Barry Levinson Chapter 3


INT: What's it [traditional filmmaking] coming to now, Barry?
BL: Exactly. No, it’s a huge difference. It’s a huge difference. [INT: And this idea that it’ll sound the same, yeah, that’s fine, but the people won’t be acting the same. And they don’t really care because they can’t tell the difference I guess.] There’s a fundamental difference. I think it’s probably coming to… [Phone rings] [INT: What’s it coming to Barry?] It’s coming to an end now because I think all of those kinds of formal rules have sort of gone by the wayside and it’s because now we’re moving into another time so the idea that in a sense what became more of the traditional thing of over the shoulder, and a two shot, and single, and therefore you don’t talk, and you don’t overlap, and all that, that’s all kind of beginning to drift away. [INT: Hopefully. And I guess IPhones and everybody making their home movies at home is just breaking the form too much.] And also the film language continues to evolve. Film language continues to change from its earliest days to now. I remember when we did HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET] I did the pilot for it and I specifically wanted a certain kind of look to it and because it was not going to be an action cop show, I felt that it needed a certain degree of, not action, but a certain edginess about it and so we shot it with Super 16, which was really, I think, maybe might have been maybe the first show shot on Super 16. All hand held. Never on sticks and building in the jump cut into it and the show has built in jump cuts. Jump cuts are part of its style and I remember having this one editor initially on it and he could not cut it and it was just too hard for him to wrap his head around it. [INT: To undo the constraints he’d gotten used to I guess?] Yeah, he couldn’t figure out how you make that work and he just grew up in a different time. And I brought in Jay Rabinowitz who’s a young editor and he immediately knew, like of another generation, and he really knew how to play with that. So the language keeps evolving. [INT: Did you direct a lot of HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET] or just the pilot?] I did the pilot and I think I did one other one because you develop a, we brought a lot of young directors through it over the seven years that we did the show. [INT: It’s such a good show.]


INT: Also you, am I correct, when you came into the time of doing HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET] was a time when television especially where you were, what you were working for then, was very welcoming of new ideas. You didn’t have any objections to your shooting style? I imagine they really embraced it yes? Your network?
BL: They didn’t embrace the shooting style because they were always complaining. [INT: Oh they did?] They were always complaining about that but the good thing was that NBC stayed with the show. So we had a seven-year run but they were always going do you have to do that and this and that etcetera but that was part of…[INT: I thought they knew how important it was to the show but I guess not.] It’d be nice here if it just, nicer and prettier. [INT: Pretty homicide. OZ wasn’t pretty.] Nope. [INT: How did OZ happen? Whose idea was it? How did it grow up?] It was Tom’s [Tom Fontana] idea to do it and it almost seems and by today’s standards because we went over to HBO and Chris Albrecht and it was literally like saying “Yeah, a thing like and that and whatever and a something.” And he said, “Yeah, OK, let’s do it.” And it was literally like as basic a conversation as you can have. [INT: And this was a pick up not a pilot yes?] Right. It was a pick up to do the piece and so it was kind of, and that had a nice run. I believe, I think it’s the first HBO series. I think. I could be wrong. [INT: Really? It could be.] I’d have to double check. [INT: It’s certainly before SEX AND THE CITY, I know that.] Yeah. Definitely. I have to double check. I could be wrong. I’ll be right back, stay here. [INT: Even now it really pushes the envelope don’t you think?] Yeah. It does. [INT: I directed one episode, I wouldn’t even say it’s the climax of it, was the hanging upside down of the naked Nazi with the Swastika cut in his chest. Every once in a while at one o’clock in the morning I’ll be channel surfing and I’ll go, “Oh, look there’s my naked Nazi.” Very vulnerable situation to be in. But that was so interesting the way you, how did the set evolve? That amazing, one, giant room, that you started off in and I know later on you moved to New Jersey but when you were on 15th Street, how did that happen?] That was, Tom had always talked about that aspect of it. That particular, the way it looked to it. So that was literally from the inception, it didn’t evolve that much. [INT: It was such an important part of it that you could walk anywhere and you’d be in your reality. I really thought those guys, I think some of those people weren’t sure whether they were in prison or not.] I know. It got to be that way when you were on the set. [INT: I wanted a guide when I came in to say which of these people actually are dangerous and which of them it’s OK, I shouldn’t worry about them because there seemed to be a few kind of interesting people there?] Yes. Rather questionable. [INT: It was good. I liked it a lot.]


