exit interview

‘The Human Race Is Truly Flawed,’ and Barry Levinson Can’t Quit Making Movies About It

“I find in characters our imperfect nature,” The Survivor director explains, “and it’s constantly fascinating.” Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/HBO

Harry Haft was a Polish Jew who made it through Auschwitz by fighting other inmates for the delectation of Nazi officers. He’s best known in America for his brief brush with sports stardom when, in 1949, he made it through two and a half rounds with then–heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, who was so fearsome that one opponent said that boxing him was like trying to fight an airplane propeller. Haft is the subject of Barry Levinson’s 40th directorial credit, the HBO movie The Survivor, which presents itself as an underdog sports flick. In it, Haft works through his post-traumatic stress disorder with help from a social worker (Vicky Krieps) and a team of trainers, including one of Marciano’s crew, Charley Goldman (Danny DeVito).

But The Survivor is also a vehicle for Levinson to reexamine lifelong preoccupations established in a filmmaking career that started in earnest with his directorial debut Diner, released four decades ago, and that continued through The Natural; Tin Men; Good Morning, Vietnam; the multiple-Oscar winner Rain Man; Avalon; Bugsy; Wag the Dog; Homicide: Life on the Street; Hulu’s Dopesick, for which Levinson served as an executive producer and directed two episodes; and the HBO biographical dramas You Don’t Know Jack, Wizard of Lies, and Paterno. Storytelling is nearly always at the center of his productions, whether a bunch of itinerant 20-somethings are holding forth on movies, music, sex, and friendship in Diner or a movie producer and public-relations wizard are teaming up to concoct a fake war in Wag the Dog. Issues of race, class, religion, and national origin tend to complicate matters. Levinson’s five-film series about his native Baltimore, which stretches from Diner and Tin Men through Avalon and Liberty Heights, juxtaposes striving immigrant Jews, assimilated or second-generation European Christians, native-born Wasps, and African Americans in urban panoramas that show how things change while staying the same.

The Survivor is a nexus point for Levinsonian themes. It depicts its immigrant hero as a thoughtful and passionate man who is perceived as a strong-silent type because he doesn’t speak the language of his adopted home. There are secondary plotlines having to do with the media’s transformation of Harry’s story into a thrilling, prurient, simplified tale with mass appeal (shades of Bugsy, Wag the Dog, and Good Morning, Vietnam) and the ways in which the post–World War II immigrant experience mirrors that of other groups versus the ways in which it stands apart (matters that were at the heart of Avalon and Liberty Heights). On top of all that, The Survivor is a Barry Levinson hangout movie, defaulting to scenes of eccentric and colorful individuals bantering with each other about matters that may or may not bear directly on the plot. The closest thing to a Levinson standard-bearer in this respect is DeVito, co-star of Tin Men, whose down-to-earth and occasionally scatological dialogue illuminates even the darkest corners of Harry’s story.

How did you become aware of Harry Haft’s story?  
I happened to just get the script sent to me, and it kicked off a memory of when I was 6 years old. I grew up with my parents and my grandparents, and one day this man named Simka showed up, and it turned out it was my grandmother’s brother. She’d never spoken of a brother before. Simka stayed for a few weeks, and they put him in my room, like in a cot on the other side of the room. And the first night he was there, I woke up because I could hear him yelling and talking. He seemed like he was upset, and he was thrashing about in bed, and then he fell back asleep. And it went on, night after night, for the two weeks he stayed with us, and then he moved on. I think he moved to New Jersey. And then I forgot about that, as you do when you’re a kid. Nobody ever talked about it after he left.

When I was 16, sitting around a table with my mother one day, she mentioned Simka. And she said, “You know he was in a concentration camp.” I said “What?” I thought, Oh, that’s why he must have been tossing and turning. Nowadays, you relate that to PTSD. Whatever terrible thing that may have happened in your life, some things don’t go away, and they remain there and affect the way you go about your life. You’re carrying something dark that you can’t seem to get rid of. I thought that was an interesting story to follow, and that’s how I got involved.

