6 Filmmaking Tips from Barry Levinson

You definitely want to check out advice from the Oscar-winning director of 'Rain Man.' Definitely.
Barry Levinson filmmaking

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of Barry Levinson.

There are few backstories in Hollywood more interesting than Barry Levinson‘s. The man who would go on to win an Oscar for directing Rain Man as well as earn five other nominations, mostly for writing, got to his career as a filmmaker through unconventional means. He reluctantly took acting classes, then he studied improv, and it was through that education that he became interested in composing dialogue. He wrote for comedy shows and movies for Tim Conway, Carol Burnett, and Mel Brooks. Then he was a notable screenwriter. Then he became one of the most prolific, most versatile, and most acclaimed directors of the ’80s and ’90s. He continues to try new things, but his most successful works of late have been made for TV, including his newest HBO offering, the Bernie Madoff biopic The Wizard of Lies.

While his path might not be the best to follow if you want to be a filmmaker anytime soon, there is still a lot to learn from Levinson and his experience. Below is some advice for screenwriting, directing, and movie production in general curated from interviews going back 20 years.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Barry Levinson

1. Writing and Directing is Easier Than Ever

In a recent interview for the Baltimore Jewish paper Jmore promoting The Wizard of Lies, Levinson is asked for advice for “budding filmmakers.” Here is his answer:

My advice is that it’s easier to write than direct. If you have an interest in writing, write. You might as well start with yourself or some event you know well, and you need a point of view.
You used to need a big camera to direct but now, anyone with an iPhone can tell a story visually.  You can film something. You can start off with a five-minute story, then a 10-minute story.

2. Prepare for Rejection

While it may be easier than ever to direct something and still even easier to write something, it’s not any easier to break into the business now than in the past. It might be even harder now. In the below video from the 2010 Writer’s Guild Awards, where Levinson received a lifetime achievement honor, he reminds us that it’s important to be thick-skinned when trying to make it in Hollywood or “you’ll be destroyed.”

3. Writing With Someone Else is Tricky

Early in Levinson’s career, he worked as a writer on other people’s movies, such as Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie and High Anxiety, and he co-wrote screenplays with his then-wife Valerie Curtin, including the Oscar-nominated …And Justice for All. And in his solo years, he’s still worked off scripts begun by other people. In an interview featured in the book “Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s,” he addresses the pros and cons of writing as part of a team or duo:

Writing with a partner is in some ways an easy but odd process. Two people come into a room and look to each other for motivation. One might not be in the right mood at any given moment. And somehow you begin, somehow, out of your exchange of thoughts, something engages both of you, and the process of collaboration begins. But sometimes it’s a struggle to focus two minds in a single direction. That’s not to say a writing partnership can’t be exciting and unpredictable in good ways, but you’re both filtering ideas through one another, and sometimes the energies are different, and there are a lot of bumpy moments.

In the same interview he has this to say about being part of a writing collaboration where maybe you’re not working directly with the other credited authors:

I try not to impose my personality over someone else’s to the extent that I inhibit them. You need to be open and explore, while heading where you want to go. You can never be too in love with your own ideas. If you can remember every idea that is yours in a script, as opposed to someone else’s, then something is wrong. Like when I was working with Mel [Brooks], I honestly can’t remember who thought up this idea or that idea in particular scenes, it was usually a group effort. It was really a collaboration.

4. Be Elastic

Levinson credits his background in acting classes and improv study with his ability to write and direct with a necessary level of flexibility.  In part of a lengthy interview by Bob Balaban for the Director’s Guild of America (watch it all on the DGA site), he explains his balance of control and openness through all aspects of filmmaking:

I studied theatre for a few years and did a couple years of improvisational stuff, and I did improvisational stuff in stand-up, etc. So what happens is you have to have control and then you have to allow, give up the control because you can’t say, “No. It’s gotta be just that way.” You have to find this elasticity in it, in a sense, so that things can keep impacting on the piece all the time. You know where you want to go, you know what you want to do, and you gotta be open enough to allow for mistakes and great mistakes.

Watch Levinson discuss the process of planning well only to be freer while actually filming in the below video of a Q&A from a 2012 Florida Film Festival appearance.

And here, in a 2012 Masterclass Q&A for the Independent Film Project, Levinson discusses the need to be open in terms of adjusting to different kinds of actors, using a story of working with Dustin Hoffman on Rain Man as a good example:

5. You Need the Eye and the Instinct

A lot of the talent needed for directing actors is about casting the right ones. In one of many ’90s appearances on Charlie Rose (specifically 1998), Levinson admits that he has no idea what it is that some actors have and others don’t — he says it’s unteachable — but that he happens to have the eye for them and a certain instinct as a director that he can’t seem to define exactly.

6. Don’t Wear Yourself Out

Finally, the most important piece of advice that Levinson can impart is something he was given by some other, unidentified person. From an interview by Alex Simon from 2001 reprinted recently at the Huffington Post:

Somebody once told me the best advice was “Don’t stand up too much.” (laughs) I think what you need to do is be prepared for how exhausting an experience it is, so you never get to a point that you’re too tired to not want to do something that you need to do. Because what can happen is, you can get so tired that you’ll go “Oh fuck it, let’s not do that.” The second you do that, you begin to compromise your movie. That’s all I know. (laughs)

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Levinson has a precise origin but a lot of common experience and lessons he can relay to aspiring filmmakers. Because he was initially a writer and has been more honored as such, it makes sense that half of his advice is about writing, whether alone or in collaboration and regarding the difficulty of selling scripts. His addresses of active flexibility and not overworking yourself during production is also quite helpful, as far as balancing those tips. But as frustrating as it is, his acknowledgment that some of directing, like acting, is just instinctual and not something that can be explained, taught, or advised about is a big deal. It doesn’t necessarily sound like an intrinsic talent, however, so you can just go for it, get practice, and work towards having that eye that has made Levinson one of the great writer-directors and actor’s directors.

Christopher Campbell: Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.