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Barry Levinson Takes On Jack Kervorkian in 'You Don't Know Jack'

by Joel Keller, posted Apr 23rd 2010 11:05AM
Al Pacino, Jack Kervorkian and Barry Levinson at the premiere of HBO's 'You Don't Know Jack'What does it take to get Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Levinson together for an HBO movie? Only the story of Jack "Doctor Death" Kervorkian.

'You Don't Know Jack,' premiering on Saturday, April 24 at 9PM ET, chronicles the period when Dr. Kervorkian was helping terminally ill patients commit suicide. This includes the 1998 incident where he assisted a patient with ALS and sent the video to '60 Minutes,' which landed him in prison for eight years.

In addition to Pacino, who plays Kervorkian, and Sarandon, who plays his friend and euthanasia advocate Jane Good, the movie also stars John Goodman, Brenda Vaccaro and Danny Huston. Levinson, seen above with Pacino and Kervorkian, produced and directed the movie, the first time he's directed a feature-length movie for television.

The director of 'Rain Man,' 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' 'Wag The Dog,' and other classics spoke to me earlier this week about dealing with the touchy topic of Kervorkian, working with a pro like Pacino, and whether a movie like 'Diner' could ever be made today. His answer to that one is surprising.

What made you and (co-producer) Tom Fontana decide at this juncture to explore the period of Jack Kevorkian's life where he was helping people at the end of their lives?

Well, I mean, I thought it was a great character, a character that I don't know that we've seen. I think that we got a view of Kevorkian that most of us don't know. And it's an issue that's pretty fascinating. So I think all those elements for the shorthand do it all.

When you said there was a part of Kevorkian that, in this role, that people didn't know, what aspect of Kevorkian would that be?
Well, I don't think they understand the man, other than the soundbites. I mean, that's all we really know. That's all I know, was the soundbites. But he was a more complicated individual. There are those who think that he made a lot of money, and he was preying on those who were weak and suffering.

I mean, none of those (theories) ultimately were true. The man lived a rather spartan life. He never made any real money. And he was willing to take on the medical establishment and the judicial system of the state of Michigan. And he had a sense of humor about things, and he wasn't just this kind of, I guess, the one view you see is just a man just speaking straight to an issue in a way where you don't always get a truer sense of the man and his compassion.

What aspect of the screenplay did you find most surprising?
Well, I think it's (Kervorkian's) relationships with the people around him: his relationship with his sister, his relationship with Janet Good, who came from the Hemlock Society, his contentious relationship with (attorney Geoffrey) Figer, his very close relationship with you know, Neal (Nicol), that goes back 30, 35 years from the time he was in med school. Those close circle of friends and how Kevorkian went about and dealt with these various patients.

For instance, I never knew that 97% of the people that he ultimately interviewed and did consultation with, he turned them down. I never knew that kind of stuff. I never knew things like that.

And he would turn them down for various reasons, right?
If it was more of a psychological issue as opposed to a physical issue or all of the evaluations he would make based on that, and discussions with Janet Good, etc.

When you set out to direct this movie, what was the goal you had in mind to try to portray the story? Because obviously it's a very touchy story with people on both sides that are extremely passionate.
My goal was simply to show the character with as much credibility as I can, and to show the others as well as I can. So that I didn't want to make it as, you know, the enemy or whatever -- so the D.A., you know, you hear him talk about the way he views life and death -- as best as I can so that I don't turn it into some kind of melodrama, and I don't want to turn it into some kind of agitprop kind of piece. It is a look at a 10-year period, and the conflicts that took place during that period of time. And not to be afraid to allow humor when it was appropriate, and is part of, in fact, the character and the behavior.

Was the goal to show more of the humor in his everyday life, not the showboating that he did?
Yeah, absolutely. It's the little things of that. I mean, I've always been fascinated with almost all the movies that I've done, to show the kind of human behavior as well, as opposed to OK, well this is Kevorkian, the Doctor, Dr. Death. You know, that in itself is not enough for me. So I like all the little strange quirkiness of it all.

I like the way that he deals with his sister, and how he doesn't necessarily always listen well enough, and how he sometimes can become rude almost in his behavior, because he doesn't necessarily understand others' feelings periodically in his arguments. So that you see, as opposed to just some kind of one-dimensional character. It wouldn't have been that interesting with a one-dimensional character.

Al Pacino and Barry Levinson on the set of 'You Don't Know Jack'At what point did Al Pacino come into this project, and what made everybody involved think that he was the guy to play Kevorkian, or was it that Pacino wanted to play Kevorkian?
No, we sent him the script, and he thought it was pretty interesting. And he was asking me what I had in mind, and then I told him. And then I went out to L.A. and I spent time with him, and we had a reading of the script with him. And then I talked about certain things I thought he might be able to bring to it, and you know, worked with (screenwriter) Adam Mazer on some additional things that we brought to the script as it evolved. And that's pretty much the way it goes.

Where was the decision made that Pacino wasn't going to meet Kevorkian, he wasn't going to talk to him, he was just going to play the role based on what he saw and read?

There are two parts to it, because we talked about it a little bit. And you know, since he's ultimately met with Kevorkian and etc. etc. I think his decision was simply this: one, he had probably 60 hours of video of things to study, in terms of the character. He had all kinds of additional stuff.