This script was written by Justine Juel Gillmer, but it feels to me very much like a Barry Levinson script. Yes, it’s a drama, and it’s concentrated on a man who’s a survivor of the camps, but at the same time, it’s a Barry Levinson hangout movie. People are talking to each other about things other than the events of the plot.
Yeah. You add those things as you go along. You’ve got the scenes, but there’s always a point where you might ask, for example, “What else would they be talking about here if they’re hanging around at a training camp?” You can’t just keep staying on the plot. You want to explore other aspects. So when they’re having lunch together at one point, Danny DeVito’s character, the trainer Charlie Goldman, says to Harry, “You know, you’re eating ham,” and Harry says, “That’s okay. God doesn’t pay that much attention to me anyway.” In that scene, we’re addressing issues of faith as well as bigotry, antisemitism, anti-Black sentiments, et cetera, in a kind of very casual manner. I find too many times when it’s just plot, plot, plot, then you risk making a mechanical piece of work.

I love that whole sequence for all the different things that it does. When Harry has a PTSD reaction to a Fourth of July fireworks display, Harry’s trainer Louis Barclay, who is Black, visits Harry and tells him a story. But it’s not just any story that he tells him. 
Louis happens to be the only person who even understands what happened to Harry because of his own brother’s experience. The others are just thinking, I don’t know what the hell Harry’s doing! But the trainer can relate it to the experience of his brother, who fought in World War I and never got over it. Of course, back then, they didn’t call the condition PTSD, but he knew his brother was affected by the war in ways that he could not overcome once he was back home and ultimately killed himself.

The relationship between American Jews, the dominant Wasp culture, and other marginalized groups is a topic that’s recurred throughout your filmmaking career, in various guises, to the point where The Survivor kind of reminds me of what Robert Altman said when he accepted his honorary Oscar in 2006: “To me, I’ve just made one long film.”  
I find in characters our imperfect nature, and it’s constantly fascinating. The human race is truly flawed. We’ve never been able to quite get over the issue that we are not all one thing — that we are all these different kinds of things, mixed together, and we have an extremely difficult time getting past that fact. The difficulties of communicating all feed into that, along with all of our emotional oddities.

Can you talk about the language or communication aspect a bit more? It was clear from your debut film Diner onward that communication — the way people connect and fail to connect through language — was important to you.
When I did Diner, the studio looked at me like I’d done a film in another language. They didn’t get anything about it. They so disliked it that they could have taken it away from me and recut it themselves because I didn’t have the final cut. But the movie was so bad in their minds that they thought, It’s impossible to even fix it, so they left it alone and tried to bury the film instead. And that turned out to be the saving grace for Diner.

When I was writing it, I thought, This is a story of this group of people and how their world is going to change. The 1960s are coming, and the way that we see things at a particular period of time does not last forever. I thought that by doing it as a series of casual talks, I could show all those issues. That’s how I got the idea of a husband and wife and getting into a big argument over the flip sides of records. That scene is not just about music, it’s about the inability of one person to communicate with the other, and the argument is symptomatic of all the problems they’ll have in their marriage unless they can sort it out. In life, we have a tendency to go sideways into most issues.

And yet for all the attention that your films pay to communication problems between individuals, one of the saddest scenes in your entire filmography is in your autobiographical immigrant family drama Avalon, when television comes in as a cultural force, and the family’s not talking to each other anymore at dinner, they’re just staring quietly at a screen.
At some point, our relationships as depicted in the stories people told became less important than the ones that we see on television. Avalon starts off with the storyteller, which is the grandfather. And then television comes along, and it’s not as personal. We move away from the connection of a family, which becomes the underpinning of the separation of a family. We look to a television family for our entertainment. You see the drift, and then the separation.

You know, it’s funny. Sometimes I’ll hear things like, “Oh, The Survivor is a concentration-camp movie.” And to be honest with you, I never thought of it as a “concentration-camp movie.” Everybody has a different takeaway about the work that you do, unless you’re working in a certain genre and you go, “Okay, yes — this is what this is.”

