“Do you think I’m a sociopath?” Bernie Madoff asks, in HBO TV movie The Wizard of Lies—a question posed to journalist Diana Henriques, but equally, to himself. Sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009 at the age of 71, Bernie Madoff is one of America’s most reviled and mythologized villains. As seen in Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson’s film, based on the book by Henriques, Madoff is a man who lies constantly, every day, even to those he loves most.
A Ponzi schemer who bankrupted thousands of investors, committing one of the largest financial frauds in U.S. history, Madoff’s story is of the proportions of Greek tragedy, making for a fascinating character study, in the hands of Levinson and Robert De Niro. Getting on the phone with Deadline, Levinson discusses the aspects of Madoff that fascinated him the most, and the enjoyable process of collaborating with his son, Sam Levinson, on the film.
At what point did you find Diana Henriques’ book, and what made you want to translate it into a film?
Bob [De Niro]’s company had optioned it a number of years ago. They had been trying to develop it, and it didn’t all come together. At a certain point, they sent it over to me, and I had a meeting with them and told them what I thought maybe it could go to, as opposed to where they were, and they were intrigued. Ultimately, I brought my son into the project to do the writing, and we went from there.
The Wizard of Lies presents many dimensions to Bernie Madoff. For you, what were the most compelling aspects to Bernie, as a character?
You think of a con artist—this sort of a slick, fast-talking guy—and he’s sort of quiet and reserved, almost like, “I don’t really want to take your money.” It’s sort of a new con—the kind of, “I don’t know if I want to…I don’t know if I can fit you in” type of attitude, which made people come to him, rather than he go to them, which I thought was really intriguing.
And the fact that the man is living, every day, a lie. He’s lying to thousands of investors, he’s lying to his wife of 50 years, and to his two sons, on a daily basis. No matter what they were doing, he was lying. When he was dancing with them, whatever. This is a gigantic lie, and he’s playing that role on a daily basis.
He was this man that destroyed the financial lives of thousands of people, but he ultimately destroyed his family, to [the point] that one son commits suicide, and the other one dies of a recurrence of cancer. He blows up the whole family, destroyed everything. I thought that would be intriguing to explore.
When making a film based on a true story, there’s always a question of responsibility to the people portrayed, but in this case, your subject is someone who has fallen from grace. Did you feel a responsibility to him, to his family or anyone else in making the film?
You just want to tell the story, and I think you have to start inside. You can’t tell the story of the thousands of people whose lives were destroyed by Bernie Madoff because there are thousands of stories. What you can do is to start inside, and that’s the picture that you do, which becomes like a Greek tragedy, in that regard—that whole collapse.
It reminded me of sort of like the true-life version of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons—that man that the boys obviously loved, and his greed, and during World War II, led to the death of various airmen, and shamed his own sons, and basically destroyed his family.
So, it’s analogous. It’s not the same; it’s different. But sometimes when you think about it, you go, “Gee, what about…” Then all of a sudden, that Arthur Miller thing popped up, which I always insist was a great play.
What does Madoff’s story say about human nature?
People always try to find some way to justify their behavior, whether it’s a nickel-and-dime con artist or some mass murderer. A lot of times, we find justification for our behavior, so I think you just would apply that to Bernie.
The fact is, people gave their money to him because they thought it was safe. Now, a lot of people didn’t know him at all—it went through feeder funds, so they wouldn’t even have known anything about Bernie Madoff. But everybody finds a justification for their behavior, and obviously, Bernie had a half dozen justifications, in his own mind.
Beyond Robert De Niro, who was involved from the get-go, how did you approach casting this film?
The whole thing of casting is always like, “Well, what about…?” With [casting director] Ellen Chenoweth, who I’ve worked with a lot of times over the years, going all the way back to Diner…”What about so and so?”
You just start going through that process of trying to put together a cast that works. I don’t know that I can explain it in a way that you can go, “Oh.” It’s a little bit like saying, “How would he be with him? How does that feel?”
Now of course, with Diana Henriques, it was just the thought of “Well, what happens if we actually have the woman who interviewed Bernie Madoff in prison, and wrote the book, play herself?” That’s how that came about. Bob and I talked with her, and we felt comfortable that that would work out.
