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Chesapeake Decay

Barry Levinson explores the bay’s ills in horror movie

Photo: Yvonne Ferris, License: N/A

Yvonne Ferris

Barry Levinson doesn’t keep fear at bay in The Bay.

The Bay

Directed by Barry Levinson

Opens Nov. 2 at the Charles Theatre

Barry Levinson hits somewhat close to home with his newest film, The Bay, set in a fictional town on the Chesapeake Bay. Though a horror movie by genre, the concept for The Bay has roots in fact: The bay’s dead zone can, at times, grow to be as large as 40 percent its overall area. To add another element of realism to the film, Levinson recorded the movie with non-professional cameras only.

City Paper: So you’re coming to Baltimore soon. [If Sandy didn’t stop him, Levinson screened the movie at the Brown Center at MICA on Monday, Oct. 29.] How long are you staying?

Barry Levinson: Just that day. Because I’m in rehearsal for Diner: The Musical.

CP: That’s premiering in San Francisco, right?

BL: No, they changed their plans. They’re going to stay in New York. So that’s why I can only come down for the day, do that, and then head back.

CP: This movie is set on the Chesapeake. Why did you want to direct it?

BL: It came from the fact that I was asked to direct a movie about the Chesapeake Bay and the fact that it’s 40 percent dead. And I began to collect a lot of facts and then actually realized that Front Line had done a very good documentary about the Chesapeake Bay’s ills, and thought, Well, they did a good job. I don’t know that I could do any better. But the facts stayed with me and the thought suddenly occurred to me: if I put it into a storytelling form, and then put all this factual information into it . . . so what you see is sort of the outgrowth of that.

CP: A lot of the science in it is quite real.

BL: Probably 80 percent of everything that’s said in the movie is real. There’s a lot of stuff that explains exactly what goes on and how things are progressing, what the ills are, what contributes to it.

CP: Would you say this is a departure for you directorially?

BL: I wouldn’t say that, because . . . well, there’s several things. First of all, you’re taking multiple stories that don’t interconnect, for one. You’re shooting it on all-digital platforms—so that means, in the course of the movie, we use 20-something different digital cameras to create the palette of the movie. At times you have to literally give the camera to the actor to actually shoot the scene because there’s no other way to actually shoot it. We did mostly consumer-product cameras, or I should say exclusively consumer-products rather than high-end digital work and then degrade it, because I thought that was more credible, and it’s also the way you hold the camera. You hold an iPhone much differently than you hold a big, heavy camera. . . . And this was the very first time, you know, 10 years ago, you couldn’t make this movie, because what is utilized didn’t quite exist. So this is the first generation that shares an intimate moment or collects it through all these various digital forms. So all the face chat and e-mails and texting and everything else that’s used, really, almost is only of this generation and of this particular period of time. It didn’t exist before. You couldn’t have done this movie 15 years ago, because this hadn’t become the reality yet.

CP: How did you come upon that idea, to make it a mixed palette?

BL: Well, I was thinking about if . . . some ecological disaster happened in a town, and if you wanted to figure out what went on and there wasn’t media covering it—this town was small, nobody was paying attention—and something happened, how would you know what went on? And then I thought, Well, all of these people have all of these ways of communicating. So then you say, ‘Well, let’s do that.” So then we had all of these different stories and all the different ways by which these people were collecting or sharing their information, many of whom did not know exactly what event was taking place. They were sort of lost inside of this bubble, unsure as to what was really taking place. So I thought, Well, there’s an intimacy to it. And you might call it like an archaeological dig [getting] after the logical look of a town in a moment of crisis.

CP: How does that change your role as a director, working with that sort of medium?

BL: Well, you have to be able to give a certain amount of . . . freedom for some of these people to work within this form, there are times you’re going to have to give a camera—like the iPhone girl. . . . She’s not a trained actor, [she’s] 15 years old . . . explain to her what you want, give her an iPhone, send her into a room, listen at the door , ’cause there’s no video playback. And then let her just do it and use the camera and then knock on the door and say, “OK, stop filming,” and then take a look and see what she did on the iPhone and then talk about the little changes we want to make and then send her back in again, and that’s the way you’ll do it. Because we can’t shoot the scene; there’s no way to do it. Now, sometimes we do shoot the scene and we have to kind of create it the same way that they may do it. But sometimes you literally have to give it to the actor.

CP: You shot this film in 18 days?

BL: Yeah, a little over 2 million dollars and 18 days.

CP: What affect do you hope the movie will have with respect to the Chesapeake?

BL: My first obligation as a filmmaker is to hold people in mystique and let them get involved in a story. That’s my obligation. Afterward, if people want to talk about the fact that this is going on and this is going on and etcetera, then that’s great. I mean, look, this is the largest estuary in the United States. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. Millions of people basically enjoy what it is. And [we’re] letting it basically die in front of our eyes. It would be nice if somehow we actually decided to do something to correct it as a real concerted effort, rather than continue to argue about who’s responsible for what and whether or not it’s going to affect the economics of your life by trying to improve the situation. The reality is the Chesapeake Bay can be improved, it can be healthier, it just requires an effort . . . and without sacrificing jobs. Everybody always likes to scare everyone, saying, “Well, it’s really going to destroy the economy if we do this or that.” There are things that can be done to improve the area. I’m not an environmentalist, that’s not my job. But I can certainly take a lot of factual information and put it into a fictitious movie. You want to ignore it? Go ahead and ignore it.

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