It’s interesting how the movie toys with expectations. As soon as Ben Foster came onscreen, I looked at him and went, “Oh, he looks a little bit like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, with the smashed nose and the wavy hair.” And the time period is the same, so I thought, Oh, this guy is a strong, silent brute. He’s not going to talk. You take your time revealing that this is an eloquent, thoughtful guy. Turns out he’s a guy who looks inward all the time. He’s just not writing a novel about it. 
Well, that is Harry Haft. Much of what you describe is gathered from information about him. You try to do that and then, because you’re writing dialogue and you don’t know exactly what he would have said, the question becomes “How do you want to color him in terms of his conversations?”

Tell me a little bit about the look of the film. 
We looked at pictures of things a lot. We’d look at Coney Island in the color
palette that existed then and what the green looked like in 1949 as opposed to, say, modern green. We tried to build a palette for each time. Our cinematographer George Steel was very good at rendering that color.

You know, we didn’t have much time to shoot this. We did it in 34 days.

That’s a very tight time frame for a historical epic. If you’ve only got 34 days, how do you manage Ben Foster losing a ton of weight for the concentration-camp scenes and then putting it all back on? Is there digital or prosthetic work?
No — Ben spent several months losing weight for the camp scenes, then we shot for maybe ten days to get the camp stuff, and then we shut down and took a break for six weeks. During that time, Ben had an eating fest. The physicality of it all was quite amazing. The boxing was also complicated because Ben had to learn how to box in character as Harry. As opposed to a regular boxing film where both people are trained boxers, Harry wasn’t a trained boxer, so it was like a brawl, and it was much messier. And when you have guys fighting that way, you have to really watch carefully, because you don’t want somebody to get hurt. You can’t shoot it like, Left, right, duck, bend — okay, cut, we got that. This one was messier, certainly in the camp situations. And even when Harry became a pro, he didn’t have the moves down in the way that a really competent boxer would have.

I’ve seen a lot of boxing movies, but you’ve got some stuff in here that’s new, like the moment where Rocky Marciano knocks Harry down and you’ve got a very long, lateral, slow-motion tracking shot of Harry falling. His body is stretched out horizontally, almost like something from a Max Fleischer Popeye cartoon. I couldn’t even believe it was a real guy because his body is so strangely contorted in the frame.  
We wanted to have a shot that would put across the idea of “This is the moment that puts an end to this man’s boxing career.” It wasn’t just “You got knocked down and now you’re out.” There are two parts to the shot. One is Ben understood what we were going for and had enough control over his body that he could maintain the position of Harry as he was falling. The other is that George was the camera operator, which is what we needed in order to get that fluidity.

What can you tell me about working with Ben Foster?
Ben is remarkable. I think he’s one of the great character actors of his generation. I don’t know anybody that can lose himself in one role after another the way he can. We first worked together 20-some years ago. I put him in Liberty Heights, which was his first feature.

Oh my God, I forgot about that!
He’s great to work with because you can go, “What about if we throw this in here?” And he’ll go with it. That’s something Vicky Krieps does as well.

I’ll give you an example. Very late in the film, Harry is telling the story about the fact that he killed his friend. In the original scene in the script, he tells the story of how he killed his friend, and then Vicki goes over to him and hugs him, and that’s the end of the scene. So we’re just about to shoot, and I say to Vicki, “When he finishes the story, don’t get up. Just sit in your chair. Let’s see what happens if you don’t hug him, if you don’t comfort him, because there are still real issues between your characters.”

And so we shot it, and he finished what he had to say, and she just looked at him and looked at him, and then she finally picked up some lines that she switched into the scene from another scene that was going to come later. The explosion that took place between them, with him throwing the orange-juice bottle — that all just came out of Ben’s instincts as an actor.

Tell me a little more about Vicki Krieps. She seems to have exploded into movies in the last few years. 
Vicky’s an actress that, if she’s not talking, you’re still absolutely fascinated to be watching her. Sometimes actors work because of what they say and that’s where their strength is. She can get a lot of attention without saying anything. There’s a great simplicity about her.

I was a bit surprised, looking over your filmography, that you have not worked very often with Danny DeVito — he feels like a guy who was put on the earth to be in Barry Levinson films.
I love him. He’s terrific both dramatically and comedically. I don’t know how to define what Danny does at all, but I know it’s not something that the business in this day and age is particularly interested in. The problem is it’s more and more difficult in the times that we’re in to really do character work, which is what I love. Some of the films that I’ve done in the past, I don’t think you could ever make again. I think that time is over.

