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Baltimore's own Barry Levinson started in television (The Carol Burnett Show, The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine) and screenwriting for others: He co-wrote the minor Mel Brooks classics High Anxiety and Silent Movie, as well as the iconic, Oscar-nominated script to …And Justice For All. In the '80s, he graduated to film, becoming an Oscar-winning, A-list writer-director. He debuted with the 1982 cult classic Diner; during a particularly impressive stretch, he directed 1987's brilliant Tin Men, the smash hit Robin Williams vehicle Good Morning Vietnam, 1988's Rain Man, 1990's critically acclaimed Avalon, and the glossy 1991 gangster epic Bugsy. His career has been spottier since then, as he's moved between genres and chased the occasional success, like 1994's profitable though critically disparaged Disclosure, or the well-received 1997 political satire Wag The Dog, with flops like 1992's Toys, 2000's An Everlasting Piece, and 2004's barely released Envy.
Levinson also found success in television as the producer of long-running hits like Homicide: Life On The Streets and Oz. The highs and lows of his career undoubtedly inform his empathetic direction of What Just Happened, a wryly funny adaptation of Art Linson's memoir about life in the Tinseltown trenches. Next year sees the release of Poliwood, a documentary about the intersection of politics and show business (a topic Levinson previously explored in Wag The Dog and Man Of The Year) which took Levinson to the Democratic and Republican conventions. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Levinson about, appropriately enough, the cruel realities of the movie business, the desperation that drives Hollywood, and politics.
The A.V. Club: What Just Happened differs greatly from the book it's adapting, but it has the same sort of mood.
Barry Levinson: Yeah, we tried to capture at least the sensibility, as opposed to turning it into a satire or something, you know?
AVC: How would you describe that mood?
BL: Desperation. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's a little bit of Willy Loman to Art Linson in the book.
BL: Well, I'm glad you said it. [Laughs.] Because I've always thought it. It's hard for me to bring it up, so I'm glad you did, 'cause that's what I always think. You make your rounds, you try to sell your wares, and you try to get out with a little dignity if you can.
AVC: Producers are always on the precipice of disaster. There's always a sense that things could fall apart at any minute. Do you think that's endemic to Hollywood as a whole?
BL: Yeah, I think so. You know, everybody's trying to hold onto some shred of dignity in the process of it all, and, at the same time, never talking about how they don't have the power. No one has the power. So, you know, producers—we always think, "Well, producers [are] very powerful," but producers don't really have the power. It's the appearance they might, but they don't. Even the actors don't. Even the studio heads don't, because they're beholden to this corporation and what the corporation wants. So no one really has the power, and everybody's trying to get through the day, and everybody's nervous and desperate.
AVC: How did What Just Happened make the leap from being an episodic, anecdotal book to being a movie with Robert De Niro?
BL: What happened is, Art has known Bob over the years, maybe going back to before The Untouchables, I don't know when. And Bob said to Art, having read his book, "You should adapt it as a screenplay. Turn it into a piece of fiction about a producer in these circumstances," and blah blah blah. And finally, Art did do that, and he wrote a draft. And then Bob said, "You know who may be interested in this? Barry." And then it got sent to me, and then I got involved. It was really De Niro who was the one pushing for it.
AVC: What about it do you think made De Niro think you'd be the good person to direct this film?
BL: Well, I think probably—I play around with human things, you know, human relationships and that, and allow that kind of talk to work in that way, on that level. You know, not trying to make it too arch, understanding it well enough, in that regard. Because we didn't want to—no one wanted to do a satire.
AVC: Why not? Is that too overdone?
BL: Yeah, it's been overdone, and I don't know that you can do it as a satire. I mean, the business is crazy enough as it is. It's like doing Wag The Dog—we took a thing that was almost completely absurd on one level, and then ultimately those things came about. But you were tweaking it to a degree. Here, you're staying closer to the way they talk, the way they behave, and just letting it be a journey of this guy in a two-week period of his life, as opposed to imposing—it's not going to be the ultimate look at Hollywood, you know? We're never going to be the ultimate-insider look. You can do 50 insider looks at this business, and the satire didn't intrigue me. I think others can do that. I think we were interested in the character and the journey. That's what Bob was fascinated by, and that's what I was intrigued by.
AVC: The book's framing device—where Linson is telling these stories to an executive over dinner—seemed very like Diner, so it seems surprising you didn't keep that element. What was the thinking behind that?
BL: You know, it's funny. I can't even remember that anymore. There's a point in time when it becomes what it is, and that's all you can remember. So this just seemed to be the way to do it. I can't remember back now to the book in that regard.
AVC: All the films De Niro works on in Happened are fictionalized. Was it primarily a legal decision to turn them into pastiches, or a creative one?
