Director and producer Barry Levinson is a Hollywood legend.
The 70-year-old filmmaker is a five-time Academy Award nominee best known for his films “Diner,” “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Avalon,” “Bugsy,” “Toys,” “Sleepers,” “Wag the Dog” and “Rain Man,” for which he won a Best Director Oscar in 1989.
This week, after more than 40 years in the business, Levinson is taking his first stab at a most unlikely genre: Horror. Well, sort of.
“The Bay,” which is now available with XFINITY On Demand and limited theatrical release, is an eco-thriller, shot documentary style, that employs a variety of digital media – cell phone cameras, surveillance cameras, dashboard cams – to capture the unfolding events. And while the film is not your traditional horror flick, the very real subject matter and terrifying imagery screams of the genre’s pathos.
The story centers on a small Maryland town along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, where the residents are gearing up for Fourth of July festivities. Just offshore, two researchers have discovered an astronomical spike in bay pollution, but the town’s mayor dismisses their claims for fear of causing a panic. But panic comes in droves as the townsfolk become infected with a deadly plague that begins eating its victims from the inside out. Literally.
The film is narrated via Skype by a character named Donna (actress Kether Donohue), an amateur journalist who witnessed the devastating events first-hand, but has miraculously survived. The “found footage” of the victims tells the story from several different perspectives.
I recently caught up with Levinson at New York Comic-Con to discuss “The Bay,” his foray into pseudo-horror and why he keeps making movies.
David Onda: This is not the type of movie we’d normally expect from you – why a horror movie?
Barry Levinson: Well, I never know what expect from me. [laughs] It started because I come from Baltimore and someone asked me to do a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, because it’s 40 percent dead. Completely dead. And I looked into it and gathered the facts and I thought, “Documentaries have been done, and they did it really well and I don’t know that I can improve upon it.” But the ideas and the facts of it all stayed in my head. And then one day I thought, “Well, gee, I tell stories – that’s what I do. Why don’t I take all the facts and create this story?” And the real facts inform the movie, in a way. It does unnerve you, because you think, “S***, that does sound real.” And it is. When they’re talking about vibrio – that a kid put his foot in the water and he was dead in 24 hours. That’s real. There are all these things that they’re talking about – the CDC – about viruses and things. It’s all real information. It gives us a credibility in the story-telling that we’re doing.
Onda: Did you have an agenda to make a movie that promotes environmental conservation, and how do you tell that story without being too preachy?
Levinson: That’s the key thing. You can’t be too preachy, because we just turn off to that. So all I’m trying to do is tell the story and, in it, use those facts to push things along, to unsettle us, etc. Preaching, in general, doesn’t do much for me. Even if you go back to “Rain Man” – where we’re dealing with autism – if we were there and we’re starting to talk about it in some reverential way, I don’t think it would have had the effect. But allowing it to just live and breathe and be part of the story, I think, is what made it more effective.
Onda: When you set out to make a horror movie, do you go in knowing you want to avoid certain genre clichés?
Levinson: We wanna be credible within what we’re doing. In other words, we can’t do certain things or we will tear the fabric of the piece apart. Some horror films – they can do almost anything. But we have sort of an obligation, in form, to be credible. So we can’t just do certain pop-out [scares]. We have to build from a suspense base.
Onda: Why did you choose to tell the story through the different forms of video – the cell phones, security footage, camcorders?
Levinson: It’s the first time in history that we can look into the intimacy of people that never existed before. How? Because of cell phone conversations, from texting one another, from FaceTime, from Skype. So, if you were to gather that, you would get a picture now unlike any time in history. Whatever happened in Pompeii – we only know the bigger thing. Can you imagine if we knew the smallness of it, the intimate thing of two people talking and something terrible was about to happen outside? That is what intrigued me. So I looked at it as sort of an archeological, anthropological look at a town, at a moment of great crisis and catastrophe.
Onda: Did you actually shoot the movie on those devices, or did you cheat a bit?
Levinson: No, no, no. I did not want to use upscale cameras and then degrade it, because I did some tests and it still looked fake to me. So what we did is we went through every kind of consumer product we could find. We’d take a Sony that can shoot underwater and we’d test it and went, “Ok, that looks good for that. What about a Google phone? What about an iPhone? How does that look?” And we examined all of them and, I think, we ended up with 21 different kinds of digital platforms for the movie.
Onda: Where did the idea of using Skype for the narration come from?
Levinson: Years ago, when I saw “Our Town,” the Thornton Wilder play, the one thing that stood out to me was that the stage manager would sort of narrate periodically. And he would say, “That’s so-and-so, and he died.” And now you’re watching the whole play and you know the kid dies. It gives it a little extra thing. [Donna] says, “This is a couple, they died at 2:00.” And you go, “Oh, s***. What the hell happened?”
Onda: And, also, it makes us wonder – how did she survive this?
Levinson: Exactly. And I thought that would be an interesting way to try and do this. And it’s crude. We shot her on the Skype. Literally, she was in L.A. and we talked to her.
Onda: You’ve had such monstrous success in this business. You’re an Oscar winner. Why not retire? Why keep making movies?
Levinson: For the simple reason – for all the aggravations of the business, and all frustrations – at the end of the day, making a movie is fun! Fun! [laughs] So you go, “Why stop doing that, if it’s fun?” If it’s not fun, then you don’t do it. Somebody said, “Well, the expectations are that you do this.” I don’t really care what the expectations are. I just wanna go do what I like. If I can tell that story, if I can get an audience involved in something that’s way over here as opposed to over here, that’s fine by me. That’s the kick of it.
“The Bay” is now available with XFINITY On Demand. Click here for more information on ordering.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.