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Why Barry Levinson Brought True Crime to TV (And Not to Film)

Why Barry Levinson Brought True Crime to TV (And Not to Film)

There were two shows in the 1990s that totally changed the way we think about telling stories about crime on television, and Barry Levinson helped make both of them. Digging into the realities of life on the beat with “Homicide” and showing the brutal truth of the criminal justice system on the other side with “Oz,” Levinson and partner Tom Fontana made a name for themselves as two of TV’s most respected producers.

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Now, they’re trying their hand at a variation on the genre — one that’s become pretty popular of late — with a twist. “Killing Fields,” now airing on Discovery, is being produced in “real time” as Detective Rodie Sanchez reopens his 1997 investigation into several unsolved murders that have haunted him for years. Episode 4 airs tonight, but how the story ends? Levinson isn’t sure.

Levinson (who, beyond a wide swath of feature films, has also directed television including NBC’s brand new “Shades of Blue”) sat down with Indiewire at the 2016 TCA Winter Press Tour to explain why not knowing the ending doesn’t bother him, why switching between non-fiction and fiction doesn’t bother him at all and why, even after winning an Oscar for “Rain Man,” he went back to working in TV. An edited transcript follows.

I want to find out how “Killing Fields” came into your world. 

Sirens Media [the production company behind the show], in a sense, is the first step, because they were the ones that looked at what kind of case we could do, etc. They found something that we thought would be interesting, and I met Rodie and thought he was an interesting character to that particular piece. And that lead to Discovery stepping up and taking a chance. We all know where it’s going to go and what’s going to happen, and that’s part of it. They did that and then we got the call about wanting to come in to be involved in the project. And that was how it happened.

How many episodes ahead are you right now?

Episode 1 just aired. I think [Episode 2] is just about to be locked up because it’s going to be coming up, so they’re going to be in three or four at this point working.

Is there potentially a situation where you skip a week because you need the extra time?

Well, I think they’ve got enough to take care of all of this as it’s playing out.

Is there a set number of episodes?

No. I think they’re going to start with six and we’ll see what happens. Who knows? Maybe it gets resolved, or maybe it’s not, or maybe it continues on, or whatever. But I think that’s part of it. This is life. Rodie is out there trying to figure it out. It’s an 18-year obsession, he’s trying to make sense of his obsession with it, and wants to have something resolved and answered and I think what you see is there’s a dedication to this. It’s not like, you solve the case and then you get this jackpot. There’s nothing other than you’ve solved the case and that is important enough. That was your job. You’re a detective. You’re a public servant. And I think it’s that kind of commitment, in a sense, that’s fascinating. Because we’ve got enough stuff about the police, in terms of all of the problems that exist throughout the country. In this one little place, this one particular case, there’s this commitment to answer an unresolved murder.

Especially for someone like yourself — you’ve told a lot of stories over the course of your career, but you’ve got this one guy and this is his one 18-year-long story. That must be almost daunting to tackle.

If you’re writing a novel you might write it, but this is a novel playing out in real time. So, it’s not just simply: Here are the clues, and then we resolve it. It’s not. It’s way more complex than that. It’s something only television can do. Features can’t do that stuff.

In what sense?

Features are always bound by a time frame, and this one in a sense is a much longer piece, with all these various peaks and valleys to it. This journey. So that’s why I almost think of it as a really full novel that plays out over time. It has these elements of it except it’s real. This is life.

I think it’s interesting to bring up the concept of a novel because there’s this ongoing discussion of television as a novel. But is it really? Because when you publish a novel — unless you’re Charles Dickens doing chapbooks in the 1800s — you’re publishing it as one chunk. Meanwhile, there’s a more serialized component to television.

Yeah.

From your perspective, how do you look at it in terms of story construction?

