Robert De Niro and Team Talk HBO Bernie Madoff Movie: No Studio Would Have Made It

"I look at it as a very promising time in terms of filmmaking and HBO has been at the forefront of that," director and exec producer Barry Levinson said.
Dominique Charriau/WireImage

Robert De Niro makes his HBO debut this May with the pay cabler's forthcoming Bernie Madoff movie The Wizard of Lies. But he almost didn't.

"We had looked at doing this as theatrical before we brought this to HBO," De Niro's longtime producing partner and the film's exec producer, Jane Rosenthal, told reporters Saturday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "We realized that no studio wanted to make it, we would have to go the independent film route and it was going to be a struggle to get that made. And ultimately, you wouldn’t have the same audience to see it. You would have a much smaller audience seeing it as theatrical."

She added: "This was the best place to make the film and make sure we have an amazing audience for it."

Director and exec producer Barry Levinson acknowledged it would have been "far more difficult" to make the drama at a studio. "The business is radically changing. Theatrical is going one way," he said. "[HBO] has become an alternative."

Levinson is no stranger to HBO, having directed You Don't Know Jack, and having exec produced both that and Phil Spector.

"They're willing to take a certain risk that you can tell a story and get inside of the story so its not simply the bells and the whistles of it… but to really look into character behavior," Levinson said. "I look at it as a very promising time in terms of filmmaking and HBO has been at the forefront of that."

The film, which De Niro also exec produced, examines Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme and how he hid the scheme from everyone in his life, most notably his children and his wife, played in the film by Michelle Pfeiffer. The film is based on the book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, written by Diana B. Henriques, who also served as a consultant on the film.

"It was really an unforgettable experience seeing Robert De Niro so totally occupy that character," said Henriques, who knew Madoff personally before he was sentenced to prison for his crimes. "It was surreal."

De Niro and Rosenthal sought out Henriques' book and optioned it back in 2011 with the hopes of doing a project about Madoff.

However, De Niro admits he was initially hesitant about signing on for the role. "I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It was a lot of work," he said. "I'm glad I did."

It was particularly difficult for him to understand Madoff's motivations. "What he did is beyond my comprehension so there's disconnect somehow in him, and I still would like to understand," he said. "I did as best as I could."

The Wizard of Lies is the second such Madoff TV project in recent years. Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner starred in an ABC mini that aired last February.

'You'll have to see to decide how it's different," Rosenthal said, "Clearly, having Diana and the depth of knowledge that she had, and the relationship she had with Bernie brought a lot to this. Obviously Bob and Michelle bring a different perspective."

The Wizard of Lies premieres on HBO in May. Watch a teaser for the film below:

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