May 18, 2010
Director plumbs own rocky youth for ‘Rollers’
“I’m not a Chasidic Jew, and I’ve never been a drug smuggler,” said “Holy Rollers” director Kevin Tyler Asch. But he brought a different kind of personal experience to his debut feature about a Chasid who becomes immersed in an Ecstasy cartel, inspired by a true story from the 1990s.
The quietly intense Asch described how he left his own insular Jewish community in Great Neck, N.Y., to explore the nightclub rave culture in Manhattan as his parents were divorcing in the ’90s. “Actually, I say ‘our’ divorce, because I was very much a part of it; nothing about it was easy, and it went on for years,” he said recently in Santa Monica. “The proceedings began around the time of my bar mitzvah, so I ‘became a man’ in a different way. I lost my innocence as I lost the security of my family and encountered the realities of the adult world.”
As a teenager, Asch said, he loved his parents but “wanted to be left alone to find my way.” He found a mentor in a nurturing psychologist who, during their sessions together, encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker and to express his emotions through his writing. Asch also sought escape from the chaos at home in the more dangerous chaos of the club scene, where he took Ecstasy for the first time at 17.
“It was a visceral experience — Bacchanalian, debauchist and infused with both sensuality and fear for a person of my age,” Asch recalled. “There were transvestites in elaborate costumes, women in revealing outfits and what felt like thousands of people dancing to the same music and light show. ...I was young and deluded enough to think the experience of getting past those velvet ropes was going to make me into somebody.”
So why did Asch choose to make his protagonist, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a Chasidic Jew? About five years ago, he explained, “Holy Rollers” producer Danny Abeckaser told him about an Israeli who had employed Chasids to smuggle drugs into the United States. “Danny wanted to turn the story into a Jewish kind of ‘GoodFellas,’ but I was immediately struck by the image of a naïve Chasid lost in the bright lights of a nightclub,” Asch said. “I thought, ‘What a journey,’ and I related to it. I personalized it right away.”
Eisenberg was Asch’s first choice to play Sam: He had identified with the actor’s turn as a teenager braving his parents’ divorce in “The Squid and the Whale” and as a virgin overwhelmed by Manhattan nightlife in “Roger Dodger.” “You’ve played me in a couple of movies,” he quipped to Eisenberg the first time they spoke.
After hiring scribe Antonio Macia, a devout Mormon, to write the screenplay about a youth who strays from his religion, the filmmakers aimed to capture the details of Chasidic life by “assiduously researching every point” — even participating in a “ride along” on a Chasidic “mitzvah tank.”
In his screenplay, Macia explained, he aimed to “explore the kinds of small decisions and compromises that can lead a person to lose his way.”
“We were adamant that the film should not be disrespectful to the Chasidic community,” Asch said. Not that certain characters aren’t depicted as flawed. Asch cites Yosef (Justin Bartha), the Chasid who recruits Sam into the drug business and is shown watching pornography and smoking on Shabbat. “ ‘Holy Rollers’ is not a documentary, but a work of fiction,” Asch explained. “All of our choices were character-driven. You can’t understand the purity of Sam without also understanding the darkness of Yosef.”