'Shades of Blue' Director Barry Levinson Discusses "Luxury" of Serialized TV, "Difficulty" of Films

"Everything is market-driven," the Oscar winner tells THR about the film industry. "Once you start working that way you begin to limit subjects and the type of storytelling that you do. So that makes it difficult."
Courtesy of NBC; Getty Images

It's no secret that Shades of Blue, NBC's new cop drama, boasts major star power with leading lady Jennifer Lopez. But the show also has an impressive name attached behind-the-scenes in Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. The Hollywood veteran, known for films like Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, Diner and Wag the Dog, as well as TV projects such as Oz, returns to NBC as executive producer and director on the rookie series.

Premiering Thursday at 10 p.m., the series centers on Det. Harlee Santos (Lopez), a longtime detective in a corrupt unit that begins informing on her crew to the FBI. The heavily serialized and highly stylized drama, which was ordered straight to series in February 2014 and has been the subject of heavy promotion on the network for months, is a far cry from Levinson's previous NBC cop drama, the award-winning but low-rated Homicide: Life on the Street.

Ahead of Thursday's series premiere, which Levinson also helmed, he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the "luxury" of serialized television, his return to NBC and why making films in the modern age is "difficult."

What made you want to sign on?

I was intrigued by the script — the idea of these flawed police people. It's not just one side or the other, the good or the bad, it’s the complications of it all. I thought that could be an interesting idea for a series, and I thought the characters were rather fascinating.

The style of the show, and the music is very unique and different from a typical cop show. As the director of the first two episodes as well as an executive producer, how did you go about deciding the look of the show?

It’s a good question and it’s a hard answer (Laughs.)  When I read certain things, I begin to see it in a certain way so I don’t know how to explain that. When I did Homicide years ago, I was so intent on the idea of shooting in Super 16, handheld cameras, [making a] ragged edge kind of show. It hadn’t been done before but it seemed appropriate, with edgy editing, etc. That seemed a good fit for that show. This particular way of doing this show seemed to make sense to me.

Speaking of Homicide, now that you're making another cop drama for NBC, were there lessons or other things you were able to learn from doing Homicide and apply to this process for Shades of Blue?

They're totally different, so completely different. It's hard to say, 'Well, here's what we learned.' Every aspect of that show and this show are basically polar opposites. Even though we do a huge amount of location shooting on Shades, it's approached in a different way.

Because of this show and the premise, it is very serialized. A lot of the cases presented seem to be tied together and carry from episode to episode. How did you feel about leaning into a more serialized format?

It's one of the things on television right now that I think is so good is that you can take long story arcs that you couldn’t do a number of years ago. I think, in many ways, it becomes very fulfilling because you can go past what features can do. Features are sort of self-contained, two-hour-plus pieces and here, either you're doing something that Netflix is doing, like House of Cards, which is 13 hours of storytelling, or some of the other shows that moving in and out of a, b and c stories. How they function is something that actual films can't do so I think it's an exciting aspect because you don’t have to wrap up any story in 40-some minutes. You have the luxury of these story arcs and they can go along for quite awhile, which I think is quite intriguing. For actors it's also beneficial because it’s a much larger arc to have a character go through. The infinite span of emotions cover a longer period of time.

Do you think serialization limits a series' life span at all? How long can she go and keep this secret from her boss? How long can she be an undercover informant?

Just like anything else, you have to move off of the one subject. You can't hang your hat on it. You have to then pick up something else which then becomes a new premise of the show. You're not going to stay on that forever. You have to continue to evolve as you go along. Each year is going to have to lay out a different blueprint and that’s part of the longevity of the show. You have to keep people interested as it goes down the road — that's one of your requirements.

How far in the future has the show been laid out? Is there a plan for season two or season three? How far does that blueprint go?

Right now, the main focus is, because we're just finishing all these episodes, that's been our main focus. There will be conversations or beginnings of conversations as to how do we begin next year and how is that going to evolve and where is that going to take us? The test is trying to get the first 13 laid out and shot and done and then you begin to think of where do we go from here if we survive? How do we continue with these characters and their situations?

How has it been returning to NBC in such different times? How do you think the environment there has changed in the years since Homicide went off the air?

To be honest, they have been extremely supportive. I think that’s the best situation because you're literally discussing ideas and things as opposed to some kind of edict that comes down from up high. The process has been a very, very nice one of discussions of things, as you go, 'What about this? What about that?' Those discussions I think were beneficial and were fairly creative as opposed to sometimes there's this kind of arbitrariness that can happen in a different organization. This one was very complimentary as to how we were able to evolve the show and the discussions about it.

In the last couple of years, you've done a lot of things on cable for HBO and you have new projects at NatGeo and Discovery. Did you think you would return to network television?

I didn’t think so. In fact, a lot of the ideas we might have, we would immediately think of cable rather than networks. ... I was surprised at how connected it was and I think Bob Greenblatt was very effective and helpful so this is one of those great situations.

At this point in your career, how do you go about choosing projects when it comes to TV?

It's like anything else, it's whatever captures your imagination. I do think this is a terrific period in terms of television. It's much more challenging than film at this point because there's such a diversity in terms of what television is putting out compared to theatrical. This is a very lively, adventurous time for television. There's a lot to be said for television right now so that’s why so many of these projects I've been responding to are on television.

I mean when I think of the Kevorkian project I did for HBO [You Don't Know Jack], there isn’t a chance that a studio would have ever done that. They'd say, "My god, it’s a man that basically advocated euthanasia. You can't do this. It's too dark. It's too depressing. It's too this. It's too that." HBO steps up and suddenly you find out 14, 15 million people have seen it. If you were to think of that in terms of a feature film, if 14 or 15 million people saw it, and it was $10 [each], it would be a $150 million. It would be a blockbuster. So there is an audience for all kinds of different subject matter. It's just theatrically, they don’t handle it because they don’t function that way anymore. Everything is market-driven so everything has to be basically designed for the market. How do you sell it? That becomes the key element so once you start working that way you begin to limit subjects and the type of storytelling that you do. So that makes it difficult.

What are some of the things that you're watching right now?

I've been fascinated by Mr. Robot. I like what Netflix did with House of Cards. The Durst documentary series that HBO did [The Jinx] I thought was really intriguing. And I do watch certain network things. The Big Bang kills me — it's a fantastic half-hour sitcom. I think it's great. And I like The Voice on NBC. I like the way they handle that, the fact that they work with the singers and that they are singers and working with them and judging it. I like seeing some of the talent that comes out of there. I'm sort of all over the place in terms of my taste.

Shades of Blue premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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