After earning an Emmy nomination for last year’s Bernie Madoff biopic The Wizard of Lies, director Barry Levinson returns to HBO with another film based on true events, Paterno. Starring Al Pacino as the famed Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the TV movie centers on the last few weeks of his life, when a sexual-abuse scandal around assistant coach Jerry Sandusky rocked the university and the football program.
Levinson opened up to THR about bringing the sensitive story to the screen, working with Pacino and that Anthony Scaramucci executive producer credit.
Paterno obviously had a very big presence in education and college football outside of the Sandusky trial. Was the plan for this film always to focus on just the end of his life and the scandal?
Yes, because otherwise you’re going to get into some sprawling piece and have to deal with at least 35 years. It didn’t seem doable that way. There’s a great drama to the fact that in two weeks in a man’s life you can get a good idea about what the institution didn’t do and the cover-up that went with it, and we fold that together as a man is basically stuck in an MRI machine. So, you’re dealing with the highest high of winning 409 games and then the lowest low of being fired. It’s the highest and lowest points in his life.
How did Pacino get involved in the project?
Al was involved with it earlier on and it didn’t work out — there wasn’t a script that they were all happy with — so it fell apart. Then Al was talking to me about it and I said, “Let me think about this.” I looked at the material and laid out basically the concept of what we have. He liked the idea.
Did you get any response from Penn State or the Paternos?
No, we never heard anything from the university. The only thing from the Paterno family we saw was a tweet from Scott [Paterno, Joe’s son] saying it was all fiction.
What was Anthony Scaramucci’s involvement as co-executive producer?
He had no involvement. You know what’s so terrible nowadays? If anyone invests any money or does anything, they automatically become a producer. I didn’t even know he was involved on any level until the closing credits.
This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.