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An Interview With Alex Lipschultz and Menashe Lustig (Menashe)

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Conducted By: Scott Bates

Set and filmed in New York’s Hasidic community, Menashe is a gentle comic drama about a single father trying to gain custody of his young son. I spoke to screenwriter Alex Lipschultz and star Menashe Lustig (a non-professional actor) about realistically portraying a society rarely seen on screen.

Where did the idea of making a film set entirely in the Hasidic community come from?

Alex: So, Joshua Weinstein – the director and co-writer of the film – he and I are both Jewish but not particularly religious, but we’ve both had the fascinations with the community, because they simultaneously share a cultural background but couldn’t be more different to us in many respects, so I think that is where this originally come from. Josh is a documentary filmmaker and I think he wanted to make a doc. So he went out and met some people, and he met Menashe and learnt about his life story and thought that there was something very captivating about it, but there was no way to make a documentary about it. All the kind of key events had already happened in the past, and nobody else from Menashe’s life would be willing to be on screen, so he thought “OK, well what if we do a kind of loosely fictionalised version of this?”. That was when he called me up and said “Hey, I’ve met this Hasidic guy, he’s got this amazing backstory and I want to make a narrative fiction film but I’ve never really done that, and you’ve produced a bunch of them, can we talk about this?” and I was immediately captivated by the idea.

Menashe, what was it like having your story fictionalised and having a film made about your community?

Menashe: If you write a script you want to make it your way, of course, so I had to stick to that. I just kind of matched myself to the style of the film.

Alex: Menashe’s main prior acting experience is, he makes Youtube videos, sketch comedy, and they’re very broad, silly, kind of Chaplin-esque videos, so this style of acting and style of filmmaking was a completely different world for him. Every day he’d be like “I don’t feel like I’m acting!” – whenever you feel like you’re not acting that’s when you’re giving us exactly what we need!

Menashe: So the main goal, to take my life experiences and put them on film, I felt really good to do it. I was very happy to use my own story!

How was shooting in the community?

Alex: There are other narrative fiction films about the Hasidic community, and some great ones too, Fill The Void from a few years ago, but those are all made with actors from outside the community. To my knowledge, this is the first narrative fiction film made within the community using people from the community, certainly entirely in Yiddish. It was certainly an enormous challenge to get the thing up and running, I mean this is a closed-off community that shuns modernity and technology in a lot of ways. These are people who, by and large, aren’t allowed to watch movies let alone act in them, so yeah, first and foremost it was extremely difficult building a cast, just to find enough people who are willing to be in a movie, to make a movie, and you need people who, with a bit of direction, are able to give you a compelling, convincing performance, which is tricky when none of them have any acting experience. So it took a really long time to cast it, and we ended up having to retool a lot of the script and the characters around the performers who were willing to be in the movie, rather than like just searching and searching and searching until we found the perfect person for a certain role. But in terms of filming in the community, prior to starting I had a lot of trepidation as to how we’d be received, if people would get really upset seeing cameras, you know, and by and large we didn’t deal with too much friction, too many issues. It was more, there was just enormous curiosity – every time a camera would come out on the street we’d just be surrounded by hundreds of Hasidic men in black hats and black coats! Every single one of them had a lot of questions, wanted to know who we were, what we were filming, so that could be a little overwhelming, but that was because of the sheer volume of it rather than any negativity towards us, so that was a pleasant surprise.

How did you convince the people in the film to take part?

Menashe: Danny was the “matchmaker”, he opened the doors. Once I could see that I could trust him – it’s hard to say but I have had situations where I’ve tried to act and people have taken advantage of me, didn’t pay me. Once I saw I could trust Danny I opened my heart for him.