INT: Did you like working in television? What was the experience for you?
BL: Look, I’ve always liked, a lot of at that time, a lot of film directors didn’t do TV, but it didn’t make any difference to me. It’s like what works here, I mean, originally HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET] was sent to me, the book, as a possible film and when I read it I said, “Well, this is like perfect for television because you can play it all out. Not at a two hour form but in this long form.” You create the various stories, and the homicide squad, and what goes on, and how does it affect them, how does it affect their lives and it seemed perfect for television. And so we were able to push it through and look, there’s a lot of things that TV can do that features can’t do. And I thought it was right so I had no reservations about it. It’s like, you know, look, story telling is story telling. Wherever you can tell it, however you can get it in there and the style of it, which we did some experiments on to see how you could shoot with Super 16. What are the limitations and the possibilities of cutting, and how to accentuate the jump cuts, and how would we do this, and this. So we did a little experimenting to come up with the look. [INT: Did you and Tom [Tom Fontana] write it together? I couldn’t remember. The pilot?] No. Paul Attanasio did it. [INT: Oh he did?] Because he has written for a company was, QUIZ SHOW we did, and DISCLOSURE, and DONNIE BRASCO. So he developed, we developed all those things with him and so that’s how HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET] came about.


INT: How did Kevorkian [YOU DON’T KNOW JACK] happen?
BL: I got the script sent to me. [INT: Seriously? A finished script?] Yeah. [INT: A spec script?] No. HBO was interested in doing it and I thought it was potentially good and we got Al [Al Pacino] in it and went from there. [INT: Was there a lot of improvisation in the movie? It seemed as if there were sections that were improvised, I wasn’t sure.] Yeah, because I began to find with Al [Al Pacino] because I hadn’t worked with him, I’d spent a little time oddly enough was in …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL that during the rehearsal period Norman Jewison invited Valerie Curtin and myself to be there during the rehearsal period. So I was around Al [Al Pacino] a little bit back then. And so I got to know him over the years, but I’d never worked with him, but as soon as we started playing around in rehearsals a little bit and began to see, well we can kind of play a little bit here and fiddle, and then that’s what we started to do. So you use it whenever you can. [INT: Because not all actors can do that don’t you think?] No, not all actors can and he seemed to be really good, so I was kind of encouraging those little moments and Brenda [Brenda Vaccaro] was very good at that too. [INT: Well one of my favorite scenes was there was a scene between the two of them at the restaurant, at the table there.] At Bob’s Big Boy. [INT: Which I thought was just a fantastic scene and there was a lot of overlapping and I couldn’t have imagined, I could imagine it being scripted, but I couldn’t imagine it being scripted that in the complex interchanges that were going on there.] Yeah, because it got a little layered as we kept playing with it and it’s still basically the script but these other things find their way into it so that it really seems as if, in this case, brother and sister arguing about all this stuff, and it goes over it, and gets mixed up, and how he doesn’t hear what she’s saying, and she’s not hearing what he’s saying. So you can kind of add that to it and they were very good at that. And so any time that I can take advantage of that and it shows itself you go for it. [INT: And I guess it doesn’t necessarily mean that an actor’s great or not great because they can or can’t do it because some great actors just are too terrified to make up anything I guess?] They are and sometimes some people do it and it becomes very artificial and the lines seem not credible enough. And Al [Al Pacino] just seemed to be very natural. Sometimes things would come out or turned around or whatever, inverted or added something. You find, take what works. You make a little note and you can always use it or not use it. And so I wanted to add that to it. I didn’t want the piece to be so exact. There should be a messiness in it. So that there are these scenes where he is talking and playing around like in the gallery with his artwork and he’s talking to them, and some people were saying different things, things are being made up, and it just sort of, it layers it a little bit. It’s not an invention of a scene but it kind of layers it. Same thing with playing poker, moments where you can add in some fashion.


