In Alon Gur Arye’s new comedy, Mossad, which is opening throughout Israel on June 27 and is inspired by gag-filled American movies such as Airplane and Top Secret, all hell breaks loose – about every 30 seconds.
The chord bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem collapses on top of a man drinking coffee on the light rail. People are told that security has been breached at a reception but that they are under the protection of Israeli forces, and the guests all scream and run for cover, as the string quartet plays the theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – one of the many movie references in the film. The evil organization that kidnaps an American tech billionaire is called RBG, which stands for “really bad guys” – or could it be US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? And when RBG kidnaps the befuddled, disgraced Mossad operative at the center of the story, Guy Moran (Tsahi Halevi, who is so handsome he looks like a special effect, but believably dim), along with a CIA agent, Linda Harris (Efrat Dor), the evil masterminds live-stream themselves to Mossad headquarters, threatening to behead their captives. But after a moment, they’re shaking their heads in disbelief when the elderly Mossad head (Ilan Dar) demands to be sent a very 20th century videotape of the hostages holding newspapers. “Who can even find videotape anymore? Nobody reads a newspaper!” yell the bad guys.
These are just a tiny fraction of the jokes in Mossad and this broad, slapstick comedy is a dream come true for Gur Arye. He’s a quiet, sweet guy who everyone in the Tel Aviv cafe where we meet would probably guess is an engineer or a computer programmer, and not the director the film which is advertised on every bus and billboard all over Israel. They certainly wouldn’t guess that the soft-spoken Gur Arye would have managed to get two great directors – David Zucker (Airplane, the Naked Gun
franchise) and Avi Nesher, the veteran Israeli director whose films all feature a great deal of humor – to be his mentors on the project.
“Everyone in Israel wants to do dramas,” said Gur Arye. “So I wanted to do spoofs, parodies. And I wanted to spoof something very Israeli.”
Nothing, of course, could be more Israeli than the Mossad. And Gur Arye was ready to run with this theme: He had already made a spy spoof, a 40-minute film on a shoestring budget, Israeli Intelligence, which became a popular midnight movie at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
“It became like the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he said. “People saw it 101 times. Over 70 times, we knew them by name.”
A COMEDY NERD, Gur Arye began doing lectures on such classic comedy directors as Zucker and Mel Brooks, while he supported himself by working on television but kept writing a feature-length film script spoofing the Mossad. When he shopped the script to the Israeli film funds – for whom no movie is too dark or serious, but who tend to take a dim view of comedy – he struck out, until Yoram Honig of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund agreed to invest in the project.
“He thinks out of the box,” said Gur Arye appreciatively. “And because of that, Jerusalem is a big part of the film,” noting that key scenes take place around – and behind – the menorah sculpture outside the Knesset. Eventually, other investors, including United King Films and Keren Rabinovich, came on board.
“It’s very Israeli, but every country has its spy parodies, like Dr. Strangelove,” he said.
But as he worked on the movie, he realized he had “a screenplay of jokes” and needed help creating a structure on which to pin the humor. Realizing that Zucker’s movies carefully recreated the genres they parodied, he reached out to his idol, who, he learned was planning to visit the Middle East. He wrangled invitations for Zucker to speak at the cinematheques – in interviews that he moderated – and when giving Zucker a ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he popped a video of Israeli Intelligence on a portable DVD player – “Talk about a captive audience,” he said, laughing. “Fortunately, he liked it.”
On a visit to Los Angeles, Gur Arye got Zucker to come to a screening of Operation Egg, his first family-friendly feature about a stolen dinosaur egg. Zucker liked what he saw and Gur Arye got to visit Zucker’s office. At this point, he took out his phone and showed me photos of the props and mementos from Zucker’s films, which adorn his office. Their partnership was born and Zucker became an on-set adviser during the shooting of Mossad.
Zucker approved the casting of Halevi as the hero, telling him, “Tsahi Halevi is Leslie Nielsen,” the actor who starred in Airplane and The Naked Gun franchise.
“Nielsen was always the handsome leading man,” until Zucker turned him into a great, befuddled straight man in his comedies.
“Zucker said he wanted to do comedy without comedians, and that’s what I did by casting Tsahi,” said Gur Arye. “People see the guy from Fauda doing this comedy.”
Pointing out that even Gila Almagor, the grand dame of Israeli drama, has a role, he said that he tried to use actors not known for comedy, although of course there are a few. These include Tal Friedman of Eretz Nehedert – who plays a guy who morphs into a kind of robot called Aaron Man – and Dvir Benedek of Sabri Maranan and many other television shows.
But once Gur Arye had finished filming, Nesher stepped in to help with the editing and, eventually, some reshoots.
“Avi Nesher is the Israeli Spielberg,” said Gur Arye. “He brings hundreds of thousands to the theaters. He’s a great script editor, with a lot of knowledge and experience. He said, ‘My mandate is the script.’ We worked very hard on the story, the plot and characters, the relationships, the conflict... David and Avi both said you have to concentrate on the structure and characters. It can’t just be a runaway train of jokes. So I cut a lot of gags... I would never have believed four years ago that these two men would believe in me.”
Gur Arye knows that not all the jokes hit the mark, but he hopes that there will be enough to send audiences home smiling.
“People will forgive me for the dumbest jokes if there is something real in it,” he said.
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