Barry Levinson returns with “The Survivor” at the Toronto International Film Festival, the incredible story of Harry Huff, who managed to escape from Auschwitz by boxing his fellow prisoners. After leaving America, Huff boxed professionally, had a memorable fight with Rocky Marciano, but was haunted by his experience in concentration camps. “The Survivor” dramatizes his battle with traumatic stress disorder, as well as depicts the immense personal strength that ultimately allows him to find a way to deal with his past.
Levinson, who made a name for himself by conducting classics such as “Dinner” and “Rain Man” Diversity What inspired him to create “The Survivor” ahead of the film’s world premiere on Monday, how he navigated a franchise-crazy Hollywood, and how far Ben Foster went to transform himself into Haft.
What drew you to “Survivor”?
As a child, I was growing up and it was after World War II and this guy appeared at the door. It turned out that he was my grandmother’s brother, which I didn’t understand because I didn’t know he had a brother. She never talked about him. He had been with us for more than two weeks and it was a small room, so they kept him in my bedroom and every night he would toss and turn and he would wake me up when I said something in some language that I didn’t understand. And then he left and went somewhere. A few years later, I was talking to my mom and she mentioned Simcha, it was her name and she told me she 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 the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder. That pulled me inside.
Whether you’re talking about surviving in a concentration camp or fighting in Vietnam or fleeing Afghanistan, there are traumatic experiences with some people and they don’t let them go. They live with them day in and day out and they don’t talk about it. They are haunted by the past. For some people, it’s not as easy as ending and letting go of our lives. There are casualties in war and there are casualties after war. For Harry Huft, 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 surviving this kind of trauma.
Yes, when you look at those people, what happens when they get on the plane? This is not the end of the story. They will go somewhere. They need to evolve and adapt and try to realize dreams that they think will be lost forever. Dealing with trauma is an ongoing thing.
How did you prepare to shoot the sequence at the concentration camp? Have you seen other movies that made that experience dramatic?
Sometimes you don’t want to see other movies because you don’t want to be influenced by them. We went to Auschwitz and talked to the guides so that we could better understand the daily life at the camp. We wanted to make the film more about Harry Huff and the spooky. The camps are not shown much in the picture, but they do influence Harry decades later. We need to make sure they are accurate and credible.
How did you get to the boxing sequence?
We needed to make them more primitive because you are showing people who are not really warriors. Harry was not really a trained warrior. He was awkward and was not polished. When you show the battle scenes in the camp, they are just people thrown into this situation. It’s more angry and desperate, alike.
Why did you throw Ben Foster?
I put Ben in his first picture when we did “Liberty Heights”. He was only 17 years old. He literally became another person. Many actors can’t do that. I was confident that he would finally see what was on the screen. She lost 60 pounds for the camp scene to look like the character and get into her psychology. And then he regained weight for the next fight scenes. Great fun working with Ben. She loves to think of things to exchange ideas and add.
Do you do a lot Do you encourage improvement?
I don’t do much, but I encourage improvement. Sometimes it doesn’t get you anywhere. Other times you find a little moment here or there that makes it worthwhile. You just have to be more discriminating with the help you render toward other people. You need to publish an improv what you want to explore.
Lots of superhero movies are being made in Hollywood. You specialize in drama and comedy for adults. Is it difficult for you to create a project?
We’re seeing a trend where you’re constantly rebuilding or expanding a series of layouts. They do “Fast and Furious 17” and keep doing it and keep doing it again. Franchises are major. They don’t always push the boundaries, but they are a good enough hamburger. I don’t mean the word cross. Some of them are becoming a vehicle that is repeated. The things we control over the time of the corporation and the algorithms play a role in their decision making. But Hollywood will rebuild itself. You will not have one thing forever. In any year, you won’t find a lot of challenging movies, but you still find a certain amount that is somehow capable of swimming upstream.
Are you open to movie premieres on streaming services?
The reality is you want a viewer to see it. From an experience standpoint, you can’t go to a movie. Otherwise you are in your living room and you have to pause it to get a phone call or the door. When I was younger, I remember going to see “Psycho”. When the shower scene happened, it wasn’t like it was a scare and then it ended. When Marion was killed, the audience just didn’t scream for 10 seconds. They screamed for the next 10 minutes. It was a great experience to see something amazing and shocking together. If you watch it on television, it’s not the same thing. That whole combined experience is now somehow gone. It was once. There are some movies that will still run in theaters, but more will be on streaming services.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.