A Smart Move

Jerusalem-born director Noam Murro waited a long time until he found a script he wanted to tackle. Now his acclaimed 'Smart People' has hit local cinemas.

He directed an independent film starring big-name American actors, screened it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, and got a favorable review in The New York Times. Noam Murro, it seems, has managed to do what many directors only dream of.

Murro's first full-length feature, "Smart People," stars Dennis Quaid ("Far from Heaven"), Ellen Page ("Juno") and Sarah Jessica Parker ("Sex and the City"). Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, among other things, that the greatness of "Smart People" lies "in its general preference for small insights over grand revelations." During its opening weekend two months ago, the movie raked in more than $4 million and was ranked 7th among America's box-office hits. Now, more than 15 years after Murro left Israel, his latest production has arrived in local theaters.

But Murro's debut picture could have been an even bigger blockbuster. A few years ago, DreamWorks asked him to direct "The Ring 2," a sequel to the 2002 horror movie that starred Naomi Watts and brought in more than $120 million. Had he accepted, he might today have been the darling of the large studios, joining Hollywood's leading action directors. But Murro chose to turn the project down.

"I had to decide how I wanted to enter this scene, this planet of the American film industry," he explains in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I had two options. One was to direct 'The Ring 2,' a Hollywood movie with a budget of $70-$80 million. That would probably have been the simpler, safer route. The other, much more difficult option was to make an independent film."

Although he yearned for the creative freedom of independent filmmaking, Murro was worried about the difficulty of securing funding for such a picture.

"Unlike in Israel, where there is a government apparatus supporting independent films, here there is no such thing," he says. "Raising money for a project of this kind depends on the kind of movie you intend to make. If I want to make an indie picture and I am able to get Angelina Jolie on board, I will probably be able to raise the money. But if I want to make a small or personal movie, with complicated topics - it's an uphill battle."

After much deliberation, Murro reached the conclusion that neither option was ideal. "Ultimately I realized that what I wanted to do was direct a movie that I myself would want to go see," he says. "And since I didn't go to see 'The Ring' and would not go to see 'The Ring 2,' there was no reason for me to make 'The Ring 2.'"

Murro, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, was born in Jerusalem 46 years ago. In the early 1990s, after completing his studies in design and architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, he left Israel for New York. Although he never received a formal education in film, he decided his dream was to become a filmmaker. "It was always a passion for me," he says. "As a boy I worked for Lia van Leer at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. I got my film education there, watching films. I worked as an usher, I replaced reels, I cleaned the theater, whatever needed doing, and I got to see two movies a day. I did this for two years, without pay, just so I could see movies."

In New York, Murro concluded that he had to work his way into the American film industry. "I thought that commercials were an excellent way to learn the field," he says, "and soon I began writing commercials, and later also directing them." He did well for himself. Establishing his own commercial company, he went on to win various awards (including one from the Directors Guild of America in 2005).

From there it was a short way to the big screen. "When it comes to discovering new talent, Hollywood loves commercial directors," he explains. "The top 10 percent of commercial directors have easy access to Hollywood, and there is a clear route through which commercial directors get to Hollywood. It's the route traveled, for example, by directors such as David Fincher, Alan Parker, Ridley and Tony Scott and Spike Jonze."

Murro moved to Los Angeles, continued to make commercials and began looking for a screenplay for an independent film.

"Every three or four days, someone leaves an envelope with a screenplay outside your door, and it usually ends up in the recycling bin," Murro says. But at last, the right envelope showed up. "Finally I read a screenplay in which I heard the writer's voice. I looked for something that would have a human, social message. I didn't care about the genre, I wanted an authentic voice. And in 'Smart People' I heard that voice."

The screenplay, written by Mark Poirier, tells the story of Lawrence Wetherhold, a literature professor so wrapped up in his academic life that he has no real interest in the people around him. He makes no effort to disguise his apathy toward his students, nor does he try to communicate with his two children. One day he has an accident, after which he finds that he has fallen for the doctor who takes care of him. At the same time, he is forced to let his adopted brother, whom he does not like very much, stay with him, while also coping with the fact that he cannot find a publisher for his book.

The director realized that to get funding for the movie, he had to recruit well-known actors. He wanted Dennis Quaid for the lead.

Murro: "The idea was to show academia in a different way than usual, not dark hallways and pipes and tweed jackets, but like politics -people who are not the best-dressed and who are sometimes willing to kill each other. We wanted to create a world with its own political aesthetics, and so we wanted someone who had never played an academic before. That's what we said to Dennis, and he finally said yes. His 'yes' was the first step. Later Rachel Weisz [who won an Oscar for her role in "The Constant Gardener" became linked to the project, and the moment you have names like that, the money problem begins to solve itself, too."

In the end, Weisz dropped out of the production and Murro cast Sarah Jessica Parker in the female lead. In addition, he got Ellen Page to play Quaid's daughter. That was before Page made "Juno," the movie that turned her into a star. "Vanessa, the daughter, is a very complex character, because psychologically she is both a 16-year-old girl and a 40-year-old woman," Murro says. "We auditioned a lot of people, including well-known actresses, for this part. After I saw Page's lead performance in 'Hard Candy,' I knew it had to be her. I called her, she said she lived in Canada, and we agreed to meet halfway. And we indeed met at the airport terminal in Newark. We decided in advance that we would have a five-minute date, and then each of us would go back to his business and fly home. And that's how it was. I ate a hamburger, she didn't, I told her what it was about and she said okay."

"Smart People" received mixed reviews, but, "If A.O. Scott from The New York Times likes your first movie, it means you can keep making films," Murro says. And he has already began work on his next picture, an adaptation of a short story by Alice Munro, and negotiations are in progress with Laura Linney ("The Savages") for the lead role.