Director Barry Levinson, keeping it in the creepy zone with ‘The Bay’
Director Barry Levinson initially won acclaim for 1982’s Diner, a period piece about a group of old high school pals who reunite at a Baltimore diner for a friend’s wedding. Since then, he’s built quite a resume working in both TV and film. His latest film, The Bay, is a horror movie about a parasite that’s unleashed in the Chesapeake Bay. Levinson recently phoned us from his Connecticut home to talk about the movie. We’re only going to use a portion of the interview in a feature we’re writing for a weekly newspaper, so we’re sharing our full discussion here. The movie arrives in theaters on October 26 and will also be available through On-Demand and on iTunes that same day.
In 2010 you were approached to make a documentary about Chesapeake Bay. Talk about how that inspired you to make this film about a deadly parasite that inhabits the waters.
We started collecting the factual information, which was frightening. Frontline had done a documentary and I thought I couldn’t improve on what they did, but the information stayed with me. One day, I thought, “I tell stories. Why don’t I tell a story?” We used the factual information to inform the movie and give it a little more credibility and that’s how it evolved.
Is the science accurate?
A lot of the stuff they talk about is in fact correct – CDC [the Center for the Disease Control] trying to figure out things and the virus that exists in the Chesapeake Bay that can kill you in 24 hours. The chicken excrement dumped in the bay and the pharmaceuticals are dumped in the bay and the fact that dirty water is heading to the bay from the nuclear plant, those are true. All that is factual. We gathered that and applied to the movie to give it a little more credibility.
Shot as if it were a documentary, the film seems to be a marked departure from your previous movies.
It’s different from almost anything I can think of. I do hear it’s a found footage movie. But in a found footage movie, somebody has a movie and they keep filming. In this one, some catastrophic event happened and there was no media. So how do we know what the people were doing? In the first time on the history of man, there’s all this digital information and it’s all personal. If all of the stuff got collected, you’d get an impression of what people were like on that given day during under those circumstances. It’s like an archaeological dig. We didn’t use any high-end digital cameras. We went with all consumer-type cameras.
What were the challenges in using 20 different types of cameras?
At times you have to give the camera to the actor because there is no other way to shoot it. It has to be designed that way and sometimes there’s no video playback and after they shot it, you have to take the camera and see what they did. Sometimes you’re amazed and sometimes there’s nothing there because they forgot to hit the record button. You have to work that way. We didn’t use high-end cameras and degrade them. I went with the cameras that were available.
I think that anyone can tell a story now. Whether they tell it well or not is up to them . . . That will change the whole nature of storytelling. Filmmaking will evolve in ways we can’t even calculate at this time.
Has digital camera equipment changed the concept of a director?
I think that anyone can tell a story now. Whether they tell it well or not is up to them. It’s in the hands of everyone. In the past, it was only in the hands of a few. That will change the whole nature of storytelling. Filmmaking will evolve in ways we can’t even calculate at this time.
What was it like working with Michael Wallach and did his former career as a political analyst inform the script?
Once I began to figure out the idea and how it would work, we talked about stuff and just went from there. He was very good at bringing certain things to the table and then talking about how we utilized this and that. It was a hand-to-mouth process. At the same time, the movie can’t be so precise or it will feel scripted. You have to make it seem like it’s made up.
Talk about telling the story through the eyes of the intern.
I thought we needed somebody there to be doing something. Rather than having a newswoman, I thought it would be good to have it be a summer intern and show how difficult it is and how they figure it out and have that journalist sensibility. It’s not easy. I like the idea of having this young person trying to act like a newsperson. We all think we could do that, but those questions are not easy. She’s also trying to make sense of it. Three years later, she can say that she didn’t know what was she was doing and at the end of the day, she became so scared, she stopped filming. There’s a learning curve to it. It’s not so simple. She was in over her head and reported incorrect information and three years older, she is a little bit wiser and more mature.
On some level the film is a monster movie, but we never get to truly see much of the monster. Why?
I wanted to stay in the area of the credibility. The more credible you can make it, the more frightening it becomes. If it starts to be these gigantic monsters, then we know we’re the play zone. I wanted to keep it in the creepy zone.
It seems as if there is a natural fear of the water that a film like this can exploit. Do you think of something like Jaws as an inspiration?
No, I didn’t because in Jaws, there’s this one monster that’s in the water. Here, for the better part of it, it’s this invisible thing and no one knows what it is. We finally realize that it’s this little parasite that can continue to grow, which in fact it does. They’re for real. When we were up at Toronto at the film festival, we came up with no hype at all. Everything was about Rob Zombie and all the other stuff. We won first runner up in that portion. When I talked late at night and I said the isopods were real, you could hear a sound go through this place. They were like, “Holy God.” It’s like if it’s you saw Jaws and you never knew there was a shark. Once you know there’s really a shark, it’s much scarier. Plus, there’s the fact that there are isopods in the water, but not in the Chesapeake. That’s the liberty we take — they haven’t adapted to brackish water. They are in all the salt water. When you realize they are for real, it scares you even more.