Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“We were both raised Jewish and upper-middle-class,” writer-director Lisa Cholodenko said of herself and Stuart Blumberg, with whom she wrote “The Kids Are All Right”—and won best screenplay today at at the 2011 Independent Film Spirit Awards (catch the ceremony on TV tonight, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. ET/PT). The comedy-drama—which on Feb. 27 will complete for four Oscars, including best picture and original screenplay—spotlights lesbian moms whose children seek out their sperm donor, with shattering results.
“What was interesting is that my folks are still together and Stuart’s parents divorced when he was , so we had a menu of emotional experience in our own first families to draw from,” Cholodenko said, at a question-and-answer session at the Writers Guild Theater. “When we talk about something that was similar, it’s our Jewish mothers of a certain era and socioeconomic milieu…the parts that might tend to be a little [concerned] and invested. There are benefits to that, and then sometimes if you are trying to find your own path, there can be [drama].”
Aspects of their own mothers perhaps emerged most – along with many other influences—in the character of Nic (Annette Bening), the obstetrician who is the family breadwinner and the stricter of the two moms. Nic’s wife, Jules (Julianne Moore), has become frustrated during her tenure as stay-at-home mom and is trying to reinvent herself; their strong family ties unravel when sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture.
Cholodenko grew up in Encino; her debut feature, “High Art,” (1998), about an artist’s unexpected relationship with her magazine editor, spotlighted a character who was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Cholodenko’s critically acclaimed “Laurel Canyon” (2002), starred Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.
Blumberg—who was raised in Cleveland, attended a Conservative synagogue and a Jewish day school – previously wrote “The Girl Next Door.” He also penned Edward Norton’s directorial debut (the two are friends from Yale), about a rabbi (Ben Stiller), and a priest (Norton) who fall in love with the same non-Jewish woman.
Here are some excerpts from their recent “Kids Are All Right” Q & A:
On How “Kids” was conceived:
Cholodenko: ‘Way back in 2004, I knew I wanted to get back to work, but I wasn’t seeing anything I loved that I wanted to direct. Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I decided to start a family with an anonymous sperm donor—a big project in of itself—and that obviously was really on my mind. I sat down for the first time in a long time and I just forced myself to start writing something, not censoring myself, and the first kind of brushstroke was the idea for this family and this setup of one of the children coming of age and seeking her sperm donor in a covert way. I got maybe 15 pages into it and then I started having a lot of my [internal] critic come out, and I decided to take long, long breaks down at the coffee shop near where I live. I was having breakfast by myself one morning, stalling, and in walks an old friend from New York I hadn’t seen in a long time. And it was this guy [points to Blumberg].
Blumberg: So we catch up and I ask Lisa what she’s up to and she says, “I’m working on this idea for a script about two moms who have kids with a sperm donor and I’m just trying to figure it out.” And I said, “That’s interesting, because in college I was a sperm donor and I always wondered whether I had [fathered] any kids and what would happen if they tried to contact me.”
I had always really admired Lisa’s work, and in my own work, I felt that I wanted to go more in the direction of nuanced character stuff [like Cholodenko’s films], which I had been writing but in the context of bigger studio pictures. What I said in a sort of passive-aggressive way was, “You know, Lisa, you really should do something more mainstream or readily accessible,” thinking that would be my way in. And Lisa said, “Yeah, I guess so – and you should probably do something a little deeper.” I said “I want to,” and then we decided very sort of cavalierly in a way to throw our hats in the ring together and see if we could try to write something that would be a blending of our sensibilities—which as it turned out, weren’t so far apart.
On whether Blumberg ever tried to look up any children he might have fathered:
Blumberg: Lisa was pregnant while we were working on the project. Throughout the writing, whenever we were procrastinating, she’d go, “You know what would be fun? Let’s find out if you have any kids.” And I’d almost puke, and then say, “We have to focus on the writing!’
Cholodenko: In all earnestness, I felt very protective of this subject matter, so veracity was very important to me. Clearly, I was covering the mommy-having-the-baby side of it, but the sperm donor side was kind of vague to me. I didn’t have a relationship with my sperm donor, so while Stuart wasn’t a stand in for the Mark Ruffalo character, there were things about Stuart’s experience that we talked about a lot and somehow they mutated and found their way into forming that character.
