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Levinson makes it happen

The Oscar-winning filmmaker explains how the process works. Take, for example, his latest Robert De Niro project, 'What Just Happened?'

August 31, 2007|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

In the 25 years since "Diner," Barry Levinson has been one of Hollywood's finest writer-director-producers, with credits that include "The Natural," "Avalon," "Toys" and "Rain Man," for which he won an Oscar.

That's why insiders and movie-lovers alike are gleefully anticipating his new independent comedy-drama, "What Just Happened?," a "sometimes painfully funny" movie about a Hollywood filmmaker juggling ex-wives and volatile projects. It features his "Wag the Dog" star Robert De Niro in the lead role.

Levinson is currently at work in his editing rooms in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Diana.

He talked about the filmmaking process.

In His Words: What happened is, Robert De Niro had always been on Art Linson to adapt his book [about his experiences as a Hollywood producer], "What Just Happened?" Eventually, Art wrote a draft of it as a screenplay, De Niro read it, and said, "I really like what this can be," and suggested to Art that it had sensibilities I would understand. I thought it had great potential and really good stuff. We spoke, and it evolved a bit, and over a period of several readings it took the shape for us to go off and finally do it.

The Neverending Process: [In these initial readings] you get a bunch of actors together. It's not like anyone is trying to read for a part, which would add a whole other element to it. We're just doing it so we can evaluate the screenplay. It was very helpful because there were changes from the first one to the second, and then after the second one as well; then there were changes that happened when we went off to shoot, from things that happened along the way. Things continue to evolve. Certain things you do in the course of the movie sometimes have an effect you may not anticipate.

Serendipity: On "Rain Man," I said to Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise one day, "We've got to come up with a little thing that Tom does so at least the audience knows he does care for Dustin as he takes him across country." So someone said, "What about, like, Tom gave him fresh underwear?" And I said, "Let's try it." And Tom says, "I gave you a fresh pair of my underwear," and that leads to Dustin saying "I get my boxer shorts at K-Mart in Cincinnati." . . . That all came out of the thought that we needed a little something, and out of the throwaway we came up with, while we were shooting on a road in Kentucky. And it suddenly becomes something that runs through the movie. An audience will connect to a particular moment and its repercussions will be beyond anything you can imagine. And that's a mystery.

Invention: [When you invent things on the set] you don't want to switch one thing for another just for the arbitrariness of it all; you want to protect what you have in the script and still be open enough to see if some new moment shows itself. It's got to be both; otherwise the thing becomes hermetically sealed, for me.

Schedule: When you're shooting, you may have a 6 a.m. call and when you're finally getting back into a room it's 10:30 at night. Post-production is much more normal: You may go into the editing room at 10 and leave at 6 in the evening.

In the Editing Room: In my mind, I have a scheme about how a scene is supposed to work and what's needed in each scene. But then you hope that a scene doesn't suddenly come apart in the editing room so that you're fighting for its life. Sometimes the scene in front of it is affecting it in some way. And there are all these little surprises that come about. Sometimes you find holding back on some moment makes it all the stronger. It's extraordinary how much impact a particular cut from one shot to another can have. The mathematics of, "We need to extend this shot for six more frames," and suddenly with those six frames I feel something there, that moment, and that's all there is -- it's just extraordinary there.

Finding the Music: I might go in in the morning, and I'll sit with the editor [Hank Corwin] and talk over something for an hour and a half, two hours, and I'll go away for a couple of hours, and wander back. Sometimes I sit and listen to songs and music in general, and it will give me ideas for things I haven't tried with the movie yet. Music has a huge effect. You have to find the voice of the music. You don't want to push the movie emotionally. You have to allow it to breathe on its own. And when you have comedy and drama that plays simultaneously, as in "What Just Happened?," the score can't do both. And therefore you say, "Maybe we shouldn't do anything musically -- maybe we should just play a piece of source music," which doesn't define a scene, and just becomes an element of it. This is not a full-out comedy, not a perky thing that just spins along. It has a lot of energy to it. But it is a blend of dramatic comedy. At times it's painfully funny.

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