From 'All in the Family' to Amos Oz
Director Lynn Roth discusses her adaptation of Amos Oz's novel 'The Little Traitor.'
Lynn Roth, the director of The Little Traitor, which opened throughout the country this week, is gracious and professional. She would never take a cellphone call during an interview - unless it was from Amos Oz.
Oz is the author of Panther in the Basement, the book which Roth adapted and made into The Little Traitor. Roth, who fell in love with the book when she read it about five years ago, desperately wanted to make it into a film. She began investigating buying the rights to the novel and sought Oz's blessing.
The call from him came when I was interviewing Roth in Tel Aviv in 2004. A television and film writer, director and producer, she was here teaching as part of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Master Class program, sponsored by the Los Angeles federation. She apologized profusely for the interruption as she answered her phone, then flushed as she told me that Oz wanted to meet her.
That call sparked the beginning of a five-year journey for Roth, which has culminated in the release of the film here. The Little Traitor has made the festival circuit and won a number of prizes, including the Audience Award at the Palm Beach Film Festival. In September, it will make the leap to a general release in several US cities, not an easy feat for independent films these days.
It can't have been an easy sell. The movie, set in pre-state Palestine, tells the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between a bright Jewish boy (Ido Port) and a thoughtful British soldier (Alfred Molina). The connection between the two is the core of the film, but the story plays out against the backdrop of the events leading to the birth of Israel. The British are neither demonized nor lionized, but presented as an occupying force who knew that their time here would soon come to an end. The boy seeks out the friendly and jovial soldier because he enjoys the soldier's gentle humor and companionship, an easy rapport he doesn't share with his father, a struggling, emotionally distant Holocaust survivor.
Back in the country to promote the film this week, Roth remembers the moment the call came from Oz, and her subsequent meeting with the author. "When I spoke to him, he said, 'You don't have to be faithful to the book. You just have to be loyal.' It gave me such a sense of freedom." Oz also told her he would be there if she needed help with the script, which she wrote herself, and visited the set.
WHY WAS it that Roth felt so adamant that this story had to be told? "Immediately upon reading the book, I saw it so clearly. There was something about these two misfits who become friends, Dunlop, this British soldier who is learning Hebrew and reading the Bible, and Proffi, this kid who's so bright and curious and doesn't really fit in. Both had a softness in their heart that spoke to me," she recalls over dinner at a Tel Aviv cafÃ©. "It just clicked. I became obsessed with getting this made."
Roth had not directed a film since the 1997 comedy-drama Changing Habits, but decided she wanted to head this project herself. She has family here and has visited often over the past decade, many times as a teacher in the master class program.
"Teaching the master class, I was so inspired by the creativity in the air here, I knew I wanted to do something in Israel," she says.
Finding her dream cast was surprisingly easy. Once she met her young star, Ido Port, who also appeared in the film Dear Mr. Waldman, she knew she was going to cast him. "He has this insular intelligence," she says. "He beguiled me."
Alfred Molina, the veteran character actor who has appeared in a long list of movies, both big Hollywood productions such as Spider-Man 2 and Frida and independent films like Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, was an admirer of Amos Oz and had actually tried to buy the rights to the story himself once. "One day, the call came [from Molina] and he said, "I'm in,'" says Roth. An international cast of Israeli, American and British actors also appear, including Theodore Bikel, Rami Heuberger, Gilya Stern, Levana Finkelstein and Anat Klausner.
Roth might have thought finding the two lead actors would be the hard part, but the challenge was just beginning. Fortunately, she had picked up a certain amount of Israeli hutzpa over the years, enough to get her film funded and shot. The filming started in the summer of 2006 in Jerusalem, which coincided with the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. But Roth, who saw the filming as a kind of "commando shoot," was not deterred. "Everybody called," she says. "My family, all my friends, and asked if I was going to stop filming. But I said, 'Are you kidding? War is not going to make me close this down.'"
A few members of the all-Israeli crew were called up for reserve duty, but replacements were found. "I just thought: If Israelis were going to keep on going, I wasn't going to let the war be a deterrent." Once the film was finished, she began taking it to film festivals and got some interesting responses from the audiences.
"Some people asked: Israel lived under an occupation but you show the British soldier in such a positive light. My response to that is, you never know where friendship is going to come from and how it is going to influence the rest of your life." Another question that is often asked, she says, is "Where did you find that boy?" Port, now 13, looked just a bit embarrassed by all the attention at a recent screening of the film, and said that he doesn't want to be an actor when he grows up.
THE THIRD issue, says Roth, is the language of the film. The bulk of it is in English, although the children speak Hebrew among themselves. "That was the toughest decision," she admits. "The story is filled with immigrants. The children speak Hebrew among themselves, as they would really have done. But with the parents, they would have been speaking Yiddish or maybe Polish. And then there is all the English dialogue between Proffi and Dunlop."
In the end, she decided that, "I wanted this movie to be seen by the widest audience possible. The themes in this movie are universal." So she chose to film most of it in English. She compares her dilemma - and her solution - to Danny Boyle, who made Slumdog Millionaire, and Edward Zwick, who directed Defiance. "Those movies are in English, with a few words here and there in Hindi or in Yiddish," she notes.
However, she's pleased that, so far, the harshest objections to her film have been about the use of English. "Let that be the criticism," she says.
Although Roth speaks a bit of Hebrew and feels very much at home here, her career has taken a dramatic turn with The Little Traitor. Roth was born and raised in New York until her early teens ("I was totally formed in New York"), then moved to Los Angeles, where her rabbi father, who moved from Orthodoxy to Reconstructionism, got a pulpit. She got into show business on a fluke. A blind date with a writer for the hit sitcom All in the Family led to her writing a script for an episode. "I remember when I got the call from [the show's creator] Norman Lear's office, saying they wanted to use my script." She wrote for several sitcoms and became an executive producer of the series The Paper Chase, all the while writing and producing movies, mainly for television.
Although Roth made her name in the highly competitive world of American television, she seems too easy-going, too self-deprecating and simply too nice to have ever really been a part of that scene. For example, as she discusses The Little Traitor's US release date, she frets that it is just around the High Holy Days. "Won't everyone be tired of everything Jewish by then?" Told that the holidays may raise awareness of Jewish themes in a way that will benefit her movie, she sighs with relief. "I hope you're right," she says, smiling.