On the dinner scene where Nic discovers that Paul and Jules have been having an affair (Nic discovers some of Jules’ hair in his bathtub):
Cholodenko: When we wrote that scene and when I directed it, I always related to it just in a purely empathic way. I’m just in that horror with Nic. One weekend, when there were a lot of events [for the film] I was introduced to Quentin Tarantino, and he decided he wanted to do a master class on this film, while we were talking in a corner of a party. He said he felt like that scene with Annette is the most suspenseful scene he had seen in a film all year; it created that kind of anxiety in him. And it was the first time I’d ever thought about the scene like that – like, “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen here?”
On how the film, which revolves around a lesbian couple, is universal:
Blumberg: We were both interested in exploring notions about a relationship and about family: what makes a family; parent-child dynamics; and also extra-marital assignations—all the intrigue, boredom, intimacy, [etc.] that many of us go through in our relationships—we just wanted to dig in. Early on, the whole thing of this being an alternative family just dropped away in terms of its importance. There were a few things we wanted to highlight about that, but we wanted to get into the universality of all this.
On casting Annette Bening:
Cholodenko: I was vexed for a long time and couldn’t make a decision about casting that part. I had Julianne, who was attached for a long time—since the first draft; and the deeper we got into the story and trying to find its tone, I came to feel like the actor who played Nic had to have the ability to go from comedy to drama in a nanosecond.
Annette Bening was on the first pass of potential people who could do the role of Nic. She always stayed on that list, but we focused on other people along the way and then as we pared down her character and it became clearer and humor became so critical, we had to consider: Who is in that age group, and a great, known actor and could actually be believable as Julianne Moore’s long-term partner? Annette [was the one].
On not casting real-life lesbians for the lesbian roles:
Blumberg: Honestly, we were just looking at actors who were great to make the movie with.
Cholodenko: It’s an interesting question, because we really wanted [the fact that the characters are lesbians] to be understated, so for me to make a point to cast lesbians would have been just some agenda that I didn’t feel interested in.
On the ending of the film, in which the family rejects Paul as an “interloper:”
Blumberg: We felt that to have some kind of resolution [for] Paul, just didn’t feel authentic. We’re not saying it was great the way they handle it; we’re not saying it wasn’t messy—it was messy—but that’s the way life is. Some people have accused us of hating Paul, which is not true. I think we both love Paul. But that doesn’t mean we have to give the film a false ending.
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February 23, 2011 | 5:18 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In a memorable scene from “The King’s Speech,” the future George VI (Colin Firth), a.k.a. Bertie, spews every expletive imaginable as a technique to overcome his severe stutter with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). As f-words flow, a hand-held camera or Steadicam – a stabilizing device that attaches a camera to its operator—follows Firth as he gesticulates and sputters around Logue’s cavernous consulting room.
This cinematic waltz comes courtesy of the film’s director of photography, Danny Cohen, BSC, an Oscar nominee for best cinematographer who previously worked with “King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper on the HBO mini-series “John Adams.” “Instead of the camera being right in Colin’s face, it made sense to back away, so you can really see his body in motion,” Cohen said of the mobile camera work. “Therefore Colin had more space to be physical, and the freedom to go anywhere in that room and do anything he wanted to do.”
“The scene is funny because it’s shocking,” Cohen, 47, added from his London home. “I think at heart everyone is a child, so when you see a grownup swear, especially the future king of England, it’s very funny. What was even funnier is that there were swear words they [axed from] the final cut that were even more obscene. The character is reveling in the fact that he’s finding his voice, literally and metaphorically, but he’s also mischievous and having a laugh. That’s the balance we were going for in the film in general: to tell a serious story that also has a lot of humor.”
Just as he did on the “Adams” shoot, Cohen used hard light, rather than the softer hues often associated with period dramas, to make the World War II-era saga appear grittier and more contemporary. “Tom wanted a take on a historical drama that wasn’t standard fare,” Cohen said. “If you make things appear real rather than pretty, the film becomes more intelligible to a modern audience. You want to see the grime on the street and underneath people’s fingernails.” The cold light in the film warms up somewhat as the relationship warms between Logue and his excruciatingly uncomfortable patient.
“Cinematography can push the narrative forward, so anything you can do that makes the audience understand as much as possible as quickly as possible, helps tell the story in a more succinct and visceral way.”
The king’s anxiety is depicted via a range of visual language: faces pressed up against the side of a frame, for example; heads placed on the wrong side of the screen than viewers might expect; and wide-angle lenses on a camera placed close Firth—at times just a foot away; literally, in his face.
“The wider the lens, and the closer you put it to an actor, distorts the face and makes the person look as if they feel more and more awkward,” Cohen said. “The line you draw is how distorted you want people to look. Any time Colin was giving a speech into a microphone, we shot on a 14mm or 21mm lens [the smaller the number, the wider the lens], which are not lenses that distort too massively. It was just enough to create that sense of the king’s discomfort.”
