Director Barry Levinson on Going Beyond the Sound Bites

HBO: Are people going to see Jack Kevorkian differently after watching this film?

BARRY LEVINSON: Well, I think a lot of people have the wrong impression of the man because he only exists through little sound bites. That’s the impression we have of him. So there’s very little known about the man, his private life, his relationships, etc. — which are some of the elements we try to show. We’re not trying to glorify the character, but we are trying to give a better picture of what he was about, how he thought, how he viewed the ethics of it all. I think that’s one of the interesting aspects of the film.

HBO: The film focuses on Kevorkian’s dedication to assisted suicide, and then there’s his downfall. Can you talk about the story a little bit?

BARRY LEVINSON: What happens is that he is so committed to this idea and believes that he is so right, that there’s a point where he wants to push the issue. His might not be the best way to approach it, because he doesn’t look at the nuances of it all. He just wants to bring it to a head and resolve that question. It basically leads to his incarceration and eight years in prison. He is so committed to what he believes should be a reality, that he can’t deal with all of these obstacles, as he sees them. He wants a conclusion, so he presses ahead with a kind of single-mindedness that he possesses. And it is his downfall, certainly in that he went to prison for eight years.

HBO: How did Al Pacino take to playing Kevorkian?

BARRY LEVINSON: I think Al responded to the character. He can’t be doing an imitation; he has to try to get the essence of Kevorkian. He takes certain elements that resemble him, but he can’t act just as Kevorkian did, nor is that a requirement. It’s not like he’s playing FDR, where there are certain requirements to fulfill. He tries to get to the general sensibility and the humanity of the character.

HBO: What kind of film would you say this is?

BARRY LEVINSON: I’m not good at those kinds of descriptions. To me, it is a movie that addresses issues, but there’s nothing worse than just making a movie that’s about issues. At some point we gotta relate to characters. We gotta connect to characters. We gotta take the journey with the characters. And that means, in almost every situation I’ve ever been involved in, even in serious times, there is humor. We’re not trying to do jokes, but there is humor in terms of how these people behave. Humor makes it so it’s not so heavy and somber in that regard, although it’s very dark at times. But I don’t think of the film as an unrelenting examination of the issue of euthanasia. We are seeing very strong-headed characters, with strong personalities, interacting with one another dramatically and humorously. That’s the essence of what this piece is about.

HBO: What was it like to meet Kevorkian?

BARRY LEVINSON: He was a really interesting character to meet. He said certain things when we were meeting, and I thought, “We have to find a way to get that into the script.” During one meeting someone asked “Jack, would you like some coffee?” And he said, “Yes.” And he said, “Decaf?” And Jack went, “No, decaf is for cowards.” It’s such a crazy line; we had to work it into the script. He has this odd sense of humor, which is quite fascinating. He’s very, very smart.

HBO: There are so many things that people don’t know him. What was most surprising to you?

BARRY LEVINSON: There is the fact that he loves music, jazz as well as Bach, and the fact that he can paint. But the biggest thing was a little bit of humor that I never really saw before. All the clips you see of him are showing his serious moments. But he does have a sense of humor. Also, the fact that he lived his life in such a sparse, almost monk-like existence was a surprise to me. He lived in a very small apartment. His clothing was always from the Salvation Army. I think he lived on $600 a month. He never really had any real possessions. He didn’t care about any of that stuff. He was just committed to a cause that he felt very strongly about. And when you meet somebody like that you just start to recognize him as a human being, rather than a sound bite of a man.