Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, screenwriters of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, “The Dictator,” were bantering in the comic actor’s office as Alec Berg, their co-writer, joined in by speakerphone — he was home babysitting his young daughter. Baron Cohen, star of the prankster mockumentaries “Brüno” and “Borat,” was about to move out, and the office was bare except for some black-leather furniture, wigs from his turn as a gay fashionista in an antechamber and posters of “The Dictator,” looming large.
Notoriously reclusive, Baron Cohen eschews interviews except in character, and on this day he was behind a closed door in a nearby office, where the screenwriters were about to join him to concoct further publicity stunts for the dictator character in advance of the film’s release on May 16.
Among other stunts so far, the writers helped plan Baron Cohen’s spilling “ashes of Kim Jong-il” all over Ryan Seacrest (it was actually pancake mix) while Seacrest was live on camera on the red carpet at the Oscars. They also helped Baron Cohen — er, the dictator — blame “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Zionists” for banning his character from the ensuing Academy Awards ceremony.
There is a philosophy behind even the crudest of their pranks and scenes, the writers say: “What Sacha always tries to do, with ‘Borat,’ ‘Brüno’ and even ‘The Dictator,’ is to make sure your victims are worthy, so that there’s a satirical aspect to the comedy,” said Schaffer, who like Berg and Mandel, is a Harvard graduate in his early 40s with executive producing credits on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “These aren’t innocent victims. And nobody is going to feel sorry for Ryan Seacrest.” Whether this last is true has been up for debate.
Baron Cohen became an international sensation in 2006 with his character Borat, a sexist, anti-Semitic TV anchor allegedly from Kazakhstan who descended upon the United States only to elicit the worst in American culture. In one cringe-worthy sequence, he enlisted unsuspecting patrons of a country-western bar to sing along to his ditty, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” In “Brüno” (2009), his fashionista character tries to broker peace between dour Israelis and Palestinians while confusing the word “hummus” with “Hamas.”
The social satire may be pushed even further in “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen’s first scripted film, for which he shares writing credit with Mandel, Schaffer and Berg. The story spotlights Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen, a fascist, misogynistic, Zionist-hating North African despot who is meant to skewer post-Sept. 11 America as he traipses about New York. Only trailers and a two-minute snippet of the film were available before press time, but the action appears to take off as Aladeen arrives in the United States to address the United Nations, only to be kidnapped, shaved and stripped of his identity and left to wander the city until he is rescued by a naive grocery manager played by Anna Faris.
Along the way, Aladeen spars with his ex-head of security (and “Chief Procurer of Women”) played by Ben Kingsley; teams up with his former top scientist, aka Nuclear Nadal; encounters post-Sept. 11 prejudice; and has a run-in with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
Will he shake the ambassador’s hand? “He does more than shake his hand,” Schaffer said, declining to reveal more.
During the interview, the three writers, who met while working on the Harvard Lampoon, weren’t above skewering their own Jewishness — or lack thereof. Mandel is an Upper West Sider who attended Hebrew school until his bar mitzvah and not a day afterward, Schaffer was such a prankster at his own religious school that he was expelled, and Berg has a Jewish wife but is actually a Swedish-American non-Jew — not that that prevents everyone from assuming he’s a member of the tribe. Berg, in fact, said he was the inspiration for a “Curb” episode in which Larry David’s prickly character is mortified to discover his divorce attorney, also named Berg, is not Jewish and is thus, he fears, “out to screw him.”
In person, “Curb’s” creator is actually a “total mensch,” unlike the show’s eponymous character, who says all the things David wishes he could say in real life, the writers said: “TV Larry is like Superman to real Larry’s Clark Kent,” Mandel said. “Even though Larry could not be more different than Sacha, what they share is a very businesslike approach to what is funny.”
Baron Cohen’s work hasn’t been without its critics. Back in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League worried that “Borat” might enhance, rather than dash, anti-Semitism in some quarters; “The Dictator” could well elicit charges of encouraging, instead of skewering, Islamophobia since the World Trade Center attacks.
In the Jerusalem Post, Palestinian writer Ray Hanania suggested that the observantly Jewish Baron Cohen would do better to satirize his own people, instead of “picking on easy targets,” such as Arab dictators.
Mandel, Schaffer and Berg quickly stop joking when confronted with these questions. “Let’s be as clear as humanly possible,” Mandel said. “Technically speaking, the dictator is North African. But he is not Muslim. There is no mention of Muslims, or Muslim humor.
“Of course, Aladeen is clearly not a Zionist,” Berg added. “He dislikes Jews, but only as part of an anti-Zionist, anti-West agenda. To us, he’s always been an amalgam of world dictators, like Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Gadhafi, and Serdar Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan,” Mandel said.
The writing team came up with the idea for “The Dictator” after Baron Cohen, who had brought them in to collaborate on “Borat” and “Brüno,” asked them to pitch ideas for a new film. When they described a spoof based on the crazed despots of the world, Baron Cohen was hooked. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Mandel said of some real-life events that inspired scenes in the movie. Turkmenbashi really did pass a law changing the words for two days of the week to his own name; Kim Jong-il, according to North Korean propaganda, hit nine holes-in-one the first time he played golf; and Gaddafi traveled with his all-female security force, “so the dictator travels with his virgin guard,” Schaffer said. And don’t forget the kitschy, pseudo-heroic black-light portraits Saddam Hussein’s sons hung all over their palaces: “So, in the movie, there’s sort of a black-velvet painting of a muscular Aladeen riding a jaguar, clutching the severed head of Albert Einstein,” Mandel said with a laugh.
