This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

A Conversation with Barry Levinson

Academy Award®-winning director, screenwriter and producer Barry Levinson has crafted an enviable reputation as a filmmaker who blends literate and intelligent visions into films. He was awarded the 1988 Best Director Oscar for the multiple Academy Award®-winning Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. In 1991 Bugsy, directed and produced by Levinson, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards® including Best Picture and Best Director. As a screenwriter, Levinson has received three Oscar nominations for …And Justice for All (1979), Diner (1982) and Avalon (1990). Other iconic films, from The Natural (1982) to Good Morning Vietnam (1987) to Sleepers (1996), have been hugely popular at the box office. BBC America sat down with Levinson to discuss his latest project, Copper.

BBC AMERICA: You have worked on so many great projects. What struck you about Copper when it came across your desk?

BL: I thought it would be interesting to take a detective and go back and set him in 1864 New York – the end of the Civil War. Take a look at what New York was like back then – the poverty of the Five Points, the wealth of Uptown. There was a huge influx of immigrants into the country at that time. It was a messy, confusing time. There was bigotry, prejudice and crime, and then you set this detective in the midst of all that and you can try and solve certain crimes that play out through the show while also showing the American experience during that period.

I know you’ve said in the past that it’s hard to know what makes a show a success. Can you elaborate on that?

BL: Well, what makes a show a success is always rather elusive. I mean, even with the best intentions in the world, certain things catch on, certain things don’t. I think this has a high probability of doing well, but in the end you never know. It’s the nature of this business to be continually surprised, pleasantly so or disappointed. You just can’t tell. But I think this has a lot of the elements which make for very good storytelling – interesting casting, visually it’s really quite fascinating. There are a lot of elements that work in the show’s favor and, at the heart of it, there’s very, very good writing that I think will keep viewers involved because it has a certain degree of suspense, of mystery to it. And I think the environment is quite interesting – where it is set – the time and place. You do what you can and you hope for the best.

What do you hope audiences will love about the series?

BL: Well, I think its good storytelling with a great backdrop to it all. So rather than just being in the present time, you’re now dealing with the law and investigations back in 1864. I think they’ve really created a fascinating environment that I’m not sure has been filmed in this way before. I think it just gives you a sense of America at another time, but the issues they face are not very different than today.

What are the elements in the script that stood out and made you want to work on it?

BL: I think that the Copper script is really a terrific piece of work. We have great characters and a great sense of time and place. There was a huge immigrant population and Five Points was overcrowded, chaotic, and very poor – with six and seven or ten people sleeping in very cramped environments. And you have this detective weaving his way through all of this in the last days of the Civil War. There was an enormous amount of friction that took place between those who have, who live in Uptown with all this wealth and sense of privilege, and those who have not. So you take all of those factors and you weave the story as Tom Fontana has done so well and I think you have something that will be very compelling to watch.

And visually, it’s very striking because of what we’ve built here in terms of the sets. There has just been an incredible amount of craftsmanship that has gone into it and it all looks very authentic. When I walk around here between the breaks, I look around and you can go inside the spaces and look out because these sets actually function. It’s all done very efficiently which is important. We have scenes that take place inside, but then you might have to look out onto the streets where horses and all of the people are milling and going about their business. It’s a very exciting atmosphere.

What makes you excited about this show?

BL: Well, I think that doing a period piece is exciting because you get to see things from a new perspective. We’ve seen a number of contemporary shows that take place in New York City – we see it, know it, and now all of a sudden you’re looking at New York City at another time, over a hundred and forty something years ago – when the city was just beginning to kind of rise up. So, visually, I think you’re in a new place. Everything is different and you have a sense of time and place – but we’re not doing a historical drama. I think it’s very alive, not simply people walking around in the clothing of the period. I think if we do this right then we will have something very compelling and very entertaining.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

BL: I never really know what someone will take away from anything. What you hope is that they simply tune in and get involved in the journey of this man, these people who populate the series. You never know how that will play out, but what you want to do is provide the most entertaining piece of work you can and then you hope it connects. That’s the unknown factor. But you try to put the best thing forward and say, “Come with us on this journey, I think you’re gonna really have an interesting time when you watch this as the series unfolds.” You hope that people will want to see how things evolve, where it is going and how the story will play out.

Have you enjoyed working with the team involved?

BL: It’s a great team from top to bottom. There are a lot of really talented people involved. Tom Fontana and I have worked together now almost 20 years so we share a lot of history and have a passion for certain projects and this one, I think is as exciting as anything I’ve seen in a long time.

You have so many successes to your credit. Do you have anything like a good luck charm?

BL: I wish there was some good luck charm. I wish there was this one thing where if I rub it twice then you’ve got a show that’s gonna run for at least seven years, but I haven’t found that good luck charm. Sometimes, as in the case of this show, things come together and then you just hope it takes off.

Read More