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.