Interview: Rama Burshtein on “The Wedding Plan”

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Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.

The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”

In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.

Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”

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Interview: Director Joseph Cedar on “Norman”

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norman posterIsraeli-American Joseph Cedar wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, the Oscar-nominated Beaufort, and I am a fan of his film “Footnote” as well. Both are in Hebrew. So it was a great pleasure to talk to him about his first English language film, “Norman,” starring Richard Gere and Steve Buscemi. Gere plays the title character, a schmoozer and small-time wheeler-dealer who gets caught up in international politics when he befriends an Israeli government official who ends up as Prime Minister.

Who casts Richard Gere is as a shlub?

I think it’s the ultimate challenge. I like it when actors act. It’s gratifying to see an actor do something that is very far from who he is or how we perceive him in other films, his persona. It’s also gratifying to see an actor do something that is genuinely difficult that other people can’t do. And I found that in what Richard was doing, it’s like watching a circus act. It’s was remarkable for me in every scene to see him just be someone he’s not.

The hair really helps create his character, very different from the more glamorous image we have.

We did something with this whole physical appearance which is subtle but changes the way he looks to an audience. More importantly, it changes the way he looks to himself. He’d come out of makeup and wardrobe and look in the mirror and he wasn’t seeing the Richard Gere he is used to seeing on a movie set. That is helpful to create a body language that was different and specific for Norman. And this made it possible for him to do things that he doesn’t normally do in movies. So we did play around a little bit with his physicality.

It was almost as surprising to see Steve Buscemi as a rabbi.

That’s less of a stretch in my mind, I think Steve Buscemi would make a great Upper West Side rabbi. He’s a New Yorker and that is in itself most of the research but I did introduce him to a rabbi and I think it was more for Steve to feel comfortable not trying to be something that’s exotic. I introduced him to someone who gave him license to basically be himself. The character he plays was something we discussed like I would discuss the character with any actor but it was more about the circumstance that he is in, the financial situation his synagogue is in and just how communities are organized at least in New York. Those were the things that we spoke about. I thought it was interesting for him and for me to be a big part of where Norman sits in the grand scheme and the big deal that he is putting together.

It seems to me that one thing that makes it possible for Norman to succeed as much as he does is that he has no social shame. Most of us would cringe at making ourselves vulnerable to so much rejection.

What’s odd about what you just said is that in a different context someone who is shameless is considered a negative thing but I think it’s actually a really positive quality not to have pride or to be willing to take humiliation. It’s something that most of us aren’t willing to do and many times we rely on other people not having those inhibitions, those blocks that we put on ourselves.

I have to really not look at Norman from the outside but be in Norman’s shoes. Norman isn’t aware that he’s doing something that is humiliating. He sees his goals and obviously he is doing things that most people won’t do to achieve that goal but he has his way of denying the insult when it happens. He thanks most people after they push him away. It’s part of what allows him to do what he does and it’s his survival tool, not really being aware of how other people see him.

I think the point for me in just figuring him out is just realizing that it’s not really humiliating, wanting something and being willing to do everything including doing every once in a while a conniving trick if it’s serving something that he thinks is good, then I respect that. The world needs people who are willing to do what Norman does.

Could Norman tell you exactly what he wants? A specific policy goal or project or just being a part of things?

Is it self-serving or is it a mixture of wanting some influence or having a position or having access to something that is good for Norman — but isn’t there also always something else or there might be something else that can be a result of that that is good?

I think it generally starts out that way but then it can get lost. Look at your Prime Minister character, Eshel. He begins as somebody who says, “No I couldn’t let you buy me these very expensive shoes,” and he ends up as somebody who has to do a lot of compromising.

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics

What happens in that scene from my point of view is morally challenging. If I put myself in both these characters’ places, I don’t think I would accept a $1200 gift from someone I just met and I probably wouldn’t give a gift that is so expensive to someone I just met. So there’s something that feels wrong about the whole encounter and what makes it happen is that both sides convinced themselves that it’s okay. Eshel’s character convinces himself that by accepting the gift he is actually already returning the favor and that he is in a way giving Norman some sense of being part of an important mission or something bigger than himself by offering him a representative in this case of Israeli government, by offering him something that would make them feel more comfortable or feel better about himself. Norman is seeing this as an investment that will help him forward other initiatives that he has been trying to do and has not been successful. It’s a risky investment because Eshel may never call back or may never deliver or may never turn into someone who actually has power, but it’s worth it to him on instinct. He feels that this can work because he really needs to take every opportunity he can to get in. To have a foot in the door.

But that brings us to his downfall. Because he has that strategy or that impulse to take every possible advantage he gets into a conversation on a train that turns out to be kind of disastrous to him because it’s too revealing.

