces (and yes, they do talk back) as well as animations. So we asked Levitch to guide us. He explained how to appreciate Up To Speed.
How'd you decide to make a travel series?
It started as a conversation between me and Richard Linklater, a dear friend and collaborator. I worked with him on and off over the years. We were discussing how maybe there was a way to make a show that took some of the solemnity out of the study of history and alchemize it, turn it more into frivolity and humor.
Do you feel like you were successful?
I do. I'm very excited about it. It was pure process and as an artist, one of the great goals is to really ride the process so you're fully expressing your idea, completing your thought. It was a great photosynthesis. Hulu was a great help, a big collaborator, in creating something as outlandish as it can be.
How'd you decide to work with Hulu?
Our conversation started out great. It seemed like good energy from the beginning. The opening pitch line was something like, 'A history show meets The Muppets Show. An episode of Sesame Street as if it was orchestrated by the Beastie Boys.' They just jumped to that beat right away. That's the perfect place to percolate something -- where everyone's on the same page about it and excited about it. It was a flavorful and positive conversation from the beginning.
In The Cruise, you have a very poetic view of New York and it's obvious you love the city. How did you familiarize yourself with the cities on the show?
It was a very exciting time in my life, to be a New Yorker -- someone who essentially grew up in New York -- and then to leave New York. A lot of New Yorkers never get there. They never get to the frontier, the edge of city limits. It's a vast wilderness out there. But I'm glad I jumped ship. After The Cruise, I was getting invited to do tours of other locations, often smaller places, which was really exciting for someone who'd always been in New York City. As I've gotten older, I've gotten interested in landscapes.
So did you research your destinations in San Francisco, or did you take suggestions from friends?
Yeah, I worked in Fisherman's Wharf for about two years; I worked on the double-decker buses. In the meantime, I was doing my own walking around the city and enjoying my own relationship with San Francisco. It's interesting, when you become a double-decker tour guide -- and I had this experience in New York -- that kind of becomes your narrative. The double-decker route becomes the spinal cord of the city, and you research it from there.
Did you like guiding in San Francisco?
Yeah, I loved it! I lived in the East Bay for a while, and in the Mission, and in the Haight-Ashbury District. I first started going to San Francisco via Burning Man. It all started because I started going to Burning Man and I was meeting people on La Playa who were from San Francisco. So that kind of warped my point of view of San Francisco from the very beginning I think. I was thinking of it as an extension of Black Rock City. It was very exciting for me, but I don't know if it was an effective view.
I loved your constant existential monologue in The Cruise, and I didn't really see that as much in Up To Speed. Is that typical when you're giving a tour, that you focus more on the tour than on your philosophy?
I had a director friend recently who said this and I liked his description. He said The Cruise was like an egg, and this is like poking the egg. This is the Technicolor that comes out of it. It's so funny that The Cruise is so black and white and this is so colorful. It's like walking out of the black and white world and into the Technicolor world. They are very different animals, of course. Up To Speed is a symphony, it's a musicality between the graphics and the music and the dialogue. I think a lot of the goal of The Cruise was to leave me alone. I was lonely out there. I was hugging bridges! I didn't have all these fabulous graphics or music. The stark, black and white style of The Cruise is its own. Up To Speed -- actually, I don't even know how to categorize it. It's not categorizable.
Do you get to show more of your internal monologue as the show progresses?
It's really cool that Richard Linklater is the director of this, because he's a great independent filmmaker. And sure enough, when you watch all six episodes, they're all originals. But you've got to see two to know how different each one is. Each one is an autonomous short film in its own right, in its own universe.
Who gets to go on the tour with you during the show?
We toured with indigenous peoples. I call the tour groups in each episode the mute Greek chorus. They are a Greek chorus of a kind, but they don't speak. They're always there, and in some ways, certainly participating as a character. They're a giant mute Greek chorus following me around.
Are they people that you know? Or are they random people that didn't know what they were in for?
They're actors. They're actors that were doing a three-day gig. The producers cast them to create a group. In each place we went, we had the same method of choosing people from the places.
So if people see this show and want to go on a tour, can they sign up with you?
Yeah, my sister runs my website with me. We have our own fun little sibling collaboration. When we are doing them, we put the schedule up there. I still love doing the New York tours; I do them once a season. My favorite, to tell you the truth, is events. I love doing a bus tour for out-of-town wedding guests. Those are some of the best gigs.
Up To Speed premiers August 9 on Hulu. San Francisco is the first city featured, so check it out and learn something new about S.F.