Alex: Danny is a really interesting guy, he’s an Orthodox Jew who became Hasidic later in life when he got married, so he’s about as liberal and modern as you can get. He actually produces music videos for Jewish musicians in the Orthodox world. So Josh had met him, I think he’d been hired to shoot some stuff for Danny, and when he decided to make a movie set in this world he reached out to Danny and we said “Hey, help us find people”. He was really a key player in this because he’s modern and progressive and he understands our world and our sensibilities and our needs, he functioned as the main gatekeeper into helping us find people in the Hasidic world, locations, and more than anything helping us build a trust between us and them so they knew we weren’t out to make anything damning, or to take advantage of them in any way. We absolutely couldn’t have made this movie without him, and I think the rarity of finding someone like Danny who does straddle these two worlds is why nobody has really ever made a movie like this before. There’s no other entry point otherwise.

How have the Hasidic community responded to the film?

Menashe: Yesterday a Rabbi, who’s more open-minded, he’s done interviews and TV, he told me yesterday “I never expected the film industry to open so much up, to be so positive about this community”. No movie, so far, has been so authentic like this.

A lot of the script feels improvised – was there a lot of improvisation used?

Alex: I’ve done several films prior to this with non-professional actors, and what I’ve learned, they key to working with non-pros is that you can’t hand them a script, like an Aaron Sorkin script, and be like “Here are your words, here’s your blocking, you gotta hit these marks”. To do that as a performer you need a lot of training, you need a lot of experience. If you ask someone without that training to do that 99.9% of the time you get a truly embarrassing, unwatchable performance. So the trick with non-professional actors is find people who are interesting and have an interesting way of speaking, an interesting look, interesting mannerisms, and who can be comfortable on camera and on screen once they loosen up, but the trick is that you don’t give them lines. You don’t give them a script. It’s more about creating a context, creating a vibe, a sensibility, and letting them know where the scene starts, where it needs to end, and just slowly walking them through it beat-by-beat and letting them figure it out. So we did have a full script, and if you look at the film and you look at the script they match up fairly closely, but in terms of how everyone actually words each of their lines, it’s loose, because almost never did they have specific lines to read. You occasionally also end up with a line or joke that’s completely ad-libbed, and makes the film feel so much more alive than it did on the page.

How was it making in a film in a foreign language?

Alex: You know, it’s interesting, it’s easier than you’d expect. Josh doesn’t speak Yiddish either, all of our actors spoke English so we could communicate with them in English, but if they hadn’t I think it’d have been a lot more difficult. But it’s like, ultimately once you start filming these things you learn pretty quickly that the words don’t matter all that much, what does matter is tone and expression, and movement. We had a translator on set with us at all times, and we built this odd kind of sound system where he would hear the live Yiddish and translate it into English for me and Josh, as we had little earpieces so we’d hear that English translation just a couple seconds afterwards. But really you’re just sat there watching faces and listening to tones and you’re looking at behaviour. I think for any good director or producer you have a sixth sense for these things. It did take a couple of days to adjust, but once we’d adjusted it didn’t feel much different to shooting a movie in English really. I’d love to go make more foreign language films all over the world frankly.

In the US the film’s been picked up by A24, obviously a big indie distributor – how did they come to acquire it?

Alex: I wish I could chalk this to to my great producing skills or something, but honest to God we made the movie, we sent it to Sundance, we got sales agents, they did what they always do, and somebody from A24 came to see it at a press screening at Sundance and called us up later that day and were like “We love this movie! Can we get a link so the rest of the company can see it?”. I never thought that was gonna go anywhere, you get a lot of those calls – I’ve gotten those calls from like major studios with unbelievably arthouse movies, and you know when you get those calls “This is never gonna result in acquisition or distribution”. To our surprise they did, and it’s the first foreign-language film they’ve ever done, it’s probably the second-smallest movie they’ve ever done by far in terms of the budget of the film. I think what makes them the most brilliant distributor in the US right now is that they swing for the fences almost every time, they’re smart, and they saw something in this movie that a lot of other distributors in the States did not. And they were right, because it made them a tonne of money in the US, and you know it’s exciting to be working with a company like Vertigo here in the UK because I think they saw a lot of similar things they liked, they took a risk and I hope it pays off for them.

When you were making the film, did you ever think it’d take off like it has?

