Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Remember Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic horror flick “Silence of the Lambs,” where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) turns to incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help her catch another killer, this one named Buffalo Bill? Bill, as you may recall, is a transvestite murderer who wants his own chick suit, so he likes to kidnap zaftig women and sew stylish garb out of their skin. The clock frantically ticks away, as Starling attempts to wheedle clues from the wily Lecter before Bill kills his next victim.
Jon and Al Kaplan, a couple of 30-something Jewish brothers from Staten Island, have long been so enamored of the grisly film that they thought it would be a hoot to make a cheerfully twisted musical based on it. That effort turned out to become an exuberantly tasteless off-Broadway hit, “Silence! The Musical,” which will have its West Coast premiere Sept. 8 at The Hayworth Theatre. If you’ve ever yearned to hear Hannibal the Cannibal croon a hilariously vulgar love ballad to Clarice — accompanied by a chorus of floppy-eared dancing lambs — this is your chance. Time magazine and the New York Daily News lauded the musical in their top 10 theater lists for 2011. But, as The New York Times warned, don’t bring grandma. She might not appreciate Buffalo Bill prancing about with the traipsing lambs while bellowing “Are You About a Size 14” to a potential victim: “That creamy, luscious skin/I really am impressed. I prayed for someone corpulent/It looks like I’ve been blessed!”
Over lunch the other day, the Kaplan brothers finished one another’s sentences and complemented one another, well, like Lecter’s favorite meal of human liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti. “People tend to think of us as one person, except that I’m bald,” said Jon, adding that they’ve watched Demme’s flick more than 20 times and have memorized much of the dialogue, which they frequently quote.
While growing up in a Reform Jewish home, the brothers became obsessed with the thriller, especially Buffalo Bill: “We’d go around mimicking his ridiculously deep voice, which would get us in trouble at school,” Jon said, tucking into his matzah-ball soup. “We just thought it would be funny to hear Buffalo Bill sing.”
“Silence!” began in 2002, when the brothers had graduated from USC with degrees in musical composition and were sharing a one-bedroom apartment downtown, where “Jon got the bedroom,” Al said. “I’m older,” his brother retorted. It was in these modest environs that Jon chanced to notice that the title of the song “Would You?” from the film “Singin’ in the Rain” happened to match an iconic line from Demme’s movie.
Together, the pair quickly penned six goofy songs based on lines from “Silence of the Lambs” purely as a joke for themselves and their friends; they also performed all the voices and posted the audio of their ditties online. They were stunned when, soon after, the songs went viral.
Entertainment Weekly and Maxim promptly wrote stories about the phenomenon; Howard Stern played the tunes on his show, and Hollywood came calling, although writing a screenplay from the project sounded silly to the Kaplans. They penned one anyway, and so they were ready with a script when theater producers wanted to bring a staged version to the New York Fringe Festival in 2005. The show premiered with choreography and direction by the Tony-winning Christopher Gattelli and a book written by Hunter Bell. Further productions followed in London and off-Broadway, respectively, in 2010 and 2011.
So what possessed the Kaplans to create a musical comedy based on one of the grisliest films ever? “The movie works wonderfully as a thriller, but it also has kind of a theatrical, campy element,” Jon said. In the film, Clarice lisps, so the brothers wrote her a duet titled “It’s Agent Shtarling.” And Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “could be seen as lunatic,” Al said. “He’s got these frozen, staring eyes and a calm, dignified voice, but what he’s saying is the most, like, vile, ridiculously over-the-top stuff imaginable. So we’d pick up on those kinds of things and hype or twist them for the show.”
“Silence!” is as much an homage as a satire of Demme’s film; indeed the Kaplans have been parodying their favorite movies since they were kids, when they redubbed all of “Total Recall” “with stupid dialogue,” Jon said.
But film music was their first love — their father was a composer-turned-musician, and by the time the brothers were in grade school, they said, they could hum the theme from “Ben-Hur” and rattle off facts about their favorite movie composers, many of them Jewish expatriates (think Franz Waxman) who had fled the Nazis. The Kaplans’ Hungarian-born grandmother had also fled Hitler’s Europe, the brothers said.
During their interview, the Kaplans raved about American-born movie composers John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, as well as Howard Shore, whose sinister soundtrack from “Silence of the Lambs” they’ve tweaked into major modes for “Silence!” The songs also draw on other musical styles, from pop to jazz, and Buffalo Bill’s “Are You About a Size 14?,” Al said, “is kind of a joyous hoedown number, because he’s out on the town hunting his prey — he’s going shopping.”
“The show is filthy, because the source material is filthy,” Jon said, adding that the naughty lyrics may initially have delayed the show’s journey to New York. In 2007, the brothers were about to fly out to rehearsals in Manhattan when they learned that the financing for the initial production had fallen through. “Some people were like, ‘This is in terrible taste,’ ” Jon said. “But when we returned to New York in 2011, ‘The Book of Mormon’ had pushed the vulgarity [envelope], and suddenly what we had done was OK.”
Since then, the brothers said, their mother has been nudging them to write more musicals, and they have obliged with online videotaped parodies of films such as “Total Recall,” as well as TV’s “24,” and even “Schindler’s List.” They’ve also made a demented, short horror film, titled “Elijah!” spoofing Passover. But before you say oy vey, the brothers want to emphasize that everything they do comes from a place of respect.
“It’s about our love for our favorite things,” Jon said.
For tickets and information, Visit www.silencethemusical.com or call (866) 811-4111.
11.26.13 at 2:29 pm | When Ben Lipitz trundles onto the stage as. . .
11.26.13 at 2:15 pm | As a child, you think it would be fantastic to be. . .
11.15.13 at 5:32 am | Actor Bob Odenkirk seems to be everywhere these. . .