INT: Was it a fast schedule? How many days? Do you remember?
BL: Yeah. It was pretty quick. I think it was a forty day shoot maybe? And we were constantly moving all the time. [INT: You had a lot of locations?] Yeah. A lot. [INT: And Kevorkian [Jack Kevorkian] was a consultant on it? Was he involved with it?] No. Nope. He didn’t see it until we finished it. [INT: I imagine he was happy with it, yeah?] He was. He’s a strange character. He’s funnier than you would imagine. He does have a sense of humor and we sent him a copy and he went to see it in some place in Detroit. And so I spoke to him after he saw it, now you can imagine here’s this man and this period he went through and the fact that he got sent to jail for eight years and all of this. So he went, “So I just saw it.” He says, “Very good, very good. I love the editing.” And he was kind of talking about it in this kind of way about the editing and the something and the way the music was used and whatever. I don’t think he quite could settle into and this is me. That took a little bit more time and then after…[INT: Was he aware of how much Al [Al Pacino] sounded like him? Did he catch that?] No, he did at one point. He says, “You know I thought it was me for a minute. I thought it was me.” And that was in subsequent conversations. He didn’t really ever say that at the beginning but in later conversations he would talk about that, kid about it. He’s a character and that’s why it’s sometimes it’s fun to, before we were shooting I met with him and we were talking and some of the lines got into the movie because he would say certain things where you go, “That’s a great line. We have to sneak that in the movie somewhere.” So there are little lines that kind of peppered throughout. At one point while we’re having lunch someone said, “Jack would you like some coffee?” He says, “Yeah that’d be good.” They said, “Decaf?” And he went, thought about it, “No, no. Decaf is for cowards.” I thought that’s a great line and we’ve got to put it in the movie somewhere because it’s like you know when you’re doing something which is basically a biopic in a way but you still want to find those little moments that surprise you as opposed to just these big moments. It’s the little moments that add to the credibility of the piece. [INT: And it helps take away from that you’re never preaching. Right?] Yeah. [INT: Because it really didn’t ever seem like you were proselytizing in anyway, which was great.] I mean that’s what you want to get to so it just wanted to be this grand piece and you just want it to somehow that all of this little kind of moments kind of creep through the piece. [INT: Are you going to do any more HBO movies? Might you?] I would certainly, I mean, depending on what they want to do. I mean it was great working for them. [INT: Isn’t it fun?] It’s great. [INT: And they promote it fantastically well. And you got a million awards right?] You know you get a lot of you know they push it out there so people are really aware of it and in this case they’re not afraid because if you did this theatrical they’d be very nervous, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t say that it’s really about, it’s about someone and the right to make a decision about, let’s not say that, let’s not say this.” HBO, boom, this is what it’s about.


INT: Also, it’s so amazing that television, which used to be so conservative, you couldn’t be on television in I LOVE LUCY and sleep in the same bed. Your foot had to be on the floor at all times. Television is now where you can do and say anything and movies are where you have to be careful or you’ll get the backlash from different political groups. It’s kind of switched I think, in some way right?
BL: It’s true. Although not that that would get that it’s just that the studios are in a sense have become more old fashioned than what’s going on in television. That theatrically they’ve become less daring. Television has become more daring. I mean I think that you are seeing, and I think I’ve said this before, I think we’re really seeing now theatrically is General Motors at the time of selling just SUV’s and that is where we are, where they are. I think they’re sort of losing touch with a radically changing landscape. Not that you can’t make all those but somehow you’ve got to stay a little bit more in touch with what’s going on out there. And television is, it’s good, and bad, and whatever, but it’s much more varied. It’s got a much wider scope of what they’re doing. Theatrical is only working in this one area. It’s not surprising you’re always hearing from people, “I don’t know. There’s nothing to go see in the movies,” because there’s only one kind of movie getting made, you know? [INT: Yes there’s one channel to watch basically.] So it’s like we’d be Baskin Robbins saying, “Yes, we have strawberry.” “What about…” “No, no, no. Strawberry.” You say, “But what about all these other flavors?” “I know. We do strawberry.” And that’s kind of where we are.