Alex: I mean you always hope for it. This is the fifth film I’ve had at Sundance in about as many years, so it’s certainly not my first rodeo with that, but with this one it was working with a filmmaker who’s totally untested in narrative fiction, in a foreign-language that we don’t speak. Frankly, when Josh and I were pitching the movie to investors, the best case scenario we thought we’d end up with wasn’t even close to where we have ended up, so it’s all gravy at this point.

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Interviews

Up Close with Autumn Kendrick

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Movie Marker got up close with leading Canadian actress, Autumn Kendrick to chat about life before Los Angeles and her hilarious new TV show, ‘Scuba Love’. 

Can you tell us about your early beginnings growing up in Canada, and how you transitioned to life in Los Angeles?

My first trips away from home to perform started around the age of 11 and took me to Montreal, Winnipeg, Louisville and New York City. I put some roots down in Indianapolis, while at Butler University studying not only ballet and Arts Administration but also getting my degree in Sociology Social Work. After school I was able to continue dancing professionally with a small contemporary dance company in Indiana. Eventually the wear and tear on my body caught up with me and that brought me to a career in modelling. Modelling was supposed to be a short escape but turned into a full and wonderfully successful career. It was modelling that definitely gave me the travel bug – getting to work in countries around the world: Milan, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, New York and eventually Los Angeles.

My transition to loving Los Angeles took a bit, but once I got into acting, I felt like I found a home. I originally came to escape New York City winter for a couple months and stayed a couple years. Canada is my home, but I do not think I could survive another true Canadian winter. Los Angeles is my home, and where I have my career as an actress.

You have had an exceptional dance and theatre career in Canada so far, what inspired you to take the acting journey?

Dance to acting seemed like a natural step. I never had the greatest technique or was the most flexible, but my success came from my ability to perform and bring a character to life. I remember being young and auditioning for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and them liking me not because I had the perfect body or technique but because I has a unique passion and quality I brought to my performance. When I would win competitions, it was not because I did more turns or bigger leaps, but because I would move the audience and just live the story.

With my last dance company, I would be cast in leading roles because I could bring them to life. When I started modelling, I always missed the make-believe time so, even for small shoots I would make up this crazy backstory for who I was and what this character was thinking – meanwhile it would be a simple white backdrop beauty shoot. But that depth is what I think made me stand out from other models and helped me make an easy transition into TV commercials. I just love everything about being on set and working in film, from the moment the director called “action”. I was hooked. It was the first time since leaving the dance world that I felt fulfilled and happy. I was born to act.

You recently worked with Wes Craven for a lead role in the crime-thriller film ‘The Girl in the Photographs’. Can you tell us about the film, and what it was like to work on such a big film?

It was a lot of fun. I mean getting to work with such an amazing cast and crew was an honour. Plus, everyone was so sweet and supportive the entire shoot. I remember Kal Penn coming up to me after my first take and giving me the sweetest compliment ever. He was also great at sharing his own stories to help me out and feel more comfortable on set. We were a really close crew and it felt like I was gaining a second family during this shoot, and we are still all super supportive of each other and close.

Wes Craven is a legend, and the most giving person to work with. Having him cast me when he has started the careers of so many big stars of today, well breathless. Wes came to the first table read and at the end of the reading he talked about how special this project was, how excited he was for it and how he felt like us as a cast were going to be spectacular.

Filming near my childhood home was also a great plus. I had the chance to visit family and keep my feet on the ground. However, every day on set I just kept being in shock and pinching myself to be working with people that I idolize and admire. It was an incredible film to work on, and to play one of the leads was beyond amazing.

As an actress-producer, we understand you have just released a hilarious new series. Can you tell us about ‘Scuba Love’ and how it came about?

‘Scuba Love’ came from spending time in so many dive shops and thinking either someone needs to make a reality show on a dive shop or make it into a scripted comedy. Finally, I grabbed some courage and friends who were cinematographers and directors that also loved the dive world – sat down and said let’s make this. Now instead of seeing a hilarious interaction and thinking that should be in a skit, I jot it down for a future scene in Scuba Love.

