Michael Mayer has lived in Los Angeles for the past 17 years. He has spent many of those working in Hollywood, making trailers for movies and American television series. From time to time he produced a documentary or directed a short film, but the trailers were the focus of his life. They were his livelihood, but he also loved to make them.
About a decade ago a friend from back home in Israel came to see him, but Mayer never imagined the visit was going to change his life. The friend told him he volunteered with the Israeli National LGBT Task Force (aka Aguda), and explained that part of this organization's activity is devoted to helping gay Palestinians. Many of them, he told Mayer, are forced to flee the Palestinian Authority and hide from their families and acquaintances, because they refuse to accept their sexual orientation. Sometimes, he added, their lives are in real danger.
Mayer listened, riveted. He learned that many gay men who have fled their homes in the territories find refuge in Tel Aviv; he understood that their delicate situation often makes them vulnerable to extortion, by Palestinians and Israelis alike. Moreover, he was surprised to hear that, not infrequently, they have no choice but to flee and obtain political asylum abroad.
"I was surprised to hear the things this friend told me and surprised about the extent of the problem. Suddenly I said to myself, 'Hey, this is a story I want to tell,'" he recollects, during a recent interview in Tel Aviv.
Mayer realized this was his chance to do what he had always dreamed of: write and direct a full-length feature film by himself: "This topic suddenly came along and turned me on. For years I was entirely submerged in the trailers business ... but it was always clear that if I got up and made a film, it would only be with a subject that speaks to me. When this idea came up, I felt it was the first time I'd connected with something in such a powerful manner. So, I decided to do it."
The result, "Out in the Dark," premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and won the best film prize in the official competition at the Haifa International Film Festival last fall, together with the highly acclaimed "Fill the Void" (Rama Burshtein's debut feature).
Mayer's film may not have won important international awards yet, but it has won the hearts of overseas distributors: So far it has been sold to 35 countries - an extraordinary achievement for a low-budget Israeli film by an unknown director - and the American cable network HBO bought the TV broadcast rights.
"Out in the Dark" ("Alata" in Hebrew) opened in local theaters last week. At its heart is a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian, who try to prove to themselves and the world that love is stronger than any conflict or political reality, no matter how cruel.
Young Palestinian Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) is a psychology student who leads a double life. At home in Ramallah, with his family, nobody knows about his sexual orientation. At night he goes out to the big city beyond the fence, Tel Aviv, to enjoy the freedom and sexual adventures the city brings. When he meets Roy (Michael Aloni), a young Israeli lawyer, a love story develops that gives him hope for a better future. But things soon get complicated and, after being forced to come out of the closet, Nimr finds himself being persecuted, extorted and threatened in both worlds.
Director Michael Mayer was born in Haifa in 1973 and attended the city's prestigious Reali School. After his military service, he went to film school in the United States. Toward the end of his studies, he began working in the script-development department of a Los Angeles production company, and after three years began directing trailers, and later created his own firm for that purpose. He made trailers for, among other films, "X-Men," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," as well as for the television series "The Simpsons," "24" and "Arrested Development."
"I always wanted to make a feature, ever since I can remember, but it was fun for me to make trailers," Mayer recalls. "It may sound superficial, but it's fun, creative, excellent money, and you're at the heart of the American industry. Just think: I was not yet 30 and had already sat in marketing meetings at, for example, Disney, where they would discuss a movie that didn't work in theaters as a comedy, and think about how best to push it as a romantic comedy in a new campaign. I would have to do the creative work, write the trailer. I really love trailers, so along the way I kind of forgot that originally I had wanted to make films. I was comfortable and good at what I did."
Following that decisive meeting with the friend who told him about gay Palestinians, Mayer made a few calls to Aguda in Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, to get more information. He also made a few research sorties to Israel, where he met gay Palestinians who told him about the problems they contend with, and about people who have made it their goal to help them.
"I learned that there are Palestinian gays who come to Tel Aviv, hide out here and can't go home afterward. I learned that many of them are exploited by people here and also exploited by people there, if they go back," Mayer explains, adding, "A 1994 report by B'Tselem [the Israeli human rights group focused on Palestinian civil rights], for example, revealed that the Israeli security services take advantage of closeted gay Palestinians to blackmail them for the purpose of obtaining information from the other side.
"The BBC did an investigative report on this subject in 2006 and estimated that, at any given time, there are 300-350 Palestinian gays hiding in Israel," he continues. "At first I had doubts; it wasn't obvious from the first moment that I was going to set everything aside and devote myself to the project. But about five years ago, I said to myself that either I go on making trailers the rest of my life, or else I give myself a chance to do this thing. Ultimately I realized that ... it was worthwhile for me to take this step."