BL: Well, it's less of a—you're not doing a tell-all piece, because we turned it into fiction. So therefore, you want to be somehow in credible fiction, and you just have to invent whatever it is. We never know what the movie is that Bruce Willis is going to make. [In the film, Willis plays himself as overweight, bearded, and hostile; he angrily refuses to shave his beard for a film De Niro's character is producing. —ed.] It doesn't really matter. There's some kind of movie he's doing. And in Bruce Willis' mind, the beard would be helpful to the role, and gaining weight would be helpful for the role. I mean, I just read that Russell Crowe thought he had to gain 40 pounds for Body Of Lies. [Laughs.] Why or whatever, who knows? But somehow he thought he was supposed to.
AVC: It wasn't in the script that he was some heavy fiftysomething?
BL: No, but there was something that he had a beard, because I think if you listen carefully, the director says to De Niro after the tirade with Bruce Willis, "You know, in an early draft, he did have a beard." And if you know an actor, sometimes they latch onto something in a draft, cause I've had [an actor say] sometimes, "You know, in one of the drafts I read, it said that he slammed his fist against the door," or whatever. It's not in it four drafts later, they might have gone back to something. And they obsess over that in some fashion, and maybe it's valid, and maybe it's not. Creative differences are legendary in this business, so we're really not exploring the creative-difference aspect as opposed to the money aspect, or the fact that something can come up in a movie and literally put the whole movie on the line, and this is where producers have to earn their keep. How do you keep it going?
AVC: In the film, it seems like a producer has two primary functions, one of which is to juggle people's egos. The other is being a problem-solver. Is that fairly accurate?
BL: Yeah, I thought a great line in the movie said, "We're just the mayonnaise." [Laughs.]
AVC: In the book, the Willis figure is Alec Baldwin, and the film is The Edge. Did you think about casting Baldwin in that role?
BL: Probably for a minute. And then you realize—well now, it starts to get all screwy, because now you've got to end it with an Alec Baldwin, but then this part isn't real, and that part is real. Since the whole thing has been kind of turned into a thing of fiction, it was better to just let it be fiction. Because then you can say, "Well, that part actually did happen, but you have this person, and they weren't there, and that didn't happen," and then it sets off a whole set of dominoes that way.
AVC: So you have Bruce Willis playing…
BL: Bruce Willis. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does the real Bruce Willis bear even the faintest resemblance to the Bruce Willis of the film?
BL: No. I mean, I don't know what Bruce has done in real life. We know actors have certainly had tirades—that's for sure. I never had troubles with him, but the big issue is really less about what Bruce is, as opposed to—this behavior has taken place, and sometimes it came out at something that had credibility, as opposed to, "No, I want to be fat and have a beard." Other people say, "I don't give a damn about the credibility. I paid $20 million. I want to see a movie star."
AVC: In the film, De Niro's character endures a disastrous test screening. How do you feel about the test-screening process in general?
BL: I think test screening works at its best when the audience knows what it's getting. And therefore, to test that movie has more credibility. If you test Iron Man and that audience doesn't respond well, you can be damn sure that there is something wrong with the movie that you have to address. Because they're expecting a certain amount of action, right? They want a hero. There are certain things that have to be compatible with the way the audience is thinking about it. Now, if you take some other film—let's say, the Coen brothers' last year film—
AVC: No Country for Old Men.
BL: No Country—now if you go and test that, you know, you can end up with all kinds of crazy reactions. "Well, I don't know… The bad guy drives away. Why did he drive away? Did he ever get arrested? Why didn't he get arrested? How come this didn't happen? I didn't understand that." You know what I mean? You have all kinds of reactions, cause they don't know exactly where the hell this thing—they don't know. They haven't even had a chance to digest the movie. It's not like the next day, they've been thinking about it. So what happens is, the movie ends, the screen comes up, and they say, "Okay, how'd you feel about it?" And those movies—it's harder for an audience to figure out what to say.
AVC: It takes some time to process.
BL: It takes a little bit of time. So what happens is, there is no time, and then they fill out the card, "I didn't like the ending." "Oh! They don't like the ending! They don't understand the so-and-so." And all of a sudden, the studios go crazy.
AVC: There's this idea that ambiguity is a bad thing.
BL: Yes, and that doesn't mean even the audience thinks ambiguity is a bad thing. But if you're asking them right away to start checking things off, they don't know what to do. And so, I think at their best, it applies to when the audience knows what it is. Then, when they say, "Oh, well, I thought it was too boring in blah-blah-blah part," then you better pay attention to it. It's like going for the hamburger. Better be the good hamburger I went for. But if you went for some kind of Indian dish and you've never had it… [Laughs.] Then it needs a little moment to sort this thing out. As opposed to [Forcefully.] "What do you think of the dish?"
