"Liberty Heights" is produced by BARRY LEVINSON and PAULA WEINSTEIN, with PATRICK McCORMICK executive producing. The film is written by BARRY LEVINSON. CHRIS DOYLE, H.K.S.C., is the director of photography and STU LINDER is the editor. The production is designed by VINCENT PERANIO. Singer/songwriter TOM WAITS wrote original songs and ANDREA MORRICONE wrote the score for the film. "Liberty Heights" is a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production; it will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros.
ABOUT THE STORY
The sign at the exclusive country club reads "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed," keeping Ben and his curious friends, Sheldon (EVAN NEUMANN) and Murray (GERRY ROSENTHAL), on the other side of the fence because they're Jewish. Soon after, Ben's high-school class integrates its first black student, a self-assured young lady named Sylvia (REBEKAH JOHNSON). Ben is irresistibly attracted to her and, although Sylvia's father, a doctor, forbids them to meet socially, the two become very close. Ben and Sylvia explore their religious, social and racial differences and begin to break down social rules and stereotypes.
Nate's burlesque business isn't what it used to be, so he and his partners, Louie (CHARLEY SCALIES), Charlie (RICHARD KLINE) and Pete (VINCENT GUASTAFERRO), try to infuse extra revenue into their neighborhood numbers racket by adding a bonus number to their system. Things go well until Little Melvin (ORLANDO JONES,) a small-time black drug dealer, hits it big and the guys can't pay on the bet...
Nate and his partners try to con Little Melvin into taking a settlement instead of his cash, but the angry drug dealer wants his money. One night, he spots Nate's flashy new Cadillac outside a James Brown concert on Pennsylvania Avenue, the main drag of Baltimore's black district -- Ben has borrowed the car and, against both their families' wishes, secretly arranged to meet Sylvia at the concert. As Ben, Sylvia and two of their friends walk back to the car, they are all kidnapped by Little Melvin and held for the money he is owed
College student Van and his friends, Yussel (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ) and Alan (KEVIN SUSSMAN), attend a Gentile neighborhood Halloween party, where Van becomes infatuated with the beautiful, aristocratic Dubbie (CAROLYN MURPHY) at first sight. But her friends mock and then attack Yussel when they find out there are Jews in their midst.
Van makes friends with Dubbie's boyfriend, the charismatic Trey (JUSTIN CHAMBERS), who, perversely, gives Van the go-ahead to date Dubbie. But all is not what it seems with Dubbie, whose wealthy and rarefied upbringing has given her a much more complicated life than Van's.
Trey revels in dangerous behavior, drinking too much, driving too fast and pretending indifference to things that actually mean a great deal to him. Through his acquaintance with Van, Trey is able to drop some of the façade that he so carefully maintains most of the time. Ultimately, Trey repays Van's unswerving friendship with a surprisingly kind gesture of his own.
The fates of these characters become intertwined as the scheme of their lives becomes both larger and more intimately connected. Through their experiences, they become wiser, sadder, braver and enlightened by the cross-cultural mysteries they will have to navigate as America moves into the coming decades.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The premise of "Liberty Heights" came to Barry Levinson after reading a review of one of his films that he felt was anti-Semitic in tone. It described a character as Jewish, "not because he was described that way in the movie," he recalls, "but because he was a doctor who called home every night.
"I was really angry about the notion that there's one kind of Jew or one kind of anyone," says Levinson intensely. "Certainly there are cultural realities that have meaning for different groups of people, but it's insulting to say that anyone can be summed up in these superficial behaviors. My friends and their parents were definitely not all the same, and I wanted to show some of the diversity and the contradiction that exists within cultural or ethnic groups, based on my own personal experiences. And of course, mixed with the serious subject matter I wanted there to be a lot of humor, because that's the way life really is."
He sat down soon after to write "Liberty Heights," setting the film in Baltimore, his birthplace and home for much of his life. It contains many personal experiences, as did his first film, "Diner," and the other two Baltimore films, "Tin Men" and "Avalon."
Says Levinson, "It's no conscious effort to try to make any of these stories fit, as if I have some order to my life. Even though the movie's not purely autobiographical, I continue to explore past ideas and themes, finding something that reflects on us today that's pertinent enough to re-examine and develop in those subject matters."
Producer Paula Weinstein, who is partnered with Levinson in their production company, Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures, says, "I'm thrilled that I'm working with Barry on a Baltimore movie; I've been a huge fan of them from the beginning. I relate to these stories, to the time, the issues and the people.
