Interview: Barry Levinson
Nov 02 // Hubert Vigilla @HubertVigilla
Barry Levinson's career spans four decades, with acclaimed films like Rain Man, The Natural, Wag the Dog, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Diner under his belt, not to mention the show Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was a bit peculiar to see he was the director of the found-footage eco-horror film The Bay, which comes out today. Yet the film has roots in Maryland, his beloved home state. There was clearly something that Levinson had found interesting about a terrible infection the sweeps through a coastal Anytown, USA.
During the New York Comic Con a few weeks ago, I sat down at a table with other journalists to speak with Levinson about his first foray into the horror genre. He seemed in good spirits despite the clamor of the Javits Center.
In retrospect, I probably should have cosplayed as a parasitic undersea creature for the interview.
[Editor's note: I omitted or reworded some questions and responses in order to avoid spoilers.]
So did you decide to do to this project because of its ecological information or because you just wanted to do something that scared the living shit out of people?
No, it didn't start out-- because I wouldn't know how to approach a frightening, scary movie like, "I gotta think of an idea." What happened is I was up in Baltimore--
Well, that'll scare anybody.
I was approached about doing a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay because it's 40% dead and it has all those ecological issues. And so I gathered information and went, "Ah, this is really frightening." And I thought, I don't know if a documentary is the way to go. But I began to think about it and I said, "Well, I do tell stories -- why don't I take all the information and then weave it into a story so it could become more credible?" And that information that floats out there seems credible and then [becomes] frightening. So it began to evolve that way.
Did you have one science guy that really tipped you to these creatures?
We gathered a lot of stuff and then Mike [Wallach], who wrote the screenplay, came upon the fact that the isopods are a parasite that move from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and they've been changing. When we started to look into it, we went, "Holy god!" It was truly frightening, and we thought this was a nice element to bring into [the film]. It's the next step into it. You start playing with what the bay is -- it's like a stew of disaster -- and you bring [the isopods] into it, you can play with it. So you have 85% factual information. Doesn't matter if you want to pay attention to that or not, it just adds a credibility to the piece. So that's how it evolved.
You're the second high-profile filmmaker I've spoken to this month who's decided to do a found footage film, the first being Rob Burnett who did We Made This Movie. Thing is, he decided to use a RED camera and gunk it up in post. I understand you decided to actually use consumer cameras. In retrospect, good idea or not?
No, I think it was the best thing to do because it is 100%-- We did a test by taking a high-end camera and degrading it. To me it looks like a high-end camera that's degraded. To my eye, it didn't look real. So we took about 100-some cameras and we just kept testing them and projecting them and seeing what they do. And then out of that we picked like 20-some that seemed like, "All right, we'll use this. We'll use the Sony for underwater things, you know, with the kids, and they can go under and whatever. We'll use this. We'll use the iPhone." We just picked and choosed so we had this visual palette. And that to me became as real as you could make it because it is real.
Was there any particular camera that you got out into the field and discovered, "Uh-oh"? And how did you work around that?
Well, the "uh-oh's" came from the fact that if you take an iPhone and you're going to give it to someone to shoot something, you had no video playback. Right? You can't see it at the time. So you'd send a girl into the other room and tell her what to do and how to do the thing -- and you'd have to get in the other because you'd be in the shot -- and then afterwards you come back and you look at it. "That's good. Next time, can you do it like this. Da-da dadada!" And then a couple times with some of the actors, you go to look at it and there's no playback because they didn't hit the record button. [laughs]
[laughs] That's why they're actors and not technicians.
And the other thing is, if you went to a RED camera or one of those things, there's a difference between that camera and the consumer camera you hold in your hand. You can't hold the RED camera the same way. It's subtle, you know, and maybe some people [don't notice], but to me it didn't look real enough. When you see somebody grab a camera from one person to another, exchanging the hand, you cannot do it with a bigger camera. So that's what we went with, and you had to hold your breath initially because everyone was nervous about that idea. You have to be very careful. You gotta take that camera, you gotta download the chip, because you could lose all this information.
As far as the cast, you went with unknowns. What did you look for when you were casting?
I was looking for people that you could just believe as being as real as they can be. It's like, if you put Matt Damon in a role, then the whole movie goes out the window. He can be a great actor, but it tweaks the credibility. So you try to put together this group of people that seemed like, "Oh, we found them." It's like when we talk about the movie, I guess it falls into the found-footage genre, but it never occurred to me about this found-footage genre. I was thinking, "If a catastrophic event happened to a town, and there was no media, how would we know what happened?" And because of all this, now we'll get an intimate look into a town and its people that we never would have had in the history of mankind. All this stuff gives an intimacy that never existed before.