Cohen feels a personal connection to the story: His maternal grandparents were German Jews who fled the Third Reich in 1933 to London, where they listened to George VI’s passionate anti-Nazi speeches on the radio. The movie depicts George VI’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who abdicates the throne to marry an American divorcee – as the Nazi sympathizer that he was. “We didn’t use anything specific to make him look like a designer ‘baddie,’” Cohen recalled, “but what was quite exciting about filming Guy Pearce is that physically he actually looks a lot like Edward, which is an amazing piece of casting. There’s that tightness in his face when he is onscreen.”
One scene in particular resonates for the Jewish cinematographer: “It’s the one in which the king and his family are watching a film of his coronation on a black-and-white projector—and then a clip of Hitler at a rally comes on,” he said. “One of George’s children asks, ‘What is [Hitler] saying,’” and the king replies, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s saying it terribly well.’ That’s an incredibly powerful line, because Hitler is sort of the antithesis to Bertie’s character, who can’t say things very well. And there was fluency to whatever [evil things] Hitler might have said. The delivery was always better than how Bertie could deliver his speeches, so that was a quite interesting, complex contradiction.”
February 18, 2011 | 7:27 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When the iconic hairdresser Vidal Sassoon sat down for an interview in Los Angeles recently, he appeared dapper in an immaculate black suit and cashmere scarf as he held court, in impeccable English, on subjects ranging from his impoverished Jewish childhood in London to the dearth of great hair at the Oscars. The occasion was the release of “Vidal Sasson The Movie” on Feb. 18 in Los Angeles—a documentary that serves as an 80th birthday present for Sassoon from his friend Michael Gordon, a giant of the hair product industry.
The film—and the conversation—recounts Sassoon’s seven years in a Sephardic orphanage; how he fought in the British anti-fascist Brigade, served in Israel’s War of Independence; and returned to London to start a career that would make him the most recognized hairdresser on the planet.
An ode to the now 83-year-old Sassoon, the film lauds the stylist for virtually transforming the hair and fashion industry with his revolutionary, geometric haircuts; his celebrity clients and his refusal to pander to old-fashioned tastes.
The charming Sassoon began an interview by admitting that even he has bad hair days: “I simply run my hand through it and let it [be],” he said. Here are excerpts from the rest of our interview, which took place at his publicist’s office in West Los Angeles.
NPM: Did you request any kind of supervision over the final edit of the documentary?
VS: I didn’t want to. First of all, at the time I was writing my memoir (“Vidal: The Autobiography”) which took sometimes five or six hours a day, and after that you’re brain dead. So had I tried to be involved in editing the film, I might have done all the wrong things. I probably would have been more of a hindrance than a help.
NPM: What has it been like to revisit your childhood for these projects?
VS: The film has caused a lot of people to say, “Do you mean to say you were in an orphanage for seven years, and that you lived in a tenement in the East End?” And all these things are true.
My mother had it very hard. My father wasn’t very good for anything except for the ladies. He spoke seven languages and I think he had sex in all seven. If he had a day’s winnings, he might leave a couple of pounds on the table from the horses or the dog (races).
When I was 2-and-a-half and my brother was just under 1 year old, we were being evicted because our father had left us. My mother was so embarrassed that in the middle of the night she packed us all up and we went to the East End, White Chapel, which was really the Jewish ghetto, and my Auntie Kate, a lovely lady, took us in. It was just two rooms in a tenement, in the middle of winter, so if you wanted to go to the [bathroom] you rushed to the end of the corridor where the toilet was, hoping that someone had just sat there so the seat was warm.
NPM: How was it that you went to live in an orphanage?
VS: My aunt’s daughters were growing up, and they needed more privacy. So the orphanage, which was run by the Sephardic community, was the best thing to do. At one point, I ran away. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my mother’s new address, so I ran to my father, who took me straight back to the orphanage. It was quite obvious that he had no love or care for me; I could tell as he was turning away he had something else on his mind, probably a girl. And that was the last time I saw him.
NPM: In the documentary, you mention that you enjoyed singing in the choir in the synagogue next door to the orphanage.
VS: Yes. And of course, when you’re in the orphanage, you miss your mum, because you were only allowed to see her once a month. But she would come to the synagogue on Saturday mornings and wave to me from the balcony.
NPM: She was the one who had the “premonition” that you should become a hairdresser.