11.6.13 at 2:07 pm | In 1981, Larry Kramer, the author and gay-rights. . .
11.6.13 at 1:57 pm | Markus Zusak still remembers how his mother, a. . .
10.8.13 at 2:53 pm | The actor who played Harry Potter may be the. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . . (15692)
9.6.13 at 1:58 pm | Adam F. Goldberg still remembers how his father. . . (602)
11.26.13 at 2:29 pm | When Ben Lipitz trundles onto the stage as. . . (237)
August 27, 2012 | 11:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Henry Jaglom’s 18th film, “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway,” revolves around an eccentric family of actors with roots going back to the Yiddish theater, spotlighting one spring in their ramshackle country house outside New York City. There’s the patriarch, George “Grisha” Isaacs, who worked in the Yiddish theater as a child; his wife, Vivian; his down-on-his-luck brother-in-law, Larry, who is reduced to working in dinner theater; a family houseguest named Sally; and the Isaacs’ youngest daughter, Pandora (Jaglom muse Tanna Frederick), who has moved back in with her parents following a messy breakup with a “civilian” (i.e. non-actor).
As the family prepares for the Passover seder, Pandora’s “civilian” older sister, Betsy (Julie Davis) soon arrives with her fiancé, played by Judd Nelson, and deep-held resentments between the siblings emerge. While Pandora lives and breathes the acting life, Betsy abhors her sister’s theatrical temperament and reveals that she in fact has fled the family dynamic for what she perceives as a safer, “normal” existence. Tempers and emotions flare and long-buried truths are unearthed as upheaval rocks the family.
I sat down with Jaglom (“Eating,” “Someone to Love,” “Irene in Time,” “Hollywood Dreams”
“Deja Vu,” “Queen Of The Lot”) last week for a late lunch at his favorite café in Santa Monica to discuss the film, which comes after a version of the Isaacs’ story premiered as a play at the Edgemar Theater in Santa Monica and ran for more than a year. “I used the play as a starting off point to do the film,” Jaglom said, wearing his trademark floppy hat. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Q: What was the impetus for the story?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by theater people, and by the fact of my being Jewish, and those two things together led me to explore something that I’d never had any personal experience with, which is the Yiddish theater.
Not only do I have no experience in the Yiddish theater, I had no experience with the Yiddish culture whatsoever. I grew up in a very assimilated, well-off European family. My father was from Russia but his language was not Yiddish, it was Russian and he came from a wealthy background so he had English governesses and French tutors, who didn’t speak Yiddish. And my mother came from Germany, from a prominent family that traces itself back to Moses Mendelssohn. So she didn’t speak Yiddish; in fact her language was German.
For the past 11 years I’ve been writing and researching a book on Jewish history, and in the section on turn-of-the-century America there is a mere mention, a paragraph about the Yiddish theater, but somehow I started writing this family [the Isaacs]. As a writer you don’t necessarily write and plan things out; I like to see what flows, and out comes this guy, who tells a story that he, his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, were all in the Yiddish theater; that his great-grandfather was brought over with the Yiddish theater to America, when the czar stopped the Yiddish theater in Russia. And as I was learning more I was writing more, making [Isaacs] the central character, and this whole family comes from a certain tradition from Yiddish theater, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.
Q: Your own family has a unique history.
A: My father eventually became a prominent businessman and actually the person who was running the economy of the free state of Danzig, sort of like the minister of trade, and then when the Nazis came to power they wanted him to continue. And he said, “I’m a Jew, it’s not comfortable to be here, and I’m giving you six months notice.” And so they sent to Berlin and got back the word that they would make him an honorary Aryan if he would stay, and that’s when he told my mother, “It’s time to leave. If they want to make you an honorary what you’re not then it’s not good to be what we are, which is Jews,” and they got in the car and drove off to Poland, and took a plane to London, where I was born.
Q: You grew up in New York. What was your Jewish identity like as a young person?
A: I remember one day there was a flag parade going down Central Park West, and my mother saw the banner with the Star of David and said, “There goes our flag!” And I got outraged as a young American; I said, “That’s not our flag.” I pointed to the Stars and Stripes and said, “That’s our flag.” But that was all before I went to Israel for the first time; I was 19. And when I went to Yad Vashem [the national Holocaust memorial], I recognized why my mother had said that and what those feelings were about and started to understand my connection to my Jewish history and to the Jewish people and that my single most profound identity, beyond everything, was being Jewish.
Q: Can you describe what happened to you inside Yad Vashem?
A: At 19 I went into Yad Vashem and I came out a Jew. It was an experience of realizing that you can consider yourself whatever you want, but the world considers you a Jew, and they have a definition of what that is; and there is a portion of the world that in my babyhood but in my lifetime, wanted to kill me and my parents, and if I had had children, my children, because they were what the world defined as Jews. So it had absolutely nothing to do with whether I had a religion, whether I believed in God, whether I lived in America; wherever I lived I was a Jew, and ever since then the Jewish issue has been central to me.
Q: How has this affected you as a filmmaker?
A: In my very first movie, “A Safe Place” (1971) I had Orson Welles play a wonder rabbi. I just was fascinated by the Chasidic tales that this Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had spread and the kind of complex meaning; and Orson loved this Jewish culture and he was interested, so we decided to make the movie. But it was not something where I was consciously dealing with being Jewish. I’ve made 18 films now; they’ve had characters some of whom were Jewish, some were not, but that’s never been central or even specific. But this is the first movie where there’s actually a Jewish theme; where there’s a family that has a history of descending from Yiddish theater. And where the movie is now, as opposed to the play, I’ve made the Passover seder a central [sequence], and that’s a very good example of the transition for me from the general to the specifically Jewish. The seder gave the film a more specifically Jewish, central location, and it’s been really gratifying to do that after all these years of not dealing with a subject that’s so close to me.
