This weekend, Barry Levinson's disgustingly gelatinous eco-horror tale, "The Bay," will be unleashed in theaters and on iTunes. A cutting, inventive found-footage tale of a Fourth of July weekend that goes horribly wrong, we saw it at the New York Film Festival (where it was part of their inaugural crop of midnight movies) and pretty much loved it. The movie is all the more surprising for coming from the gentle, humanist creator of "Diner" and "Tin Men." We caught up with Levinson at this year's New York Comic Con and talked about what brought him to the found-footage horror genre, where film is headed, and what he thought of that gushing Vanity Fair piece on "Diner" from a few months ago.
Initially, the project started as a straight documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, a body of water that, the film points out, is now 40% dead. (Yikes.) Levinson realized that there was already a documentary on the subject, though, and feeling that he couldn't "necessarily improve upon it," changed course. "What stayed with me was all of these frightening facts," Levinson explained. "So I thought, well, storytelling, that's what I do, why not bring that into it…" He said that this line of thinking got him into a "sci-fi/sci-fact/eco-horror" thing that reminded him of the movies that played up timely social and political fears. "It's not unlike in the fifties, the scare of atomic energy unleashed," Levinson said. "You apply factual stuff to other things and create a piece of entertainment."
Levinson said that he wasn't looking to do a genre movie ("It didn't jump out at me") and even the found-footage aesthetic wasn't something that readily presented itself. Instead, it was born out of Levinson's desire to tell the most human version of the story, which is unsurprising given his oeuvre. "I was thinking about – this is the first time in history that in the midst of all this big stuff going on, you can find all of the small human behavior that was taking place," Levinson said. "So you can hear telephone conversations, people that were texting, people that were doing all these things – and we can find the small moments, which never would have been done before, against this catastrophic backdrop."
Capturing those moments, though, required a fair amount of research. Levinson said that the movie used "21 types of cameras, all of them consumer grade." He explained, "I didn't want to shoot with all these high-end cameras and have to degrade it later. We did all the tests earlier – what's the Google camera going to look like, what's the iPhone camera going to look like? Which was rather interesting to see the capabilities of those cameras." Levinson added, "I had a lot of fun in that."
While the basic form of the movie and the different aspects of the found-footage aesthetic were quickly apparent ("As soon as the idea hits, it's like, 'Holy shit there's about 25 different ways, right off the bat, that you can see!'"), the editorial process was slightly trickier. "We had so much stuff and we had to shoot it in a way where it's not designed for coverage," Levinson said. "You're shooting in a way that you can cut it later without us looking at it in a traditional way. It became a complicated form to play with." One additional element was the film's framing device, with a young reporter recounting the horrific events of that day. "That evolved as we went along, because we thought, 'we have to ground this a little bit,'" he said. "She could fill in things that we could not fill in."
Levinson explained that, while he wasn't actively inspired by any previous genre films or filmmakers, citing the fact that he's "a bad student of film in this regard – I see movies and I can really like a film or whatever but I can never apply it to what I'm doing," he is inspired by the technology. "The Bay" is Levinson's first narrative to be shot digitally, and he doesn't see himself returning. "I don't see the value of shooting on film, personally," he said. "I know there are some directors who see value in shooting film, but I don't see it. You can shoot some very, very classical stuff digital and you can tweak it as you want."
While he's intrigued with the film's same-date iTunes release, Levinson is not particularly thrilled with the way it's being handled. "I wouldn't be that opposed to it, in a way, if they were going to spend any money to make people aware of it. But they're not going to spend any money on it," Levinson said. "They want it to all be done on its own. Because, in their minds, it's not 100% horror. Even though we went to Toronto and we got first runner up with audiences there. The movie is so cheap, even if they don't spend any money, they're going to make money. If you spend a little bit of money you could make a whole bunch of money." ("The Bay" cost a little more than $2 million to make.) "But that's the corporate mentality – why gamble when you can just sit back and make money? Toronto was a great indication – this movie can work. The horror film audience isn't one little niche, it's a big, wide thing. Corporations only go after the one niche."
We had to ask about the recent Vanity Fair piece that called "Diner" the most influential film of the past 30 years. "I was flattered beyond belief," Levinson said, sounding humbled and a little bit shocked. "I knew that there was a piece being written, and I had spoken to the guy but you never know how it's going to turn out – it could have been a half-a-page. 'Thirtieth anniversary,' sure. And it was so in depth and you hear from so many people, you just go, 'Well, that's nice.'"
But instead of dwelling on the past, Levinson is very much looking to the future, something that he feels Comic Con represents, in away. "Look, we are on the edge of the biggest change in the history of film since its inception," he proclaimed. "What's happening now, between the kind of collision of everything with the internet and all of those things, begins to redefine the whole nature of film. Everything is going to be totally redefined. What was, was. Where we're going is a whole new place. So coming here and seeing a convergence of everything that is beginning to explode is really fascinating." Levinson then warned of the dangers of nostalgia and how much he's looking forward to what's coming around the bend. "Can I talk about movies in the past and how much I love them? Yeah. But that's in the past. Where we're going to go, that's the excitement."
When we expressed surprise at how gung-ho the 70-year-old filmmaker is about all of these new avenues, he quickly shot back: "It's fun! If you're a storyteller, you're a storyteller. It's like pen and ink come along, and you say, 'Sorry, I still carve in a rock.'" Sorry Barry. We never should have doubted you.
"The Bay" will scare the shit out of you, theatrically or on iTunes, starting Friday.