The title of HBO’s new Jack Kevorkian biopic is “You Don’t Know Jack,” a message that applied to director Barry Levinson as well.
“[T]o be honest with you, I didn’t know Jack,” Levinson admitted on a select conference call last week. “I only knew Jack from sound bites on television. That was really the extent of it and I thought I kind of knew him in a way until I read the screenplay and I went, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This is far more interesting than what I had been aware of in the past.'”
Levinson continues, “And that’s one of the reasons I got involved because I felt well, this character’s pretty fascinating. And the people that surrounded him were interesting. And so that’s how it began. ut you know what happens is we just get very comfortable, in a sense. We see a little clip here and a little clip there and we think we know an individual but we really don’t.”
“You Don’t Know Jack” is certainly about getting to know the facts about Kevorkian’s life — the court cases, the jail time, the 130-plus assisted suicides — but thanks to the work by Al Pacino in the lead role, it’s also a character study of a man.
“[Y]ou see the good and the bad, but you can see the shades within the character of how he may react to his sister, and how in a sense he can become you know somewhat almost obnoxious at times, where he doesn’t necessarily listen as well as he should,” Levinson explained. “Or sometimes he lacks in the bedside manner because he is a scientist on one hand. But he’s a complicated character and I thought, ‘Hee, if we can bring that to the screen.’ And of course, Pacino… I can’t think of anybody better to try to do that.”
Levinson, who has steered actors including Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Ben Kingsley and Robin Williams to Oscar nominations and award wins, came away impressed with Pacino’s approach to finding his inner and outer Kevorkian.
“[W]e must have had 50 or 60 hours of sometimes unedited tape of much more lengthy interviews. So he would get a sense of it,” Levinson said. “And then when we would start to have the readings and then the rehearsals, and then he would kind of sneak up on it a little bit. He would try something and try something. And then we went through the period where we did some makeup tests and we did clothing. And slowly you start seeing him kind of absorbing all of this information and the visual aspects of it.”
Pacino crafted his version of Kevorkian without ever meeting the real man in person, though Levinson met with Kevorkian and made sure to steer as many small behavioral details as he could into Adam Mazer’s script.
While Levinson won his Oscar for “Rain Man,” he’s had some of his biggest successes with biopics, including “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Bugsy” (to say nothing of his variably autobiographical and semi-autobiographical Baltimore films). The director knows that although “Good Morning, Vietnam” was a major hit and “Bugsy” was an award-winning success, the theatrical marketplace for such films has shrunk in recent years.
“I think ‘Good Morning Vietnam’… theatrically you probably wouldn’t make it. They wouldn’t make it any more,” he speculated. “‘Bugsy’ they might if you make it much more violent. You might be able to do it. It would have to be a much, much more of you know a violent type of a piece than the piece that we did actually. So ‘Bugsy’ would be on the fence. It would be the treatment, how you want to do it.”
That’s why “You Don’t Know Jack” premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 24. Read HitFix’s Review.