Q: The struggle between the two sisters in the film is also fascinating – what did you want to explore with that?
A: My brother and me. Because I wanted to be an actor and I came from a family that was serious, where nobody had been an actor, I was the weird one, the eccentric, the strange one. My brother would tell me I was always acting, always trying to get attention. So I thought, let’s make a family where instead of everyone being the straight people and the one kid who wants to be an actor, make it a family of actors and the one straight person is the non-theater person. I sort of reversed the situation and gave myself the crazy dream family I would have loved to have come from.
Q: What other questions did you want to explore in the film?
A: It gave me the opportunity to explore the theme that Tanna’s character describes at one point: As she says, “I’m not sure whether I’m acting or whether this is real life, and I’m not sure if I want to know the difference.” Many actors and I think many people if they examine their lives are not sure that even during the most dramatic and emotional moments, that they aren’t acting a little bit, and actors are especially susceptible to this. So by doing this on film, I had the opportunity to explore the double layer of, “Is this a film or is this a play, or are we watching real life?” And I’m fascinated by actors and what they go through. I think they’re heroic, and to me this is meant as a love poem to actors in a very real sense. They’re the misfits, the ones who don’t fit in, they’re the ugly duckling in childhood, and they end up the ones that everyone else pays to go to see. It’s a very complicated and interesting dynamic that I’m fascinated by.
“Just 45 Minutes From Broadway” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Oct. 3.
August 22, 2012 | 3:59 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Back in 2004, the horror-flicks mogul Sam Raimi was riveted by a Los Angeles Times article headlined “A Jinx in a Box?” which recounted the strange history of a wine cabinet brought to this country by a Polish concentration camp survivor. The box contained “allegedly, one ‘dibbuk,’ a kind of spirit popular in Yiddish folklore,” the article said — as well locks of hair, a rock, a dried rosebud, a goblet and coins.
Intrigued, Raimi — who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Detroit — perused a Web site devoted to the so-called “Dibbuk Box,” where, he learned, the Holocaust survivor had warned her family never to open it. That warning was disregarded by the furniture dealer who bought the box at the survivor’s estate sale in Portland, Ore., in 2001, and, so the story goes, five minutes after the dealer gave it to his mother as a gift, she suffered a paralyzing stroke, and that wasn’t all — light bulbs inexplicably imploded, the dealer and others began having nightmares about a “gruesome, demonic-looking hag” and were seeing shadowy beings in their peripheral vision. Desperate to be rid of the box, the dealer sold it on eBay, whereupon subsequent owners also reported the onset of mysterious illnesses, as well as petrifying paranormal events.
The story possessed Raimi (director of “Drag Me to Hell,” as well as the “Spider-Man” and “Evil Dead” franchises), compelling him to produce his first Jewish horror film, “The Possession,” starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and opening Aug. 31. “I was just mesmerized because of the rarity of Jewish-themed supernatural stories,” Raimi, 52, said during an interview while on a break from editing his upcoming film, “Oz, The Great and Powerful.” “Wanting to know what my faith might have in the dark shadows of its closets was fascinating to me, because I’d always had to see movies based in other religious faiths, like long-dead ancient Egyptian religions or Catholicism [as in] ‘The Exorcist.’ I discovered that my own culture had its own ghosts and demons, and the Jewish element also made it very original, which I think horror films have to be to be effective.”
“The Possession” — the latest riff on the subgenre of a girl defiled by a demon — revolves around a non-Jewish family whose 10-year-old daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), buys a wooden box inscribed with Hebrew warnings at an estate sale. The child immediately becomes obsessed with the box, carrying it around everywhere, as a feathery malevolent voice echoes through the house, lamps explode, the girl’s behavior grows increasingly agitated, and a claw-like hand emerges from her throat. Her divorced parents eventually turn to a Chasidic community in Brooklyn to arrange an exorcism, which is ultimately performed by the Jewish reggae star Matisyahu, in his first film role.
Raimi co-wrote and directed 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell,” inspired by his mother’s childhood threat to him that should he misbehave, “our Aunt Minnie would put the evil eye on us,” he said. To write “The Possession,” he called on screenwriters Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, who had previously collaborated on “Boogeyman” (2005) for Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.
White and Snowden, who are not Jewish, immersed themselves in research to create the Jewish horror in the film, drawing on the seven years they lived in a Chasidic neighborhood in Hancock Park, watching the 1937 Yiddish film, “The Dibbuk” as well as YouTube videos of Jewish exorcisms, and reading works on Jewish folklore by authors such as Howard Schwartz. In a book about angels and demons, they learned of the Jewish entity, Abizou, the “taker of children,” who became the sinister spirit in the movie. “What is common in many possession stories is that knowing the demon’s name is crucial in order to ultimately vanquish it, so that became an important part of our mystery,” White said.
It was the film’s director, Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”), who created some of the most disturbing images in the film, including swarming moths and the child gorging on raw meat while simultaneously sobbing and moaning. “The insects reminded me of dark angels flying through the air,” Bornedal said. “And it was important to show that the little girl was tormented by her own condition, hating herself for becoming a monster.”
Matisyahu plays Tzadok (“righteous” in Hebrew), who defies his Chasidic community to perform an exorcism on the girl; the role resonated with the musician, who recently drew media buzz when he shaved off his beard and left his Chasidic enclave in Brooklyn, drawing criticism from some religious circles.
“The Possession” not only gave him the chance to fulfill his youthful ambitions of becoming an actor, but also to portray a character who is “juggling the different worlds and having to make decisions that might go against the community, which felt very real to me,” Matisyahu said from his new home near Pico-Robertson, where he now davens alone but considers Judaism still a “big part” of his spirituality.
