One of Baltimore’s favored film sons (who is not John Waters) came back to his hometown to screen his newest movie, “Wizard of Lies.” The film, premiering on HBO on May 20, follows the rise and downfall of Bernie Madoff, who is played by Robert De Niro. Michelle Pfeiffer plays his wife, Ruth.
Barry Levinson, 75, is known locally for his films set in Baltimore, “Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.” The documentary on his inspiration for “Diner,” called “Diner Guys,” was actually screened at the first Maryland Film Festival in 1999.
The JT had a chance to chat briefly with Levinson before he introduced his film for the screening May 4.
You’ve made both movies and television, so what was it like to work with HBO on a movie for TV? Did you have to change your style or approach at all?
I’ve done a few things for HBO. We did “Oz,” which is the first TV series they ever did. So, that goes way back. I did “You Don’t Know Jack” with [Al] Pacino and that’s, I don’t know, five years ago. No, you don’t change anything. You tell the story.
Obviously, you filmed this a while back, but do you think the film speaks at all to the current climate?
Well, I don’t know, whenever you start talking about what you’re going to draw from a film, it’s whatever people want to take away. All I’m going to do is tell the story, whatever you want to draw from it.
You screened “Diner Guys” at the first Maryland Film Festival in 1999. How has the festival and the Baltimore film/arts scene evolved since then?
Well, it seems as if there’s a lot more going on now. There’s a lot more to it, which is great. I’m all for that. It’s unfortunate the state basically got rid of the rebates and therefore you have less filmmaking taking place here. There was a much larger film community working on projects than there is today. But it’s nice there’s all these different outlets and also that film is being taught in various places, whether it be Hopkins or MICA or whatever.
How do you get an idea for or decide on a next project?
Whatever I sort of respond to. Some things get me and hold my attention, other things don’t.
So, what about this project, “Wizard of Lies”?
Well, it was presented if I wanted to do it. We didn’t have a script that worked at that point, and ultimately I brought on my son [Sam Levinson], and I worked with him and he wrote the script, so that was great. And it is a story about a man and his family and his boys and the ultimate destruction of that family by the greed of the father. So, in some ways, it reminds me of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
Do you already have a next project? Do you have any plans to come back to Baltimore, for instance?
I would like to come back to Baltimore to shoot what I would consider the last of the Baltimore stories. You know, there’s one more to do, if I can ever do it. The economics of it are difficult to make nowadays, and shooting in Baltimore without something like the rebates make it more difficult. And so the question is, can I work that out or not?
What has it been like to work with Robert De Niro over the years [from “Sleepers” in 1996 and “Wag the Dog” in 1997 to “What Just Happened” in 2008 and now “Wizard of Lies”]?
Look, I mean, you’re working with like one of the great actors. And so you have those discussions about the character in some informal fashion and you try things with him, and he’s got the chops to deliver.
Is your relationship with actors something you work really hard at? How do you make sure they’re responding to what you want them to do?
That’s a good question. I don’t like to talk a whole lot about it because it just becomes too intellectual. At the end of the day, acting is really impulsive, and it needs to become instinctive. The actor can begin to absorb certain things, and at the given time, you’ll try and experiment with them.
When you come back to Baltimore, what are you most excited about visiting/seeing/doing?
Unfortunately, I don’t have much chance to do it. I came down here this afternoon [from New York] and I go back this evening. [Laughs]
So you just get to come and see the new Parkway [Theatre].
See the Parkway, take a look at the place, see a couple things I remember from a long time ago and finally remember that the Parkway was the 5 West at one point. And I used to come to the 5 West because that’s where we used to see foreign films. That was the beginning of seeing films we’d never heard of. So you started seeing, you know, Fellini and all of the great European filmmakers.
Yeah, here and at the Playhouse. As I remember, one of the two places didn’t even have popcorn. That’s how cool they were.