Foxtrot/Samuel Maoz (director) and Lior Ashkenazi (actor)

When Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty, they separately descend into their own personal horror rather than face the trauma together. Director Samuel Maoz employs the never-ending circularity of the foxtrot as a metaphor, melding tragicomic surrealism, highly choreographed cinematography, and a remarkable performance from Lior Ashkenazi to convey the truth that our private lives are inseparable from our communal history.  To view the trailer, click here •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. March 2.  Thank to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. 

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: Samuel, your previous film Lebanon was shot entirely inside a tank. Needless to say, it was highly claustrophobic.  In Foxtrot, much of the film is shot in the desert, yet you managed to create that same feeling of claustrophobia, even though it takes place in the middle of these vast open spaces. How did you do that?

SM: We’re looking at one point at the end of the day. Usually in films you go from place to place, with many locations. The fact that with this film you’re stuck in the same point creates that feeling, I think.

LA: It’s the same as if you were in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing in the scenery…it’s all the same. You see sand. It’s open wide but without any details.

SM: It’s like being isolated.

LA: It’s like being on the sun or the moon. This is the claustrophobia. It’s not the same as claustrophobia in a small room, but wherever you look, you see the same, so in a way, there’s nowhere to run.

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

DT: The film reminded me of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart/the center does not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” At the end of Foxtrot, I felt like we had arrived at the end of things, like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no possibility of moving forward from here.

LA: That’s the focus of what the film is talking about: that’s the foxtrot [dance]. You need someone from the outside to take you by the hand and take you out of this circle that repeats itself.

SM: For me the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of the Israeli traumatic man/woman who shaped the nature of the collective, now stuck in trauma.

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

SM: The truth is that the little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership. Only not this leadership—they do the opposite. They press on the buttons of the trauma and they do it with slogans that have nothing to do with reality except maybe the emotional memory of the ancient trauma, the old trauma whose instinctual nature is stronger than any instinctual power, is stronger than any reality and logic. They used to say to us, “We are in existential danger.” This is the mother of slogans. When I hear politicians in Israel say “We are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army and a nuclear weapon because we are in existential danger” it’s more or less like saying, I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick.

Our culture minister, for example, attacked the film without seeing it, before it was released. In her attack she actually confirmed the film’s message, because she pressed on people’s buttons with slogans that bring them to their feet. “Foxtrot is destroying the country,” she said, as if the film was a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map. In her attack, she once again lifted a mirror to the radical split in Israeli society.

DT: What specifically did she object to?

SM:In the beginning she said she’s against the film because there’s a scene where the army breaks into a Palestinian home and slaughters the family. A journalist who saw the film at an academy screening told her, “We saw the film and there is no such scene.”  The next day, she said, “It’s because of the scene where they bury the car.” When she was told that the scene is about something wider, that it’s allegorical, she said, “The fact that the director ends the film with this scene says that this was his message.” Then they told her, “We saw the film and it doesn’t end with this scene.” Anyway, the struggle is not only for the film itself, it became a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Like people, countries suffer psychological wounds from their own history. These wounds become the country’s DNA.

SM: Exactly.

DT: In the United States, our psychological wound is slavery. We’ve never gotten over it, and that’s why we can’t heal the racial divide. I’m wondering if in Israel it’s the Holocaust, and whether that’s a wound that will ever go away.

SM: Exactly.

LA: Yes. It’s the Holocaust. The leadership usually uses the Holocaust to present us as the victims. I don’t believe I’m a victim, neither does my generation. Maybe our grandparents did.

