Get Set

Behind the scenes in America’s indie film industry, Tel Aviv-born Inbal Weinberg is making her mark as a production designer.

Neta Alexander
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Neta Alexander

NEW YORK - Inbal Weinberg is one of the few Israeli women who have managed to work their way up to key positions in the American independent film industry. With characteristic spunk, sporting curly black hair and a vintage pink dress, she also manages somehow to find a vacant table in the corner of a busy cafe near the Museum of Modern Art, and sits at just the right angle to enjoy a ray of sunlight in the Manhattan chill. Weinberg, 31, has become a sought-after production designer and has to her credit successful films like "Half Nelson" (2006 ), "Frozen River," which received two Oscar nominations in 2009, and 2010's "Blue Valentine" - a prize-winning drama that also was nominated for an Oscar and is now in theaters in Israel.

Weinberg, who was born in Tel Aviv to an urban planner mother and a psychologist father, says she fell in love with cinema during her studies at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim.

Inbal Weinberg.Credit: Dan Keinan

"Every time I saw a film I noticed that behind the actors, the director and the cinematographer there was a production designer, and I decided that that's what I wanted to do, even before I knew what it really meant," she relates in Hebrew spiced with English in a perfect American accent. "I remember there wasn't Internet yet and I went to the library at Tel Aviv University to look for information about this role, and all I could find was an outdated book on cinema from the 1950s which didn't really help me."

Weinberg moved to New York shortly after completing her military service and began studying film at New York University. While her peers were focusing on screenwriting and directing courses, Weinberg opted for set design and drafting in the theater department. Shortly after beginning her studies she heard from friends that director Todd Solondz ("Happiness," 1998; and "Life During Wartime," 2009 ) was looking for interns for a new film he was directing locally.

Weinberg: "This was just a rumor but I decided I had to work on the set of that film. I had no idea how to get to him so I went to Arnie Baskin, a warm Jewish professor who teaches on the faculty and knows everyone, and I simply said to him, 'I must get this internship. I'll wash the floor if necessary.' Right then, Arnie picked up the phone, dialed someone and said, 'Todd, I have someone here who really wants to work for you.'"

Weinberg was given the internship and went to live in upstate New York for several months for the filming of what became "Palindromes" (2004 ). Solondz, a Hebrew-speaker who has visited Israel a number of times, turned out to be an attentive and affable person. "He was simply charming and when the filming was over he took me to dinner at a hummus restaurant," she relates with a smile.

After a series of other internships on television productions like "The Intern" and participation in innumerable student films, Weinberg succeeded in realizing another dream: working with director Hal Hartley, perhaps best known for "Trust" (1990 ) and "Henry Fool" (1997 ), who was considered the standard-bearer of the American indie film industry in the early 1990s.

"In fact, it was because of him that I originally went to study film," explains Weinberg. "I think I saw 'Trust' more than 50 times. Back then I even saved up money to buy the videocassette of the film. One day I phoned his production company. Somebody answered and we started to talk. At the end of the conversation he asked me to send my CV and then added, 'Send it to me - I'm Hal.' I was in shock when I realized I had spoken with him, and once I calmed down I sent my CV and later started working for him for a year as an intern."

During that period Hartley was experiencing a creative and personal crisis in the wake of a long dispute with Francis Ford Coppola, who had produced his 2001 film "No Such Thing." In an interview with the Guardian, he described their struggle as "eight months of knuckle-to-knuckle combat."

According to Weinberg, "It was fascinating to work with a creative person who is in a tricky place with respect to his career, dealing with a lot of exhausting power struggles. This gave me a glimpse into another side of the industry and into the amount of energy an indie filmmaker, who really does do everything himself, has to invest in his work."

After the internship, she worked on the set of "The Girl from Monday," Hartley's 2005 film, which failed at the box office and was not distributed commercially in Israel. Nevertheless, it was apparently her realization of the high price indie filmmakers have to pay that convinced Weinberg that this was the life she wanted: a life of uncertainty, improvisation and incessant flitting from project to project and, above all, a life that demanded giving up hours of sleep and a social life in order to create alternatives to Hollywood's mainstream movies. In the seven years after she completed her studies, Weinberg roamed between sets all over the United States, each time leaving her rented apartment in Brooklyn (which she shares today with two friends from university ) for periods of three months or half a year, and returning to it only to gather strength for the next project.

A little booklet

While she has worked with stars like Michelle Williams, Uma Thurman and Melissa Leo, it seems that only recently - thanks to the surprising box office and critical success of "Blue Valentine," which stars Williams - is Weinberg becoming accustomed to her new status as a sought-after designer.

This is Weinberg's first media interview, and when asked to talk about the directors and stars she has worked with, or to recount stories from the set, she fidgets uncomfortably in her chair. She says she prefers being behind the scenes.

She explains that she came to "Blue Valentine" in the wake of her acquaintance with actor Ryan Gosling and other cast and crew members with whom she worked on "Half Nelson," Ryan Fleck's successful indie drama about a drug-addicted teacher who has a special relationship with a student; the film won Gosling an Oscar nomination.

