Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I was walking out of a screening of the cheeky new animated film, “Puss in Boots,” starring Antonio Banderas as the titular bad kitty, at Grauman’s Mann Chinese 6 Theatres when a splattering of fake blood on the cinema’s glass doors, gaunt skeletal figures and assorted skulls caught my eye. This was the setup for the eleventh annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival, the largest horror fest in the United States (at the Chinese 6 through Oct. 23), which for the first time is including a slasher flick from Israel, titled “Kalevet,” or “Rabies.” The movie screens Oct. 22, 6 p.m. and is billed as the first slasher film ever from the Jewish state.
Since the Israeli film industry in general is making waves at Cannes and other fesitvals around the world, it’s not so surprising that its first genre movie made it to Screamfest—dubbed the “Sundance of horror”—which has hosted filmmakers such as Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Eli Roth (of the “Hostel” films, who also played the bat-smashing Bear Jew in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust-tinged fantasy “Inglourious Basterds”). According to festival founder Rachel Belofsky, Screamfest also discovered and premiered 2007’s “Paranornal Activity”—the brainchild of Israeli-born American director Oren Peli—now a monstrously successful franchise (the most recent installment having been the box office phenonemom “Paranormal Activity 3”) .
Screamfest’s brochure describes “Rabies” thusly: “A brother and sister in their 20s run away from home after their dark secret is discovered. They find temporary refuge in a deserted nature reserve. When the sister falls into a hunting trap, set by a psychotic killer, the brother sets out in a race against time to rescue her.”
I haven’t seen ”Rabies” – nor have I seen any horror films from Israel (save for those that deal with the real-life horror of war)—but the movie caught my eye in part because it stars one of Israel’s famous leading men, Lior Ashkenazi, who also stars in Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Israel’s best foreign film submission for the 84th Academy Awards.
Since “Rabies” premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, critics have lauded the curveballs it lobs viewers expecting the typical genre flick.
Popcornaddiction.com describes it as “Opening with a scene indicative of your average torture-porn – a bloodied woman trapped and later drugged by a deranged killer, harbouring a grudge against dogs – [but] the rug is quickly pulled from beneath your feet as the filmmakers take an inspired wrong turn into largely unexplored territory. We meet the usual hapless teens, the obligatory bumbling police officers (Ashkenazi and Danny Geva) and a forest ranger husband and wife, yet not once do your undoubtedly informed predictions come to pass….. Like an earnest “Scream,” a softly-spoken “The Cottage” or a ruthlessly efficient “Severence,” “Rabies” is less a horror than it is a gore-soaked comedy.”
While the actual disease, rabies, does not make an appearance in the film, by Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, Dreadcentral.com notes, “Sexual deviancy, knives, guns, landmines, and the looming threat of serial murder invade the landscape and the minds of the characters…showing that the title acts as more of a metaphor for our rabid tendencies as humans instead of actual infectious disease driving us to lunacy.”
Los Angelenos can next see Ashkenazi in “Footnote” at the AFI Fest 2011, which runs from Nov. 3-10 (“Footnote” screens on Nov. 6). Ashkanazi—a former paratrooper—plays a role quite different from the deviant cop he portrays in “Rabies.” “Footnote” – which won best screenplay at the 2011 Cannes film festival – tells of a father (Shlomo Bar Aba) and son (Ashkenaki) who engage in a power struggle as they teach in the Talmud department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Footnote” is the fourth film by Cedar, who also directed 2007’s Oscar-nominee “Beaufort.”
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October 19, 2011 | 4:04 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Producer and writer Howard Gordon’s TV shows have reflected uncannily the American psyche since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
“24,” the Fox drama he helped mold into the Emmy-winning thriller about terrorist-busting super patriot Jack Bauer, premiered just weeks after Sept. 11 and became a testosterone-amped fantasy retort to al-Qaeda. Ten years later, Gordon’s acclaimed new Showtime series, “Homeland,” created with Alex Gansa and based on the Israeli drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) debuted not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. And the fourth episode of this series about a returning POW will air just days after the release scheduled for Oct. 18 of Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.
The POW at the center of “Homeland” is Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who is rescued after eight years of captivity in Afghanistan, hailed as a national hero and trotted out by the military as a poster boy for the war on terror, even as his flashbacks of horrific torture reveal his instability. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is the rogue CIA officer who suspects Brody may have been “turned into” a terrorist agent, and who utilizes illegal means to plant video cameras in his home and even to spy on the awkward sex he attempts with his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin).
For these transgressions, Carrie, who herself is hiding a secret — she suffers from bipolar disorder — is confronted by her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), a Jewish character whose talmudic observations often serve as the conscience of the show.
“Homeland” is the latest American production to be adapted from Israeli television, which has become a go-to place for Hollywood producers looking for material — the most successful example thus far having been HBO’s psychotherapy drama “In Treatment,” based on Israel’s “BeTipul.”
While the first season of “In Treatment” was translated almost verbatim from its Israeli counterpart, “Homeland” — also from Keshet Broadcasting — required much more transformation. “In Israel, the issue of POWs is in everyone’s consciousness; Galid Shalit has been at the front and center of a national tragedy,” the 50-year-old Gordon said. “So, in ‘Hatufim,’ the homecoming of two longtime captives launches a domestic drama that becomes the heart of the show.”
For audiences in the United States, however, where the immediate threat of al-Qaeda has appeared to recede, a psychological thriller seemed a better approach. Gordon and Gansa added a female CIA officer to the mix and created a cat-and-mouse game between the flawed agent and the former captive. “We posited that the returning soldier had possibly turned into a terrorist and had been sent back here as the tip of the spear of a major attack on U.S. soil,” Gordon said.
The premise allowed “Homeland” to explore the murkier moral questions lurking upon the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. “While ’24’ was born in the wake of 9/11 and represents a kind of national wish-fulfillment, ‘Homeland’ picks up the story at a time when the nation has experienced a kind of collective amnesia and the fear factor is not nearly as acute,” Gordon said. “So we have Carrie, the CIA officer who is holding almost obsessively onto that fear. For that, she is marginalized and an outcast, rather than regarded as a national hero like Jack Bauer.”