While other religious characters in the film refuse to assist the tormented family, Tzadok “sees the humanity in these people, and it’s irrelevant to him whether or not they come from his circle,” Matisyahu said. “I was worried at first about how observant Jews were going to be depicted in the film, but my character was able to get outside his box and help, which was the redeeming factor for me.”
Matisyahu also just released a new album, “Spark Seeker,” which draws on the kabbalistic tradition, but he said he doesn’t believe in demons in the literal sense.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, have been generating their own share of supernatural lore. Bornedal said that when he scouted the location that eventually housed the exorcism set, “we walked into this old insane asylum without electricity, and suddenly these huge neon light fixtures shattered.” After production wrapped, the Vancouver warehouse containing all the film’s props — including the dibbuk box — reportedly burned to the ground.
And Raimi said the filmmakers were frightened when the current owners of the real dibbuk box brought it to Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to get anywhere near it, because I am still a superstitious fellow,” he said.
“The Possession” opens on Aug. 31. Matisyahu will perform a concert at the Hollywood Palladium on Sept. 18.
August 15, 2012 | 3:26 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Craig Zobel’s controversial new film “Compliance” revolves around a prank caller, impersonating a policeman, who manipulates employees at a fast food restaurant into sexually assaulting a co-worker—a plot based on dozens of jaw-dropping, real incidents that have occurred throughout the United States. But the film was initially inspired by an even more controversial look at human nature– the Milgram Experiment, a series of moral psychology tests conducted by Yale University’s Stanley Milgram beginning in 1961, as Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was standing trial in Jerusalem.
“Milgram was interested in how an entire culture could virtually turn its back on something as enormous as the Holocaust,” Zobel, 35, said from his apartment in Brooklyn this week. “His curiosity wasn’t about the leadership – Hitler and so forth – but the people in the middle and bottom ranks. He was exploring people’s obedience to authority even if they morally disagreed with what they were doing.”
Milgram, in short, was probing the human capacity for compliance: During the tests, a subject was asked to administer an increasing series of electrical shocks to another person, who was actually an actor, for incorrectly answering a list of test questions. Before long, “the person would start to scream, and beg to stop the test, and that’s when the questioner would turn to the test administrator and say, ‘We should stop this now,’” said Zobel, who will next direct the sci-fi saga “Z For Zachariah’” starring Tobey Maguire. “And the scientist would always reply [something like] ‘I take full responsibility; don’t worry about him, your only responsibility is to keep administering this test, that’s your duty.’ What Milgram found was that 62 to 70 percent of people of all races and ages would eventually administer what they thought was a lethal amount of electricity – but under great distress. It wasn’t sadism. Yet they wound up continuing despite their what their consciences told them.”
As Zobel continued reading about the experiments, he came across a shocking series of cases that seemed to apply Milgram’s findings to real-life: In roughly 70 incidents over 10 years, a prank caller phoned a restaurant, pretending to be a policeman, and stated that one of the shop’s female employees had committed a theft. Alternating between strict authoritarian language and praise, he persuaded the managers to strip search the young woman, in many cases to spank her, and to subject her to escalating sexual humiliations, all in the name of following orders and “doing the right thing.” One infamous case took place in 2004 at a McDonalds in Kentucky, which along with the other incidents spurred the plot and tensions of “Compliance.”
Zobel’s drama – opening on Aug. 24 in Los Angeles – is set in a chicken restaurant in rural America, where Sandra (Ann Dowd), the harried middle manager, receives a call that her teenaged employee, Becky (Dreama Walker of “Don’t Trust the B——in Apartment 23”), has stolen money from a customer’s purse. [SPOILER ALERT] He instructs Sandra and others to detain Becky, to strip search her and subject her to assaults that culminate in rape. Their compliance every step of the way, despite their grave reservations, inspired the title of the film.
Here are further excerpts from my Aug. 14 interview with Zobel, which took place before his film screened along with a panel discussion moderated by Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Manaro.
Q: Why were you so drawn to the Milgram experiments and the prank call incidents in preparation for your film?
A: My fascination ultimately was in the way that people do bad things oftentimes has more to do with them rationalizing that they’re not doing anything bad; that it’s not “them.” I think the worst things that happen come out of this ability to rationalize.
Almost all of the real prank call cases turned into sexual assaults; my immediate reaction upon reading about them was very much one of “I would never do this; it’s hard for me to believe this was even possible.” Then to find out that it had happened 70 times over a 10 year period was eye-opening. It seemed like a good way to discuss something we don’t think about very much, which is “What is your relationship with authority? Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve gone along or done something that later or maybe even in the moment you didn’t fully agree with, but felt like you had to [comply] because a boss or an authority figure of some sort was telling you to do so?” I’ve definitely done that before in small ways, but it’s unsettling for people to think about themselves in that way. We’d all like to cast ourselves as heroes in that kind of situation, but as the Milgram experiments showed, two-thirds of us are not going to do that. So the film was a good way for me to explore that [dilemma] and to reflect on whether there’s a way we can learn how to be more cautious.
Q: The dilemma reminds me of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s writings on the banality of evil, involving the Holocaust.
A: I will say that that did not escape me. It definitely has been on my mind that this is the way atrocities such as the Holocaust can happen. There’s also a quote from Voltaire that says those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities, which I’ve been reflecting on recently. In the case of the film, the caller’s requests seem illogical and you’d think that people in their right mind would know that a police officer wouldn’t ask you to do those kinds of things. People who have challenged the movie have said, “Wouldn’t these people know that the police aren’t allowed to do this or that, don’t they watch ‘Law & Order?’” And I would say, “Yes, I’m sure they have. But they still didn’t challenge the authority.” I think we have a very complicated relationship with our authority figures; that dynamic is complex and in a way easy to manipulate. And if someone is manipulating us, things can go very wrong, which is what I was thinking about when making the movie.
