Interview: Barry Levinson

Barry Levinson is tired of sitting around. Literally. Upon entering his downtown Toronto hotel room towards the tail end of the Toronto International Film Festival, the director of such films as Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, and Sleepers has been sitting in a chair doing press interviews all day and he’s relishing the chance to get up, pace around, and starting to get more animated.

His latest film and his first foray into horror (and the new-school found footage movement, working alongside the same team that produced the mega-successful Paranormal Activity thrillers and Insidious), The Bay, finds Levinson going back home to his beloved Maryland to document a fictionalized town that’s being wiped off the face of the Earth by waterborne parasites on its July 4th weekend. It’s a blend of the humour and political satire that Levinson has been known for throughout his career, but this time with a darker meaner undercurrent that was spurned by witnessing one of the largest waterways in the US get destroyed by pollution.

Levinson sat down to talk with us about his latest work (debuting today on DVD in Canada after a brief theatrical run in the States late last year) about how a failed documentary led to his found footage horror, working with a rawer style of shooting than he was used to, and why humour is so important even in the most dramatic of films.

Dork Shelf: In a way it’s kind of surprising that you haven’t done a straight up horror movie before this point because you’ve never been one who has ever shied away from political or economic issues, and if there’s one thing that’s a common thread are the political and economic issues going on under the surface. What made this the right time to make this particular film?

Barry Levinson: I don’t know, really. Look, I can enjoy horror films, but I don’t think I ever really had the mentality before to think of a horror story. It’s not like I go “You know what I think would be a scary thing to do?” I don’t really think like that, and I really wouldn’t even know where to begin.

The short version about how this one really began was that I came from Baltimore and I had done all of these Baltimore stories and I had done Homicide and somebody had asked me if we could do a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay and all of its polluted issues. I said “sure,” and in doing the research I found out that PBS had done this piece on Frontline about the pollution that was happening there and it was funny to see and ask “Well, did people get all up in arms?” and no, they really didn’t. So I went back to the people who wanted to produce this and I said that I provably couldn’t do it as well as they had done. It was a really good documentary and I don’t think I could have ever improved it or moved away from it.

Then I’m talking to my assistant a few days later and I said that if you took all of these facts and some creative storytelling and all of these characters that you can care about and sympathize with, maybe then with all of the facts it would become more exciting. It can certainly scare the hell out of you and that seemed like a really interesting thing to do, and that’s what led to The Bay.

DS: It definitely retains that sort of documentary feeling and quality. It stands exactly like a kind of WikiLeaks styled expose, which is a creative way of using and bringing new media into the equation. Was that an easy decision for you to make and using this style or did you consider making it a straight up mockumentary?

BL: No. Immediately when the idea occurred to me everything else sort of fell into place. You had to go down the road of using some raw, ragged, digital formats, which we did. We shot with 21 different digital formats even thought where underwater or out on boats or what have you, and then it came to me that the idea should be where we shot it fast and cheap. We made it for just a little bit under two million dollars. We shot it in 18 days. Each of these characters would always have slightly different cameras so it always constantly looked different. The surveillance cameras will always look like surveillance cameras, but the couple on the boat have a different quality from the other major characters with cameras.

DS: It’s a film that definitely cops to the fact that everyone has a camera these days.

BL: Always! Which is what we do and why we have them! I kind of went down the road that once you established that everything will fall into place. You need basically unknown actors, even though we know overall it’s a movie. I mean, you could put Matt Damon in the same scenario, but that still changes it. If you put movie stars in it, it wouldn’t seem credible. I mean, (Steven) Soderbergh could do it in something like Contagion, but I wouldn’t apply to this. The whole thing here would just disappear and it would never hold up. I needed it to always be unknowns for these elements to all come into place and be compatable.

At the end of the day, we know it’s a movie. Audiences are too savvy. It’s not like back in the day like a train pulling into the station and you can just point the camera and just show it to the audience and they can say “woah!” We’re all hip to it, and not to mention that ever film ends with a “written by” and “directed by” credit. But within the fact that it’s not real, you still have obligations to the form you’re working in. So you have to create a scenario where everything will follow through.

DS: There’s a real sense of humour to it, too. You have a lot of interesting sight gags and sly moments of commentary. What’s it like trying to inject that into a story that’s coming from such a serious place?

