Barry Levinson didn’t set out to save the world with his new eco-horror film, but he is hoping to save Chesapeake Bay.
For Levinson’s new movie, The Bay (just released on DVD and online in Canada) the Academy-Award winning director (Rain Man) who’s also a three time nominee for best screenplay (…And Justice for All, Avalon and Diner) decided to make his first horror movie. But Levinson’s goal with The Bay wasn’t just to scare audiences in the theatre, but scare the hell out of them when they left the darkness and returned to the real world since his movie monsters were inspired by genuine environmental horror stories.
“Almost everything said is factual data,” Levinson told me as the two of us sat in a suite at a downtown Toronto hotel just before his movie’s world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. “We’re not trying to invent shit just to try to unnerve you or whatever — there are isopods, the Bay is forty percent dead, they are dumping all this shit, pharmaceuticals, chicken manure. All that stuff is real. Not that anyone in the audience needs to know or care but it is, in fact, real.”
It’s also shot like it’s real — a compilation of “found footage” trying to recreate the day everything went wrong in a small seaside community like the one Steven Spielberg had his shark snack on in Jaws.
Levinson’s first foray into horror was inspired by the deteriorating state of his hometown — Baltimore, the setting for so much of his work including the TV series, Homicide. After being invited to shoot a documentary on the increasingly toxic Chesapeake Bay, “because it’s forty percent dead” Levinson started doing homework. “PBS did a fantastic documentary that I watched, they have a series called Frontline that did a great documentary on the Bay, on pollution. And I thought, “I don’t know if I can do it any better.” And I don’t know anyone up in arms about it. That thing ran, you’d think people would go, “Holy God, we’ve gotta stop this, it’s forty percent dead! What are we going to do?” You know what I mean? Nothing. So I told the people, “I cant’ do better than what Frontline did. It’s a good, good documentary.”
But he couldn’t shake the ideas the research had sparked, or the conviction that attention must be paid. “Then I thought, “maybe what you need to do is put story telling with it. Create characters, create situations, and put the facts in it. And then you put a face on it all. If you scare people they go, “Oh, I’m scared, why am I scared?” Well, this is what happens when you do this and this and this.” And that led to The Bay.
“So then it was like, “So how do we do it?” And then, right away, it occurred to me, if you’re going to do it, why does it happen this particular day? Everyone had cellphones, cameras, people were tweeting, people were emailing, people were texting, etcetera etcetera. All that stuff was confiscated after that day, and now, x number years later, it’s all put together, and you can see what happened on that given day in this fictitious town.”
When I asked him to show his green cards, Levinson said his environmental activist streak was inspired by his research. “Holy God, Chesapeake Bay is like a toxic soup. This is horrific. And we just say, “Okay, that’s good enough.” And what I kept saying to myself is, “it’s not like we don’t know how to fix it. It’s not like certain diseases where we don’t know how to cure it.” We know how to cure it.
“But you say, “Why can’t we? Well, there’s all these economic issues.” You go, “Okay, I understand, this is the real world, I understand the economics of these things, I understand business.” But do you mean to tell me that rational people can’t sit down and find a way to improve the quality of the water in the Bay? It’s beyond what we’re capable of doing?” We can do it. And economically we can do it. But we just don’t, you know?
“The private interest becomes so overwhelming that things just don’t get done. I’m not an environmentalist running around and doing all these things, but I am concerned. As someone who understands enough about business and economics, I do know if it hits the tipping point and it goes to the other side, there’s going to be all these hotels and all these recreational facilities, and all these sports activities — that whole economy is going to be screwed up. Right now we deal with one versus the other, and at a certain point, they’re going to get screwed completely as well. So let’s figure it out, guys. Why don’t we all sit down and come up with a better answer than, “Push it down the road, push it down the road.””