Q: At a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, there were some audience members who loudly shouted that the film is exploitative and misogynistic.
A: That was a little dramatic, but the truth is that all the decisions I made about what to show in the film were made deliberately. The gender dynamic is another aspect of the story that is unfortunately true; when people abuse power it’s hard to avoid talking about gender. What tends to happen is that men use ‘power over,’ which is a term in feminist studies – and men can use authority in exploitative ways, even though in situations like this, we’re all at fault.
Q: You could have shot without nudity – why did you choose to go there?
A: I actually could have shot with a lot more nudity. I chose to put it in the film because I felt it added to the gravity of the story – it needed to land in a visceral way that something was happening that was not good or right. But the nudity in the film doesn’t read sexual or sexy to me; I felt there should be just enough that the extent of the [collaborators’] actions could be felt. One day when I’m bored I will count how much screen time is nudity in this film compared to other films or TV shows, where it’s questionable whether nudity is necessary for the story. The truth is I think people are uncomfortable with it in “Compliance” because I made it uncomfortable, which is good, ultimately. You shouldn’t be comfortable with it.
“Compliance” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 24.
August 8, 2012 | 1:33 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
John Logan’s two-person play, “Red,” which spotlights the legendary Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is set a decade before the notoriously prickly painter committed suicide in 1970. The drama, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 12, begins as Rothko (Alfred Molina) has accepted a hefty commission to create a series of murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. He intends his luminous, contemplative paintings to transform the space into a “temple,” while his initially timid new assistant, Ken (Jonathan Groff), grows bolder and insists that the work will merely serve as décor for pricey boozing and dining.
Rothko ultimately can’t stomach the project; he changes his mind upon visiting the elitist watering hole where, he says, he felt “underdressed … fat … too goddamn Jewish for this place.” He promptly cancels his commission, returns his paycheck and eventually donates nine of the murals — transcendent floating color fields in russet and darker hues — to the Tate Gallery in London. A year later, Rothko slashed open his arms with a razor in his New York studio and died at the age of 66. “His body was discovered the same day that the Seagram murals arrived at the Tate, which shocked everyone,” Molina, 59, said before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. “You can see a correlation between his evolving [palette] and his downward spiral,” Molina added. “As he says in the play, his great fear is that “ ‘one day the black will swallow the red.’ ”
The Tony Award-winning play presents a series of acerbic arguments between Rothko and his protégé, who spar about art versus commerce, Pop Art versus Abstract Expressionism while revealing their respective traumatic pasts. Rothko describes how as a Jewish child in Russia he saw “the Cossacks cutting people up and tossing them into pits,” and how at 10, his family moved “to Portland, [Ore., and] lived in the ghetto alongside all the other thinky, talky Jews. I was Marcus Rothkowitz then,” he adds. “My first dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books. So Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko.”
The play includes several brief but telling anecdotes about Rothko’s heritage: “His Jewish background was elemental to everything about him,” said Logan, who also wrote the films “Gladiator” and “Sweeney Todd.”
It certainly contributed to Rothko’s sense of himself as an outsider, even an outcast, in both social and professional circles, Molina said. When Rothko was a child, his immigrant mother dressed him in quaint garb she saw in a satirical cartoon that she had misinterpreted as the height of fashion for an American boy. “So when he arrived in the United States he looked ludicrous, and consequently was mocked and laughed at by his peers,” Molina said. “This sense of being ‘other’ influenced him completely; he was a bit of a loner all his life, and that fed into the way he worked as an artist. He was part of a generation of painters but he was never part of them in any kind of emotional way.”
Rothko’s sense of ‘otherness’ intensified when he left Portland’s Jewish ghetto for Yale University in 1921, when institutionalized anti-Semitism flourished and “to be a Jew at an Ivy League school was to be an alien,” Logan said. “At one point Rothko wrote of feeling like Caliban,” Logan added, referencing the scorned character in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” “That gave him a sense of isolation, but also of empowerment and a commitment to his vision, because he in no way ever tried to blend in with anyone for any reason. He was the least assimilated human being in every regard — as an artist, a husband, a Jew.”
And yet his childhood experiences continued to haunt him. “It’s too glib to say that because he saw tragedy and oppression in his youth, therefore his paintings were filled with tragedy; and yet they are,” Logan said. “In the first scene in the play, when his assistant is trying to find the right word to describe the paintings, Rothko corrects him by saying they’re ‘tragic.’ It’s a word he goes back to repeatedly in the play; it’s like the word ‘blood’ in ‘Macbeth.’ He’s constantly emphasizing that a great painting must have ‘tragedy in every brushstroke.’ And this is man who 10 years after the events of the play committed suicide, so all this ‘colors’ — if you’ll forgive the expression — the painting that is Rothko, or at least the Rothko that I created.”
Logan was inspired to write “Red” after viewing the Seagram Murals at the Tate, where he was struck by “their somberness, their anguish,” he said. “I walked in, and you almost can’t breathe because there’s such a force in the room.”
For Molina, the draw was Logan’s script, which the play’s director, Michael Grandage, slipped to him over drinks several years ago in New York. “I went off to a little bar in Midtown and read it, and by page 10 or 11 I knew I had to do it,” the actor said, sporting the shaved head he wears to portray Rothko. “It wasn’t a ‘yesss’ moment, but rather a sinking feeling, because you see all your other [professional] options falling away. But Rothko is the role of a lifetime, a chance to play a man who lives in extremes, including extremes of intellectual rigor and impatience with anyone lacking that kind of rigor.”
