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Barry Levinson

The Baltimore-born director celebrates the 30th anniversary of Diner with a hometown screening—and a conversation about his career apart from Baltimoriana

Photo: Illustration By Alex Fine, License: N/A

Illustration By Alex Fine


Barry Levinson. Diner . These two proper nouns will be linked forever. Levinson’s first film as a director in 1982, hatched after a successful career as a writer for television and movies, remains a marvel, a perfect little gem animated by rich characters, intricately woven subplots, and a hundred little details that create a compelling sense of place (namely, Baltimore at the end of the 1950s). It was Levinson’s entree into a career as a director in Hollywood, where he went on to make several more films set in the Baltimore of his younger days: the wry comedy Tin Men, the lush family epic Avalon, and the drama Liberty Heights. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of Diner’s release, the Maryland Film Festival has been screening Levinson’s Baltimore-based films at the Charles Theatre, culminating in a Dec. 10 screening of Diner and discussion with Levinson and members of the ensemble cast (which includes Tim Daly, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin, and Mickey Rourke) at Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall.

At the same time, Levinson’s directing career has produced nearly 20 feature films not set in Baltimore, from critical and commercial smashes—including Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director), and Bugsy—to an assortment of sleeper faves (Young Sherlock Holmes), documentaries (PoliWood), and bonafide classics in the making (Wag the Dog, an acid black comedy that joked about the White House starting a war to distract from a presidential sex scandal shortly before the nation was introduced to Monica Lewinsky). He’s had a hand in misfires too (e.g. the best-seller adaptation Sleepers) and WTF moments (sci-fi talker Sphere), but he never fails to find a way to wrestle with interesting characters and steer away from gaudy tent-pole junk.

So he’s Baltimore’s big-time Hollywood success story (John Waters is many things, including a success story, but Hollywood he ain’t), and Levinson continues to work steadily, although, like many filmmakers these days, he faces the occasional tough time getting his work seen.

Take his most recent theatrical release, 2008’s What Just Happened. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone; it was almost smuggled into theaters, where it quickly died a quiet death. Yet it’s classic Levinson. An adaptation of Art Linson’s book about his real-life adventures in Hollywood, it features Wag the Dog star Robert De Niro as a harried producer trying to prevent one of his movies from skidding into disaster in postproduction (the bonkers director [Michael Wincott] won’t change the audience-repulsing ending where a dog gets shot) and another from folding before shooting even starts (Bruce Willis, starring as his megastar self, refuses to lose the gut and bushy beard he sprouted as a “choice” for his role), all while trying to relate to his estranged wife (Robin Wright) and teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart). De Niro is as good as he’s been in more than a decade with a sly, unshowy performance, and despite the screening room/power lunch/private jet setting and its running stream of dry jokes and satirical barbs, What Just Happened is at heart miles away from the El Lay smugness of, say, Entourage.

“That whole cigar-chomping mogul thing, that’s a myth,” Levinson says by phone from Los Angeles. The producer character’s life in Linson’s script “is based on fear. And I hadn’t seen that before.”

Since Levinson is coming to Baltimore this week to discuss Diner and his Baltimore-related work at length, it made sense to talk to him a bit about his non-Baltimore films and his Hollywood career. And after a few technical glitches, that’s what happened.

City Paper : Wag the Dog was put together quickly, on a small budget, and yet it became a phenomenon. Was there a point while you were making it that you thought, Wow, we really have something here?

Barry Levinson: You always start off with high hopes, whatever you’re going to do, whatever it may be, no matter if it’s an expensive movie or an inexpensive movie. I did a movie [in 2000] called An Everlasting Piece that I hoped would do well. It was an Irish film, shot it for $9 million, thought it was an interesting subject. It didn’t get [domestic theatrical] distribution . . . so.

CP : One of the more remarkable scenes in What Just Happened involves a test screening where Robert De Niro’s producer character is sitting in the audience sort of absorbing how much people are hating the movie he just finished making. Did Wag the Dog go through testing?

BL: I think it was tested, probably. I’m sure it was. A lot of the films that I’ve done that have been successful did not test particularly well, starting with Diner, which literally almost buried the movie because it never tested particularly well.