AVC: Envy didn't do well during test screenings. Did that surprise you?
BL: No, it didn't surprise me in terms of testing. To me, Envy was an absurdist comedy, and I don't know that you can do an absurdist film and just have everybody embrace it in terms of filling out cards. I just don't think it happens. And so you have to prepare an audience. It's the same thing again—you know, it's outside of where they are or what they expect. They've invented some product, and it's crazy, and it deals with the greed and the envy, and it's done in a slightly absurdist kind of way. That's not something where you can just go, "Got it! Done." So it had elements that were unusual, and it just doesn't test well. Whether it will play well or not, at the end of the day, if you support it and play with it and nurture that… But if you don't, you haven't got a prayer.
AVC: With Envy, there's an interesting reversal where Ben Stiller is the hero and protagonist, but he does unlikeable things. And Jack Black is the antagonist, but he's a very sweet guy. Do you think that was difficult for the audience?
BL: Probably. You know, it's hard to sit and try to go over… The thing I always thought [was that] this was a movie that you'd have to handle very carefully, because everything that it's about—unless you want to do this full-blown, slapstick version, which I didn't think it was—it's hard to sell those. I mean, they didn't even sell it, so I can't even speak to that. The movie wasn't ever sold, it was never really out there. So from the test screening on, it was basically going to be like, "Okay, let's not even bother with this film."
AVC: Are you more emotionally invested in movies that you write as well as direct?
BL: I'm emotionally invested in every movie that I do, period, because you've got to make that commitment. You're spending a year, 18 months of your life doing it. I'm invested in all those kinds of pieces. Most of the films I've had in my career have never tested well. I got lucky that sometimes I got supported by studios—or, at least if not supported, tolerated—because Diner didn't test well. Rain Man certainly didn't test really well.
If you look at it carefully, you have a disease [autism] they didn't understand back then, they didn't know in the test audience whether it's okay to laugh or not laugh, because it's a film that's done in a way where, "Well, maybe I'm not supposed to laugh." And it was okay to laugh, but they didn't know exactly what they're supposed to do initially. At the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman gets on the train and doesn't even acknowledge his brother. Not even a glance, nothing. That's why the studio said, "Can't you just have him look at Tom [Cruise] at the end of the film?" So we didn't get great numbers. There was no uplifting ending to it at all. The guy gets on the train and leaves, and the brother is left at the railroad tracks. So those numbers are not going to be great numbers. You know, Wag The Dog didn't get great numbers. I've had a lot of movies that didn't get great numbers, but a lot of times the film was able to survive, or the studio still stayed and supported it.
AVC: In the documentary The Outsider, James Toback talks semi-seriously about looking into having you killed so he could take over as the director of Bugsy. Did knowing it was Toback's dream project and he wanted to direct it himself make working with him awkward?
BL: We've been best friends ever since. We talk probably every day. I didn't know anything about Jimmy at the time that I read the script, and knew nothing until the first time I'd met him.
AVC: You hadn't seen his films?
BL: No, I'd seen his films, but I didn't know he actually wanted to direct Bugsy. And at the same time, the original script Bugsy, which we laugh about now, was 260 pages. That was the script I got involved in. [Laughs.] So the process of going from the 260 to what evolved was a great, great collaborative time. And if you ever see—talking about not supporting, there's a DVD version that just came out this past year of Bugsy. And in it, there's at least an hour discussion between Warren, myself, and Toback where we discuss the whole process of how Bugsy evolved and how things got into the script based on conversations or experiences we had, and that's how it all came about. And that documentary, that supplement on the DVD, is probably as informative as it can be.
AVC: Bugsy was the studio's big prestige picture for the year, but it's a very James Toback-y movie as well. It deals with a lot of his big themes.
BL: Well, you say it was the big studio movie of the year—the opposite was true. They didn't like the movie, they didn't think the movie could work. We were going out in a distribution pattern that was going to be second-rate. They had basically moved off of it. And then all of a sudden, we won the L.A. film critics' award and a few other things, and then they're going, "Well, wait a minute!" And all of a sudden they get Golden Globe nominations, and then they were trying to salvage their distribution thing. But we were less-than-enthusiastically supported by the studios at that point.
AVC: Warren Beatty is kind of Hollywood royalty, and every film he makes is inherently a big deal for the entertainment media, especially a film as big or ambitious as Bugsy. But it sounds like that isn't necessarily the case where studios are involved.
BL: Studios just sometimes make decisions on their own that you're always flabbergasted by. It just happens that way for whatever reason—not even pointing fingers, it just is.
AVC: Is it true that Howard Stern was originally offered the lead role in Man Of The Year?
BL: I had spoken with him, yes.
AVC: Did you write the script with him in mind?