"One day he called up and said, Gee, I have an idea for a movie. I'm kind of noodling it around,' and then we met a few weeks later and walked and had lunch and he said, I'm thinking about this time period and these are the issues,' and then he read me little scenes as he went along.
"And then one day he said I'm done; take a look.' And I read it on the plane from Los Angeles to New York and I was hysterical. I was laughing so loud on the plane that the people all looked around and thought, What's going on here?' And then I cried. I felt as if I just finished an extraordinary, rich novel, a tapestry of a world and people.
"For me, the most unique aspect of Barry as a filmmaker is that he continues to revisit his childhood to make extremely personal movies, not simply thematically personal, but exploring his own life, his youth in America, and the history that has brought us here today. This film really reflects all the issues that exist today, still prominent issues in America, and relates them back to the era and place of Barry's childhood."
For the roles of Nate and Ada, heads of the Kurtzman family, Barry Levinson reunited award-winning stage and screen actors Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth, with whom he had worked on "Bugsy." Says Levinson, "There are a lot of actors you work with who are terrific actors and then it's a challenge to find a role that you could entice them to. It was a great situation that they were available during the time frame to do the film."
Says Mantegna, "When I read the script, if I had covered the name of who wrote it I would have still been very interested in doing it. The older I get and the more work I've done the more I concentrate on the questions How good is the story? How good is the character? And who are the participants involved in collectively trying to make this work?' This one was a no-brainer, because when you've got one of the greatest directors in the world, with a wonderful script that he wrote, you go."
Bebe Neuwirth concurs, "Barry has a very light touch, which is really nice, and he provides a great atmosphere in which to work. I was very flattered and happy that he invited me back to his party."
As with "Diner," Levinson brought in some new, young actors in this film, none of whom was yet born when the film takes place. It was a challenge for them to work with a director of his caliber and to portray characters their own age living before their time period.
"Liberty Heights" is Ben Foster's first film. He plays Ben, the younger Kurtzman son in the film. Says Foster, "Playing the lead in a Barry Levinson film as my first film has been an unbelievable experience. It's especially flattering, particularly because I'm playing a mixture of his cousin and a younger version of Barry.
"My character's obsessed with Frank Sinatra, so I got every single album that he recorded from 1940 to 1954. I bought all the Look magazines and Time magazines from the years 1954 and 1955. The interesting thing is that my character was born before my real-life father was. So I grilled my grandmother about how things were at that time and pored over all her old photo albums."
Adrien Brody plays Ben's older brother Van, who falls in love with a Gentile girl. Brody recently earned critical attention for his performance in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam."
Brody reflects, "The movie's about a time in our history when people were just beginning to attempt to understand other people who were different from themselves. The family members in the film live in a very closed community, surrounded by neighbors who share a common background. As young men, we're venturing out into other neighborhoods and hanging out with new types of people. It's a very enlightening time, a new time."
Rebekah Johnson plays Sylvia, who is the only black girl in a newly integrated high school and creates problems at home when she enters a close friendship with Ben, who is Jewish. Johnson states, "Sylvia's father is a doctor and very wealthy. She goes to a high school that is predominantly white and she's one of the lone black girls. Sylvia is just lonely until she meets Ben and then sparks fly. But of course it's forbidden because it is 1954. Her father is furious with her relationship with Ben. Her father considers it disrespectful.
"When I read the script I thought it was hysterical. However, aside from the humor, there are so many layers. It says some serious things about race not just black and white but about Jewish people in the 50s and that's something you don't really see. I know black people had to sit at the back of the bus but I didn't realize how much anti-Semitism there was. The film examines the class system on the whole, because even though Ben is Jewish and Sylvia is black, she's wealthy and he's not."
David Krumholtz plays Van's friend Yussel, who is insecure in his upbringing. When he meets the Gentile teenagers he tries to blend in by dyeing his hair blond. "Right now there's a great awareness about racism in this country, which is a wonderful thing," says Krumholtz. "But for my character, Yussel, it's not even been raised as an issue. The film's statement is that the whole racism thing is a disease worse than any other, and that it has to end."
Kevin Sussman plays Van's friend Alan. He says, "Alan comes from an all-Jewish neighborhood and I come from a mostly-Jewish neighborhood. Of course, now I am extremely proud of my heritage. And in the film I'm not a person who's proud of his religion. There are scenes when I'm confronted about my religious heritage and I try to skirt the issue and claim that I'm not Jewish. Mostly it's to get dates with the blonde, blue-eyed babes. I personally felt awkward about being Jewish when I was younger; I remember wanting a Christmas tree. And I think it's kind of the same psychology as my character in the movie; he wants the glitter and the glamour of the people who are entitled to a Santa Claus."
