Who would have thought that Oscar-winning director Barry
Levinson Ė better known for Rain Man, Diner and Wag the
Dog Ė 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 Ė 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 Ė 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 itís now 40% dead and
has those ecological issues. I gathered all the data and said, ďThis
is really frightening!Ē I didnít know if a documentary was the way
to go. I began to think about it and said, ďWell, I do tell stories.
Why donít 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.Ē Thatís 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 Ė parasites that move between the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans Ė were changing. When we looked into it we went,
ďHoly god, it was truly frightening.Ē 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 doesnít
matter if you want to pay attention or not, it lends credibility to
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 thatís degraded. To my eye, it didnít look real. We
took about a hundred cameras and tested them, projecting them. Out
of that we picked about 20 and said, ďWeíll use these.Ē 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 Ė because it is real.
What about the
ďuh-ohsĒ that came from experimenting with cameras?
The ďuh-ohs.Ē For instance, if you take an iPhone and you
give it to someone to shoot something. You have no video playback,
so you canít see it at the time. So you send the girl into the room
and tell her how to do something. You canít be in the room too
because youíd be in the shot. Afterwards you come back and look at
it and say ďOh thatís good. Next time do this and that.Ē Sometimes
with some of the actors you go to look at it and thereís no
playback, because they didnít hit record. The other thing was that
if you went with a RED Camera, thereís a difference between how you
hold a RED and a consumer camera. You canít do it the same way. Itís
subtle. It didnít 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 thatís 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. Itís 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? Thatís what
I was thinking about. It sounds stupid and naÔve, but I wasnít
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 wasnít 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 itÖ. 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 thatís 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
couldnít film anymore. I liked the idea that she didnít understand
what was going on and couldnít make that step. I was looking at the
human dilemmas of it in that regard.
Was the narration
a conscious idea to tie it all together?
It needed some connection. Iím a bad student of film, in
terms of applying this to that and if I can do this to that, blah
blah.... I donít know how to utilize it. The one thing that hovered
in my head, and we used music from it, was [Thornton Wilder's
Our Town. In Our Town the stage manager says, ďThatís
a young so-and-so. He died in World War One.Ē Now weíre going to
watch the whole show knowing he died in World War One. Heís in it.
If you watch the movie, theyíre playing Our Town. The
narrator says ďLetís turn this off and listen to something more
upbeat.Ē Then she narrates and says ďThatís the so-and-so couple.
They died at 2:20.Ē And you say ďWhat?Ē That may be my only
In the process of
writing the script or filming it, did you know how much you would be
ratcheting up the horror?
We did as we went along. We found a few things and said,
ďIs it possible to do this?Ē Thatís the fun of shooting things fast
and loose. An added thing, we had this terrific guy making puppetry.
Thereís a scene where sheís washing her face and I said ďWouldnít be
interesting if you had a guy lying there. You think heís dead, but
then you go over there and his eye moves a little and scares the
shit out of her?Ē Letís try that! So we had a guy there. We put a
head on him, and the eye moved the slightest amount. Sometimes
things work and sometimes they donít.
Iím surprised you
didnít exploit the baby further. Was there temptation to do so?
No. I thought it was enough. Hopefully someone goes ďget
the baby out of there!Ē
Had you always
intended to make this into a found footage film with a bunch of
It was designed that way. As you said, itís a collection of
all these different stories and all these different cameras. Then
something evolved out. The iPhone girl was originally supposed to
say, ďI donít know what this isĒ and thatís it. When I sent her into
the room I decided to give her some back story and said ďjust talk.Ē
She talked and I probably kept 30 seconds of it. She was so great.
Because she has a video camera I decided to send her to the
hospital. Thatís where she was going anyways. Now I got another
camera, so sheís up at the hospital. We built up her role as we went
on. One day I said to her, ďIíd like to use you for another scene.Ē
She said, ďWellÖĒ I said, ďAre you not interested?Ē She said ďIíd
like to, but Iím going to need a note for school.Ē Found footage is
certainly the label, but when you went past it, you had these
strange moments that are completely outside of the box. No one had
to be there to video her. She was there with her camera talking.
Itís the intimacy. She doesnít understand whatís going on, but she
desperately wants to hold on to something.
Though itís set
in Baltimore area, This film was shot in South Carolina. What
prevented you from shooting in the state?
Money. They didnít have the tax incentives and South
Carolina did. It turned out South Carolina was the perfect place.
This town we shot in was so accessible that rather than getting in
the car and driving to the location we could just walk from here to
there. We were able to move around so fast that the logistics of it
was incredibly simple. The policemen told us about this quarry
thatís got this water. Itís pretty clear and you can see under it.
We were wondering how we were going to shoot the underwater stuff
and that quarry was fantastic and only five minutes away. We pulled
up there and were able to jump into the water and do these things
that we couldnít do otherwise, because in the Chesapeake you canít
see that far.
There must have
been a lot of planning with all these different cameras. How long
did that process take?
It took a while, because like I said, we went through like
a hundred cameras. We kept testing them, looking at them, comparing
them. It was a whole thing. What do we do? Whatís going to work? The
Google Phone has a colder temperature. This has this. Also, finding
out what the reliability is. Some cameras donít hold up as well as
Were you shooting
multiple cameras throughout the course of the day?