If you watch Danny’s face in those little cutaways during the fight between Harry and Marciano, you can see how involved he is in the scene, and you can see how troubled he is by the fact that Harry is getting the shit kicked out of him.

There’s a dual consciousness in his reactions as well.
And then the ad-libbed lines ringside when he’s talking to Marciano — Danny threw those in, and they were perfect. Charlie doesn’t want to see Harry Haft get totally destroyed, so he’s like, “Put him away fast
and let’s put an end to this.” But he does it in a way that’s pure Danny DeVito.

Was that part of the story based on something that actually happened — Charlie Goldman, a guy from Marciano’s squad, going over and advising Harry Haft?

Another true fact is — and I doubt many people would know this — Charlie Goldman was basically the height of Danny. I was sitting around one day going, “What did Charlie Goldman look like? Bring me some pictures!” He was one of the great boxing trainers, and I’m looking at the pictures, and I’m thinking, My God, he looks like Danny DeVito! As soon as I realized that, I called Danny and told him. He said, “Where are you shooting?” I said, “Budapest.” He said, “I’m there.”

What lessons did you learn early in your career that have continued to be valuable for you? 
I try to make the work seem as simple as possible. If you have the actor go here and be on this mark and then turn and pick up the coffee cup, and so on — when the filmmaking becomes more mechanical in terms of all the elements — it’s very hard to achieve a feeling of spontaneity because you’ve made things too restrictive. You start to feel that you have to accomplish all of these beats, as opposed to just feeling loose and free to do the work. I’d rather make it so that everybody feels comfortable and you’re still getting the shot but you’re not aware of the mechanics of it all. I like the set, in general, to feel fairly relaxed and to let the actors feel a sense of freedom.

Now I’m thinking of that anecdote that you shared about giving your lead actress a note not to get up from a table, and then she goes a step further and introduces some dialogue that comes from a different scene entirely. I can imagine other directors saying, “Wait, what are you doing? You’re going to cause problems in the editing if you say that here.” But you didn’t do that.
No, I just wanted to leave it loose. Look, there’s an objective in any given scene. But at the same time, you don’t want to feel like the objective is the most important thing in the world. You want the actors to be able to do the work and not feel uptight, because if they’re uptight, they never can exhibit true behavior. I love it when it seems unpredictable. I’m happiest when it feels like we made it all up. I want the audience to feel like they’re secretly watching and listening to people who happen to be talking to one another.

So you welcome and even introduce elements of unpredictability into an art form that standard commercial filmmaking processes try to make as orderly as possible. Why?
Because human behavior isn’t ordinary. That’s why I’m looking to do stuff like that! When I saw On the Waterfront, I was 12 years old or something like that. There was a scene in the movie where Marlon Brando was walking with Eva Marie Saint, and they were going through a playground, and she had these white gloves that she was carrying, and she dropped one glove. And Marlon Brando picked it up, and then he was sitting on a swing talking to her and trying to put her little white glove on his hand.

I thought, Holy God, that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. The moment seemed so ordinary that I was fascinated by it. I know nothing about movies at that point. I don’t know who does what on a film set. I don’t even know what a director does. I’m just dumb enough that I know when it says “screenplay by” that it must be the writer. I wonder if that person had anything to do with the scene with the glove.

The other important moment for me came when I was a kid watching the TV version of Marty. There’s this simple line when Marty’s friend Angie says, “Whaddaya feel like doing tonight?” and Marty goes, “I don’t know, Angie. What do you feel like doing?” And they go back and forth like that, asking each other “Whaddya wanna do?”

And I thought, That was the greatest piece of writing I ever heard in my whole life. It sounded to me like something I might say to my friend. To me, that said more about a friendship than anything else could. I didn’t know how to analyze it that way at the time, though, because I was a kid. But those two things, those two ordinary things, from On the Waterfront and Marty, stayed in my mind. Now that I’m older, I can look back and say that those were probably the really influential moments for me. I ended up making movies that try to have lots of those kinds of moments.

‘The Human Race Is Truly Flawed’