David Katz knew minutes into watching Bryan Fogel’s “Jewtopia,” a star-studded independent film adapted from the hit comedic play about interfaith dating, that it would anchor his Malibu International Film Festival. Unfortunately, Katz had his epiphany at 3 a.m.
“It was so frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to call Bryan, but I had to wait until a decent hour.”
Fogel, a Malibu resident, felt compelled to submit his first movie to his local cinema showcase. And Katz, the festival’s executive director, chose the film from more than 2,000 submissions.
“Jewtopia,” which had its world premiere on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, screened opening night at the 13th annual Malibu International Film Festival on Sept. 22, winning its Audience Choice Award.
“He deserves this,” Katz said.
It took writer-director Fogel six years to make the film version of “Jewtopia,” about as long as it took to bring the play, which he co-wrote with Sam Wolfson, to fruition.
“It was a tough one to get going,” Fogel said. “Getting a movie made is a miracle ... because the studios are only interested in making ‘The Avengers.’ ”
When it came to adapting the hit play, which opened in May 2003 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, Fogel looked to broaden its appeal. For instance, gone are the play’s in-jokes about the online Jewish dating site JDate.
“It’s very different from the play,” Fogel said. “Ultimately, it’s a great buddy movie. The play is a cast of seven; the movie has a couple hundred. It’s a very loose adaptation. In a play, the characters tell you the sky is falling. In a movie, you better show the sky falling.”
“Jewtopia” revolves around Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women, while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The pair form a “Strangers on a Train”-style pact, schooling each other on how to score with their women of choice.
Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Lovitz co-star in the film, which also features Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Wendie Malick and Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Most of the stars had not seen the play, Fogel said, but “the cast fell in like dominoes,” thanks to a strong script.
Fogel says that “Jewtopia’s” humor is universal because it taps into “an ongoing truth of humanity.” “I don’t think it’s just gentiles and Jews; it’s all religions and cultures. If you’re North Korean, being with someone from South Korea is taboo. It’s universal. It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” he said.
Fogel says that the play — a hit with audiences from West Hollywood to Manhattan — was based on real-life experiences.
“I never went through what Adam Lipschitz went through. I’m not that person. I didn’t go through those anxieties or have a nervous breakdown and enter a mental institution,” said Fogel, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But there’s something very real going on in a Jewish home, having pressure on how to live your life and who you date.”
Although less Jewishly active today than during his youth, Fogel attends Jewish Federation functions and says his Jewishness informs everything he does. “It’s the sum of your existence, and how one is brought up ultimately affects who you are,” he said.
Still friends with his collaborator, Fogel said he had not seen Wolfson, a television writer, in a few months and was unaware of what projects he was currently working on. Wolfson’s involvement with the film was limited to co-writing the script, Fogel said.
Andy Fickman, the play’s director, produced the movie, which was shot throughout Los Angeles, including in Sherman Oaks, Simi Valley, Burbank, Venice and the Santa Monica Mountains in July and August 2011.
Production designer Denise Hudson, costume designer Caroline B. Marx and art department assistant Jessica Shorten said they enjoyed collaborating on this first-time filmmaker’s production.
“There were so many comedians on the set,“ Marx said. “It was a fun summer!”
At Saturday night’s after-party, revelers — Jews and non-Jews alike — smiled as they recalled the film.
“It hit home for me with my own Jewish upbringing,” said Jeffrey Blum, who was among the 200 moviegoers at the Toyota-sponsored festival’s opening-night gala at Malibu Lumber Yard, an upscale shopping complex off Pacific Coast Highway.
Sonia Enriquez, who enjoyed the play, said she didn’t know what to expect from a film adaptation of “Jewtopia.”
“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s very different from the play. It’s a whole new experience.”
“There were times when the running joke ran too long,” said Mary Faherty, who added that the film was surprisingly good.
“I love the film, even as a non-Jewish person. There are themes in it that are universal,” she said. “Everyone’s got their struggles with their culture and their parents. It feels good to know you’re not the only one being tortured!”
For more information about “Jewtopia,” visit jewtopiamovie.com.