The writers describe “The Dictator” as the first mainstream-studio comedy to take on the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing fear of Arabs — or people mistaken as Arab —particularly where flying vehicles are concerned. “We do a scene in which Aladeen is somewhat innocently taking a ride in a helicopter, but it’s really about what the two other passengers, Midwestern Americans, are seeing and hearing,” Mandel said. “He’s having a normal conversation in his native tongue about all the wonderful things that New York has to offer, like the Empire State Building, while the other passengers begin to get worried. Then he’s telling a story about how he crashed his Porsche 911 so he’s hoping to get the new 2012 911. But he couldn’t be more innocent.”
The Arab Spring, which took place while “The Dictator” was shooting, required copious revisions of the script. “None of those countries took into account how much rewriting we had to do,” Schaffer quipped.
But for the trio, anyway, writing a scripted film may have proved in some ways easier than Baron Cohen’s previous mockumentaries.
“Whereas in ‘Borat’ and ‘Brüno’ you’re going, ‘I hope this person says this,’ in a script you just go, he says this,’ ” Schaffer said.
“The Dictator” opens on May 16.
12.18.13 at 4:28 pm | Peter Mark Richman was instantly recognizable. . .
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. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . . (17983)
9.6.13 at 1:58 pm | Adam F. Goldberg still remembers how his father. . . (1048)
9.19.11 at 4:18 pm | On a recent afternoon, Mayim Bialik, having. . . (126)
April 25, 2012 | 11:20 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Lena Dunham, the writer, director and star of “Girls,” HBO’s much-talked-about new series, strode onto the stage at the Writers Guild Theater for a Women in Film Q-and-A recently, wearing a tight gray dress, emerald green flats and the buoyant attitude of a Hollywood “It” girl, albeit a somewhat unlikely one. The audience had cheered after viewing several episodes of “Girls,” her bleak comedy about post-collegiate angst in New York, and the exuberant Dunham delivered one-liners with the panache of a Borscht Belt comedian while radiating the same mix of brassy confidence and self-flagellation her character exudes on the show.
Just 25, with a surprisingly successful ultra-low-budget film, “Tiny Furniture,” using her family and friends as cast members, under her belt, Dunham said her first day on the set of “Girls” “was like riding the tower of terror.” Her makeup artist told her the only person she worked with who’d squirmed more than Dunham was “Steve Martin, and only because he was playing the ukulele.” As for all those scenes in which Dunham deliberately shows off her zaftig shape — during bad sex on fraying sofas, or with legs splayed in the gynecologist’s stirrups — she said, “I’ve been so prepared for people saying, ‘We don’t want to see your body.’ ”
Dunham allows herself to be naked both physically and psychologically in “Girls,” which revolves around her character, Hannah, an aspiring writer who proclaims she “may be the voice of my generation — or at least a voice of a generation,” and who at the opening of the first episode is cut off financially by her parents. Hannah’s quartet of gal pals includes her responsible best friend, Marnie (played by Allison Williams, daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams); the bohemian Jessa (Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke); and the naive Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David Mamet), who gushes, in one of the show’s winking references to “Sex and the City,” that she is a “Carrie” with a splash of “Samantha” — never mind that she is still a virgin.
Eschewing the glamorous Manhattan of “Sex and the City,” with its Manolos and signature cocktails, “Girls” offers instead a gritty world of nebulous ambitions, unpaid internships, claustrophobic walk-ups and embarrassing sex, all complicated by the social media culture.
On the one hand, New York magazine called “Girls” “the ballsiest show on TV,” while others hailed it as the most authentic of the recent spate of chick-centric shows (think “2 Broke Girls” and “New Girl”), offering a naturalistic glimpse of messy semi-adulthood in the throes of an economic recession. But a virulent lashback in the blogosphere erupted after the series’ April 15 premiere, charging that the show narrowly depicts only the children of privilege: Dunham is “an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems,” as one blogger put it; the series is “a huge f——-g disappointment,” opined another. Noted was that even the actors are the children of famous people; Dunham’s mother is the acclaimed photographer Laurie Simmons, her father the painter Carroll Dunham.
Dunham herself has referred to her series as “The Entitled Lena Dunham Project,” but in a telephone conversation from New York, she insisted, “I definitely have never claimed to be the voice of the current women. … [But] I think the personal can be really political, and the best way to tackle a lot of these issues is just to tell a really specific story about really specific girls and hope that resonates.” And, she added, “I’m ready to engage with whoever finds the work challenging or gross or sexy or whatever reaction erupts.”
In one cringe-worthy scene, Hannah’s lover plays with the rolls of fat around her belly, telling her, “Your stomach is funny,” as she retorts, “I don’t want my body to be funny.” Dunham is making a point: “He’s both complimenting her while telling her she doesn’t look the way that she’s supposed to,” she said. “It’s a really weird moment. … So I want to call attention to the fact that these girls may have body issues, but those don’t control them. It can be an ever-present part of every woman’s life, and she can be this weird mix of confident and anxious, beautiful and self-conscious. And so those ambiguities were things I really wanted to discuss.”
On the phone, Dunham sounded more like a chatty girlfriend than a wunderkind show runner. For her press day at HBO’s New York office, she had donned a pair of shoes that usually remain in her closet: “some very high heels that are unwalkable, which I only did because I was lucky enough to have a car [today],” she explained. “Otherwise, I’d be in my sneaker flats, feeling slightly mismatched, like every other girl I know.”
Dunham deliberately uses the word “girls,” as she does in the show’s title; saying she’s all grown up “would definitely be a stretch,” she said.