It’s a comedy that follows a young female instructor who losses her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop and decides to jump into the pool (jump all in) and make her life all about scuba and begins working at her local dive shop. We follow my character, Aly, as she helps bring a large scuba shop up to date, while also facing a male dominated world. As we follow her life we also get introduced to the wonderful joy of underwater. The exciting feature of this web-series (beside being on the only script series about scuba diving) is with each episode there is an educational clip on a topic related to diving, be it how to clean your gear, or steps to help protect our oceans, or even interviews with crew on why they love scuba diving – yes everyone involved is a diver.

Scuba Love

Can you tell us about your character, Ali, in ‘Scuba Love.’ What is she like, and did you have to carry out much research before filming?

Aly is such a fun, strong women who doesn’t let any obstacles stop her. She doesn’t allow unfortunate events to dissuade her but instead powers ahead to fully embrace the world of scuba. She also does not let men underestimate her, just like in a lot of sports where women are often over-looked as a source of information, Aly doesn’t back down from showing her wealth of knowledge and empowerment in this environment.

As for research, I am one of very few female Instructor Trainers. Not only do I teach people how to scuba dive, but I also teach potential instructors how to teach scuba diving. Being at an elite and unique level in the scuba diving world is something I never imagined I would excel in when growing up, but it certainly is a passion that I discovered during a trip to the Belize. So yes, I had just a little bit of training before filming and I loved every moment of it.

What type of genre of film or TV show are you drawn to traditionally?

I adore old musicals, if only I could sing! Actually, science fiction and fantasy films are what I gravitate to, and what I hope to work on soon. One of my favourite shows growing up ‘Star Trek’, with Patrick Stewart in the role of Captain Picard.

This year I have been doing some major binge watching of fast pace dramas such as ‘West Wing’ – I mean how great is that show. I basically can get behind anything that isn’t too scary and not too much gore…I am sadly squeamish (yes, I know that is ironic since I was in a death scene that Wes Craven was quoted saying that was very gory).

What can we expect to see you doing over the next few months?

We have many more episodes laid out for ‘Scuba Love’, of which I star, as well as some fun commercials and films I can’t talk about just yet.

To learn more about Autumn Kendrick, visit her video channel: Scuba Love
Instagram: @AutumnKendrick
Twitter: @AutumnDmonkey
Facebook: Scuba Love Web and Autumn Awesome Divers

 

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Interviews

An Interview With… Steve Hodgetts & Arabella Burfitt-Dons (Love Possibly)

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In the mockumentary, Love Possibly a documentary film crew follows the hopelessly romantic, Alex, on his quest for love. Following their wins for “Best Feature” and “Best International Feature” at the LA Edge Film Awards and Catalina Film Festival, Che Grant and Michael’s Boccalini’s new feature is now screening at the Raindance Film Festival.

Lead Actor Steve Hodgetts and Producer Arabella Burfitt-Dons sat down with Movie Marker’s Marion Donnellier to talk about Love Possibly

Q. Steve, your transformation into “Alex” is impressive. How did you prepare for the role?

SH: Alex is very different from any character I have played before. In terms of research, I watched a lot of youtube videos to try and master the lisp as best I could. Alex is a very anxious and socially inept person so I tried to remember certain traits people tend to have when they are nervous. For instance, he uses his hands to mask his face and dances his eyes around. These are all different traits I took from people I have met. Also I think everyone deals with anxiety to a certain extent and I just tried to amplify my own anxiety x 1000.

Q. How much of your personal experience did you use?

SH: I think there is a little bit of Alex in everyone. I just tried to remember my own anxiety and try to magnify it as best I could.

We all know someone that looks like Alex.

SH: Absolutely. I think Alex is just very socially unaware. Especially due to his speech impediment, I don’t think he’s had an easy upbringing. I think if I’d met him, I’d be mate with him.

ABD: I think the idea behind the character of Alex is that everyone can relate to him in a way, whether it is because of his anxiety, loneliness, finding love or heartbreak. Because the story is mainly based on the cast and crew’s own experience, we hoped that people could relate to it.