Gordon said he intends for the series to ask, but not answer, questions such as: “What do we have to be afraid of now, and how far do we go to protect ourselves? If we’re invading the rights of others, who gets to tell us who we are allowed to watch, and what are the emotional and psychological costs to the people who invade our privacy?”
“24” was denounced by some critics as Islamophobic and accused of validating the Bush administration’s policies regarding torture. Gordon denies both charges, pointing out that the fictional Bauer grew increasingly introspective following news headlines of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Thus far, the Muslim characters introduced in “Homeland” have not been savory, but Gordon said the series will introduce a Muslim CIA agent in order to offer a balanced perspective. Then there is the chilling sequence that reveals Brody converted to Islam during his captivity and is praying in secret in his garage. “It’s designed to scare us, because of our own prejudices,” Gordon said. “It forces you to ask yourself: ‘Does the fact that Brody now practices Islam mean that he is now a terrorist?’
“I would caution people to take a beat and wait to watch the story play out, as it did on ’24,’ and then once the dust settles will be a good time to talk,” he said.
Gordon began working on “Homeland” the same day that “24” wrapped, having been captivated by the premise since his agent introduced him to “Hatufim.” The popular Israeli series — which is available in Hebrew online and will premiere its second season in December — is the brainchild of Gideon Raff, an Israeli graduate of the American Film Institute who directed the English-language films “The Killing Floor” and “Train” before returning to Israel with “Prisoners of War.”
“There had never been an Israeli series, ever, that dealt with what happened to POWs after their release,” said the 39-year-old Raff, who is also an executive producer on “Homeland.” “Even when the subject arose in newspapers or books, it always focused on the trauma of captivity or the obsession with bringing our boys home, not how they [fare] the day after their return. There are about 1,500 POWs who did come back, but we know very little about their lives after captivity.”
Anticipating flak for tackling such a taboo subject when soldiers, including Shalit, remained imprisoned, Raff meticulously researched the psychological aftermath of captivity, which, he said, applies as much to POWs held in Vietnam as in the Gaza Strip. He said he interviewed 10 Israeli ex-prisoners, including Hezi Shai, who was imprisoned for three years after being ambushed during the first Lebanon War.
“Hatufim” incorporates what Raff learned from his research; the ex-POWs in both shows display an inability to bond with family members, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as a need to sit on a floor in the dark in order to feel safe, or sleep on the floor, as they did in captivity. In “Hatufim,” the former captives must deal with the additional problem of searing guilt — knowing that thousands of terrorists who may go on to commit other atrocities have been released in exchange for their own freedom.
While some reviewers saw “Hatufim” as exploiting POWs’ pain for entertainment purposes, Raff disagrees, insisting, “We dealt with the subject with the utmost respect.
“It would have been presumptuous on my part to think that I’d do a series to help rescue Gilad Shalit,” Raff added. “But I do wish that one day the show will be relevant for him.”
“Homeland” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
October 18, 2011 | 2:31 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Hofesh Shechter has become one of the top new names in the world of dance since relocating from Israel to England a decade ago. But while the star choreographer insists his work is apolitical, his experience of the realities of life in Israel can’t help but emerge in the mix.
His first full-length piece, “Political Mother,” which makes its United States premiere at Royce Hall on Oct. 19 and 20, examines tensions between the state and society as a samurai commits ritual hara kiri, a dictator shouts guttural commands and drone-like figures slave.
The clash between group dynamics and the individual is a theme the 35-year-old Shechter has returned to time and again since moving to London in the aftermath of September 11. His visceral “In Your Rooms,” tinged by his fraught experience in the Israeli military, earned high marks for its exploration of group dynamics versus the individual; in 2006’s “Uprising,” seven men emerge from the shadows to bombard viewers with furious energy, bonding and sparring, making up and falling out.
The rock ‘n’ roll tinged score for “Political Mother” – which features ten dancers and eight musicians—is composed by Shechter himself; his movement style has a “kind of urban-guerrilla edginess…[that] can catch you off guard in ways that are bound to disorient conventional expectations,” The Independent opined. “There is nothing complacent to be seen here.”
Recently, I caught up with Shechter by phone in Melbourne, Australia, where his company was touring with “Political Mother,” to discuss his artistic journey from Israel to London and why he so resolutely avoids politics in his work.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: Growing up in Israel, did the art of Israeli folk dance have anything to do with your choice of career?
HF: It had everything to do with my getting into dancing. We had folk dance lessons in school since I was 6 or 7; I was a very shy kid and didn’t think I had a future in dance in any way. But my teacher was very enthusiastic about my ability, and that was the reason I joined a youth company in Jerusalem. Later, I attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. But my decision to pursue this happened totally through folk dancing.
NPM: You danced in the junior company of Israel’s most prominent troupe, Batsheva, while doing your compulsory military service. How did that work?
HF: The country recognizes that if an artist completely stops his work for three years, his career could be ruined. So I was able to get an excellence in dance status where I was allowed to dance in Batsheva in the mornings, and in the evenings I would work in a military office.
NPM: You’ve described your military experience as traumatic.
HF: My service wasn’t extreme in any military way; it was just a feeling that you are being raised in a country that is absolutely democratic and free, but there is a rule that when you turn 18 you must enter this other institution inside the democratic one where you must do absolutely everything you are told. This concept was so hard for me to grasp: How is this possible? It was just that the system suddenly took over my life and defined whether or not I could dance. That fear was always there and it was scary, especially at a point where you are just discovering who you are in the world.
NPM: In one interview, you described war virtually “coming in through the window” in Israel after the attacks on the World Trade Center – one reason you decided to relocate to England in 2002.
HF: Israel is a very rich place emotionally, but it is also a very small, intense place, and there was a constant sort of political noise. The feeling I got is that I was not blooming artistically, for whatever reason – it might have been my own weakness. I was curious about Europe, and I found a quiet corner where I felt I could have perspective on all these emotions and experiences. Suddenly, I could express myself and create.
NPM: Does your work reflect any of these experiences?
HF: My work is not political, but it definitely deals with the effects of politics on the individual; the emotional experience of people living under big and powerfully oiled systems.