So Pompeii. We say, "Oh, Pompeii," but what was happening to two people in the street? What were they talking about? So that's what I was thinking about. I mean, it sounds stupid and naïve, but I wasn't thinking "found footage"; I was thinking "How do you document it?" Sort of like [it was] anthropological or archaeological. How do you gather this to see what the people were talking about, because they don't know what's going on.
The structure kind of reminded me of citizen journalism with the girl saying, "This is what I saw. This is what I was able to gather." Is this a continuation of how you looked at the way journalism tells stories in Wag the Dog or PoliWood or Man of the Year, even?
I wasn't really thinking of it. I was thinking of... If you had some intern with a little thing who got most of the stuff incorrect and was caught up emotionally in it, because... I was fascinated by the fact that in the beginning -- you know, because I worked in news in the beginning -- and so you have to look at news as a professional and not get caught up in [what you're covering]. And she gets caught up in the emotional aspects of it, because that's where you are in the beginning. I thought, I'm just looking for the human behavior of it all. So the irony is that she stopped filming! She got so scared she couldn't even film anymore. I just liked the idea: she didn't quite understand what was going on, and she couldn't make that step. So I was looking at the human dilemmas of it.
Following up on that, what I think made the film work better than a lot of other found-footage films was the sort of overarching narration that she provided. So is that a conscious decision to help tie it all together?
Yeah, yeah. I though that I needed some connection. I'm a bad student of film in terms of "If I can apply this to that, and if I can do this to that, and so and so did this, and blah, bluh, blah." I don't know how to utilize it, but the one little thing that hovered in my head was, of all things, and we actually used the music for a moment, Our Town. Because in Our Town, The Narrator-- not The Narrator, The Stage Manager. He says, "That's young So-and-So," you know? "He died in World War One. I remember the first time..." He died in World War One? Now I'm going to watch the whole show, and he died in World War One! And there he is! He's in it. So if you watch the movie, in its own little subtlety, they're playing Our Town. [The Stage Manager] says, "All right, that's enough of that. People don't want to hear that music. [Let's have] something more upbeat." Our narrator [in The Bay] says, "That's so-and-so couple. They died at 2:20." You go, "What?" So that would be my only reference. I was using Our Town in that way.
In the process of making the film or in the writing of the script, did you know how much you were ratcheting up the horror of it? It has this Exorcist-like effect. You go in not knowing what you're going to get and then suddenly it gets worse and worse and worse. Did you go, "Let's make it even worse! Let's torture them even more!"
[laughs] What we did is we went along to find a few things and say, "Is it possible that we can do this?" It's part of the fun of it. You're shooting fast and loose and whatever, but there was an added thing, for instance. We had some puppetry [-- the guy who made it was terrific --] and there's a thing where [a woman's] washing her face. And I said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if we have a guy who's lying there, you think he's dead on the other side and they go around." He had this eyeball or whatever. I said, "Could the eye just move just a little. It scares the shit out of her, or whatever." [laughs]
He says, "Yeah, we'll try that, all right!" So we had a guy there and they put this head on him, and the eyeball just moved the slightest amount. And we went, "Oh, that's good, let's try that!" There was a couple times we were saying maybe it'll work, maybe it won't.
Because of all the found-footage films that started coming out, they started almost repeating each other. And one thing that you did that I love is that instead of having one camera that was found and showing that story, you took it from several different cameras and pieced it together. I think that's what really makes this film stand out. Was it written that way?
No, it was designed that way. As you were saying, there were all these different stories and this collection of all these cameras, so some things evolved out. For instance, the iPhone girl. Originally she was supposed to say [to her friend], "Look! I don't know what this is." And that was the end of it. But I sent her in the room and gave her some backstory. I said, "Just talk like you've got your friend [on the other end]. Just talk." And she talked, and I probably kept 30 seconds of it. And I said, "She's so great she's got a video camera on an iPhone, why don't I send her to the hospital, because that's where she's going to go anyway?" Now I've got another camera [when] she's out at the hospital. Look what's going on here. It allowed me to get-- So we built up her role as we went along.
The funny thing is I said to her one day, "I'd like to use you on another scene."
And she said, "Well..."
"So you're not that interested?"
She says, "No, I'd like to, but I'm going to need a note from school." [laughs]
[laughs] That girl also brought a lot of human emotion into it when she's talking to her friend. "There's nothing else to really say, but I don't want to be by myself." I thought that scene was great because it brings that meaningful emotion rather than just people who are running scared.
That was part of the thing. Found footage certainly has its labeling devices, but when you went past it, you find the strange moments of behavior that are completely outside of the box. No one had to be there to video her -- she was there with a camera talking. The intimacy of it. She doesn't really understand what's really going on, and she just desperately wants to hold on to somebody.
