In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather's bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.
In his prime, Schreiber's grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.
"I didn't know how to begin to mourn him," said the actor, who is now 37. "He had been the pivotal figure in my life."
Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, "Everything Is Illuminated," a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It's also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.
The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather's shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex's anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.
"It's really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events," Schreiber said. "He doesn't deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation's processing of history in a distinctly personal way."
Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery -- the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.
Milgram had been Schreiber's primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber's bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.
Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters' apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.
Yet Milgram wasn't a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.
After Milgram's death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.
"Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood," he said, "I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else."
He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn't satisfied with the result, however. That's where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer's dizzyingly imaginative "Illuminated" in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather's life.
"The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather's history," Schreiber said.
The actor ("The Sum of All Fears," "The Manchurian Candidate") identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.
"I really trusted [Liev] right away," Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. "I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring."
After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent's number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002's most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.
Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn't such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation's finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York's Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather's old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.
Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.
His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999's "A Walk on the Moon" because the character -- a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family -- reminded him of Milgram.
The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz's Holocaust-themed "Jakob the Liar" because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.
"There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather's relatives and realized what they had endured," he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.
He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with "Illuminated," in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.
After all, Foer's novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.
"I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write," he told the Evening Standard.
The result was his postmodernist "Illuminated," told through the fictional Alex's letters to Foer's alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex's written account of Jonathan's journey and Jonathan's novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.
After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber -- who took much of the dialogue directly from the book -- transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.
The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg's "Must Love Dogs," based on Claire Cooke's novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.
During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood ("The Lord of the Rings") as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor's expressive blue eyes could convey the character's rich inner life.
"I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is," Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. "And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany."
Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather's shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.
"The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example," he said. "But that scene taught me that, yes, the 'war' can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan's collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory."
While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.
"Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again," he said. "The movie allowed me to do so.
"My 'illumination' was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don't need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn't really gone anywhere. He is inside of me."
The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.
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