As a child, Mimi Leder used to ask about the faded blue numbers on her mother's arm. "It's just a tattoo," her mother, Etyl, a classical pianist, would say. "I was 10 before she told me the truth, and to be honest, that was not old enough," the director recalls.
When Etyl was 16, Mimi learned, she was forced onto the cattle car to Auschwitz. In the camp, guards nearly beat her to death for trying to smuggle potatoes to starving bunkmates. By the war's end, Etyl was one of a few skeletal inmates to survive a wintry, eight-day death march. And when she arrived back home to Brussels, Belgium, clutching her only possession, an army-issue blanket, she discovered her immediate family was gone.
The story made an indelible impact on Leder. "I felt a tremendous weight of guilt and pain," says the director, who also discovered that her father, the independent filmmaker Paul Leder, was a U.S. Army medic who helped liberate Buchenwald. "I felt so powerless to change anything."
Small wonder that when Leder grew up and became a director, she created characters who are preoccupied with the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam (repairing the world). In her TV episodes of "China Beach" and "ER," the protagonists save lives under extreme conditions. In "The Peacemaker," the heroes frantically track down a terrorist before he can detonate a nuclear device. In "Deep Impact," a range of individuals sacrifice themselves to avert an asteroid bound for earth.
And now comes "Pay It Forward," based on the best-selling novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, in which a boy named Trevor (Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense") takes on a school project to make the planet a better place. His bold plan is simple: Do a good deed for someone, but don't ask them to pay it back. Rather, tell them to "pay it forward" by doing something significant for three other people. The film, which opens today, stars Helen Hunt as Trevor's recovering-alcoholic single mother and Kevin Spacey as his physically and emotionally scarred teacher.
One could say Leder understands the psychically wounded characters because she has intimate knowledge of how the past can haunt the present. After suffering nervous breakdowns, she says, her mother rebuilt her life with an American-born husband in New York and Hollywood. "Despite the horror she endured, my mother still looks at life in a positive way," the director says. "But she still has fears that stem from the Holocaust. She still buys too much food for the refrigerator. She still leaves the lights on at night."
Leder's dream project, a screenplay titled "Sentimental Journey," recounts how her parents found love after the Shoah. The film, she hopes, will be a family affair: Her late father wrote the script, her brother Reuben, a screenwriter, revised it, and her sister, Geraldine, a casting director, will cast the movie.
Leder, who virtually grew up on her father's film sets, says she felt compelled to direct "Pay It Foward" the minute she finished reading the script in August 1999. "Call me foolish, call me an idiot, but I thought it might make a slight little impact on how people deal with one another," she says.
Leder may not be far off the mark: The story has already inspired classroom projects, a college scholarship fund and a New York mural project for schools previously torn by gang rivalry. After a screening for L.A. clergy, Rabbi Daniel Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana decided to include the film in his Yom Kippur sermon. "The story is built on the Jewish idea of mitzvah goreret mitzvah - that one good deed brings about another," he explains.
Unassuming, soft-spoken Leder admits there's a second reason she was drawn to "Pay It Foward": the chance to escape the moniker "Mimi Leder, action director." Though she's made a name for herself in the macho genre of "boys' films," she says, she never loved action films or intended to direct them. That happened when Steven Spielberg unexpectedly asked her to helm "The Peacemaker" as his first DreamWorks release in 1996.
"I asked Steven, 'What makes you think I can direct action?' And he told me, 'You direct action every day on 'ER,' " recalls Leder, who as a girl attended a Yiddishist-secularist Jewish Mittelschule in L.A.
These days, the director is hoping her latest film will create a "Pay It Foward" movement; she is participating, among other ways, by battling the dearth of women directors in Hollywood. It's an arena where she feels she can make a significant difference.
Leder, who's mentored female filmmakers into the Directors Guild of America, believes it took her longer to become an established director because she is a woman. "For me personally, things have changed, but for many other women, they haven't," she laments. "Hopefully, I can use my success to help others."
"Pay It Foward" opens today in L.A.