On March 31, it’ll be seven years since the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., ran a little-noticed story with this headline: “Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football staffer, subject of grand jury investigation.” The investigation in question soon mushroomed, revealing sexual abuse dating back decades and a wide-ranging cover-up: Sandusky, the former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator, would be found guilty of molesting 10 boys; three university administrators would be sentenced to prison terms for child endangerment; and legendary head coach Joe Paterno would be fired, two months before dying from lung cancer, his honor comprehensively tarnished.
The heady two weeks that followed Sandusky’s Nov. 4, 2011 indictment are the subject of a new HBO movie, Paterno, which airs April 7. Al Pacino plays Paterno, and Oscar winner Barry Levinson (The Natural; Rain Man) directs. SI spoke with Levinson on Friday. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
SI: The Penn State story is pretty fresh in a lot of people’s minds—why give it a fictional treatment now?
Barry Levinson: I’m interested in what went wrong: What is the failure of the system and the people we look to as those in charge and those responsible? In this case, there wasn’t anyone more revered than Joe Paterno—the winningest coach in the history of football, the educator, the humanitarian. This all happened in his backyard. What went on? To me, that’s a perfect story, to ask, Gee, what happened? It’s not just some coach. This is a man who was honored and revered. What happened? You try to explore that and convey that to an audience.
SI:For a work of fiction, the movie hews surprisingly closely to the facts of the case.
BL: We’re doing a film in a sense, which is taking place in the 35 minutes that he’s inside of an MRI machine, looking layer by layer at this man. But the story is really confined to the events of that two-week period, and so we had to do that, double-checking the dates and getting some factual information straight, with HBO and all these lawyers involved.
SI:A lot of the movie has to do with how Paterno’s family reacts to the scandal, and how harshly his children come to judge him after Paterno’s past inaction is revealed. I remember them at the time, though, serving as his strong defenders. How did you settle on that portrayal?
One of the many sources we used as research for this film is a book—Paterno, by Joe Posnanski—which is written by someone who was actually there and met with him. Because we’re dealing with the beginnings and with the shock of it all, they were surprised, obviously, and they’re trying to figure out what’s going on as the media is running all of these various stories. The book has some elements dealing with that section of time, and we based it off those.
SI: One of the topics that is not explored in the movie (since it covers such a short period) is the contentious years-long battle over Paterno’s culpability and legacy. Your film comes down pretty firmly on the side that he should have done more to stop Sandusky—do you anticipate a backlash from the Paterno loyalists?
BL: You would assume that that would be the case, because there are some that don’t want to hear anything. But I think we’re being very journalistic: This is the information that in fact exists. We’re not making up these stories. This is what exists. You would hope that people can look at it, and realize that we’ve put quite a bit of time and research into it. This isn’t some kind of movie where we have an agenda—we’re trying to tell the story of the information as it laid out. That’s all you can do. You try to show the man in all lights, you know? In some ways, that’s the tragedy of it.
SI: This is your second based-on-a-true-story film for HBO in as many years; in 2017 you directed The Wizard of Lies, about Bernie Madoff. Do you see any overlap between Paterno and Madoff?
BL: They’re different characters. Bernie was less of a people person, quite removed. Paterno was warmer, more emotional. And with Paterno it’s more complicated. Some of the things he did, his beliefs in education, and all of these things in terms of character, and all of that stuff, that’s part of his legacy. And yet, how does he ignore these warnings—how does he ignore this information? How? Why? What happened? That’s what makes it interesting, the why.
SI: After watching the movie, it seems your answer as to the why is that he was preoccupied.
BL: It’s more complicated than that. The film is saying, yeah, he was preoccupied, but you can’t write it off as just being preoccupied. It’s way more complicated than that. I don’t know that we’re ever going to get the real answer to it.
SI: You’re a sports fan. Did making the movie lead you to any new thoughts about whether big-time sports and universities can coexist?
BL: There’s a lot at stake for these universities because college football generates so much money, and obviously that element has gotta impact on this situation. The administration, whether consciously or unconsciously, they knew a lot of this information and they looked to cover it up, because it represented a danger to the university on a bunch of levels. That’s what happens. A university is about students, when it’s all said and done. Period. It’s about education. That’s why they were built—they were built to educate. But with this amount of money involved, you can start to see how this happens. How do we cover this up? Maybe it will go away. You see these mechanics play out, as we show it.
SI: One of the most unpleasant (and dead-on) scenes is the movie is one in which a mob of Penn State students shows up at Paterno’s house and chants his name. Scott Paterno goes out and tries to get them to say a prayer for the victims, and all they do is start chanting his name.
BL: He was there forever; he was like the father to those students. Without them having all the information, they do this thing to protect the father. It’s obviously a misjudgment, but we do react emotionally before we react in a more thoughtful manner.
SI: Paterno is being released at a moment of great cultural reckoning surrounding silence and abuse—though it was shot before that moment was really underway. Does the #MeToo movement make you reevaluate anything about it?
BL: One of the points of the movie is, Look what happens when a voice is not heard. When the first victim stepped forward, if the authorities would have paid attention and done the necessary investigation, then nothing else would have happened beyond it. But it was ignored, and it becomes this scandal. The reason things are happening now is that so many people have been ignored for so long that it explodes.