SM: The common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliche. People expect him to have nightmares, he’s alone, uncommunicative. For Michael [the protagonist of the film, played by Lior Askhenazi], like many of his generation, it’s a case of repression and denial. He would do anything to prove that he is alive and that he would benefit from it somehow: he would be the successful businessman, raise a family, arm himself with buying an expensive apartment and luxury, but in a desperate attempt to hide his weakness, his secret. From outside everything seems to be fine, but from inside his soul is bleeding, and when he has nowhere to go in his experience, he kicks the dog. In Israeli society there are many versions of Michael, because his generation—my generation, the second generation of the Holocaust survivors—couldn’t complain about anything. Our teachers, our parents were naturally not very stable, because they’d experienced perhaps the worst trauma in human history. They used to wave the numbers on their arms and shout at us from the morning to the evening that they survived the Holocaust and who are we to complain. When I got a 7 in math at school, my mother said, “For a 7 in math I survived the Holocaust?” When we came back from the war with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks but expressing that we felt hurt inside, it was unacceptable. They used to tell us, “Get over it, be a man, we survived the Holocaust.” So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, so we have become an additional generation of traumatic victims. This is the endless traumatic circle that I’m talking about. I think we need another three, four, five, I don’t know how many generations…

 

DT: It should have been forty years in the desert, but we’re already past that. Lior,  this is quite a change from your role in Norman. I’ve seen you in many films, but in this one, you just…seemed like yourself in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t know if it was the particular role—

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

LA: It’s a mixture of things. I’m not acting, actually. It’s not about acting. In Israel you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost dear ones in terror attacks, in the war, so you know them. They have their daily life, everything is OK, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You can’t point to it, you can’t say, Ah, this is it. It’s not about a sad face or depression. We were trying to find out how I could bring it out without doing a sad face, so I thought it could be done physically.  I didn’t sleep the two days preceding the shoot.

SM: He was exhausted.

LA: Just to exhaust myself. Now that I tell you that, you can see it, because it’s almost like slow motion. The eyes are falling down, when I’m leaning on the furniture, I needed to lean because I was falling down from exhaustion.

SM: Lior didn’t want to tell me because he thought I wouldn’t like it.

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

SM: I told him I liked it because I really believe that when you need to deal with something emotional or mental, the best way to do it is through something physical.

When I was preparing to shoot Lebanon, I thought, How can I explain to an actor what it’s like to be inside a tank and suddenly someone attacks you? I could use my best description and they would say, Yeah, yeah yeah, but they wouldn’t understand anything. So I took each one of them and put them inside a container. It’s 122 degrees, it’s dark, you can’t sit, but after you survive the first five minutes you get over it because the body recognizes emergency conditions and starts to save energy. You start to breathe slowly and you start to feel like you are floating. You’re saving energy, and it’s OK. After half an hour, I had someone beat on the outside of the container with an iron pipe. When the actor came out of the container after 90 minutes, I could see in his eyes that I didn’t need to explain anything, because he understood.

I even had an actor who couldn’t shoot a gun. How could I explain that to him?  I took him and a prop gun to a friend’s apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. I took the actor to the window, gave him the toy gun, and said, “Put him in the cross hairs and press the trigger.” It’s a toy, a prop, everybody knows it, but the feeling that someone is in your cross hairs… He couldn’t do it, and suddenly [he understood].

 

DT: The film is based in part on a real-life incident with your daughter. Can you tell us about that, because I think it puts the film in context.

SM: My daughter never woke up early enough to get to school on time, so in order for her not to be late, she would ask me to call a taxi. This habit started to cost us quite a bit of money, and it also seemed to me to be bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her, “You will get the bus like everyone else does. If you’re late, you’re late.”  There was a big argument, and I was mad, and I told her quite firmly, “You are taking the bus. Now go.” Her bus was line 5, a quite famous line in Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after she left, I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on line 5 and that dozens of people had been killed. I tried to call her, of course, but the cellular service had collapsed because of the unexpected load—this was at the beginning of cell phones in Israel.

She returned home an hour later. She told us that when she got to the station, she saw the bus, started to run, waved at the driver, but the bus left the station and she took the next bus. That was the worst hour in my life. It was worse than the entire Lebanon war. I asked myself, What can I learn from this experience? and very quickly I understood that I couldn’t learn anything.

