Barry Levinson is back at the Toronto International Film Festival with “The Survivor,” the incredible story of Harry Haft, who managed to survive Auschwitz by boxing his fellow prisoners. After moving to America, Haft boxed professionally, having a memorable bout with Rocky Marciano, but continued to be haunted by his experiences in the concentration camps. “The Survivor” dramatizes his battles with post-traumatic stress disorder, while also depicting the immense personal strength that ultimately allowed him to find a way to cope with his past.
Levinson, who made a name for himself directing classics such as “Diner” and “Rain Man,” spoke with Variety before the film’s world premiere on Monday about what inspired him to make “The Survivor,” how he navigates a franchise-obsessed Hollywood and the lengths Ben Foster went to in order to transform himself into Haft.
What drew you to “The Survivor”?
As a little kid, I was growing up and it was post World War II and this man showed up at the door. It turned out that he was my grandmother’s brother, which I didn’t understand because I didn’t know she had a brother. She never spoke about him. He stayed with us for over two weeks and it was a small house, so they put him in my bedroom and every night he’d be tossing and turning and he’d wake me up while saying things in some language I didn’t understand. And then he left and moved someplace. Years later, I was talking to my mother and she mentions Symcha, that was his name, and she tells me he was in a concentration camp. Then I understood. When I got the script for “The Survivor,” it reminded me of my great uncle. One of the elements that appealed to me was that idea of post-traumatic stress disorder. That pulled me in.
Whether or not you’re talking about surviving a concentration camp or fighting in Vietnam or fleeing Afghanistan, there are traumatic experiences that happen to some people and they can’t let them go. They live with them day by day and they don’t talk about it. They are haunted by the past. For some people, it’s not as simple as it’s over and lets gone on with our lives. There are casualties of war and there are casualties after war. For Harry Haft, he’s dealing with a past that won’t let him go.
It’s hard not to think about the current refugee situation in Afghanistan when you’re talking about living with that kind of trauma.
Yes, when you look at those people, what happens after they get on the plane? It’s not the end of the story. They’ll go somewhere. They’ll have to evolve and fit in and try to realize dreams they may have thought would be lost forever. Dealing with trauma is an ongoing thing.
How did you prepare to shoot the sequences in the concentration camps? Did you watch other films that had dramatized that experience?
Sometimes you don’t want to watch other films, because you don’t don’t want to be influenced by them. We went to Auschwitz and talked to the guides, so we could get a better understanding of day to day life in the camp. We wanted to make the film more about Harry Haft and being haunted. The camps aren’t shown in the film very much, but they influence Harry for decades after. We needed to be sure they were accurate and credible.
How did you approach the boxing sequences?
We needed to make them more primal because you’re showing people who aren’t really fighters. Harry was never really a trained fighter. He was awkward and didn’t have polish. When you show the fight scenes in the camp, they’re just people thrown into this situation. It’s more ragged and desperate, in a way.
Why did you cast Ben Foster?
I put Ben in his first film when we did “Liberty Heights.” He was only 17. He’s evolved into one of the great character actors. He literally becomes another person. Not a lot of actors can do that. I was confident he could be what you finally see on the screen. He lost 60 pounds for the camp scenes to look more like the character and get into his psychology. And then he regained the weight for the later fight scenes. Ben’s great fun to work with. He loves to exchange ideas and to think of things to add.
Do you do a lot of takes? Do you encourage improvisation?
I don’t do a lot of takes, but I encourage improvisation. Sometimes it doesn’t take you anywhere. Other times you find a little moment here or there that makes it worth it. You have to feel when it’s right. An improv needs to expose something you’re looking to explore.
Hollywood is making lots of superhero movies. You specialize in dramas and comedies for adults. Is it hard for you to get projects made?
We’re seeing the trend that you keep remaking or expanding a sort of serial format. They do “Fast and Furious 17” and keep doing it and redoing it. The franchises are the staples. They don’t always push the boundaries, but they’re a good enough hamburger. I don’t mean to sound crass. Some of them go way past being a vehicle that’s done over and over again. We’re in a time of corporations controlling things and algorithms play into their decision making. But Hollywood will reinvent itself. You don’t stay with one thing forever. In any given year, you won’t find an overwhelming number of challenging films, but you still find a certain amount that somehow are able to swim upstream.
Are you open to having films premiere on streaming services?
The reality is that you want an audience to see it. From the standpoint of an experience, you can’t beat going to a cinema. Otherwise you’re in your living room and you have to pause it to take a phone call or get the door. When I was a kid, I remember going to see “Psycho.” When the shower scene happened, it wasn’t like it was a scare and then it was over. When Marion got killed, the audience wasn’t just screaming for 10 seconds. They screamed for the next 10 minutes. It was a big experience to see something that amazing and shocking all together. If you watch that on television, it’s not the same thing. That whole collective experience is sort of gone now. It’s once upon a time. There are a few films that still will play in theaters, but more and more will be on streaming services.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.