Seeing Barry Levinson

Movie Poster from Avalon

I saw Barry Levinson tonight at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. I have to thank my dad for the ticket; he made sure I went there. Levinson was one of the first directors I studied in school, all the way back to the summer of eighth grade when I took a two-week film course at Blake High School. Our teacher showed us a clip of Avalon, that great first scene when the grandfather steps off the boat and walks through Baltimore during July Fourth. To appear more filmic and aged, Levinson took out a couple of frames per second of film, a technique my group tried in Waiting on a Sunday, with different results of course.

I admire Levinson for many reasons: his long and storied career, the quirkiness and humor of Diner and Rain Man, the personal relevance of Avalon, the wonkiness of Wag the Dog, and the surreal humor of Toys. And each story (well, the good ones) is grounded in a normalcy that I really respect. His characters are everyday people, and his stories are everyday, too, but it is the wealth of humor and respect that his movies display that make them so much fun to watch. But we did not come to praise Levinson, we came to hear about his screenwriting.

He told us that he became a screenwriter “not out of any great ambition, but just as a way not to work in my father’s appliance store.” After leaving East Coast advertising, he found his grounding in comedy; acting and improvisation classes led him to performances and writing gigs. He first wrote for a local LA Saturday night variety show and moved on to the Carol Burnett Show from there.

Levinson was particularly influenced by Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. As a kid, he loved the scene when Marty and a friend bounce “What do you want to do tonight?” endlessly. In some ways for me, Diner is a homage to that film. There is a classic scene where the guys have a four-minute discussion about roast beef. The studio execs hated it. Their note to shorten it to “eat the sandwich/Not gonna eat the sandwich. Cut” was wisely ignored by Levinson. These scenes, seemingly improved but with a wealth of information, are where the story and characters establish themselves. We learn more about their friendship in these telling details than we would with some clunky two lines of dialogue. Of course, even if these scenes feel off the cuff, Levinson reminded us that “they should move the story forward.”

I also appreciated his discussion of Rain Man. He said that he initially had trouble finding interest. Sydney Pollack told him he didn’t want a script with two guys and a car. It bored him. Yet to Levinson, “The more simple, the better.” It’s true, it’s a very simple story, but in that simplicity we are drawn to the characters and their world, and the truths of that world much more organically. Again, it feels natural. That there is an innate humor to this story, when it could be very unhappy (death in the family, two estranged brothers, etc), makes it all the more real and human.

So, it was a good lecture. His words gave me confidence that the stories I am telling, about normal people, normal circumstances, filled with reams of rambling dialogue, could work. And Mel Brooks was there. I saw Mel Brooks in the flesh. And I am kicking myself for leaving after the event instead of socializing. There are a lot of excuses I could use. The audience was older, I wasn’t with a group, it was late, but those are all bad. If you’re at the Writers Guild Theatre and can’t find one writer to talk to, then it’s not mission accomplished. It’s mission not accomplished. As a writer, I’m ashamed.

Who are some of your inspirations, writers or otherwise? What are their words of inspiration?

Here’s that scene from Diner.

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5 responses to “Seeing Barry Levinson

  1. Oh he did Wag the Dog? Great movie. And I know I should have seen Rain Man, but I haven’t. Sorry!

    I blog about my inspirations a lot, usually with the tag “quoted”:

    http://kristanhoffman.com/tag/quoted/

    But I think Amy Tan is one of my clearest and strongest ones, from watching the Joy Luck Club adaptation as a young girl to voraciously reading all of Tan’s books a couple years ago (some of them for the second or third time). She is technically a literary writer, but I think her language is incredibly accessible, and I aspire to live in that middle ground as well.

  2. Because I’m aiming in a more cartoony direction, I have been emphasizing my admiration for classic greats like Tex Avery and the 90s animators/writers of the Disney Afternoon block, to modern creators like Joe Murray (Rocko’s Modern Life), Stephen Hillenburg (Spongebob), and even Seth McFarlane.

    I’m not 100% on board with their content, but I admire their approach and work to get to where they are. Start small, get big. It’s really how I need to start doing things.

  3. @ Kristan. I read a great quote from Amy Tan in this book called Six Word Autobiographies, I forget how it goes, something like: “My first boss told me writing was my weakest skill.” Haha. She sure showed him.

    @ Kevin: Agreed. If you have the vision and the drive, you hope the other things (like a paycheck) will follow.

  4. I sometimes wonder if the stuff I like to write might work as screenplays. Like Rainman, I tend to write about characters and relationships – there is very little happening externally. But it also seems like those kinds of movies would be harder to do well. When they succeed, like Rainman, they are awesome. But when the flop…ooooph, they flop hard.

  5. Thanks for the comment! I know, somehow making the personal captivating is difficult. There is so much going on plot-wise in Rain Man too, it’s hard to be bored. The acting is so incredible, too.

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