Movie Talk

Barry Levinson on his environmental horror movie ‘The Bay’ – 80 percent of this is true

Movie Talk

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Photo: Roadside Attraction

Barry Levinson had a streak of critically praised, wildly popular movies in the '80s and '90s, from "Diner" to "Wag the Dog" to "Rain Man," for which he won an Oscar for best director. For his latest movie, the Baltimore native has taken a decidedly different tack.

"The Bay" is a horror flick about an ecological plague that devastates a sleepy berg on the Chesapeake Bay and is then covered up. Using footage from various videos, iPhone FaceTime conversations, and security cameras, one of the town's few survivors tries to piece together how the town's Fourth of July celebration turned into a gory mass panic when one person after another developed horrific skin rashes that prove fatal. The culprit, it turns out, is a fish parasite called an isopod that, thanks to all the toxins dumped into the bay -- piles of chicken poo, nuclear waste, etc. -- has started snacking on humans. Think "Cloverfield" meets "Contagion."

I like horror movies. I've seen a lot of them. This movie freaked me out -- not only because of some of the movie's graphic, and really disgusting, shots of diseased fish and gaping skin lesions, but also because it all felt distressingly plausible.

I had a chance to talk with Levinson the other day about this movie, about the Chesapeake Bay, and about making a found-footage horror flick.

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Jonathan Crow: The movie feels really personal to you; can you talk to me about the genesis of this film and your connection to it?

Barry Levinson: Well, since I come from Baltimore, I'm always approached on various things related to the region. I was asked at one point about doing a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, which is 40 percent dead. I looked into it, gathered the facts, and thought, it's pretty scary. But in the end of the day, a lot of that falls on deaf ears. The facts, in and of themselves, don't penetrate. So I was thinking, I'm a storyteller. Maybe if I apply a lot of this factual information into a story, I can end up with a piece that's suspenseful, scary, unnerving, and that's backed up with 80 percent factual information.

JC: So what's not real?

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Barry Levinson

Photo: Roadside Attractions

BL: Well, isopods are real. They're from the Pacific, and they are now in the Atlantic. What they haven't done is get into brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay though. In the movie, there's a scene where one of the oceanographers grasps an isopod with tweezers.. You see a tight shot of it. That's not CGI, that's real. We just pulled that out of the water. The Atlantic, not the Chesapeake. But they do exist. They do eat the fish from the inside out. All of that stuff is factual information. The information about the bay is basically all factual. There was a nuclear reactor leak, and it is heading into the Chesapeake. Its quantities aren't great. The chicken farm runoff stuff, all that stuff, is factual.  At the end of the day, it is a movie -- not a documentary, but it's infused with a lot of things that are real. I think it adds to the nature of the piece.

JC: What's the trick of getting a found-footage horror movie right?

BL: You know it's funny -- I never thought of this as a found-footage movie. I wasn't really thinking about it in those terms. What I was thinking of was this: You took a town and something like this happened, and there's no media around. How would we know it took place? For the very first time in history, you can get a picture of that town, if you collect all the footage from everyone's cell phones and their digital cameras and the Skypes, and the texting and everything else. In Pompeii, for example, we would never know what happened in a given household. So I thought, what would be sort of interesting is an anthropological, archeological dig and just put it all together. There are so many ways that we now can document the intimacies of a daily life. That's what's intriguing in overall idea.

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JC: So what did you shoot this movie on?

BL: I didn't want to shoot any high-end stuff and then degrade it, because to my eyes it still doesn't look real. So what I thought was, why don't we just use the consumer products? We'll do tests. We probably started with 85 or 90 different cameras, and we kept testing them and seeing what was going to work for us.

There were some sequences where we had to give the cameras to the actors to shoot. There was no other way to do it. In some cases, I couldn't even see what was being recorded because an iPhone doesn't have a video playback. So sometimes I would give a camera to the young, 16-year-old or 15-year-old actress and send her into a room after telling her what to talk about and how to handle the camera. Then after two or three minutes, I'd knock on the door and take a look at what she shot and see if it worked.

JC: That must be kind of unnerving for a director, isn't it? You're kind of giving all of your control over to your actor.

BL: Yeah, but at the same time it's fun because you are playing. That's part of the way you're going to approach the project. I'm going to have to give cameras to 8-year-old kids in swimming pools. I'm going to have to give a camera to this person and this person. I'm going to have to hope that I can get what I need other times we can in fact do the camera, but that's the rules you set up. I'm not going to say it's not unsettling when you have somebody do a two-minute piece and then you go to look at the playback and you realize they didn't hit the record button.

JC: That happened?

BL: I'm not going to say that's a happy experience, but it happened.

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JC: Did you have any influences for the film? Did you look at another film or another, say, documentary?

BL: No, not really. There are a lot of movies I like, but I don't have to think about them in terms of what I'm doing. If I were to think of it, the only minor influence would be the play "Our Town," because in the movie, in the very beginning, a pianist plays the music from "Our Town" and then he says, "All right, enough of that." The narrator says, well this is so and so and they were very influential in the town and they've died at 2:38 a.m. That was my homage to "Our Town," because in that play the Stage Manager describes some of the townspeople, and he says things like, that's the paperboy -- he died in World War I.

JC: Are you planning to follow up this movie with a documentary or with more information?

BL: No, I am concerned about environmental issues, but unfortunately that's not my area of expertise.

JC: Well, the movie got me really thinking about the Chesapeake Bay.

BL: Well, that's great, that's great.

JC: I don't know if I want to go swimming there, though …

BL: Me neither.

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

See a clip from 'The Bay':

'The Bay' Clip: Hurt

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