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Quirky and original, Everything Is Illuminated, actor Liev Schreiber's impressive directorial debut is one of a kind, a road comedy of the absurd that still manages to pay respectable tribute to the Holocaust. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed novel, the movie depicts the quest of a young man also named Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) to find the woman who had saved his grandfather in a Ukrainian town wiped out off the map by the Nazis.
Originally published in 2001, it came to Schreiber's attention as a short fiction in the New Yorker, while he was doing a reading series for the magazine. Coincidentally, Schreiber was then writing a script about his late Ukrainian g r a n d f a t h e r. Schreiber recalls, "I was emotionally moved by the story, and at the same time I thought it was hilarious." The story follows two people from different cultures, who come to realize there's deep connection between them that's emotionally and spiritually binding.
Schreiber says that when his grandfather died, he became curious about his history, hoping that it would inform his own. He recalls: "I felt deeply connected to the story of Jonathan, who had done in 15 pages what I was trying to do in 100, and did it with humor." Schreiber thereupon arranged to meet Jonathan in a New York bar.
Based on the story, Schreiber says he imagined "a 90-year-old Jew from Nantucket who only communicates through his agents. I walked in, and there was this twentysomething kid with glasses waving at me. I remember thinking this must be some guy who's seen Scream, but he kept waving, so I went over." They two established immediate rapport, telling jokes, drinking, talking about women and their grandfathers, and what it means to be Jewish.
Though they had gotten along well, Schreiber still needed to get the rights. To his surprise, Jonathan just said, spontaneously, 'Yeah, yeah go ahead.' I thought that was quick, but then Jonathan handed me his agent's number. There was more work to do, but he left the meeting knowing the project would materialize.
Schreiber always knew he wanted to write the screenplay himself, and didn't even consider Jonathan be a co-writer. The process was short, and the script came quickly. Schreiber didn't adapt the whole book, as he notes: "The impetus for my script was one short story, 'A Very Rigid Search,' not the published novel." Initially, he tried to incorporate some of the fantasy Jonathan has in the eighteenth century world of Trachimbrod, but he decided that it was too big a project to do a period film, so he concentrated on the story of Jonathan and Alex.
Once the screenplay was done, Schreiber knew he had to direct it. "As an actor," he says, "I always approach my work as part of the whole picture, and that awareness of the larger picture is what made me want to direct, but I never imagined anyone who let me." Visually, too, he had clear ideas about the movie's look, favoring movies with pace and visual excitement, for which Jonathan's story was the ideal material. However, the development process slowed down while looking for the right producer, since a lot of execs loved the novel, but they struggled to see it as a visual work.
Initially, Schreiber wanted to cast the fable with nonprofessional Ukrainians. "I was a big fan of the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which the lead was a natural with no acting experience, who gave the film a sense of authenticity that can't be acted, a lot like the films of Emir Kusturica, which are between documentary and features, at once real and surreal.
Perceiving Jonathan, both literally and figuratively, as the movie's eyes, Schreiber says he couldn't think of "anybody in showbiz with bigger and better eyes than Elijah Wood." But this being a small-budget film, he couldn't believe that someone of Wood's stature, having just come off The Lord of the Ring trilogy, would commit.
Says Schreiber: "Jonathan is a goof ball in life and can seem like a kid, but then he writes like a wise old man. As an actor, Wood also has this dual quality, youthful and innocent, but also incredibly professional and mature."
Since it's a male buddy movie, it was crucial to cast Alexander, the Ukrainian who becomes Wood's guide, with the right actor.
Schreiber says: "I didn't want an American actor, because there was a quality to that character that had to be real, otherwise he runs the risk of being a clown."
After an extensive search, that took him across Eastern Europe, Schreiber finally found his actor by accident in New York. Schreiber listened to the CD of group called Gogol Bordello, billing itself as a Ukrainian Gypsy Punk band, and hired the front guy, Eugene Futz. In the screen test, Futz proved that the camera loved him and that he had chemistry with Wood. For Schreiber, "Futz represented the perfect blend of a trickster clown with substance underneath, qualities that capture the essence of Alex."
When Schreiber heard that the gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream) was interested to shoot the film, he "almost did a back flip over my desk." Blessed with incredibly sharp eyes, Libatique brought the perfect mix of chaos and creativity. Says Schreiber, "I've worked on many films but I haven't experienced the kind of artistry and passion Matty brings to a set, which is a testament to his visual genius. There were narrative situations where Schreiber thought he was falling short, but Matty came up with visual interpretations that completely transcended the text.
Looking back, Schreiber says the experience was "a steep learning curve, more like a duelâ€”if you survive, don't do it again!" However, based on the critical acclaim of the film, which played all the major festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto), we know Schreiber would soon be back at the helm.