LA: He could just make a movie.

SM: I didn’t want to investigate or explore but to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond our control. To explore this limbo where we make decisions. We also tried to do a kind of Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment and fights against anyone who tries to save him. He’s obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about. This is the difference between a casual coincidence and a spooky coincidence that looks like a plan of fate, because chaos is certain, the punishment corresponds with the sin almost in its exact form, and there is something round and complete in such a dramatic form.

 

DT: It’s a little like film noir, where character is destiny. Let’s talk about the overhead shots and that gorgeous 360 degree pan. Samuel, what do those shots mean to you as a director, and Lior, as an actor, are you aware of the camera’s position?

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael and Yehuda Almagor as Avigdor, Michael’s brother.
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SM: I couldn’t make those shots if Lior wasn’t aware. I need a partner. I will give an example. For the first overhead shot when he’s going to open the door, the long closeup when they trick him and leave, I chose the floor. I do not do realistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential. I try to penetrate, reflect the thoughts of my characters. First I told my DOP, “That floor will make us dizzy.” Next, cinematographers usually do their movement with the movement of the actor. So I told my DOP, “Let’s go against his movements because the audience will lose their orientation.”

But to do this, you must have an actor who’s aware of the camera, because he needs to do five or six steps very, very slowly, to take his time. I know actors who I could continue to shoot to this day and they still wouldn’t be able to do this shot. I know that Lior can squeeze his soul, he can really feel, but deep inside there is a computer program working in the background that makes him aware of the camera.

LA: It’s also a choreography. I  didn’t just speak with Samuel; I was also [communicating] with the DOP. I needed to be aware of what the camera was doing  because the timing was split second, a hairsbreadth…I’m standing up, I know the camera now has to finish the turn and then I can start walking, but not like people normally walk, I’m walking there very, very slowly because of the camera…

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

SM: I believe in low tech when you create those shots. In Lebanon, where we were on a studio set, I needed to simulate the movement of the tank. They sent the script to Cinecitta in Italy because they have a platform they used to lend to American films for helicopter scenes. They told me, “Listen, we love the script, for you it’s $250,000.” So my production designer went to a junkyard and bought a wagon for $300, because it was simply a matter of balance—two people here, two people there, and two wheels in the middle. Here, in Foxtrot, it’s the DOP that controlled the movement, along with the two grips, one with the crane and one with the dolly. It’s the combination of three people who need to synchronize between themselves and the actor. The actor must depend on them, they can’t rely on him.

DT: Lior, are you watching them while the camera is rolling?

LA: No. We are just doing it.

SM: We shot a first take, and then I showed it to Lior. He’s the kind of actor—

LA: I need to see what just happened, and then I can be much better, because I know, OK this is the shot, I understand it now, I know the timing, so let’s do it.

DT: Is that the way you work all the time?

LA: Usually.

SM: Not all directors will show the take to the actors because the actors will say, “This angle is not good…”

 

LA: The light, the angle.

SM: But I believe this is the best way to learn. If you’re an actor, you need to get used to yourself from all different angles.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer/Joseph Cedar (director) and Richard Gere (actor)

Norman fixes deals, but right now no one’s buying into his schemes, and no one needs his help. One day he meets Eshel, an Israeli politician who’s also down on his luck.  Moved by the possibility of helping out a fellow Jew, Norman does Eshel a favor: he buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, Eshel becomes prime minister of Israel. Unable to forget Norman’s kindness, Eshel allows Norman to draw him into a crazy business deal, but when cries of corruption begin to sound, he’s forced to cut Norman loose. An atypical comedy with an off-type cast, Norman strikes an inventive comedic chord that will offend some and thrill others. To see the trailer, click here.  Availability: Opens 4/14 New York and L.A. Check local listings for a theater near you.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

DT: Norman isn’t the kind of character Richard usually plays. Richard, can you talk about acting off type, and Joseph, can you talk about directing an actor who’s playing off type?