The two actors who play the glamorous roles of Trey and Dubbie, the wealthy Gentiles who give Van insight into a different way of life, are actually two of the fashion world's most successful models. Justin Chambers is known for his arresting print work on behalf of Calvin Klein fashions and fragrances, and Carolyn Murphy is an internationally famous high-fashion model and cover girl.
Explains Levinson, "Certainly not every well-to-do Gentile is blond and beautiful, but to Ben, Van and their friends, it seemed that way from a distance. As we get closer to these people, though, we see that they're not necessarily what they seem to be. They're almost the victims of their own stereotypes, because they work so hard to maintain appearances even when their lives are falling apart."
Orlando Jones, who plays the small-time criminal Little Melvin, plays a colorful and not terribly admirable character, although he is surprisingly likable. Says Levinson, "That was one of the reasons we cast Orlando. He could pull off the flamboyant clothes, the gold tooth which was very popular on those guys at that time in Baltimore the attitude, and still remind you that he had his pride and some legitimate issues."
Emphasizes Paula Weinstein, "Little Melvin and Ben's friend Sylvia are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of blacks living in Baltimore at that time. Barry wanted that contrast, again, to avoid presenting a single image of any group. And every character was based on something he remembered from his own childhood someone real, or a combination of real people. We thought it was important to maintain that balance between what's funny or dramatic and what's grounded in reality."
In addition to the main cast there were 4000 extras used -- an amount often reserved for big action films. There was a running joke on the set that everyone in Baltimore knew someone in the film, since all the extras were locals! Says extras casting director John Strawbridge, "I call it an intimate epic. It's big for what we're used to doing around here."
Continues Strawbridge, "When you're doing a film for Barry you have to put more care into casting the extras than you would for another film, because his films are about the people and the cultures, and the main characters' lives are reflected by the people within those cultures.
"We had to do broadcasts on radio and TV to get as many people as we could. For the James Brown concert, in a mass of 500 people, how are you going to tell if everyone looks authentic or not? But we had to narrow the age range to 18-35. And hairstyles today are very different, especially among African-Americans, where shaved hair, braided or dreadlock styles are very popular -- none of that would be appropriate for 1954."
The location for the concert was an old theater almost an hour from Baltimore in the town of Frederick, Maryland. The extras had to be at a meeting place in Baltimore very early in the morning to get on a bus, go through wardrobe and makeup and be on set for shoot call. Usually, those inconveniences cause a big drop-off in attendance by the extras as the days wear on. But, according to Strawbridge, "they all got so into the music and the concert, they really had a blast and were all calling to come back!"
LOCATIONS, PROPS, CLOTHES AND CARS
Academy Award-nominated costume designer Gloria Gresham has worked with Levinson for 17 years, beginning with "Diner." Dressing all the 4000 extras was something she needed to plan for.
Says Gresham, "Diner' was all done out of thrift shops, and 17 years ago you could still get some 50s clothes out of thrift shops. You cannot do that today; they're way too precious. If you go to a thrift store you can get 70s, which is already 25 years ago but you cannot get the kind of volume of 50s clothes that we needed to do this movie in anything but the costume houses. So we left no stone unturned.
"This film is really four different looks: the Jewish boys, with their novelty shirts, not as preppy as Trey and his group, the Gentile look, and the older men, sort of a drapey look since 1954 is really the end of the Forties, so Mantegna and his group look a little more 1940-ish and the younger group a little more 50s-ish since they're a little more fashion-forward. And then James Brown, and the strippers, who were a challenge since Baltimore at that time was known for its strip clubs. I did a lot of research; we had all the yearbooks and the magazines."
Production designer Vincent Peranio is also a Baltimore native and has worked extensively on films there, starting with John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" and continuing through a long professional relationship with him. This is his first film with Barry Levinson, though he worked on Levinson's much-honored television series, "Homicide: Life on the Streets," for many years.
Says Peranio, "I've been in Baltimore all my life so I really know this city like a book -- every inch of it. I've worked on several period pieces in Baltimore, including Cry Baby' with John Waters, which was the exact same year as Liberty Heights' 1954."
