Along with John Waters, Cal Ripken Jr. and precious few others, Barry Levinson holds a special designation in the hearts of Charm City’s citizenry: hometown hero.
Besides winning the Academy Award for Best Director for 1988’s “Rain Man” and for directing such hits as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Bugsy” and “The Natural,” Levinson set his acclaimed quartet of films in his native Baltimore: “Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.”
Levinson’s newest film, “The Wizard of Lies,” about stockbroker, investment advisor and financier Bernie Madoff, will air May 20 on HBO. The film starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer will also be presented May 4 at 4 p.m. on the second day of the 19th annual Maryland Film Festival.
It will be the first feature film shown at the recently renovated Stavros Niarchos Parkway Theatre at 5 W. North Avenue. Levinson is scheduled to be on hand to introduce the film. His documentary “Diner Guys” opened the first Maryland Film Festival in 1999.
In a recent half-hour phone interview, Jmore spoke to Levinson, 75, about his latest film, career and Baltimore roots.
Jmore: What attracted you to “The Wizard of Lies”?
Levinson: When I looked at the material prior to having the rewrite done, it reminded me loosely of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” The greed of the father destroyed his sons and other airmen, and ultimately that greed destroyed his whole family in the play. I thought there are connections you can make to Madoff. He destroyed his family and thousands of other people. You can understand Madoff in how he deals with his family. This is the man, and at the same time this is the monster. That’s the approach to the final draft of the script, which is sort of interesting because it was written by my son, Sam Levinson.
We don’t have to be totally sympathetic to the main character, but I think we have to be engaged by the monster. That’s the trick. We can understand him to a certain degree, but not completely because he doesn’t understand himself completely. That doesn’t mean we’re not fascinated. How much are we supposed to be in love with Frankenstein? We’re not, but we’re fascinated by the monster. Perhaps that’s a poor analogy, but creating this fascination is a part of storytelling, that’s what keeps us engaged.
Any takeaways from “The Wizard of Lies”?
It’s presumptuous to say there are takeaways. The reality is that people are continually fooled by con men, and the con men keep changing. [Madoff] wasn’t a fast-talking, slick guy. He was sort of the opposite. He was conservative, quiet and he acted like, “I don’t really need your money.” That was his game, his con.
We do want to believe in certain people and certain institutions. Periodically, the people betray us and the institutions betray us. We got conned by, for example, Wall Street institutions in 2008. In addition to saying he didn’t need your money, he didn’t offer the highest returns. If you were looking for a quick buck, other firms returned greater numbers. Madoff’s trick was to be the conservative place but consistent, all the time consistent. So Madoff seemed like the safe bet.
Why has Baltimore frequently been the subject of your films? You moved away a long time ago.
Writers write about what they know. Baltimore is what I know. My first 18 years were in Baltimore, so I wrote about family and friends. That’s the way you begin. You can’t speculate about what people outside of your community are going to relate to. You can’t even guess. If it’s interesting to me, I hope it’s interesting to other people. Sometimes, that’s the nature of film.
In “Avalon,” who would have thought that cutting the Thanksgiving turkey [before the late arrival of family members] was something people would relate to? But people in Europe and throughout this country have commented about it.
Aluminum siding guys [in “Tin Men”] were not part of the family, but I’d been around them a lot because they always came to the diner [where Levinson famously hung out with friends]. They’d drive up in their Cadillacs, wearing flashy clothes, sit on the left side and we’d sit on the right side.
Have Jewish values influenced your work?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because I don’t really know. I grew up with parents and grandparents in the same house. They had a set of values of how you function and respect people and deal with society. I didn’t necessarily learn that in temple or Hebrew school.
Religion is religion but you want to understand, why did a person do this? Why did that happen? You want some kind of answers. I know there was questioning in the yeshivas of Europe, but in Hebrew school the questioning didn’t go down so well.
I only went to Hebrew school for a short period of time. I got into trouble because of asking certain questions that the teacher didn’t want to discuss. He thought I was being flippant. For example, I asked, “How come God doesn’t talk to anyone anymore? He talked to Moses, but God doesn’t talk to anyone anymore. And if someone says, ‘God is speaking to me,’ people think he has mental issues.” That didn’t go over well with the teacher.
Who are your mentors and influencers?
Jim Silman was a teacher at American University who also worked at WTOP as a program director. He took a liking to me. Around 1963-1964, he got me a job at WTOP, Channel 9, in Washington as a floor director, sort of like a training program. I also worked there as an assistant director, then I worked in the promotions department. Jim got me into that television station to work, and he also kept encouraging me. He opened the door for me and got me thinking about things. It was like putting a kid in a toy store.
Mel Brooks was a huge influence on me. In 1974, ‘75 and ‘76, we wrote together and worked together in casting [and] shooting. We went through every step. That was incredibly helpful. And at the same time, I used to tell him stories about the guys I knew at the diner. He was the one who said, “You know, you should write about that.” And that was the first time I thought about writing the “Diner.”
You’ve directed some of the best actors in the world. What’ve been the biggest surprises?
These great actors have this talent. You can’t define it. If you can set up the situation correctly, they can do moments on screen that are fascinating, surprising and unexpected. How they do it is a complete mystery.
You try to set the table so that surprises can happen. That’s what you’re hoping for. You need the right actors around them, the right setup. And if you set it correctly, at times they will surprise you.
There are a lot of different ones. If I point to one, I think of Robin Williams. He was such an amazing man. In “Good Morning, Vietnam,” we were filming a classroom setup, but the Vietnamese men and women couldn’t deliver the lines as written. They spoke enough English that you could communicate with them, but the lines were forced.
So we had a break and I saw Robin talking to these Vietnamese people, and they were laughing. He had such curiosity, he would ask questions and they would answer, laughing. He was saying things to them and they were laughing, and they were saying things to him and he was laughing. That was real.
So I said to Robin, “Let’s forget about the dialogue that’s written for this scene. You just start talking to them, and we’ll build the scene that way.” He just started talking with them and I used hand signals for the camera to roll, to move to one side or the other, to move around. No one knew we were filming, and everyone was laughing. We were really getting their personalities on film, to really express themselves. That was all because of Robin’s ability to interact with people, to connect with them.
Advice for budding filmmakers?
My advice is that it’s easier to write than direct. If you have an interest in writing, write. You might as well start with yourself or some event you know well, and you need a point of view.
You used to need a big camera to direct but now, anyone with an iPhone can tell a story visually. You can film something. You can start off with a five-minute story, then a 10-minute story.
How do you like to be thought of by people?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I have no idea what they’re supposed to think. The main thing with me has been in pursuit of ideas that interest me and I hope that others find them fascinating, too. I liked the idea of “Rain Man.” I liked that idea and that we were going to handle autism in a non-clinical fashion. This was before people were talking about autism.
Just do what fascinates you and hope that other people will share your interest. That’s the only thing I do or care about. I don’t hold much water in what people are supposed to think about me. There are way too many great writers and directors that nobody remembers anymore. So just do what you think will work.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
Photos of Barry Levinson with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro provided by Baltimore Pictures (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
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