And that was the other thing: everyone watching it knows what's going on, and no one else does. And no one really does until the reporter pieces it all together.
While not Baltimore you're at least going back to Maryland, but ironically you shot in South Carolina. If you had the opportunity, would you have shot in-state? And what kept you from doing that?
Um, money. [laughs] Because [Maryland] didn't have the tax incentives and South Carolina did. As it turned out, South Carolina was actually the perfect spot because this town that we shot in was so accessible that rather than getting in a car and driving to the location, we would literally walk over over here and walk over there, we'll go around the corner here. And we were able to move around so fast. The logistics of it were incredibly simple.
And we found-- One of the policemen told us, "Well, you know, there's this quarry that's got this water, and it's pretty clear. You can see under it." Because we were wondering how we were going to do this underwater stuff, and that quarry turned out to be fantastic, and, you know, it was five minutes away. We pull up there, and we're able to jump into the water and do some of those things that otherwise, if you got into the Chesapeake, you can't see that far. You have to see a little bit more.
What movies scared you?
In my lifetime?
Yeah. Could be a political film, but, [you know].
I think the movie that scared me the most when I first saw it was The Thing -- the original Thing. [Editor's note: This is the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World.]
Oh, the original Thing.
The original Thing, when they start to open the door and the hand came out. I remember as a kid going, "WHOA MY G--!" That just scared me to death. That was the first one. And the other thing, which was not a scary scene, but it was a very high-tension scene -- and I remember seeing it as a kid on TV because I didn't see it in the movie theater -- was the original Frankenstein when he comes upon the little girl. And I remember the kid.
[Editor's note: At this point, one of the other journalists at the table said almost inaudibly "That's Bride of Frankenstein."]
A they're there, [and I'm going], "Oh my God, he's going to kill her. And he's playing, and whatever." And I thought that was so fascinating, that the monster's just going, "Huur-uuhurm," you see this other moment of [the monster], and then obviously then he ends up killing her, but you don't quite see it. And I remember as a kid thinking, "That's really great!" Because it's not just the shock-moment of it, it's like, [wondering] what's going to happen. And I thought that was fantastic.
For The Bay, you got lucky with the logistics, but it must have been a lot of planning because of all the different cameras you used before you started shooting. How long did that part of the process take?
It took a while, because as I was saying, we went through like a hundred cameras. You know, we kept testing them, we would look at them, we would go back into the screening room, we'd look at this, we'd compare this camera to that camera. And so it was a whole thing. What do we do, what's going to work? The Google camera -- the Google phone -- it's got a colder temperature, and this one's got this, and you're just whittling it down to those choices. And also, you're trying to figure out what the reliability is going to be for some of these cameras. You know, didn't always hold up.
So when you were shooting, were you shooting multiple cameras during the course of the day?
Yeah, oh yeah. Sometimes, in scenes like the pool party with all those kids, it was probably like seven cameras in there. I gave it to the kids! Said, "Here, play with the thing!" So you'll see the shots where [the camera] goes underwater and coming up, and it's all bizarre stuff. And what you have to do as a director... Obviously a director's got to have control, but you also have to cede a certain amount of control to see what's gonna happen. So you don't know what the hell some of that stuff is, and you can't examine every one of those cameras. You have to take it back and hope that you have something there because you just don't have the time to go through every camera shot. Some of it is-- You don't know.
And, I have to tell you: when I was shooting that pool party -- these were all extras from South Carolina, and the kids are screaming of whatever -- they were so good that I would just sit back and watch them. It's weird because you don't have the camera where you're like, "Oh, okay, good take." Literally, you're watching all this stuff going on and you're hoping that the people you gave cameras to are actually catching what's going on, because we can't cover it. We'd be in the way. So, you've got these cameras and you see those performances, it seems about as real as I could imagine it'd be. And sometimes we'd slip Josh [Nussbaum], our cinematographer. I'd slip him in [a scene] assuming I wouldn't get this and this, and then he would have to be equally as much of an amateur as them, otherwise that camera's going to look better than the others. So you have to deal with that, so sometimes you've got a finger on the lens just to mess things up a bit.
But that was the fun, [playing] with the cameras.
Oh sure. We would lose a few things, and some cameras would jam and break, and as I said, sometimes it never shot -- nothing.
Or drop in the water?
Well, in the water we had these waterproof things, but things would happen. You have to be prepared that you're going to lose [footage] and something's going to go wrong because you're playing with a degree of the unknown.
Do you think you could affect change with this movie? It really emotionally affects you.
Well that's great. That's what I would hope. It's one of the dilemmas of doing this kind of movie where studios want movies to be [one genre]. "Well it's a horror film." And you go, "But it's not a pure horror film." And how do you define [genre] and whatever, and you go, "Look, it's a sci-fi/thriller/horror whatever." It is what it is. I mean, you can't set out to be so defined as a genre for a selling tool.