Friends in Los Angeles recommended that he shoot the movie there, because it would be easier. Some Israelis who live in the United States and had shot films in Israel also advised Mayer against that: "They told me, 'Don't make that mistake of going to shoot in Israel.' They had done it and got burned. But I felt that not shooting a film like this in Israel would be a type of lie, because a story like this must take place here. This is its place."
Since he was not familiar with the Israeli film industry, he recruited producer Lihu Roter ("Andante") and casting agent Hila Yuval to help him find a suitable cast and crew.
Like activists, but not
Although "Out in the Dark" is about a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian, about Shin Bet security service agents who blackmail gay Palestinians in distress, and about Palestinians protesting the occupation - Mayer repeatedly insists he did not want to make a political movie. "I set out with the thought that I was going to make a movie with a political agenda, but then I was amazed to discover that the people who work at the Aguda and Open House are not necessarily activists who go out and demonstrate in Sheikh Jarrah and the Palestinian villages. I mean it's really not the radical extremist left," he says. “On the other hand, they do help gay Palestinians, go with them to court, help hide them, contact various bodies that can assist them. In other words, they do the work of activists, but not necessarily due to a political agenda. That’s where the tug at the heartstrings is, from my standpoint. This is [about] the bonding of a community: of gays coming to the aid of gays, of men and women who share some joint existence a minority’s in the societies in which they live, and from this place they bond and help each other. My own connection to the story also grew from this place, from the place of my sexual identity.”
Mayer decided that the protagonists would likewise not be politically oriented, just young people in search of love: “It was important to me that the characters be like that that as long as politics doesn’t enter their bedrooms, they don’t do anything. So, yes, on the one hand I’m saying this is not a political movie, but on the other I know that saying ‘Out in the Dark’ is not a political movie is a joke. I mean, in this place you can’t make any movie that isn’t political, and certainly not a film like this. However, my film tries to avoid that. As far as I’m concerned, politics is merely the background for the story, for the bond between them, and for Nimr’s story.”
There were two actors Mayer knew in advance that he wanted in his movie: Alon Pdut, who plays the Shin Bet agent, and Jamil Khoury (son of actor Makram Khoury), who plays Nimr’s brother. But for the leading roles he had to hold auditions. He was not initially enthusiastic about the idea of casting Aloni.
“I didn’t really know him,” he admits. “I knew he was this pretty boy, that my nieces like him because of ‘Hashminiya,’” he said, referring to a popular Children’s Channel series that ran from 2005-2007. It was only after he saw him in “Infiltration (2010)", “where he stole the show, that I said, ‘Okay, let’s meet.’ I discovered an actor who is a gift for a director, who works hard from the first moment, and is adventurous, constantly wanting to try new things.”
Jacob, on the other hand, came to the film without any prior acting experience whatsoever. His then-girlfriend also came to audition, and told the production people that if they were looking for someone for the lead, her boyfriend would be right, even though he hadn’t studied acting. Jacob’s talent was indeed apparent in the audition, and the moment he met Aloni, there was obvious chemistry between them.
Mayer: “I think this was the greatest risk I took in the movie, taking for the lead somebody inexperienced, who did not study acting. Only when I heard his life story did I realize that [although] he may not be an actor, he could connect with this character thanks to his life experience.”
Jacob was born in Haifa to an Italian mother and Arab father. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, spoke English and Italian, and in his early teens returned to Israel and attended a Jewish school.
“He was the only Arab at a school where everyone is an Israeli Jew, and so he grew up with the experience of an outsider,” Mayer notes. “To friends from school he was the lone Arab, and to Arab friends from the neighborhood he was semi-Jewish. So I realized that a lot of things about him are similar to the character of Nimr: someone who is an outsider in two societies, in two cultures. It made me believe I would succeed in getting what was needed out of him.”
That wasn’t the sole risk Mayer took. “In this movie we did the first two things they tell you not to do when you’re making a low-budget film: not to shoot at night, and not to do outdoor filming. But we made a movie of which 70 percent takes place at night, and it has loads of outdoor scenes. We compromised only a little,” he grins.
The film crew consisted of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. “It mattered to us, not from some political agenda but rather out of a correct experience for this movie, that it not be only an Israeli crew. So the dresser was Palestinian, the assistant director was Palestinian, and so was the script manager,” Mayer says.
He spent half a year here during preparation, returned to Los Angeles and began working on post-production with industry people. The film was edited by Maria Gonzales, whose credits include “Up in the Air,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Men in Black II”; the sound designer was Martin Lopez (“Spider-Man,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”). Mayer knew both through his work on trailers, and they agreed to work on his low-budget project.
“These are people who make enough money on other jobs, which lets them also do something low-budget occasionally,” Mayer says. “That’s the advantage of an industry where you earn good money.”