Look, if you’re doing a movie like Transformers, and if you’re bringing in the audience that likes Transformers, and they don’t like that movie, then you know you have something wrong. Then you know you’ve got a problem on your hands. If you bring a movie that they don’t know what it is, and they’re not sure . . . they haven’t got preconceived notions, it’s not a sequel, it’s nothing, it’s brand new, then you almost never test well. Cause the audience can’t quite figure it all out yet, they need to get . . . A certain thing has to happen, the planets have to align, and they go, Ohhhhh. It’s almost like the old Polaroid [photographs]. At first, it’s like it hasn’t developed completely, and the image is coming more and more and getting more vivid, and then, Oh, there it is.

A test screening for something coming literally left of center generally doesn’t test well. And that doesn’t mean they won’t like it, but there’s a gestation period for this all to come together. And basically corporations don’t have any patience.

CP : For something that doesn’t necessarily determine success, studios sure do seem to depend on it a lot.

BL: They do depend it on a lot. They depend on it completely in the TV business, and then if you say, “So what is your success rate, about 75 percent then?” And they go, “No, it’s about 10 percent.” And you go, “Ten percent? You can just about do any damn thing and get 10 percent.” And so you [think], why do you do it if the numbers don’t prove out to a number that’s high enough to justify it, and the reason is that it justifies their job. Otherwise, you put a show on the air and it doesn’t do well, and they say, “Why did we put it on the air?” And that executive doesn’t have to say, “Well, you know, I liked it.” This way you don’t have to say, “I liked it,” you can say, “It tested well.” It takes the pressure off it being you.

CP : Is that why Hollywood movies seem more and more the same these days?

BL: Exactly. It is that, but it’s corporate America. It’s a much bigger issue than the movie business. It’s why cars started to look alike. It’s why all [consumer products] started to become indistinguishable from one another, ’cause they kept testing and everything that’s a little unusual didn’t test well, and things that are unusual don’t test well off the bat.

CP : Speaking of unusual, one of the things that inspired me to want to talk about your non-Baltimore films was Sphere, which divides opinions around the office. I read something recently where someone was observing that Hollywood’s default response to sci-fi material is to turn it into an action movie. With Sphere, you took this sci-fi premise from Michael Crichton’s novel and created this nearly effects-free psychological chamber drama. What interested you about making that?

BL: Um, I think that what intrigued me from the novel was that the enemy was ourselves. So I was curious about that, rather than having a real monster outside. We in a sense become the monster. Our thoughts become twisted to a degree that we create our own nightmares. And I thought that was an intriguing idea as opposed to, you know, there’s a monster behind the door, there’s a monster out there. That was my thing. I’m not that interested in a frightening movie for a frightening movie. I was looking for something else to play with.

CP : Your IMDb page provided the surprising reminder that you directed Young Sherlock Holmes, which I loved when I saw it—and I wasn’t a kid when I saw it. The movie equivalent of young-adult fiction is huge now. Have you thought of returning to that sort of film?

BL: No. And [Young Sherlock Holmes] came up then because I thought it was unique, and now that it’s being done on a regular basis, it seems less interesting to me. The idea of Sherlock Holmes and setting it in the Victorian Age and the idea of having two young guys caught up in that whole adventure, I thought, was pretty intriguing. Now, of course, you’ve seen that. Once I’ve seen it, then I’m less interested to want to do it as opposed to doing the things I’ve never seen. So I had fun doing that.

CP : Martin Scorsese’s done a film in 3D, as has Werner Herzog. Do you have any interest in working in 3D?

BL: I think it has its place for certain works. It’s like anything else—it’s another tool. It would be like if you were working in black and white and you could make a movie in color. I would say, gee, I’d like to make a movie in color, but I don’t know that I have to make a movie in color or am so obsessed with making a movie in color.

It’s part of the evolution of it. I don’t think everything should be in 3D. I’m not sure how well it’ll hold up.

CP : I wonder about that too. For another example, I spent part of Thanksgiving weekend watching someone else’s very large and expensive HD TV, and it was almost disturbing. It was like Donnie Wahlberg and all his pores were there in the living room with us. I wonder if this is really the way we want things to look all the time.

BL: (laughs) It’s become the format, but look, it doesn’t make it any better. There are certain movies that are in black and white, if you made them in color, they don’t get better cause they’re in color. Certain movies in 2D, they don’t get better if they’re now in 3D.

Look, I was in a Sony store in New York and they had the 3D TV, and they had, like, Wheel of Fortune in 3D. And I was like, Wheel of Fortune in 3D? What do I care if the wheel is spinning in 3D? It doesn’t interest me. Does that mean that game shows won’t be in 3D sometime in the near future? They may in fact be that way.