Q. Such as in Alex’s favourite film, “Sleepless in Seattle”, modern rom-coms all have a similar structure. How do you think the character of “Alex” would fit in one of them?

ABD: I think it would be very interesting to put him in a very conventional rom-com and to see how it would play out. I think it would be very beautiful and would resonate with the audience of a normal rom-com.  It is kind of what we tried to do here. It is a spin on a rom-com ,which is a recurring theme throughout the film. It is meant to be an non-conventional and ironic rom-com. I think if we put him into a character in a normal rom-com, it would probably achieve a similar thing and would be relatable to the audience.

SH: I think a way it would be slightly better because he is quite relatable. He is more of an “everyman”.

Q. You mentioned most of Love Possibly was improvised. Was there a point while shooting when the story or tone deviated from what was originally intended?

SH: The directors knew the narrative they wanted to achieve from the start. The plot never changed as a result of the improve and it only allowed a couple of changes in scenes. I would say 75% of it was improvisation and brought a certain realism to the film.

ABD: Although the narrative is still very close to Che and Michael’s original vision, we stripped everything back in post production and started from scratch in terms of brainstorm, how to plot out the story and how to piece it all back together. At one point we were brainstorming without even referencing the footage that we already had just to see what came up. Whilst we pieced it back together, because it is improv and always very open, we managed to pull together the final edit. Improv opens up opportunities of changing the storyline in a positive way as well as being, obviously quite difficult.  It is exciting as a filmmaker because it allows you to take your story in another direction and it still works.

Q. How do you choose the project you want to work on? What’s the most important factor(s)?

ABD: Script! I really enjoy spotting upcoming talents and really enjoy working on under represented art forms. That is the beauty of working in independent films, you get to see such incredible and varied projects that wouldn’t normally get made by the big studios. Personally that is something I like and catches my eyes.  I also enjoy projects that really connect with the audience and with me. And obviously amazing talents as well. Working with filmmakers, directors and actors that are incredibly talented and helping them bring their talent to life.

SH: Always the script I would say and interesting characters. In terms of acting, I would definitely rather play someone that is widely different than a character that is similar to me because it wouldn’t be very challenging. Which is why Alex was always so fascinating, because he is so different.

Q. What did you learn from Alex?  

SH: Always think before you say something. Probably not to worry as much. He makes situations worse because he is so worried.  In some situations, Alex is the normal one and surrounded by crazy people. His mum is very out there and her boyfriend is nuts.

ABD: Expending on the anxiety theme, I think when you make a film that highlights and showcases a difficulty that a lot of people have, it resonates with you as a filmmaker. Everyone has anxiety to a certain extent in this day of age. There is statistic that was release recently that shows significantly high number of millennials suffer from anxiety because of the nature of the period with live in. I have learn from Alex character because I know anxiety but seeing it in that form, makes it all the more relatable.

Q. We don’t see many rom-coms dealing with mental health. Most films are either entirely focus on the topic or omits it entirely.

ABD: I would like to see it more in characters in bigger films and that is why I wanted to explore it in that film. I think when films do cover that topic it tends to be all about the anxiety but what is nice about “Love possibly” is that although it deals with that topic there isn’t a massive emphasis on it, it is just part of it.

Q. The film was financed through Kickstarter. Do you have any advice on how to run a successful kickstarter campaign?

ABD: A lot of it is about the talent behind it. Pulling together a very good pitch that justifies what you are trying to do. Show that you are serious about it. Show that is a serious project as well as a passion project. Put it out there to as many people as you can, there is no better way than to kick-start the project.

SH: Find someone that has a lot of twitter followers or lots of money!

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Interviews

An Interview With… Selena Tan (Crazy Rich Asians)

Selena Tan, who plays Alix Young- Cheng in the film spoke to Movie Marker’s Rehna Azim about the success of the movie and her life as a ‘Dim Sum Dolly!

