It was hard to know what to ask Tom Shoval first, when we spoke earlier this week about his new movie, Shake Your Cares Away, which opened in theaters throughout Israel on April 27.
The entertaining and thought-provoking movie, which won the top prize for Israeli feature films at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2021, tells the story of a wealthy widow (played by French/Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo, who was nominated for an Oscar for The Artist) who invites a huge group of homeless people to share her spectacular beachfront house in Caesarea and discovers that helping them doesn’t turn out to be as easy as she thought it would be.
The movie is unusual in several respects. One is that it was produced by Alejandro González Inarritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman and The Revenant. Another is that Shoval took much of the inspiration for the story from the classic Luis Bunuel film, Viridiana, an audacious and risky choice for any filmmaker. I decided to let Shoval choose which to talk about first, Inarritu or Viridiana, and he chose the Bunuel film.
“I saw it when I was a teenager and it was a defining experience. Bunuel was looking at his society with such clear and sharp vision and talking about the hypocrisy of the religious values and what it means to be human,” Shoval said.
Viridiana was made in 1961 and was banned in Bunuel’s native Spain for 17 years, even though it won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a nun (Silvia Pinal) about to take her final vows, who visits her lecherous uncle (Fernando Rey) and discovers that he is using her inheritance to help village beggars, leading her into increasingly complicated situations.
“I find this film very deep also in the way it’s visualized. With all the themes, it’s sort of a fairy tale, but also has so much of real life in it.”
His first film, Youth (2013) – about two teen brothers whose family is deeply in debt, so they kidnap a wealthy classmate – was very successful and also won the top prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Shoval wanted to try a different approach in his second film, but still sought to deal with the themes of class struggle and economic inequality. “I wanted to make a film that would concentrate on the upper class and their struggles to deal with their situation,” he said.
Working with his brother, Dan Shoval, he began to write a screenplay inspired by Viridiana, and also by Roberto Rossellini’s Europe 51, which starred Rossellini’s then-wife, Ingrid Bergman, as a wealthy woman who becomes involved with humanitarian causes after her son’s suicide.
“I was always intrigued by trying to take this critical view of society and religion, and bringing it into Israel and to Judaism,” he said.
INITIALLY, HE had envisioned the heroine as an Israeli who suddenly finds herself wealthy. He was struggling with the script when Inarritu, one of the most important filmmakers in the world, came into the picture. Inarritu was working in a special program run by the Rolex company that matches major artists in different disciplines to mentor newcomers in their respective fields.
In 2014, Inarritu chose to work with Shoval after he saw Youth at the Berlin International Film Festival. But the partnership almost didn’t get off the ground because Shoval deleted all the foundation’s emails, thinking anything with the Rolex logo sent to him must be spam.
Eventually, representatives from the program reached him by phone, and “two weeks later I found myself on my way to LA,” where he met Inarritu, then working on the movie, Birdman, on a sound stage. The meeting went well, and Inarritu invited Shoval to shadow him as he made his next film, The Revenant, with Leonardo DiCaprio.
“He said he didn’t have a textbook that he could give me that would say, ‘This is what you should do as an artist, this is what I’ve learned.’”
But Inarritu knew that watching the movie get made, through preproduction, shooting and post-production, would teach Shoval a great deal. “The Revenant was a crazy shoot, and as he promised, he opened everything for me,” Shoval recalled, who also got to know Inarritu in the process.
But a huge action/adventure movie like The Revenant, with an A-list movie star, is very different from any film made in Israel. “Once, we were sitting in this in this trailer one day of the shooting and he was very upset because something went wrong and he said, ‘You know, Tom, I feel like I’m suffocating,’ and I was laughing.
“He said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I said, ‘Your film cost $180 million, you know how many films I could make for this amount? I can do 180, even more,’ and he told me, ‘Yeah you’re right.’”
Then he gave Shoval some advice that the young director took to heart. “He also said, ‘Every film is this kind of a struggle, no matter what budget you have. Every time it’s such a struggle to make the vision as sincere and pure as you imagined it.’”
Learning requires observing masters of the craft
SHOVAL OBSERVED how Inarritu worked with the actors, notably extras in one of the huge scenes in The Revenant. Inarritu spoke with each extra, creating a backstory for every character seen on screen, explaining what had happened before the scene they were filming, and what would happen next. In Shake Your Cares Away, Shoval worked in a similar way with each of the actors playing the homeless characters, giving their stories depth and detail. “I didn’t want them to just be victims,” he said.
Inarritu also gave Shoval specific help with the script, urging him to make the heroine a foreigner who finds herself leading an isolated life in Israel. “He said, ‘Maybe she needs to be a foreigner, maybe she doesn’t need to be to be born in Israel and she doesn’t understand the culture from the inside; she’s a guest here.’” Shoval changed the script and eventually, he was able to cast Bejo in the role.
But Inarritu’s message about the struggle of making any film came back to haunt him when, during post production on Shake Your Cares Away, the coronavirus pandemic started and the release of the film was delayed. Even after the film won the top prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival, every time there was talk of releasing it, he said, it seemed that a new strain of the pandemic broke out. But now he is pleased with the timing of the release.
“I was afraid the film will be irrelevant when it came out; it will be talking about something that I wanted to say about Israeli society, but three years after we made it, maybe we would have different conclusions.
“I thought we were making a story that was very extreme. But now that it’s opening, the movie seems even more in sync with what is happening,” he said. “I was amazed to see that the reality has become even crazier in a way – with the country on the verge of a civil war. Sometimes I guess cinema catches up to reality.”