Why Has Oscar-Winning Director Barry Levinson Made a Horror Film? (Video)
Few filmmakers who made it to the top of the mountain of "respectable" filmmaking--as in, winning the best director Oscar--then made a horror film.
Belive it or not, Barry Levinson, the 70-year-old filmmaker who won the best director Oscar for Rain Man (1988) and has also made several other modern-day classics including Diner (1982), The Natural (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Bugsy (1991), and Wag the Dog (1997), has now made a found-footage horror flick called The Bay.
Horror has always been regarded as a second-class genre in Hollywood. For most of film history, it was the reserved for low-budget B-movies. Then, a little picture called Jaws (1975) showed that a horror movie could do monster numbers at the box-office, so Hollywood studios began to embrace it a little more. Nevertheless, the vast majority of "respectable" filmmakers -- people who now like being thought of as artists, even if they got their start in horror -- have basically shunned the genre. (See: "Roger Corman Film School.")
Few and far between are the filmmakers who made it to the top of the mountain of "respectable" filmmaking -- as in, winning the best director Oscar -- and then made a horror film: Victor Fleming won for Gone with the Wind (1939) and then made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); Robert Wise won for West Side Story (1961) and then made The Haunting (1963), and then won again for The Sound of Music (1965) and made Audrey Rose (1977); William Friedkin won for The French Connection (1971) and then made The Exorcist (1973); and Robert Zemeckis won for Forrest Gump (1994) and then made What Lies Beneath (2000). But that's about it.
Levinson's film is about the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay that runs along his beloved native Baltimore -- something that is, in fact, a real problem. (Levinson says 85% of the film is drawn from scientific facts.) In this fictional world, though, this contamination leads "isopods," or sea lice, to attack the skin of and kill anyone who touches the water, and the government to orchestrate a massive coverup that would have been successful but for the intrepid reporting of a young cub reporter (newcomer ) who miraculously survived the incident and, months later, is daring to talk about it for the first time.
It may sound silly, but, like all Levinson films, it is well-crafted (featuring 21 different kinds of digital cameras) and not dependent on gimmicks (sorry, no zombies), and ultimately rests on a solid enough story (which, in this case, is certainly far-fetched, but still deeply engaging). Incidentally, in case you're interested, THR's film critic David Rooney reviewed it very positively.
I recently met up with Levinson to chat about the evolution and highlights of his career -- which began over 40 years ago with a writing gig on The Carol Burnett Show -- and the true motivation behind this latest strange and surprising new project. (You can watch the video of our full conversation at the top of this post.)
He emphasizes that he didn't set out to make a horror film. Instead, upon learning that 40% of the largest estuary in America was dead, he felt that it was something that should be addressed "in a real serious, substantial manner." Still, he knew that a film which is overtly about "all this science and all these facts" would scare away audiences, begging the question, "How do you make people connect?" He realized that horror offered the key: "It's getting all of the factual data in there, but it doesn't get in the way of the story; it helps it, in a way, because you get a sense that this is very credible."
As far as people who would question this sort of a career choice, he says, "You'd have to be concerned about perception -- which I'm not." Moreover, he notes, the genres of his films have always varied and been hard to pin down, dating back to Diner. "I don't fit the categories," he chuckles, "which is very liberating."