“Real arguments are never that articulate. They’re just not. The fact that we struggle about what to say, that’s part of what makes it fascinating,” says The Survivor director Barry Levinson.
“When someone wants to say something and is struggling to try to get it out, the struggle may be more interesting than what is actually going to be said. So that’s what you’re always sort of looking for — just the little human moments.”
Barry Levinson is the acclaimed director of Diner, The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Bugsy, You Don’t Know Jack, Wag the Dog, and 1989 Best Picture winner Rain Man, which also won him the Oscar for Best Director. His astonishing film career started when he was writing for The Carol Burnett Show, and got the call to be a writer on Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and High Anxiety.
Barry Levinson channeled decades of experience writing, directing, and even doing a little acting into his new HBO film The Survivor, based on the true story of Auschwitz survivor-turned-boxer Harry Haft and adapted from the book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano by Haft’s son, Alan Haft. Even in a movie about clear-cut good and evil, Levinson says, there is always something unexpected to be found. Below, he shares the wisdom he’s accumulated over his long and illustrious life as a moviemaker. – M.S.
As told to Margeaux Sippell
1. I would think the most influential thing is that for two years I studied acting with this acting group. Not like a couple of times a week — I was there all the time, and I did not want to be an actor. But in doing it, I began to see all these possibilities. Suddenly, your brain is going, ‘Well, what happens if you did this?’
2. Then, all of a sudden, I started to write little pieces, and then after two years I was actually — if you can imagine this, it’s hard for me to even believe it now — Craig T. Nelson and I would do things together in the acting group and improv, and at some point, because we were both broke, I said, “Well, maybe we can put some material together and we can play some clubs and make some money.” And so we went off and we played.
Ultimately, that led to writing on a local show, which was a 90-minute show of which we had to do this writing and performing, and that led to writing and then doing sketch comedy. I didn’t really want to do sketch comedy, but I was doing it, and so I went along that route all the way up through The Carol Burnett Show and worked on that for three years, and it was really an enjoyable time. And then, fortunately, I was able to get into work with Mel Brooks and a few other writers doing Silent Movie and High Anxiety.
3. For three years we were together, and I would sometimes tell diner stories about Baltimore. Mel said, “You should write that as a screenplay,” which had never occurred to me. And then I did. That’s all accidental stuff, but if I were to look back through that little journey, it was Mel Brooks saying, “You should write about that” — ultimately, I wrote Diner because he put that in my head.
4. Much of my career has been by happenstance, starting with hand puppets and improv and all of that, and the journey to becoming a screenwriter and then a writer-director and directing films that I don’t write.
5. You have to have a commitment to the moment, and you have to develop a relationship in which everybody feels free. And it’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got to say this line this way.”
6. I have always believed that if the actor is comfortable, then the brain goes to work. Because you’ve now got all the information you need — somehow, the brain will sort things out that you may not even be thinking about. It may not even happen that way. And then all of a sudden, because you were free enough, some moment — it only has to be a moment — suddenly comes out, and it surprises us and it fascinates us and it pulls us closer to the screen to see what he or she did in that given moment. That, to me, is the continual search for something else.
7. It’s not easy to do what Mel Brooks does. He would say, “I don’t just want them to laugh. I want them to laugh so hard that they’re gonna fall out of their seats.” There are a bunch of people I would look to and admire and say there’s extraordinary work that’s taken place. We can look at some of the old masters and some of the younger people who have come up and say look at what they’ve done — they’ve redefined certain genres. And that comes from that they have to trust themselves. “This is where I am going.” You have to trust that, because if you second-guess everything you do, then you can never get to some kind of specificity, because you’re just battling your own insecurities.
8. I’ve always been influenced by music. When I’m putting it together in my head, I’ll play music, and as I play the music, sometimes it starts to tell me about a scene that we’re going to do, and maybe I should do this or do that. The music starts to help define it. I know that sounds crazy, and a piece of music I may use may ultimately have nothing to do with what I’m doing. But sometimes a piece of music helps me focus in: “Well, you know, in that scene, I can do this and therefore I could change that to this,” and highlight what was there on the page better, because the music made me think of something.
9. Before we went off to shoot The Survivor, there was a piece of music. I was in New York, and I had headphones on and I was walking the streets and for maybe three hours I had it on repeat and I listened to that song over and over trying to figure out, What am I responding to? What’s going on? Then, all of a sudden, the images started to fit into it. I was listening to the song “Avinu Malkeinu,” and there’s something about it that stuck with me. It set a tone in my head about how to handle certain things.
10. There is some kind of excitement about not knowing where you’re going that fascinates me. It’s not a journey if you know exactly where you’re going. It becomes a journey to find something. It’s always a search, and for me, music has played a very big part in whatever I’ve been doing.
11. There are so many rules of filmmaking that ultimately don’t hold up that you suddenly sometimes go, Well, I don’t know. Somehow some things work. Intuitively, you think they’re right, and it seems to be the way to go, and other times, it’s not. I think it’s part of the nature of what we do, and that probably applies to any artistic endeavor. There are the rules, and then there are reasons why you break the rules.
12. It’s all a bit of a mystery, and along the way, there have been a fair amount of pleasant surprises. So it’s been an interesting journey. If I were thinking about growing up in Baltimore and saying this is what I would be doing, it wouldn’t even have entered my mind because I knew so little about anything.
13. I would be a kid and I’d go to the movies, and I went to see On the Waterfront. There’s a moment in it where Eva Marie Saint drops her little white glove and Marlon Brando picks it up, and they’re talking and he starts to put the white glove on his hand when he’s talking to her. As a kid, I looked at that and went, “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on film,” that the boxer is putting on the white glove. I thought it was fascinating. I’m thinking, Wow, how in the world did that happen? I couldn’t figure it out, because it was just this small little moment, and there was something so tender and fascinating.
14. The only other thing that if you were trying to track your life and make sense out of it, which it’s always hard to do for anything, is in the film Marty. There’s a little scene, and Marty and his friend are in this bar, and the character says, ‘What do you want to do tonight, Marty?’ And Marty says, ‘I don’t know, Ange, what do you want to do?’ I thought that was the most amazing piece of writing. It’s so ordinary.
The Survivor, directed by Barry Levinson, premieres on HBO on April 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, in honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.