"The producers of 'Half Nelson' called me and asked if I wanted to work on a project in which Gosling and Michelle Williams are a married couple in crisis," she recalls. "Of course I said yes and then they called me for an interview with director Derek Cianfrance. To interviews like that it's customary to bring a file of suggestions based on the screenplay and to lay out general ideas for the design and atmosphere of the film. I read the screenplay and thought it was excellent and exciting, and instead of preparing an ordinary file I made a little booklet with pictures and drawings and gave it to Derek. I thought he wouldn't even look at it, but he paged through it and immediately told me I was accepted. A few weeks later, when we'd already begun working, he told me he was walking around with the booklet in his jacket pocket all the time. That was very exciting for me."

Despite a limited budget of less than $1 million, Weinberg and her team were asked to create a two-story house to serve as the family home of Dean (Gosling ), Cindy (Wiliams ) and their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka ).

"Usually you build something that will look real, but is fake - like a wall that isn't really a wall," she relates. "But this time Derek asked us to design a totally real house, including a phone line, a doghouse, lots of personal belongings and everything a couple with a little girl needs. We opened a Gmail account for them, we arranged bedrooms and let them sleep there. Ryan, Michelle and Faith moved in two weeks before the filming began and were simply a 'family' in every respect. Every morning when I arrived on the set I wanted to tidy up because there were dishes in the sink and everything was messy. Derek had to persuade me not to touch anything because the whole idea was that they would quarrel among themselves about who is supposed to clean up."

The film - which skips from a young couple's first, promising moments after falling in love to the depressing suburban hell that they experience later - contains a number of strong and intimate scenes the likes of which are rare in Hollywood films. The result: a bleak and heartrending portrait of a deteriorating relationship, based on improvisation and rare chemistry between Gosling and Williams. According to Weinberg, Williams turned out to be a quiet and introverted person who tried to avoid the paparazzi besieging the set.

"We shot the film about a year after Heath Ledger [Williams' former partner and the father of her daughter] died suddenly, and I think she was still affected by that. 'Blue Valentine' is about a couple in crisis with a little girl, and I am certain this was not an easy thing to cope with for an actress who is herself a young mother. But precisely during the moments when she did loosen up, like the wrap party after the filming, Williams emerged as a warm and brilliant person. I had a number of wonderful conversations with her."

Mention of Gosling's name brings an unmistakable smile to Weinberg's face: "He is simply amazing," she comments. "He's that rare actor who succeeds in improvising in every scene and still hitting the bull's-eye. Beyond that, he is one of the nicest and most attentive people I have ever met. He could easily have acted in the next 'Batman' or some summer movie and become a millionaire, but he is choosing only quality projects that speak to him. At the start of filming I asked if he likes Ken Loach, my favorite director. He said he does and I started talking to him about Loach's early work, which no one in America knows, and it turned out he had seen them all. A few months later, when we met again, he remembered that conversation and he said: 'Your production is up to Loach's standards.'"

The success of "Blue Valentine" at the box office has given a further boost to Weinberg's status and has flooded her agent, who is in Los Angeles, with offers for new projects. Now she is in the midst of the most expensive production she has done thus far (about $10 million ): a film about growing up, starring Emma Watson (Hermione in the "Harry Potter" series ) and Logan Lerman (who played the title character in last year's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" ). Based on the successful book "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," the movie is being directed by the author, Stephen Chbosky, and is being filmed at a high school in his native city of Pittsburgh.

In addition, in the coming months a number of other films designed by Weinberg will be opening in the United States: "Pariah" (2011 ) the debut work by director Dee Rees about a lesbian African-American teenager who hides her sexual identity from her Catholic family; "Ceremony" (2010 ), a comedy starring Uma Thurman, who plays a woman whose marriage a young man tries to prevent at any price; and "My Idiot Brother," a wild new comedy starring Paul Rudd ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin", 2005 ), about a man who insists on interfering in the lives of his three sisters.

Weinberg says she still prefers to design realistic, even depressing, films like "Frozen River" and "Blue Valentine" rather than Hollywood comedies with big budgets.

"From my perspective, it all begins and ends with a good screenplay. On the one hand," she asserts, "it's important for me to stay in indie film because I really connect to these projects. But on the other hand, I also don't rule out Hollywood projects with good screenplays."

She does not intend to return to Israel, does not follow the film industry there, and says that after 11 years in New York she feels "like a tourist" when she goes back to visit. When asked to give advice to Israelis who want to become part of the American film industry, she answers: "Everyone here is an immigrant, so an Israeli accent isn't a problem. Of course it is necessary to invest time in figuring out cultural codes, but that is definitely possible. And studying at an American university isn't a necessary condition.

"In general, there are two schools of thought," she continues. "One school holds that you should simply accept any project you're given and do everything to acquire experience. The other school, to which I belong, says you should do only projects you believe in. I think life is short and it's a pity to waste time on mediocre films or projects that you aren't comfortable with. You just need to learn to live with the transient nature of this field. It used to be that I'd finish a project and two days later I'd be climbing the walls, certain I'd never get any more projects. Today this no longer happens and this confidence is something that develops over time."

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