INT: Going back over, cherry picking a couple of movies that we haven’t talked about yet. I’d love to hear you talk about BUGSY for a while. I love the movie and Annette Bening and Warren [Warren Beatty] were very, the chemistry did seem to be fantastic. It’s not always true that people who are falling in love make great, in real life, are not necessarily exciting together on screen but I thought they were.
BL: No, they were great together. I mean that was a great period. I really enjoyed, because I always hear, “How difficult was it working with Warren [Warren Beatty]? I mean he’s a control freak.” Or whatever it may be. We had a great relationship and remained close over all these years. He was great to work with. The only thing I had said when he gave me the script, which was two hundred and x number of pages that Jimmy Toback [James Toback] wrote, I said, “I think this is great. Let’s do this but commit to start the movie on this particular date.” Because he had had it for like nine years. [INT: Yeah, you figured it out quickly.] And it was forever that they were going on with it and he said, “OK,” and then we went and Jimmy [James Toback] came out and then the three of us would just constantly be working on it and the same time we were moving ahead to do the film. When I was impressed with Warren [Warren Beatty] is that he was not afraid of, in a sense, what is my persona and how am I going to be perceived? Because if you think about the movie; here’s a leading man who basically says goodbye to the wife and kids, goes downtown, meets this other woman, has sex with her, then goes over, shoots a guy in the head, and then basically says goodbye to the wife and kids as he’s heading to LA. And that’s like in the first ten minutes of the movie. So you were talking about a totally amoral character, totally an amoral character. Right off and the idea that wasn’t like well I don’t know if this is going to be too much for my character or should I, shouldn’t. It shows this guy up front this is how crazy a character and then you start to get more and more seduced that as crazy as he is he’s extremely charming. And that’s really the, that to me is what makes the movie fascinating because we do get seduced by charming people. Charming people can say the most outrageous things and somehow we’ll excuse it in a certain way. Oh that’s the way he is and whatever. Where if somebody’s not so charming we don’t excuse anything and that’s what I assumed that Bugsy Siegel [Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel] is and I think that’s what Toback [James Toback] was thinking about, and Warren [Warren Beatty], is that that’s how you ended up with this sort of crazy gangster who will kill people who was right there. Good looking guy, charming, going to parties, and whatever, and that’s what he is. But he had that quality so therefore he was accepted in a way that if he were a real mobster and a real thug kind of guy he never would have been accepted in the same way. And that’s what makes the Bugsy character interesting. And a different kind of a gangster movie because there’s a New York kind of things where Scorsese [Martin Scorsese] and his work, but this is a whole other kind of quality and what was interesting to the piece is we’re doing a gangster piece but it has an enormous amount of humor running all through the movie. Just by the nature of his character and his relationship with Virginia Hill.


INT: But that’s very interesting to me. Sometimes the most serious, awful things eventually seem realer if they have some humor in them because life does have more humor than movies like to make you think. Don’t you think?
BL: Yeah. Well, there was always that thing like you know how I always used to read things, reviews of things would say, “Well, I can’t decide if it’s, you know, if it’s a comedy, it’s a drama.” You know what I mean? One of those things like comedy and drama as opposed to real life they do actually, literally, collide with one another. That some of the darkest moments have humor and vice versa. That’s the way life is. Life isn’t all here’s where all the drama is, here’s where all the humor is. Life is messier, real life is messy; it is a collision of emotions. That’s fun to do when you can kind of play that in some movie. No, some movies are very specifically done in a way and really fit a genre in a certain kind of way and that’s certainly fine but other things messier. It’s OK.


INT: When you look back at what you’ve done, do you find, are you surprised to find any themes running through some movies that you weren’t aware at the time what the theme was? Or what attracted you to it thematically?
BL: A little bit. I think communication probably is, what comes about, is sometimes our inability to communicate or how we misinterpret one another so often. I think that probably in there, I mean, that’s what DINER is about. It runs through a lot of the different things. It runs through AVALON. That the biggest problem in the family, the break up of the family, is over cutting up a turkey but it’s not really about a cutting of the turkey. It was about that suddenly the eldest in the family feels disrespected. That he doesn’t have that. There was a shift at the economics of it. That suddenly as the families in Baltimore evolved that one group became wealthier than the other then they become the jealousies get into it but you don’t talk about that. It gets reduced to if you cut the turkey we leave. And so I think in the work that I do, I think that’s probably what I’ve always been fiddling with in some fashion, and I don’t know if that really explains it, and I don’t know that I’ve observed it well enough to give you the real definitive thing, but I think that’s what I’m always kind of focusing on. I’m always looking for what we don’t say as opposed to what we do say. That’s what interests me in character and behavior.


INT: Do you ever look back at any of your movies and say, “I wish I had done this or could have done this in a different way.” Do you do that?
BL: No. Not really. I mean I hardly watch them ever. Sometimes I’ll be flipping channels and I’ll suddenly watch something for a little bit and I’m going, “Oh.” And then I turn it off because I figure what am I going to do? Sit and watch my own movie? And so I don’t really do that and there’s nothing I can do about it so my mind doesn’t go to work like, “Gee, I wonder if I can reshoot that or that?” It’s gone. It’s over.


