More from Barry Levinson about writing and directing movies
Published: March 31, 2008
|The May 2008 issue of The Writer featured an interview with top filmmaker-screenwriter Barry Levinson, whose films include "Diner"; "Tin Men"; "Avalon"; "Liberty Heights"; "The Natural"; "Good Morning, Vietnam"; "Rain Man"; and "Bugsy."|
The interview was conducted by Patrick McGilligan and excerpted from Backstory 5, McGilligan's latest collection of interviews from screenwriters, forthcoming from the University of California Press. Following are some additional writing insights and filmmaking memories from Levinson.
Tell me about "Good Morning, Vietnam." Was it changed during filming partly because of Robin Williams?
Yes. You want to take advantage of his comedic mind. Use it. His full personality hadn't been fully realized in his earlier films. In the case of "Good Morning, Vietnam" it would have been foolish not to find or bring to the screen a mind like no other I had come across before. That applied also to the Vietnamese, who couldn't do the lines as written. In read-throughs and rehearsals, I could see they were saying lines they couldn't handle. That stuff in the classroom scenes, for example, didn't work. It sounded like lines.
So then you start making changes. You talk to them and find out what they'd really say. Finally you get to a point where you say, "The hell with it. Let's not even slate the scene. We'll tail-slate it, and just let Robin talk, and let the other actors respond to Robin."
All those scenes became improvised. For the first time you began to hear the Vietnamese speaking in a way that was natural and not simply spewing out lines. The sequences got built without anybody knowing we were filming. In that way you get the behavior of the people in the classroom that is much closer to what they are really about, rather than lines on a piece of paper they can't quite deliver. I don't do that out of disregard for the screenwriter; it's a matter of taking a look at what's happening in a given moment and saying, "We're not going to get there if we go down this road, so I have to make course corrections." I had to build those scenes between Robin and the Vietnamese in a way that seemed more naturalistic and lively and more credible.
It seems you have a policy of never taking credit on a script that you are directing, which someone else wrote.
So that whatever you might do to enhance the script, you are not standing in front of the writer.
Alfred Hitchcock had a similar philosophy. He wrote or helped write all of his movies, yet there came a point in his career when he stopped taking any script credit. The possessory credit covered it all for him.
Right. That's very true. And look, no matter what, it starts with the writer. The writer has put something on the page and that's what you ultimately are committed to filming. Whatever course corrections need to be made, or adjustments that pop up, it still began with the writer.
In terms of "Rain Man," there was a writer's strike, and so I went off with the script I had at that time, and things happened on the road and changes were made because of what happened on the road. The script evolved.
Again, the writer wasn't with you?
So you had to do a little writing and some fixes?
Because of the nature of the piece. If you're making a movie about an autistic, you have a choice. You can do a tightly constructed piece, but making it so tightly constructed you'll knock out some of the behavioral aspects of the two main characters. My feeling grew on the road that the behavior and the relationship were the most interesting aspects of the piece, not the plot points that were supposedly to be followed. Because autism was an affliction that few people had heard of at that time, few people understood it, and we didn't want to explain it in great detail. I wanted to show how the behavior works, and that is the way the audience would understand it. I wanted to show the frustrations of someone who deals with an autistic, and also the frustrations of the autistic himself, who is kind of locked in a mental box, and then we wanted to show this behavior unfold as the two guys go from Cincinnati to Los Angeles.
You had to be open enough to see little things happen, and then build on them. On the road we kept building. For example, Dustin [Hoffman] came up to me one day and said something like, "I have this business I do when I get agitated. I go into this pitching motion, this long, slow windup. Only it takes too much time, I think. I wish there was something else I could do that took less time." I said, "Try 'Who's on first?' " He said, "Who do you mean 'Who's on first?' " I said, "The Abbott and Costello routine." He said, "Who's playing the other guy?" I said, "You do both and do it like a mantra. You speak the words but you don't understand the humor, because you're an autistic. It's a rhythm that you're into, a mantra, that can alleviate your frustration." He said, "That's interesting." I checked with some psychologists who understand autism, and they said it was plausible. And that's how that got into the movie.
Later on, I figured out Dustin's character would get agitated by the mantra at times, because at a certain point things like that can drive you crazy. And then we could have Tom [Cruise] getting angry, saying, "Don't you understand? That's a joke! It's a comedy routine!" So "Who's on first?" ran all the way through the movie. Things like that happen as you go along, if you're open enough.
Another example: One day I got worried that the audience would think Tom wasn't taking good enough care of Dustin, and that led me to the underwear-at-K-Mart bit. Tom saying, "What about your underwear? I gave you underwear …" Dustin saying, "I only get my underwear at Kmart in Cincinnati." We were trying to show how the rigidity of the rituals of autism plays out, in a natural way. That was another sequence that evolved when we were on the road. All those things got added along the journey; you observe the behavior and the relationships, and you take advantage. We built on things as we followed the characters on the journey, cross-country.
Starting out as a writer, did you ever read or study a classic film script?
Never saw one. Didn't even know how to write a script, until I actually wrote my first one, sometime in the late 1960s, and then I had to buy a book that told you how to do the format. You know: INTERIOR. BEDROOM. DAY. CUT TO ... I had to have a book about the format because I didn't know anything about it.
Do you remember the circumstances under which you wrote it? Because things have changed so much for screenwriters over recent years, even the physical ways of doing the work. Were you using a typewriter, pencil and paper, working at home or the office?
The way I normally used to write was in longhand, and then I'd type it up shortly after I had written X number of pages, because if I stayed away from the pages for too long I wouldn't be able to read my own handwriting. I wrote so fast and so sloppy. I'd go from yellow pages to typing pages, then go back and write some more on yellow pages. But everything I wrote was all in longhand.
Everything was so laborious in those days, even the typewriters and the script formatting.
A major pain. You had to take your script to a place that put it into the proper format and then to another place to get it printed, and that all took three days. If there were any mistakes or revisions, you had to do it all over again.
Has the format changed drastically for you, from those days? Did some of the formatting become old-fashioned?
Scripts are a little less formal. I think William Goldman (author of the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") might have been the first to break certain conventions ...
Plus he put in less camerawork or camera instructions.
Has your own style changed?
The way I wrote is pretty much the way that I write. I never used to describe things in great detail. I was always fairly sparse.
So your scripts were and are dialogue-focused.
Yes. If you think of "Diner," it was dialogue-focused. I think it wasn't difficult to read but it was easy to misunderstand. I remember the initial reaction from agents. "I don't know, there's not much here ..." Once you talked them through it, explaining the characters, they'd say, "Oh I see!" Because there weren't people commenting throughout on what good friends the characters were.
People actually had to read the script diligently and finish it.
Has wearing so many hats in other areas--directing and producing, not to mention major activity in television--hindered your writing? I would imagine that nowadays you don't always have the time to write, or develop that intimacy with the material.
No, because at the end of the day it's all about an intimacy with the material. At some point, it's only about that. You can't just simply say, "OK, what do we have to shoot today, three pages?" It goes way beyond that. You've been living with the characters in your head all the way from the first reading to the whole preproduction period, including looking at the locations. Because sometimes you go to a location and you realize, "Oh my God, we're going to have to make changes in this particular scene because it isn't going to quite work." Or, "This can be even stronger than I imagined."
Little adjustments are happening all the time. All along you're making decisions about how the film will evolve, the problems there are in a scene, things that might have to be added because of a lack of clarity in a certain moment. The way I work, the only way I know how to work, is that once you are basically committed to go ahead with a project, the script--the scenes, the characters--are running around in your head all the time.
--March 31, 2008