"In the most simplistic way, it's really about the collison of politics, celebrity and the media," Barry Levinson told indieWIRE about his new documentary "PoliWood," premiering next Friday night as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. "Basically, how they collide and how they feed off one another. That's the theme of the piece."
More specifically, the piece uses interviews with a variety of high-profile celebrities and political figures (from Anne Hathaway to Ellen Burstyn to Sting), exploring the influence Hollywood has over today's political process. Levinson is attempting to exemplify the exceedingly thin line between politician and actor, and news and entertainment.
"I think it's interesting to watch, and it can pose a lot of questions," Levinson said of the film in an interview earlier this week at the SoHo Grand Hotel in New York City. "Or you might just enjoy it on a level of watching all of these people navigate these channels for ninety minutes."
The film came together a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention. "There was no preconceived notion of exactly what it was going to be about," Levinson recalled of the film's origins. "It was simply to follow the events as they unfolded and see where that went, and then allow the piece to begin to direct itself in a way. I didn't want to impose any ideas upon it intially. I wanted to let it breathe on its own and then see what happens. And then I began to see how these things begin to intersect with one another."
Documentary was not always something Levinson has aspired to take on. "It just came up," he said. "I've always been interested in politics, I've always been interested in entertainment, and I've always been interested in the media."
Levinson has exemplfied this in much of his narrative work, from "Wag The Dog," about a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer who join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal, to "Man of the Year," which folows a comedian who decides to run for president, and a computerized voting machine malfunction gets him elected.
"With this film I could see what it was really like," Levinson said in respect to his previous work." How absurd does it, in fact, become?"
What it has become, it seems, is that everything has been turned into entertainment. "That has become the rule," Levinson explained. "Why politics has to be entertaining, I don't know. But it has to be, because its on television all the time. So therefore, there's an upside/downside to that, naturally. We will frivolize a lot of very important issues and we will find a way to distract from the main issues. Because sometimes a distraction is more entertaining than the real issue. So what we do is constantly move away from what's sometimes the essentials, onto the non-essentials. Because the non-essentials are more interesting to us. You watch it happen constantly. I mean you can watch recently and see how much time has been spent on Obama shaking hand with Chavez. Was he shaking hands with him? Was he smiling? Should he have been smiling? Does that show weakness? I mean, look how much time we spent on a visual of that. That has no relevance to anything. It's nonsense. We've taken these silly things that may be entertaining and made it an essential. That's frightening."
What Levinson also finds frightening is the political division in America, where issues that should never fall into the left/right, Democrat/Republican divide, do. "I mean, the idea that education or arts in the schools has become a political issue seems insane," he argued. "It's like, what, we're opposed to music programs in school? Does that have to do with being a Republican or a Democrat? We are facing a potential catastrophe in terms of our environmental issues, and it becomes a left or right issue? I always say to someone who says that no one has really confirmed that there's global warming: 'Well, guess what, what happens if there really isn't global warming? What would be the downside? We cleaned up the environment for no reason? Oh my god! How can that be political? It became that because it's much more entertaining.'"
For "Poliwood," the biggest challenge for Levinson was a different kind of division. "The challenge is to bring all these elements together and have some cohesiveness, without imposing too much on the piece," he explained. "I want it to be free and loose with people meandering into things and talking about stuff. There's a casualness about it. But at the same time, it can't be so casual and so meandering that it's all over the place. So you have to be able to give it a little more coherence, without ultimately beginning to bend it one way or another."
An interesting footnote to the film came a few weeks ago, when Kal Penn - best known as an actor on televison series "House" and in movies like "Harold and Kumar" and "The Namesake" - quit Hollywood to take a job at the Obama White House as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. He's certainly not the first celebrity turned politician, but the most recent to personify the collison at the heart of Levinson's documentary.
"I mean, look, there's a lot of people in the entertainment business that have political aspirations and there's nothing wrong with that," Levinson said when asked to comment on Penn. "At the end of the day, no matter what field you're in, sometimes you're a concerned citizen. Sometimes you can work within the government and you think that's a way to be helpful, then I think that's great."
"Poliwood" screens Friday, May 1, 6:00 pm at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Following the screening, MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell will lead a discussion about this convergence of politics and Hollywood with Levinson and actors Josh Lucas, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tim Daly, Lynn Whitfield, Tony Goldwyn, Robert Davi and Matthew Modine, who all appear in the film.