'Killing Fields' EP Barry Levinson on Crime, Reality and Potential Lack of Closure

Having set the crime template with 'Homicide,' the Oscar-winning director is breaking it for Discovery.
Courtesy of Discovery
'Killing Fields'

Following in the recent footsteps of Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx, Discovery's Killing Fields tackles the true crime docudrama from an investigative perspective, following retired Louisiana detective Rodie Sanchez and his new partner Aubrey St. Angelo as they reopen the cold case on the murder of Eugenie Boisfontaine in 1997.

Produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, who helped set the template for the modern crime procedural with Homicide, Killing Fields is being produced in semi-real-time, with episodes airing as leads are still being followed and suspected vetted. 

Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Levinson, also an executive producer and director on NBC's Shades of Blue, to talk about this foray into unscripted programming, the chance that Killing Fields may not ever have an ending and the oddness of meeting his stars months into production.

The following Q&A has no real spoilers for Killing Fields, which airs on Tuesdays at 10 on Discovery.

The first question is one of sort of logistics because your name and Tom's name have been central to this. Talk me through who has been where and doing what with the production on this. I assume you haven't been down on the ground in Louisiana the whole time. 

No, because they're just shooting. We got involved when they basically said, "Here's what we want to do, this is how we want to approach it, we're not doing a reenactment show. This is not a pure 'Who's the suspect, etc., you know, all the traditional things that have part of those kinds of documentaries. This is where we want to go." You saw a couple  clips of Rodie, etc., what kind of character he is, what kind of character Aubrey is, what kind of characters are there, what is this world, and we said, "Okay, well this is interesting." We are going past simply, "Okay, well here's the suspect, here's the so-and-so, and now we do it."

We, in a sense, are riding this on the backs of these characters and this journey. We don't know exactly where the journey's going to go. It's infused with more character than you normally get in these cases. If you want to just have a pure case and that's it, just the mechanics of it, this is not that. This takes the extra step. Here's a guy 18 years later. Flawed in his life as he talks about, married six times, etc. He's down there in the bayou and that kind of world that he lived in. Here's this partner that he had worked with the father, etc. 

In a sense, it almost feels as if there's a theatrical aspect to it, as if we almost wrote the character. That's what's intriguing to me. You are following this in real time. There's all these unknowns they're going to play out. It's not like, "What?" and then you flashback and here's what happened and so forth and we don't do that. That's what makes it so intriguing and that's why we were interesting to join it.

Who was actually down on the ground with the cameras letting you know what you were getting?

We would get the clips and stuff being shot by the crew. It needed to have a rather cinematic aspect to it. Visually it's a little bit different, the rhythms are a little bit different. I mean it's all part of this. 

Where does that leave you in terms of the editing room and cutting the story? 

It's like if you took a bunch of raw footage. You can't just have raw footage and just put it together. You got to say, "You got interesting characters, how do they behave with one another? Oh, you know what's interesting when they were talking about this, isn't that really fascinating? You go to here, that's kind of interesting, but maybe..." You can't manufacture it. You have to be able to go, "Let's see where it's going to go." We have to say these people are fascinating enough, interesting enough for us to pursue this journey. We can't have a murder mystery moment every nine minutes, not going to happen. You're going to have to let trust that what you're trying to attempt is interesting in and of itself because of all of these elements. 

With this series, could it be infinite?

I don't think so. 

How long does it feel like it is to you? What do you think the audience tolerance is going to be?

I don't know, but just like we're not going to leave the case open forever either. There's a point where they'll say, "Okay, we've done what we've done, let's call it a day."

What is your reaction going to be if you hear that and you feel like the story isn't where you want it to be? How are you going to respond?

We may not resolve the case, but just like in life, certain things aren't answered. The question is how does the character deal with it and that in itself may be very interesting. Is it something that's played for 18 years and he's come back and he's gotten involved, got reinvigorated and they hit a wall again? How do you deal with that? How interesting is that? I think that's that. 

That has the chance to be simultaneously very interesting, but also very frustrating for some viewers. 