“There’s stuff that Hannah has done in her ignorance or good-hearted way that I would never, ever undertake in my life,” Dunham added. For example, after Hannah’s parents abruptly cut her off, she pockets the tip for the housekeeper they’ve left in their hotel room. “I’d like to think I’m one year older [than Hannah] and slightly wiser. But there is a lot of me in her, and in everything I do. I’m not, like, an actress with tremendous range, so there has to be some personal element driving each performance moment and each writing moment.”
Dunham has written plenty of humiliating sex scenes for herself to perform on “Girls,” such as the one in which Hannah nervously chatters away, until her lover suggests, “Let’s play the quiet game.”
“I say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot,” Dunham said of Hannah. “The [characters] all do, partially because they’re doing lots of things that they should be apologizing for, but also they’re kind of saying ‘I’m sorry’ for being me, for existing. There’s that sort of feeling a lot of young women get where they just feel so sorry for everything they’ve done even though they’ve done nothing. … [They’re facing] some of the same issues my mom faced as a young woman in New York in the 1970s. Both more and less has changed than we think.”
Even though Dunham now has her own apartment, she still prefers to crash at her parents’ Tribeca loft, where she grew up attending St. Ann’s school in Brooklyn and aspiring to become a writer. In the seventh grade, she attempted to channel Wendy Wasserstein with her own play, “The Goldman Girls,” which riffed on Simmons’ Jewish family.
Dunham said that Hannah shares her Jewish sensibility. “I went to Hebrew school for, like, two weeks, and then didn’t get the part I wanted in the play and quit,” she said. “But I’ve always had a great love of all the holidays that we celebrate together as a family: Passover, Chanukah. I’ve spent a good amount of time in temple, and I definitely feel very culturally Jewish, although that’s the biggest cliché for a Jewish woman to say.”
Most everything Dunham has written is somewhat autobiographical: Her early YouTube videos starred herself as an Oberlin College student — in one case, taking a bath in her bikini in the campus fountain, only to be admonished by a security guard; “Tiny Furniture” (2010) captured her post-graduation ennui upon returning to her parents’ loft, with her real mother playing her mother and her sister playing her sister. “Girls” — which is executive produced by Judd Apatow — picks up two years later, drawing on Dunham’s days of working menial jobs while struggling to become a filmmaker.
At least one other character on “Girls” is Jewish in her mind — the immature Shoshanna. “I think her bat mitzvah was like the best day of her entire life and she’s still pretty focused on the glory of that time,” Dunham said with a laugh.
“I took an amazing trip to Israel two years ago,” she added. “It was the most connected I’ve felt to that part of myself. I learned a lot both spiritually and personally, so it’s something that I would like to write about, although I’m not sure this show will be the outlet.”
“Girls” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.
April 24, 2012 | 11:25 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Not long ago I interviewed Jason Segel (“The Muppets”) about his Duplass brothers film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” when he also talked about his views on life, God, the universe and – oh yes – his new film “The Five Year Engagement,” which opens April 27. This new comedy – which Segel co-authored with the film’s director, Nicholas Stoller – stars Segel and Emily Blunt (“The Adjustment Bureau,” “The Young Victoria”) as a an interfaith couple whose nuptials are put on hold. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, in which the 32-year-old actor waxed philosophical on everything from his penchant for Joseph Campbell to himself growing up in an interfaith family in Los Angeles.
NPM: Tell me a bit about your religious background.
JS: My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything. I went to an Episcopal school during the day and Hebrew school at night. I actually have a pretty thorough religious education. It’s a lot of guilt – guilt from all sides [laughs].
I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, “This is not God.” It’s the antithesis of the point. I was a young kid who would have been happy to believe whatever I was told and I was being excluded from both sides? It really informed who I became as a person. You either become misanthropic or you become funny. I went with funny.
NPM: Is there any difference between Jewish and Christian guilt?
JS: No, it’s all the same. It’s all people who think they know; you know the word we use for God is meant to be the most powerful force that you could possibly imagine. I’ve come to terms with the idea that any of us who have any claim to think that we know what’s going on is pretty arrogant; that’s not the God we’re talking about. Everyone is so sure of what they believe in, but they have no idea. I think the smartest opinion is to say, “ I have no idea.”
NPM: Isn’t it just as arrogant to say there’s no God as to say there is one?
JS: Well, atheism makes no sense, just logically. Do you know the story of the watch and the watchmaker? It’s pretty compelling. If you were back in caveman days, and you found a watch, you would know implicitly it’s different than a rock or a tree. You’d know that something made it. And if you’re able to pull back, our planets are revolving around the sun in perfect order; these are the gears of the watch. I think it’s foolish to think the universe isn’t designed by something; the big question to me is, is it conscious? And I don’t know the answer to that.
NPM: Did you have a bar mitzvah?
JS: I did, at Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades. And I nailed it. It was a really fun day, actually, and Wolfgang Puck catered my bar mitzvah; it was very fancy. And it was very 90s in some fashion; I remember I wore like a long purple jacket with mustard green pants; like, I looked like a terrible standup comedian.
NPM: Did you get any laughs on the bimah?
JS: A bar mitzvah is not a particularly funny thing. It’s tough to get laughs in Hebrew.
NPM: Do you identify as culturally Jewish?
JS: Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of “I know better than someone else” is wildly arrogant.
NPM: Tell me about the genesis of “The Five Year Engagement.”
JS: Nick Stoller [the film’s director and co-author] and I are like the least masculine men in Hollywood. We’re super interested in relationships; that’s always been something that sort of drives me. And what we thought was interesting was to explore the way a power dynamic shifts over five years. You know, relationships are so fluid, and you meet new people and people’s jobs change and you move and it’s never stagnant.
