‘If people come with expectations of a drama they’re surprised by how funny it is; if they come expecting a comedy, they don’t think it will be so moving,” says Asaph Polonsky, talking about his recently released film, One Week and a Day.
It tells the story of two parents whose adult son has just died of cancer, and how they cope with the first day following the shiva, the seven- day mourning period required by Jewish law.
“It’s not about a kid dying, it’s about the people who are left behind. But it’s not about people sitting and moping, that has to come across,” says Polonsky.
The movie won the Gan Foundation Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, as well as eight awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, including the prize for Best Israeli Feature, in a highly competitive year. In addition to its Israeli release, the movie will be shown in the US, Italy, Australia and many other countries.
The sometimes irreverent movie starts out as the father, Eyal (Shai Avivi), impulsively decides to smoke what is left of his son’s medical marijuana. The problem is that he doesn’t know how to roll a joint, and has to turn to the hated neighbors’ stoner son, Zooler, for help.
Tomer Kapon, who plays Zooler, won the Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The idea for the movie came from two places.
“A good friend of mine, when we younger, he had a girlfriend who was sick for a long time, but somehow her death came as a surprise. Me and a bunch of friends came over, and there was not much to say. Someone broke the silence by saying, ‘Do you have some of her medicinal weed left?’ I thought about the thing that is left behind. It was meant to ease the pain of one person, but it ends up easing the pain of someone else.”
The other inspiration was “a eulogy that my dad wrote for his sister,” a moving description of who she was and what it meant to lose her.
Polonsky wrote a character, played by Uri Gavriel, who gives just such a eulogy in the film.
Polonsky wrote the first draft of the screenplay for One Week and a Day when he was studying in an intensive program at the American Film Institute. He then submitted the screenplay to the Jerusalem International Film Lab of the Sam Spiegel School for Film & Television, Jerusalem. It was accepted and he worked on the script with Hagai Levi, the creator of the television series In Treatment and The Affair, on how to bring some humor and even moments of fun to the story.
Levi suggested he check out two movies that, at first glance, couldn’t be more different from One Week and a Day: Midnight Run, an action/comedy/ buddy movie about a crooked accountant and a bounty hunter (played by Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro), and Under the Sand by Francois Ozon, a mystery that is heavy on mood and atmosphere, about a woman searching for her missing husband.
He watched these over and over, especially Midnight Run, which he says “is an underrated film with a perfect script,” and he wrote the scenes between Eyal and Zooler, almost as if it were a buddy movie.
“What I knew in the beginning is the father is left with this bag of weed... he’s in this quicksand.
He can’t get out [from under the grief]... his wife is pushing forward and keeps getting stuck. And it was really about creating this conflict between the two opposing objectives, wanting to move forward and wanting to go backwards.”
Once he finished the script, he went looking for the actors who could bring it to life. Shai Avivi and Evgenia Dodina give extraordinary performances that bring out all the nuances in the characters. Aviv wasn’t the obvious choice for such a demanding, dramatic role, however.
He is known mainly as a comic actor – he’s been called the Larry David of Israel.
“On paper, he wasn’t the right person,” Polonsky says. But in the audition, “He brought something fresh and new. He was able to get to the character and add another level from himself.”
Dodina always seemed like the right person for the role, however.
“She was definitely in my mind as I was writing,” says Polonsky.
Dodina, a Russian-born actress who has starred in many stage productions for such companies as Gesher and Habima, has been in many movies but has never had a film role that has allowed her to display her talent so fully before.
When the two actors met and did the “chemistry read” together, “It was just wow.” They seemed like a long-married couple, and the two even went on a date in character to prepare for the film.
Polonsky was born in the US to Israeli parents and lived there till he was eight, when his family returned to Israel. His mother is a Feldenkrais instructor, while his father, who works in high tech, was a movie buff who got him interested in movies of the Sixties and Seventies – such as Easy Rider, the smokefilled influence of which is evident in One Week and Day. Polonsky is married to Vanara Taing , a Cambodian- American filmmaker, and the two are developing projects together in the US and hope to start shooting a film in 2017.
“One Week and a Day took me six years,” says Polonsky. “I’m working on a few different things now, because you never know what’s going to work in the end.”