CP : Is there a particular film of yours that you look back and wish it had gotten more exposure?

BL: I think that quite often. Look, most of the movies that I have done have scared the studio—or if not scared them, they were questioning whether or not the movie could make any money at all. That goes from Diner—the movie doesn’t work, the period [stuff]. The Natural, the studio all of a sudden got nervous that it’s a baseball film, and baseball films didn’t do well at that time and it may not work. Young Sherlock Holmes was never really promoted by Paramount because at that time the head of the studio was not that big a fan of that kind of a thing. Good Morning, Vietnam, Disney got really nervous cause the movie dealt with humor and Vietnam. Rain Man, the studio was petrified that the movie was dealing with autism and people didn’t understand autism or even know about autism. And it didn’t open that well—it only opened $6 million. It did $175 million domestic, which is massive off a $6 million opening, but they were fearful of that.

I could just go through the list. Avalon, the studio didn’t think it could do well and never really supported it as much as they should have. Too Jewish. I could almost go through every movie. I think one of the only movies that the studio didn’t have a problem with was Disclosure, because it was based on a best-seller and they knew how to sell it. They were comfortable in that place. Almost all the others before and since, they’ve always been fearful of.

CP : Disclosure also had big sexy movie stars in Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

BL: That one fit the bill.

CP : Getting a movie made and getting it seen seems so difficult and frustrating. Over the 30-something years you’ve been making movies, has anything about the process gotten easier?

BL: Oh, no. Nothing’s gotten better. (laughs) It just gets to be more difficult.

[But] you do it because at the end of the day it’s about the excitement about the idea. Somehow you want to see that made, and you want to see it out there. That’s what drives you, is the fact that I want other people to see this. That’s all. It’s a hard go, but look, that’s the business. You can’t sit and lament and complain forever. Ultimately, I’m doing what I love to do, though a lot of times you can be frustrated.

Take What Just Happened. Magnolia Pictures didn’t have a clue what to do with the movie. And I got that normal response, “Well, you know, look, we went out, we tried to sell it, they just didn’t come.” And I remember saying, “Well, let me just give you one example that you didn’t sell it too well. My sister lives in Baltimore and she asked me, ‘When is the movie opening?’ and I told her, ‘It’s already played in Baltimore.’” And I said [to Magnolia], ‘If my sister doesn’t know that a film I made came to town, how well do you think you sold that movie?’”

It was never really seen. It was a movie that was literally never seen. And now I hear about it all the time because it turns up on all the cable channels and all the other outlets, but it was never really seen. But I got it made.

CP : So now you’re making a movie called The Bay? As in our bay?

BL: It’s kind of an eco-disaster piece, and I made it for a little over $10 million, all unknown actors, shot it in 18 days. It’s about an ecological disaster based on the Chesapeake Bay.

CP : A movie about the environment, a cast of unknowns—how do you think it would test?

BL: Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t test well. For one, it’s fairly frightening. It does have some good jumps. It looks like it’s a documentary, it looks very real. And it deals with a lot of science at the same time. You can enjoy it just as a movie—it can scare you—but it does have a lot of real science.

It all started . . . The reality is that 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay is just dead. Completely dead. People don’t talk about it a lot. That idea kind of set off this idea for a movie. Originally I was thinking of doing it as a documentary, but then it got to be a little complicated, so I ended up tweaking it a little bit. You put a little theatrical license into the piece and then it becomes a movie, with a lot of science in it to support what’s going on.

CP : A disaster movie doesn’t necessarily sound like something you would do, but then a lot of your movies don’t sound like something you would do.

BL: I wouldn’t call it a disaster movie. It’s an eco-disaster movie. Contagion was a viral movie, right, but this gets beyond the virus in that regard.

CP : Speaking of Contagion, its director, Steven Soderbergh, says he’s making a couple more movies and then retiring at 50. Do you have any plans to retire?

BL: (laughs) Well, maybe he’s got other things he’s really in love with and wants to do that. I don’t. I like telling stories, so as long as I can tell them I’ll tell them, and I’ll tell them in any format I can come up with. I’ve always worked with television and film. And of course now Diner is a musical we’re going to open next year on Broadway. I’ll work in any form that I can.

Tin men screens dec. 7 at the Charles theatre. The Diner 30th Anniversary celebration takes place dec. 10 at Shriver hall on johns Hopkins university’s Homewood campus with screenings of diner guys and diner and a conversation with Barry Levinson and cast. For more information visit md-filmfest.com.

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