NPM: So your dance “Uprising” does not refer to the Intifadah?
HF: It’s a work that is non-specific to world events. I was seeing very similar things happening around the world: a feeling of uprising or claiming what you think is yours; something that bubbles up inside of us, whether it’s taking place in Israel, Germany or America. It was also interesting for me to create choreography that deals with order and chaos. But again, the work is about energy and emotions, not politics.
NPM: Yet you’re now touring with a piece called “Political Mother.”
HF: People are always asking me if my work is political, so it amused me to include the word, “political” in one of my works. The title is also a clue that sets the state of mind for the [piece.] The words “political” and “mother” are weirdly conflicting, but there is also a strong connection between them—a sense of servitude implied in both words. In politics, we are trained to serve a system, and while we think of motherhood as referring to someone who cares for us, we are also obliged to obey.
The idea was to create a sense of different worlds that will flash in front of us and flicker from one reality to another; and to find an emotional tension between the existence of these realities in the timing of the piece.
NPM: How did you create the choreography?
HF: When you’re talking about servitude, for example, you want to find a kind of movement and a quality of body language that one might have if you lived inside that energy. When you’re dealing with characters who represent the [most oppressed] levels of society, there is a sort of weakness, an emptiness, an exploration of movement that is difficult or hollow.
NPM: The piece starts and ends, literally, with a knife in the gut.
HF: Often I try to start from the most extreme thing relating to themes I’m exploring. If I’m examining how far an individual can go to serve a system, one can’t go much farther than deleting oneself. It’s this amazing sense of our own nature. Of course the survival instinct is very powerful, but it’s possible to override that instinct with a concept – an idea I find fascinating.
For tickets and information, visit www.uclalive.org
October 4, 2011 | 7:17 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Sam Childers, the real-life “Machine Gun Preacher” behind the Marc Forster film now in theaters, chewed his signature toothpick in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, wearing a Harley Davidson shirt, jeans, black steel-toed boots and a handlebar moustache he’s sported since his days as a smack-shooting, bar-fighting, drug-dealing biker.
In his 2009 memoir, “Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle To Save Children in the Sudan,” Childers describes wielding an AK-47 along with his Bible to protect or rescue children – as well as ambushing soldiers from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) “with an AK in my belt and a pistol on each hip.”
LRA guerrillas abduct children from their villages to serve as soldiers or sex slaves, Childers said; they terrorize the children into obedience by disfiguring them with machetes, burning them alive, forcing them to disembowel their mothers, or to perform acts of cannibalism, among other atrocities. “Who knows how many villagers have been killed while people sit around talking about what a big problem all this is,” Childers writes in his memoir. “But when you go out and kill some of the enemy, you’re making progress. You’re speaking the LRA’s language, and suddenly you’ve got their attention. Less talking, and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end a lot sooner and save who knows how many lives.”
With Yom Kippur approaching, I wanted to meet with Childers, 47, not only because of the intense concern Jews have had about genocide in the Sudan, but also because I was fascinated by his unorthodox journey toward redemption.
During our interview, he expressed both compassion for the Sudanese war orphans and a tough-as-nails intensity. He described how his religious awakening in 1992 transformed him from a ruthless criminal into a preacher who built his own church in Central City, PA before taking on charitable work in Africa. It was while witnessing indescribable carnage on a mission to the southern Sudan in 1998 that he was inspired to build an orphanage for children victimized by the LRA. And to protect them with plenty of firepower.
His methods have proved controversial – and have been criticized in at least several publications such as Christianity Today, Mother Jones and ForeignPolicy.com, which titled its story, “Machine Gun Menace.” In such articles, aide workers and others have complained about Childers’ violent tactics or suggested that he has exaggerated parts of his story – a charge he has denied. Even so, his work prompts the questio—as The New York Times put it: Can a man of God also be a man of violence?
“I would never stand up to anyone and say anything I’ve ever done was right, so I’m not here to try to say that, OK?” Childers said, bluntly, during our interview. “I believe that everyone’s got to answer for things, and I’ve got a lot to answer for. The Christ I serve would never condone violence; he was not a man of violence.”
But then Childers quotes a passage of the New Testament in which Jesus tells his disciples “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
“Now why do you think he said that?” Childers asked me, with a laser-beam stare. “Do you have children?” he continued. When I replied that my husband and I have a son, he said, “Let’s say a terrorist group is getting ready to cut his lips off. You have a gun with you. What are you going to do?”
When the answer is obvious, Childers emphasized, “I want to get one thing straight with you. I’m not here to convince anybody that that’s right or wrong, so don’t try to take me there.”
I’m not the only one who has encountered both the prickly and the empathetic sides of the Machine Gun Preacher, played in the film by Gerard Butler (“300”). “Sam is a guy who often communicates through conflict,” Jason Keller, the film’s 42-year-old screenwriter, said in a telephone interview. Keller, who visited Africa with Childers and spent several weeks living with the preacher and his family at their home in Central City, PA, added: “At the end of the day, Sam is the same hustler and fighter that he was in the dark years of his life: this intimidating, sometimes violent, driven to a fault guy. It’s the same intense Sam Childers he always was, except now he’s fighting for a purpose. He is a very intense, still crazy guy doing heroic things.”
“Perhaps Sam has, in a sense, swapped his former addiction to violence and alcohol and drugs for an addiction to Africa, but he makes a world of difference there,” Robbie Brenner, one of the film’s producers, said in the film’s production notes.
I asked Childers if there’s a chance he could have substituted the adrenaline rush of drugs and crime for the rush of life as the machine gun preacher in the Sudan—in essence, swapping one addiction for another. “There could be,” he began, “but for me I’m going to say no. The devil doesn’t want you to help people. And now my entire life is about helping people.”
The preacher was protective of his story when Keller first sat down with him almost four years ago. “I was running through the process of how screenwriting works, and after about 15 minutes Sam didn’t say anything; he just stared at me across the table in this busy café,” Keller recalled. “Finally, one of the producers said, ‘Sam, do you have any questions for Jason?’ and Sam basically said, ‘Look, I don’t know you, I’ve never seen any movie that you’ve ever written, and I sure as hell am not going to trust my story to someone like you.’ I was going to storm off and never talk to this guy again, but Sam grabbed my arm, pulled me closer and smiled up at me – he can be a very charismatic guy – and he said, ‘I was just testing you, I wanted to see if you’d piss your pants. You didn’t. Sit down, and let’s talk.’ That went down in history as probably one of the most awkward meetings of my life.”