INT: I love WAG THE DOG. And it’s interesting because now that you talk about THE BAY you were then experimenting, to me, with style and how to make a movie that’s not exactly, that feels like it’s sort of a documentary and yet it’s scripted. Were you, you want to talk about WAG THE DOG a little bit?
BL: I think the great fun, I mean, I loved when WAG [WAG THE DOG] is and I loved how it evolved because it evolved in the most peculiar of ways. I think it was Dustin [Dustin Hoffman] who sent me the script and I said, “You know, it just doesn’t interest me.” And he said, “Why don’t we look at the book?” You know, it was based on. I said, “That doesn’t really interest me.” And so we have a meeting with Dustin [Dustin Hoffman] and De Niro [Robert De Niro] and we’re talking about it and I said, “Well, I don’t know.” And something. And somehow and I said, “You know what interests me? You can invent something and it can become real. In other words you can take a green screen and you could put something up on the green screen and you can basically make something as if it’s a reality and it never happened. And building a lie based on that.” And I had said that, and this is pretty abstract, so somewhere in that and saying the idea that denying a B-3 bomber because there is no B-3 bomber and by denying it indicates there must be a b-3 bomber because you keep denying it. And I said, “Somehow in that, in there, is where the cover up, the lie of the piece is in this political scenario.” And somehow out of that started this conversation, which led to David Mamet, and then David [David Mamet] said OK, and then David [David Mamet] and I spoke on the phone about basic kinds of things, and we talked about stuff, and whatever may be. And that evolved into WAG THE DOG. [INT: It was so prescient, I mean, you couldn’t have known then?] No. Who would have known? I haven’t a clue that it would turn out that way. The craziest story is during the filming of WAG THE DOG. We have a split day-night in Washington D.C. because we’re only there for one day and half day then half night. We break for dinner. And so we’re filming and then we go to dinner and we’re in dinner at this restaurant in this hotel and some woman comes in and she says, “You know the President,” talking about Clinton, “is in the ballroom and would you all like to meet him?” And I was with De Niro [Robert De Niro], and with Dustin [Dustin Hoffman], and Anne Heche, and a few people in this restaurant and I say, “Yeah, fine.” And we got up, and we got out of the restaurant, we go through the lobby, and then through the back halls, and things, and down, then we’re outside of this ballroom. She says, “I’ll be right back.” She goes inside about five minutes, we’re on our dinner break, somebody comes out and they said, “Can I help you?” I said, “Well, we were to meet President Clinton.” He said, “You know he’s very busy.” “Well, we were told…” “I’m sorry.” She goes back in and slams the door and I went, “This is crazy.” So now we like leave and we’re going back through the thing, and the bowels of the kitchen, and whatever, and back through the lobby, and then we go back into the restaurant in the back room where we were eating. And now we’re back there and all of a sudden, five minutes later, in comes the original woman and she’s out of breath and she said, “Oh my God. I am so embarrassed that there was a mix up. Would you still like to meet the President?” And De Niro’s [Robert De Niro] sitting at the head of the table and he looks up and he says, “Will he meet us half way?” And she looks and then she goes, “Ah ha.” And laughs, we said OK. Now we get up, and we go back through the thing, and whatever may be, and back, and then we go into some room. She ushers us into a room and within two minutes in comes President Clinton. “Hi, how are you?” Take a picture. And he said, “So what are you doing?” We said, “Well, we’re filming this movie.” He said, “Oh really? What is it about?” And when that happened all of sudden we all look at one another we’re like sort of frozen because we can’t say, well, it’s about a President who’s having an affair with a Girl Scout and we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to say and we all stare at one another and all of a sudden Dustin [Dustin Hoffman] goes, “Well, it’s a story of…” and he goes and makes up a movie. He makes up a totally different movie. We’re all looking at one another and then he said, “Very nice.” And we leave and then of course the movie comes out and then all of a sudden you know, boom, the whole scandal hit like a week later or something like that. So it was very, very strange. [INT: Did Clinton [Bill Clinton] ever comment about it after that to any of you guys?] No. [INT: He probably had a few thoughts I would guess.]