VS: I said, “A hairdresser? What will my friends think?” Because in those days, that profession had no status at all. But you never said “no” to my mother – if you did, you’d get a very good talking to. And she was very convincing: “learn a craft, learn a trade.” And she took me down to Adolf Cohen’s [salon, for an appreticeship] at 101 White Chapel Road.
NPM: He was very strict with you.
VS: He taught me discipline. He said, “I know you sleep in the bomb shelters [this was during the Blitz], but I want your trousers perfectly creased every morning.” That means you had to put them under a blanket or a sheet and sleep on them every night to get the crease back. And your shoes had to be perfectly clean, and of course your nails had to be impeccable, but that happened after two shampoos anyway.
NPM: How was it that you went to Israel as a young man?
VS: My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
NPM: So why did you return to Britain?
VS: I got a telegram: “Your stepfather’s had a heart attack, come back and earn a living.” So I was on the next plane to London.
NPM: It took you almost a decade to perfect the Vidal Sassoon look, and your iconic five-point haircut eschewed convention. What did you say to clients who hated it?
VS: “It’ll grow darling, come back as our guest.” Actually I [angered] my very best friend, Georgia Brown, who was a wonderful singer and actress, she originated the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver.” I cut her hair for an opening night and she said, “You’ve ruined my career,” and left the salon screaming and crying. But I knew it looked good [laughs]. She called me back the following morning and said, “I’m sorry, Vidal, everybody loved it.”
But there were clients who didn’t want what we wanted to do with them, and we made up our minds that we changed the craft and we wouldn’t do the old- fashioned stuff; even though it was terribly pretty, we just wouldn’t do it. They’d come and think they could have their own way and we’d just say (whispers) “Look, we can find you a taxi, and we know just the people who will do your hair beautifully.”
NPM: Who do you think has good hair today?
VS: Victoria Beckham wears a great, really first class [cut], and her friend Katie Holmes. They’re the two best cuts around now. There’s just too much long, hanging hair that hides the bone structure, and hides a beautiful neck and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
NPM: Will you be watching the Oscars to see the latest styles?
VS: The latest styles never come out of the Oscars or the awards shows. They come out of fashion shows in Milan, Paris, London or New York. But when I look at the Oscars, the hair you see is a mess, most of it.. The hairdressers are very good, but they don’t have enough time, and also if they had their way they’d cut the hair into a different shape. But with stars, their managers and the idea of “For the next picture I’m going to wear it this way” and blah blah blah, you don’t see the best of hair unfortunately.
For theaters and show times, visit www.vidalsassoonthemovie.com/.
February 10, 2011 | 3:40 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
With the continuing discussion surrounding the Facebook saga “The Social Network” – specifically how true the film is or isn’t – I sought some answers about the film’s veracity with Kevin Spacey, whose Trigger Street Productions produced the movie.
Over lox and eggs at Art’s Deli in Studio City several months ago, Spacey and I were discussing his own starring vehicle, “Casino Jack,” in which he plays disgraced former lobbyist (and Orthodox Jew) Jack Abramoff. But I also felt compelled to ask about “The Social Network,” since the media was buzzing with charges by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that the acclaimed drama was far removed from reality. Assorted journalists were also pointing out factual discrepancies in the book proposal upon which the film was based, Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires” – which was not even completed when Spacey and his producing partner, Dana Brunetti bought the property and began turning it into a movie.
Brunetti, who was once Spacey’s assistant, is one of the three “Social Network” producers who would receive a statuette should the film win best picture; Spacey reportedly will attend the Oscars to cheer him on. And both men are teaming up with “Social Network” producers to adapt another Mezrich non-fiction book into “Sex on the Moon”—also for Sony Pictures—inspired by NASA scientist who planned to steal moon rocks so he could (literally) give his girlfriend “the moon.”
Spacey was alternately affable and blunt while discussing Mezrich and “The Social Network.”
NPM: Were you the one who actually bought Mezrich’s Facebook project in order to adapt it into a movie?
KS: Dana Brunetti, who runs my company and I, we’re in the Ben Mezrich business. We have every book that Ben has written as a potential film. Ben came to Dana and I in ’06, I think, and said he had an idea about doing a book about Facebook. And our first reaction was like [Spacey rolls his eyes] “Yeah, that sounds like a good book; that doesn’t sound like a good movie.”
But then we began to investigate, and we began to unearth [things]. I mean in the first place there were like, three lawsuits going on, so clearly there was some story there. And when we really got a hold of what I would call the basic elements of what the story was, Dana and I quickly recognized that it had all the hallmarks of what makes great drama: friendship, betrayal, power, invention.