At the Beverly Hilton, Childers told me that even when he was in utero, pastors prophesized that he would become a preacher. “By the time I was 18, my mother thought they were all liars,” he joked. “But even when I was running with the worst of them, my Bible was always in my duffle bag along with my sawed-off shotgun.”
By the time Childers was in his early teens, he said, “I was selling drugs to school teachers, and sleeping with school teachers.” He became a junkie and, “because I carried a gun everywhere, bar fights turned into knife fights, which turned into gun fights, he said. Robbing other drug dealers provided some easy (and not so easy) money: One heist began, Childers said, when “I announced our arrival by busting their door in with a baseball bat.”
At one point when Sam and his wife, Lynn, were living in a filthy trailer park in Florida, he said, “I was in a bad bar fight, which turned out to be a shootout, and I almost got killed. That night I told my wife, ‘We’re moving back to Pennsylvania, because someone is going to kill me [if we stay here]. I ain’t got a problem with dying, but I have a problem with what I’m dying for.’”
Immediately after moving back to Central City, PA, Lynn – who had given up stripping several years earlier – began attending a pentecostal (Assemblies of God) church with Childers’ mother. “Lynn pestered me for years about going with her, but even though I was raised in the church, and I knew the right way, I was running from it,” Childers said.
He had, however, given up the harder drugs and was in the process of building a construction business when, one hot night in June 1992, Lynn finally talked him into accompanying her to a revival where the guest evangelist happened to be from South Africa. “I sat in the back row, and wouldn’t go up to the altar,” Childers recalled. “The preacher came back and said to me, ‘What is your problem? The power of God is all over you’—and I broke. I gave my heart to God right there in the back row of that church.
“The next night, they were in revival, so I went back to the church and sat right up front, because all through the day I was just craving what I had felt the night before. I already had made the commitment, so I was ready to go full blast. The preacher started prophesizing over me at the altar, but the more he prophesied, the madder I got.”
Specifically, the pastor predicted that Childers would accompany him to Africa during a time of war, a claim Childers found outlandish. “ I was so angry, I [thought], ‘I’m going to beat the snot out of this guy after church,’” Childers said. “I literally waited for him to come outside and then I started cursing at him, saying, ‘Don’t tell me I’m going to Africa’—and I mean I’m using some choice words and I’m cussing at this preacher. But all he did was smile at me and he said, ‘We’ll see.’
It took six years, but Childers – by then a successful contractor—finally did agree to travel to Africa in 1998 to help with construction in remote villages. He was devastated by the scars of civil war he found in the southern Sudan: “One day we were in the bush – radical Islamists had planted land mines all over the area, like they have in so many other places in the Sudan – and among the mangled corpses, we came across the body of a child,” Childers said. “From the waist down there was nothing; I couldn’t tell if it had been a boy or a girl. The body was a few days old, and you could see that it was starting to decay in the heat. I started to cry; I couldn’t understand how we could allow something like this to happen. And I said, ‘God, I’ll do anything I can to help these people.’
“When I got back home, all I could remember was people starving and going without water,” Childers continued. “Three months later, I remember sitting down at my kitchen table and just crying because there was food on the table; at that time I was making pretty decent money. And I just started selling everything I had to go back to Africa.
“First I started supporting and helping government soldiers from southern Sudan pull land mines out, and I did that for about a year; then I ran a mobile [medical] clinic for more than a year, and then I wanted to start the orphanage.
We had gone riding outside of [the town of] Nimule one day and I just stopped in the middle of nowhere and started walking around. God spoke to me inside my heart and said, ‘This is where I want you to build the children’s home for the war orphans.’”
I asked Childers what it feels like to hear God: “It’s almost like when your conscience speaks to you,” he said, adding, “in my case, I know it’s God because it’s always something I don’t want to do.”
During frequent trips to the Sudan, Childers spent long periods away from Lynn and their young daughter, Paige, and sometimes used all the family’s income on his charities. “I had a car repossessed, I almost lost my home, my marriage, and most everything I owned at one time,” he said. In his book, he describes his angst when Paige (now an adult) asked why he loved the African children more than her.
When I asked Childers about this, however, he said,“I believe you’re asking questions that are irrelevant. I’m just going to say that everything in my life is done because of God. If you can’t accept that, the interview is over.”
I change the subject to how Childers’ memoir differs from the film; one notable change is that the movie leaves out a number of the preacher’s personal experiences of faith. Why not show more of that in the film? “You need to ask whether we intended this movie to be faith-based or for the secular world,” Childers said. “If they would have included all the God [references], it would have made this a Christian movie…I could care less if a Christian person likes the movie; I’m here for the ones who need to know God.”
There is another reason, as well: The message of the film, Childers said, “is that there are still people dying in the Sudan; there are hundreds of thousands of children being killed all over the [country.] In one area of Darfur, 6,000 children are dying each month….So I use my platform to tell the world that this is still going on.”
September 23, 2011 | 2:48 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I spoke with Israeli-born writer-director Rod Lurie—whose remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial film, “Straw Dogs,” opened this past week – was before the premiere of “The Contender” (2000), his political thriller about a female U.S. senator (Joan Allen) who is nominated for the vice presidency, only to encounter allegations of sexual scandal. The movie critic-turned-filmmaker had made his debut feature, “Deterrence,” in 1999, exploring the dilemma of the first Jewish president of the United States thrust into a nuclear crisis.
In making “Straw Dogs,” the 49-year-old Lurie—the son of famed Israeli political cartoonist Ranan Lurie and the first Israeli-born graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point—braced himself for a more personal kind of attack. “One of the first things that Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, said to me after giving me the green light to write and direct the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” …was ‘You know, there’s going to be a big bull’s-eye on your back.’ Boy was he right,” Lurie told The Hollywood Reporter. “From the minute we announced our plans, the bloggers made it clear that I was ‘no Sam Peckinpah,’ that I was a virtual heretic, a blight on all that is cinema.”
