It’s hard to pin down what is the most unusual element of David N. Weiss’ life
and career. On the one hand, he’s one of the top screenwriters of Hollywood
children’s movies, and has penned a summer blockbuster, The Smurfs movie in 3-D
which will be released in thousands of theaters around the world at the end of
July and the first week of August.
But contrary to the stereotype of the
aggressive and surly Hollywood player, he is extremely friendly and gracious,
politely asking a concierge at a Jerusalem hotel where there is a quiet place
for an interview. And Jerusalem in June is a pretty unusual place to find
anyone connected with the American movie industry.
But Jerusalem means a
lot to Weiss, because he is an Orthodox Jew. While you might not expect real
religious devotion from the man best known for writing Shrek 2 (which he
co-wrote, as he does all his work, with his writing partner, J. David Stem),
Weiss is living proof that a sense of humor and playfulness can co-exist with
Asked how he manages to maintain his Orthodox lifestyle in
Hollywood, he says he is gradually growing more comfortable with his
“I used to be more baseball cappy,” he says, explaining that he
used to always wear baseball caps to his Hollywood meetings.
self conscious now. I wear a yarmulke.”
And, in the land of a thousand
fad diets, executives are “great about the kosher stuff” if they are ordering
Weiss didn’t grow up in an observant family, though, and he’s had
a long and winding road both to his religious life and his career. Growing up in
an American Jewish family loosely affiliated with the Reform movement, Weiss
felt he lacked a spiritual anchor, and was drawn to Christianity in his late
teens. He became a lay minister, and began producing film presentations for his
church that appealed to high schoolers.
Having grown up as a “TV addict,”
he respected the power of movies and television, and felt that the church should
invest more in entertainment. He and the church raised money to pay his tuition
to the prestigious University of Southern California (USC) film school, where he
was sent “on a mission to Hollywood.” His final student film, a movie
that combined a Christian point of view with fantasy elements such as ogres and
dragons, called The Man Who Loved Fat Dancing
(a play on the title of the 1973
Western The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing
), won several awards and made the film
festival circuit. Its success won him an agent and soon he had
established himself as a former writer for the popular children’s Rugrats
series. He co-wrote the two Rugrats
movies, with J. David Stem.
WHILE researching the Jewish roots of Christianity, he found himself interested
in Judaism and began taking part in the life of the Los Angeles Orthodox
community. Gradually, became observant himself. By the time he wrote The
Rugrats Chanukah Special
, he had abandoned Christianity for good. He specializes
in writing movies for children, and has also written such hits as Clockstoppers
(2002) and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (
2001). And then came Shrek 2
Weiss can joke about ultra-Orthodox friends in California affiliated with the
Chabad Movement who refuse to say “Santa Monica” because they won’t utter the
word for “saint,” he takes both his faith and his work seriously.
the Smurfs as “delightful, charming little guys” and he feels that the movie
about them works for both children and adults because he brings them into the
live-action world of contemporary New York.
Katy Perry voices a
Smurfette, and he speaks with particular admiration of one of the other actors,
Hank Azaria, who, he says, “has a beautiful treasure trove of talent.” Azaria
worked on a kind of British professor voice for his character, switching “from
Laurence Olivier to Richard Burton until he became a kind of Laurence Burton… He
became what you wished you were writing.”
Weiss visits Israel whenever he
can – which isn’t as often as he would like – and gives classes when he can at
the Ma’aleh School for Television and Film in Jerusalem, as he did on this
“It’s a great school,” he says.
“I am really impressed by
the students. They are living in a bit of a pressure cooker and they have
interesting stories to tell. They ask piercing questions about storytelling. And
they’re struggling with going deeper into a story.”
Weiss shrugs, as if
he isn’t the right man for the job.
“I work to create light-hearted
studio fare.” While he clearly takes pride in his work, “It’s not Citizen Kane,”
Next up for Weiss, not surprisingly, is The Smurfs
he is working on even during this visit. But he is happy that he gets to
spend some time going to the Kotel and seeing the light show in the Old City
with his wife and children this time around.
While he loves his work, he
does at times wish he could get back to directing, which he enjoyed in his
But for the time being, he’s doing well, balancing Israelis and Smurfs.