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The 'Prime' of Ben Younger
In his follow-up to 'The Boiler Room,' writer/director Ben Younger talks about putting his Jewish background on the big screen
'I'm David Bloomberg, the guy in your movie," actor Bryan Greenberg told director Ben Younger about his lead character in Prime, a socially relevant new comedy about the love affair between a Jewish painter who's 23 and a sexy shiksa divorcee who's 37 (Uma Thurman). It "just happens" that the shiksa is a patient of David's therapist mother, Lisa Metzger, marvelously played by Meryl Streep as a modern version of a yiddishe mama.
"When I first read the script for Prime, I was astounded by the similarities between David and me," says Greenberg.
The actor immediately related to David's strong Jewish identity, having been raised in a Jewish home himself. He also understood the script's New York sensibility, having attended New York University.
Moreover, like David, whose mother is a therapist, both of Greenberg's parents are psychologists. He recalls: "When I got the part, I went through the roof. The first thing I did was call my mom. I said, 'Mom, I got this acting job and Meryl Streep's gonna be playing you.' My mom screams, 'Oh, My God!'"
Prime benefits from its cross-cultural currents - which is not a new subject, having been explored by Woody Allen in films such as Annie Hall. Though vastly different in character and tone, Allen's work seems to have inspired Younger to put his own personal background and anxieties on screen.
Authenticity of character and locale were the key rules in making Prime - Younger's second film after his striking 2000 debut, The Boiler Room, an energetic drama about Wall Street hustlers that starred Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck and Giovanni Ribisi. The new film is a radical change of gender, genre and pace - which speaks well for a director who's determined not to repeat himself.
The screenplay for Prime, which navigates through comedy and drama with a sure hand, took Younger eight years to complete. While he had the idea before Boiler Room, he felt he was not yet ready to tackle a May-December romance.
Younger explains: "Prime is more character-driven than Boiler Room, so I was more nervous about writing it." He sees this serious comedy as being about "the next series of questions women face, like, 'Do I want to be in love, or do I want to have a partner? Do I want to have children, and do I need to get married for that?" For Younger, these are "questions that generations before us never had to answer. The choices are not as simple as they once were."
On another level, Prime is a coming-of-age tale about a young man and his middle-aged mother.
"Prime is about what happens when two people fall in love and then realize that being together is much harder than they thought. But it's also the coming-of-age of a 50-year-old woman who can't give her own son the professional advice she gives her patients, one of whom is Uma Thurman."
For Younger, love stories and New York go hand in hand. "The city inspired my story," he says. "The sights and sounds of Manhattan offer the perfect backdrop." He claims that the differences the script plays with - in age, religion, profession and culture - are "a huge part of being a New Yorker, since New York is multinational and multicultural." Indeed, with its chance meetings, culture clashes and generous doses of neurotic behavior, Prime is a quintessential New York tale, featuring the city as a fourth star.
"I'm a huge fan of shooting in New York," says Younger, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. "I fought very hard for Boiler Room to be shot entirely in New York. And I did the same with Prime. I'm from New York. I wrote this story here. It belongs here."
Rather than study film at school, as most directors do, Younger chose to get hands-on training by working as a grip on feature films and music videos. A political science graduate of Queens College, he had worked as both policy analyst and political campaign manager. Then a job interview at a less-than-respectable brokerage house on Long Island became the inspiration for The Boiler Room, which he wrote and directed when he was 27.
"There's something about shooting on location that you can't fake, no matter how good you are," says Younger. "For a movie with such specific New York characters that explores multi-racial and multicultural ideas, you have to be as specific with the locations. I try to make everything as authentic as possible."
So Younger instructed Greenberg to come to New York before shooting began. He told him: "I need you to hang out with my family. I need you to read the New Yorker. I want you painting." When Greenberg asked about transportation, Younger just said: "You're riding the subway, like everyone else."
Prime represents a hybrid of a quintessentially New York film with an independent spirit, albeit one with gloss and big stars. It could have easily been a small-budget indie, shot with a 16mm camera and a lesser-known cast, but having Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep in the same movie elevates its visibility.
"Working with a world-class actress like Meryl made me very nervous," says Younger, but then he adds, "but only for a while."