The original film, adapted from Gordon Williams’ novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” stars the iconic Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a New York intellectual and mathematics professor who travels with his sexy new wife, Amy, (Susan George) to her hometown in rural England. There, tensions escalate between the pacifist David and Amy’s ex, Charlie, who hangs with a thuggish posse. The end result is that David is willing to kill to defend what he perceives as his property (including his wife), and discovers the savage within.
Lurie’s version stars James Marsden as a Hollywood screenwriter with a hot new actress wife (Kate Bosworth), who finds his humanity, rather than his inner caveman, when attacked by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård of “True Blood”) and friends.
I caught up with Lurie last week to discuss why he was drawn to this signature film by Peckinpah, who in the 1970s proved himself a master of bloody, brutal cinema. We also discussed how Lurie’s Jewish worldview affected the outcome of his remake and why he cast Marsden to portray David, rather than an actor reminiscent of Hoffman, one of the most identifiably Jewish movie stars ever.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: When did you first see Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs?”
RL: When I was at West Point, I was in charge of the film society, meaning that every Friday I would bring in a film and show it to the cadets in the auditorium. It was always supposed to be a classic film, but sometimes I would bring in a film that I had never seen before. When I brought in “Straw Dogs,” I didn’t even know what its content was; I just knew that it was a controversial film from an esteemed director. I will never forget the horrified look on the generals’ and colonels’ faces in that middle sequence [the scene in which Amy is raped]. They allowed the film to play out and the cadets were really into it. But there was a certain sensibility at the academy—at least when I was there—that we were officers and gentlemen and this wasn’t a movie at the time that a gentleman watched. And so I got a very big ass-chewing and was relieved of my duties as curator of the film society for a few weeks. Now that I look back on it, maybe making this film is somehow connected to that – the sense that I got in a lot of trouble and I’m going to get my revenge. [He laughs.] I’m joking as I say that, obviously.
NPM: Hoffman’s character, David Sumner, is not specifically Jewish in Peckinpah’s film. Even so, do you think Hoffman’s own Jewishness added any kind of subtext to the story?
RL: There were five actors ahead of Hoffman who were offered the role of David: They were Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Sidney Poitier. And the film would have been much, much different with each one of those actors.
The layering of Hoffman’s performance, and what makes his character such an unusual protagonist —perhaps unique in film history—comes from the fact that it was Dustin Hoffman himself. There is something about Hoffman that does smack certainly of an intellectual; somebody you cannot in any way imagine being physical. And there is, attributed to many Jews, a certain intellect-over-brawn mentality; there is not a sense of internal violence.
And so in his effort to demonstrate that all men are genetically coded to violence, Peckinpah ended up with an actor who, perhaps among all the other major actors of his time, one would least expect to become violent. In the trailer for the original “Straw Dogs,” there is a moment where they say, “Sam Peckinpah unleashes– dun dun dun [imitates scary, dramatic music] – Dustin Hoffman!” Now that seems semi-comical, because Hoffman is the last person in the world you’d expect to have any violence within him.
NPM: Back in the 1970s, Were you conscious that Hoffman, as well as actors such as Elliott Gould, had become stars despite the fact that they were Jewish and not the so-called all-American ideal?
RL: Absolutely. But since I was growing up with those actors and those films, it never struck me as particularly out of sync with the way that movie stars were at the time. I thought that being a movie star meant you were Dustin Hoffman or Elliott Gould. Or if you’re talking about non-Jews, Al Pacino. There were also the gorgeous actors like Robert Redford and Paul Newman, of course. But certainly back then when character was king, the best character actors became the most successful actors. Gene Hackman is another example.
NPM: You weren’t particularly gung-ho about “Straw Dogs” when your producing partner, Marc Frydman, brought it to you years ago.
RL: We were obtaining the rights because we thought it was a good, commercial piece of property. And then I ran into Dustin Hoffman at a cocktail party at Mike Medavoy’s house and we got to talking about the story; he regarded the original film as simply a Western, like “High Noon,” in which the lone hero, who is not accustomed to having to fight, suddenly has to take everyone on.
Dustin told me that Sam had his own ideas about humanity, and if I had my own ideas, why didn’t I put my own spin on the story? That really is what convinced me to make the movie. I immediately went to my partner, Marc, and said, “Dustin says we should do the film.” Then we went out and started trying to see which studio would make it.
NPM: How would you describe the difference between Peckinpah’s “spin” and your own?
RL: I don’t know too much about Peckinpah’s politics, but I do know that he was semi-obsessed with the writings of Robert Ardrey, who wrote “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative.” Peckinpah called Ardrey a prophet; but the truth is, Ardrey had semi-fascist ideas, in particular that we are genetically coded to violence. And Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” certainly was played that way.
I don’t share that view at all; I believe that we’re conditioned to violence, rather than the fact that we are innately violent. That’s the reason some countries have never been to war, while others always seem to be at war.
NPM: What part does your Israeli background play in your worldview, as expressed in the film?
RL: I think that Israel does what it feels it needs to do to survive as a nation. I go back to that quotation, which I can only paraphrase, from “Munich” [Steven Spielberg’s film about the mission to assassinate terrorists responsible for murdering Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics]: Sometimes we have to compromise our own beliefs in order to survive.
There is a macho-ness in Israel, that’s for sure, but I don’t think it’s a nation of people who have blood lust in their hearts. Although I am, in principle, in disagreement with almost everything that Ariel Sharon has had to say, I do believe he was right when he said, “If the Jews lay down their arms, there would be no Israel, whereas if the Arab nations did, there would be no war.” That goes back to what I am saying about a conditioning to violence. I don’t think Israelis are necessarily taught to hate their Arab neighbors, but they are taught to beware and to be cynical – and to be ready to survive.
NPM: You’ve said you didn’t try to cast a New York Jewish intellectual type to play David; instead you went for a “sort of Greenwich, CT, country club sort of intellectual.”