Sometimes in scenes like the pool party with the kids there
are like seven cameras there. I just gave them to the kids and told
them to do their thing. You see shots where itís going underwater
and coming up. Itís all bizarre stuff, but what you have to do as a
director is have control, because you also have to cede a certain
amount of control to see whatís going to happen. You donít know
whatís going to happen, so you donít know what the hell some of that
stuff is. You canít examine every one of those cameras. You just
have to hope you have something there because you canít examine
every shot. When I was shooting that pool party Ė and these were all
extras in South Carolina and the kids were screaming Ė they were so
good that I would just sit back and watch. Itís weird because you
donít have a camera and arenít going ďGood take!Ē Youíre literally
watching all this stuff going on and youíre hoping people you gave
cameras to are catching whatís going on because we canít cover it.
Weíd be in the way. You got cameras and see these performances. Itís
as real as you can imagine it. Sometimes weíd slip in a
photographer, but he would have to be equally as amateur as them,
otherwise the camera will look better than others. You have to watch
that. Sometimes thereíll be a finger on the lens and just mess
Did you break any
Oh sure. Weíd lose a few things and some cameras would jam
or break. Sometimes they never shot.
Any fall in the
For the water we had these water-proof ones that would
work. You have to be prepared that something is going to go wrong
because youíre playing with the unknown. That wasnít a special
effect. We pulled a fish out of South Carolina and they got the sea
lice on them, which is an early sign of isopods. That was for real.
We didnít have to CGI that. Theyíre out there. The one that comes
out of the fish we had to CGI.
Was it hard using
CGI with all these videos?
It was. In the beginning I said to the CGI guys that a lot
of the time these movies donít look real, so itís okay. We can just
accept it. But here it looks real. So if these CG things arenít spot
on, weíre dead. We had to go back and keep playing and playing to
get it just so.
Did shooting in
degraded video help hide the flaws in CG?
It did. It let us do some tweaking afterwards. We beat it
up a little.
It fits the
I never sit down and figure it out, but Iím sure it has
itís things to it. The interesting thing about this form is that you
know itís a movie. Inside it we create our own reality. You cannot
screw with the reality if you want to knock it out. For instance,
when the police go into the house, we canít go in, because whoís
videotaping this thing? All we can do is enhance the audio and hear
the screams, but we canít go in. It creates a certain anxiety and
frustration. If we went in, weíd break the credibility.
The last shot
with the logo is reminiscent of Ď70s B movies. Was that intentional?
What happened was Aaron [Yanes], my editor, and one of the
other guys was screwing around on Final Cut and made something that
was nice Ė cheesy but good. Thatís where it came from. We never went
to a title house. Thatís one of the fun things about this radical
shift thatís taking place. Thereís so many things you can play with.
We are looking at probably the greatest revolution in film right
now. The classical forms will change. Distribution pattern will
become completely re-arranged because you donít have to carry cans
all over the place. The internet is carrying all this information.
You can see movies when and how you want to. Big screens, small
screens. Weíre looking a giant change since the beginning of film.
Itís an interesting time to see how things change and where things
go. Think about the past. People had story, but you canít get that
giant camera. Now you take one of these and you can tell it any way.
Can you tell it better? Whatever, but itís like pen and ink came
along and someone says ďIím sticking with carving into a rock.Ē
Will this movie
affect social change? It really has an emotional impact.
Thatís great. Thatís what I would hope. Itís one of the
dilemmas of doing this kind of movie. Studios want a horror film,
and how do you define it? Horror, sci-fi, thriller, whatever. It is
what it is. You canít set out to be so defined [by] a genre as a
selling tool. Will it affect anything? I donít know. You say
Chesapeake Bay is 40% dead and you can fix it, but you donít.
Thereís a million reasons why itís not take care of. Someone said
ďIs this going to upset the recreation departments?Ē I donít know,
but at some point you either donít say anything until it tips over
and itís all dead, or somebody says something and they start to
improve it. The first obligation is that you have to get people to
see it, to enjoy it, talk about it. Then go from there.
Did you keep one
of those creatures Ė not the real ones but the fake used in the
Yeah. They gave me one, but my wife keeps hiding it.
Theyíre absolutely frightening. The first time I showed the movie, I
told my friends the isopods were real. We didnít make it up. They
said, ďOh shit.Ē I decided we had to push that in the movie a little
more. Thatís why we decided to put those isopods images in there and
push it because initially. We canít wrap our head around [the fact]
that these tiny parasites are in the water. In the movie thereís a
scene where heís holding a tweezers and says, ďThis is sometimes
called a Sea Lice.Ē
Iím in rehearsal for Diner: The Musical. Sheryl Crow
wrote the music for [the show]. We hope to open in April on
Broadway. Thatís been going on for a long time.
What movies scare
The movie that scared me the most was the original The
Thing. When they open the door and the hand came out. I remember
as a kid going, ďWoah!Ē That scared me to death. The other thing
that I remember seeing on TV when I was little, which wasn't
necessarily a scary scene but a very high-tension one, was in the
original Frankenstein. When he came upon the little girl.
Hereís a monster and a little kid and you'd think heís going to kill
her, but heís playing with her. I thought that was so fascinating.
[Then] you see this other moment where he ends up killing her. As a
kid I thought that was really great, because itís not just the shock
moment. Itís like, "Whatís going to happen?"
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