Oscar and Emmy-Winning Director Barry Levinson Reflects On "The Survivor" – SHOOT Online

Posted By on March 5, 2022

Barry Levinson is an Oscar-winning director for Rain Man, has earned three Academy Award nominations as a screenwriter--for And Justice for All, Diner and Avalon--and garnered two more nods for Bugsy, one for directing, the other for Best Picture as a producer. He also has eight career DGA Award nominations, winning for Rain Man in 1989. His latest Guild nod came a couple of months ago for the First Bottle episode of Dopesick (Hulu), a limited series which he also produced for creator/showrunner Danny Strong (who also garnered a DGA nom for another Dopesick episode). Dopesick delves into opioid addiction in America, drawing us into a distressed Virginia mining community, a rural doctors office, the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Between the chronological bookends of Rain Man and Dopesick came Guild nominations for Levinson on the strength of the features Avalon and Bugsy as well as such TV efforts as Homicide: Life on the Street, You Dont Know Jack, The Wizard of Lies and Paterno.

Levinsons episodic work on Homicide: Life on the Street earned him an Emmy for director of a drama series along with a Peabody Award. Levinson has won a total of four Emmys, the other three being as a producer of Displaced Person for Outstanding Childrens Program and two as a writer for The Carol Burnett Show. Overall Levinson has 11 Emmy nominations thus far--another one for his writing on The Carol Burnett Show, best telefilm nods as a producer for Paterno, The Wizard of Lies, Phil Spector and You Dont Know Jack, as well as directorial noms for Paterno and You Dont Know Jack.

Now Levinson is once again in the Emmy conversation not only for his work on Dopesick, buoyed in part by the aforementioned DGA nomination, but also for his directing of The Survivor, which debuted at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and is slated to premiere on April 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO. Based on the book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano by Alan Haft, The Survivor stars Ben Foster as Harry Haft who survives both the unspeakable horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the gladiatorial life-or-death boxing spectacle he is forced to fight in with his fellow prisoners for the amusement of his Nazi captors. Haft, though, remains driven to survive by his quest to reunite with the woman he loves--from whom he was separated during the Holocaust. After a daring escape, he makes his way to New York where he makes a name for himself as a boxer, even landing a bout with the great Rocky Marciano. Haft hopes that the press coverage he gets as an athlete may help him find his lost true love--she will realize that he is still alive as he continues to believe that she too has survived.

The Survivor was produced by New Mandate Films and BRON Studios in association with Endeavor Content, USC Shoah Foundation, Creative Wealth Media and Levinsons Baltimore Pictures. The Shoah Foundation--dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides, is a powerful voice for education and action. It provided detailed historical consulting for The Survivor in addition to access to a testimony of Haft, filmed in 2007 and preserved in the Foundations Visual History Archive.

Foster heads a cast for The Survivor which includes Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, Saro Emirze, Dar Zuzovsky, Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo.

Levinsons body of work as a director over the years also includes such notable features as The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Wag the Dog and Sleepers. And via Baltimore Pictures he has produced such critically acclaimed releases as Donnie Brasco and Bandits.

Levinson talked to SHOOT about Dopesick and The Survivor. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

SHOOT: What led you to decide to direct The Survivor?

Levinson: I recalled an incident back when I was very young in 1948 or 49. I lived with my parents and my grandparents. One day this man showed up at the door. He was my grandmothers brother. I never heard of anyone ever mentioning they had a brother. We put him up. He slept on a little cot in my bedroom. The first night he was asleep and speaking in a language I didnt understand. He was agitated, woke up, thrashed about and eventually fell asleep. He was upset and bothered night after night. After a period he moved out, had his own place and nothing else was said about him.

I later learned he was in a concentration camp. I was taken aback. It was the first time that ever came up. He had problems for much of his life dealing with what had happened in the past.

By todays standards, we look at what happened and now know about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Youre told to get on with your life but its not that simple. To survive is one thing. To live is quite another.

SHOOT: Its especially appropriate that The Survivor will debut on Holocaust Remembrance Day in that the story flashes back to Auschwitz but doesnt take place in the death camps. Instead it takes place in the U.S. where Haft is coping with life, still plagued by haunting memories. His remembrances continue to torment him.

Levinson: Yes, we tried to bring viewers into what he was dealing with. He had quite a fantastic story to tell. Its about him making that full transition to become a person living in the present. How does he deal with what happened?

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest challenge(s) that The Survivor posed to you as a filmmaker?

Levinson: To re-create the death camp, the fights, to give it as much authenticity as you can, to create something that was quite haunting for the better part of his life. To show that, his sense of guilt, what it was like, what it looked like so we can understand the strong impact and his struggles.

SHOOT: Among your first-time collaborators were cinematographer George Steel and editor Douglas Crise, ACE. What led you to gravitate to them and what did they bring to The Survivor?

Levinson: I worked with Doug on Dopesick after The Survivor. Hes a very good editor. You have to find some kind of rapport. Youre talking about seconds at a time--a little faster on that, a little slower on this. It has much to do about rhythm on one hand, and how to unfold the story in general. How do we rethink a scene, maybe create something stronger than what we originally thought. Hes very good at that. When I shoot, I leave room for a certain amount of improvisation. He was very good at blending content, performance and visuals. We found a comfort zone.

When I was trying to find a cinematographer, I looked at Georges work and found it interesting. But more importantly when we spoke on the phone a few times, I got excited by his thoughts. We only had 34 days to shoot the whole movie, dealing with different time periods, boxing. It was a pretty tight schedule. But I never felt rushed because George was able to design what we needed for the scenes in a tight space of time. He was extremely efficient.

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on The Survivor? And on Dopesick?

Levinson: We went to Auschwitz. The act of walking in that space, to realize that over 6 million people were murdered. Its staggering. You cant get away from it. My God, what is wrong with us. You see the shoes that are stored, the clothing piled up on display, the suitcases. You think about the dreams that never came to be. You can understand why Harry Haft is so tormented by his past.

As for Dopesick, Danny Strong wrote this miniseries. It was well researched, an enormous undertaking, moving in and out of time frames, moving backwards and forwards constantly. Sometimes you think you know a story and when you finally read it, you realize, oh my God, I had no idea. You feel a deep obligation to tell the story, to find a way to engage an audience but with an invisible hand. You dont want style to overwhelm the piece. You have an obligation to hold up the work that Danny wrote, to portray the characters as credibly and as humanly as possible.


Oscar and Emmy-Winning Director Barry Levinson Reflects On "The Survivor" - SHOOT Online

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