RL: I didn’t want somebody who was evocative of Dustin Hoffman. I thought that if I did cast an actor who was too similar– and I don’t want to mention any names – it would have been an impossible weight for that actor to carry. People would say, “That person is no Dustin Hoffman, just like the director is no Sam Peckinpah.”
I’ll tell you a funny story: I was at an Oscar party a year ago and Dustin Hoffman was there, and I wanted to introduce him to James Marsden. But James didn’t want to meet him; he said, ‘[Dustin] is going to be angry with me.” And I said, “Jimmy, you’re the only guy on earth who’s scared of an ass-whooping from Dustin Hoffman.”
NPM: In your film, David is a Hollywood screenwriter working on a project about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II – in which the Russians ousted the Nazis despite the fact that the Wehrmacht controlled more than 90 percent of the city at times. How did you intend this bloody battle to parallel David’s journey?
RL: Stalingrad is the ultimate example of the underdog using all of its resilience to beat back a ferocious enemy. It was the most important battle not just of World War II, but it may well be the most important battle of the 20th century. It was an example of people fighting because they had to; it wasn’t just the Red Army that won that battle, it was the citizens—women fighting with broomsticks, kids throwing bricks and using whatever they had in their arsenal to survive. Perhaps this comes off a little too neatly in the film, but the bottom line is that these citizens were not fighting and killing Nazis because there was a blood lust inside of them. I was keen on using Stalingrad to exemplify how people can behave violently, but that doesn’t mean they are innately violent.
Of course, you have to be very careful whenever you make reference to the Nazis, because their heinousness was so extreme that you diminish it by comparing it to almost anything. I wasn’t so much comparing our villains to the Nazis as comparing our hero to the citizens of Stalingrad – in the sense that he was fighting a much stronger foe, and using whatever resources he had at his disposal.
NPM: The playwright Harold Pinter – who also happens to be Jewish – was incredibly disturbed by Peckinpah’s film; you have a copy of the letter he sent Peckinpah about the project.
RL: The letter has been in the Peckinpah archives for a long time. Basically what happened is that Peckinpah had wanted Pinter to write the screenplay for “Straw Dogs,” but Pinter had turned it down. I think that a), the subject wasn’t his cup of tea, and b), it was perhaps too repetitive of a play he had written called “The Homecoming.” So Sam wrote his own version of the screenplay and sent it to Pinter, who wrote back – I remember one of the lines reading that he “detested it above all detestation.” Like me, Pinter did not think that men are biologically coded to savagery. That letter was one of the reasons I decided to make the film.
NPM: The film critic Pauline Kael called Peckinpah’s film the first great American fascist work of art.
RM: I think the word, “fascist” is extremely hyperbolic, but I understand her point of view.
NPM: Is there anything else in your worldview, as expressed in “Straw Dogs,” that comes from your Jewish background?
RL: I think that Jews tend to have a very realistic view of human nature, and a very humanist one.
“Straw Dogs” is now in theaters.
September 19, 2011 | 4:20 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Listen to the podcast below.
The kosher Porky Pig was up for an Emmy Award on Sept. 18. Bob Bergen, a nice Jewish boy from Woodland Hills, was nominated in the voice-over category for his performance as America’s favorite traife hero on “The Looney Tunes Show” on Cartoon Network. And while he lost to “Futurama’s” Maurice LaMarche, he said, “I’m thrilled just to have been nominated.” He was, after all, the underdog—er—pig.
Bergen, 47, received the nomination for the episode titled, “Jailbird and Jailbunny,” in which Porky must testify before a judge after Daffy Duck gets arrested for littering at the Grand Canyon. (Naturally, Daffy tries to blame the infraction on Porky and Bugs Bunny.) The judge asks the stuttering character why he isn’t wearing pants, an issue Bergen joked he has brought up with animators.
Besides LaMarche of “Futurama,” which also won the best animated series Emmy, Bergen competed against Christopher Plummer, who narrated TCM’s “Moguls & Movie Stars” series, Brenda Strong for her voice over work as Mary Alice Young on “Desperate Housewives,” and the animation performers Seth Green (“Robot Chicken”) and Dan Castellaneta – the guy who voices Homer Simpson – D’oh!
When the hilarious, affable performer came to the Journal offices for an interview on Sept. 16 (listen to the podcast on the right), he regaled us with the sounds of Porky, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety and other Looney Tunes characters he has voiced. He also demonstrated the range of background voices he has done for films such as “Tangled” and “Up” – crying babies, buzzing flies and barking dogs that sounded uncannily real (and delightfully surreal) coming out of a person’s mouth.
Bergen (in his own voice) pointed out that he is not the first kosher Porky. The first, of course, was the late, great Mel Blanc, who voiced all the Looney Tunes characters and who was Bergen’s childhood idol. “I wanted to be Porky Pig when I was 5 years old, and my mom said you can’t be Porky Pig, you’re Jewish,” he recalled. Even so, Bob spent countless hours practicing the pig’s voice—even figuring out the pattern of Porky’s stutter—to his mother’s chagrin.
In grammar school, he got in trouble for saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” in Porky-speak. More discipline ensued when he answered teachers’ questions as the porcine character while attending Portola Junior High (now middle school) in Tarzana, Stephen S. Wise’s religious school and Taft High in Woodland Hills. “I got in so much trouble,” he said. Even the Passover seder wasn’t immune: “Why is this night different from other n-n-n-neh-n-n-evenings,” he demonstrated.
But Bergen wasn’t without ambition. By his early teens, he was spending hours thumbing through the yellow pages, calling every animation studio in town, figuring out how to break into the voice over field. Eventually, he studied with legends such as Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound), and took classes in comedy improv and acting. Bergen even finagled a way to watch his idol, Blanc, record in the studio.
His Jewish mother was initially heartbroken when he chose not to attend college. But Bergen’s chutzpah again paid off after a friend sent him an autographed photo of Casey Kasem for his Taft graduation. Bob promptly mailed Casey a thank you note with his phone number, stating that he hoped to work in cartoons; to his shock Kasem phoned with offers to help. A homemade demo tape of 85 voices that the teenager sent Kasem led Bob to snag his first agent when he was 18.