NPM: In the movie, you’re Jewish and the character played by Emily Blunt is not; in the film’s trailer, there’s a scene in which the couple is talking about whether the men will wear yarmulkes, and you say you have one in your “Jewish drawer.”
JS: Actually we had a whole family dynamic that she was Christian and I’m Jewish, and the [ensuing] religious discussion; her family wanted the Christian wedding and I wanted the Jewish wedding, and our families wanted it more than us. But we ended up cutting a lot of it.
NPM: Have you noticed that most films that revolve around a Jewish guy have him involved with a non-Jewish woman?
JS: That is true [smiles broadly]. But that I don’t have an answer to.
NPM: I heard you improvised the line about the Jewish drawer. Do you have one?
JS: Yes I do. I definitely have a Jewish drawer; it’s in my office at home. It’s like where my tallis and stuff are, which I only open on the high holidays.
April 22, 2012 | 12:53 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
My 7-year-old son’s room is covered with posters from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” The Empire Strikes Back” and other “Star Wars” films, and I myself have enjoyed the zeitgeist-y films “The Big Chill,” “Grand Canyon” and the “Accidental Tourist.” So I was eager to meet Lawrence Kasden, the filmmaker who has written and/or directed those movies, along with his wife, Meg, Kasden’s co-screenwriter on “Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon,” at the Four Seasons hotel recently.
I found their latest collaboration, “Darling Companion,” to be charming (although the reviews have not been so good); I’m a sucker for dogs and dog lovers so I wanted to find out the true story that inspired the film, which Meg describes as the tale of “a woman [Diane Keaton] who loves her dog more than her husband [Kevin Kline] – and then he loses the dog.”
Actually the idea for the movie began some years before the Kasdens adopted their now-geriatric pooch, Mac, who is a cattle dog mixed breed, judging from the photograph Larry proudly shows me on his iPhone.
About 15 years ago, the Kasdens didn’t have a dog, but they loved taking care of the mutt that had been adopted by their son, filmmaker Jake Kasden (“Bad Teacher,” “Orange County”). “This dog, named Denver, came into our lives right at a time when things were very emotional and tumultuous,” Meg said. “Our younger son, Jon, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the same time that Jake went away to make his first movie…Jon is now 32 and in good health [he’s also a filmmaker], but at the time he had to go through almost a year of chemo and it was rough. And we had that dog because Jake was away and for some reason she just was a tonic at that moment.”
“The experience of walking a dog in the Colorado mountains, after we decided to get a place there, has been very spiritually and psychologically significant for us,” Larry added.
After Jake adopted a second dog – this one named “Steve Rosenbaum” – the Kasdens eventually decided to adopt a stray of their own; one day seven years ago Meg received a photograph of a rescue dog and told Larry they had to go see him right away, because he was scheduled to be euthenized. The dog looked sad but “irresistible,” Larry said.
So they went to see him and adopted Mac the next day; “We were empty nesters, we fell in love with him and he became a shared responsibility,” Meg said.
Then, one fall day when the family was up at their vacation home in the Rockies, a friend took Mac for a hike while the Kasdens attended a wedding. Due to his abusive past, Mac was still skittish in certain situations, notably around men wearing hats, but this time it was a mountain biker who frightened him so badly that he ran off into the woods. The woman followed him, calling his name, but to no avail; night fell and when he did not return home the next morning, the Kasdens panicked.
Over the next three weeks—during thunderstorms and even an early snow—the couple and their friends mounted an all-out search for Mac, enlisting the help of the local radio station, the sheriff, and posting his picture all over town. The Kasdens hiked all day long in the woods, calling out Mac’s name, but there was no sign of the dog.
In the middle of the search, a friend confided to Meg that she believed she had psychic abilities: “She’d actually say, ‘Try 9:30 p.m. between the church and the ice cream parlor,’ and we’d rush over there,” Larry said. “We’d been so discouraged, that that did keep us going.”
On the thirteenth day, after yet another search in the woods, the Kasdens acknowledged that Mac was not coming home. “We said, ‘We have to deal with this, we’ve done everything we can and Mac’s not coming back,’” Meg said. “It was a very sad moment for us, but we went back home to L.A.”
Almost immediately after their return, Larry went out for a bike ride – and received a startling telephone call. “Guess who’s sitting next to me?” the Kasdan’s friend said from Colorado. Someone had spotted Mac playing with her dogs down by a river and the Kasdens’ friend had rushed over to pick him up.
“Mac had lost about 7 pounds, which is roughly 15 percent of his body weight, and he was filthy,” Larry said. “He looked like he hadn’t been fed or touched in three weeks.”
“But he was OK,” Meg quickly added.
People were so rapt whenever Meg told the story that the Kasdens eventually decided to turn it into a movie; “Darling Companion” revolves around a couple, unlike the Kasdens, who are suffering a post-midlife crisis, as well as the kinds of companionships experienced by their assorted friends and relatives.
The Kasdens see the ensemble film as the third in a trilogy that began with “The Big Chill” (1983) and continued with “Grand Canyon” (1991), both of which also deal with groups of friends, the Kasdens’ contemporaries, who come together and grow apart.
While Meg grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, Larry was raised in small towns in West Virginia where he felt “other” as the only Jew in his circle of friends. “People would say “I Jewed him down’ or ‘kike’ but they didn’t know the power that had over me,” he recalled. “At those moments I felt, ‘These are my best friends and they didn’t understand that I didn’t want to be alienated like that;’ I didn’t want my people to be considered undesirable, or that they should be equated with cheapness or swindling.
