Victor Levin, the writer-director of the new romantic film "5 to 7," grew up in suburban New York in a very traditional family. So he couldn't quite wrap his mind around the married couple he met when he was traveling with his then-girlfriend in France in the late 1980s.
"We stayed with friends of hers who were older and married," recalled Levin, adding he "couldn't believe my eyes" that not only did the couple have an open marriage, their boyfriend and girlfriend were visiting. And they were all terribly civilized with the arrangement.
"I really didn't know what to make of it," he said. "My girlfriend said, 'Just be quiet, keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and you might learn something."
So he did.
And what struck him about the arrangement, he said, was that everyone involved was so respectful of each other. "There were rules. There were boundaries. I had to appreciate the choreography and sophistication of it all."
Now nearly 30 years later, Levin ("The Larry Sanders Show," "Mad Men") has incorporated that experience into "5 to 7," which opens Friday and stars Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek") as Brian, a struggling young New York writer.
"He's looking for a bigger piece of gum to chew," said Levin, in a recent joint interview with Yelchin. "His life has not given him that yet. A lot of writing is being able to write beautiful sentences, but you also have to have a subject. That's what's missing when we start the movie."
But that all changes when Brian meets a beautiful older French woman (Bérénice Marlohe) named Arielle while she's smoking a cigarette outside the St. Regis Hotel. She's married and the mother of two young children. Their attraction is immediate. The two embark on an affair, which, she tells him, can only take place between 5 and 7 p.m. As their affair blossoms, Arielle becomes Brian's muse.
The film also stars Glenn Close and Frank Langella as Brian's parents and Lambert Wilson as Valery, Arielle's husband who also has a lover of his own, a young literary editor (Olivia Thirlby).
Levin pursued Yelchin for the role, he said, because he was knocked out by the young actor's performance in "Like Crazy," the 2011 romantic drama in which he plays an American college student who falls in love with a British student (Felicity Jones).
"I felt he was authentic in every frame," said Levin. "He could make so much of his silences. I thought this is a person who is going to be funny and is going to carry the drama, which is very important for this film. Hopefully, there are some good laughs, but your heart has to break with this young man."
He then spent two days writing Yelchin a long "beseeching" letter asking him to do the film.
Yelchin never got the letter but he did receive the script.
As soon as he read it, the actor jumped on board.
"Why would I say no? I haven't done anything quite like this. It moved me. This idea that someone who looks at the world one way and has that view turned upside down, but ultimately has to come to terms with it being ephemeral. That's really the journey — understanding that what you shared doesn't go away even if it doesn't last. That is the kind of profound thing that we all have to learn and contend with as human beings."
Brian is more of an optimist than Yelchin. "I am very different from Brian in a certain kind of fundamental way," he noted. "I am a little more cynical than he is about things and pessimistic. Brian is not a very jaded human being."
Though Yelchin loved working with Marlohe, who played an ill-fated Bond girl in "Skyfall," and Close and Langella, he was most impressed meeting social activist Julian Bond on the production. The veteran civil-rights leader has a cameo in a dinner party sequence at Arielle and Valery's house.
"I couldn't wrap my mind around that," said Yelchin. "Not to slight the profession of acting, but to meet someone who fought for something that goes beyond cinema."
Levin, who counts François Truffaut, Lina Wertmüller and Woody Allen among his influences, said that New York was "the only American city I could see this story taking place. I feel like I am walking around in a work of art there. It is a city that has a strong pedestrian life, meaning that you do meet people on the street."