Within five years, Bergen was working full-time as an actor; in between commercials for McDonalds and such, he landed his dream job – voicing Porky as well as other Looney Tunes characters – in 1990, the year after Blanc’s death. He’s done Porky in everything from the film “Spacejam” to Cartoon Network’s “The Looney Tunes Show,” which premiered this summer.
Among other endeavors, he has also written and performed a one-man show, “Bob Bergen: So, Here’s the Deal!” which he describes as “the story of a nice Jewish boy who wanted to be Porky Pig.”
These days, Bergen remains a staunch Porky fan. During the holiday season, he dresses a figure of his traife hero in a Santa Claus suit, which graces his front yard. And now he has an Emmy Award nomination under his belt—Mazel Tov, Bob!
For now, as Bergen himself told us, “That’s all, J-j-j-j-j-Jews!”
September 19, 2011 | 4:18 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent afternoon, Mayim Bialik, having finished rehearsing a scene for “The Big Bang Theory” — the CBS comedy about a clique of uber-geeks that premieres its fifth season this week — had retired to her dressing room for a bit of Talmud study and to begin planning her kosher vegan menu for the High Holy Days. The 35-year-old actress, who plays the brainiac Amy Farrah Fowler on the show, will chant the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning at UCLA and blow the shofar for the campus services, which are conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and are open to the community.
Bialik, who grew up Reform but now considers herself “Conservadox,” became known for her role as the eponymous “Blossom” on TV in the 1990s. After taking more than a decade off to earn her doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA, she has re-emerged as the newest member of the “Big Bang” posse, while also serving as “celebrity spokesmama” for the Holistic Moms Network, as an advocate for attachment parenting and writing her debut tome, “Beyond the Sling” (Simon & Schuster), which will hit stores in March. In her Warner Bros. dressing room, copies of the Mishnah and the Gemara shared coffee table space with her “Big Bang” script.
“Judaism is a huge part of my life — it is absolutely inseparable from who I am,” Bialik said, as the conversation turned back to the Jewish New Year. “There is a spiritual dimension to this month, and one of the beautiful aspects of Judaism is that there is a rhythm to our year that holds a mystical significance. Rosh Hashanah was the day that the world was created; it’s a time that feels ripe and pregnant with possibilities.
“So I feel this tremendous sense of anticipation, but also a healthy anxiety,” she said of her synagogue duties. “I feel a very positive sense of obligation, and that I take on joyfully, but I’m very hard on myself.”
Until her parenting responsibilities precluded all-day shul duty — her sons, Miles and Fred, are 5 and 3, respectively — Bialik served as cantor throughout the High Holy Days. This year, the actress, who also plays trumpet, will practice daily to get her mouth muscles in shape for the shofar blasts required for Seidler-Feller’s services. She says she already knows her haftarah well because she has chanted it at Seidler-Feller’s invitation for more than a decade.
Although Modern Orthodoxy is the denomination to which Bialik aspires, she chooses not to use that term to describe herself because she says her practice is not strictly Orthodox. After all, the practice of chanting in synagogue is forbidden to women according to Jewish law.
Yet doing so links her to her grandfather, a lay cantor in Poland who later served as chazzan to a congregation of Holocaust survivors in San Diego. “I’m part of thousands of years of people chanting this section of haftarah,” she said of the words she’ll chant on Yom Kippur. “I feel very connected to a community when I get to chant on their behalf. I praise God privately whenever I pray, but it’s very powerful to do it in a public way.”
Bialik was down-to-earth and good-natured as she showed a visitor her Tiffany Star of David — a gift she received from her parents when she was 19, just after “Blossom” wrapped, and which she wears daily. She explained that she will need to take it off to tape her “Big Bang” scenes, although this season, the set decorators have added an empty maroon velvet tefillin bag to the décor in Amy’s room. “For all I know, she may be Jewish; I’m still holding out hope,” Bialik said. (The show’s co-creator Bill Prady said in an interview that Amy is not Jewish, so the reason for the tefillin bag remains mysterious.)
Bialik has not publicly worn pants since 2007, when her continuing studies led her to increased Jewish observance, including aspects of tzniut, or modesty. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to wear skirts as Amy,” she said. “They dress her frumpily and in layers because they want her very asexual, so my curves are protected. I work in an industry where everything is very external — and in a good way, it has to be; we’re entertaining people with what is presented. But something really resonated about having a lot of positive control over how I present myself.
“It’s an interesting bind as a woman in Hollywood, where being classically attractive is still very valued,” added Bialik, who blogged on Kveller.com about her search for a dress to wear to last weekend’s Emmy Awards, which she dubbed “Operation Hot and Holy.”
“For those of us who are labeled character actors, because we don’t fit that mold, it can be a challenge. I come from the Barbra Streisand-Bette Midler concept of Jewish actresses, who are very recognizable by their look. Even the Jewish community is constantly torn by how to handle the concept of how we find women desirable,” Bialik said.
Bialik got an in-depth education on how actresses should look when she returned to show business, rather than pursuing a career in academia, after her younger son was born in 2008. The actress and her husband, Michael Stone — who parent without nannies or housekeepers — had determined that a television job would allow Bialik more flexibility for their 24/7 attachment-parenting style.
To jump-start her TV career, Bialik signed up to appear on the TLC makeover show “What Not to Wear,” whose producers “chose me to ‘fix,’ ” she said, with a laugh. They encouraged her to be “sexy” and to not hide under her clothing, but “I feel much more comfortable with what I call ‘subdued sexy,’ ” Bialik said. “The idea that you have to be sexy at all is kind of amusing, but part of my job description is to do publicity events where I look competitive. If you want to get more work, you need to be valued the way other actresses are valued. Even when you get auditions for roles that call for the homely girl, you still have to show your assets in a positive way. But I can only do that within the limits of what I find personally appropriate.”
When Bialik auditioned for “The Big Bang Theory” two years ago, it was perhaps another asset that helped her land the part of the asexual girlfriend to the obsessive-compulsive physicist Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, who just won his second Emmy Award for the role. After Bialik had delivered the three lines her character was to utter in the third-season finale, she recalled that co-creator Prady scanned her resume and asked if she really did have a doctorate in neuroscience.