RG: First of all, they’re all off type. There’s not a character that’s not off type, but this one’s further off than most. Part of the process with this one lay in the fact that he’s a totally unique character, and I didn’t want to play any cliches with him. Joseph didn’t want me to, either. I laughed about it, because Joseph was so nervous about this and wanted to get it right.

We had a lot of time; we spent eight or nine months, just talking, no pressure, Joseph bringing me slowly into his universe: the universe of the movie, the universe of this character, the universe of thousands of years of Jewish history, and emotions, and psychology. Narratives. It was perfect—I like to do things slowly that way, too. It gets deeper. Then, when you start making choices, you have a strong foundation, and it’s connected to something real, something authentic. That’s who we started to discover: the Norman in all of us, which was more important than being the Jewish Norman or the nebbish Norman, the whatever Norman.

DT: The Woody Allen Norman.

RG: The Woody Allen Norman, or even the Charlie Chaplin Norman. It was a matter of finding the emotion that we all have: that we want to belong. We want to be in.

JC: We mention Charlie Chaplin over and over again. I’ve always perceived the Little Tramp as a Jew, but it may be only the way I see it.

RG: Maybe. The Tramp’s always looking for a home.

JC: There’s something about his size, he’s everywhere the story needs him to be but never really welcome. Or it might have to do with his costume.

RG: He’s always on the road, isn’t he? Things don’t work out, and he’s got to get back on the road.

 

DT: Joseph, you’ve said at a number of Q&As and interviews that the character of Norman is based on the historical figure of the court Jew, of whom there are a number of specific examples throughout history. But I found that your Norman reflects not only one type of Jew but Jews as a race as well, with a history of assimilation, contribution, and expulsion.

That’s not a funny subject, but I found your movie hysterical. I was wondering if you dropped the character of Norman into the context of Israeli/American-Jewish politics to put a comedic spin on a subject that’s really not very funny.

JC: At the end, the subject is detached from the work itself. Norman is an individual person, and working with Richard on this character was not about anything but Norman at a specific time. Every scene had its own emotional truth to it for Norman. Everything else is either something that had to do with my intentions before the movie got off the ground or, now that it’s made, talking to journalists. The work itself was finding the human need in every situation that was specific for Norman. I don’t think I understood Norman the way I did after these conversations with Richard. We came to the set knowing something about how Norman functions that I didn’t know while I was working on the script.

RG: I was asking questions on a lot of levels that a Jewish actor probably would not have asked.

DT: My guess is that you were asking acting questions that an actor of any faith would ask, which a non-actor would not.

RG: Yes, they were acting questions, but there’s a mysterious process that starts between a director, especially a writer/director, and an actor. You know that everything you do from the moment you meet to talk about the project is rehearsing. Every second. I don’t care if you’re ordering a burger, you’re walking down the street, you’re watching TV. I don’t care what it is; you’re rehearsing. You’re working on the project. We danced through that in a very leisurely way—not without intensity, but it was leisurely because of the eight or nine months we had before we started shooting.

JC: It’s a great period, because you start seeing everything through the filter of what understanding Norman requires. So suddenly everything that I encounter has, in some way, an echo: If I bring it up with Richard in our next conversation, it will help us uncover something in Norman. For instance—and there are many examples like the one I’m about to give you—Norman name-drops all the time. Now, people around us always name-drop, but if you try to figure out when someone drops a name, it always reveals something about the situation that he’s in, something about what he’s trying to achieve, something about the personality of the person who feels that he needs to use someone else’s name in order to gain entrance into a certain situation. Just using that example, you can take every scene in the movie and see where Norman decides to say “I know this person” or when he decides to mention that he’s married. It always comes at a point where if he wouldn’t do that—and this is intuitive for Norman—he’d probably be pushed away. Finding that mechanism in Norman and then finding how to make it feel intuitive for Richard in any given scene was almost like rewriting the script. It’s understanding everything through the eyes of an actor who has to believe what’s happening.

