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Barry Levinson On Being the Wizard Behind HBO’s ‘Wizard of Lies’

Barry Levinson, director of HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, talks about the Madoff story and how he set a room full of computers on fire (not really).

Twenty-five years ago, a story like Bernie Madoff’s would probably have ended up on the big screen starring Robert DeNiro and being directed by Barry Levinson. But in the age of Netflix and streaming, the business has changed.

“Theatrically, studios aren’t interested in these kinds of stories,” says Academy Award-winner Barry Levinson, director of The Wizard of Lies, which airs on HBO on Saturday, May 20. “I think in some cases, as the business gets further and further away from stories about humans and interaction of that sort, then ultimately that becomes what television does, whether it’s streaming, HBO, or all of these other outlets that have now emerged—that’s the diversity that’s taking place.”

Barry Levinson
(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)
Based on the Diana Henriques book by the same title, The Wizard of Lies follows the unraveling of Madoff (played by DeNiro) and his Ponzi scheme that destroyed thousands of lives, including sons Mark (the electric Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), and wife Ruth (a nearly unrecognizable Michelle Pfeiffer). Henriques actually plays herself in the film, the first writer to visit Madoff in prison.

“She had a first-hand connection to him and that’s one of the reasons why we thought maybe it would be interesting if she could play herself,” says Levinson. “I said to her after three or four takes, when we finally got down to that, ‘So, what do you think? How is Bob in comparison to Bernie?’ And she said: ‘I have to tell you—there are moments that he’s so close to him that it gave me the chills.’ ”

Father and Son Writing about Fathers and Sons

After acquiring the rights to the material years prior, DeNiro and his company reached out to Levinson, who then brought his son Sam [Levinson] on as a co-screenwriter on the project (other screenwriters include John Burnham Schwartz and Sam Baum).

“It was ironic. We’re making a film about fathers and sons and a father and son are writing about fathers and sons,” says Levinson with a laugh. “It was pretty interesting. We share very much the same kind of sensibility. Every morning, he came over and we would ride in the car to the set and talk on the way there.”

In fact, Sam helped develop one of the most surprising scenes in the film, when Bernie and Ruth attempt to commit suicide by overdosing on Ambien.

“Sam said to me one day, ‘Do you believe that the two of them took Ambien to try to kill themselves?’ Sam had looked up that if you take Ambien, you can’t kill yourself, but you can end up with very strange hallucinations. That’s what led to the sequence. Even though Bernie never talked about anything [like this]. You know that he’s just filled with anxiety and certainly, if you don’t sleep, your brain goes all over the place.”

Those who’ve seen the trailer for the film already know this scene. It’s the visually stunning sequence involving probing paparazzi and dozens of computers with fiery flames on their screens, a distinct vision that was hard to explain to the production team.

barry levinson
(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)
“I don’t mean they’re all on fire,” he laughs, “but there’s fire on all of the computers. It’s like they’re all burning inside of the screen, and he’s just wandering by in his pajamas.” Eventually, tech people came in later in the day and showed Levinson the computer-screen example that would end up in the film. “I said, ‘That’s great. Now, can we just make all of them look like they’re on fire?’ ”

In a TV movie that’s throwing a lot of numbers and over-the-head ideas at its audience, Levinson feels this scene is an important one, in addition to being fun to do.

“You don’t want to overwhelm with information, so you’re trying to find dramatic ways to deal with anxiety. Not just having to constantly talk. When you can find those sequences in that way, it’s kind of a breather. You’re trying to deal with character and behavior in a film which by nature has to be a talking piece.”

Richard Dreyfuss versus Robert DeNiro

Wizard comes nearly a year after ABC’s two-part Madoff mini-series starring Richard Dreyfuss, something that didn’t influence Levinson when it came to making creative decisions since both productions overlapped on their filming schedule. While Madoff covers a bit more of the origin story as well as Bernie’s infidelities, Wizard keeps it focused on the family and the aftermath.

“I think we covered what we thought would be relevant to it. If he had infidelities, it didn’t expand on his relationship with Ruth in any way. The idea of being at dinner and having a discussion with his eight-year-old granddaughter would be more interesting in understanding Madoff than having an affair with a woman. You make your choices of what you think are your key moments in terms of family relationships.”

The film also explores the unique way in which he conned people. “He wasn’t the big schmoozer. He was sort of the other way. ‘I don’t know if I should take your money.’ That was ‘the con’ for him. He seemed really conservative in a sense.”

When Bernie Met Ruth

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)
Madoff wasn’t just controlling as a con man, but also as a patriarch and husband. Pfeiffer’s Ruth is devastated by his deception, but repeatedly says she still supports him for some inexplicable reason. In fact, Ruth met Bernie when she was just 13 while he was working as a lifeguard.

“From this young age, she looked up to this man, who sat in a high chair up above, and that’s all she knew.”

Andrew and Mark had a similar relationship with their father. “The boys grew up protected, apparently not understanding what exactly he was doing.”

In one scene, Andy says, “I don’t know how sympathetic I am because I lived a privileged life,” which is a line that comes from writing from the youngest son that Levinson and his team came across. “He believed that no one would ever find him sympathetic because he grew up with money, traveled, and had a privileged life. He thought no one would care. I found that somewhat tragic in a way.”

Television Shows: The New Movies?

While destructive characters like the Madoffs might have been depicted in movies two decades ago, according to the 1989 Best Director winner for Rain Man, it’s important to remember that eventually they would have ended up on television anyway, so TV has always been a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“At the end of the day, everything ends up on television no matter what. It’s where I saw Casablanca. Citizen Kane. Those movies weren’t around when I was a kid.”

Thankfully, we live in an age where we don’t have to wait for dramatic projects like The Wizard of Lies to eventually find their way to the small screen—or even smaller screen, something Levinson is still getting used to.

“Some people seem to be happy enough just to sit and watch it on an iPhone. It doesn’t seem right to me, but somehow they’re entertained by it, so who am I to decide?”

The Wizard of Lies airs on HBO on Saturday, May 20 at 8pm ET.