One word that Ken uses to describe Rothko’s work is “rabbinical,” which references that rigor “and also the whole tradition of talmudic study where every nuance is analyzed for meaning and some kind of enlightenment,” Molina said.
The actor is the son of an Italian mother and a Spanish father who relocated to England: “I’ve always been attracted to stories involving immigration — people who have left one world to go to another,” he said. As a child, his own nickname was “Spaghetti,’ and even at drama school he found himself relegated to playing Eastern European thugs, but took advantage of his penchant for accents to build a diverse career. “I’ve done some good Jews,” he said, citing his portrayal of Tevye in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’ve done some good Arabs. You might say I do good foreign.”
Rothko and his assistant prime an entire canvas onstage, splattering each other with blood-colored paint. “The paintings are like a third character in the play,” Molina said.
Reviews from “Red’s” Broadway production laud Molina’s volcanic portrayal of Rothko, but he wouldn’t have wanted to meet the real artist one-on-one.
“He would have crushed me,” Molina said. “But I play him with great joy, because for once in my life I can be the crusher, not the ‘crushee.’ I get a chance to roar, and it’s marvelous.”
For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.
August 2, 2012 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of “The French Connection,” The Exorcist” and now “Killer Joe”—about a violently dysfunctional Texas family—was courtly and chivalrous at the Four Seasons hotel recently, moving a comfortable chair over for me and offering coffee before tucking into his English muffin and eggs.
But he began the conversation with a surprising revelation about his penchant for extreme plots and characters: “I could have been a very violent person,” the 76-year-old filmmaker said of his childhood. “I had no sense of right and wrong.” Despite the influence of Hebrew school and his loving parents, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he said, “my peer pressure was such that I was involved in armed robberies as a young teenager.”
Casual violence erupted throughout his neighborhood on the north side of Chicago; while his own home was peaceful, domestic beatings were de rigueur in the building in which the Friedkins lived in a one-room apartment. Police brutality also was common on the streets, and father-daughter sex was rampant in outlying areas where residents had relocated from the South, the director said.
At Hebrew school, Friedkin himself was bullied by an older boy who every day would “seek me out, push me around and in general, give me a hard time,” he said. “I remember having great anxiety over this and I never talked to my parents about it, because I felt ashamed. Then one day I remember waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘I don’t have to take this anymore.’ I had been watching wrestling on television, so when this boy approached me after school, took my books and tossed them, I immediately grabbed him, put him in a headlock, and banged his head against the pavement. I had the distinct desire to kill him. I remember this as though it was yesterday: I wanted to see him die, but I was pulled off of him. And so I understand that [murderous] instinct. Over the years, it has made me realize that there is good and evil in all of us.”
That’s part of the reason Friedkin was drawn to “Killer Joe,” an adaptation of the 1993 play by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay. “It offers some insight into the crooked timbre of humanity,” he said. “Tracy and I share the same world view, in which we perceive a lot of human behavior as absurd, paranoid, schizophrenic and shocking.”
“Killer Joe” spotlights a trailer trash clan portrayed by Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon (as the flawed dad and stepmother) and Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple (as their equally-compromised children). The action kicks off as they hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a Dallas cop who moonlights as a hitman – to kill the kids’ biological mother for the insurance money. As collateral, they offer up the virginal Dottie (Temple) to Joe as a “retainer;” a twisted love story ensues, as does pedophilia, blood, gore and an unspeakable sexual act with a fried chicken leg.
“I’m attracted to characters whose backs are against the wall, who perceive they have few alternatives except to act in absurd and often self-destructive ways,” Friedkin said. “I’m not drawn to calm little pieces of material, where nothing especially dramatic occurs. And I’m not drawn at all to romantic comedies or the things that have become staples of American television – I can’t even watch them, and I don’t believe them at all. Series like ‘Father Knows Best,’ for example, I think are really pornographic,’ with the false impression they give of the American family.”
Friedkin’s own childhood family was intensely Jewish; his parents kept kosher and observed all the holidays. These days, he said, “I don’t dispute the teachings of Moses, and I feel very close to God when I’m in Israel. I’m a Jew, and that’s it. In my heart I believe completely in The Ten Commandments, but I also believe we are all imperfect and at times we just can’t cut it.”
When Friedkin was 13, he said, he and two friends decided to rob Goldblatt’s department store in Chicago, just for kicks. “I had a zip gun, as did my compatriots; we didn’t need anything, but we thought it would just be fun to rob a department store,” he said. “But the house detective caught us. It was shortly after my bar mitzvah, and my mother was called down to the store. I loved my mother deeply and I saw that what I did made her cry – she was sobbing. I realized how I had let her down and I stopped my [criminal activities] cold; that was it.”
Friedkin found a more suitable outlet in the movies, and was so smitten by “Citizen Kane’ that he eventually pursued a career as a filmmaker.
While he is best known for “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist,” (1973), his movies have also included 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and 2006’s “Bug,” based on Letts’ 1996 play, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Friedkin has also been well received as a director of operas, including a production of “Samson and Delilah” that was performed in Tel Aviv.
“Killer Joe” is, in its way, operatic: “It reminds me of Alban Berg’s opera, “Wozzeck,” which I directed, in that it’s a kind of very claustrophobic chamber piece, and that it ultimately ends up as a tragedy – and most of opera is tragedy,” Friedkin said.
The jet-black comedy virtually explodes into graphic images of sex and violence, [SPOILER ALERT] including that cringeworthy chicken leg scene, which actress Gina Gershon, as the film’s evil stepmother, enacts near the end of the movie.
