Screenwriter Rob Festinger, an ex-professional Seinfeld look-alike, said his childhood was "very effusive, very Jewish, very screaming."
Which is why he's the last guy you'd expect to be an Oscar contender for Todd Field's "In the Bedroom," the ultimate Yankee-angst flick of the year. Based on the Andre Dubus short story, "Killings," the film depicts a restrained Maine couple (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) battling hellish emotions after the murder of their only child. The understated drama is competing in five prime Oscar races, including best picture and adapted screenplay (a nomination Festinger shares with Field).
Festinger, 39, admits his personal angst has been more reminiscent of Woody Allen than Norman Rockwell. What else can you say about a former stand-up comic who used to get heckled because he looks like Seinfeld?
But then again, it was the alien quality of Dubus' characters that mesmerized him when he first read "Killings" in 1992. "A typical Jewish family wouldn't necessarily respond to such dramatic events by not communicating," said Festinger during an interview before the nominees' luncheon at the Beverly Hilton last week. "What riveted me was that the grief was so internal."
If the New England psyche is alien to Festinger, the terrain is not. He spent most of his childhood in the quaint Connecticut town of Bloomfield, where he became a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue located on a dairy farm. His most vivid memory of Hebrew school: cows peering over the fence.
Eighth grade was less serene for Festinger, whose family moved to a neighboring town in the early 1970s. "I was the new, gawky kid with a big nose and limbs everywhere," he recalled. "I started hearing slurs with the word, 'Jew.'" The anti-Semitism proved so troubling that his family packed up and moved to New Jersey six months later.
Eventually, Festinger went off to film school at New York University, though his practical screenwriting education began after he discovered "Killings" in 1992 as a reader for HBO. After unsuccessfully begging executives to make the movie, he covertly wrote his own script, but was so green he neglected to first secure the rights to Dubus' story.
Over the next six years, he hooked up with producer Graham Leader, rewrote the screenplay and went through several directors -- while braving a bizarre existential crisis. The problem was that Festinger, a self-professed "not-so-great stand-up comic," was constantly mistaken for the most famous comedian in the world. "People were always stopping me or yelling, 'Jerry!'" he said with a roll of his eyes. "My Seinfeld nightmare culminated when I entered a 'Regis & Kathie Lee' contest where I found myself in a room with six other Seinfelds." (Festinger didn't win.)
In 1997, he was working at Citibank, feeling like his life was over, when Field, an actor hoping to make his directorial debut with "Bedroom," tracked him down. Festinger said Maine resident Field was able to deepen the story's emotional subtext while keeping his structure and some key scenes intact.
Field, who completed the script while starring in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," told The Journal, "Without Rob, there would have been no movie. ... He was passionate about the story and I was passionate about the story, and I see our work as coexisting in the place where it was necessary to make this film.
Both men were rewarded when the movie earned rave reviews upon its release in November 2001.
Since then, Festinger's life has been more Horatio Alger than Woody Allen: He has a high-profile Jackie Gleason project, a publicist and an Oscar nod -- though he seemed a tad daunted by the media frenzy at the nominees' luncheon last week. "It's been great to have the Gleason film to distract me from all this," he said. "When you're writing, you just feel like some idiot in a room, trying to make the scene work."