You have to understand that this story construction is all very new because up until a few years ago, there were two hours or maybe there were two parts. It wasn’t six hours, eight hours, 10 hours. So, the long form has come to television because television can do a long form. It can’t be done theatrically. You can’t go to the theater and watch an eight-hour movie. That’s not the form it works in, so that sort of opens the door to different ways to tell the story, and this is one particular way to tell the story. And in a sense you also want to say, “Yes, it is this story, but this story in this place with these people.” And this is the way they behave in this area and this is what it really looks like and feels like.

With true crime stories, there’s always talk around a true crime narrative as if the people in it aren’t real people handling a real crime. People talk about it like they’re characters on a TV show, which in some sense they have become. For you what goes into making sure the people at the center of this story are really human and recognizable.

Yeah, because you’re not trying to guide him into something. That’s the difference. A lot of the reality things on those shows set up the scenarios: “Why don’t you go see blah blah blah?” And it almost starts to seem like improv within that. Here, it’s not. They’re going and doing and they’re talking and whatever and nobody’s saying, “Why don’t we do this and why don’t we just do that?” And then you begin to put a hand into the construction of it and that’s when you have to say, “No. We’re not.” We’re going to let it go. You have to sit back and let it go. It’s going to evolve. It’s going to move forward. There’s going to be a lot of footage on the floor because you’re not going to sit through that but it is going to evolve, so you’re not moving the pieces around which you can do on some of these shows and that works for that because some of them are working on a different level. Like the show “UnREAL” — about the characters involved with the making of a so-called reality show — they have their hand in all of that stuff. This is not that case. This is 100 percent how they want to talk and how they see life and react.

Right now, with directing “Shades of Blue,” you’re balancing fiction with nonfiction. Is that a challenge for you at all?

I don’t know that it’s a challenge, as it is the fun of it all. I started in television writing sketches. I ended up writing features and then doing features. And even after I had an Academy Award, I went back to television. And people say, “Why would you go back to television?” And it’s because it’s a valid form to do something. And “Homicide” was trying to show a squad of homicide detectives based on real detectives and trying to do it as edgy and as credible as we could. So we were using Super 16. We had jump cuts. It was ragged. It was all of those things.

I always loved the idea of jumping in and out of stuff and doing all different types of forms, and so this is one that was attractive to me. Some people like to only work in a certain area. I like action. I like to do suspense. I never had that. I’m just attracted to different kind of things. But I guess the only common denominator is I was always fascinated by character. And I think in this, I find these people fascinating as people. And also a commitment at the same time. Without sugar-coating it, or coloring it, there’s this commitment to it. They don’t have to solve the crime. You don’t get any special things for it. It’s a job and there’s something about it that they care enough that they want a conclusion to something. They want an answer to why. In this case, this woman was killed. And who did that? And so your life is caught up in it as well. That is life and sometimes it can be interesting to us.

To wrap up on “Killing Fields,” let’s say this ending is unsatisfying. If you get to Episode 6, there aren’t any more episodes, and there’s no answer to the questions. What’s your approach to that?

I think it would be consistent with this show. This isn’t a show where we just solve the crime. This is a journey and as is in life, we don’t always solve everything in our lives. But somehow the ending becomes ultimately satisfactory. It is a humanistic ending. There is a conclusion to this, even if you can’t solve the crime. The show has to be greater than that. The commitment to it and the relationships to it are at the core of it. It just can’t be about the mechanics of solving a crime even though that’s what you want at the end. But that’s not life.

And so how do you deal with it, if you can’t ultimately solve something? What does it mean, when there is no end to something at which you wanted an end, and how do we deal with that? And that applies to everybody thinks of happy endings and stuff like I said. If you go back and people talk about “Gone With The Wind,” they don’t get together in the end. He says, “Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a damn” and walks out on her. That’s the end of that romance. There was no happy ending to that romance. So, we don’t need that tied-in-a-bow ending. We need something that emotionally concludes itself in some fashion.

“Killing Fields” airs Tuesday nights on Discovery. 

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