The doctor is in... the director’s chair

A guest at this year's Haifa Film Festival, acclaimed neurologist Howard L. Weiner, talks about his debut feature film 'The Last Poker Game.'

The late actor Martin Landau in a scene from ‘The Last Poker Game.’ (photo credit: LONG ROAD FILMS)
The late actor Martin Landau in a scene from ‘The Last Poker Game.’
(photo credit: LONG ROAD FILMS)
‘This isn’t a Hollywood view of an old people’s home, it’s a doctor’s view,” said Martin Landau, the late Oscar-winning actor, about his film, The Last Poker Game, when he was promoting it at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring. That assessment should come as no surprise, since The Last Poker Game was written and directed by Howard L. Weiner, a most unusual hyphenate: a first-time feature-film director who is also a distinguished neurologist.
The Last Poker Game
, which also stars Paul Sorvino, will be shown at the Haifa International Film Festival on October 10 with the director in attendance, and again on October 13. The Haifa International Film Festival runs through October 14 at the Haifa Cinematheque and other theaters around the city.
The movie is about a doctor, Abe Mandelbaum (Landau), who is forced to retire to take care of his wife, Molly, who has Alzheimer’s. The two move into a nursing home, where Mandelbaum befriends a gambler and womanizer (Sorvino). The two men find themselves in an unexpected rivalry as a nurse (Maria Dizzia) searches for her birth father, knowing only that he is a current resident of the nursing home. The film tells a moving and complex story, and it features one of Landau’s final and finest performances.
Weiner acknowledged that it was a “bold decision” to take time off from his medical career – he is the Robert L. Kroc Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Partners MS Center and co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston – to write and direct this drama at the age of 70. But he is glad that he did.
“I had a passion for it, I wanted to do it, and I wasn’t afraid to try,” he said.
Weiner has always had a strong interest in the arts and filmmaking.
“I used to make videos of Beatles’ songs,” he said. He published a novel in 1980, The Children’s Ward, with a hospital setting. In 2011, he directed an award-winning documentary, What is Life? The Movie, in which he traveled the world, asking existential questions. The Last Poker Game screenplay grew out of a new novel he had started writing.
“I’ve always been very interested in movies,” he said. When his son, Ron Weiner, the Emmy-winning writer/producer of television series such as 30 Rock and Silicon Valley, suggested he turn the book into a screenplay, he got to work on it.
After he met he met Walter Klenhard, a writer/director who was teaching screen writing at Emerson College, Weiner told him about his screenplay and that he would like to direct a film of it. Klenhard ’s response was, “Yes, and I’d like to do brain surgery,” but he agreed to read it, telling Weiner he rarely read more than the first 15 pages of any screenplay.
Klenhard liked it enough to read the whole script, and Weiner became determined to bring the project to fruition. He got help from other unexpected sources, including Michael Sela, the former president of the Weizmann Institute of Science and an Israel Prize-winning professor of immunology, who introduced Weiner to his daughter and son-in-law, Tamar Sela and Yaron Zilberman, filmmakers who produced and directed the film A Late Quartet starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. They gave him valuable help and advice, as did his friend Bob Balaban, the celebrated actor/producer/director (Seinfeld, Gosford Park).
Once he got financing and his cast, Weiner found that his medical training kicked in on the set.
“I did my internship in Israel, at Tel Hashomer.
They’re bringing in all these casualties, soldiers who were wounded. You have to keep your calm and make decisions,” said Weiner, whose wife is Israeli and who has spent a great deal of time here.
Bringing his screenplay to life was particularly thrilling. “I would hear the words I had written, the characters I had created in my mind come to life in front of me. It was very exciting.”
The opportunity to direct such great actors was a special kind of excitement. “It was perfect casting,” he said. “It was a joy to work with them.”
Sorvino and Landau had never worked together before, but Landau, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood in 1995, presented Sorvino’s daughter, Mira, with a Supporting Actress Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite in 1996.
Landau died not long after The Last Poker Game was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“He was vibrant,” said Weiner, noting that Landau hadn’t been sick at all during filming and died suddenly.
Weiner attributes the success of the film, which received critical acclaim at Tribeca, partly to its honest attitude toward the elderly. “It doesn’t look down at them. Usually [in the movies], they’re children, or you look up at them like they’re on a pedestal,” said Weiner.
The movie, which has “four sex scenes and two deaths,” is especially unusual in its depiction of its characters’ sexuality.
“If you’re out of tune on those [scenes], it doesn’t work,” he said.
Although he is younger than his heroes, Weiner said he identifies with their dilemmas.
“Martin said, ‘A lot of this movie is you and your fears about what happens when you get old,’ and in many ways it is my view of old age,” he said.
But while Weiner may technically be a senior citizen, his movie career is just getting started. He is currently working on a screenplay about a doctor who contemplates his life as he passes through a series of New York subway stations, “a much more complicated movie,” an idea he said was influenced by Fellini and Woody Allen. But even as he works on the new film, the heroes and actors of
The Last Poker Game are still very much on his mind.
“Phil [Sorvino’s character] has a wonderful moment where he says, ‘You know, we’re just two old guys, trying to do crazy things, trying to be young again in our crazy ways, and we can’t... but there’s one way we’re as good as or better than anyone else: We’re friends.’”
For details about the screenings of The Last Poker Game, and to buy tickets, go to the festival website at