Oscar winner Barry Levinson has made hit films spanning many decades, from Diner to Rain Man. But his latest, The Bay, a faux documentary cum eco-horror movie about flesh-eating isopods in the Chesapeake Bay, is a stylistic departure in which the 70-year-old director used more than 20 consumer-grade cameras to create "found" footage from iPhones, Androids, 911 calls, webcams and more to piece together the fictional story of a nightmarish 24 hours in the otherwise quaint seaside town of Claridge, Maryland.
"You’re working with a different set of tools than you normally work with," Levinson said recently in an interview at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. "It’s not this one big camera that’s the center of the universe, so it’s a different way to approach it."
Levinson didn’t sit behind a chair directing every shot; instead he distributed cameras to extras and often had the actors filming themselves, which created a series of unexpected challenges.
"A lot of these cameras don’t have playback that you can be watching simultaneously while you’re directing," he says. In one scene, when a young girl covered in skin lesions is filming herself on an iPhone, Levinson had to stand outside the door while she did each take. "I couldn’t be in the room with her filming, so I’d listen at the door and then knock, say, ‘all right, that’s enough, come on out,’ and then I’ll look at what she did and say ‘well maybe next time you could do this,’ and then send her back in."
In other cases, Levinson says, "they’ll go ahead and do it and there’s nothing there because they forgot to hit the recorder button."
Since the film takes place in a pretty seaside town that otherwise reveals no hint of impending disaster, there are plenty of scenes of kids having summer fun in the pool and Fourth of July revelers eating and drinking in the sunshine before the creepy horror ruins the party.
Says producer Jason Sosnoff: "For the Fourth of July crowd scenes, we didn’t have enough camera crew to create the kind of perspective that Barry wanted to create, so we handed out cameras not just to principal actors but to the extras. And you know extras will shoot what’s interesting to them, like someone taking a bite of a hotdog or a crab sandwich or a waitress serving drinks waving at the camera. I think that creates a certain energy on set. When you’re shooting with eight cameras at once as we did, there’s no way you can keep track of what’s going on. So there would just be little surprises. I think it was more a throwback to the old way of filmmaking where you had to feel out what you were getting. I think going in with that kind of risk translates to a kind of realism because there’s an unpredictability to what you’re going to get."
Levinson got the idea for his faux doc after he was approached to make a real documentary about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, 40% of which is a marine dead zone. He decided against making a straight doc because Frontline had already made a perfectly good one, to little effect.
"Factual information doesn’t register," Levinson says. "We have to put it into a context, so we need it in a story form in order to understand it. Almost every fact in the movie is real, then we do our make-believe to tell the story. I mean the isopod is real, it was in the Pacific, it’s now moved to the Atlantic, and we make an issue of it in the movie that it’s now moved into brackish water, that’s it’s evolving. That has not happened, it is not in the Chesapeake Bay, but that’s our theatrical cheat. If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, it looks beautiful even though it’s 40% dead; we don’t know the nightmare underneath. If we can’t see it, we don’t know how to register it, it’s too abstract, so we need the storytelling to hold it together for us."
Throughout the film there is a running ironic commentary on the technology used in the film, with people wondering self-consciously if they are operating the equipment correctly, teenagers making fun of their parents for using "YouTubing" as a verb and a general nagging confusion about the complicated act of telling truth from reality in an age when things have to be seen to believed, everything is recorded, and there are so many ways to falsify an image.
In one scene, a character asked if a particularly gruesome and bizarre web photo is real or has been Photoshopped (it hasn’t).
"I really wanted to emphasize what the audience was thinking, because they would be thinking, that’s not real," Levinson says. "It is so weird looking that you almost want to address it."
What is Levinson’s personal relationship with technology? Has the filmmaker become one of those people who films everything on his camera and updates his Facebook page every hour?
"No," Levinson says. "I mean I go through the Internet, so I’ll go looking at articles and I’ll go to the websites and whatever and I can get the Baltimore Sun and find out what happened with the baseball and all of that, but I don’t get involved in all the stuff of it. But I’m fascinated by it."
"While he might not be a technophile, Barry’s extremely open-minded on how to shoot something like this," Sosnoff says, adding that the director of photography Josh Nussbaum put together a look book that included You Tube videos and other low-production value scraps of modern media to offer the director examples on how to make each scene as believably authentic as possible.
"I looked at some of the better cameras and we degraded it to look like consumer cameras, but it looked fake to my eye," Levinson says. "When you get more expensive cameras, you can degrade them, but they don’t look quite right, and you don’t hold them the same say, because they’re heavier."
In the film, the act of endlessly filming the banal moments of our lives turns technology into a kind of accidental hero that helps hapless humans make sense of what has transpired in the aftermath of disaster, even if they remain totally baffled in the moment.
"This is the first time in human history that you can document what a generation is doing," Levinson says. "It’s the intimacy of it that fascinates me. All these little stories of people, they don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know the bigger story. I was just looking at a whole town and collecting all this little stuff and putting it together to tell the story."