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Director Barry Levinson has won acclaim, Oscars and big box
office with major-studio films ranging from RAIN MAN to BUGSY to DISCLOSURE,
and it was thus surprising to see him helming a found-footage horror movie—a
subgenre that’s usually the province of up-and-comers. And he was able to bring
a different approach to THE BAY, which he discussed extensively with Fango.
Opening tomorrow in limited theatrical release from
Lionsgate through Roadside Attractions, THE BAY takes inspiration from true
events as it focuses on a small Maryland town on Chesapeake Bay, where a
water-borne illness causes the residents to sicken, and then become hosts for
parasitical (and real) little critters called isopods. Rather than present the
point of view of one central character, the movie is told via footage shot by
numerous different characters on just as many video formats, which broadens the
scope while adding to the sense of reality as the situation descends into
FANGORIA: THE BAY is your first serious horror film and
first found-footage movie, but in some ways it harks back to your work on TV’s
HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, which pioneered the use of the handheld aesthetic
to add new reality to dramatic material. Is that something you called back on
when you approached this film?
BARRY LEVINSON: You know, I didn’t think of it that way, but
when you say it, I think, “Oh, that makes sense.” But I didn’t; the first thing
that occurred to me was, if you wanted to tell the story of this catastrophic
thing that happened in a town, and there was no media, how would you know what
happened? In this generation, sort of like an anthropologist or archaeologist,
you could collect everything: digital cameras, cell phones, texts, e-mails,
Skypes, all that stuff. For the first generation ever, we can get an intimate
look into the lives of the people on a given day, who may not know the big
story; they only know what’s going on inside of it. So taking that approach, I
thought, “All right, now we have to use all these kinds of digital cameras,”
and that’s where it sprang from.
FANG: How did this fictional project grow out of your
interest in the real problems occurring in Chesapeake Bay?
LEVINSON: I was approached about doing a documentary about
the bay, because it’s 40 percent dead, and I collected a lot of pretty scary
factual information. Then I thought, “I don’t know if that’s the best way to
approach it, and I don’t know if I’m the person to do the documentary. But if I
took all that research and we created this story, then this information will
help support the movie, and give it credibility, unease and all that.”
FANG: Have you ever been inspired to do a horror film or
thriller of this kind before?
LEVINSON: No, and I never would have, because it wouldn’t
occur to me. I wouldn’t say, “I’d like to do a horror movie; now I’ve got to
figure out what it is.” It was only because of the conversations about doing
the documentary that the road led to this form. I wouldn’t think [of doing
horror], because I’ve never been a genre chaser.
FANG: Do you live in the area around Chesapeake Bay? Was it
a personal project for you in that sense?
LEVINSON: Well, I do have a place there. So you hear certain
stories, like the Vibrio bacteria [in the water]; they don’t happen every
afternoon, but you hear some of these things and they scare you. Like the fact
that there used to be 127 houses dealing with oysters, which are down to a
handful now, and the fish population is much smaller, and not simply because of
overfishing; it’s also because of the pharmaceuticals and similar things. I’m
not an environmental activist, I’m a storyteller, so I put that all in there
and created the story. I guess in some ways it’s like the ’50s, when everybody
was freaked out about atomic radiation and things like that, and they created
similar stories about that.
A lot of what’s in the movie is factual—like 80 percent, or
80-plus. All those little facts create more credibility for the piece. For one
thing, the isopods are ; it’s not like we invented some crazy creature. They are
real. They’re in the Pacific, and now they’re in the Atlantic. They haven’t
ultimately made their entrance into brackish water, but that’s one thing we
have in our story: “This is very odd. They’re mutating…”
FANG: Did one of those isopods actually try to bore into a
submarine, as mentioned in the film?
LEVINSON: That’s true, yeah. We actually show it.
Originally, we showed that big thing and everyone went, “Oh, that’s fake!” at
one of the early screenings. We thought, “They don’t believe it,” so we added
more images to build up that credibility. They’ll get up to 2 1/2 feet; that’s
true, and all the shots we have of the isopods in their various forms are real.