So now it was getting into ’07, ’08, Ben had done a book proposal and he is now writing the book, it leaks, and Dana and I feel, oh, s—t! We previously had been somewhat frustrated by how long it took to get “21” made [the Spacey movie about an MIT blackjack scam, also based on a Mezrich book] because we sold “21” originally to MGM and then MGM didn’t tell us they were being sold, so we got parked for four-and-a-half years, until Sony picked it up and we actually made that movie.
But four-and- a-half years went by, and it was quite frustrating because in that time lots of reality series about Las Vegas and movies about poker [had emerged].
So with [the leak of Mezrich’s Facebook project], were literally going “Ahhhhh!” We didn’t want to miss the moment. So we decided to take the book proposal out before the book was finished, and Sony, with whom we did “21,” bought it, and we were amazed and stunned and very grateful that we managed to get the film going very quickly: We were shooting by September of ‘09.
NPM: “The Social Network’s” screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, and others involved with the movie, have been quoted as saying the film is highly factual, but the press has reported otherwise.
KS: First of all, I don’t know why it is that people get into this idea that movies that are dramatic films have to be documentaries, right? Does anyone think that Peter Morgan, who wrote [the screenplay for] “The Queen,” was in Buckingham Palace listening to the Queen of England talking to her husband about their daughter-in-law [Lady Diana]? No, and nobody had a single complaint about it because it was a great film. When we sold the book proposal to Sony, the book wasn’t finished; Aaron and Ben then started using the same sources. Aaron went to Boston and met all of the people that Ben was talking to; he got into the [Harvard] clubs, they were working simultaneously. So yes, while the book wasn’t finished, Aaron and Ben were doing identical research, and we vetted [everything].
Sony is a big studio; do you think they didn’t have a phalanx of lawyers on this to make sure it was fully vetted and that everything that was being said could be backed up with evidence? Because let’s not forget one fundamental thing: a bunch of people [in the Facebook lawsuits] went into depositions and raised their hands and swore to tell the truth, and none of their stories match, all right?
Number two, life doesn’t happen in dialogue; things don’t work themselves out in a particular way so that they tell a narrative. This is what artists do; this is what Aaron Sorkin does. He creates drama based on real events, and in fact, I believe every single one of the emails and blogs that you hear Mark Zuckerberg say [in the film] is taken directly from what he actually said online. So Aaron didn’t make up a lot of this stuff. And there isn’t a scene in the film that we don’t have at least one or two people who were in that scene, who verified that that scene took place.
The dramatization of it is what writers do, so I don’t know where we got into this whole, “You’re not being 150 percent accurate and this didn’t really happen in that way.” People seem to get hung up on the idea that drama is supposed to be docudrama, but it’s not. It’s something different, and I think it elevates the form, personally.
February 8, 2011 | 3:24 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Just before his sold-out Madison Square Garden concert in the new 3D documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the munificently-coiffed teen crooner does something unexpected of the object of millions of girl-crushes around the globe: He recites the “Shema.”
Bieber says the prayer with his Jewish manager, Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, the 29-year-old music business maven who discovered the singer on YouTube four years ago and has scheduled Bieber’s first concert in Israel on April 14. The show at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, which is expected to draw at least 60,000 viewers, will take place several days before Passover; while other artists have declined to perform in Israel for political and/or security reasons, Bieber and his mother, Pattie Mallette, a born-again Christian, are excited about visiting the Holy Land. “Justin [even] told me he wanted to rearrange his touring schedule because he wants to do seder in Israel,” Braun said in a phone interview.
In the film, Braun – a Camp Ramah alumnus —figures prominently as a crucial father figure in Bieber’s life. A marketing genius previously known for discovering rapper Asher Roth, Braun comes off as the patriarch of the “functional dysfunctional family” surrounding Bieber: protecting him from screaming fans, making sure he recovers from a case of strep throat, ordering him to stop talking so much, as teenagers are wont to do, when his vocal chords remain inflamed.
Braun doesn’t discuss his Jewish background in the film, but he does describe how his expert nudging made Bieber a star. Braun was browsing the Internet one evening when he came across one of Bieber’s homemade YouTube videos: “I’ve got to find this kid,” he decided on the spot. “I became obsessed.”
Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, who at the time was living with her son in Stratford, Ontario, was at first distrustful of this pushy outsider. But Braun won her over during a three-hour conversation in which he described his values, his emphasis on family and stories about how Braun himself was raised. “My father would tell me that if no one in the room is being a man, you must stand up and be a man,” he said by way of example.
