The tears of a clown

Israeli director Tom Shkolnik takes a serious look at London in his debut film "The Comedian."

The Comedian 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Comedian 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Shkolnik, the hipster director of the acclaimed new film, The Comedian, showing in the British Film Festival running from January 31 till mid-February at cinematheques around the country, is actually Israeli. Shkolnik will attend the Israeli screenings of The Comedian.
You’d never guess it from his perfect English, but Shkolnik was born and raised in Yehud. In the army, he learned filmmaking and made educational films, then he “skipped the Tel Aviv stage” after his military service and moved to England a decade ago. In London, he studied theater directing at the Drama Centre London and made two short films.
“When I came to drama school I knew how to edit and how to work a camera. I was surrounded by all these talented actors and I thought it would be a waste not to make a film,” he says.
When he was ready to make a full-length film, he knew he didn’t want to go the conventional route.
“I was very influenced by the films of John Cassavetes,” he says. “I liked that jazzy feel. These films were about urban young people.”
Cassavetes’ classic Sixties films, such as Husbands, are also notable for the emotional turmoil their characters go through. As Shkolnik thought about making a film, he found himself in a troubled period in his own life, even though his short films had been quite successful.
“I wasn’t very happy. I was going through a breakup.
A friend worked around the corner in Soho in a call center. I would meet him for lunch every day. He’s gay. He’d tell me stories about his sexual life, about drifting through the city meeting people. And it was connected in my mind to the idea of a stand-up comedian.
I thought of putting these two things together.”
The Comedian, which was shown last fall at the London Film Festival, tells the story of an aspiring London stand-up comic, Ed (Edward Hogg), whose anger over his own struggles in life threatens to overwhelm his comedy. He works in a call center, a job he hates, and develops a passionate but platonic friendship with Elisa (Elisa Lasowski), his roommate. He also begins a passionate but very sexual affair with Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). Elisa feels threatened by his relationship with Nathan, and Ed finds himself in the middle.
But Shkolnik decided to give this plot an improvisational, Cassavetes-inspired treatment.
“It was almost like a documentary. None of the film was scripted. It was a whole experiment, to take people who didn’t know each other and put them together and see what came out of them, what would happen when they got together,” he said.
The Comedian is not only a story of these people, but also of a place and a state of mind.
“We tried to get a sense of how people feel in London, of not knowing where your life is going and at a certain point. There’s a lot of confusion. The actors in the film are playing themselves and not playing themselves.
The idea was that we would strip everything down to the bare minimum. The whole film was shot in one take. We only did one take per scene. It was part of this attempt to get to something very bare and quite exposed. All the places we filmed were real places, not sets. In the comedy club scenes, the audience was a real audience.”
Shkolnik did have another influence besides Cassavetes, and it’s a surprising one: Larry David’s television comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“Everyone is using their own name, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone is playing a version of themselves,” he says of his film.
While Shkolnik is interested in the film scene in Israel, he is still enjoying his love-hate relationship with the city he has called home for the past decade.
“The anonymity that London gives you compared to Israel is interesting. London is the most anonymous you can find. It can be quite alienating,” he says. “The recession has hit England very hard and for someone like Ed, it’s very hard. What options are open to a person like him? That’s part of his rage.
There aren’t that many places for him to go.”
For the time being, though, Shkolnik is staying put, except when he brings The Comedian to film festivals.