Peranio chose the Kurtzman house in the Liberty Heights section of Baltimore that was used in the film. He showed it to Levinson and it was exactly what Barry had in mind -- in fact, Levinson's cousin Eddie had lived three houses down from it when he was growing up!
A major challenge was recreating the block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a major hub of black activity in downtown Baltimore in the 50s and the location for the Royale Theater, where the James Brown concert and the subsequent kidnapping are staged.
The block no longer exists as such, says Peranio. "Pennsylvania Avenue was destroyed during the Martin Luther King riots and we only had black-and-white photographs that we researched to reproduce it. We spent quite a bit of time at the Historical Society and I spent five months recalling when I was 10 years old, remembering if there were parking meters and what the street walk' signs looked like. I've been a very visual person all my life and I'm sort of a Baltimore historian anyway, so I could remember quite a bit."
Levinson also shot scenes in the original diner from "Diner," though in this film it has a different name and a different location. He brought in six of his original "diner friends" for cameos and had them improvise some dialogue similar to what they would talk about when they were hanging out in the 50s.
Detail is very important in a Levinson film, and propmaster Steve Walker and his wife and partner Laurie, also Baltimore-based, went to great lengths for authenticity. Says Walker, "There are a lot of little things that the audience will probably not notice that we had to get because Barry requested them. A friend of his wore a particular watch that he wanted for Trey. It's a Ventura, a very highly collectible watch now and worth thousands, but it was a popular watch at the time. It's a far-out kind of watch. All the particular things he wanted turned out to be something personal from his life, or his father or cousin or someone he knew had them."
Making the bookie business realistic wasn't easy, since it's hard to find people who did that and will talk about it, especially this many years later, but Walker had some luck in that regard. "One of our Teamsters has a father who used to be in the numbers business, and he told us that he remembers the bookies putting all the numbers on flash paper. Whenever a policeman came in they could just throw it on the floor and hit it with a match and it was completely gone. So I got some flash paper and we used it in a scene, but we didn't use it all the time because it's really dangerous."
Another key element of the film was the cars. Vintage cars from the 1930s through mid-50s were sought from Canada to Florida, Arkansas to Arizona. More than 300 cars were secured for the film, all in mint condition, or repaired for the production. There were an estimated half-million dollars in vintage Cadillacs alone!
THE TURBULENT '50s
"Liberty Heights" takes a look at a turbulent time in American history, notes producer Paula Weinstein. "It's about a time in America when the religious and race and class distinctions were much more acute than they are today. In towns like Baltimore, people lived in segregated neighborhoods, classwise and racewise."
Levinson describes his feelings of this time and inspiration for the film. "It was segregated in Baltimore and many other cities, not just in terms of a black-white issue, but you had Germans in one area and Italians in another area and Jews in another area and Irish over here and the blacks were over here. And the Fifties were the beginning for them all to cross out of their areas -- as the car culture began to rise, you began to go into other neighborhoods. It was the first real awareness of other people and the interaction between them.
"I think there's a certain amount of humor that can be shown, because sometimes it shows our inadequacies, our insensitivity. What I try to do in movies is to at least have themes you can talk about, or have things to discuss, other than walking out of the movie and it's over, forgotten and it has no relevance. Some entertainment can resonate in a way that it gets to a deeper part of us and stays with us in some way, in a very positive fashion."
Bebe Neuwirth comments, "The film handles some difficult and painful problems in a way that is very real, with humor and with a good eye to all sides and a great deal of compassion and understanding. There's nothing exploitative, there's nothing sensational. It's just real people in these real situations, dealing the way they really deal."
Mantegna adds, "One of the things that this film does is go against a lot of stereotype. Barry and I are fairly similar in age and I think he's going through that same process I am -- that is, the older you get the more you start to think our rebel years are over, what can we do to improve things,' as opposed to being on the side of hey, let's tear down what we don't like.' He's giving us an idea of the way things were and a positive and life-affirming slant on the way things can be done."
Paula Weinstein sums it up: "Each of our religious, racial and class differences, if they come together in the best sense, as they do in this movie, can offer a great sense of joy."
Warner Bros. Presents A Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures Production of A Barry Levinson Film: "Liberty Heights," starring Adrien Brody, Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mantegna. The music is by Andrea Morricone; the film is edited by Stu Linder; the production designer is Vincent Peranio; and the director of photography is Chris Doyle, H.K.S.C. The executive producer is Patrick McCormick and the film is produced by Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. It is written and directed by Barry Levinson, and distributed by Warner Bros., A Time Warner Entertainment Company.