Most young, independent filmmakers try to play it cool, but Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, the Israeli co-directors of Aya, a movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, are open about their amazement at finding themselves the toast of Hollywood.
Interviewed via Skype from Los Angeles, where they have traveled to participate in the run-up to the Oscars, which will be awarded on February 22, Binnun admits, “I was star-struck when I realized I was three meters away from Clint Eastwood” at the nominees’ luncheon.
“I was at the same the same table as Robert Duvall,” recalls Brezis.
“It seems more like a dream,” says Binnun.
That dreamlike element is partly because they never expected that Aya would take them so far. Aya is a compelling movie about a woman (Sarah Adler) who goes to the airport to pick someone up and ends up impulsively posing as the driver for Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a complete stranger. Mr. Overby is an initially chilly and forbidding Finnish music professor who is coming to Jerusalem to judge a competition. In the course of their drive, they tentatively let down their defenses in a rich story that unfolds in just 39 minutes with charm, suspense and humor.
Asked about how they got the idea for Aya, Binnun replies, “We didn’t have the idea of a short film. We had an idea for a feature film about this character.”
But when Lost Paradise, one of the previous short films they had made with financing from French arts organizations, did particularly well, they were offered more money to make another short, and jumped at the chance.
“We decided to take part of the story we were working on and make it into a short film,” says Binnun.
How did they come up with the character of Aya? “It’s a good question and there’s no one clear answer,” says Brezis. “Aya is the kind of person who has a certain fascination with strangers, who is open to create a connection with a stranger. I have some similarities with Aya myself, that’s part of where it came from. This story in a way was kind of a fantasy of mine, although nothing like that ever happened to me.
The nice thing about film is that you can investigate things that don’t happen in real life.”
When they thought about the character of her passenger, “We thought of the exact opposite of Aya. He must be from Scandinavia, someone reserved and cold,” explains Binnun. “Ulrich was a dream choice. We didn’t really believe we could get him.”
The Danish-born Thomsen is an international star who is currently appearing in the HBO series Banshee. He also starred in Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning In A Better World, the critically acclaimed movie Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, and even played the bad guy in a James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. Getting an actor of his stature to make a short film in Israel seemed impossible. But through luck, they managed to get the script to him.
“We got a very exciting email from Ulrich that said that he found the script poetic and wanted to do it,” says Binnun. “But he had no time whatsoever. We went to look at other actors, but we knew he was the one we wanted.”
Finally, he said he could come to Israel for one week in January, and they jumped at the chance.
They were also happy to cast Sarah Adler in the title role. Adler, a French-Israeli actress, has appeared in dozens of Israeli movies, among them Jellyfish, as well as such foreign films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
Once they had their cast in place, they concentrated on the challenges of shooting.
Viewers will be surprised to learn that they filmed the movie in a studio, using a green screen on which they projected footage of the road.
“In order to get that level of acting intimacy we knew we had to shoot in a studio,” says Brezis. “That way, we could also control the lighting, with the sun at just the right angle. It was only when we started the post production that we realized how hard it would be to make it look real enough.”
They worked with a highly skilled technician for a full seven months to get the car scenes to look seamless. But it wasn’t an easy process.
There was so much stress along the way that at one point the technician told them that “all his pay will have to go to his shrink.”
But all’s well that ends well. They are especially proud of the fact that although Aya is a short film, it was released commercially in theaters throughout Israel.
“That’s unprecedented,” says Binnun.
Now the couple, who met during their first year at the Sam Spiegel School for Film & Television in Jerusalem and who have a son together, are working on turning Aya into a feature film. Her encounter with the professor will be part of it. But they don’t know who the stars will be or exactly where the story will go yet.
They are encouraged by the success of another Oscar-nominated film, Whiplash.
“The director couldn’t get the money to do a long film. So he made it as a short film that won the prize at Sundance and then turned it into a feature.”
They know that since Aya is the only Israeli Oscar-nominated film this year many people here are rooting for them. But that doesn’t bother them, or, if they do feel a bit of pressure, it’s the kind of problem they are happy to have.
“We feel the support, the good side of it,” says Brezis. “It’s kind of heartwarming.”