Blue and white all over

Hollywood screenwriter David Weiss, who penned upcoming blockbuster 'The Smurfs,' is living proof that sense of humor, playfulness can co-exist with Orthodox Judaism.

By
July 4, 2011 10:28
4 minute read.
Smurfs, David Weiss

Smurfs, David Weiss_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.

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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 Orthodoxy.

Asked how he manages to maintain his Orthodox lifestyle in Hollywood, he says he is gradually growing more comfortable with his identity.

“I used to be more baseball cappy,” he says, explaining that he used to always wear baseball caps to his Hollywood meetings.

“I’m less 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 lunch.



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 TV series. He co-wrote the two Rugrats movies, with J. David Stem.

HOWEVER, 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.

While 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.

He sees 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 visit.

“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,” he says.

Next up for Weiss, not surprisingly, is The Smurfs sequel, which 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 student days.

But for the time being, he’s doing well, balancing Israelis and Smurfs.

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