McConaughey reportedly was so disgusted when he first read the script of the film – which has received an NC-17 rating—that he had the strong urge to take a shower; his friends convinced him to take the role, in part, by emphasizing the movie’s dark humor.
Gershon “understood the dark side of her character,” Friedkin said. “At first she didn’t want to go there, as there were times that were very difficult, not only for an actress but for a human being.”
How did Friedkin direct the most intense sequences? “I tried to create a relaxed atmosphere on the set, and give the actors the sense that they weren’t going to feel judged or humiliated, but rather a freedom to create,” he said.
He added that Letts based his play on a real murder that took place in Miami years ago. “The film is set in a contemporary world, and nothing shocks me in this world,” he said. “That’s why I was able to approach this film.”
“Killer Joe” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3.
August 1, 2012 | 12:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Nobody in this world thinks they’re having enough sex,” said director David Frankel, whose film “Hope Springs” spotlights a beleaguered 60-something couple played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. “Watch any night on television, or any comedian in a nightclub, and every other joke is about people who aren’t getting enough. It’s true of people Meryl and Tommy’s age, and it’s true of teenagers — everybody thinks somebody else is doing it more.”
Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”) was expounding on what he perceives as the universal appeal of “Hope Springs,” especially in a youth-saturated culture. The comedy revolves around Kay and Arnold (Streep and Jones), empty nesters who sleep in separate bedrooms, who are struggling to rekindle their romantic and sexual spark. As the film opens, Kay is so dissatisfied with their roommate-like arrangement that she drags her taciturn hubby to an intensive marital therapy retreat led by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), who prompts the spouses to open up about their bedroom history. Awkward, fumbling “sexercises” ensue.
As in the midlife romance portrayed by Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Hope Springs” doesn’t shy away from bluntly risqué scenes between its mature actors. “But I wasn’t trying to make an explicit film,” the wry, affable Frankel, 53, said from his home in Miami. “The film is really about the idea that we all just want to be closer to our mates.”
It’s not the first time Frankel has explored the more challenging aspects of marriage: He drew on his personal experience to write and direct “Miami Rhapsody” (1995), which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as an advertising copywriter who turns neurotic when she discovers that every member of her family has had extramarital affairs. At the time, Frankel was also contemplating marriage, in what he has described as his “off again, off again” relationship with his wife-to-be, an advertising executive he eventually married in the late 1990s at the Sephardic synagogue in Venice, Italy; they now have twin 10-year-olds who attend Jewish day school in Miami.
“If you intellectualize the idea of marriage, it can be quite daunting, no matter how much in love you are,” he said. “As Sarah Jessica Parker’s character perceives, if marriage is so great, why does everyone cheat? Why are people looking elsewhere, and why are they so profoundly unhappy? What the character learns, and certainly what I grasped, is that marriage can work if you want it to.”
What “Miami Rhapsody” shares with “Hope Springs,” and perhaps all of Frankel’s films, is the notion of characters who are uncompromising in their search for excellence, whether it be in relationships or careers, he said.
Viewers tend to hate the perfectionist character Streep played in “The Devil Wears Prada,” an ice-queen fashion magazine editor who plunges her hapless assistant (played by Anne Hathaway) into employment hell. “But, for me, Meryl’s actually the heroine of the movie,” Frankel said. “I really wanted to celebrate the success of the powerful working woman; one of the things I hoped to portray was an unapologetic businesswoman who puts excellence above everything. Does she step on people? Does she order people around? Is she not-nice? Sure. But I think that this kind of drive comes with its own price. There are people in contemporary culture and throughout history who put their objectives above others, and the world would be a poorer place if they hadn’t.”
One of Frankel’s role models in terms of personal achievement — minus the prickly personality — is his own father, Max Frankel, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor and columnist for The New York Times. Political and media luminaries attended the monthly soirees at the Frankels’ home: David Frankel recalls meeting Ted Kennedy, Dan Rather and John Chancellor, and a favorite family photograph depicts the three Frankel children sitting on a pony at the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch in Texas.
In a phone interview from his New York home, Max Frankel recalled how David would head upstairs during family arguments, returning with a humorous, slightly mocking poem he had written that would immediately defuse the tension.
In college, David Frankel initially thought he might follow in his father’s professional footsteps, writing for the Harvard Crimson and penning a profile on the mercurial tennis star John McEnroe his senior year; he had once played tennis with McEnroe and thus was able to put a personal spin on the article. “But I probably wasn’t the best journalist,” said Frankel, who instead decided to try his luck in Hollywood by driving out to Los Angeles after college graduation.
A meeting with the legendary producer Robert Evans (“The Godfather”) provided Frankel, by then an aspiring screenwriter, with some invaluable advice. When he requested a job as a production assistant, Evans replied, “You wanna be a writer, kid? Go home and write,’ ” Frankel recalled. “And I did. In fact, I never went to work on a movie set until I was a producer and director.”
By 1996, Frankel had won an Academy Award for his short film “Dear Diary”; he went on to create a well-received, if short-lived, TV comedy, “Grapevine,” and to direct television series such as “Sex and the City” — including the episode in which the uber-WASP character of Charlotte visits a mikveh as part of her conversion to Judaism. He also won an Emmy Award for directing the “Band of Brothers” episode in which the characters liberate a concentration camp, an endeavor he regarded as “a great responsibility,” in part, because of his own family history.
Frankel laughed as he recalled how two television stations banned “Grapevine,” inspired by his younger brother’s libidinous years as a sportscaster, because of its randy dialogue.
“Hope Springs” may also raise eyebrows for its frank discussions about sex. “But we’re not trying to shock people,” Frankel said. “It’s really a story about the characters’ search for intimacy.”
“Hope Springs” hits theaters on Aug. 8.
