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.