And I think he didn't want to necessarily, you know, meet him, because this is now Kevorkian, this is almost a 20 year difference. (He's) Much older and not quite the same as he was during the period we were (examining). And I don't think he wanted to confuse himself in Kevorkian today to Kevorkian at the time where this movie takes place. So he had all the information, and I would fill him in with little quirky things, and we'd add other stuff to it, you know, from conversations with Kevorkian, etc. And there was more than enough for him to build his character.

It seemed uncanny to me that when he first comes on screen with the big glasses and the white buzz cut, that he looked like Jack Kevorkian.
It was shocking. I would not have necessarily said "oh yeah, he's a perfect candidate to play Kevorkian." That would not have occurred to me on face value. I just knew he was a great actor and it'd be a great role. The fact that he was able to make it work, without doing all kinds of heavy, crazy makeup things that he's encased in some kind of rubber mask.

Al Pacino as Jack Kervorkian in 'You Don't Know Jack'He does throw himself into roles like that, doesn't he?
Yes, he does. He is one of the really committed actors that I've come across.

Obviously, you've directed pretty much a lot of the best of the best, but how does that commitment come across with you when you're trying to get a performance out of somebody like that?
Well, you know, that's the easy part, and that's the fun. Because he's that good. So you're never working on trying to get a performance. You're not trying to deal with that. What you're really dealing with is what else can we bring to the table? What other little quirk, is there something else here? Because he's got such amazing, you know, talent.

How hard was it to recreate the '60 Minutes' sequence? Because obviously there must have been a lot of CGI going on, to try to put Al in there.
It is, all of the sequences, it was fairly complicated. Because, to be honest with you, I don't know that I've actually seen what we did in a couple places. The '60 Minutes' one was actually simpler than, for instance, the one earlier where he's actually in the scene and he's touching the shoulder, and he says "that's enough now." You know, where (the patient's) getting muscle cramps, you know, that sequence. The guy who had ALS.

That's putting Pacino into a scene where Kevorkian used to be in the scene. We had to take Kevorkian out and actually, where he's touching him, replacing Kevorkian with Pacino, from those original tapes. Those were more complicated, and then of course, we had the ones which are not real consultation tapes, because that wasn't, you know, you couldn't use it in certain circumstances. And then you had to find a way to make that as credible as the ones which are the real ones.

Because the film is on HBO, there's obviously a little bit less constraints than there would be, say, on network television. But was there a big difference for you, or is it because you've done TV before, it wasn't a big change?
No, because I mean, we were not basically being restricted by content. You know, "that's too much" or whatever. I mean, in a sense, this particular process was more freeing (than) if you were trying to make it theatrically. Theatrically, you almost couldn't make this movie.

Is that because of length, or because of the story?
No, I mean, subject matter. It's too daring for theatrical.

And HBO kind of gave you all the creative freedom you guys needed?
Yeah, I mean, they gave us all the creative freedom to do the movie, which you know, almost, it would be impossible in terms of theatrical. And certainly network television, you couldn't even come close to doing it. So really, HBO, in a sense, is the only place that would even make a Kevorkian (movie). Nobody else will.

Now the only constrictions that you have is that you gotta find a way to shoot it quickly enough. So you know, we had an enormous amount of location shifts, and we had to shoot the movie in 40 days, which is very fast for what we were doing. But other than that, it's a great situation.

Do you think this is trending toward what we might see in the future with major actors and major directors, doing movies for HBO and Showtime?

Yes. I think that the door has opened, in a way. Because what's happening is, the theatrical (side) is giving up a whole demographic, and an entire area of films, just giving that away. It just won't make it anymore.

There's no room for the small film, in other words?
There's no room for the small film, period. There's no room for a movie that's really about any kind of human behavior. It just is moving out of it. I mean, every so often, they've gotten lucky. They'll get lucky, and it surprises the hell out of them. But they're still not looking to go that route.

I mean, in a sense, 'The Blind Side' was one of those things that, you know, they didn't know what the hell they had. And then all of a sudden, it just caught on. In the past, there wouldn't even have been any suggestion that that couldn't be a successful movie. But they're much more tepid in that, as opposed to a $150 million movie. It's the cheaper films that they're afraid of. And the films that don't have all the pyrotechnics to it. Those are the films that they are more suspicious of.

'Diner' DVD coverCould 'Diner' get made now in the theatrical system?

Not at all?

So that would be an HBO movie, then? Probably?
Yeah. I mean, they're not going to make it (for theatrical release). It doesn't matter how cheap it is. It's like, why make it? Why bother?

Well, it's good to see that at least somebody's doing it.
No, it's great! I mean, I have to take my hat off to them. I mean, they are going in an area of which they're saying, you know, hey, yeah, this is a touchy subject, but it's a subject worthwhile. Let's do it.

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only al could play dr.k,he's the best,love his acting since early 70's. i live in mi.&this subject is close to my heart. dr.k did what he believed in,i applaud him.only him and the person know the pain,embaressment&suffering people go though,when terminal! if there is a higher power,u dont have to answer to it,they do! have a good life dr.k

April 29 2010 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I saw the movie Saturday night and was mesmerized by it. I always wanted to keep Dr. Kevorkian's number in my wallet. I think he was a humane individual and I thank him for helping all those people go "out" with dignity.
Good Job Dr.!

April 27 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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