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Barry Levinson has a film and TV track record few Hollywood directors can match.
He earned the best director Oscar for Rain Man in 1999 and helmed classics like Diner (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Bugsy (1991) and Wag the Dog. Now he’s back with the World War II-era biopic The Survivor, which tells the true story of Harry Haft, a boxer broken by being forced by an SS Nazi officer to fight fellow Jews in Auschwitz, only to narrowly escape to America and box Rocky Marciano as a pro to recapture lost love.
Levinson tells THR his latest directing gig follows reading a scene in the movie’s original script that triggered a vivid childhood memory from his time growing up in Baltimore of Russian Jewish descent. “I thought this film is actually about post-traumatic stress disorder as we would now call it,” Levinson says ahead of the Ben Foster-starrer having a gala world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 13.
Ahead of that Roy Thomson Hall launch, Levinson talked about Foster losing 60 pounds to play a young Haft in Auschwitz, TV culture electing Donald Trump and the instinct to survive a personal trauma.
What led you to decide to direct The Survivor?
When I was about 4 or 5 years old, in post World War II, I lived with my parents and grandparents. And one day this man showed up at the door and it turned out it was my grandmother’s brother. I never heard her mention him, and I never thought she had a brother. He stayed with us for two weeks. I had my own room, and it was cramped for space, but they put a cot in my bedroom and he slept in that room across from me. At night, I would wake up and hear him saying something in a foreign language, and he was upset and he was thrashing about and he would call out and then he would fall back asleep. That went on night after night for two weeks. And one day he left, and he moved on to New Jersey. I always remember that. When I got the original Harry Haft script, I thought of him. I thought, “This isn’t a film that takes place in the [death] camps. There’s flashbacks to the camps.” I thought, “This film is actually about post-traumatic stress disorder as we would now call it.” So it was the original script that caught my attention and the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The life lesson of Harry Haft and the trauma he endured is perhaps you can run from your past, but it always catches up with you?
The trauma is what happened to him [Haft] in the camps. But it haunts him as he gets older. It haunts him as he gets married. It haunts when he had kids, until he can come to some type of peace. Other people hear, “Okay, let’s get on with life,” and on the outside they are. But on the inside, you can’t get past what happened. It haunts you. You can go to work, you can have a relationship. But it haunts you. And I thought, “This is an interesting subject.”
The Survivor is certainly no sports movie. But it portrays a boxer. Was it Harry Haft’s sheer will to survive, to prevail over everyone and everything else, that allowed him to survive that boxing ring in Auschwitz?
I think in a lot of people there’s the instinct to survive. But with normal boxing matches, you win and life goes on. This is different. You either survive or you die. You either go on to another fight, or you die. And that’s the struggle that you live with and are haunted by. If [Haft] wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been the same scenario.
Besides this will to live, your film has Harry Haft surviving Auschwitz because of lost love, and that’s why he fought Rocky Marciano, to locate this young woman he’d known in Auschwitz after getting to America.
What pulled him through was this young woman, this romance that kept them going in the camps. Oddly enough, this summer romance kept them alive. Of course, that’s what happens when you’re there. But the point is how do you deal with it after you’re free of that? The mind doesn’t always let go of what happened, of the problem. And that’s the story.
To portray that war experience and its aftermath in America, you weave together memories of Auschwitz with Harry Haft’s life post-war. Why this use of shifting timelines, and not a straight chronology, in The Survivor?
[The movie] has three timelines. That’s because we’re not experiencing the camps, or recalling the camps. If you did the movie in chronological order, it wouldn’t tell the story as well that, in fact, what happened is what haunts him. That’s the difficulty, as opposed to, “Let’s just follow his journey through the camps and then afterwards.” It’s flashing back to what stands out for him, and that gets us to 1949. OK, he survives and he’s getting on with life. But he can’t quite get on with life. That sets the table of the overall drama.
Would you have made The Survivor in the 1980s or 90s, or is this film very much of the moment for you?
It’s a good question. If it came up earlier, would I have wanted to do it? I probably would. But it wouldn’t have been the same film. And it was a childhood remembrance that stayed in my head. When I read the script, I thought,
“OK, this is interesting. This is about how do you basically survive after it happened, mentally, how do you deal with the haunting of it?”
You shot much of the movie in Hungary. Was that eerie for that country’s own Second World War experience with the Holocaust?
To be honest, the experience of shooting it there, in terms of the crew, was really exceptionally good. The whole crew was quite invested in the story. Obviously, most would not have experienced (the war), it was too long ago. They heard stories passed on to them. In terms of shooting, they were very respectful. We had to shoot rather quickly. It’s not that big a budget film. We had to shoot the movie in 34 days. We had to do a lot of trickery to give it the size the movie needed, and the credibility.
Ben Foster, in playing Harry Haft, has to very much carry the film. He really immersed himself in the role.
Ben lost 60 pounds for the camp sequences. It’s extraordinary how he was able to do that. You lose 60 pounds and then do boxing scenes. The stamina needed for all of that, he was just remarkable. He had to lose weight and then gain weight and then gain extra weight. It was a taxing experience, physically and mentally. But he was up for that, he’s a terrific actor and among only a handful of actors that can really play character roles and just literally disappear into them.
In September, The Survivor will screen in Toronto. Do you expect to be on hand for the premiere?
I’m hoping to go. We’ll wait for the latest travel advisories and pandemic-related requirements. I’m looking forward to going there.
And for your next project, I gather you’re in talks to possibly direct The Winner, a movie about Donald Trump. Is that going to happen?
I’m very interested in it. We’ll see where it all goes. But it’s a very unusual take on that. It’s quite inventive, and very different from anything I’ve ever seen or related to a biopic. The concept and design is quite fascinating.
Do you want to take a stab at a movie about Trump after so long ago directing Wag the Dog, about a White House concocting a war to distract, and Man of the Year, where a TV host decides to run for the U.S. presidency, only to see Trump the former reality TV host get to the White House. You need another go at a political satire?
Sometimes you do work about what you think the state is and where things are going. I don’t think it’s a dark secret about the proliferation of [TV culture]. It was very much responsible for the election of John F. Kennedy. That was the beginning. And then comes Obama, as he’s charismatic on television. And along comes Trump, who is not charismatic in a real positive way, but he captures the imagination and we’re talking about a guy who had a reality television show for 10 years and he had a lot of people watching and some people thought, “He’s very successful, he runs his business, I see him every week on TV and, well, he should be president.” And you ask, “What about credentials?” We don’t care anymore. He captures our imagination. So that’s been on my mind for a long time, someone who basically captures our attention. And that’s the nature of television. So inevitably there was going to be a president who was a real TV personality. That’s not going away. I think down the road it’s going to get worse, not better.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 11 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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