Barry Levinson has become something of HBO’s go-to guy for directing biopics of powerful men crashing from grace.
Last year, Levinson tackled Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. Now Levinson is recounting the Jerry Sandusky scandal that shattered Penn State University when it came to light that Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was a serial pedophile. However, instead of focusing on Sandusky, Levinson shifts his lens to Joe Paterno, Penn State’s god-like head coach whose career disintegrated as a result of the media fallout.
Back in March 2011, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. ran a story with the headline “Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football staffer, subject of grand jury investigation,” which got little to no traction for months. But as the investigation dug deeper into Sandusky’s history, it exploded into a firestorm that revealed not only decades of sexual abuse Sandusky inflicted upon on pre-teen boys, but also a trail of cover-ups on the university’s part. That local headline became a national one in November 2011 when Sandusky was indicted, and Paterno was eventually pulled into the fray as the media questioned how much he knew about the abuse and was he morally obligated to do more?
Levinson’s Paterno takes place in flashbacks spanning the two weeks after the indictment as Paterno lays in an MRI machine scanning him for the lung cancer that would eventually kill him shortly after. Paterno went from the campus father figure and the winningest coach in college football history to fired by the university with a marred legacy in just two weeks.
Levinson could’ve made an equally compelling film that focused on Sandusky, but he chose to put the spotlight on Paterno.
“The Sandusky story of a pedophile, you can do a separate piece on that I guess. I was fascinated by a man who is considered an educator, a scholar, humanitarian, all of those things. He was held high. And this happened within his auspices, and you go, ‘well, how did this happen?'” Levinson says. “This was a guy who believed in education and all of those virtues and this happened. And what did he know and what didn’t he know becomes a fascinating story. I felt it was very worthwhile to tell.”
In addition to The Wizard of Lies and Paterno, Levinson was also a producer on the HBO film Phil Spector, which documented the famed music producer whose career was also devastated by scandal. This type of source material could easily go the route of a documentary, and HBO would certainly be the network for that. But Levinson was interested in getting into the emotional nooks a documentary wouldn’t necessarily be able to get to.
“I don’t know that a documentary would spend as much time in the sense of examining [Paterno] and his family and being under that media barrage around his house. So it’s more personal in a certain way,” Levinson says. “A documentary can’t necessarily play inside in that kind of ground.”
In the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, there are bound to be a fresh crop of biopics chronicling the downfall of even more high-profile men. Should Levinson be tapped to do a biopic of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc., he says his approach would be the same: find the humanistic angle.
“You really have to feel the character, not just simply say, ‘here are the incidents that happened’ because then they’re just going to be the incidents that happened. You have to see the behavior of it because the more you understand the behavior, then in some ways, the more frightening it can be,” Levinson says. “All of these characters, there’s a certain kind of charisma element at work there. You need to understand that part of it. You have to find the character and the humanity of the character and then you can expose it.”
Paterno premiers Saturday, April 7 at 8:00 p.m. EST on HBO.