Well, you hope that it's not frustrating because of that because I think if we empathize with the character in a sense we have to see how does Rodie deal with all of this and how does it resolve ourselves? We always think there's a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything, but there isn't. Even in entertainment, theatrical, whatever. Let's use The Sopranos. Runs for x number of years, so what's the ending? Well, they're just sitting in a restaurant and there's a long pause and then it will just fade to black. 

[Here, Rodie and Aubrey, in town for the Television Critics Association press tour panel, come over and they introduce themselves to Levinson.]

Okay, is that strange for you to be just be meeting your stars now? 

Yes, it is. 

What is the feeling of that? 

It's pretty unusual, it's something you wouldn't normally ever do. Here, it's like their life is their life. We're just filming it without trying to be obtrusive to it. You can sense that they're just these cops. That's them. That's what's interesting. It's not like I'm going to spend a lot of time and get into their world, in a way, which you might do in other situations. Here, you have a crew just follow, watch, put it together. 

Is there a different sense of responsibility you feel when you're working with real people, and these are their lives and you're depicting them? Either the respect for Rodie and Aubrey or how you treat the potential suspects? Because these are the people that have to go to their jobs tomorrow, whatever they happen to be? 

Look you don't want to manufacture it. You want to depict it as they function. How they live in the world they live in, how they talk, how do they think? What are their happy moments and their down moments? It would be one thing if you were pushing into things and then say, "Oh, this is what they would do, but we got them to do this," whatever. Here, we're just trying to show them and not trying to slant it. There is no agenda, it's not like we have a position in terms of an agenda that we want. You say, "This is interesting. It's worthwhile to go down this road. We think an audience can be interested in this." We're not doing reenactments, we're not doing that. This is what we have set up, this is our investment and we're going to let it play out and not try to tweak it one way or another. 

You still have viewer expectations that exist. Frankly, Homicide helped those develop. The genre is codified.

We're past the entertainment version. If you want to call it the entertainment version. We're over here with it. 

How would you define as this version, is? 

Yeah, I don't know that I can define it. I know that it's something specific to television that theatrical can't do. The fact that it can play out in so many hours versus what film can do. Where it can breathe, where theatrical can't. The form, television, is in much more of a creative period than what is happening with film. There is so many new things going on and you push the boundaries of how you tell stories. 

Have you paid any attention to the rise or renaissance of the true crime genre in the past couple years? Jinx, Making a Murderer, Serial in podcast form, etc. Have you partaken in any of those? 

I've seen them. 

How do you think this fits in, not exactly being those things but being in conversation with them? 

Television keeps on opening these doors and going down into other ways to tell a story. I think that's all for the good, in the sense, the diversity of it all. You're not bound by any specific convention. I think that's all fascinating and what happens is that technology has a lot to do with it. You couldn't do this show 15 years ago or so, right? You couldn't run around with the film cameras and things and you only get a 10 or 20-minute load, where now you could shoot two hours, with cameras like this, as opposed to like that. The technology changed, the digital age, in a sense contributed to this that we're seeing. 

Do you think the scripted crime drama is in a place where it was due for this non-fiction correction, as it were? 

I don't know if you'd call it what it was due for. It's just things are going to continue to change. When I started Homicide, '91 I think, it was to say, "Can we push it more? Can we do this differently? We're not going to solve a crime every week. We're going to deal more with character behavior. We're going to shoot with Super-16." Again, we weren't digital then. Super-16, we could just jump into a squad car. "We can do this. It will be more ragged. The editing style, jump-cutting etc, all those aspects would be part of the language of Homicide." It keeps evolving. 

Is it your assumption that with filming still going, that this will prompt people to come forward? I have to assume that it will draw attention to it and people will come out of the woodwork, actual people with information?

That's possible, but it wasn't something on my mind or Tom's when we officially got involved. We say, "Is this worthwhile? Is this interesting?" Then you look at all those aspects. If you start trying to figure out, "They'll be Tweeting..." Who the hell knows? It is what it is. It's part of the journey, don't you think? That's part of the journey... It is like real time, I don't know where it's going to go. 

I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out from here. 

Me too.