As you’d expect, even the most acclaimed filmmakers slow down in their later years. Sure, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg are exceptions, but for the most part opportunities are fewer and farther between. Barry Levinson, who just turned a spry 80 years old last month, may actually be busier than ever. Over the past few years he shot the first two episodes of the Hulu mini-series “Dopesick,” which earned him a DGA Award nomination, and “The Survivor,” the true story of Harry Halt, which debuted to strong reviews at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival before being acquired by HBO. As that film made its streaming and cable debut last week, Levinson was prepping yet another gig, directing the initial episodes of David E. Kelley’s new Peacock series “The Missing.” In fact, he’s so busy, we spoke as he was en route to a production meeting.
“The Survivor” finds Ben Foster portraying Halt from his days as a prisoner in Auschiwitz, forced to box other prisoners under orders from a brutal Nazi officer (Billy Magnussen), to the decades after the war he spent looking for the love of his life. It’s the sort of moving historical drama that studios rarely make anymore. Levinson, who won the Best Director Oscar for “Rain Man,” admitted that financing the film was an “uphill battle” and, frankly, “we got lucky.”
Levinson says one of the things that jumped out at him in Justine Juel Gillmer’s screenplay was how clearly Halt was suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after the war.
“In the past, if someone survived some tragedy, that stays put,” Levinson says. “It was like, ‘O.K., the event’s over and you get on with your life.’ And now we know that’s not the case. So when I read this, I thought, ‘Well, here’s a man who’s haunted by a sense of guilt about the past, and it affects his relationships and his daily life. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thing to look into.'”
The filmmaker also had a personal connection to the material. It reminded him of an episode of his life when he was five years old and living with his parents and grandparents. A man appeared one day and it turned out to be his grandmother’s brother. He never knew she had a brother.
“He stayed with us for several weeks. He was put in a cot on the other side of the room from me. And at night, I was awakened by him sort of yelling in a language I had never heard and kind of tossing and turning and yelling out things,” Levinson recalls. “And then he falls back asleep. And that went on night after night, after night for almost two weeks. Then, ultimately, he moved on and nobody talked about him. And when I was about 16 years old, I’m talking to my mother, sitting in the kitchen, and she said, ‘Well when Sithko was in the concentration camp.’ And I went, ‘What?’ And he was in a concentration camp. And that was the first time I knew that. And immediately, I flashed on the moments of him waking up, waking me up at night, and carrying on. And so when I read the script, that kind of connection to him and the fact that he’s haunted by the past, I made that connection to the story of Harry Haft.”
While the broad points about Haft’s remarkable story are true in the film, some things, such as Magnussen‘s specific character, are not. Levinson did his own research into Haft’s life before filming began.
“He was in these various camps. He did box [there], I think it was 76 people, from the time he was there. And the documentation was there,” Levinson says. “Then I ultimately saw his testimony that the Shoa Foundation provided, and you go, ‘O.K. this is an amazing story to be told.’ Not every moment is going to be factual. I mean, it is a film, but it is pretty true to the events that took place.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of “The Survivor” was Foster’s commitment to the role. Shot over a number of months in 2019, Foster initially lost 62 pounds to portray Haft during his time in Auschwitz. Levinson notes, “He was the one that said, ‘I want to lose weight, I’m going to lose a lot of weight.’ And I said, ‘All right.’ You don’t want to say, ‘Listen, I’d like you to lose 60 pounds for this role.’ You don’t want to start with that conversation. But he was the one that brought it up. And we were able to figure out how to make that work.”
Levinson continues, “We shot the camp sequences first, and then we took a break. And then he just ate. So he gained a fair amount of that weight back. And then of course, then we took a break because we shot in Hungary. Then we took a break while we were coming back to the States, and then he gained a little more weight to do the last third of the film.”
Not only will Levinson and “The Survivor” be up for Emmy consideration over the next few months, but so will the aforementioned “Dopesick.” Danny Strong, who created and co-wrote most of the series, approached Levinson about helming the first two episodes. Levinson thought it was a great project, but admits he was surprised Strong got anyone (in this case FX) to agree to make it. Because, on face value, he wondered, “Do we really want to watch a movie that deals with the opioid crisis?” After critical and industry acclaim, the answer appears to be yes.
“It’s gratifying. It did very well. And it got a lot of attention. It just got a Peabody nomination as well,” Levinson says. “And you go, ‘All right, look, we were able to get there with this one.’ So I was very pleased. Danny Strong is a terrific writer, and he [directed] the last few episodes. So it was great to see that. So that was one of his first. I think he did one other thing as a director, but he really was able to sink his teeth into this.”
“The Survivor” is now available on HBO Max. “Dopesick” is available on Hulu.