INT: What’s it like having a son be a writer/director? You’re experiencing what it felt like to be your parents I guess in a way.
BL: It’s different than my parents because my parents knew nothing about the business, so my father couldn’t relate to writing and directing at all. There was no basis of conversation. He only knew how to relate it to the appliance business. In this case, when Sam [Sam Levinson] wrote and directed the film, and so he gave us a DVD to watch one day, he wasn’t there. And you put it on, and for the first ten minutes, you’re kind of like “Oh my God. Oh my God.” You’re nervous, you hope that it’s good, it’s his first work and everything else. And then about ten minutes in, you sort of relax and went, “You know something? He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing.” You can see that in those first few minutes and then I could sit back and watch the story as opposed to “Oh my God. I hope he doesn’t fail, I hope that this is going to,” you know what I mean, which wasn’t the case. And so it became, it was great to be able to sit back and just enjoy his work and really appreciated it.


INT: And he’s going to make more movies? I guess he’s on his way.
BL: I hope. He’s writing another one that he wants to direct. Look, it’s the beginning of a career. Look, it’s like I said about DINER, it tells you right away, this is the nature of business. There is no easy road to it all. It’s not all pleasant in many ways.


INT: What stories do you want to tell that you haven’t told yet? I imagine there are a large number them, yes?
BL: No. There’s a few. I mean, I want to complete, and I’ve written the last of the Baltimore pieces, which is the end of the DINER, the shutting down of the diner, the last group of guys that came through the diner in ’66, ’67. That particular story, which is basically within, it is me moving out to Los Angeles. So that’s one that at some point I’d like to do and we’ll see. It’s sort of the last semi-autobiographical piece perhaps.


INT: Are any books you’ve read lately that you’d like to make into a movie if you, if that happened? Anything you’ve come across?
BL: You mean separate from that particular piece you mean? [INT: Yes.] We may, we’ve been talking about this now with, Pacino [Al Pacino] is doing the Philip Roth’s THE HUMBLING, so that’s a potential piece that we might do at the end of the summer. [INT: That’d be exciting.] In terms of HBO, I’m producing Mamet [David Mamet] who wrote the story, the Phil Spector story [Untitled Phil Spector Biopic], not his whole life story, but only this period of time around the trial period. So it’s just that, so it’s not really a courtroom drama. It’s peripheral to it, between his relationship with his female attorney and so that, it’s just one aspect of that, which is a very, very interesting script.


INT: Would you direct it?
BL: No. Mamet [David Mamet] will do it. [INT: Having seen the documentary, I would be very interested to see a different version of whatever was happening at the time of the trial.] Yeah. [INT: You probably saw the documentary.] Yeah, because the trial is the trial, I mean, that’s it. I think what David [David Mamet] wrote, which is to the, around it, the stuff that was the conversations or whatever that took place, the arguments, the whatever, you begin to get a sense of what the guy was like and this attorney.


INT: Are there any movies you want to talk about that, obviously we wouldn’t have time to talk about your entire career, but is there something in particular that, should I read off a few names in case you’ve forgotten what they were? Is there anything you’d enjoy talking about that you didn’t? I didn’t know you did a draft of, you wrote on TOOTSIE, I didn’t realize that.
BL: Yeah. I did very little. I was there at the very, just before they started filming when, the irony is I was with Sydney Pollack, it was literally I think the week before they started filming and working on that and it happened to be, I remember being in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, he had a suite, it looked down on 57th and 5th. It was a Saturday night and DINER had opened on Friday and did well, and it was a Saturday night. I remember I’m up there, we’re talking about TOOTSIE, and I keep glancing out the window, and there’s a blinding rainstorm, and if there’d be a big crowd from The Festival Theatre to 5th Avenue, you would see a line, and I see no one at all, no one. And he sees me looking out there and he’s trying to make me feel better, he said, “They’ll stand in the cold and the wind, but they just never like to stand in the rain,” to make me feel better. [INT: He was great, Sydney [Sydney Pollack]] He was a terrific guy.


INT: How ‘bout the guy, what’s his name, Ralph Tabakin, who’s appeared in almost all of your movies as an actor?
BL: Yeah, he was until he passed away after, I think LIBERTY HEIGHTS was the last thing. [INT: Did he represent you and your acting career? I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with it.] No. He was somebody I used in DINER. He was this strange character, I used him in DINER, and I got such a kick out of him, he was the character who did, that tried to buy the television, he didn’t want a color television, didn’t like the way BONANZA looked. I just loved the way he talked, so I used him, then I put him in THE NATURAL, and then I just started putting him in all these movies over the years, all the way through, including HOMICIDE [HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET], all the way through to LIBERTY HEIGHTS. [INT: How nice for him too. He must have been thrilled, right?] It was just great because it would always be, “What are we going to do? We gotta find something for Ralph [Ralph Tabakin].” [INT: How nice.]


