Barry Levinson has had a hand in some of the most iconic cultural products of the last four decades: In the seventies he made a name for himself as one of the writers for the Carol Burnett Show and as the screenwriter for the Mel Brooks films High Anxiety and Silent Movie. In the eighties he directed films such as Diner, The Natural, Rainman, and Good Morning, Vietnam. In the nineties he produced the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, and in the aughts, the HBO series Oz. His latest film is HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack, a captivating drama about the exploits of Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) and the battle around the controversial topic of physician-assisted suicide. Levinson spoke to us earlier this week about Kevorkian, his approach to dialogue, and what David Simon was like earlier in his career.
The screenplay for You Don’t Know Jack was written by Adam Mazer. But since you started off as a writer, when you get a script, do you like to go in and tinker with it?
I always do, but it’s the writer’s piece, no matter what. In this case, I got the script from HBO, I thought it was interesting, and Al [Pacino] thought so as well. I brought Adam Mazer in and talked about things we might be able to explore and open up. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a situation where you just get a script and you go shoot the movie. You want the dialogue to feel as everyday as possible — to feel like people are just talking. So, for example, in the scene when Jack and his sister Margo are arguing in Bob’s Big Boy, there’s a quality to it that doesn’t feel scripted. You want it to resonate with people, and you want these people to feel like real characters, but you don’t want it to feel “important.” That’s something I’ve always rebelled against.
Did your opinions on Jack Kevorkian change as a result of working on this film?
That’s why I thought the title was interesting. Because when I thought about it, I didn’t know Jack. I only knew the sound bites. I didn’t even know about the Mercitron, that he invented this contraption where the person themselves would pull the lever. I just thought that he always did what he did on 60 Minutes. But as to the political debate, I’ve always felt that a person ought to have a choice. Who am I to say that you’re supposed to endure the pain, no matter what? A guy says, “I don’t want to go on anymore, the pain is intolerable.” I don’t even know where to go with that; it’s not for me to make judgments about him.
Were you ever tempted to try to release this theatrically?
I don’t think it’s a question of “tempted.” You can’t really do it. There’s a whole change in the theatrical climate. You just couldn’t make this movie for theatrical. No matter how much the person who financed it might enjoy it, you’d struggle to get screens and you’d struggle to get somebody to support it with ads. I think that if it had been a theatrical film, let’s say an independently financed movie, we’d probably have been told, “It’s too dark, does it have to be that difficult, there are some really rough scenes, can we cut that back, the focus group was upset, etc.” So, I have nothing but praise for the HBO Films unit, who didn’t flinch at any of that stuff. This type of film and I don’t mean just because of its subject matter almost has no place in the marketplace nowadays.
You've seen a lot of shifting of the public's taste. In your early years, you worked for Mel Brooks, who was one of the most popular comic voices of the seventies and early eighties, but then suddenly seemed to fall behind.
Tastes absolutely continue to evolve. You can look at a lot of old movies, and some don’t hold up at all, and some are still as fresh today as they were back then. Certain things survive time, and certain things don’t. Storytelling continues to evolve. But that doesn’t mean that you get rid of things completely. Take this past year. It was a giant surprise that The Blind Side did well. It was a movie that could have easily gone to DVD, and then it caught on and people were like, “Oh my God!” In the past, I don’t think anybody would have thought twice. It would have been, “Look, we’ve got a movie and it’s kind of an emotional thing, and it’s got some sports in it and it’s got a strong woman’s role. We could do okay with this.” But now it’s like, “Wow, how strange that that worked.” And the year before, we had Slumdog Millionaire, which was literally about two hours away from being sent straight to DVD. And they’re shocked not only that it made money, but that it became such a gigantic hit. It’s a good story. It’s a romantic adventure. Would I have said it’s supposed to do $150 million? No. But is it a good story? Yeah! Could it make some money? Yeah. Conversely, it gets so if one movie doesn’t succeed in this genre, they just assume no movie in the genre will.
It seems that your work has also become more political in recent years. You actually recently made a documentary about politics, Poliwood, but even something like You Don’t Know Jack seems very confrontational politically.
I think there was always a component, but I have gone more in that direction. Poliwood was about media and celebrity and politics, and it just kind of happened. Man of the Year, in a sense, was running ahead of where we are today, in terms of looking at how the political system is out of control, with special interests and lobbyists. Maybe we didn’t hammer it home enough. But I’ve heard some lines from that movie popping up nowadays, like the bit about how we should be more like NASCAR and just put the patches with brand names on people. But I don’t know that it’s some kind of definitive plan on my part. I don’t know if I’m political in the sense of any specific ideology. I pretty much disagree with most people.
So The Wire creator David Simon had to work for you at the beginning of his TV career, on Homicide. Was he always as cantankerous as he is now?
No. It’s the difference between being able to run your own show and being a writer for a show. Even though he wrote the book on which Homicide was based, on that show he was working as a member of the group, within a certain type of design. Then he moved out from that, and now he’s probably staying closer to whatever he’s up to.
What is it about Baltimore that keeps you, David Simon, and John Waters always coming back there?
[Laughs.] That’s a very good question. I don’t know. It’s where I was born and raised, so things are stamped in the back of your head in terms of behavior and stories. I didn’t want to do Diner and just shoot it anywhere. I wanted it to be Baltimore. That’s where it happened, and that’s where those people were. Even And Justice for All, which I ultimately didn’t direct, was specifically about Baltimore. The story was told to me by people I hung out with at the diner, who became layers. And they told me this story about the judicial system that wasn’t even close to Perry Mason. So I kept it in Baltimore, and Norman Jewison had to go to Baltimore to shoot it. To his credit, he didn’t say, “Oh, the hell with it, I can just do it here in L.A.”