I agree with you in calling it an impulse, it’s not really something he can control, it’s what he does, it’s who he is, it’s an expression of his deepest core. He can’t hold back.

Norman does what he does on instinct. He is wired this way and it’s a survival thing more than a planned-out business scheme. It’s just how he survives. It’s his function in the world.

You live in both the US and Israel. We seem to be in a uniquely tumultuous moment. What comfort do you think people can take from watching this movie?

Hopefully there’s a lot of comfort to take from watching this movie but none of it should affect their mood about what’s happening in America. If anything the times we’re living are times that call for action. We shouldn’t take things for granted and we should try to influence our surrounding.

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The Writer of “Groundhog Day” is Living It Over Again — As a Musical

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New York Magazine has a fascinating article about Danny Rubin, screenwriter of comedy classic “Groundhog Day,” who is now adapting the story into a Broadway musical.

This is the story of how Danny Rubin wrote Groundhog Day not once but twice — maybe more times than that, but who’s counting. It’s unusual for any artist to live so long under the shadow of a single work, let alone a story that is itself intimately concerned with limits and repetition. It’s more unusual still for an artist to return to that story in another medium for an encore nearly three decades later. Yet here Rubin is, in a Broadway theater, listening to his words echo, again and again and again, into the dark.

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Interview: Ash Brannon, Director of “Rock Dog”

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Ash Brannon directed “Surf’s Up” and co-directed “Toy Story 2,” two of my favorite animated films. He took on quite a challenge writing and directing the endearing new international production “Rock Dog,” inspired by a Chinese graphic novel about a sheepdog from Tibet who wants to be a musician. I was lucky to get a chance to talk to him about it.

Like the surfing penguin story “Surf’s Up,” “Rock Dog” is the story of an animal character who is passionate about something unusual for his species. “Characters with big dreams, impossible dreams, those are always a place to start when you are making the movie, aren’t they?” Brannon said.

He especially enjoyed working on an international production that came from China. “I hadn’t heard of the comic book. It was very big in China but not outside of China so the producer on the show told me about it and I was kind of intrigued by the challenges of the show. Doing something with fewer resources of time and money and a chance to build my own front-end team to put the story together. Also, I thought it would be fun just to work with some different cultures and discover what we have in common, what we don’t have in common when it comes to making movies, and so that’s kind of the long and short of it. The pleasant surprise was that stories like this work pretty much all over the world. Especially the musical theme shows music as universal, a thing we all have in common. It’s a really magical story, too. When you see a kid bang on pots and pans or strum a guitar or play the keys on a piano for the first time and discover that they can make sounds and eventually pleasing sounds that can really touch the hearts of people, that’s an amazing magical thing. And so, I wanted to tap into that and I discovered in working with the Chinese artists that they feel the same way. So, it was nice to kind of transcend some boundaries in making this movie.”

Copyright Lionsgate 2016
Copyright Lionsgate 2016

The film is inspired in part by the real life of the rock star who wrote the graphic novel. “He’s pretty much like Bodi in this story. He was going to go into international finance. He was in business school and then he heard a Bruce Springsteen song one day in college. This is back in the 80s or 90s, so you can imagine what kind of bootleg it takes to get Springsteen songs into China, but he fell in love with music and asked permission from his mom and she said, ‘Yes, go follow your dream.” He went off to Beijing, taught himself music. He was busking in the parks and he went from a very, very modest beginning to quite a fortunate career.”

The look of the movie is also very different from the graphic novel. “One great gift that Michael gave the team, because it was entirely an American team of artists who put the movie together, was his generosity and his trust in letting us go where we thought we needed to go and adapting the graphic novel and that extended to the designs. One reason we had to kind of depart from it was to simplify the characters because of our budget and make sure that nothing was too complicated so everything went in a simplified direction for that reason.”

One of my favorite things in the movie was the opening sequence, done in a dreamlike collage style. “It was something that the partners in China really wanted. I think they liked the opening of ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ for example, kind of a 2D graphic style. We really wanted to set up very quickly and bring you into the story almost like a book to help you understand the setup of this village of sheep and the guard dog and how Bodi’s father ended up locking up these musical instruments away for fear that his son would stray from the path of making sure he grew up and became the next guard to protect the sheep. So, it was a nice shorthand way of doing that and that’s kind of how we approached the opening.”

The rock star voiced by Eddie Izzard in the film lives in a fabulous mansion, and Brannon explained that they took advantage of one of the benefits of animation — there is no limit to imagination because what they create does not have to built. “We had a fantastic art director named Christian Schellewald who I met at DreamWorks and I let him run with the concept of what a rock star’s house must look like when money is no object. So we went outlandish with the enormous waterbed and the massive living room and the over-the-top music recording room. It was fun just to do things you can only do in animation that would look kind of crazy in live action.”