When the oceanographer is pulling one off the gill and holds it up, that’s a
real one! We just pulled it right off the fish. We didn’t have to CG it. If you
go on Google Images and look them up, you’ll see them. One thing I said to
someone early on was, [inventing a creature] would be like if you saw JAWS and
didn’t know there were sharks. It wouldn’t be the same thing as knowing that
sharks actually exist; it’s scarier when you know sharks are real. Same thing
with the isopod, as opposed to an invented creature. It’s an actual thing that
takes on these various forms, and thus it’s a little more unnerving.
FANG: When you were developing the idea, was it a concern to
balance the storytelling so that the horror didn’t overwhelm the environmental
concern, and its basis in reality?
LEVINSON: No, I think we were just trying to tell the story
as best we could. There were going to be scary things throughout the course of
the movie. But some people will say, “Well, you need seven jumps for it to be
this kind of film.” I don’t know. I don’t know what makes it what kind of film.
All I know is, if they jump, they jump. Sometimes you can jump and forget it;
it doesn’t stay with you. And sometimes, you may jump and it really hits home.
I can’t evaluate that. I just try to tell a story and keep people in their
seats, captivated and involved.
FANG: Do you think you had an advantage coming into THE BAY
that you hadn’t done a horror film before, and didn’t have these strictures
governing how you were going to approach that part of the story?
LEVINSON: Well, I’ve never been one to buy into, “This is
what the genre must have.” One of the downsides of doing this kind of movie—and
the studio obviously doesn’t like this either—is that you can’t define it
exactly, [and the studio believes] it has to be defined 100 percent. Like an
audience can’t work that out on their own, you know what I mean? Going all the
way back to DINER—the studio said, “Oh, it’s a coming-of-age movie!” But then
they didn’t think it was a coming-of-age movie because we didn’t do certain
things that a coming-of-age movie is supposed to. Well, I don’t know how to do
that. I only know how to do what works for me. I don’t know how to adapt to
“Here’s the convention you must have!” I just go on instinct: “Oh, that will be
scary. That’s kind of creepy.” I only know how to go by my intuitive feelings.
And within [a genre film], you have to be consistent with
what you’re trying to do. If you take the wrong step, then it begins to
undermine the film. For instance, when the cops go to the house and there are
disturbances inside, and one guy goes in, and the other guy’s waiting and hears
gunshots, and then he goes in the house…well, we couldn’t go in the house. I
mean, in another horror movie, you could go inside, and there would be a camera
going while somebody’s running around or whatever. But we really couldn’t. So
we tried to create this sense of, “Holy God, what’s going on in there?” Let the
audience use their imaginations while hearing the audio, because if we took the
next step, we’d break the movie’s credibility.
FANG: THE BAY is an interesting found-footage film in that
it really is presented as found footage—video cobbled together from different
sources—whereas most such movies stick to one point of view, from one or maybe
two cameras. How did you and scripter Michael Wallach plan out whose camera was
shooting which events?
LEVINSON: Well, the second we laid out what each scene was,
then I’d say, “How are we going to choreograph this particular thing?” For
example, when we had the teenage couple down by the water, and he’s video-ing
her, how were we going to play it out so that we see enough, but don’t see
everything? That was the only way to approach the movie, because there was no
way to do two-shots, singles, over-the-shoulder, etc. It had to be
FANG: How did you and DP Josh Nussbaum settle on which
cameras to use for which sequences?
LEVINSON: We took about, I don’t know, it could have been 60
or 70 cameras, looked at ’em, did tests with ’em, blew up the images, viewed
them on a screen. And from there we whittled it down to—in terms of how we
could use them, the ease of it, etc.—about 20 or so cameras that would be the
basis for the movie’s visual palette. There was no real high-end stuff.
FANG: Did you look at any other found-footage horror
films—particularly CLOVERFIELD, to which this is the closest in scope—before
making this one?
LEVINSON: I’d seen CLOVERFIELD, but I didn’t specifically
view it before this, because I didn’t think any of it would be applicable. Even
CLOVERFIELD doesn’t use multiple cameras. That’s what I mean by the
distinction, for whatever it’s worth; they had one camera, and we were trying
to do it as a sort of archaeological thing, where if you collected all the
cameras, you’re could try to find out what happened and piece it together. So I
was looking at it as a whole other area. I love the idea that if [this
technology] existed in Pompeii and we were able to unearth all these digital
cameras, we would have been able to have an intimacy with that, into that day,
you know what I mean? God knows what they were talking about or whatever, and
here was this volcano about to go. That’s what intrigued me.
TO BE CONTINUED
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