Braun also had a question for Mallette: “I had seen a video of Justin singing some Christian songs and I found stuff online about how Christian Pattie was, so I said, ‘Look I just want to bring up something right off the bat: I’m a Jew, does that make you uncomfortable?’” It did not, and Braun went on to use the Internet in a unique marketing strategy that made Bieber, in a relatively short 18 months, the most popular teenager in the world.
“With Justin,” Braun told me, “I find myself sounding like my father a lot….The only way I’m going to have Justin transcend into an adult artist and continue the career he wants is if he understands the responsibilities he has. If I don’t teach him how to be a man, he’s not going to be able to handle any of the pressure, or to take any accountability for his own actions, and he’s going to grow up to be exactly what everybody is expecting him to be, which is the teen star who then gets into drugs and alcohol and blows it all away. And I’m not going to let that happen to him. I tell him, ‘Let me make this clear to you, Justin. You are not normal, you are extraordinary, so you will be held to extraordinary standards, which is the way I was raised.’”
How does one discipline a teen idol? “You take away his phone, you take away his computer, you cancel something in his career so he can understand that we don’t just care about that,” Braun said. “He’s got a curfew, he can’t just go spend his money, he can’t just do anything he wants, he has responsibilities, and he also has to show respect to people.” Example: When Bieber’s interview for a Vanity Fair cover story made him run late for a book signing, Braun had the teen apologize to the waiting journalists whose interviews would have to be rescheduled.
The Vanity Fair cover shows Bieber covered with red lipstick kiss marks, and his tie, which is askew, appearing to be grabbed by the hand of a woman just out of frame. How does Braun reconcile that image with the fact that his protégé is just 16? “It’s a boy with kiss marks on his face, and I don’t think people should read that much into it,” Braun replied. “It’s saying that Justin is loved and adored by girls….I didn’t have him with his shirt off, or in his underwear.”
How does Braun talk to Bieber about being the object of so much sexuality? “It’s the same way I [deal with] everything else; we have to live within modern times and we have to be responsible for our actions,” he said. “And the way Justin carries himself— he’s a role model—and I think he’s carrying himself as that role model; I don’t think he’s crossed any line at all. There are parents, or older people who have been shocked to see him running around with his shirt off in a water fight in the movie. But I don’t think that means he’s trying to be a sex symbol. I think if people are looking at it as ‘Oh my gosh, what is he doing,’ then maybe they should ask themselves why they’re looking at him like that.”
At this point in the interview, Braun, who hasn’t eaten all day, puts his father, Dr. Ervin Braun, on the phone, while assuring me he will “scarf” his In-N-Out burger so that we can continue our discussion. Ervin Braun, a dentist, describes how his father survived Dachau and Mauthausen, and how his mother, who entered Auschwitz at 14, was the sole survivor of her family. The dentist is named for one of his uncles who died of an infection shortly after liberation. He was born in Budapest, where his parents met after the war: “And then in 1956, when the Hungarian revolution broke out, my father orchestrated a spectacular escape through the night, literally on a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside until we got to the Austrian border,” he said.
Ervin Braun describes his family story as similar to Steven Spielberg’s animated Jewish immigrant saga, “An American Tail.” “There was no persecution in America – that’s what we came here for,” he said. “And my own son is a shining example of what opportunities one can find here.”
Apparently the young Scooter Braun was just as precocious a tween as Bieber. One day he came home from Middle School in Greenwich, CT and announced big plans for winning a National History Day contest. He made a 10-minute film, “The Hungarian Conflict,” “about my family, the Hungarian Jews and what they went through during the Holocaust.” Braun won third place, even though he had had to primitively edit his video between two VCRs. His grandmother sent the video to Steven Spielberg, who forwarded it to the United States Holocaust Museum, where it is still shown. And Braun still has the letter Spielberg sent him praising the video; it’s framed in his Atlanta office.
The conversation steers back to how Bieber came to recite the “Shema” in the documentary, which opens on Feb. 11. Apparently Bieber and his crew began forming “prayer circles” before each show, led by Mallette. “I felt like if we were going to say a prayer ‘in Jesus’ name, amen,’ that Dan Kanter [the show’s music director] and I, who are Jewish, should be represented as well,” Braun said. “We’d do the same if we had someone Muslim or Hindu in the group – we’re all-inclusive. So Dan and I would say the ‘Shema,’ and after the third show, as we were about to say it, Justin chimed in. I asked him, ‘What the heck was that?’ and he goes, ‘I memorized it.’ He was like, ‘This is something Jesus would have said, right?’ and I said, ‘yes,’ and he’s like, ‘Then I want to say it with you guys.’ I explained that it’s one of our holiest prayers, and that it means the Lord is one and he thought that was cool. He knows it’s in ancient Hebrew; he knows that Jesus would have said it and since Dan and I are every close to him, he wanted us to feel included as well. He’s a very special kid.”