Can it affect anything? I don't know; I never know. Sometimes all I know is that the Chesapeake Bay is 40% dead, and you can fix it, but you don't. And there's a million reasons why it's not taken care of. Somebody said, "Well, you know, is that going to upset the recreation department and all that stuff?" I don't know, but at some point you either don't say anything until it just tips over and it's all dead or maybe somebody says something and they begin to do improvements. First obligation, you gotta get people to see it, enjoy it, talk about it.
So the takeaway here is to drink more bottled water? [laughs] You're in the pocket of big Brita! You're helping Coca-Cola and the plastics manufacturers!
I had a question about the logo at the end of the film. It's very reminiscent of the old 70s B-movies. Was that intentional of was it just a cool design?
Well you know what happened was I think it was probably when we were going to show it one day. And Aaron [Yanes], my editor, and one of the other guys, David [Editor's note: I'm assuming it's David Andalman, who was assistant editor on the film], I think they were just screwing around on Final Cut just trying things. I said, "Well that looks kinda nice." Slightly kind of cheesy good, right? Something about it. I think that's where it came from. So I don't think we even went to a title house. I think between the two of them they ended up with it, which is one of the fun things about this radical shift that's taking place: there's so many things you can play with, and it's eventually going to change storytelling.
We are looking at probably the greatest revolution in the history of film. It's happening now. Classical forms have changed, the distribution patterns are going to be completely rearranged because you no longer have to carry all the cans [recording inaudible] in order to see it, you know. The internet's going to be carrying all this information; you can see movies when you want to see movies, how you want to see movies -- big screens, small screens. It'll be an interesting time to see where it goes and how this all evolves. But think about in the past: there were people who had stories but can't get those big cameras. So now, you take one of these and you can tell it in any way. Can you tell it better? Whatever. It's like pen and ink came along and someone says, "No, I'm sticking with carving into rock. I'm not changing."
Do you have one of those creatures, a plastic version?
I do, they gave me one of those. And my wife keeps hiding it from me.
[laughs] They are absolutely frightening.
Well you know the funny thing is the first time I showed the movie, I said [to a couple of friends], "You know, the isopod is real." And they said, "Really?" And I said, "No, no, they're real. We didn't make them up" And they went, "Holy shit!" And then I thought, you know something, I could try to push this into the movie a little bit more. So that's where we put all those isopod images that come up, like the one that's two-and-a-half feet long. Just pushed it. Because initially we can't wrap our head around the fact that these things are out in the water, and [grow] from a tiny parasite.
Now, in the movie there's a scene where a character's holding the tweezers, and he says, "Now this here is sometimes referred to as 'sea lice.'" That's not a special effect. That was [real] sea lice. We just pulled a fish out of South Carolina; we just pulled some fish out there and they had the sea lice on them, which is the early stages of the isopod. So that scene where he's holding [the thing up in tweezers] -- that's for real. We didn't have to CGI that. They're out there. Sea lice.
So did you license [sea lice] already to a toy company? [laughs]
[laughs] This guy's always thinking. Thinking ahead. [laughs] Now the one that crawls out of the fish is one that we had to CGI. That one we had to CGI. But that one in the tweezer [shot], that's real.
The CGI is nicely matched to the video. Was it hard to get all the pieces to fit like that?
Yeah it was. As I said to the CGI guys, a lot of movies don't look that real to begin with, so it's okay, and we just accept it. But here, it looks like it's 100% real so if these CGI things aren't spot on, we're dead. So we had to keep going back and playing and playing and playing so we can buy it.
Did the fact you were should degraded video help?
It did, it did. It gave us a little bit of tweaking afterwards if we just beat it up little bit. It would help.
You know, this actually fits your style of storytelling. I think you pioneered a form of storytelling on Homicide: Life on the Street, a cop show we'd never seen done in that style. It's part of your style, essentially.
I never sit down to figure it all out, but it probably has its things to it. The interesting thing about this form is that you know it's a movie and inside it we create our reality, and you cannot screw with the reality unless you want to knock it out. So for instance, like when the police go to the house and they go in, we can't go in [with them]. Because who's in there videoing this thing? There's nobody going to be taking video. All we can do is enhance the audio, and you hear the screaming and whatever, but you can't go it. It creates a certain frustration and anxiety. But if we went in, I think then we'd break the credibility.
So what do you do after a movie like this? What's next?
What's next is I'm in rehearsals for Diner: The Musical. Sheryl Crow wrote the music and we open in April. It's on Broadway. That's been going on for a long time, but that's actually in rehearsals right now.
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