He said that in casting the voice actors, who include Sam Elliott, Luke Wilson, and JK Simmons, “naturalism is key. I really like actors who embrace improvisation and who can really act through their voice only. I mean when you think about it, live action actors bring so much to their performances visually, right? Their facial expressions, gestures, and so forth and their looks. When you take all that away sometimes actors don’t have anything left. So I look for actors who can really bring a texture that is interesting to listen to, people who can emote entirely with the voice alone.”

The movie features a rock ‘n’ roll park based on a real-life park in Japan. “These kids are amazing, as talented as anybody who’s getting record label deals. They are singing their hearts out. You can go anywhere even in America and you find these musicians in New York or LA, San Francisco, anywhere they have such passion for making music you almost feel like if they could not make music they wouldn’t survive, it’s like breathing for them or eating or drinking. So, that was the thing that struck me and its universal. People need to make music. It’s part of what sustains us on earth. And that’s the feeling I wanted in our movie.”

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Interview: W. Bruce Cameron, Author of “A Dog’s Purpose”

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Copyright Forge Books
Copyright Forge Books
“A Dog’s Purpose,” in theaters this week, is a love letter to dogs and the people who are lucky enough to be loved by them. A dog named Bailey loves a boy and then, as he dies and is reborn as other dogs, he becomes an important part of the lives of others as well. Dennis Quaid stars as the man who reunites with Bailey in his new form after many years.

The movie is based on the best-seller by the same name and I spoke to its author, W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote the similarly endearing 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter: And other tips from a beleaguered father .

We agreed that it is a challenge to find the right name for a dog. He said “you have to wait for the personality to assert itself. Of course that means that you call the dog ‘Hey, puppy!’ and the dog thinks its name is Puppy. My dog Tucker came with the name already stuck on him and it was a perfect name for him. I can’t imagine calling him anything else. As long as you fall in love with the dog, the name is going to be fine.” Tucker was a rescue dog. He was abandoned as a newborn in a box outside of the animal shelter. “My daughter, who runs an animal rescue was called because this was a death row case. Three newborn puppies would have overwhelmed the resources of the shelter. So, they asked her if she could help out, and she happened to have a lactating German shepherd whose puppies had weaned the day before. So she brought in these three puppies that were still slick from being born and said, ‘Hey, remember that wild weekend at the Sigma Chi house?’ and presented her with the puppies. I took him over when he was seven or eight weeks old. She was in Denver and we were in LA so I told her we were not going to come get the dog and she said, ‘I’ll be there on Wednesday.’ Her goal in life is that if you don’t have a dog, she will make sure you get one, and if you have one, she will persuade you to get another one. And if you’re allergic to dogs, she will get you a cat.”

He had dogs when he was growing up, starting at age 8, the same age as the boy in the book. “None of the kids in the neighborhood had dogs. My dad walked in that labrador and we started running together and rolling around together like we found each other after years apart. And then suddenly some of the other people in the neighborhood started getting dogs, too. Pretty soon we were overrun with them. So I always had dogs and our friends had dogs, and our dog needed a friend so we got Gypsy and she needed a friend. So most of my teenage years we had three dogs.”

He loves hearing from people about their dogs. “The Dog’s Purpose premise has gotten me so many emails and comments from people who say that their dog is so much like one they had when they were young or years before that it seems like the truth. The idea that you would come across an old friend later in life.” But he does not have any tips for training a dog. “Tucker is Exhibit A for showing that I don’t know how to train a dog. He’ll agree to some things. He’s the only dog I’ve ever owned who is willing to stay. On the other hand, if I throw a ball and tell him to bring it back, he will run after it and sniff it and look at me as if to say, ‘Why are you throwing this perfectly good ball away?’ I think I’m good at training dogs, but none of my dogs agree with me on that.”

The search for purpose for a dog he says, “is just the search for the right person. That’s their ultimate purpose. But they have another purpose, too. They are so joyous and so happy to be with you. If you want to go for a walk, they’re happy to go wherever you want to go, they’re happy to come back from the walk. With the exception of a bath, they’re happy to do whatever you want to do. If you come back from taking out the trash, they’re happy to see you. And they’re with us such a short period of time and don’t seem depressed about that. The lesson of that is that we should live like the dogs. We should have every day be joyous. My advice to anybody including myself is if you’re going through a bad period and you just can’t see the world’s on your shoulders and no day is a good day, you’re missing the whole point of the experience. And that’s something dogs know from the moment they come bounding up to you as a puppy.”

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