“Every person who considers himself an artist, without being inflated about it, will tell you they’ve felt like an outsider during their childhood experiences, because that creates a kind of lonliness….You live in your head and think, ‘I’m going to make something that no one else can have any impact on, and I’m going to present it to this world that doesn’t “get” me.’”
Life at home was tumultuous; Kasden’s parents fought. “We didn’t have a sense of a family that would take care of you,” he said. “And I was looking for another family.”
He met Meg when both were juniors at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s; they were married in a humanistic Jewish ceremony near Detroit 40 years ago.
During the early years of their marriage, Larry worked in advertising as he struggled to become a screenwriter; his screenplay of “The Bodyguard” was rejected 57 times before it became a blockbuster starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in 1992. After his script for “Continental Divide” became a hot commodity, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came calling;” they wanted Kasden to write a film that would ultimately become “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“I had still been working in advertising just a month before, and then suddenly I had sold two scripts and here’s Steven Spielberg,” Kasden recalled. “He and George told me our hero has a whip, he wears a fedora and a leather jacket, and he’s chasing the lost Ark of the Covenant, and that was it,” he recalled of the premise.
After “Raiders,” Kasden would go on to write a total of 11 feature films, most of which he directed; “The Big Chill” came about, 10 years after the Kasdens finished college, when their contemporaries “had gone out into the world and found we weren’t the center of everything,” Larry said. “A lot of people had trouble finding their work or something they wanted to do that was nearly as meaningful as college [in the late 1960s]. The real world is always a shock process, and the movie is about that – coming into the real world, and then 10 years later when some people are still unsettled, some are really successful and others are really struggling.”
“Grand Canyon” was born when the Kasdens’ two sons were 16 and 11, respectively; it was an age “that added to our hyper vigilance about what could happen and how Los Angeles had changed,” Larry said. The Grand Canyon became the central metaphor for the divide among Angelinos due to socioeconomic and racial differences.
Kasden hasn’t made a film since his last two movies, “Mumford” and “Dreamcatcher,” didn’t do so well critically, although he’s been busy writing and developing other projects. “Darling Companion” is his first independent feature film and his first produced film in eight years.
There are two other shaggy dog stories associated with the movie; the collie mix who plays Freeway, the hero dog, was once himself a rescue found wandering in the desert with a rope embedded into his neck. The other story concerns Meg’s sister, who rescued a bleeding dog she found in the snow on a freeway outside Detroit; that is how Keaton’s character rescues the hero dog, who is named Freeway, in “Darling Companion.”
Now Mac is 14 and his walks with the Kasdens have slowed to a crawl. But he is as cherished as ever. “I had loved this dog from the time we got him and I was not prepared for how I felt when we lost him,” Larry said.
April 18, 2012 | 11:49 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Hilary Helstein, executive director of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, walked into an interview wearing a purple dress, black boots and carrying a buzzing BlackBerry, appearing indefatigable, if a tad weary: The annual festival’s kickoff was only three weeks away, and in the past 24 hours Helstein had flown from New York to Los Angeles, stayed up until 2 a.m. finalizing the festival brochure, then awakened at 7 a.m. to attend to the myriad details involved in screening more than 25 films at 13 venues from Pasadena to Beverly Hills over the course of just one week, May 3-10.
Helstein spent the past year scouring other film festivals as well as the American Film Market for movies, and hundreds of DVDs are stacked in her West Hollywood home, souvenirs of her screenings in the selection process. “Of course it gets tedious,” she said of watching every one of those films. “You do it because you love film and filmmakers and want to create something compelling.”
This year’s festival will spotlight Jewish Hollywood, old and new: It kicks off at the Writers Guild Theater with the documentary “Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom,” which traces how Bernard Schwartz, the son of impoverished immigrants, became a Hollywood icon. Adding to the festivities will be a panel discussion among celebrities who knew Curtis and appear in the movie, such as Theresa Russell and Mamie Van Doren.
On May 6, actress Penelope Ann Miller, of the Oscar-winning silent film “The Artist,” is scheduled to introduce another classic silent film, 1924’s “The Moon of Israel,” which hasn’t screened publicly in 88 years. “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz made the film when he was still known as Mihály Kertész, and it caught the attention of mogul Jack Warner, who brought Curtiz to Hollywood. Also capitalizing on the success of “The Artist” is the French farce “OSS-117: Lost in Rio,” an opportunity to see Michael Hazanavicius once again direct actor Jean Dujardin, this time in a romp Helstein describes as “crazy, offbeat and raunchy.”
Another highlight will be “Shoah: The Unseen Interviews,” the Los Angeles premiere of a collection of additional conversations and outtakes from the 220 hours of footage Claude Lanzmann shot for his landmark 1985 documentary, “Shoah.”
Helstein put this all together with help from her co-chairs as well as a 12-person screening committee and some 50 volunteers. But Helstein has been the force behind the festival for all of its seven years (this year, for the first time, it has come under the auspices of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of The Jewish Journal). Pulling off this kind of festival here is no small feat, considering that several past Los Angeles incarnations of Jewish film festivals have come and gone, including one by the Laemmle Theatres in the 1990s that lasted only a few years.
Even though Los Angeles houses the second-largest Jewish community in the United States and certainly the largest element of the nation’s, if not the world’s, film industry, this is a tough festival town. Smaller cities, such as San Francisco and Atlanta, have established Jewish festivals that regularly draw tens of thousands of viewers; Helstein’s effort, which is still relatively young, has increased from 2,000 participants in 2006 to 4,500 last year..
“The L.A. Jewish community is so large and diverse that you get this splintering effect, and it’s hard to coalesce around a single event,” said Greg Laemmle, president of the Laemmle Theatres. He praised Helstein for her “tenacity, consistency, knowledge of film and filmmaking, and the community.”
