10/29/2012 09:07 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Interview: Director Barry Levinson, The Bay and Being Independent

It was supposed to be a documentary about the dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.

But the material he was reading about the pollution of the bay was too scary. So director Barry Levinson made a horror movie instead: The Bay, a low-budget film in the found-footage category opening in limited release Friday (11/2/12).

"The facts were frightening -- and making a documentary didn't interest me enough," Levinson, 70, says, sitting in a suite of the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan. "But the facts stayed with me. So we made a sci-fi movie like in the 1950s, which used science fiction to deal with the real fears we had."

But use the term "found footage" -- a technique that blew up with The Blair Witch Project and again with the Paranormal Activity films -- and Levinson says, no, he hadn't really thought of it.

"The idea was -- what if some catastrophic thing happened? What if no media was allowed in? How would we know?" he says. "I mean, think about Pompeii. We know that all these people were caught in this volcano. We think we know something about them because of archaeologists and anthropologists. But we don't know what really happened to those people.

"But today, if you collected all the cell phones, all the digital media, the Skypes, the emails and texts, you'd be able to see behavior on a small, intimate scale, but on a large-scale. There's an intimacy in that you get caught up in."

The Bay, which played both the Toronto and New York film festivals, deals with a small town on the Chesapeake Bay which, in the course of one day, suffers a full-scale onslaught by a water-borne parasite -- a mutation caused by the infection of small creatures by chemical run-off and proximity to a nuclear power plant. The parasites grow within their human hosts to outlandish size, before bursting loose to attack other humans.

Levinson worked on a miniscule budget with a cast of unknowns, shooting the film independently outside the studio system.

"The biggest problem with the studios is that they kept asking, 'Is it a horror movie?'" he says. "I don't know how to define it. It's unnerving and unsettling; it's got shocks. It has some good jumps, but I wasn't trying to see how many I could get in. Apparently you need seven or eight jumps to qualify as a horror film.

"Not being able to define it doesn't matter to me. I'm just trying to make this movie. But those are the times we live in."

This interview continues on my website.