The venerable director Barry Levinson has come to the Toronto International Film Festival with “The Humbling,” a powerful study of an actor in decline, starring Al Pacino as the stage star in the denouement of his career.
Mortality, relevance and the twilight of talent are all on the mind of Levinson after a career creating such American classics as “Diner,” “Rain Man,” “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Wag the Dog.” He crossed paths with Pacino many times over the years, on projects like “And Justice for All” (which he co-wrote) and “Donnie Brasco” (which he developed and was originally slated to direct).
Hollywood has changed greatly in the interim. He spoke to TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman after the movie’s debut on Friday. “The studios don’t make movies about people,” he observed. “No one would possibly make ‘Rain Man’ today, even though it did a half billion in its time and only cost $22 million. They wouldn’t even go down that road anymore.”
How did your relationship with Al Pacino drive this project?
We’ve been able to do various projects over the years. He read the book, and called me up and said ‘Have a read and see if we can make this into a film.’ I agreed it could be fascinating character if we find the way in filmically.
It was a great process. The way we approached it was we’d shoot for five days, and be down for five weeks, and come back again, and shoot a bit. And I would edit, get together, work up some other elements. We didn’t shoot 20 days and it was done. It spread from September to January.
What was the reason for that?
Al had certain things he had to do, I had obligations, so we designed it that way.
So you get the sense that time has gone by – it was different way. It was a great commitment to get actors willing to start and stop in this fashion.
Are these issues Pacino himself is dealing with?
He’s one of the few major movie stars that has had that big a career in theater, so he has insights into theater actors.
Pacino has taken hits from critics from going overboard. One of the things you notice about this film are his smaller moments. How did you get him to reel it in?
It’s not a question of reeling it in, it’s a question of if you’re on same page the requirements in the scene you’re doing are clear. We were so much in sync, it’s like you’re so connected to where you should go. Even if you’re exploring and there’s certain improvisation throughout process there’s a clear line within it – the ups and downs, the emotional peaks and valleys of the character.
What’s your view on the current state of the movie business?
The reality is the studios don’t make movies about people. They don’t have the understanding or interest in that. They are looking for that big bombastic movie. I understand that. But I do believe you have to have wider range of films to make.
No one would possibly make “Rain Man” today, even though it did half a billion in its time and only cost $22 million. They wouldn’t even go down that road anymore.
But the good news is we’re moving into one of the better times. We have to stop thinking of films as theatrical and then television, and instead look at them as visual entertainment in different ways. We’re seeing an amazing period of beginnings of different storytelling. That’s what the Emmys this year showed you, the range of work starting to emerge.
But you still want to tell stories on film?
Absolutely. There’s a great experience to be had with a large crowd all together, experiencing something. The reaction to this movie – the humor that runs through it – is very exciting.
Buck Henry wrote the script?
It’s a longer story. I ended up quitting the Writers’ Guild over this. It’s the first time I’ve ever asked in 40 years of work to be part of [the credited] writers on film, and they denied that. It was such an egregious mistake, so wrong headed, that I couldn’t be part of a group that has such disregard for the work of a writer, so I resigned.
There was arbitration. I wasn’t denying Buck Henry and Michael Zebede a position, I thought they should have it. But the circumstances brought about a whole other level of writing and they [the WGA] refused to acknowledge it.
You cannot tell me that I don’t have an influence as writer on this piece. I can’t change the Writers Guild. They are what they are. But I cannot be part of association or union that has that kind of disregard for the work of a writer.
What about Greta Gerwig, who plays Pacino’s complicated love interest? She was such an unusual choice.
It’s not an older man/younger woman love story – I was trying to find an actress who could be that strong and that smart. That led to Greta. I met her for the piece. I immediately thought she could be terrific.
The end of the movie has a huge argument between her and Al. That was Day One of the shoot for Greta and I went, ‘Something’s gonna happen here.’