To study Barry Levinson's filmography is to study the history of contemporary American cinema. Famous for his 1982 debut Diner (a forefather to today's Seinfelds and Apatows), Levinson is also responsible for canonical gems like Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man and Wag the Dog. More a narrative director than his “movie brat” contemporaries, Levinson's films remind audiences that Hollywood was built through great storytelling.
Levinson recently visited Toronto for TIFF 12 to promote his new film The Bay, a $2-mllion found footage horror movie about a murderous parasite that invades a fictional town on Chesapeake Bay. TORO spoke with the director about tackling a new genre, working with actors like Robert De Niro and his anger with American politics.
Related >> The Trailer for Levinson's TIFF Film The Bay
Most directors make genre films at the beginning of their careers. Why did you make a horror film now?
Well, originally I was going to do a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay and the fact that it’s 40 per cent dead. But there's been work about it done before and nobody paid attention. So, I thought if I could take all the facts and do some storytelling, and create characters that we care about, then maybe that would resonate more than the news on TV.
Can you talk about the learning curve involved in directing a found footage movie for the first time?
The challenge was this: How do you approach a scene when you don’t have the luxury of a two-shot, an over-the-shoulder, etc.? How do you tell the story visually? I’ve seen some of the other found footage movies but none of them really apply. Those movies are much “tighter” — they’re normally in a house or something and use one camera. With The Bay, we’re in a whole town and we’ve got six or seven different stories. Sometimes we’d be using a surveillance camera or a cell phone camera, and you've got to let it all run. A lot of the time you’re just figuring out how not to shoot the crew!
The Bay has an immense tension from beginning to end. How do you maintain that mood on set with your actors?
I don’t know if it’s any different from writing a long piece of music. You say, “Look, over here, we have to sustain this.” Movies ebb and flow. But you have to keep that idea in your head. One of the hardest things about filmmaking is its fragmentation. You're not editing in advance but you’re keeping in mind that there’s a rhythm to the movie.
The Bay’s villain is not really a person or creature — it’s water. Since water is omnipresent, was it easier for you to create scary scenes?
No, it’s actually more complicated because the real fear is in the water, not on the land. If you had a mad man running through the town at night, it’s always like, “What’s that sound? ... Don’t open the door. ... Is there someone upstairs?” Those tactics don’t apply to this movie.
Why did you use unknown actors for this film?
Well, I’ve done that in the past. All the way back to Diner (Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser), they were all unknowns. You have to have unknowns because The Bay’s supposedly real. You can’t have Brad Pitt or Matt Damon in the movie because it will have no credibility.
When you work with “big” actors like Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, is it your job as a director to stand out of the way?
You always have to work with actors. They can give incredible performances but they might not be right for what you want. I always say it’s like “controlled freedom.” You’re always moving people around and telling them what to do. And there are requirements of a given scene that must be reached.
The Bay paints a picture of bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude. Are you disenchanted with politics?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how you can’t be. It’s a disaster what’s happened in the States. I don’t know how the Supreme Court came up with the idea that you can spend as much you want to elect a President and not understand the disastrous results. We might as well use a couple billion dollars for something else. It costs more to elect someone than to invest in a meaningful program. It’s ridiculous. We don’t deal with any of the real issues. We’re sort of lost. We’re not dealing with the future in a way that would be responsible.