Avi Nesher’s ‘Taxman’ gets reissue

1999 digitally restored cult film to be screened at Haifa fest

JOE PANTOLIANO and Elizabeth Berkley in Avi Nesher’s ‘Taxman.’  (photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
JOE PANTOLIANO and Elizabeth Berkley in Avi Nesher’s ‘Taxman.’
(photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
‘It’s my most Israeli American movie,” said the quintessentially Israeli director Avi Nesher, about his 1999 American film, Taxman, a digitally restored version of which will premiere in the Masters section of the Haifa International Film Festival on October 15.
Known for such classics and hits as The Troupe, Turn Left at the End of the World, The Matchmaker and last year’s The Other Story, Nesher spent more than a decade making films in Hollywood, mostly genre films, but until now it was difficult to see any of the movies he made there.
Taxman was restored and remastered by the Israel Film Archive-Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Digitization Lab, as part of the Archive’s mission to preserve cinematic classics and make them accessible to future generations.
Sitting in his sun-drenched office overlooking the Mediterranean, Nesher beamed with affection for this film. He often says, “Films are like children, you send them out into the world and hope they’ll do well,” as he reminisced about how he made it.
Taxman stars Joe Pantoliano, best known for his performances in The Matrix and Memento, as well as for playing Ralph, the meanest SOB on The Sopranos, in a fact-based, suspenseful and often very funny story of a frustrated IRS agent who takes on the Russian Jewish mafia in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. “Let’s face it – everybody hates the taxman. It’s biblical,” says Al Benjamin, Pantoliano’s character, as the film opens.
“It’s a noir version of Death of a Salesman,” Nesher explained.
It also stars Elizabeth Berkley, who was in Saved by the Bell and who had starred in another cult classic, Showgirls. She plays the daughter of a Russian mobster who falls for the taxman, sort of. Michael Chiklis, Robert Townsend, Casey Siemaszko and Fisher Stevens co-star in the film.
Taxman was the biggest critical success of Nesher’s American career. “A cinematic gem. Not to be missed,” raved the NBC Evening News, while The New York Times called it, “A charmer of a mystery.”
But the movie almost didn’t happen because Nesher had sworn off action movies. “As a Yom Kippur War veteran, I could not bring myself to stage ‘entertaining’ action sequences.” But once he met real-life, Jewish IRS agent and aspiring screenwriter Roger H. Berger, who co-wrote the film with him, he changed his tune.
Blockbuster producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun) sent Berger his way when they realized Nesher wouldn’t direct the kind of action flick they wanted.
“They said, ‘Listen, there’s this guy in Brooklyn, he’s a New York State tax investigator, he keeps sending us screenplays, maybe you can get a good story out of him.’”
When they met, Berger showed him a gun in an attempt to demonstrate his street cred, but “there’s nothing that impresses an Israeli veteran less than weaponry.”
Nesher thanked Berger for his time and accepted a ride from Berger to see his parents, who were then living in New York City. But when the taxman went ballistic at a driver who annoyed him while they were stuck in holiday traffic, the director needed to know more.
“He was a brilliant, unhappy guy, almost like Travis Bickle,” the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. “Only really smart and not insane.... He wanted to be a screenwriter but he was an artist and his field of artistry was tax investigation. He had cracked some of the most incredible cases.”
One that sparked Nesher’s interest was how the Russian Mafia ran a scam by stealing taxes that were supposed to be paid to the IRS at gas stations in Brooklyn. It might sound like small potatoes to the uninitiated, but Berger realized that this scam added up to $100 million a year.
NESHER HAD had his own experiences with Russian mobsters – he had once dated a model who was related to Shabtai Kalmanovich, a KGB agent who paved the way for the Russian Mafia and oligarchs to take over the crumbling Soviet Union in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was able to use facts he learned from his encounter with Kalmonovich in the movie. One example Nesher gave was that the characters are looking for the “kapusta,” Russian for cabbage and slang for Russian crime captains.
Now that he had his story, Nesher needed someone who could be convincing as this tough investigator.
“I fought for someone who was a great character actor,” he said. While the backers wanted a classically handsome star, Nesher held out for Pantoliano. “I got a great actor who’s not a movie star.” It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Pantoliano in the role of this dogged, self-justifying and profane IRS agent – it’s the performance of his career. “He’s Italian, but his soul is so Jewish. He spent time with my parents, getting the hang of Yiddish.”
The film is full of quirky, only-in-New York touches, such as a scene where Chinese businessman in a restaurant sing a karaoke version of “House of the Rising Sun” in Chinese.
There’s another story, albeit a sad one, about Wade Dominguez, who plays Joseph Romero, a Latino cop who teams up with Benjamin to uncover the scam.
Dominguez, a gorgeous young actor who was so compelling as an insecure, stuttering cop trying to master Yiddish slang in Taxman, seemed poised to become a big star after his performance in Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. But he went MIA after Taxman wrapped and no one knew why – until they learned he had AIDS, still a death sentence in the ‘90s. Berkley showed him a rough cut in his hospital bed and, “He cried, saying, ‘I’m so good, I’m so good.’” He died before it was released, at the age of 32.
Once it was finished, Nesher tried to secure distribution through Miramax, then the king of indie filmmaking.
“So here’s my Harvey Weinstein story,” said Nesher. “He saw it and he said, ‘I have good news and bad news.’ The good news was that he said, ‘It’s a great work of art.’ The bad news was that, ‘Your movie is not the kind you can open in 1,000 theaters,’” because it starred Pantoliano instead of a high-profile star. Weinstein did say he wanted to make a film with Nesher – “It was his one good deed” – but that never happened, because not long after Taxman he returned to Israel and Israeli filmmaking.
Like all of Nesher’s movies, Taxman was a family affair, with his wife, photographer Iris Nesher, getting credit for the production stills, his parents credited as Yiddish dialogue consultants and even Tom, his daughter who was then an infant, getting credited as “Best Baby Grip,” a play on the film crew credit, “Best Boy Grip.”
Nesher, whose films have won acclaim around the world, might be expected to be a bit jaded about being in the Masters section of a film festival, but he isn’t.
“It’s a big honor,” he said.
It’s also meaningful for him to go back to the Haifa Film Festival, where his last film, The Other Story, was the opening-night film last year. His son, Ari, who had a cameo in the film, was in the audience then, “holding up his hands and giving me a thumbs-up as the film was applauded by an audience of 1,200 people.”
The day after the opening, his son was hit by a car and died a few days later, but the memories of the last night that the family spent together at the festival are still sweet.
“It’s important to me that Taxman’s journey as a restored film starts there,” he said.