On a rainy December morning at Marta Kauffman’s office at Warner Bros. Studios, the producer’s assistant brought in some good news: Of the 15 films on the short list for an Oscar nomination in the documentary category, the Los Angeles Times had praised “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” as a serious contender. The film, which Kauffman produced, tells the story of a female Jewish hero, a poet and resistance fighter who parachuted into Hungary during World War II in an attempt to rescue Jews, but was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis.
This kind of dramatic narrative is a departure for Kauffman, 52, who spent a decade making people laugh as creator of NBC’s mega-hit TV sitcom “Friends.” Yet the success of this low-budget, serious-minded film has given new life to her career as a writer and producer — while she admits that she doesn’t expect it to repeat the caliber of success she achieved with “Friends,” she says she has come to measure success differently.
“For me, personally, this is validating,” Kauffman said. “Because you don’t know, when you’re going to change your identity, if it’s going to work.”
Kauffman’s former life is visible throughout her corner office. Every inch of space is an ode to “Friends,” which she co-created with David Crane, and which held a coveted spot both in television ratings and in the heart of American popular culture until its final season in 2004. Posters and magazine covers of the “Friends” cast line the office walls; one shows a flip-haired Jennifer Aniston posing innocently in overalls on the cover of Rolling Stone, her girl-next-door image looking markedly dated today.
Kauffman’s office is a shrine to the past, yet she clearly draws comfort from the memories it evokes. Though it was inevitable, the end of “Friends” was painful for her, she said, and she still feels sad thinking about it. When the show went off the air, she found that although she had created a Hollywood legacy, she needed to reinvent herself to stay current.
“I realized I needed to redefine myself; I couldn’t compete with the success of ‘Friends.’ I didn’t want to try,” Kauffman said. “I had been doing comedy for so long, I wanted to go deeper; I wanted the opportunity to do stuff that was more meaningful, and I discovered I enjoyed making people cry more than I enjoyed making them laugh.”
It was a transformation for Kauffman, who began her career writing musicals. She’d met longtime writing partner Crane when both were students at Brandeis University, and later married Crane’s friend and roommate Michael Skloff, a musician and composer with whom she has three children. Kauffman and Crane staged musicals off-Broadway and wrote children’s theater, but as much as they enjoyed the artistic bohemia of the New York scene, it was far too difficult to make a living there. At 31, after the birth of her first child and at the urging of her agent, Kauffman headed to Los Angeles for a shot at writing for television. The community of struggling artist-friends she’d left behind inspired the story for the sitcom. While comedy came naturally, the dramatic material of her current work, Kauffman said, is more deeply rooted in her childhood memories.
“When I was kid, the only recurring nightmares I had were about the Holocaust. I used to think — and sometimes still do — that in my last life that’s probably how I died.”
Kauffman said she grew up with a very strong Jewish identity in a Philadelphia suburb, which she remembers as unfriendly to Jews. (A language teacher once told her she made French sound “ugly and guttural like Hebrew” and several peers told her she was destined for hell because she was Jewish.) Still, she pursued a Jewish education. She spent her teenage summers at Camp Ramah and one summer at a moshav in Israel. So when she was approached by director Roberta Grossman about the Senesh documentary, Kauffman was intrigued.
Grossman pitched the project to Kauffman one day when both were dropping their kids off at preschool. The setting was relevant for Grossman’s angle: Beyond Senesh’s diary entries and poetry, the story would be told through the mother/daughter correspondence that sustained her while imprisoned, an idea that immediately hooked Kauffman. As a working mother, Kauffman related to the fraught nature of parenting. During her long working days on the set of “Friends,” she said, her family always kept her in line: Kauffman recalled the night before her oldest daughter was to enter first grade. The young girl called her mother to demand, “What’s more important — your television show or your daughter?” The moment stayed with Kauffman, and from then on she never let more than two nights go by without being home to put her kids to bed. (She would, however, often return to work once they fell asleep.) And when she was working on holidays, Kauffman brought her family to the set so they could light candles together.
Kauffman was drawn to Grossman’s feminist portrait of Senesh as a Jewish woman. She had read Senesh’s poetry years earlier (“Blessed Is the Match” was her favorite), and liked the idea of a story featuring a female hero. It also appealed to her that all the principal players working on the film — director, writer, producer, executive producer — were women.
“Part of me felt like I was doing something for women in our business, who don’t get that same voice men do,” she said. Accordingly, she regrets the one element of Senesh that goes unexpressed: “One of the things I find really moving about her is that she was 23 when she died — and she never had love. I find that incredibly crushing.”
Kauffman’s commitment to the film went beyond time and expertise. She also helped boost the film’s $1.5 million budget with personal funds when it was decided to push for Oscar eligibility.
“Marta’s gift was extremely significant and came at a crucial time,” Grossman said. “The film was on a precipice, where it was either going to be completed or roll down the hill.” Grossman said Kauffman’s artistic talent and connections proved invaluable, too; her powerful friends, namely Barry Meyer, Warner Bros. chairman and CEO, helped get expensive prints made and offered expert critical feedback.
For now, Kauffman’s primary interest is in telling untold stories of the Holocaust. She’s writing a pilot for HBO based on the book “The Last of the Hitlers,” which she describes as “dark,” about descendants of Hitler living in the United States who decide to end the bloodline. And she is in early talks with Grossman to produce another Holocaust-based documentary.
She has also begun a novel about sexuality and womanhood, looking at the point where young girls have to claim “their power.”
“I’m a highly functional lunatic,” she said of her intense work ethic. “I have to be accomplishing something every minute of the day — I don’t know how to just sit still and enjoy what’s in front of me.
“My definition of success hasn’t changed,” she said. “My definition of who I am in terms of that success has changed; I don’t have the same need to have the same kind of success. Now, what I’m looking for is an emotionally fulfilling experience — I’m looking to tell stories that reach people in a whole new way.”
“‘Friends’ was the greatest work experience,” she added. “I’ll never have that again, and I know that, I’m aware of that,” but the Senesh film has offered something different.
“This is a heart experience, it’s a soulful experience that connects with who I am as a Jew and as a woman.”