Screenwriter and producer Robert J. Avrech believes in making message films that articulate morals and values. In 2000, he won an Emmy for penning the Holocaust drama “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” about a petulant teenager who resists her Judaism until offered a portal into the Jewish past. He also wrote the 1992 film “A Stranger Among Us,” starring Melanie Griffith as an undercover cop who insinuates herself into New York’s Chasidic community. On Twitter, Avrech describes himself as a religious Zionist, a Republican and a gun owner. He talks here about his problem with gay marriage, his fear of Islamic jihad and why he's madly in love with his wife.
In your recent piece for Jewish Action, the official magazine for the Orthodox Union, you claim Hollywood is executing “a brilliant, insidious stealth attack” on Jewish values and American culture. Is that because you would prefer Hollywood to foreground your own conservative values?
Robert Avrech: Obviously I would prefer that there be conservative values pushed in Hollywood movies, the way it used to be. But what’s happening now is that the values that are being pushed in Hollywood are pretty radical. There was a tremendous turning point in the culture when the sitcom “Friends” put on a lesbian marriage. And the redefinition of marriage is a radical idea, whether you agree with it or not.
You seem bothered by the preponderance of same-sex marriage in television and film.
I’m not really interested in gay marriage. I believe gays should get married if they want to get married. I have no problem with that. I want people to love each other. It’s the state intervention that bothers me, because then the state is going to have to involve itself in polygamy. One has to accept that when gay marriage becomes the law of the land in a majority of states. Then a Muslim is going to come forward with two wives, and he’s going to demand the right to marry his two wives. And once that happens, the door to Sharia in America is opened.
As an avowed gun owner, you must be glad that Hollywood frequently depicts the use of guns. Why didn’t your article address Hollywood’s influence on the epidemic of gun violence in this country?
I don’t know that Hollywood has a role in that. I think evil has a role in acts of violence. There is no empirical evidence that Hollywood causes people to act out in violent ways. It simply doesn’t exist.
Hollywood can influence the redefinition of marriage but cannot encourage gun violence?
The very first narrative movie that was ever made was “The Great Train Robbery,” which is basically a bunch of guys riding on horses robbing a train. And the last shot is the actor turning toward the camera and firing his gun toward the audience. Now, that was thrilling for the audience. But people didn’t go out afterward and start shooting people — that we know of.
So you decry Hollywood for influencing the normalization of same-sex marriage but not its normalization of gun violence.
I don’t believe that violence in the movies enables violence in culture. There’s simply no way that movies in Germany in the 1920s promoted violence and caused people to become genocidal toward the Jews. There were propaganda movies, certainly, but violence in movies did not cause genocide.
You claim America wins wars only when Hollywood believes in them. So what do you make of the recent explosive revelations that Hollywood studios were economically intertwined with Hitler’s Third Reich?
I haven’t read those books, so I really can’t comment on them. [But] I know anecdotally that if you look at the films made during wartime, the first-tier actors were pretty much absent, because they were in the army serving their country: Goebbels put a million-dollar bounty on Clark Gable’s head, because he was a machine gunner on a bomber — and that infuriated Hitler, because Hitler’s favorite movie was “Gone With the Wind.”
What values should Hollywood promote?
[My first choice] would be Hollywood admitting that the greatest danger to civilization itself right now is jihad and jihadists. Hollywood should confront that the way they confronted the Nazi threat and the imperial Japanese threat.
Don’t you watch “Homeland”?
I don’t like the show. I simply found the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and the British actor dopey. I didn’t believe it. It was more of a narrative problem than a political problem.
In your article, you sound kind of peeved recalling a time when a studio hired you to write a script for a film (that ultimately didn’t get made) with the caveat: “Don’t malign all Muslims.” Isn’t that a reasonable request?
If you read the script, you would see that there were sympathetic Muslims within the movie. One of the characters was quite heroic, as a matter of fact. The problem is CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], which is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their position is clear and unequivocal: No Muslim should ever be presented as a terrorist. Period. End of story.
Considering your strict religious upbringing, what drew you down the unconventional path to the movie business?
I was a very bad student, practically a juvenile delinquent. I’m the only Jewish kid that I know of who is basically a high-school dropout. So when my friends were learning Gemara and preparing for pre-med, I was watching “The Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa or “Vertigo” by Alfred Hitchcock. That was my education. The only two things I ever wanted out of life were to work in Hollywood and marry my wife.
You recently published the book “How I Married Karen,” about your love affair with your wife. What is it about her?
She was the only Jewish girl I ever dated who, when I told her what I wanted to do in life, told me it was a wonderful ambition, and that she had faith that I would be able to do it.