“It’s hard for any film festival to get traction here, and that includes the Los Angeles Independent [Film] Festival and AFI,” said film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times
“This is such a Hollywood-centric city that it’s hard to break through the ‘noise’ and get people to turn out. And there are dozens of festivals here, so it’s hard to establish yourself as a destination where people say, ‘This is special and we have to pay attention.’ ”
Helstein is well aware of these challenges, noting that Los Angeles is also home to the Israel Film Festival and the Sephardic Film Festival, as well as ongoing film screenings at The Museum of Tolerance.
“There’s a lot of competition and a lot to do in L.A., whether Jewish or secular events,” she said. “The key that has helped sustain us is presenting unique programs and films that haven’t been seen here before, and to be the first to do something in L.A. And there’s always the ‘wow factor’; the fact is that we live in Hollywood and we have to figure out what’s going to be glitzy and glamorous and what we can offer audiences they can’t get someplace else.”
Putting together this year’s program cost about $100,000, a relatively small sum compared to the hundreds of thousands more dollars enjoyed by other festivals, Helstein said. “You have to become the Wizard of Oz,” she said of working on a shoestring. “You make things happen; you put on a big dog-and-pony show; you get donors and community involvement.”
Helstein’s own involvement draws on an intense love of film that began while she was growing up in a Reform home in Great Neck, N.Y., where she used to bring brown bag lunches to eat while seeing movies such as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Seventh Seal.”
After graduating from the State University of New York at Oneonta, she balanced working in corporate Manhattan with acting gigs — hiring all the middle management as a human resources manager for the then-budding Telemundo television network, for example, while studying performance at the Herbert Berghof Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute.
Around 1990, she moved to Los Angeles to get into the entertainment business, landing a job in development at Tom Hanks’ company, where, she said, “The script for ‘Forrest Gump’ sat on my desk for two years before it was made.” The three years she worked for Hanks gave her an education in filmmaking from script to set; Helstein learned about production while working on sets in various departments or as an actor with directors such as David Lynch. She moved to Malaysia for five months to serve as a stand-in for actress Patricia Arquette in “Beyond Rangoon.”
Along the way, she began conducting interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, eventually becoming one of the organization’s top interviewers, as she met with more than 300 survivors, including those rescued by Varian Fry.
In the mid-1990s, she drew on her interviewing experience when she began shooting her own documentary, “As Seen Through These Eyes,” about Holocaust artists, which she describes as a “labor of love” that took 10 years to produce.
It was while curating an exhibition on Holocaust painter Samuel Bak at the Milken Jewish Community Center that its then-executive director, Jack Mayer, suggested Helstein put together a film festival in 2005. “So we got a small grant from The Federation to get started, and Jack left me alone in an office and said, ‘Just let me know what’s going on,’ ” recalled Helstein, who is now in her 40s. “And I said to him, ‘I don’t want to make just a JCC festival, it has to be big.’ ”
Helstein promptly met with other festival directors to learn the ropes and find out how to contact distributors, and her first festival began with some 20 films in eight venues in 2006.
As the festival has grown, Helstein has also incorporated word-of-mouth screenings of new films, which take place throughout the year; highlights have included “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s period drama about the sexually charged relationship between the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), her lover Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, with Cronenberg appearing for a Q-and-A.
The 2010 festival screened “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Chasid who becomes a drug smuggler, and premiered a short film by Antwone Fisher.
The festival has not been without critics. Last month, Helstein drew ire after she declined to screen “Standing Silent,” Scott Rosenfelt’s documentary about sexual abuse within Baltimore’s Orthodox community — and her e-mail warning other festival directors about the film being a “witch hunt” was made public (see sidebar).
Some critics have accused the festival of attempting to be nonconfrontational, but Helstein disagreed. “We work together as a team to try to bring the best to our community,” she said. “And we certainly do show some of what other festivals show. But our priority is to premiere films that have never been seen before. We do a lot of U.S. and L.A. premieres.”
Helstein declined to comment about the “Standing Silent” affair. But when asked how she balances programming provocative films that will also appeal to a diverse crowd, she said that balance is key. “I don’t see any reason to upset people on the right or on the left,” she said. “There are all kinds of people who have all kinds of opinions, and the goal is to present programs that are balanced and have enough information to support what you’re showing.”
When Turan recently perused a press release of festival highlights, he pronounced them “quite interesting,” particularly the silent film and the Shoah unseen interviews. “It looks like a strong lineup,” he said.
For full schedule, tickets and information, visit www.lajfilmfest.org.
April 18, 2012 | 11:46 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In March, The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival made headlines because its executive director, Hilary Helstein, had sent a negative e-mail to other festival directors about the documentary “Standing Silent,” which shines a light on sexual abuse by rabbis within the Orthodox community. Controversy erupted when Helstein’s Sept. 6 e-mail was made public, revealing that she had described the film, as seen by her team, as a “witch hunt” and put a “warning sticker” on it for other festivals.
The film’s producer and director, Scott Rosenfelt (“Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza”), told The Journal he was livid when he learned about Helstein’s missive just before a “Standing Silent” screening at the Hartford Jewish Film Festival on March 20. A moderator read Helstein’s letter aloud to the audience during the Q-and-A session, following which, Rosenfelt said, “The audience basically gasped.” “Standing Silent” has screened at more than 20 other Jewish films festivals and was profiled in a feature in the Washington Post.
In her e-mail, Helstein told her colleagues that her team had “flat out” rejected the film: “We have a fairly conservative community in L.A. and … our committee felt with a community that reveres it’s [sic] rabbis this was not something they wanted to show.” Helstein went on to say: “I just wanted to put a warning sticker on this one so that you are aware.”
