The Israel-Scotland connection with Brian Cox

Scottish star teams up with Israeli directors for ‘The Etruscan Smile.'

July 2, 2019 21:07
The Israel-Scotland connection with Brian Cox

A SCENE FROM ‘The Etruscan Smile’ with Brian Cox (center). In the photo on the right, Rosanna Arquette, Cox, Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Two Israeli directors and a Scottish actor walk onto a film set and that’s not the beginning of a joke, but the story of the new film, The Etruscan Smile, which opens throughout Israel on July 4.

The movie stars the legendary actor Brian Cox as Rory MacNeil, an ornery, aging Scotsman, whose whole universe is his beloved corner of the Hebrides, but who has been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, and reluctantly, heads for San Francisco, to see his estranged son, Ian (JJ Feild). On the one hand, it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, as the extraordinarily stubborn Rory finds his every waking moment is a culture clash with some part of his son’s chic new hometown. Rory can’t understand the culinary engineering work that his son does, or the fact that his daughter-in-law, Emily (Thora Birch) has a career, travels for work and isn’t breastfeeding his baby grandson. Everything around him feels alien, until he meets a sexy museum curator (Rosanna Arquette) who finds his accent charming and his personality intriguing. Through connecting with her and bonding with his grandson, he is able to take another look at his son and begin to bridge the gap that divides them in the little time he has left.

Although the movie might seem to have a squarely Scottish/American focus, it is based on a book by a Spanish novelist, Jose Luis Sampedro, that takes place in Italy, and it is the first feature film directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, the Israeli married couple whose short film, Aya, an offbeat romance that starts out at Ben-Gurion Airport, was nominated for an Oscar. And it was produced by Arthur Cohn, the Swiss-born Oscar-winning producer, whose films include Walter Salles’s Central Station and Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September.

Cox, who flew to Tel Aviv during a break from filming his hit television show, Succession, in which he plays the patriarch of a media empire who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Murdoch, said that the eclectic mix was part of what drew him to The Etruscan Smile.

He particularly enjoyed working with the directors, who taught him a bit about the Israeli can-do attitude. “They were very strong in their opinions, very true to being Israeli. One has to learn to respect that,” he said. Although the couple, who met as students at the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School, had never directed such a large production before, “There was a learning curve, but they did a great job at putting it all together. They’re terribly sweet.”

Acknowledging that they were neophytes in the world of international feature-filmmaking, Binnun and Brezis, who sat down for an interview last fall at the Haifa International Film Festival, talked about the pressure of directing their first feature film.

“We were always the first ones on the set, the last ones to leave. We knew we had a lot of work to do to catch up with the others on the set,” said Binnun.

Brezis agreed. “Sometimes we were trying to be too prepared. We had to learn to let go. It was part of the process.”

Both were extremely grateful to Cohn, their producer – “He likes to give opportunities to first-time directors,” said Brezis; to their parents, who watched their child while they shot the film abroad; and to their star.

“He’s a genius as an actor, it was incredible to see how he invents himself,” said Binnun.

Although the part might seem as if it were tailor-made for the actor, who was born in Dundee, Scotland, Cox didn’t know Gaelic, which the character speaks in several key scenes. “He studied very hard,” recalled Brezis. “But even though his background wasn’t identical to that of the character, he is so connected to Rory.”

Cox, who left Scotland as a teenager to study acting in London, and eventually performed with the Royal Shakespeare and the National Theatre, where he played the lead in an acclaimed production of King Lear, could nevertheless identify with Rory.

“He’s quite angry at the world, about himself and his own shortcomings,” he said. “He represents this tribalism... he’s involved in a feud with his neighbor, an out-of-date concept.... After Campbell [the neighbor with whom he was feuding] dies, he realizes it has all become so meaningless... he’s dealing with his own mortality. There are so many elements contributing to a mind shift for him. Then he sees the [sculpture of] the Etruscan smile, which represents a good death, where you go into death with a sense of joy, with a sense of having completed a life. And he realizes he has to make a connection with his grandson, and through him to his son. He does achieve salvation at the  last minute, but at great cost.”

Playing Rory, as well as his leading role in Succession, has inspired Cox to think intensely about the drama inherent in father-son relationships.

“My difficulty has always been as a father,” said Cox, who has four children from two different marriages, among them three sons. “My father died when I was eight, and because he wasn’t present in my formative years, he was always a mythic presence... I didn’t have a template for being a dad. It’s hard to copy someone who was mythic.”

Referring back to the movie, he said, “Rory’s issues came from not caring, mine came from confusion... I can understand the movie so well from the son’s point of view.”

But while Cox may still be finding his way in many aspects of life, he is clear about one thing: He doesn’t like to be told what to do, to be lectured to, specifically when it comes to boycotting Israel.

“I don’t believe in boycotts,” he said. While he spoke in detail about the complexity of the political situation here – “Foxtrot was so moving,” he said of Samuel Maoz’s controversial drama about the grieving family of a fallen soldier – he concluded, “Artists have to be artists and go across borders.”

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