- Barry Levinson explains the key to getting a great performance from a legend like Al Pacino is casting great actors around him.
- Out of all the amazing actors he’s worked with, he reveals why he’s grateful most for how Robert Redford treated him on the set of “The Natural.”
- And Levinson opens up about being on stage when John Oliver brought up Dustin Hoffman’s sexual misconduct allegations at an anniversary screening of his movie “Wag the Dog” last December.
Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson has been around the movie business for so long he hasn’t just worked with both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, he’s worked with them multiple times – not to mention a whole bunch of other Hollywood legends.
From “Diner” – where Levinson basically launched not only his directing career, but the careers of Micky Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin, and Daniel Stern – to “Rain Man” (which earned him his Oscar win), to “Wag the Dog,” Levinson’s work has created some of the best dramas of the last 30-plus years. And recently, in an era when major studios only want franchises that can bring in billions, Levinson has moved his storytelling to HBO and found success with the Bernie Madoff movie “The Wizard of Lies” (his latest collaboration with Robert De Niro), and now a look into the fall of legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, with Pacino in the lead role.
In “Paterno,” Levinson explores the scandal that tarnished the football god’s legacy when it was revealed, days after he became the winningest football coach in NCAA football history, that his one-time defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, sexually abused children for at least 15 years – with some of the incidents happening on the Penn State campus. Taking place mainly from inside the Paterno home with his family, Pacino gives an incredible performance of a man who must cope with being part of an institutional failure.
Business Insider sat down with Levinson in Lower Manhattan to talk about bringing a story about Paterno to the screen, how he’s come to terms with the fact that many of the people who watch his work are doing it through their phones, and the “peculiar and awkward” experience last December of sitting on stage while “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver questioned Dustin Hoffman about the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Jason Guerrasio: Brian De Palma originally was doing this with Pacino. Did you take anything from their collaboration or did you start fresh?
Barry Levinson: Al told me he had been dying to do Paterno but that all didn’t work out. And I said let me look at the stuff and basically we came back with a different take on it.
Guerrasio: I talked to De Palma back in 2013 and he said he was imagining Paterno as a King Lear character, it feels that wasn’t the way you went.
Levinson: I mean you take a character like that I guess you could make that. But [De Palma] had a different take on it, completely. What we did takes place over a two-week period. You go from the highest high to the lowest low in two weeks. Because otherwise you would be back in the 1980s and ’90s, you would be all over the place to hold the story together. Which you could do in some form, probably in a mini series. But in a two hour format, I thought we could get a lot out of it this way.
Guerrasio: It’s a great jumping off point to tell the story. He becomes the winningest coach in college football history and then, what a week later –
Levinson: He won on a Saturday, winningest coach in the history of college football, the following Friday the Sandusky scandal begins. And literally, five days after that he’s fired.
Guerrasio: Was the thinking also that with so much that has been written about Paterno over the years, on top of the documentary on the scandal itself, “Happy Valley,” that there’s a lot out there already. You can get away with just doing this pinnacle moment and not lose people.
Levinson: Yeah. The documentary covers a whole lot. We don’t need to compete with all of that, but we can tell a separate story that almost nobody will know about. When you think about, one day there’s an army of press outside his home and Paterno and his wife and the boys and daughter, everyone is like, “What happened?”
Guerrasio: It’s fascinating to compare “Wizard of Lies” and “Paterno” in the aspect of family. The fallen patriarch. Both families are in the dark. Did you model some of “Paterno” off of what you did on “Wizard of Lies?”
Levinson: I didn’t model it because we tell it in a different fashion. But I thought it was interesting. The fact that the family is under siege and they don’t know. This blindsides them. I thought that would be good to explore, because they don’t know so they are asking questions. They aren’t accusing, but the daughter is asking, “Who spoke to the boy?” Paterno is like, “I don’t know, it was an oversight.” So we’re learning as they are learning. That seemed to be a good way to do it. Because you’re not just providing information, you’re providing information in the midst of a drama.
Guerrasio: And to do that, in both films, you cast actors who aren’t scared to work alongside legends. Hank Azaria in “Wizard of Lies” or Greg Grunberg in “Paterno” – they up De Niro and Pacino’s game. How hard is it to cast actors who won’t be scared of working with iconic actors?
Levinson: You have to find strong characters, in this case, for Pacino to work against. How do I make the son, daughter, wife of Paterno interesting? Then you just have to start seeing people. For the [Paterno] boys, I don’t even know how many people we looked at.
Guerrasio: At some point do you bring in Al to make sure you’ll get out of these actors what you need?
Guerrasio: But on the day of shooting, when the lights are brightest, they could fold working opposite Pacino.
Levinson: It’s scary. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: Has that ever happened to you?
Levinson: No. You just have to go with your instinct. You meet people and you can tell they can do it. They can step up. At the end of the day you can’t have one person, your star, doing whatever. You’re putting the instruments into the orchestra, they all have to work.