Rosenfelt fired back on March 22 in a scathing e-mail to Helstein, accusing her, among other things, of being “clearly not someone who supports filmmakers.”
In a telephone interview, Rosenfelt acknowledged that his language was “harsh.” But, he said, he was speaking for victims who have had their stories squelched by communities more interested in protecting abusive rabbis.
Helstein declined to comment on the matter. However, John Fishel, the L.A. festival’s honorary chair, described the controversy as a matter of media “spin out of control, generating a lot of emotion and anger.” He said Rosenfelt’s e-mail presented an unfair portrait of Helstein and the festival, which, he said, “is a very, very good one, and it’s getting better every year.”
Los Angeles is not the only festival in recent years to have to deal with the repercussions of decisions regarding films that can alienate audiences. In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish film festival, the largest in the United States, ignited fierce debate when it screened a documentary about Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist killed while acting as a human shield in 2003.
April 11, 2012 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin and Naomi Pfefferman Magid
It looks like Mel Gibson will not be making his controversial Maccabee revolt movie any time soon. According to The Wrap, Warner Bros. didn’t care for the script screenwriter Joe Eszterhas delivered in February and has put the project on hold: “Warner’s has since passed on it, according to an individual close to the project. Warner production president Greg Silverman described it as lacking in ‘feeling’ and ‘a sense of triumph,’ according to the individual. As another individual put it: ‘The script didn’t pass muster.’”
Eszterhas offered another point of view. He wrote a seething 9-page letter to Gibson accusing him of wanton anti-Semitism and misrepresenting his intentions with the film. Eszterhas wrote that he spent two years researching and writing the script, which Gibson refused to read.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that you never had, or have, any intention of making a film about the Maccabees,” Eszterhas wrote in a letter partially published by TheWrap.com. “I believe you announced the project with great fanfare…in an attempt to deflect continuing charges of anti-Semitism which have dogged you, charges which have crippled your career.”
Eszterhas also accused Gibson of “using” him to garner Jewish good will for film credentials that include two movies “condemning anti-Semitism.” To Gibson, Eszterhas wrote: “I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason you won’t make “The Maccabees” is the ugliest possible one. You hate Jews.”
Gibson fired back with a letter to Eszterhas, calling many of the charges b.s. (though he never specifically addresses the Jew-hating ones) and insisting the real reason the project was shelved is that the screenplay stunk, according to TMZ. “In 25 years of script development I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time,” Gibson wrote.
The news about the shelved Maccabee project should assuage, at least for now, concerns by Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center that a Gibson film about Judah Maccabee would allow a notorious anti-Semite to tell a treasured Jewish story. That would be “like casting Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission,” Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center said in a statement last year.
“If you were making a satire of Hollywood, you would have the anti-Semitic, drunk, racist, misogynistic movie director making the Judah Maccabee biopic,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg told Hollywood Jew in September. “It’s an act of outrageous chutzpah for an anti-Semite to appropriate a Jewish hero for a movie. Would you have a person who is widely believed by black people to be a racist involved in a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.? Would you have a person most gay people believe is a homophobe direct ‘Milk?’”
Gibson has drawn ire since voicing anti-Semitic remarks during a drunk driving arrest in 2006, when agent Ari Emanuel wrote in the Huffington Post that “alcohol does not excuse racism and anti-Semitism.” Then there was Gibson’s controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which depicted Jews as bloodthirsty Christ-killers, many opined.
In an email, a spokesperson for Gibson declined to comment on the Maccabee film-in-limbo, stating that he does not represent the film’s writer, Joe Eszterhas.
Eszterhas has suggested he wrote the film “The Music Box” as penance for his own father’s anti-Semitic past. In the 1930’s, his Hungarian émigré father, Istvan Eszterhas, wrote vicious anti-Semitic propaganda—the book ‘‘Nemzet Politika’’ (’‘National Policy’‘) refers to Jews as parasites—and was later investigated by the Justice Department for alleged war crimes, according to The New York Times.
Eszterhas was apparently devastated by the revelation of his father’s bigotry, writing in his 2004 memoir “Hollywood Animal”: “I knew my father wasn’t a murderer or torturer, literally speaking. He didn’t kill or torture Jews with his own hands. But did the words he wrote and said cause those who read and heard them to murder and torture Jews?’‘
In further excerpts published by The Wrap, Eszterhas refers to Gibson as “wild,” “crazed,” and “explosive” and said he “continually called Jews ‘Hebes’ and ‘oven-dodgers’ and ‘Jewboys.’
“It seemed that most times when we discussed someone, you asked ‘He’s a Hebe, isn’t he?’ You said most ‘gatekeepers’ of American companies were ‘Hebes’ who ‘controlled their bosses.’”
According to the letter, Gibson referred to the Holocaust as “a lot of horseshit” and wrongly claims the Torah makes reference to the sacrifice of Christian babies. Oh, and that Gibson’s intention with the movie was to “convert Jews to Christianity.”
Meanwhile, actor Joshua Malina spoofed the issue on his Facebook page this way: “Warner Bros. reportedly puts Mel Gibson’s Maccabee movie on hold,” he wrote. “No biggie,” asserts Gibson, “I kind of hate Jews anyway.”
April 7, 2012 | 2:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s Jeffrey Dean,” a voice says on the line, and it’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays Jewish hotel mogul Ike Evans in the 1950s Miami noir series “Magic City” on STARZ. Dean says he’s driving his 2-year-old son, Gus, to a cabin in the Catskills, a nice vacation from the long shooting days on the vast, marble and terrazzo set of Ike’s fictional Miramar Playa hotel.
