Written by Dylan Callaghan
It seems talking to scripter Barry Levy, even as he enjoys the premier of his first theatrically released feature, the assassination thriller Vantage Point, he still feels a bit subsumed by the shadow of his father, a renowned pediatric cardiologist who he calls, “a ridiculous overachiever.” And he gets no reprieve from his mother, a Ph.D in biochemistry and dean of a leading liberal arts college back east.
Parents like that make the already obscure life of a struggling screenwriter even more shadowy. For the eight years leading up to Vantage Point, which tells a Roshomonian tale of a near presidential assassination, Levy has occupied that screenwriting nether world between having sold stuff, but never having really broken through.
To be fair, Levy himself isn't exactly a slouch -- he graduated undergrad Summa Cum Laude, went on to an M.F.A. in film from USC and has worked as a development executive at the animation production company Nelvana. And, on closer inspection, one does see a bit of the “ridiculous overachiever” in the fact that, all the while, he has taught both Hebrew and a thing called “social justice” at Temple Israel in Los Angeles.
As part of his social justice curriculum, he takes a group of 9th graders to Washington DC to lobby their federal representatives on the matters of public good they have specifically picked to champion. “I guess I never really wanted the Hollywood high life,” says a temperate Levy. “That was never really me. I've always been interested in moral structure.”
So maybe that shadow's not so big after all.
During an interview with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, he discussed both how his fascination with narrative invention and examinations of truth are at the core of Vantage Point.
Photo: © 2008 Columbia Pictures
Forest Whitaker in Vantage Point.
The plot of this script has an obvious Rashomon aspect, but what was the actual inspiration for it?
First of all, it wasn't until two weeks after it sold that I actually watched Rashomon. I'd never seen it before. But I've always been interested in breaking with traditional structure and looking at things differently. The question I asked myself was, if there had been someone on the grassy knoll when John F. Kennedy was shot, what would that story be and how would it break down?
But what got you there? What was the very seminal stage when you started wondering about the J.F.K. assassination or that specific topic?
I'm fascinated with the unknowable nature of truth. That's what I was really interested in looking at with this one, that no one knows everything. That drives so much of what I've done.
Obviously juggling these various perspectives on the attempted assassination is a challenge, but I'm curious how you feel it might have actually made the script easier (in some manner) to write? Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I do. With the brevity of the film -- fifteen minutes -- what's easy is we get to know one moment of these characters lives and we get to know it intimately because we're seeing everything through their eyes. That can certainly make the process easier. But the challenge is that you only have fifteen minutes to help an audience understand them and to define them and to watch how this become a cathartic moment in these characters' lives.
So by narrowing the prism it's both easier and more of a challenge?
Yeah, the challenge is that you have such limited parameters that it can at times be confining.
There's that kind of scripting truism that sometimes limiting options makes it easier. Did you experience that at all?
Completely, when it was sort of just my blank canvas. But when the canvas became more collaborative with the director and the producers and everyone, the challenge became that we had a finite number of options and we had a lot of people trying to balance what we could do. There was once instance -- a scene with the hand off of a bag -- where we all must have spent twenty four hours trying to figure out the details of when and how it was handed off and the permutations of what that would mean for all the various players. It became a little overwhelming.
A little bit of a Rubik's cube?
Since this is your first produced project, how have you grappled with that age old conflict between writing what inspires you versus the pressure to write what will sell?
I've found that to be a real challenge. The challenge for me has been trying to find projects where I have something meaningful to say. I have seen executives on my projects come and go and the truth that I have is, if things are going to fall apart around me, then at least I have to be left with something to hold on to that I really care about. But it took me a long time to learn that. That lesson didn't come easily.
So initially you were more of the mind to just write the script that would sell?
Oh, completely. I would even say that the first nine things I got paid for wound up --to less than a half-hour sitcom --the Guild minimum. So for years I was getting kicked in the head. On some level you have this anxiety that this could all go away tomorrow. The minute Vantage Point sells that anxiety doesn't lift; if anything it becomes more powerful.
Has seeing one of your scripts through to release taught you anything about how to write screenplays?
That's a really good question. I've learned so much. I've learned about the dialogue I don't need, how best to define characters and how not to, and how to navigate the process as a collaborator. For a first time out, it was a learning experience every day and I think I got better as the process went on and I'm excited to keep learning.
Is this the most you've collaborated?
This was certainly a pretty in-depth collaboration. I worked every day through the development process, at the beginning of production, and I went back during production and even in post they sent cuts... It was pretty awesome.