'A privileged education'

Top Hollywood filmmakers tour Israel, gain insight and offer advice.

hollywood film 88 298 (photo credit: )
hollywood film 88 298
(photo credit: )
Top Hollywood filmmakers have seen it all and done it all - except, in many cases, visit Israel. That's an imbalance that David Lonner, a senior member of the Motion Picture Department at the William Morris Agency, is trying to correct. Working with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, he sponsored and led a group of several top movie industry professionals on a trip to Israel last week. This is the third time Lonner has put together such a visit for those who had either never visited the country or who hadn't been here since brief childhood trips. Last week, eight of Hollywood's leading producers, directors, agents, writers and entertainment lawyers - including Roger Birnbaum, producer of more than 80 films, among them The Sixth Sense; Nathan Kahane, producer of Juno; and Peter Sollett, director of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - got a whirlwind taste of what Israel is about. "Even if they've been here as children, what you feel for this country as an adult is different. You have a much stronger feeling for your roots," says Lonner, whose clients include J.J. Abrams, the creator of the television series Lost and Alias. In addition to the classic destinations (the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, etc.), the participants had a chance to present a panel discussion at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to which film students and young filmmakers were invited. There was also a dinner with some of the Israel's best-known filmmakers and actors, including Joseph Cedar, whose film Beaufort was nominated for an Oscar, actress Ronit Elkabetz (The Band's Visit) and writer Etgar Keret and his wife, actress/writer Shira Geffen, who codirected the film Jellyfish. The other members of the Los Angeles delegation were television producer Darren Star (Sex and the City), movie producer Matthew Baer, attorney Steve Warren and movie producer Susan Arnold. Just before they were scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles, Lonner, Birnbaum, Kahane and Sollett sat down to discuss their impressions of a country they now know much better, as well as to chat about their own work. "My most intense impression was the youth," says Birnbaum. "The 18-year-olds that go into the [army] service are so focused, so mature, so filled with purpose, so fully engaged in life," he says, reflecting on a visit to an IDF base. Kahane had a similar take on the visit, saying that although he had been slightly apprehensive, thinking they might simply get some canned military rhetoric, he found the soldiers in training "confident, intelligent and deep... with a real sense of purpose." THE ISRAELI filmmakers who attended the Tel Aviv Cinematheque event also made an impression on the group. "They were very eager, very knowledgeable, a talented and diverse group of people," says Kahane. Birnbaum, who has taught at a number of film schools in the US, noted that the Israelis "asked the same questions as American students." Kahane and Sollett are in an especially good position right now to advise Israelis, who always work with low budgets by Hollywood standards, on how to reach out to international audiences, since Sollett's offbeat, character-driven film, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which Kahane produced), has become a runaway hit. The success of the movie has been "overwhelming." The film will be released in Israel this winter, and "I'm eager to see how it does abroad," Sollett says. Kahane's Juno, a comedy-drama about a pregnant teen, was expected to be a moderate success with critics, but instead earned $140 million and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. While Israelis can't compete with Hollywood in terms of big budgets and fancy effects, Kahane says Israelis can raise the profile of the local film industry by going to Hollywood, then returning home with newfound knowledge and experience. "They've got to cross the bridge," says Kahane. "Make films inside the system, like some directors from Mexico have recently - Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro. They came and conquered Hollywood, then they can go back and work at home again. But they've branded themselves in the international community. It creates the opportunity to grow and play in the A-game. And it broadens the conversation on cultural identity outside the film industry as well." He acknowledges, however, that this could be a difficult move for Israeli directors: "'Don't leave' is part of the culture here. It's a delicate balance." Sollett advises Israeli directors to "tell stories that are well suited to be told outside the Hollywood system." Birnbaum agrees, saying, "If they want to be competitive in the world marketplace, they need to tell stories that are more universal and make movies that work all over the world." All the participants agree that the trip has been a fascinating experience. "This is not something I would have done on my own," Kahane admits. "This was a very privileged education."