Your son, Sam Levinson, is a great talent in his own right, best known for his pitch-black 2011 indie, Another Happy Day. What is it like when filmmaking becomes a father-son project?
I can’t ask for a better scenario, a better experience. It was great. It was literally like saying, “Well, how do we do this?” Because I would present some of the things that I’d be fearful of. I said, “You know if we’ve got everybody just talking…We’re not an action movie, but how do we give it a certain energy at times, and how do we shift the rhythms of the piece, periodically? How do we do that?”
We talked about that, and that’s sort of what led to the scene in Florida, in Palm Beach, just to find different rhythms for the film. We talked about its rhythms, and then about relationships, and how to best express some of that in a simple fashion—how to continue to show the family dynamic, and how it comes apart. And then, how the boys feel betrayed, and how Ruth hangs in there for a while, because in a sense, [Bernie]’s the only man she’s ever been with in her whole life. It was a hard separation for her.
The boys broke because they felt betrayed. All of a sudden, one day you find out that your father is a total, complete thief, and then you never speak to him again. And of course, for her, it was a more complicated process until she finally broke that final connection.
We wanted to look inside of all that. Sam and I would sit around, and we’d talk about some of these things. It was fun just to go through the construction of it— how to put the puzzle together, and how to design it—because the way the piece is moving back and forth in time, we’re not just trying to tell it in a linear fashion. And also, the film [should] have some humor to it, because it’s part of life.
There are certain moments that are humorous because life has humorous moments that run literally right next to something that is rather frighteningly tragic, or what have you. It seemed interesting to have Bernie at the dinner table, having to talk to this eight-year-old about business, and getting angry—one of the few times you see him really start to get angry, and it’s his grandchild, of all things.
Can you explain some of the visual ideas that found their way into the final film? In one scene, Ruth discusses the feeling of being kept in the dark for her entire marriage, and that scene is, appropriately, shot in total darkness.
When she’s saying, “You always keep me in the dark,” she’s in the dark, but in a different fashion, because it’s only one shot. There’s no intercutting—there’s nothing. It’s a woman at the table, feeling insecure and alone, and the best he can do is to finally come over and stand behind her, and lean over, and kiss the top of her head. It’s not like they’re hugging, or whatever. You start to feel the tension of this, rather than talking about the tensions at other times.
Sometimes it was, how do you find a visual element that works for it? And sometimes, you guess at something. You say, “Wouldn’t that be interesting? Look at this. We could just lock the camera off, with this lighting, and just sit on it.” And then in doing it, you think, “Oh yeah, I think it’ll stay that way. We can’t make the scene any stronger by cutting into it, so let’s just leave it alone.” I thought that was important.
Sometimes, you just find those visuals. When we looked at the place, I thought, “Well, that’s possible.” But you’re never one hundred percent sure. “Let’s see if this’ll work.” And then you try. If you have to make changes, you make changes, and sometimes, things hold just as you thought they might.
The film closes with Bernie asking, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?” Why end there, and is there value in you giving your answer to that question?
I think the question’s better than the answer. If you put the answer, you go, “Well, I don’t know if that’s true” [laughs]—as opposed to, he’s asking the question because he can’t figure it out. I think we can all make our own judgment on it. I don’t think we have to have a universal conclusion to it.
He can’t figure it out. He doesn’t know what he is, and I think that’s the best answer that I can give you. He doesn’t know. That’s what he’s left with, in his 150 more years, to figure it out.
The Wizard of Lies sets the clock back to 2008. Is there a specific value in telling stories from the more recent past, rather than your standard period piece?
I don’t know if it’s better or not. Some stories seem to lend themselves to telling right away. All The President’s Men was done, what, four or five years after the event? It certainly seemed to work there, as opposed to something that happened 40 years ago.
I don’t know if I could give you a great answer to it. I just think some stories want to be told, and you just pursue it. Sometimes, you don’t catch it until later. When did we get [around] to doing Bonnie and Clyde? The late ’60s.
So that is, I think, the unanswerable question.