DT:  Was this a different process from working with other actors?

JC: Every process with an actor is always different, and every actor approaches the character differently. This process had more influence on the script than I’ve had in the past. There were things that came up in our conversation that affected the script…and affected the whole journey that Norman goes through. One of the things that came from Richard was a discussion around what desire or wanting is. I always perceived Norman as someone who wants more than either he can deserve or he can handle. It’s like someone at a great restaurant ordering more than he’ll ever need, either because he wants to taste everything and he’s just eager to be making the most out of this great restaurant, or because he’s afraid someone will take it from him and he needs extra. I think Richard’s understanding of wanting is very different from Norman’s understanding. Norman is constantly wanting more than he needs, and every time he gets what he thinks he wants, he immediately wants the next thing. Part of what happens to Norman over this film is that at a certain point he stops wanting. The third act is about him not wanting anymore, and that’s something that came out of Richard and came out of his understanding of Norman’s journey.

 

DT: We all know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Do you think that applies to Norman?

RG: I think there’s no dark intent in him at all. I keep saying there’s no Iago in him. He could never play Iago. He doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anger. He doesn’t have resentment. He can’t afford that, and he’s found a way that that instinct has been muted in him, in a genuine way. It’s just not there. I think he genuinely wants everyone to have everything, and he found a way to do it by the end of the movie. Including himself. Everyone got what they wanted.

SPOILER ALERT

DT: But Norman essentially commits suicide in the end.

RG: He found a way to get what he wanted: He was essential. He was essential. And he delivered happiness to everybody. And he was anonymous, like in the last frame of the picture.

END SPOILER ALERT

JC: But judging things morally by only intention is always problematic. Bad things can happen with good intentions. I occasionally witness someone doing something that I think is conniving—for example, someone sneaks his way into an event that I’ve arranged and I’m upset that he’s there; that happens every once in a while. How bad can the intentions be when someone sneaks into someone else’s dinner uninvited? Even if it’s not nice, it’s not evil. Still, I’d tend to be really upset at that person: how dare you do that? But most likely if I’m in his shoes, his intentions are probably reasonable, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am at him. The way people deal with Norman challenges the way I deal with some of the situations in my life that are close to what Norman does. Seeing someone try to take a piece of what’s mine for whatever reason is aggravating, but I don’t think it almost ever comes from a bad intention.

 

DT: I’d like to draw a comparison between this film and another Israeli film, Ephraim Kishon’s film Sallah Shabati.  In Kishon’s film, there’s a scene where a big American car drives up to the forest where Sallah is planting a tree paid for by donations from American Jews. Over the forest is a big sign that says The Goldberg Forest. The Goldbergs get out of their big car, look at their forest, and leave. Then you hear the sound of another car. Before it arrives, the  Goldberg Forest sign is replaced by a sign that says The Rosenstein Forest. The Rosensteins get out, look at their forest—the same forest—and leave.  In the space of that one scene, I suddenly understood the Israeli view of American Jews like me, little kids in Hebrew school walking up to the front of the classroom to drop their quarter in the blue-and-white charity box.

As an American Jew, I never imagined that Israelis could be making fun of me. I had that same moment in Norman with the travel posters…suddenly that whole thing opened up for me again, thirty years later—that experience of This is how I look to an Israeli.

JC: There’s another side to it. The American who’s giving money to plant the tree doesn’t really care what’s being planted in Israel. He’s just happy that his check is doing something for his conscience. He’s happy about that, and Israelis can do whatever they want with that check. As long as the American thinks there’s a tree and he has that picture in his mind, he’s happy.

DT: So what’s the difference with Norman?

JC: Norman feels that he’s doing something that is good for Israel, and doing something good for Israel is huge. That’s being part of history. Whether he is or not doesn’t make a difference. That’s his sense. He’s almost messianic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017