The Veteran Director Takes A Horrifying Dip Into The Bay
by Brad Balfour
Who would have thought that Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson – better known for Rain Man, Diner and Wag the Dog – would team up with the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious to make a nerve-shredding tale of a small town plunged into absolute terror?
When two million fish washed ashore and more than a thousand blackbirds dropped from the sky, it foretold of an ecological disaster out of a Hitchcockian horror film. On July 4th, 2009, a deadly menace ravaged the quaint seaside town of Claridge, Maryland. But the harrowing story of what happened that Independence Day has never been told – until now.
Authorities thought they had buried the truth about the tragedy, which claimed over 700 human lives (and animals as well). It wasn’t until three years later that a reporter emerged with footage revealing the cover-up and this unimaginable killer – a mysterious parasitic outbreak.
Told from the perspective of those who were there and saw what happened, The Bay unfolds over 24 hours though people’s iPhones, Androids, 911 calls, web cams, and whatever else could be used to document the nightmare in Claridge. What of course separated this movie from other found-footage fright tales was its underlying political and social import. That is territory Levinson has explored in his more traditionally constructed features like Poliwood or Man of the Year.
So when the opportunity arose at the 2012 New York Comic Con to interview Levinson before he conducted Saturday’s panel in front of a large audience in the IGN Theater, it was an essential thing to do. Though the film debuted at both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, it actually belonged to this audience at NYCC. Only an audience raised on films like Night of the Living Dead and Godzilla, which mix horror with broader social concerns, could fully appreciate this provocative flick.
Did you make this film for its ecological and social implications or just because you wanted to scare the shit out of people?
I come from Baltimore and was approached to do a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, because it’s now 40% dead and has those ecological issues. I gathered all the data and said, “This is really frightening!” I didn’t know if a documentary was the way to go. I began to think about it and said, “Well, I do tell stories. Why don’t I take all the information and weave it into this story? It would become more credible and the information floats out there, so it seems terrifying and credible.” That’s how it evolved.
Did you have a science guy to research these creatures?
Mike [Wallach], who wrote the screenplay, came upon the fact that these isopods – parasites that move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – were changing. When we looked into it we went, “Holy god, it was truly frightening.” We thought this would be a nice element to bring into it, the next step. Once you start playing with it, The Bay becomes a stew of disaster, so you can bring that into it. You have 85% factual information. Though it doesn’t matter if you want to pay attention or not, it lends credibility to the piece.
You use consumer cameras for this film. Was that a good idea?
It was the best thing to do. We did a test by taking a high-end camera and degrading it [in post]. It still looked like a high-end camera that’s degraded. To my eye, it didn’t look real. We took about a hundred cameras and tested them, projecting them. Out of that we picked about 20 and said, “We’ll use these.” We got the Sony for underwater scenes, the iPhone for [other] scenes. We picked and chose, so we had a visual palette. That became as real as you could make it – because it is real.
What about the “uh-ohs” that came from experimenting with cameras?
The “uh-ohs.” For instance, if you take an iPhone and you give it to someone to shoot something. You have no video playback, so you can’t see it at the time. So you send the girl into the room and tell her how to do something. You can’t be in the room too because you’d be in the shot. Afterwards you come back and look at it and say “Oh that’s good. Next time do this and that.” Sometimes with some of the actors you go to look at it and there’s no playback, because they didn’t hit record. The other thing was that if you went with a RED Camera, there’s a difference between how you hold a RED and a consumer camera. You can’t do it the same way. It’s subtle. It didn’t look real enough. When you see someone exchange a camera from one person to the other by hand, you cannot do it with a bigger camera. So that’s what we went with. You have to hold your breath initially. Everybody was nervous about that idea, because you have to be very careful. You could lose all this information.
What were you looking for when you cast mostly unknowns?
I was looking for people that you can just believe as being as real as they can be. If you put Matt Damon in a role, then the whole movie goes out the window. He can be a great actor, but it tweaks the credibility. So we put together this group of people that we found. When you think about the film, it falls into this found footage genre. But it never occurred to me about this genre. If a catastrophic event happened in a town and there was no media, how would we know what happened? Because of all this, we now get an intimate look into a town. It’s people that we never would have been able to in the history of mankind. All this stuff gives an intimacy that never existed before. Pompeii is Pompeii, but what happened to two people on the street? What were they talking about? That’s what I was thinking about. It sounds stupid and naïve, but I wasn’t thinking about found footage, I was just thinking how would you document it? Anthropological or archeological, how do you gather what people are talking about?
Is this a look at how journalists tell a story like in Wag the Dog?
I wasn’t really thinking about that. What I was thinking about was if you had some intern who got most of the stuff incorrect, and was caught up emotionally in it…. I was fascinated by it because I used to work in news in the beginning. In news you have to look at it as a professional. Not get caught up in it. She gets caught up in the emotional aspects of it, because that’s where you are in the beginning. I was just looking for the human behavior of it all. The irony is that she stops filming and gets so scared she couldn’t film anymore. I liked the idea that she didn’t understand what was going on and couldn’t make that step. I was looking at the human dilemmas of it in that regard.