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At the time of writing Crazy Rich Asians has grossed $166,791,962 at the Us box office and $55,100,000 overseas for a Worldwide total of $221,891,962. Audiences are not only flocking to repeat viewings but also turning this movie with no big stars into something of a cultural phenomenon.

The film is being credited with reviving the near dead rom-com genre and boosting tourism to Singapore. Importantly, the film is also being celebrated for bringing to the Hollywood forefront an ethnic minority group that is not aggressively pushed by the media and in advertising.

Selena Tan, who plays Alix Young- Cheng in the film spoke to Movie Marker’s Rehna Azim about the success of the movie and her life as a ‘Dim Sum Dolly!

Q: You started your professional career as a litigation lawyer then moved into the entertainment world. That’s a brave leap. What made you make the change?

A: I had dabbled in theatre and singing since I was at school. From the age of 14 I had been involved in community theatre. It never occurred to me I could do it full time or make a living from it. So I did a law degree and qualified as a lawyer when I was 23 but I soon realised that I had been performing for 10 years and was a way more experienced actress than a lawyer. But law is demanding and it consumed all my time for the first 2 years. But after a while I began to get the itch to perform again. I started doing some theatrical work on the side but really it was like having two careers at the same time. I was constantly exhausted.
So I sat down with my parents and said, I can always go back to the law but I have a real passion for acting. It gives me room for expression the law doesn’t. They were supportive and that’s when I started thinking about what I could do in the entertainment field and how I could best connect with an audience as an artist.

Q: What is a Dim sum dolly?!

A: (laughs) It’s an idea I developed in 2012. Three very different girls performing together; different sizes with different talents and capabilities. I wanted to create a cabaret/comedy/musical act that was socially aware and politically topical. In particular I wanted to tackle taboo subjects. We put on a lot of makeup and that seemed to help us get away with controversial topics because we made people laugh. It was like being able to serve a fluffy cake with a raisin in the middle!

Q: Was Crazy Rich Asians as fun to make as it is to watch?

A: More so! I really lucked out with that movie. But you know, I initially turned down the audition. I’d just finished a big production with my company and had a holiday booked in Phuket. I really needed that break and took it over doing the audition. Fortunately, I was offered a second audition when I returned from holiday because they hadn’t found the right actress for the part. The stars aligned and it all worked out for me. I thought it would be great because I could just be an actor and not worry about the directing or putting the production together.

Q: What was it like on set?

A: Like a resurrection! A total new injection of zest and life. It was like I’d been jump started. I was surrounded by so much talent from around the world and everyone was so passionate about the project. I got to make wonderful new friends and show them my country, its places, its people, the food. Since the film came out I’ve been approached by so many people, including old friends from my past who have all been touched by this movie and what it’s done for our country. Young people tell me they now believe anything is possible. Tourism will go through the roof. It’s just a beautiful film about my country. It’s a love letter to the country actually. Until now people used to say, ‘Singapore? Which part of China is that?’ Now they know who and what we are.

Q: The film has been praised as a step forward for more diversity in cinema but it has also faced some criticism for focusing on one group in Singapore which is multi-ethnic. What do you think the film offers the push for diversity?

A: The push for diversity is a movement. A single film can’t do everything and yes, some people have asked, where are the Singaporean Indians and other groups in this film. Yet the spirit of representing minorities is being embraced by our film and by all those around the world who are going to see it. Certainly , there is a need for an ever more diverse Singapore to be showcased, including people on the fringes of society.
But, you know, the film has already inspired so many people around the world. I have a niece in the UK who suddenly feels that, yes, there might be opportunities for her now in the acting field which she didn’t feel before. She’s excited that maybe she could be like auntie Selena and that thrills me. Young people in India, Malaysia are watching the film and being encouraged in their ambitions. At the same time we’re reaching audiences in LA and New York. It’s mind-blowing!

Q: The success of the film has been tremendous. Of course fans want to know, will there be a sequel?

A: At the premiere in Singapore Warner brothers did say they want to do a follow-up. I certainly want to be in it!

 

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