Guerrasio: In your career you’ve worked with huge stars, going all the way back writing for Carol Burnett and Mel Brooks. Was there a point where you realised you can work with the cream of the crop?
Levinson: I don’t think it ever did. If I think back now and say, I did “Diner” with a bunch of unknown guys and –
Guerrasio: But you were working with much bigger stars before that.
Levinson: Well, I was “working” on their stuff.
Guerrasio: Ah, not the guy at the helm.
Levinson: Yeah. And then I do “The Natural” and I’m working with Robert Redford who is not just a big star but he had just won the Academy Away as best director. So when I think back now I go, “Oh, boy, that was a daunting task.” But at some point I went, “OK, that worked, now I go to the next one.” And Redford was great in that he did not impose – [Redford did not say] “Well, this is how I do it.” I’ll be forever grateful to him that he allowed me to do this crazy fable and didn’t go, “No, I don’t see that. I don’t like that.” He went with it. Light stands blowing up, he’s rounding the bases night after night after night. He could have gone, “What the hell are we doing?” He was great.
I’ve been lucky in that regard that I’ve been able to work with a lot of big names and had solid relationships. De Niro, Al, Redford. Others along the way. It’s been very satisfying as opposed to, here it is, that star’s coming into the scene, make way. I’ve seen them as a great collaboration.
Guerrasio: You mentioned before we started this interview that you got to see “Paterno” on the big screen last night and it will probably be the only time that happens. You are making great work in your career currently that will only be seen by most on the small screen, or tablet or even iPhone, are you ok with that?
Levinson: The business has changed and some people can keep talking about theatrical in these wondrous terms – it will survive but it becomes narrower what you can make. So the films I’m most interested in, studios or even the independents, aren’t making them. I’m mostly interested in people. I’m interested in the relationships of people. I’m interested in the darker moments within us. All those aspects of human behaviour I’m fascinated by. But in the times we’re in, those are hard movies to make. So if I can do it at HBO, fine. More people will see it. At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, everything is on television.
Guerrasio: It’s where it all is.
Levinson: And it’s where it was. Think about it, where did I see “Casablanca?” “Maltese Falcon?” “Citizen Kane?” It was all on television. Those films that were before my time they showed it on the late show. Did I appreciate them less because I didn’t see them in a theatre? No. I loved them. The kids today, they want to watch it on their iPhone, to me that’s crazy, but that’s the way. I can’t say no.
Guerrasio: “Paterno” looks at an institutional failure of sexual abuse. The movie business is going through the same thing with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. You were front and center for one instance of that. Can you talk a little about what the experience was like being on that stage when John Oliver confronted Dustin Hoffman with the sexual misconduct allegations against him. This was during an anniversary screening of your movie, “Wag the Dog,” do you wonder if that movie and another movie you did with Hoffman, “Rain Man,” are now tainted because of the allegations against Hoffman?
Levinson: I don’t know if I can answer that because it’s too soon to know what the repercussions are of all of that. I would just be making a theoretical. How do we view something because of something? In the end, even applying it to “Paterno,” if the voices of things that happened would have been heard it would have ended as it would have been made public and opening it up. There wouldn’t have been more victims. You can never squash something and assume it’s not going to come back in some fashion. It’s going to bubble up until it explodes. Society evolves to find a better way. It always has these hills and valleys. We’re looking in the early stages of this. We understand the justification of it, but we don’t understand how it will settle in and define itself.
Guerrasio: But it must have been strange for you sitting there with Oliver and Hoffman going at it.
Levinson: It was in a sense because I didn’t know about anything. So it was literally, when he mentioned it to Dustin I didn’t know about anything. I’m listening to a conversation that I can’t even participate in because I don’t know exactly what they were talking about. It was peculiar and awkward. And then we thought we got past it and then the conversation came back.
Guerrasio: To really understand it you would have had to have been up on the news.
Levinson: Yeah. I knew nothing beforehand. We were all taking back in the green room before going out and I hadn’t seen Dustin in years. So we were talking and I was talking to John Oliver and we went out and then this thing took place.
Guerrasio: When it all ended. What was it like backstage?
Levinson: I think at the end of the night it was literally, “What happened?” Dustin and his wife and I think he had one of his sons with him and he was shell shocked. Oliver seemed, in a sense, disturbed by it. None of us knew what to say about what took place because it went in a different direction. Me and Bob [De Niro], we just didn’t know where to jump in. You couldn’t offer any insight or an opinion because you didn’t understand what happened.
Guerrasio: I’ve been thinking often, how is a director or a film’s work perceived post #MeToo? Because you worked with Hoffman on “Wag the Dog” and “Rain Man.” Are those movies looked at differently now?
Levinson: As I say, I don’t know. But, I was in Switzerland last week, there’s a festival there, and they showed “Rain Man.” It was the first time I watched it since I made it. So it’s like 30 years. But Hoffman never came up. They watched the movie and we talked.
Guerrasio: That’s good to hear.
Levinson: Yeah. Your question is valid, but I don’t know what things are going to be like, say, next year. I can’t surmise what is next.
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