BL: I always feel that you always have to try to get humour in because it’s part of life. Dramatic situations always have comedic moments. Movies that are just dramatic from beginning to end I always think have a real falseness to them because even in the most serious moments there’s always a certain degree of humour. It’s the way we behave. It just is. If you can find a way that it can happen once you have the characters are drawn up, then that’s a great thing to have here and there. Even in the worst situations you have to enjoy your time. That’s just life.

DS: Were there any challenges for you making a movie like this in such a fast and dirty fashion across so many different formats?

BL: It’s a much different challenge. I don’t know if it’s really a bigger challenge. But with it, you have to figure out how to shoot a scene when you eliminate the need to have things like an over the shoulder, or a two-shot, or a single, etc. I had to figure out all over again how to do the scene. That becomes how to choreograph it, and I don’t think people pay much attention to that, but I don’t know. For instance, if you have a squad car responding to a 911 call, it starts five blocks away with cars making a turn and getting waved around things, hitting the sirens, driving around, getting out of the car, moving around to the front, the sheriff comes up to the car, they all get together, they start talking, and it’s all going to have to be in one shot because there’s no other footage that would have existed in this situation. No one is going to have those other angles logically. It was hard to figure out where that was all going to be.

DS: Did you have to unlearn a lot of the things you learned over your career in terms of how to keep it realistic or how to think cinematically?

BL: Yeah, and I mean, you have to figure that out. There’s a scene in the movie where we have two kids down by a dock and we have to see the both of them. So they take the camera from one another; he grabs it from her and she grabs it from him, so we can see everything that’s necessary in a scene. You gotta figure out how to do that and it was a little tricky like trying to learn a new magic trick to try and figure out these kinds of things.

DS: Well, moreso than anything even though you have the script and you know how you want to go from Point A to Point B you might have to adapt sort of on the fly to fit your given situation. Was there ever a moment where that had to happen?

BL: I don’t know if you have to adapt to these things, but I certainly think there were a lot of things that we had to take advantage of. For example, there’s the young girl with the iPhone who’s talking to her friends, and her turning the camera to people and herself to tell people to look at what was going on, and that was basically all there was, but I thought the girl was really interesting. I told her all the backstory and where her parents were and I just gave her this whole thing, and because we can’t watch it when it’s being filmed, we just centred her in a bathroom with her iPhone and relaying all these things, and I was just listening in through a door and then check the footage to see if the shot looked correct. I liked her and I thought the shot was interesting, and I thought I should put her in the hospital, so that character ended up going there finally and she became another kind of DP. When she’s there it’s another point of view in this hospital and another story because she can pan around, and there’s some great stuff that we got from her and that we set up that we probably wouldn’t have gotten or thought about otherwise. I added her to other parts of the movie because she was so interesting, so you always have to be ready to take advantage of things like that whether it be on something like this or something else.

DS: You also have situations escalating in different ways in different areas, is that something that gets hard to pare down and pace in terms of what viewpoints are the most accessible and the ones that make the most sense to the story overall?

BL: Absolutely. You have to be open to allow things to happen, but you have to be on top of it and you have to control it so it doesn’t fly off into space. There’s that balance that you have to find.

DS: Was it interesting to go back to the Baltimore area and make an incredibly dark story where you essentially wipe everyone out?

BL: (laughs) Well, first of all we didn’t shoot in Chesapeake Bay, we shot elsewhere, but it’s a combination of things. The first, and this is something that’s relevant to the whole country in a sense, is that the largest estuary in the United States is 40% dead. You have the chicken industry that is dumping massive amounts of chicken excrement into the bay. There are a lot of drugs and human waste that find their way into the bay. You have, obviously, chemical agricultural run offs from farm lands that are coming in, as well. There’s a lot of elements out there that are essentially destroying the Chesapeake Bay. You would assume that they would be able to say that they understand the economics and the business in here, but no one is asking how to find the balance, because of this thing tips and it dies, everything dies with it. The hospitality and hotel industry is in the shithouse, then the restaurants, the pretty soon everything else around it dies. It is parasitic, and then you start walking a tightrope. How do you comment on that and not simply run and ad telling people “Ride a bike! Save the Bay!”? That’s just not going to cut it and it takes a lot to come up with better answers than the one’s we’re coming up with. And you can’t just keep ignoring the environment like the environment can take care of itself. It can only do that to a certain degree before it all falls apart, so you say that we can do better. If you say that you can’t find someone who can say that, then that’s truly scary because you’re talking about a crazy person.