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Director Shawn Levy, left, actors Ben Stiller, centre, and Steve Carell attend the New York City premiere of Date Night on April 6. ((Dave Allocca/Starpix/Associated Press))

Shawn Levy's Date Night may look like an improv project, in which stars Tina Fey and Steve Carell spice things up by tossing out bons mots.

But the Montreal-born director of the weekend box office hit says that "off the cuff" atmosphere is the result of months of work on the script with the two comedians.

"I approach comedy as a collaboration," said Levy, who also directed Night at the Museum I and II and The Pink Panther.

"If you want to direct comedy, you can't approach directing like a dictatorship … in comedy what you realize early on is that you are a servant of the specific tone and the skill set of your comedic stock," he told CBC's Q cultural affairs show on Tuesday in an interview from Detroit, where he is directing his next movie.

Levy described working with the scriptwriter Josh Klausner, then consulting repeatedly with Fey and Carell, two of TV's hottest comedians, to get the feel right.

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"It feels off the cuff," he said. "It's got a natural quality to it, but in truth I'd say 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the movie is maybe improvised. The reason that 100 per cent of it feels loose in that way is because I spent a year working on the screenplay in collaboration with Steve and Tina."

Carell and Fey play the married couple who have to flee a group of crooks after a case of mistaken identity in Date Night.

Now 41, Levy has worked with Steve Martin on The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen, as well as with Ben Stiller and now Fey and Carell.

"You can't approach your actors with trepidation or with anxiety," he said. "It's up to you to make them comfortable enough to bring their egg in — to bring the good stuff that will elevate your movie."

Levy's early career as an actor was in drama. He graduated from Yale at age 20 and went directly to Los Angeles to work on the TV series Thirtysomething.

"I had a sense from an early age that stuff I wanted to do was populist, Hollywood-style fare," Levy said, explaining why he headed straight for Hollywood. "It wasn't until I started making films that I realized, you know what, the funny stuff comes naturally to me."

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Tina Fey and Steve Carell, the hapless couple in Date Night, are just two of the stars Shawn Levy has worked with. ((Myles Aronowitz/20th Century Fox/Associated Press))

He also found that studios and networks were keen on comedy and he's had many opportunities that film school colleagues who made dark, edgy films have not.

"I was the one who got jobs — audiences kept finding my movies," Levy said. "It went a long way to assuaging the pain of not being the cool kid on the block."

Levy said his comedy incorporates a mix of the verbal and the physical and has to stay warm-hearted. He admits to aiming for the earnest, not the cynical.

Date Night is "unabashed about being warm-hearted," he said. "It's a bit of a love letter to marriage."