It’s official: Director Barry Levinson is back. His new movie, The Humbling — an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel about a suicidal actor, played by Al Pacino — has been earning raves on the festival circuit and opens in limited release today for Oscar consideration before rolling out wider in January. Shot in 20 days on a $2 million budget, the darkly funny dramedy represents a return to form for the filmmaker who gave us Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man and Wag the Dog. The Oscar winner spoke with Playboy.com’s Bruce Fretts after a screening of The Humbling at the Virginia Film Festival.
You first worked with Al Pacino when you co-wrote the screenplay for …And Justice for All in 1979. How much did you interact with him then?
I was around during the rehearsal period, but Norman Jewison was the director. I watched Al starting to work. We talked about doing The Pope of Greenwich Village, and it didn’t quite come together, for reasons I can’t remember anymore.
Have you seen him change much over the years?
I think he’s been the same. He has the same kind of passion for films that he had in the beginning. He’s in love with acting. He loves the process of it. He just loves it!
Do you think he found this role autobiographical?
No, I don’t think so. What he found was, “Look, this is a wheelhouse that I know. I’ve been on stage for 50 years. I know the mind of an actor. I know the pitfalls of it.” He’s heard stories. So, from that, he saw this was a good area for him. It didn’t have to be exactly what happened to him for it to be personal. But he understands that world as well as you can understand it.
What resonated with you about this story?
I like the idea of an actor who thinks he can’t do it anymore. He’s lost it. He thinks, “Okay, I’m just going to live my life.” Then he can’t live his life. He never had a life. And at the same time, his anxieties start to turn into scenes, and he can’t tell the difference. So he’s lost in a way. I thought that was interesting to explore.
This is only the fourth Philip Roth novel to be made into a film, after Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus and The Human Stain. Why is he so hard to adapt? Is it because his books are so internal?
Yeah. It’s been difficult for a lot of people. It’s just hard, his work, the way he writes. It’s not like two people are simply talking to each other. It’s not even a question of being faithful to a novel. How can you be faithful to a novel? It’s a novel! So you have to break away from it to figure out a way to make it cinematically.
And how do you make it commercial?
At first, people thought this was going to be a dark, depressing movie because it’s based on a Philip Roth novel. But once we got it out into the world, people realized, this is a movie with a lot of laughs. There’s dark humor, and there’s also tragedy. Moment to moment, it’s shifting its gears.
The crowd here at the Virginia Film Festival loved it. How has it been received at other film festivals?
We showed it at Venice, and people were bursting into applause in the middle of the movie. Then we went to Toronto, and it was an even bigger response, in the sense that the Italians had to read the screen, and the laughs were slower. In Toronto and here in Charlottesville, the laughs came right away. At the same time, the audience is invested in the character and his journey.
How did you convince Charles Grodin to come out of semi-retirement to play Al’s agent?
I live up in Connecticut, so I see Grodin up there, and we’ve had dinners. He’s such a fucking character. I said, “Well, there’s a little part. Here’s the good news, Charles: It’s only about eight blocks from your house.” So that was that.
Do you worry that The Humbling will be compared to Birdman, which is also about an actor attempting to make a comeback on the stage?
I haven’t seen it, but I know enough about it. It’s different. Birdman is more of a farce. We’re not that. Somebody said, “Do you think you can have two movies about actors out at the same time?” And I said, “Well, there’s a whole lot of movies about superheroes, and they’re not even real!” There are more actors than superheroes.
Since The Humbling is about a suicidal actor, does it resonate any differently with you after the death of Robin Williams, with whom you made three films, including Good Morning, Vietnam?
No, I don’t think of it in that way. It’s so unfortunate, what was happening at that time with Robin. I was away for months and months shooting Rock the Kasbah with Bill Murray in Morocco. Some other close friends of Robin’s were away doing other things, so we hadn’t seen him for a while. Then I heard after this all happened that he had been depressed and had the onset of Parkinson’s and whatever they were giving him for it was making him more depressed. He was such a terrific person. I don’t know anybody who ever said, “I don’t really care for him.” He really was special.
Rock the Kasbah stars Bill Murray as a rock producer who tries to get a girl onto the Afghan version of American Idol. He’s on such an acting roll lately. What was your experience like with him?
We had a terrific time. We enjoyed it, as tough as it was — shooting in a desert when it was 100 degrees. The heat was incredibly oppressive. But he never complained about any of that stuff. He was ready to work and was able to get the energy that was needed for it. He’s smart. And he’s so funny in the movie.
Currently Senior Articles Editor for Closer Weekly, Bruce Fretts wrote TV Guide Magazine‘s wildly popular “Cheers & Jeers” column for 10 years. His work has also been published in the New York Times, Vulture.com, Fast Company, New York Daily News, Digital Spy, DuJour Magazine, the Sundance Channel’s website and RogerEbert.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brucefretts.