Perseverance has paid off for Wendy Kout. A successful playwright and television writer and producer with credits like the ABC comedy Anything But Love with Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis and projects for Paul Reiser and Robin Williams, Kout had been unable to break into the Hollywood film industry. The longtime Los Angeles entertainment veteran developed screenplays with icons like Barbra Streisand, Spiderman producer Laura Ziskin and the late Breakfast Club mastermind John Hughes, but none of them saw the light of day.
So she did it herself, with a quirky Jewish- oriented screenplay that with the help of accomplished TV film producer Leonard Hill resulted in Dorfman, a Yiddishkeit romantic comedy based in Los Angeles that recalls a more understated version of ethnic vignettes like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Moonstruck.
The indie film, starring newcomer Sara Rue and veteran Elliott Gould as her cantankerous father, debuts in Israel at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival beginning Sunday. It’s already received a long list of accolades since being released last year, including Best Feature at the Marbella International Film Festival in Spain, Best Feature at the Hollywood International Film Festival and Miami Jewish Film Festival and Best Comedy at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Dorfman will be launched commercially in the US in March in Los Angeles and New York with more cities to follow.
The film – which celebrates Los Angeles like Woody Allen does with New York – follows the metamorphosis of Deb Dorfman, a young Jewish accountant from the San Fernando Valley suburbs, whose life is overshadowed by her family, especially her newly widowed father, played by Gould, and her brother, for whom she works.
When she spends a tumultuous week in downtown Los Angeles house-sitting in the bohemian loft of her long-time crush, she learns to break out of her self-imposed restrictions and emerges a changed person.
As described by the LA Jewish Journal, “When the film’s protagonist, a nebbishy Jewish girl named Deb, gets an opportunity to spend a week at her unrequited love’s downtown loft (she plans to woo him by cat sitting), her ensuing saturation in the new culture becomes a catalyst for her self realization.
In this LA, people do astonishingly urban things. They walk! They take the Metro! They dine on rooftops! Not a chain store in sight, they buy everyday items at specialty, artisan shops.”
Speaking from her Los Angeles home last month, Kout acknowledged that while she didn’t base Deb’s character on her own life, she could relate to the journey she goes through.
“It’s not autobiographical, but it comes from a familiar place, in terms of not being seen and appreciated,” she said. “That sense of nobody listening to you and your work not being appreciated is something any creative person can identify with. So professionally I can relate to Deborah.”
Growing up in Florida, Kout said that her personality was formed by her parents – committed Reform Jews with a strong social responsibility and tikkun olam. The synagogue was the heart of her community, not only for religious study but for political awareness.
“I remember that the Jewish Federation was holding a campaign to take in Jewish children from Cuba after Castro took over.
My parents took these kids in and it had a tremendous impact on my political awareness of the world, and how one has to help, especially since I found myself kicked out of my bedroom,” she said.
“My parents patiently explained to me that these children needed help, they didn’t know if they would ever see their parents again and that they needed to feel part of a family. So that was the kind of role modeling I received.”
Kout’s attraction to the arts and writing flourished, and became a vocation when she moved to California as an adult and began writing for shows like Mork and Mindy, but she never aspired to be on the other side of the camera.
“I was never interested in acting, I always saw myself as a person who wrote things for others to enact. Even as a child, I would come up with ideas for plays and put kids to work, but I was never in the play myself,” said Kout.
Despite her successes in playwriting (Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas, Naked in Encino) and her TV credits, Kout had pretty much given up screenwriting when a chance encounter with producer Hill resulted in a tour of his downtown Los Angeles loft and a side of the city that prompted the idea for Dorfman – a Jewish Valley Girl thrown into unknown boho environs.
Hill liked the idea and offered to produce the film if Kout wrote it, and together they decided to bypass the Hollywood studio system, which can often take intelligent, quirky concepts and turn them into cookie-cutter copies.
“My problem with many Hollywood studio films is that they’re so generic and safe – there are no specifics or culture,” said Kout. “If we had taken this script to a studio, a number of things would have happened.
First, as always happens if you’re not a popular screenwriter, I would have been fired, and a crew of screenwriters would have been brought in. And their first change would have been to make the characters not Jewish.”
“That’s why the film is so special. When you make an independent film, you have an opportunity to protect the vision, and we had the extraordinary input of Leonard Hill, who insisted that the vision be protected so it didn’t become a process of diminishing or diluting what we envisioned.
The only limitation was budget.”
Part of that problem was solved by basing the film in Hill’s loft, the same one that had inspired Kout to write the script.
However, due to a narrow window of time put aside to film the movie (in June 2011 during the TV season hiatus when indie filmmakers are able to hire crews otherwise occupied), the project was close to being scrapped, when Gould stepped in.
“Without Elliott, it wouldn’t have been made,” said Kout. “We had to film and we didn’t have a father to play opposite Sarah.
Fortunately Elliott read the script and immediately said yes. Not only did he save the film, but he’s been an extraordinary supporter, traveling to film festivals with us, and giving his time for Q and A’s.”
The director that Hill and Kout chose for Dorfman also played a big part in its success.
24-year-old USC film school graduate Brad Leong proved to be a perfect fit for the lowkey production. But Kout laughed recalling trying to bring the Asian-American director up to speed regarding some of the film’s Jewish themes.
“Len and I told him that we were there to make sure he understood every nuance in the script and he should ask us anything,” said Kout. “He said, ‘I do have one question. What’s a flagella?’” Kout realized that the first-time director was referring to the film’s first scene when Deb and her father use the Yiddish word “fagella,” meaning a gay person.
“It was so cute, I took it upon myself to teach Brad all of the Yiddish in the movie, so now he can speak it like the rest of us. I can say that he really has a Jewish soul,” she said.
Kout expressed excitement about the film’s Israel debut and noted that two Israelis were part of the production – graphic artist Shine Horovitz who created the film’s poster and director Gev Miron, who worked on the film’s postproduction.
While the film is based on a quintessential American Jewish experience, Kout was confident that Israeli audiences would be able to identify with Deb and the other characters, much in the same way that non-Jewish audiences at the film festivals where it’s been screened have taken to it.
“I think that anyone can relate to it, because it’s about a family and a young woman’s place in that family and her need to find an authentic life. She happens to be Jewish and it’s a Jewish family, but it’s not just a Jewish film and it’s not just for Jewish audiences.”
“I wrote it as a movie for everyone, but I believe in being specific, because that’s what connects anyone to a character.”
Dorfman will be screened on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. and Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Jerusalem Cinematheque