TALKING TO WRITERS
Today is part one of an interview with my friend Oren Moverman, Israeli-born and New York based screenwriter and filmmaker.
Oren has written some of the more interesting and provocative independent features of the last several years, from Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son" to Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" to Ira Sach's "Married Life".
Now he has made his directorial debut with his upcoming feature "The Messenger" starring Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson.
Oren Moverman interview
What was your relationship to movies growing up in Israel? Were you one of those movie nuts as a kid, or were you more interested in other things?
I saw my first movie when I was seven years old in my school gym, which doubled as a bomb shelter, in Givaatayim, just east of Tel Aviv. The lights were turned off and I was terrified. I didn’t know there would be a moment of darkness before the movie started. I spent the next two hours shivering, scared out of my mind. The film was THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the images paralyzed me. It was a nightmare I couldn’t NOT watch. I came home with very high fever, and spent the next few days in bed. There was quite a bit of vomiting involved if I remember correctly. I’m sure I was coming down with something already before the screening, but I always associated that illness with watching my first movie. I didn’t dare watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again for thirty ears. My kids forced me. It was pretty sweet. That was my introduction to my chosen profession.
When I was nine I was part of an Israeli youth movement called HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed (Working and Studying Youth.) It was quasi-socialist, Zionist association. We wore solid blue shirts with red strings for buttons and talked about social responsibility and communal living, but I was there mostly because all the pretty girls went and because there was not much else to do. We’d meet every Tuesday and Saturday at a center that seemed to be centuries away from my house. One day we couldn’t go in the building because they were shooting a movie inside. I caught a glimpse of a young guy named Avi Nesher directing actors. The film was called THE TROUP. It was about an Army singing group. I noticed a very big camera. I put two and two together and realized that movies are made with actors and a camera and someone who told everyone what to do. It sounds silly, but I guess it was the first time I realized films involved a process of making. I probably wasn’t a very bright kid, never really thought about this thing called creativity, about making something out of nothing. Suddenly, I was imagining movies in my head about nine-year old boys who didn’t want to be kids anymore, didn’t want to live where they lived, didn’t want to be who they were. I never articulated it, but I knew somehow movies had something to do with my future.
What kinds of films were available to you? Was there a distinction between commercial and more artistic films there? Were you attracted to American films? Which ones made a big impression on you?
There was no film culture where I grew up. For my family, there was no culture period. This was Israel in the seventies, a relatively young country in a rough neighborhood with much to worry about. Our culture was survival and chaos.
My older cousin, Ronen, would take me to see French farces every year on my birthday. I’m not sure why. Not even sure what they were. It was a serial of sorts.
TV was black and white and mostly educational. Every Saturday evening, after the Sabbath, when broadcast would resume, my family would get together to watch cartoons. A colorless Bugs Bunny was the closest thing to a movie star in my house.
Every Friday there would be Arabic movies on TV in the afternoon. I watched them religiously. Can’t say that I remember one plot line, but I do recall a lot of crying and the occasional kiss. There were songs too. I think it solidified the sense of being an outsider looking in. These images were important to me. I had no access to other films. There was no VHS. I didn’t know that a few miles away there was a cinematheque showing the new Kurosawa movie. Didn’t know much at all.
I came to the States when I was twelve. Finished school here and went back to join the military. The New York years opened me up to cinema. On TV (color TV, what a revelation!) and in movie theaters I discovered filmmakers and truly fell in love with films. Still, I had yet to meet anyone who worked in movies. Hell, I’d yet to meet anyone who did anything remotely creative or artistic.
In the military, again, I had no access to movies. So I would read. I would read about movies, absurd things: Totems and Movies, The Evolution of the Western, From Logos to Lens, On the Notion of Cinematographic language, Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style – heady stuff; Feminist, Marxist, Genre, Auteur Criticism. I would familiarize myself with Japanese, Italian, French, British and American cinema. It felt right. I became very familiar with films I’ve never seen. I memorized filmographies of directors I admired at the time, Truffaut, Ophuls, Lubitsch, Altman, and I would always try to remember who was the DP on every one of these films. I don’t know why. Maybe because I read about Raoul Coutard and it sounded like the director of photography is a character in himself.
I left Israel after the military with the desire to get involved in film, made stronger by the desire not to live in Israel. If I was going to be an outsider, I may as well be in a place I didn’t belong. I was hungry to meet the people who made movies. I still knew next to nothing about how films were really made, but I could talk a good game about things like diegetic sound, Wabi-Sabi readings of Ozu films, and current problems in film theory.
Looking back I would say I wasn’t a nut about movies, I was addicted to the ways movies made me feel and I was dedicated to trying to find out why they made me feel this way. I was addicted to the feeling I got, and still get sometimes, when the lights go down and I get scared and worried something just might happen that will change my world forever.
