The HBO original film “The Wizard of Lies,” Barry Levinson’s insightful and sharp look inside the rise and fall (and fall and fall) of American fraudster Bernie Madoff, ends with a question. Robert De Niro, as the baffled, wide-eyed Madoff, stuck in prison for a sentence he can never outlive, implores a visitor: “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
By then, Madoff’s precise pathology doesn’t matter much; he’s a bad man who did horrible things. And ultimately, neither De Niro nor Levinson are concerned with diagnoses or medical opinions. They’re hung up on something much more timely and urgent.
“All I do is think of Donald Trump,” De Niro said when IndieWire sat down with the pair last week and asked for his takeaway of Madoff’s mental state. (There’s little question that De Niro was telling the truth; days earlier, he spent part of his acceptance speech for the prestigious Chaplin Award calling out the president’s “bullshit.”)
“Is [Madoff] a sociopath? I don’t know how someone can get to that point where he just doesn’t…” De Niro trailed off. “It’s a good thing in the story, the way we have it, he’s asking a question that nobody really knows. That’s fair. Maybe one day we will know something through his own… maybe [his] wanting to tell a story or being very honest about what he did.”
But De Niro isn’t holding out hope that Madoff will ever get to that point of self-revelation, another comparison he was eager to make to President Trump.
“I don’t know if he’ll ever get to that point,” he said when asked about the possibility. “Look at Donald Trump. You think he’s gonna get to that point? You have to kick him out, throw him out kicking and screaming.”
Eager to steer the conversation back to Madoff and their film at hand, Levinson took a more even-handed approach.
“No one can answer it,” the filmmaker said when asked about his take on Madoff’s mental state. “It’s unimportant. Whatever he is, is something strange. We don’t have to give him a clinical title to it. He can ask that question, but we can’t answer it. You know where you got to. The labeling of it is immaterial.”
The film takes a similar stance, opening on Madoff on the cusp of being outed for his financial trickery, forcing himself to confess some portion of his crimes to his family before the FBI arrived. For Levinson, it was essential to kick off the film in what was ostensibly the third act of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, one that became known as the biggest financial fraud ever committed in the United States.
“That particular moment of exposing it all has gotta have some emotional turmoil to it,” he explained. “You pick that up, and then, of course, then we go from there. That moment of, ‘I’m gonna have to tell you because the shit, in fact, has hit the fan, and I better tell you.’ You’re starting on that.”
He added, “There’s no point of spending 45 minutes to get to the financial [fraud]. We know it’s coming, so why not start there and then we can move in and out of time?”
Based on Diana B. Henriques’ nonfiction book of the same name and with a script by Sam Levinson, Samuel Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz, “The Wizard of Lies” doesn’t attempt to humanize Madoff (or even his wife Ruth, played with icy wonder by Michelle Pfeiffer), but it does delve beyond salacious headlines to tell its story.
“I think we’re looking into not just the financial aspects of it – which are, obviously, important – but you wanna understand the man and his relationship with his family, and the ultimate destruction that he did on all fronts,” Levinson said. “He destroyed the financial lives of thousands and thousands of people, and totally, completely destroyed his family.”
He continued, “We can’t follow the thousands of people who suffered at the hands of this man, but we can give the picture on the inside and then let it grow out from that.”
De Niro approached the role with his trademark professionalism. That meant not passing judgment on a man that he personally reviles.
“I don’t go in not liking him. I’m trying to understand why he did it as best I can,” he said. “That’s all you can do. You make that choice and you might be right, according to the reality, the real situation, or to Bernie Madoff, or his wife, or any other person close to the family. You make these choices and there’s not much more.”
Levinson was equally compelled by a desire to stay away from personal assessments. What he really wanted was to craft an honest, full-bodied feature that would ask its audience to come to their own conclusions.
“You don’t need to make a judgment. What you need to do is show the behavior,” Levinson said. “What you want to do is find a way for the audience to be fascinated by this individual, that you’re caught up and you’re watching and your brain is at work and you’re involved in that. The judgment is to the audience’s eyes and mind.”
Conversely, the pair doesn’t care much about what Madoff will think of the finished film – though they both acknowledged that someone like Madoff might be flattered by seeing himself played on screen by no less than De Niro – and they’re not sure he’ll get the chance to see it.
“We don’t even know what he reads or sees,” Levinson said. “Or would he actually even watch anything or care about anything about himself, even when it’s on the news? We can’t even speculate. We never could meet him. Diana is the only one that sat down with him in prison.”
Levinson is much more enthusiastic by the choices available to his audience – like HBO, which offered up both creative freedom and a platform to tell the kind of stories that studios just don’t anymore.
“They’re very supportive,” Levinson said of HBO. “They’re very much like, if they commit to the project, then you do it. You’re not having these arguments about the length of it, any of those things. It’s like, ‘Let’s do the best movie we can make.'”
Around 2000, the filmmaker behind such films as “Diner,” “Rain Man” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” realized that the studio world was no longer for him and what he wanted to do.
“Theatrical doesn’t really make movies about people. That’s not what they do,” he said. “They made a decision to put all their energies into these so-called tentpole movies, and spend a couple of hundred million dollars to make ’em, and then hoped that they can make money on it.”
That’s not what “The Wizard of Lies” is – at its heart, it really is a movie about people. Bad people, but people nonetheless.
“You look at the playing field, and you say, ‘What would serve you best?,'” Levinson added. “You say, ‘HBO would be perfect, because they get behind that, they support that type of thing, they have no fears.’ I think we’re gonna stop asking the question of why [television]. It’s pretty clear. Take a look at what’s coming out, where would we fit?”
Perhaps closer than we think.
“The Wizard of Lies” premieres Saturday, May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO.