Barry Levinson interview: ‘The Survivor’ director
Director Barry Levinson launched Ben Foster’s film career when he cast the then-teenage actor in a lead role in 1999’s “Liberty Heights.” More than 20 years later, when Levinson was casting his latest film “The Survivor” – the story of Harry Haft, who survived the Holocaust after being forced to fight his fellow prisoners sometimes to the death – the Oscar-winning director of “Rain Man” could really only think of one actor for the part.
“When I was reading the script, you say, ‘Well, you really need an outstanding actor to be able to pull this off. And to me, honestly, I think that Ben is one of the great actors of his generation,” Levinson tells Gold Derby in a new interview.
Written by Justine Juel Gillmer and based on Alan Haft’s book, “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano,” Levinson’s latest project spans three time periods in Harry’s life: his imprisonment in Auschwitz during World War II, his life in post-war New York as a fledgling boxer, and his later years when Harry has a family but is still haunted by the atrocities he experienced during his captivity. Foster plays Harry in all three sections and lost more than 60 pounds to best replicate the fighter’s experience in the concentration camp.
“He was the one who said to me, right away, ‘Look, you know, I think I need to lose the weight. Because, you know, I don’t know how we’re going to do opticals. But I think I got to really live through this,’” Levinson says of his star. “So it was a huge physical challenge, but I understand it, because it’s not just simply the fact that he’s so thin. It’s that he wanted to be inside of what is it? Like, you know, to be literally to the point that you’re steps away from just dying of starvation. What is it like and end up being forced to fight in order to survive? So that was his immediate reaction to it, which I certainly I agreed with.”
The cost of survival is the central question of “The Survivor.” Levinson was drawn to the project because of its depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder – something he had experienced first-hand as a young boy when his great-uncle, who had survived the Holocaust, came to live with Levinson’s family. It’s a memory that he thought of when he read “The Survivor.”
“When this script came, I immediately thought of that incident. But I thought of the incident, in today’s terms,” he says. “That what he had is a post-traumatic stress disorder. And that wasn’t known then. And so that’s what drew me into it. … Whether you’re a soldier, or whatever it is, when you’ve had a real trauma that took place, it doesn’t necessarily, for many people, just go away. You’re haunted by it. And so I thought, well, that’s a kind of an interesting way to look into this situation.”
Harry, he says, “survived the camps, but now he’s got to survive life, and enjoy life, and be able to be a part of it engaged by it, to be able to laugh to do all the things that are part of human behavior. And that that’s the journey of Harry Hath – to come to that. And so that’s what sort of got me.”
“The Survivor” is now streaming on HBO Max in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).