February 6, 2011 | 6:31 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
This afternoon I saw “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” a 3D documentary about the munificently-coiffed, uber-popular teen crooner who recently swept the American Music Awards and will play his first concert in Israel (and reportedly attend a seder) in April.
The seder will come courtesy of Bieber’s Jewish manager, Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, the 29-year-old music biz maven who discovered Bieber on YouTube four years ago and figures prominently in the doc.
In the film—which opens on Feb. 11—Braun is introduced as “definitely the dad” figure on tour with 16-year-old Bieber. We first meet him as he sternly orders the singer to stop fooling around inside what appears to be a forklift: “What’re you doing?” and “That’s not funny,” he says.
Braun—a marketing genius previously known for “discovering” rapper Asher Roth—comes off as the patriarch of the “functional dysfunctional family” surrounding Bieber: protecting him from screaming girl-fans, making sure he recovers from a case of strep throat, ordering him to stop talking so much, as teenagers are wont to do, when his vocal chords remain inflamed, and joyously dancing like a Chasid at Bieber’s triumphant, post-strep concert at Madison Square Garden.
Reportedly, Braun taught Bieber the “Shema” to recite during his pre-concert prayer circles, which also include Christian prayers led by Bieber’s born-again mom. The Jewish prayer at one point is caught on camera (this from the film’s director Jon M. Chu), but alas, you can’t tell what it is on the sound track.
Braun doesn’t discuss his Jewish background in the film, but he does describe how his expert nudging made Bieber a star. Braun had come home one night and was browsing the Internet when he came across one of Bieber’s homemade YouTube videos; when he clicked on the sixth one, he says, “That’s when I got the buzz.” The next day, he cancelled all his meetings. His mantra: “I’ve got to find this kid…I became obsessed.”
Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, who at the time was living with her son in Stratford, Ontario, recounts her initial distrust of this pushy outsider: Who was this guy phoning her aunt and even members of the local school board to get to her? Mallette did phone Braun, if only to request that he stop calling. “She wanted to get rid of me,” Braun remembers,” but we ended up talking for two to three hours.”
Braun was apparently just as precocious a tween as his famous protégé. One day he came home from Middle School in Greenwich, CT and announced grandiose plans for a National History Day contest: “I put together this thing called ‘The Hungarian Conflict,’ a 10-minute thing about Jews in Hungary before, during and after the Holocaust. Kind of my family story,” he told Greenwich Magazine. Braun came in third place in the United States, even though he had only primitive editing equipment, and someone (he thinks maybe his grandmother) sent his winning video to Steven Spielberg. “I got a letter in the mail from [Spielberg]…, telling me that he was submitting my video to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where it is still shown,” he said.
Mallette never envisioned a career for her son in mainstream pop but rather, in Christian music: “So when an Atlanta-based hip-hop manager named Scooter Braun called nearly two years ago, Ms. Mallette was confused,” The New York Times reported. “‘I prayed, “God, you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?”’”
Never say never.
February 4, 2011 | 5:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Our Sundance reporter extraordinaire, Larry Mark, got the idea to tweet Jon M. Chu, the director of the much-anticipated documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” to ask a question inquiring Jewish minds want to know. Here is what Larry just emailed me:
“This afternoon, the 5-year-old daughter of a co-worker informed her Mom that she needed a note for her Kindergarten teacher. The girl said she can’t go to school next Friday, since she heard on TV that is the day the ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’ film opens. Her non-Tiger Mother explained to her that she can still see the film after school—and the girl was relieved.
This exchange got me wondering about the film, and asking myself what Jewish themes are in it. I know that Scott Samuel ‘Scooter’ Braun, the young man who discovered and nurtures Justin Bieber, and serves as his manager and ‘brother’ is Jewish, and that because of Scooter, Justin reportedly says the ‘Shema,’ along with another prayer, prior to his concert performances. Intrigued and curious, and obviously unable to reach Justin or Scooter, I reached out to the film’s director Jon M. Chu. I have followed Chu on twitter for quite some time, due to my enjoyment of his past choreography with theLXD.com.