It also helped that Bialik had watched YouTube clips featuring Sheldon: “I had been told that they were looking for a female Jim Parsons, so I just did my best mimicry of what looked like a pretty socially challenged guy,” she said.
“Mayim is a very bold and fearless performer,” said Prady, whose writers made Amy a neuroscientist, like Bialik. “She never does anything with just one toe in the water. Whatever you ask her, she dives in.”
Bialik’s Amy, as a female nerd, is far more interested in social bonding than Sheldon, and her blunt questions about sexuality have been sidesplitting. “I’ve said the word for every piece of genitalia: uterus, breasts, areolas, buttocks,” Bialik said, demonstrating Amy’s flat affect.
Does this conflict with Bialik’s ideas about modesty? “I had a quite religious rabbi point out that I’m just acting,” she said. “And some friends of mine actually thought Amy was shomer negiah [observing the practice of not touching the opposite sex], because Jim and I almost never touch.
Bialik does share one trait with her character: “I’m a meticulous person,” she said. “I like science, and I like halachic Judaism. As a performer and as an actor, I tend to be a perfectionist,” she added.
That trait will apply to chanting the haftarah and blowing the shofar in shul: “It’s what makes me dedicated and consistent.”
September 8, 2011 | 6:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In a back booth at Canter’s, Seth Rogen is digging into his matzah ball soup with gusto as his close friend, screenwriter Will Reiser, sips a glass of club soda. In person, Rogen — who has emerged as one of the leading comic actors, writers and producers of his generation — offers up the same rumbling laugh (think a Jewish Santa Claus) and humorous banter as the stoner-slacker characters he plays in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.”
Reiser, part of Rogen’s “Jew Tang Clan” entertainment posse since the two met on “Da Ali G Show” eight years ago, is quieter and thoughtful, even as he and Rogen seamlessly finish one another’s sentences on this late afternoon.
The same dynamic appears in the best friends who make up the heart of their new movie, “50/50,” which is loosely based on how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
In “50/50,” which is by turns poignant and hilarious, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something writer for public radio who has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a pothead-jokester best friend, Kyle (Rogen). But early on, it’s clear all isn’t well with Adam, when he fatigues while jogging and complains of worsening back pain. When Adam finally visits a doctor, the news is shocking: A tumor is snaking alongside his spine, with the almost unpronounceable name of neurofibrosarcoma, or malignant schwannoma. And his MRI — actually based on Reiser’s own MRI — indicates he has only a 50 percent chance of survival. A life-threatening surgery is his only option.
Adam is by nature emotionally repressed and stoic, and as he struggles to come to terms with his cancer, his friends and relatives respond in disparate ways: His girlfriend is unable to deal with the illness and cannot even bring herself to drive Adam to his chemotherapy sessions. Kyle, after an initial freakout, wants to use Adam’s sympathy card to score chicks. Friends say exactly the wrong things, and Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is supportive but smothering.
As Adam’s health deteriorates, help arrives in the form of a novice oncology psychotherapist (Anna Kendrick) assigned to him by the hospital. “She is young and unable to face what she is dealing with — just like Adam — which creates a strong connection between them,” said the film’s director, Jonathan Levine (whose credits include “The Wackness”).
There is levity amid the drama, much of it akin to the raunch-fests-with-heart for which Rogen, and his comedy mentor, Judd Apatow, are known. In the scene where Adam shaves his hair before it can fall out due to chemotherapy, Kyle reveals that his razor has been used on hairs other than from his head. “It’s inevitable, it’s just where my head goes,” Rogen said of the joke.
Online, some individuals have critiqued Rogen for even attempting to make a comedy about cancer, stating that their experience with dying loved ones was anything but funny — some even went so far as to write, “F—- you, Seth Rogen.”
“I’m used to people hating all my s—- before they watch it,” Rogen said. “But I think we did the movie honestly and respectfully and based it on our own experiences.”
Levine, who has helped care for relatives braving cancer, agreed: “It’s not just because I’m Jewish and I own a bong that I relate to this,” he told the producers while lobbying to direct the movie.
“What this film does with character and pushing the boundaries of comedy is incredibly resonant and important. The salient theme is: What does it mean to be young and facing this disease? What does it mean to be facing the end of your life before you’ve really lived it?”
Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31, met when they were the two youngest staff members on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” “I remember feeling threatened that there was another young dude working on the show,” said Rogen, who was recently named by Forbes as “the hardest-working man in Hollywood.”
At the time, Rogen shared an office with his current writing and producing partner, Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), a friend since being in the same bar mitzvah class at their Reform synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Reiser, who had his bar mitzvah at a Jewish community center in White Plains, N.Y., remembers being envious of Rogen and Goldberg, who were staff writers while he was an associate producer. “Our office was divided by just a window, so we could see each other all day long,” Reiser said. “In their office, they’d be joking, imitating Sacha’s accents, shouting in Kazakhi [a reference to Baron Cohen’s character of “Borat”] and running back and forth, and I would be on the phone, really stressed out, on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, trying to book guests.”
Rogen and Reiser quickly bonded, however, in part because of their similar ages; they were the only staff members who smoked (both have since quit). Since they couldn’t light up in the show’s skyscraper offices, they’d have to trek down to the parking garage, which provided a nice break from the office intensity. “You needed a reason to leave, and the only reason to leave was to smoke, so we would go smoke cigarettes all the time,” Rogen said.
Reiser, who at 24 was already a workaholic and always the first person in the office at 7:30 a.m., initially dismissed his early cancer symptoms as stress-related. “I had no energy and my knee kept swelling up with fluid,” he recalled. “[Eventually], I could not stay awake, and I was having these horrible night sweats, where I would wake up and my shirt would be drenched, like I had just gone swimming.”
“Your skin just got bad,” Rogen said of the “Ali G” days. “It was like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when those people were melting. … Will began looking worse and worse, but of course we had no idea how sick he was; we just thought he was working too hard. We’d always joke, ‘The hours are killing him.’ Sacha would say, ‘Should we tell him to go home?’ ”
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“50/50” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12 before opening in theaters on Sept. 30.