Israeli Directors Get Ready for Hollywood Close-up

Israeli film directors have never been so popular in Hollywood. Local filmmakers explain why.

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“Big Bad Wolves” directors Aharon Keshales (left) and Navot Papushado (right), flanking actor Lior Ashkenazi.
“Big Bad Wolves” directors Aharon Keshales (left) and Navot Papushado (right), flanking actor Lior Ashkenazi.

The news that Israeli filmmakers Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales (“Big Bad Wolves”) have been chosen to write and direct the American remake of Johnnie To’s action-thriller “Vengeance” is further proof that Hollywood has its eye on Israeli cinema.

After Quentin Tarantino crowned “Big Bad Wolves” the best film of 2013, and after it won countless awards at horror and fantasy film festivals the world over, the new collaboration between the Israeli directors and Sony Pictures is an ideal starting point to reflect Israelis’ love affair (or one-night stand, at least) with Hollywood.

Here is an abridged history of Israel-Hollywood relations over the past decade. Early on came the “new Israeli wave,” which included award-winning war films such as “Beaufort” (2007), “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and “Lebanon” (2009). In the following years, a wide variety of Israeli films was presented at the international film festivals in Cannes, Venice, Toronto and New York (including “Policeman” (2011) and “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2014) by Nadav Lapid; “Youth” (2013) by Tom Shoval; “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Alkabetz; and many other excellent films). Recently, Israeli cinema jumped up another step thanks to directors such as Ari Folman, Oren Moverman and, soon, Joseph Cedar, who have either worked or are working on English-language projects with Hollywood casts.

But Papushado and Keshales, the duo who directed “Rabies” and “Big Bad Wolves,” are not alone. Folman entered the big leagues with “The Congress” (2013), an enormous production with a Hollywood cast including Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and the voice of Jon Hamm. Now he is working on an animated version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Director Ido Fluk, who made the independent Israeli drama “It’s Never Too Late” in 2011, recently wrapped his first American feature, “The Ticket,” starring Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”); it tells the story of a blind man who regains his sight.

Cedar, whose films “Beaufort” and “Footnote” (2011) were both nominated for Academy Awards, will shoot a film entitled “Oppenheimer” later this year, starring Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi. While the film is not a Hollywood production, Gere’s casting raises its profile significantly. “Oppenheimer” will shoot in Jerusalem and New York. Gere currently stars in the drama “Time Out of Mind,” which was written and directed by Oren Moverman, an American-Israeli director who also directed “The Messenger” (2009) and cowrote the screenplay of Bob Dylan drama “I’m Not There” (2007).

Cedar’s film will be produced by Ram Bergman, another Israeli who developed a career in Hollywood and worked with writer-director Rian Johnson on his three films – “Brick” (2005), “The Brothers Bloom” (2008) and “Looper” (2012), a lavish sci-fi movie starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Bergman and Moverman join other Israelis who have entered the Hollywood film industry. One example is found in “Whiplash,” the acclaimed new drama about a young jazz drummer (played by the excellent Miles Teller) willing to do anything – but anything – to become the best drummer on earth. The film won accolades at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and although it was directed by a young American, Damien Chazelle, the cinematographer was Sharone Meir, a graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem.

Israeli designer Inbal Weinberg – “Blue Valentine” (2010), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012) – was production designer on two comedy dramas that reached movie theaters in New York recently: “Life of Crime,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins; and “St. Vincent,” starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy (the latter film opens in Israel next month).

Another Israeli director who could find himself in Hollywood is Shoval, the first Israeli to be chosen to participate in the unique project by Rolex, which matches young directors with experienced mentors. As part of the project, Shoval is in Canada on the set of “The Revenant,” the latest film by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose latest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” starring Michael Keaton, is considered a leading contender for an Academy Award.

When asked why there seems to be more interest in Israeli filmmakers right now, Shoval says, “Israeli cinema has matured both technically and in terms of cinematic language. The new generation of Israeli cinema is the ‘Third Ear generation’ – the generation that watched ‘Second Showing,’ the film program on cable television, rented films from The Third Ear [video store], and whose exposure to cinema was much more consistent. So the new wave is much more into genres. It understands the conventions of the various genres and how to adapt them to the Israeli daily reality.

“For a long time,” Shoval adds, “Israeli cinema went to America automatically in the categories of foreign film or world film – like movies from Romania, Turkey or other countries whose cinematic style was essentially different from Hollywood’s. Joseph Cedar and Avi Nesher were strongly influenced by the American cinematic language, and in that sense they paved the way for the generation that came after them.”

Shoval says “The Revenant” – a western starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy – will be filmed for 100 days in Calgary. In an interview with this correspondent’s blog (The Mechanical Apple), Shoval says, “What is happening today in Israeli cinema is reminiscent of what happened in Mexican cinema. It was considered ‘foreign film.’ Then came talented filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón (‘Gravity’), Guillermo del Toro (‘Pan’s Labyrinth’) and Iñárritu (‘Babel’), and Hollywood saw that they brought added value and upgraded the American language. Today, Iñárritu has a free hand in Hollywood and enormous budgets, particularly after the success of ‘Birdman’.”

Do you see yourself directing a Hollywood film?

“At this stage it’s hard for me to say. Right now I’m in the company of first-rate people in cinema. The cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Academy Award for his work on ‘Gravity,’ filmed ‘The New World’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ by Terrence Malick. And one of the producers is Steve Golin, who worked on ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and the ‘True Detective’ series. A few days ago, Golin told me that Alejandro had complimented my film [‘Youth’] and that he wanted to see it. I sent him a link and he watched it. In that sense, my being here is bringing me into these people’s collection of characters.

“On the other hand, I have no American project that I’m trying to promote, and at the moment I’m working on an Israeli remake of Luis Buñuel’s ‘Viridiana.’ Honestly, I don’t know whether I would want to direct on such a scale. I would like to have the option that Iñárritu has. But also, the bigger the production, the more responsibility you have as a director. A few days ago I sat with him after a day of filming, and Iñárritu said to me, ‘Listen, Tom, I’m choking. There is pressure, and there is no money.’ I told him, ‘But you have all the money in the world.’ It seems we always feel that we don’t have enough money, no matter if we’re shooting in Tel Aviv or Hollywood.”

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