Before lunch, I tweeted Jon, ‘Jon, HappyNewYr of Rabbit + Bieber. .. Can u tell if me if the film has Bieber reciting a Hebrew prayer b4 his concert?’
After lunch, I had his reply: ‘Yes It Does.’”
The movie hits theaters Feb. 11.
February 3, 2011 | 6:21 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Jennifer Lawrence, nominated in the best actress category for her searing portrayal of an Ozarks teenager in “Winter’s Bone,” was indispensable to writer-director Debra Granik – and not just for her acting prowess.
The 47-year-old Granik – Jewish, upper-middle-class, and a New Yorker – said she felt “severe” pressure to move beyond “hillbilly” stereotypes to tell the story of Ree (Lawrence), a 17-year-old from a meth-cooking clan who embarks upon a dangerous quest to find her missing father. And 19-year-old Lawrence, who was raised in Kentucky, was an important component in helping the urban Jewish director bridge the culture gap.
I spoke with the 20-year-old actress last week – she had just come from a fitting for her upcoming role as the mutant Mystique in the upcoming “X Men: First Class” – about Granik, filming in the rural Ozarks, having real residents cast as her co-stars, and being the “breakout” star nominated for an Oscar opposite actresses such as Annette Bening and Natalie Portman.
NPM: Debra Granik told me that she visited the Ozarks six times and conducted many interviews there in order to get Ree’s world just right – and not to feel like such a stranger in a strange land. How did your own Southern background help with your understanding of the role?
JL: It helped immensely, because it wasn’t a world that was completely foreign to me, as it may be for a lot of people who have seen the movie. The location may be just hours away for some [viewers], but it’s looking at this world that people may have a hard time believing is real. And because I grew up in Kentucky I was familiar with it. I didn’t live in it by any means, but I did know it was there, and I think that my accent helped.
NPM: Your character is seen operating a wood chipper, and even shooting, skinning and cooking a squirrel for her two younger siblings.
JL: Again, being from Kentucky, I have an uncle who was able to teach me how to chop wood, and then my cousin cleaned out a .22 rifle for me, because he said anybody can spot a rookie right away, and I didn’t want that to be me. So I just carried around a cleaned-out gun, and got really comfortable with it. As for skinning a squirrel, a hunter taught me how to do that.
NPM: Debra told me that she doesn’t initially disclose that she is Jewish when on location lest that affect how people might view her – and that was especially true of filming in the rural Missouri Bible belt. She had some anxiety about that, even though it turned out that it was never an issue. Were you aware of her feelings during production?
JL: No, gosh, I didn’t know about that. It’s just one of those things that I would never in a million years think about. So sometimes you forget that other people might think about it.
NPM: I know a big concern of Debra’s was creating a world for Ree that was believable but not exploitative.
JL: To get past that, Debra was so careful not to have anything in the film that wasn’t authentic; asking people ‘Would you really say this, would you really do that, what would you think about this kind of situation, and how would you handle it?’ She asked a lot of questions of the real people who lived there and that helped tremendously. The [responses] weren’t coming from our minds, they was coming from their experiences and their opinions as to what they would actually do. Being in the local environment with plenty of local people around, helped tremendously for me as well.
NPM: What makes Debra unique as a director?
JL: She asks questions, which, unfortunately, is rare. And she has the ability to see beauty and places and things in locations and even dialogue that nobody else really can. I’ve never really met anybody like her.
NPM: When you initially auditioned for the film, you were told you were too attractive for the role – but your tenacity won everyone over.
JL: I auditioned twice in L.A. and then they said I didn’t have the right look, but I just didn’t want to lose the role – I thought that was so unfair to lose a role like that! And I just kind of chased them; they went back to New York to continue auditions and I followed them, flew out on a red eye, and then went into the audition the next day, like ‘Surprise!’
NPM: Is it true you walked blocks in the snow before the audition to make yourself look more disheveled?
JL: I walked blocks in the show just to get to the audition, not to make myself look more exhausted. You know, you can’t really change the way that you look, so I don’t think that I changed their opinion on the way that I look. I think I just kind of convinced them that it didn’t matter.
NPM: “Winter’s Bone” has been described as your “breakout role:” now you’re starring in a major studio picture and are nominated for an Academy Award. How much do you credit Debra Granik for helping you to advance to this place in your career?
JL: One hundred percent. Certain movies [financiers] think are going to be so obviously successful, and other movies aren’t perceived that way, and it takes one or two filmmakers committing years of their lives to making that movie possible. So many people [initially] didn’t see the potential of “Winter’s Bone,” but Debra did, and I really credit her for that.