Master Of The Moment

A catch in the voice, a breath held, a wobble, a gesture, a look. As he shoots his new feature, "Bandits," director Barry Levinson knows it's these small surprises that make movie magic.


LOS ANGELES -- It's hostage-crisis day on the Avenue of the Stars. Eight black-and-white police cruisers, lights flashing, cordon off the block. Two rooftop snipers man their positions. Yellow police tape holds back hundreds straining to get a look.

Then he arrives. The limo glides to the Century City curb. He slides from the back seat, mellow as a Beach Boys' harmony, and strolls from one cluster of people to the next. He chats with some cops. He chats with the blue-clad commanding officer. He chats with a man in a business suit. He leaves them all laughing.

His own uniform is a khaki ball cap tugged low over a roundish face and a down coat so spherical it calls to mind an inflated basketball. He walks to a bank of TV monitors and confers with his director of photography, framing each vision in his mind with a rectangle of fingers.

It's 6:30 a.m., mid-January. The filmic canvas, still golden in the early-morning light, awaits the first bold brushstrokes of the master, Baltimore's Barry Levinson.

Chin in hand, impish gleam in his eye, he gazes at the bank of TV screens known as "video village." The monitors reveal what each camera sees. But it is the director's vision that takes form here as he scrutinizes each snippet of film, looking for what can only be described as Levinsonian moments: when the script and the actors' peculiarities coalesce in a way that is surprising -- as often as not, surprising to the director himself.

"If the film doesn't have those little moments, it doesn't entertain me," he says. "If it doesn't entertain me, why would it entertain anybody else?

"It's weird. Here I am directing a movie, but I'm my own first audience. And as an audience, I want to laugh."

In the final days of shooting "Bandits," his new romantic comedy / crime-caper, Levinson's manner is so affable, his gait so genial, he hardly seems the type to have presided over hundreds of intense and creative people for the past 120 days.

The movie's male leads, Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, took part in a bloody shootout yesterday in the lobby of the fictitious Alamo Savings Bank. Today, the principal action calls for the female star, the ethereal Cate Blanchett, to ascend the bank steps frantically, stumble onto a gory scene, and go into a form of shock.

For a man known for his intimate, personal films set in Baltimore, Levinson is, in his way, as awed by big-scale movies as any fan. "Bandits" has all the trappings: weapons, hostage scenes, helicopters. "Helicopters! Gotta have the helicopters," he says. "That stuff keeps me interested!"

But don't be fooled by the wide-eyed Bawlmer sensibility. Levinson does what few directors do: He makes intimate, personal films as well as big-time blockbusters with such major stars as DeNiro, Beatty and Redford, including 1988's "Rain Man," for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. He's of Baltimore but equal parts Beverly Hills. And he never completely abandons one for the other.

Levinson tells Blanchett where to walk to preserve the composition in his head, then lopes to his director's chair, front and center at video village. On the word "action," spoken serenely, Blanchett flies into motion. She rushes across the street, high heels clicking, and up the steps. Her brown sweater slips from her shoulders -- a planned effect she performs six takes in a row -- and reaches the glass front doors of the lobby, where she sees two men she knows in widening pools of blood.

What happens next is not so much acting as an exercise in kinesiology. First her neck, then her shoulders, then her hips and finally her legs seem to yield their vertebrate qualities. She collapses, and her head bounces on the pavement hard enough that the thwock can be heard 100 feet away.

Back at video village, Levinson, 58, shakes his head. "Great faint," he says in a contemplative whisper. A murmur goes up around him: "Great faint, great faint."

By the time they wind the tape for replay, Blanchett is back, kneeling beside the monitor, watching. She's one of the rare actresses, says producer Michael Birnbaum, who scrutinizes her work so closely. Levinson, meanwhile, an inveterate multitasker, is already gabbing about his pet topic of the day: the Ravens' chances against Oakland in tomorrow's AFC title game. He's unsure, almost superstitious. "Eddie George, the Titans couldn't run on the Ravens. The Broncos couldn't run on the Ravens. Think the Raiders can run on the Ravens?"

The banter calls to mind the garrulous teens in "Diner," his breakthrough 1982 film, in which a prospective groom won't marry his girlfriend until she passes a trivia test on the Baltimore Colts. The film and its worldview are still such a part of Levinson that the red logo on his cap reads "American Diner Museum." Is there really is such a place? "Well," he says with a cackle, "they gave me a hat! I choose to take it on faith."

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