The swanky joint is Rat Pack glamorous, and Ike—like Morgan himself – is charming, suave and handsome (who can forget Morgan as the lovable Denny Duquette, who wooed Izzie on “Grey’s Anatomy?) But Ike is a man in trouble. We learn he’s made a deal with the devil – actually the Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston) – to keep his hotel afloat, a deed he’s determined to keep from his family. Then there’s his daughter’s bat mitzvah (pronounced bas mitzvah on the show) to negotiate: Ike’s dad, Arthur, a Russian Jewish unionist and atheist, believes religion is b.s.; he won’t set foot inside a temple even for the bas mitzvah. Meanwhile, Ike’s much-younger second wife, Vera, (the gorgeous former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), a Romany Gypsy who survived the Holocaust and now wants to convert to Judaism, thinks the culturally Jewish Ike is “the worst Jew in the world” (she also reads “Exodus” in bed). And Ike’s daughter, Lauren, wants pink dry ice as well as grandpa at her bas mitzvah. In the course of our conversation, Morgan (“Weeds,” “Supernatural,” “Watch Men”) spoke about “Magic City,” playing Jewish and why he likes Ike.
NPM: What drew you to “Magic City?”
JDM: I was lucky enough to read the first three hours of the show before I even met with [series creator] Mitch Glazer, which is a really rare opportunity, and I realized I had an opportunity to play a guy and really flesh him out. On a television series you have so much more time to do that than in a movie, and if it’s done right it’s a slow burn in you getting to know the character. With Ike, you’re meeting a charming, loving family man who is thrown into these extreme circumstances and you see these cracks emerging in his exterior. You find out he’s dealing with some really serious problems, and how he deals with them – right or wrong – you get to see play out. I like the moments behind closed doors where you get to see how hard it is for him; those are the moments I love to play.
NPM: What’s your sense of Ike’s Jewish identity?
JDM: He wasn’t raised religious; that’s pretty well established with his relationship with his father. But he certainly respects it, and being Jewish then wasn’t the easiest time, especially in the hotel world he’s infiltrating in 1959. We touch on the fact that when he goes to see his [non-Jewish] former sister-in-law, she sets the meeting at the Bathhouse, which was a real club in Miami where Jews weren’t allowed. So there was a certain amount of segregation and anti-Semitism, though Jews were a significant part of that community. The undercurrent in that scene is that the waiter won’t even acknowledge me; the Bathhouse was very white and upper class and that’s a place that Mitch remembers from his youth. So she takes me there and I say to her in that scene, “I would be out on the curb if it weren’t for you.”
NPM: There’s also a scene where a state senator is ogling Miss Iceland in a pageant at the hotel and saying she’d improve the gene pool.
JDM: Yes, and then he starts on this “You people’ s—-” [referring to Jewish prowess in business]. My instinct when he says that was to jump across the table and put his head through it. But I have to be smarter than that as Ike Evans, and probably as myself as Jeff Morgan. Because this is the world for Ike; he’s grown up in this time where at every corner there are people who are making cracks like this. I remember that scene in particular because it bothered me. I wanted to get [the senator] but Mitch pulled me back. It’s a sh—-y crack, but he’s used to dealing with that, and it’ll happen more as the series goes on. Anti-Semitism and racism are a big topic on the show. You could have Sammy Davis, Jr., playing at the Fountainebleau [one of the grand hotels] but he couldn’t sleep there.
NPM: Did your performance in the Jewish-themed film, “Dibbuk Box,” help prepare you in any way to play Ike?
JDM: I finished “Dibbuk Box” right before I went down to Miami for “Magic City,” but that didn’t dawn on me too much. I do remember telling Mitch, “You do know I’m not Jewish,” but he said, “Yes, but you can play it.”
NPM: We learn that The Butcher, played by Danny Huston, was raised in a Dickensian Orthodox Jewish orphanage.
JDM: Being Jewish is something he and Ike share, and maybe that’s part of the reason they became partners in the first place. That being said, this is going to be the worst partnership in the history of television.
NPM: Why is Ike so hungry for success?
JDM: There are hints that I get to work off of as an actor. We find out he’s grown up poor and he used to work as a cabana boy at one of the hotels. With Ike it’s always family and provide for his family. He’s also a man whose late wife’s family – you don’t get more WASPy than that. So he was trying to assimilate into this other world, but he really was never able to. And that fuels a certain amount of hunger. He wants to show the world that he’s as good as or better than anyone else. Actually you’re seeing him fit in to a point, but he wants to take it over.
NPM: How does Ike feel about his wife’s desire to convert to Judaism?
JDM: While my character is trying to prove himself to Miami, she’s trying to prove herself to me, unnecessarily. She came from this rough background and she’s been thrust into this world that’s foreign to her, and she desperately wants to fit into the family and to become a mother figure to Ike’s children. So she pursues the conversion and you’ll see as smooth and charming as Ike is, it makes him a little uncomfortable. Because of the way his father raised him, he’s a little nervous around religion. He wants to assimilate, and to be an American mogul.
NPM: Mitch Glazer based the series, in part, on memories of his own childhood in Miami and stories his friends and relatives told him about the 1950s. Has that helped in developing your character?
JDM: I have Mitch at my disposal on the set and he’s available to me 24 hours a day. Working on a show like this, I’d work a 16-hour day and I could pick up a phone at any given moment and he’d tell me stories, or something to help me ground every scene in reality. I have a crush on Mitch; there’s definitely a romance between the two of us—his wife is incredibly jealous.
“Magic City” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on STARZ.