When did you realize or decide that you might want to or have the possibility of pursuing a career in filmmaking? Did you have friends or peers in Israel with similar interests? Was the idea of going to "film school" a reality for your generation?
I had no way of moving to the States legally save for becoming a foreign student. I applied to Brooklyn College because I found out they had a film program and I applied to SUNY Purchase because I read about some young talent being discovered there. Hal Hartley just graduated, I believe. This was 1988. I got accepted to Brooklyn and left Israel with no idea how I would be able to afford it. No job. No skills, if you discount jumping out of airplanes, shooting semi-automatic rifles and humiliating an oppressed people. But I had a student visa, and I was ready to put myself in a position of getting lucky. I confess that I did think about studying film in Israel for five minutes. At that time there was basically Tel Aviv University and another school, I forget its name, where you could study filmmaking. But I wanted to be an American filmmaker. I wanted to be a part of that tradition. Nowadays, Israel has some fine opportunities for young filmmakers, there’s a great school in Jerusalem, named after Sam Spiegel of all people, that is molding some real talent, and there are foreign-educated filmmakers coming back and doing great work. I guess for me going to the States to study film was about identity. I wanted to learn how to be someone else from who I was, and film seemed like the way to go. I’m not sure how to explain it without lying on your couch and talking it through for hours and paying you to listen.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I never ever thought about another type of career. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have other interests. I studied Genetics, Art, English and Philosophy among many other subjects I really loved. I had other jobs, but film was where I was going, and there was no need to doubt it. Years later there would be nothing but doubt.
Director Alison Maclean on the set of Jesus' Son with Billy Crudup and Dennis Hopper
How did you learn to write screenplays? Who were your mentors? Who were your influences? Did you start out to write for film, or were you already writing fiction or non-fiction while you were working as a journalist and before you took up screenwriting?
I started writing while attending Brooklyn College, but I never took a screenwriting class. A history professor, Stuart Schaar, was offering an advanced Middle Eastern seminar and we were required to write a long research paper. Now, he was, and still is, a very cool guy and I told him I didn’t want to write the paper because I found it boring. I was never a fan of footnotes. He told me I could write a short story instead. I wrote a story called A SAINT IN HIS VILLAGE about a Palestinian working in Jerusalem who encounters violence just by sitting on an Israeli bus. It was all about how I felt about being Israeli and about some experiences I had in the first intifada, and I must say, it was pretty damn good. Or good enough to surprise me into thinking I could write fiction in English. He told me I should write more.
Then I found my way into journalism. Sort of. First, in Hebrew for a newspaper where I wrote film reviews under my then girlfriend’s name, because by then I was working for the Israeli government in security and I thought it wasn’t right to use my own name. Also, it allowed me to write about films from a woman’s perspective, which was a good exercise. I became a character, I guess.
I met a wonderful man named Walter Donohue on a film I was working on as a PA and he introduced me to the film editor at Interview magazine who gave me some work interviewing people like Spike Lee, Ang Lee, young actors like Sam Rockwell, Anne Hache, Noah Taylor, and more. I made them all my teachers and mentors. I was finally spending time talking with the people who made movies. I was going to press screenings and I was in the know.
Walter then invited me to work for the British publishers Faber & Faber, as an editor-at-large, mostly scouting for film books and then doing some interviews and writing for books, the Projections series among them.
Years before, when I was a soldier, I met a tourist named Ron Yoshida in the occupied Palestinian territories. He gave me his card and told me he worked as a soundman in NY. I held on to that card and when I came here he got me a job working for Albert Maysles as an office PA. Ron’s a warm, sweet, smart guy and he told me the day we reconnected in New York that I will be directing my first feature in five years. He was off by fifteen years.
My life in film came together through a lot of luck, through some really generous people who were willing to give me opportunities way before I had the chance to hone in any skills. Everything was on the job training.
I wrote my first screenplay, A HIDING PLACE, intuitively, not knowing what I was doing, but feeling my way through it, out of the experience of sneaking onto the set of Louis Malle’s last film VANYA ON 42ND STREET. I was a PA, but Louis also put me in the film. It’s a long story, but out of that experience I came to work on JESUS’ SON.
A HIDING PLACE took off and I got financing out of France to direct it. I had a very excited young producer I met through a director I admired and met through Faber named Lodge Kerrigan, who was making it all happen. Screenwriting was not going to be my job. I was a writer/director all of a sudden. We started casting, then pre-production, hired an entire crew, and three days before shooting, on the second day of tech-scout, the film fell apart. I’m still not sure what happened. The financier didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French. I was told all kinds of things by my producer, but it never added up. I thought it was the worst day of my life.
Boy, was I wrong.
I was left with a screenplay, which became my writing sample and started my career as a screenwriter.
TOMORROW: The second part of my talk with writer/director Oren Moverman.