CANNES, France — Baltimore boy Barry Levinson likes telling insider stories, whether about his beloved hometown or one of the most notorious crime families in America.
Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director of “Rain Man,” has settled on the story of mob boss John Gotti Sr. and his son for his next film, and sometime down the road, he hopes to close out a series of Baltimore films he started nearly 30 years ago with “Diner.”
The writer, director and producer whose work includes “Good Morning, Vietnam,” ”Bugsy,” ”Sleepers” and TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” said his big-screen saga “Gotti: Three Generations” comes straight from the source. The film is based on the life story of John Gotti Jr.
“You’re really kind of getting an inside look from the man who lived it, who in fact was the mafia boss there, and about his father, who was probably the biggest, most well-known figure,” Levinson, 69, said in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where the filmmakers were meeting with reporters and potential overseas distributors. “It fascinated me to hear the stories, to get a sense of the man, get a sense of how he viewed his father.”
Levinson is revising the screenplay now and said he expects to start shooting early next year on “Gotti,” which will star John Travolta as Gotti Sr., who headed the Gambino crime family before his 1992 conviction on murder, racketeering and other charges. Gotti died in federal prison in 2002.
The film will co-star Al Pacino as Gotti mentor Neil Dellacroce, Lindsay Lohan as the wife of Gotti Jr. and Travolta’s real-life spouse, Kelly Preston, as the wife of Gotti Sr.
Yet to be cast is the role of Gotti Jr., who followed his father into the mob but claims he later became disillusioned and sought to quit the family business.
“Gotti” is a reunion for Pacino and Levinson, who collaborated on last year’s TV movie “You Don’t Know Jack,” which won the actor an Emmy as Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
Levinson has maintained a populist touch on television, but his big-screen audiences have waned since the late 1990s, when he made such films as the political satire “Wag the Dog” and the crime drama “Sleepers.”
While “Gotti” has a grand scope, Levinson said he never considers commercial prospects when settling on film projects, saying the hits he has made were not viewed as big moneymakers at the start.
“No one would have said that ‘Rain Man,’ a story about autism, would do what it did,” Levinson said of the Oscar best-picture winner, which pulled in $172 million at the domestic box office. “If you were chasing after big ideas to be big hits, that wouldn’t have been one.
“‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ was not perceived that way. Vietnam movies were not exactly red-hot subjects, and then to do something that’s got humor running through it. They were very nervous about that piece.”
The film went on to top $100 million.
Dustin Hoffman — who earned a best-actor Oscar for “Rain Man,” in which he starred with Tom Cruise — said that as a director who also writes, Levinson has the confidence and ease to play around with the screenplay even as filming is under way.
“He was constantly changing it and sculpting it, and that was just an incredibly good time,” said Hoffman, who also co-starred in “Wag the Dog” and “Sleepers.” ”We were just trying to do from day to day what for us had a feeling of authenticity.”
Due in theaters this year is a small production from Levinson, “The Bay,” a documentary-style thriller he shot on a tight 18-day schedule and a tiny $2 million budget. The film chronicles an ecological disaster in the Chesapeake Bay.
After “Gotti,” Levinson is looking ahead to what he says will be the final chapter of his Baltimore stories, which began with “Diner” and continued with “Tin Men,” ”Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.”
This last Baltimore installment would focus on a period of great change in American culture, set among the “last group to come through the diner” around 1967, Levinson said.
“If you married in ’66, and those who didn’t marry in ’66, by the beginning of ’67, they were almost becoming guys of the same age but of two different generations,” Levinson said. “The ones who married are going to be attached to their fathers’ generation, and those who didn’t are going to be attached to the hippie generation.”
The film will focus on that “enormous break that took place and the effects on the guys, good and bad,” Levinson said.