INT: Do you wish you acted more? Do you ever want to act more?
BL: No. No. I’ve done it a few times. In RAIN MAN, I only did that because the actor I had was on another movie and they ran over and couldn’t play the part of the psychiatrist. [INT: You were great. I thought you did a great job.] And then we produced, Mark Johnson and I did QUIZ SHOW and Redford [Robert Redford] talked me into doing Dave Garroway in QUIZ SHOW. But I’ve never been, I’ve never been crazy about acting. I’ve done it reluctantly over the years.


INT: Did you figure out why you were studying your two intense years of acting, studying acting? Did you realize at the time that you’d use it as a director or were you just doing it ‘cuz you were interested?
BL: I was just curious. I didn’t think about applying it, because I wouldn’t have thought about directing. The directing thing didn’t occur to me. It didn’t occur to me, you know when directing really occurred to me that suddenly it jumped out at me, this sounds rather naïve in a sense, Valerie [Valerie Curtin] and I wrote this movie called INSIDE MOVES and a lot of it takes place in a bar. Dick Donner [Richard Donner], a terrific guy, he says, “You ought to come down and see the bar,” and whatever. I went down there and I saw the bar and as soon as I looked at the bar I said, “Well, this is going to be different, this is going to be a different version of the script that at least I have in my own mind.” And I only mean it in this way, and this is how subtle it is sometimes: The bar he had, there’s a bar and it’s kind of a square room and the guys, this misfit group, is right close to the bar in this square room. And I always thought that there was a bar here, a long room, and that kind of long room with a high ceilings and a shiny kind of old linoleum kind of thing and the guys would sit down there with the bare walls that kind of lead down to it and they would be alone, way in the back, in some area down far on the other side. That was the image I had. He had a much friendlier, warmer environment, and I had sort of a colder, slightly more distant, more kind of misfits in a sense, that they’re back somewhere in a corner at the far end of the place. When I saw that, for whatever reason, and look, every director is going to do what he’s going to do, the second I saw it, I said, “This is going to be a different interpretation of it and therefore the dialogue won’t fit the same.” It’s almost like the dialogue was supposed to be for people way back there, not right up here in front and its relationship is different. For whatever reason, I began to really think of, “I’d like to write and make it look and sound like I have it in my head.” Before that, I may have been dabbling like as I said with Mel Brooks I’m thinking, “Why don’t you put the camera here?” But I wasn’t really thinking, “I want to do, I want to write something and I want it to be just the way I see it.” And that was the very first time when I walked into that bar for whatever reason. So, it may have been in my head, playing around with it, but that was the first conscious thing of know I want to do it, I want to see, what is it like. If it’s the way it’s in your head, then that’s what you’re going to see.


INT: Did your family, especially your parents, was your success pleasurable to them? Did they get a kick out of it?
BL: Yeah. Yeah. They did. I don’t think they always understood what I was doing, why, or what is it, but I think my father genuinely enjoyed it in that particular way. [INT: As a salesperson, did he become “that’s Barry’s son,” as opposed to…? That switching moment is interesting.] I think he had a lot fun with it, but he would always relate everything in terms of business to business because he said to me one time, he said, this is when I was just writing, he said, “So, how’s the writing going?” I said, “Well, you know, I’m writing, but I haven’t sold anything,” and he said, “At least you got inventory.” So he would relate it that way. And when I said that, he actually turned to his friend Sydney, “Sydney, he’s got inventory. The boy’s got a lot of inventory,” like that was a really good thing to have, a lot of unsold business material, how wonderful. [INT: But he was right ‘cuz then you sell one and suddenly you sell all the rest of them, right?] It was very funny the way he would see it in that regard. [INT: That was really nice.]


INT: How did you join the DGA [Directors Guild of America]? Were you DGA [Directors Guild of America] on DINER? How did it happen, how did you come to join?
BL: Well, it must have been, I guess it would have been DINER, right? [INT: It wouldn’t have to be. I mean, you’re allowed to without, I mean, until you join and then you can’t…] You know something, I’m not exactly sure if that was officially it or actually become DGA earlier. [INT: It would have been DINER because it was for a studio and I think studios were signatories and you would have had to have been.] Yes, that’s right, must have been. [It wasn’t independent. It seems like now, no studio would ever make that movie, right? DINER, would they have done it?] Oh God, now? No. Not a chance.


