Malcolm & Marie is based on a simple premise: What happens after a director forgets to thank his wife at his movie's premiere? Zendaya and John David Washington yelling at each other for two hours in black and white is one answer. But, the writer and director of the film, Sam Levinson, knows what actually happens in real life, because it's a scenario he lived. There is true story behind Malcolm & Marie, but it only serves as a starting point for the film.
Malcolm & Marie, streaming now, came together when production on Levinson and Zendaya's HBO/Sky Atlantic series Euphoria shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Levinson is the creator and writer of the series; Zendaya stars and is a producer. As reported by Deadline, during a press screening of the film, the pair explained that they wanted to work on something during the pandemic and help keep the Euphoria crew employed.
"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," Levinson said, according to Deadline. "What might kick that off? And I remembered the time I forgot to thank my wife at the premiere of that movie…"
At the premiere of Levinson's 2018 film Assassination Nation, he forgot to thank his wife, Ashley Levinson. Ashley is a producer, who, in addition to working on Assassination Nation and Malcolm & Marie, was a producer for Bombshell, Queen & Slim, and Pieces of a Woman.
"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," Levinson said. "That was the jumping off point, and I pushed into a realm that’s purely fictional." Levinson added the idea that Malcolm's film would be based in part on Marie's life, including her struggle with drug addiction. This allows their fight to go far beyond Malcolm not thanking Marie at the premiere, into her accusing him of using her story and under-appreciating her as a person. "How can I make the problem worse and allow it just peel back layers of their relationship?" Levinson said.
While the forgetting to thank your spouse aspect of the film is openly based on Levinson's life, there's another detail that seems connected to the director and the movie.
In Malcolm & Marie, Malcolm complains of a Los Angeles Times movie critic, who gave his previous film a terrible review, but had a positive reaction to his latest work. In 2018, Levinson received a scathing review for Assassination Nation in the Los Angeles Times written by Katie Walsh.
The Los Angeles Times review of Malcolm & Marie, written by Justin Chang, comments on what appears to be a clear connection between Walsh's review and the plot of Malcolm & Marie. Chang's review notes that Malcolm refers to the "white lady from the L.A. Times," which could easily be a stand-in for Walsh. Chang decides to offer "the charitable assumption that Levinson couldn’t possibly be that petty, even if his dialogue here practically constitutes a textbook on human pettiness."
Overall, the L.A. Times review of Malcolm & Marie — titled "Zendaya is great. The rest of ‘Malcolm & Marie,’ not so much" — isn't positive. So, the aspect of the movie where the L.A. Times changes its tune on a director after panning him the first time? Doesn't look like that's a true story, either.