the second time in little more than a year, a TV film probes Bernie Madoff, the fraudster-financier who in 2008 made explosive news with his arrest for perpetrating a Ponzi scheme that ruined thousands of his clients at a cost of $60 billion or more.
In February 2016, an ABC docudrama starred Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff and Blythe Danner as his ever-trusting, unwitting wife Ruth.
Now HBO is presenting “The Wizard of Lies,” which, in marked contrast, takes a retrospective tack framed by its subject as he serves his 150-year prison sentence. Premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT, this is a complex and penetrating examination of the havoc wrought not just throughout the financial world but also within Madoff’s close-knit family. Robert De Niro is Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer is Ruth. Barry Levinson, an Oscar winner for his 1988 drama, “Rain Man,” directs.
Last week, this threesome gathered to talk about their film:
LEVINSON: “We weren’t just dealing with headlines. You have to get into the flesh-and-blood characters, not just the financial aspects. You got to get as human as you can: What is the dynamic between Bernie and Ruth, and between the two sons,” both of whom worked for Madoff and were suspected of having known what he was up to, and one of whom, Mark, would commit suicide on the two-year anniversary of his father’s stunning downfall. “It is a true tragedy that in the end destroyed the entire family.”
PFEIFFER: “A lot of people had their minds made up about Ruth and the boys, and believe they were involved and guilty. I think we do a successful job in dispelling that.”
LEVINSON: “We talked to the FBI. In their two years of investigation, they couldn’t link them to anything.”
PFEIFFER: “And they tried!”
What were the challenges in making “The Wizard of Lies”?
DE NIRO: “There were no real challenges, other than: There’s ALWAYS a challenge!”
LEVINSON: “It was easy. It fell into place. Right away, it was: ‘Let’s try a little thing here and a little thing there.’ But we never struggled to make a scene work.”
PFEIFFER: “It was the first time I had ever played a real person, one who was still alive, and I felt that burden! I know a lot of women of Ruth’s generation who were focused on the family, the children and left all of the rest to their husbands. That was MY mother, who never had a job but instilled in me the importance of having a career. I felt like I was responsible for Ruth’s truth being represented. I used to have a lot of conversations: ‘Barrrrrrrry! We have to be SURE!’”
And did she feel sure?
PFEIFFER: “I do, now that I’ve seen the finished product.”
She conceded that ABC’s rival Madoff film, with its significant jump on the HBO project, “gave me pause, learning that was going on.”
LEVINSON: “I was sent the script for the other one, but I was doing something else and I didn’t read it. Then this (‘The Wizard of Lies’) script came up. I never did see the other film, because once we decided to do this one, I didn’t want to risk being influenced.”
DE NIRO: “I liked the project. We had experts to speak to, sources of information, so that was all good. I had certain physical similarities with him. So I thought, ‘This would be fun to do.’ And that was it.”
An actor legendary for how he transforms himself into each character he plays, De Niro had no ready answer for how he grasped Madoff.
DE NIRO: “Everybody has their reasons for what they do, and he had his. In acting school, you never ‘comment’ on the character you play. You never think, ‘He’s a bad person, so therefore I’m going to do things to make him look bad.’ That’s Rule No. 1. You find a way for the character to justify his own actions. He gave off a mysterious, phantom-type thing, from what we could surmise. I could see how that could help explain how he attracted people. But who is he REALLY?” Citing his Oscar-winning performance as a real-life boxing champ in the 1980 blockbuster “Raging Bull,” De Niro cracked, “I don’t KNOW who Jake LaMotta is, really!”
LEVINSON: “Madoff was the opposite of the con man as we usually see it. He’s the opposite of the fast-talking, slick kind of guy. He would say, ‘I don’t want your money. I already have enough. I don’t know if I can fit you in.’ But we always live with con artists. They keep coming.”
At that, De Niro flashed a knowing grin.
“We got the biggest con artist in the world for president,” he said.