Most serious movie directors don’t take much of an interest in the glitzy Eurovision song contest. But most serious movie directors aren’t Eytan Fox.
“There’s this pop side of me. I had this connection to Eurovision growing up,” says the director, whose latest movie, Cupcakes (“Bananot” in Hebrew, meaning “bananas”), which just opened, tells the story of a group of friends who write a song that becomes Israel’s entry in a Eurovision-like international competition.
The American-born Fox moved to Israel as a child.
He now lives in Tel Aviv, but grew up in Jerusalem, and remembers when his mother would invite all the neighbors – many of whom did not own a television – to watch the Eurovision final at their apartment on Harav Berlin Street.
“She would serve Coke, which we usually had only on Friday nights,” he says. “It was a different time, when we all knew our neighbors.”
This sentiment is echoed in Cupcakes, when one of the heroines, Keren (Keren Berger), a lonely blogger, says of Israel’s old days, “You would go over to your neighbors to borrow a cup of sugar and stay for coffee.”
But why did Fox make a movie about a Eurovision-like song contest (called “Universong” in Cupcakes) and a group of friends who sing and dance together, right now? “I wanted to make a feel-good movie,” says Fox. “I became a serious filmmaker, and I was at the Berlin Film Festival a couple of years ago, channel-surfing in my hotel room, and I saw that Eurovision was on. I hadn’t known it was happening. I didn’t know who was representing Israel, and I thought: How could this be? And I started thinking about doing a movie about a bunch of neighbors who were good friends and wrote a song together.”
Fox, 48, indeed, has more than established his credentials as a serious director. His 2002 film, Yossi & Jagger, about two gay soldiers in love on the Lebanese border, won acclaim both at home and abroad. The film received prizes all over the world, including at the Tribeca Film Festival. He followed it up with a sequel, Yossi, last year.
Fox also made the 2004 Walk on Water, about a Mossad agent who befriends the grandson of a Nazi, and in 2006 The Bubble, which tells the story of an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian who fall in love. These films also won numerous prizes, including at the Berlin Film Festival and from the National Board of Review in the US.
Once he decided to make Cupcakes, Fox quickly assembled a cast of Israel’s brightest stars from the worlds of television, movies and music: Anat Waxman, Ofer Shechter, Dana Ivgy, Yael Bar-Zohar, Keren Berger and Efrat Dor.
“They’re a bunch of Israeli divas and I knew the way to survive this was for them to become a group. There was a real sense of community that developed among them, and it’s continued even after filming ended,” he says, showing me group messages among the cast on What’s App, asking each other’s opinions about what outfit to wear to the film’s premiere. He also enjoyed bringing together performers from disparate branches of the entertainment world.
“Dana is a serious, Ophir-award winning actress, and Yael is a pin-up who hasn’t had too many chances to do dramatic acting,” he says.
And then there was the matter of the song in the film, “Song Number Six.” If it sounds very professional, that’s because it was written by Scott Hoffman (aka Babydaddy) of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters. He and one of Fox’s cousins had been friends in college in the US.
“When I asked him, ‘Do you have an old kitsch song you’ve never used, an ABBA-type song?’ He played one for me and it was exactly what I needed.”
It fit right in with Fox’s fond memories of watching Ilanit perform as Israel’s representative in the first Eurovision competition the country took part in, in 1973. It’s so much a part of who he is that he searches for a clip of the broadcast he’s downloaded to his phone and is concerned when he can’t find it instantly.
“I asked my mother why Israel was in Eurovision if we’re not in Europe, and she said, ‘We’re a small country surrounded by enemies.’ I remember how on Jordan TV, they would black it out when Israel performed.
It got more complicated when we would win – how could they not show the results?” Fox has more Eurovision stories than can fit in one article, but he was especially excited to cover the contest as a junior IBA reporter in 1979, when Israel hosted the competition. He became friendly with the German band, Dschingis Khan, (although perhaps not as friendly as one of the musicians would have liked). In 2000, he was chosen to direct the Eurovision segment for the band PingPong, which brought its song, “Sameach,” or “Happy,” to the Eurovision contest in Stockholm, and created controversy by waving a Syrian flag during the performance.
Fox supported their decision to include the flag, and speaks proudly of how they visited a Syrian community center in Stockholm.
Fox, who is celebrating 25 years with his partner, critic and television commentator Gal Uchovsky (best known as the Simon Cowell-type judge on Kohav Nolad, the Israeli version of American Idol), is getting to work on his next project. He’s writing the script for a film that will combine his love of glitzy pop with serious drama: a biopic of Mike Brant, the Israeli who became a French singing star in the Seventies and committed suicide in Paris at age 28.
“People sometimes use films as escapism, when you want to escape your life,” says Fox. “And Cupcakes is about fun and games and music and romance and happy endings. I’ve made films that were more confrontational and challenging. But this is something to sweeten life, for myself and the audience.”