BL: No, I didn't, but there was a point in time where I thought he could be real interesting for this. And then the timing was such that he made that giant Sirius deal, and then it just became—schedule-wise, it was impossible. But there was a moment in time where that was on the table.
AVC: Did the script change a lot after Stern—
AVC: It was the exact same script?
BL: Basically. Maybe if he were in it, things would have changed, who the hell knows? But basically, it was the script.
AVC: What can you say about Poliwood?
BL: I don't really want to talk too much about it, because it's a documentary. I have to see how it starts to really evolve. We covered both conventions. It deals with the intersection of celebrity and politics, the media. That kind of intersection of it all, whatever it is. I don't really want to talk too much. I never push anything until you really have it in your hand, and say, "Here we are."
AVC: Those are the themes of Man Of The Year and Wag The Dog as well, that intersection. What was your take on the Democratic and Republican conventions?
BL: In general, one thing is, there was massive enthusiasm for the Democratic convention everywhere. Inside the building, outside the building, on the streets, in the restaurants. It was genuinely everywhere, and extremely pervasive. And for Republicans, it wasn't at all. It could have been an insurance convention that took place. It wasn't like where everybody was just—everywhere you went, just amazing enthusiasm.
AVC: People talk about Barack Obama and his charisma, comparing him to a rock star or movie star. It's interesting that one of the first big McCain attack ads was accusing him of being the world's biggest celebrity. Demonizing Hollywood and the concept of celebrity has worked in the past.
BL: Yes, it has, it's been a thing to use for quite a while now, to demonize Hollywood. It's such a funny thing. Hollywood is terrible unless you happen to be a celebrity who's a Republican. So Reagan can be a Hollywood celebrity, and he's a Republican, and then he can become the president, and that's okay. Fred Thomson, well, that's okay. You know what I mean? It's okay as long as it's a Republican. That's where sometimes you go, "This doesn't make any sense, guys. I understand if you think Hollywood is this or that or whatever, and there's consistency about it, fine, but your party has an actor as the president of the United States, and an actor as the governor of the state. And you're going, 'Oh, well those are okay, but the rest we need to demonize.'" There's no consistency.
AVC: Continuing with the intersection of politics and show business, there's been a lot of talk lately about Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin hurting her candidacy. Do you think that's a real phenomenon?
BL: I don't know if that's true or not. I have no idea. A lot of people have done things over the years and made fun of people in one way or another. When I was a kid, Vaughn Meader used to do John F. Kennedy. I don't know if that makes John F. Kennedy less credible. He would do the voice, he'd have some silly situations or whatever. I don't know if it made him less presidential because of it. And he was on all those shows, doing [JFK impression.] "My brother Bobby…" Silly jokes, right? And made him partially silly periodically, but I don't know if it had anything to do with anything.
AVC: You had a piece on The Huffington Post about John McCain not having a very compelling narrative for his campaign. It seems like Sarah Palin was picked in large part so he would have one: This woman comes out of nowhere, and she's the voice of the people. It was a very populist, pandering thing. And it seems like the American public is rejecting that narrative.
BL: I think that's a case of… I think they are shooting it down, from what I can gather. But I think she's the one—I think the narrative to Palin was very strong. She comes out of this place, she's a mother, you know. It was different. She was this personable, charming woman, and more importantly, she's attractive, but not too attractive. Not in a threatening way. So I think all that was good. I think when she opened her mouth and started talking, the more she talked, the less appealing she became.
AVC: The reality killed the illusion.
BL: Yeah. But Sarah Palin kept talking and talking, and the more she talks, the less compelling she can be. People say, "She's a very good politician, very deft at what she does," and whatever. And I hear that sometimes and go, "I don't know much about this stuff, but I would say no." Because the really good politician expands the audience, not contracts it. She may be getting a very vocal crowd, but it's a very specific group. I don't see her suddenly spilling over to a wider group where suddenly they go, "Wait a minute, I've heard her message, and now I'm beginning…" It's not expanding it. A politician that doesn't expand from the base is not a good politician. So I disagree with all the talking heads that go "Well, she's a very good politician." She's not! Good politicians expand, and she doesn't.
And, more importantly—and this is where the narrative came to an end—what is it that she's about? Well in the end, what she's about is "This guy's not good enough, and that person's not good enough." At some point, you've gotta make a connection that you are supporting her, and therefore McCain, because there is a belief you connect to that in a sense is greater than the individual. And there's nothing about her that is greater than what she is. And I'm not saying this is the be-all end-all, but in the end of the day, even though Reagan was this actor who was going to be president, and he was very charming, that's not going to do it. What he had was, he talked about America in ways that got people all caught up in it. He was creating this America—it could even be the mythical "America"—that we subscribe to, and that's why we got excited. We can't get excited by Sarah Palin just standing there, so we go, "Yes, yes. I'll march anywhere for you."