Q&A with Oscar-winning Director Barry Levinson


In late March, famed director Barry Levinson came to Tisch for a Q&A with students moderated by department chair Joe Pichirallo.  Levinson is best known as the director of such diverse films as Rain Man, Diner, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Bugsy. In addition to his Best Director Oscar win, he has been nominated for five more Oscars for screenwriting and direction.

Levinson’s conversation with Pichirallo consisted of hilarious anecdotes and valuable nuggets of advice. Arguably the most exciting news for students is that Levinson feels that this is a good time to be in the entertainment business because people can see films on a variety of different platforms.

We learned that Levinson's classic Diner was barely released because it was hated by MGM, the studio distributing it. It was initially released into four cities, none of which were prime markets. Just as Diner was released, famed film critic Judith Crist was hosting a film weekend in Tarrytown. Someone close to Crist had loved Diner and she centered a weekend on the film. Levinson flew to New York for the occasion, where he met with press.

That weekend, the film’s producer, Mark Johnson, showed the film to influential film critic Pauline Kael and she loved it. Because of her review, MGM released it in NYC with just two days notice and very little publicity. And it broke a house record. The studio dismissed the success as something that would only happen in NYC.

 Barry Levinson and Joe Pichirallo

Barry Levinson and Joe Pichirallo

Despite the fact that Diner kept breaking house records wherever it went, the studio never opened it in a wide release. But the public and press believed in Diner and it went on to earn Levinson an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Diner is now considered one of the finest American films ever made, influencing such shows as Seinfeld and The Office, along with the films of Quentin Tarantino.

Before Levinson spoke to the class, I sat down with him, and we discussed his and Sheryl Crow’s new musical adaptation of Diner.

He said that he hopes to have the show on Broadway next year after receiving very positive reviews from its world premiere in Virginia. On how Crow came on board, Levinson said,

“I talked to [Crow] and she loved Diner, and I told her what I thought, what it could be musically because it was perfect to open the door to the female voice that gets expanded in the musical.  She’s a great storyteller and she has a great background in music.”

Levinson is one of the most important directors working today, having created a number of films considered American classics. It was an honor to have him spend time with us.