But his latest film, a horror-mystery about a murderous parasite let loose in the Chesapeake Bay, is about as far removed from the genial atmosphere of his first as two movies could be. If "Diner" made audiences yearn for the bygone days of the neighborhood greasy spoon, "The Bay" — set in the fictional bayside town of Claridge — will have them swearing off oysters on the half-shell forever.
Levinson, 70, will be back in Baltimore on Monday for the film's local premiere, a screening at the Maryland Institute College of Art; the film opens nationwide Friday. He's now at work on turning "Diner" into a Broadway musical, with songs by Sheryl Crow. But over the phone from his Connecticut home, the Park Heights native stopped to talk about terrifying audiences while trying to spur them into action, making a movie with hand-held cameras and why Maryland's lack of tax breaks for film crews kept "The Bay" from being shot along its namesake waterway.
How did you and "The Bay" come together?
I was asked about doing a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, because it was 40 percent dead. So I started to gather some information, and the facts were sort of frightening. But it so happens that "Frontline" did a really good documentary on the Chesapeake Bay, and I thought, "Well, I can't really improve upon that." So I just decided to leave it.
But the facts of the bay sort of stayed with me. Then one day it hit me: Look, I tell stories; so why don't I tell it as a story and use all this factual information just to give it a sene of credibility? Obviously, it's a fictitious story, but I use something like 80 percent factual information in it. That's sort of how it evolved.
I developed the story, then I brought in Mike Wallach, the writer, and we worked on it. And it evolved into "The Bay." We shot it for, like, a little over $2 million, shot it in 18 days, using this particular style which we ended up with — over 20-some digital cameras, to give us the visual palette we ended with.
This is your first foray into an honest-to-goodness horror story. How was it?
I never quite thought of it as a horror film. I thought it was sort of science fiction, the kind of things you used to see [where] you'd take something that's real, that's frightening, and you'd apply it to some storytelling. There were some movies that were done in the '50s and '60s, the '70s, where you used that. It's like horror/sci-fi/who knows.
It recalls a lot of those '50s horror films that you probably grew up on, "Them" and "Tarantula," those science-gone-horribly-awry movies.
Yeah, it's them and "The Thing." You could include "The Incredible Shrinking Man," even "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
You've been using hand-held cameras as a tool probably as long as any mainstream director. But the overall dependence on them in this film — was that daunting at all?
Obviously, there are still things to learn, even about something that seems like such a primitive technique. This is sort of the dawn of the digital age, which is probably going to transform film as we know it, in ways that we don't even understand yet.
Anybody can tell a story now, because anybody can get ahold of a camera.
How do you keep the use of hand-held cameras from coming across as just a gimmick?
Because it's anything but a gimmick. ... This, right now, is the first time in the history of man that we can actually get an insight into the lives of people with an intimacy that never existed before. If you go to Pompeii, you can say, "We saw some plates. They were obviously having lunch or dinner when the volcano struck" — that's all we're gonna know. Here, we get text messages; there's email; there was iPhone chat; there's a very intimate form of communication that never existed before.
This is a film that's meant to be something of a call to action, or at least to awareness. Are you afraid ... that it becomes so horrific that the audience might lose sight of the message, or that the message becomes so overwhelming that people might lose sight of the narrative?
You just have to go on your instincts. ... As a director, your obligation is to keep people entertained — in this case, scare them and get them caught up in it. ...
As the [Centers for Disease Control] is trying to sort out what this is, and they talk about the vibrio virus — well, that's in the Chesapeake Bay. And when they talk about how that works, you go, "Holy God, that's pretty scary." It adds credibility, rather than just making stuff up. It was nice to use factual information.
As you researched this, were you alarmed?
I knew a lot. But I think what stuns you is that all of this can be corrected. Everybody knows how to begin to clean it up. Does it have to be 100 percent pure? Will we ever get to that? Maybe not. ... We know what is contributing to it all.
You look at infrastructure in America, and you go, "We're the wealthiest nation on the face of the Earth, and we can't even fix our bridges?" The reality is, we can do better. We'll put anything in the way of actually confronting some of the issues that need to be dealt with.
Look, I'm not a politician. I'm not one of these environmentalists who work on a daily basis trying to do something. I'm a storyteller. I see things that go on, and you try to apply it, in some fashion. This time, into a sci-fi-slash-horror movie, using a lot of information.
Talk about your next film project, "The Day the Laughter Stopped."
I'm waiting on the script, and I'm not exactly sure when that's going to be delivered. It's the story of Fatty Arbuckle [an actor at the center of a 1920s Hollywood scandal] ... that people never really quite knew. I think it's got some real value, in the state of celebrity and publicity and the judicial system, and all that goes with it. If we get it right, I think it's a pretty fascinating study. It's an HBO film. We're waiting on the draft.
Anything else you've got on the burner at this point?
The "Diner" musical. It's to open in the early part of April. We're in rehearsals in New York now. In fact, they're rehearsing today. They have a lot of stuff to work out. We're going to rehearse and then shut down for the holidays. Then, around the first of the year, they'll start to load into the theater and go from there.
Will it be opening in New York or tried out on the road first?
How does it look so far?
I should say I'm quietly optimistic. I don't normally like to tout stuff that I do. All I can tell you is, [Crow's] music is phenomenal. It is just absolutely terrific.
One last question about "The Bay": Why wasn't the movie shot here in Maryland?
The lack of a tax credit. And even though the movie was relatively cheap, the little credit would have helped. We couldn't do it. Now the tax credit has a better situation, I understand, and it's much more inviting for filmmakers. But for that window, I couldn't do it there.
We shot it in Georgetown, S.C. It worked very well for what we are doing. It looks very credible.
Was it fun to do a quickie project like this?
Yes. I used basically an unknown cast, a very young crew. We would really run and shoot. It was great to work that way.
Kind of like you did on "Diner."
It was, in that regard. I had a lot of first-time people on that crew as well. Here, we did that same type of thing. It's good to do that. It keeps you on your toes. You don't want to get locked in, saying, "This is the way we've got to do it."
Or you could look at it as, in 30 years, you've gone absolutely nowhere.
[Laughing.] Yes, that's very true.
What: "The Bay," followed by Q&A with Barry Levinson.
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Falvey Hall at MICA's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave.
Tickets: $5; free for Maryland Film Festival members.
Details: 410-752-8083 or md-filmfest.com.