August 1, 2012 | 12:43 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2010, Alison Klayman sat in a car in Chengdu, China, with her camera rolling as the internationally renowned conceptual artist and dissident Ai Weiwei scuffled with police, who were pushing and pulling at him and his entourage. The melee had erupted as Ai was attempting to file a lawsuit against the policeman who had beaten him so severely a year earlier that he had suffered a life-threatening cranial hemorrhage, requiring surgery to remove the blood from his brain.
“The moment when my camera fuzzed out is because one of the plainclothes officers came over to the car and grabbed my camera,” said Klayman, 27, whose award-winning documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3. “My goal was to keep my footage and not have him look at it and turn me in.” So Klayman was prepared. As the officer approached, she deftly switched out her tape with a blank one, which the official promptly confiscated. She had become adept at this kind of bait and switch after authorities had previously confronted her in the process of making her film about China’s most famous artist-activist. Ai is probably best known for creating the Beijing Nation Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but his sculpture also has been in museums throughout the world, including a recent installation on the courtyard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“At the time, it was really scary,” Klayman recently recalled of the Chengdu confrontation from her home in New York, where she moved after following Ai for three years to make her debut film. “I didn’t know if everybody I was with was about to be detained. I was very nervous, not so much for my personal safety, but for everyone I was with who were Chinese citizens.”
“Never Sorry” introduces the charismatic Ai as he prepares for his 100 million sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern in London while launching his campaign to discover the names of children killed in the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, their deaths a result of shoddy government construction. The heartbreaking images of children’s belongings in the rubble inspired Ai’s giant mural of 9,000 colorful backpacks on display outside his 2009 exhibition, “So Sorry,” in Munich.
The documentary also follows the Web-savvy artist as he continues to tweet mocking messages about his government, despite escalating police surveillance. Officials shut down his blog and raze his newly built Shanghai studio even as Time magazine votes him a runner-up for person of the year and ArtReview names him the world’s most influential artist in 2011. In April of that year, the film shows the activist disappearing into custody on dubious charges of tax evasion, where he suffers psychological torture during 81 days in jail — all while a global campaign explodes on his behalf.
Klayman was an underemployed freelance journalist when she began shooting a short film on Ai without pay in 2008, and she had no idea that the artist-architect-photographer would, over the course of filming, become China’s most renowned cause célèbre. Hers was, perhaps, a textbook case of being in the right place at the right time: “I did not go to China to find Ai Weiwei, nor did I even know who he was,” she said. In fact, back in 2006, Klayman had little interest in Asia, hardly spoke a word of Chinese and didn’t even own a camera when, on a lark, she accompanied a fellow Brown University graduate to visit the friend’s relatives in Shanghai.
Klayman had grown up a world away, in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban Philadelphia, where she attended the Akiba-Barrack Jewish Day School and became fluent in Hebrew. Her mother, a native Yiddish speaker, was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in Israel; while Klayman’s grandparents spoke little about their experiences in a series of camps, she said, “The subject loomed large in our family.” So did the Jewish concepts of “social justice, chesed and tikkun olam. … When you grow up with the Holocaust as part of your [legacy], you’re raised on the idea that you have to speak out, and that staying silent about injustice contributes to the injustice.”
It’s a worldview that, in part, would connect her with the outspoken Ai, whose own father was imprisoned and forced to perform hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. But Klayman’s journey to China, she said, “was the most random thing ever.”
She had hoped to see the world and jump-start her journalism career when her classmate invited her to Shanghai in 2006; five months later, Klayman moved to Beijing, where she sustained herself, in part, by serving as China’s correspondent for JTA and writing for this newspaper, among other publications. She found a home away from home within the Kehillat Beijing congregation, where she tutored five young women for their b’nai mitzvah and also co-founded the city’s Moishe House for Jewish programming with her American roommate, Stephanie Tung.
It was Tung, who was helping to curate an exhibition of Ai’s New York photographs, who brought Klayman in to make a 20-minute video about the artist four years ago. By that time, Klayman knew that Ai had designed the lauded “Bird’s Nest” stadium and then had denounced the Olympic Games as Communist Party propaganda. Even so, she said: “Early on, he was talking about the government in ways that haunted me. I was thinking, ‘How are you able to do the things that you do, and how are you not in jail?’ ”
When the artist allowed Klayman to continue filming him after his photography exhibition, she accompanied him to Munich, where excruciating headaches as a result of his Chengdu beating landed him in the hospital. “Never Sorry” shows Ai in his sickbed holding up the bag of blood that had been extracted from his skull.
Klayman surmises that she was able to follow the artist within China because she was not a prominent journalist from an outlet like CNN, which meant she was beneath the government’s radar.
When Ai was arrested in April 2011, the debut filmmaker realized she had unprecedented footage of China’s most famous missing person; for weeks she stayed up late into the night to Skype with Ai’s assistants, as his Beijing studio was raided and his possessions searched. Klayman phoned Ai the night he was released: “He was subdued, exhausted and clearly relieved to just be home,” she said. Her documentary ends as the artist-provocateur wanly tells reporters that he cannot speak to them as a condition of his bail, then firmly shuts his studio door.
“Now that we’re a little farther out, we know he’s not completely broken, but at that moment it felt like [he was], and it was crushing,” Klayman said, adding that Ai went on to violate his bail conditions by speaking out on Twitter and in op-ed pieces.
Even after those conditions were lifted on June 22, Ai is still not allowed to leave China and has been ordered to pay $2.4 million in tax fees. He also faces possible charges including bigamy and pornography. “He’s still living in total uncertainly,” Klayman said. Therefore, the timeliness of her work is all the more front-and-center. “It’s important to me that the documentary will help keep people aware.”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on Aug. 3 in Los Angeles.