INT: Do you like being a member of the Directors Guild [Directors Guild of America]? Is it a lot of fun? I don’t know what to ask you about the Directors Guild [Directors Guild of America].
BL: What it is is that it’s, look, this is like the times where everybody’s pointing fingers at unions like unions are responsible for the economic woes of the nation, you know what I mean? And you go, it doesn’t get any nuttier than that. I mean, if you think about the DGA in a sense of its organizational abilities, of its healthcare programs, of certain kinds of protections for the people that are within the DGA [Directors Guild of America], you go, “Well, this is very good.” This is not exactly exploitive, this isn’t going to like, you know, these economics are not going to burry any of these corporations, but there needs to be at times some kind of protection for those people that work within it and ultimately can have certain programs and also programs that nourish other things. And all of those things are kind of beneficial, but we’re in this time now of like “Ugh, those unions. That’s why the whole country got into trouble ‘cuz teachers, they wanted too much money, etc.” Look, it’s a very good union, it’s extremely, I find, a reasoning group. It’s not like they’re out of control. I think they’re very conscious of the economics of the business, the individual’s responsibility, its commitment to the business and the community. I think it’s very well disciplined and positioned as a union in this profession that we’re in. [INT: Thank you, Barry.]


INT: Is there something you’re pinning to talk about, whatever it is, something you’d like to have memorialized here?
BL: I think we got a lot covered.


INT: You’ve worked with Andrea Morricone a lot, right?
BL: Yeah. Amazing. I mean, you don’t meet many geniuses. You meet a lot of really talented people, you don’t meet many geniuses, and he is a genius. Let me tell you one quick little thing, I’m at his place in Rome, gorgeous, gorgeous. He’s showing me around, he speaks with a translator, and we go into his workspace. And I’m looking around and I don’t see any piano or anything. I assumed, I’ve always seen even from the movies, you work it out on that. I don’t see a piano, so I said to him I said, “How do you write,” and the translator said, “You write, you write.” I said, “I know you write, but how do you write the music?” And he said that he writes, he just writes. And then what I realized he was saying is he doesn’t need a piano, he doesn’t need an instrument, he hears it all in his head, and he writes it down. I said something to the translator about orchestration. He said, “No. No. No. You don’t send it to orchestration. You hear the orchestration,” so it’s everything. It’s the flutes, it’s the trumpet, it is the saxophone, it is the guitar, it is everything, you hear everything and that’s the way he writes. When I realized that, I went, “Oh my God!” It’s not like “We’ll do that and let’s add a so and so.” He hears the whole thing. It was like one of those moments you go “Wow!” It is so exciting at times to be in a business where you meet certain people like that you go, “Holy God!” This is like a talent! It’s extraordinary, extraordinary. [INT: Five times you worked, yes?] I don’t think it was five. Oh, just one other quick story. We’re doing this one cue and, it might have been DISCLOSURE, and so we’re doing this cue, and it doesn’t sound right to me, something doesn’t sound right. So we start having this conversation back and forth with the translator, he’s a wonderful guy, and he goes back and forth, and we’re going back and forth. Finally, I say something and he goes, “Ah.” So he says, “Alright, we’re not going to do this cue,” it’s about a three minute cue, we’re not going to do this. So now, we went to dinner that night, he said he’s going to have to leave, he’s leaving like at 10 o’clock at night ‘cuz he’s gotta write the cue, it’s a three minute cue. In the morning, we come in in the morning, it’s in the bowels of this church or whatever where he’s got his whole set-up with a 70 piece orchestra. And suddenly, they’re handing out the music. This is the music he wrote the night before, handing out 70 people, this is the whole orchestration, a whole thing he handed out. And now he does this three-minute cue that you hear this and at the end how they start to bang on their instruments or whatever, it was this extraordinary cue, he wrote this three minutes of music during the night and then handed it out. It was like one of these amazing, amazing cues and it’s just, he’s extraordinary. As I say, it’s hard to say enough about how amazing he is. [INT: Great. Barry, thank you.]


BR: Barry Levinson. I'm here at the DGA in New York City. [INT: I think it's April 19th. Is it? Yes, April 19, 2011. I'm Bob Balaban. We're also at the -- we're here together. Right? Yes?] Yes. [INT: At the Directors Guild.] In New York City.