Leaving his comfort zone

After making four feature films in Israel, director Joseph Cedar is embarking on a new movie project set in New York

Joseph Cedar521 (photo credit: Fred Prouser)
Joseph Cedar521
(photo credit: Fred Prouser)
Since the start of his film career in 2000, acclaimed Israeli film director and scriptwriter Joseph Cedar has made four films, and is now working on his fifth in the United States, spending a few years in New York City.
Chary on the details of the new film, Cedar says only that it takes place in New York, that it will be his first movie in English, and that it will be a feature-length American movie.
He hopes to begin shooting in the fall. Again, avoiding specifics, he notes that he will be working with a budget larger than he has been accustomed. He hopes to wrap up the film in another year. A year ago – early in 2012 – he made clear that he had no interest in making films outside Israel. But since then he has obviously changed his mind.
For Cedar, plot is everything. “Even if your individual style fails, or all the nuances you hope an audience will appreciate stay yours,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “if you have a plot that hooks an audience in the beginning and keeps them hooked for an hour and a half, the film will be OK.”
Cedar’s previous four films have been regarded as more than “OK.” Two of the New York City-born filmmaker’s works, “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” were nominated for Oscars, for Best Foreign Language Film; and “Footnote” won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
His films have won 24 Israeli Academy Awards; and Cedar, 44, and his works have been a major factor in gaining worldwide attention and praise for the Israeli movie industry.
As a child, Cedar knew he wanted to be part of the entertainment world, inspired, he says, by his mother, Tzipi, a drama therapist.
His father, Howard, is a biochemist. “One of the highest values I grew up with is that the show must go on and there’s nothing more important than a good show; the biggest enemy is boredom,” he recalls.
Asked to name the movie that influenced him the most, he cites the 1978 film about Vietnam, “The Deer Hunter.” “I can’t get that movie out of my head. It gave me the sense that the images you see on the screen are extremely powerful,” he says during our talk in late February at an Asian tearoom on 55th Street, on Manhattan’s West Side.
Cedar’s English is perfect (he moved with his American-born parents from the United States to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Jerusalem at the age of five. After studying at a yeshiva high school, Cedar served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, and then tried to enroll in the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, but was turned down.
“They were very selective and they selected me out,” he recalls, somewhat sorrowfully.
But years later, with all those accolades for his films fortifying him, he notes, “I’m extremely forgiving today.”
Instead, therefore, he studied philosophy and the history of theater at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He then studied film at New York University, returning to Israel to begin work on his first film, “Hahesder” (Time of Favor), which debuted in 2000.
It is logical to assume that Cedar learned the art of filmmaking at NYU, but he suggests otherwise. “I went to film school here in New York. But that doesn’t mean I knew how to make a movie,” he notes. How then did he acquire the knowledge and tools to make movies? “You can’t really replace your own experience,” he says. “Everyone has to make his own mistakes. But the one thing I knew intuitively and that saved my first film and what gave me a career is that I rely on a plot more than on anything else.” With animated eyes and dark bushy eyebrows, Cedar loves talking about the process of filmmaking, but is loath to discuss his own films at length, mostly because journalists have bled him dry with their questions.
To do research for “Time of Favor,” Cedar lived for two years in Dolev, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, near Jerusalem, with a population of 1,100. The experience sapped his sympathy for the settler cause.
Some 12 years later, Cedar cannot distance himself enough from the film. “It’s a film I really don’t like,” he says, adding that it would not be something he would do today. “Each movie was right for the time I was making it,” is all he will say.
“In the 12 years that have gone by, my relationship with that film has really gone sour,” Cedar says. “I was 31 then. I am 44 now. I don’t know who that person was. But I’m thankful I did it and it did well because it gave me a chance to try again – and again.
One of the things a first movie allows, if you are able to do a second movie, is the chance to find out what you really want to do and what you know how to do. “ A Tel Aviv resident, he is married to journalist Vered Kellner. They have three children, Amalia, 11, Levy, 7, and Yemima, 3.
His family has joined him in New York while he makes his new film.
Noting that he had been ambivalent about doing our interview, Cedar comments that he mostly does interviews timed for the opening of one of his films. Though usually described in the media as an Orthodox Jew, Cedar insists that the description is not apt. “There are more things in Orthodox Jewry that I oppose than I identify with.”
In Cedar’s second film, “Campfire” (2004), a single mother seeks to restart her life after the death of her husband, taking her two teenage daughters to live in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. They find the members displeased with their presence.
Suggesting that Cedar seems neutral on the value of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, critics said the movie was about sexism and inequality.
Cedar felt more comfortable making “Campfire” than during his work on “Time of Favor” “because I already knew what the process was like and I had a better understanding of what I know how to do.” He was learning how to retain control over a film.
“It’s very easy to lose control,” he says. “There are so many steps. Every film is on the brink of getting loose from the director at every stage.”
His second film, he maintains, was closer to what he wanted to achieve than his first, “even if I wasn’t ripe to do fantastic work.”
Cedar notes that his third film,”Beaufort” (2007), is his most loosely plotted, but has a structure “where each scene creates a question mark that takes the audience from one place to the next.” The movie, Cedar observes, was about fear and isolation; it was about the 22-year-old outpost commander Liraz Liberti’s anguishing relationship with the Beaufort fort as the IDF got ready to pull out of Lebanon in early 1985.
Ordered to destroy the very same Beaufort fort that his soldier friends had died defending, Liberti has to come to terms with carrying out orders that contradict how an officer should behave. “Beaufort,” says Cedar, “was a story of someone who was in charge of a strategic fort, the last place that would be left before Israel withdrew from Lebanon. It gave Liberti a sense of importance, of duty, even a place in history. And then he’s asked to separate himself from that.
“He had a mountain and a job that defined him. I as the screenwriter asked: What happens when you take that mountain or that job away? These are not things that you put in the synopsis and you don’t sell the movie with that. You definitely don’t get the movie financed with those ideas. But it’s what you look for when you are working on it.”
The conventional wisdom was that “Beaufort” was meant to show that what Israel did in Lebanon was a lot more complicated than initially assumed. That conventional wisdom, Cedar argues, was not right. “That’s how you sell the movie to the press,” he says.
“Or that’s what the press wants to hear after a movie about Lebanon is made. But that’s not what it’s really about for me.”
In 2007, when “Beaufort” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Cedar attended a symposium the day before the award ceremony for the five nominees. The seminar, however, fell on a Saturday morning.
As an observant Jew, Cedar did not want to violate Sabbath rules, including driving. His rabbi in Israel decided that he could attend as long as he did not use a microphone and walked to the event. Though only those in the first row could hear him, Cedar followed the rabbi’s ruling – that time. Then, in 2012, attending the Oscars for “Footnote,” he consulted a different rabbi who said he could speak into a microphone as long as he did not hold it in his hand. So his audience could hear him.
Looking back on these incidents, Cedar admits switching to a more lenient rabbi “because I wanted people to hear me.” He adds, however, that it is not true that he needs a rabbi’s approval for how he conducts himself in public. “That is pretty far from reality,” he insists.
The idea for “Footnote” arose when someone phoned Cedar to inform him that he had won a certain award; Cedar thought the caller had made a mistake and that the award was meant for his brilliant biochemist father, the 1999 winner of the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In “Footnote,” a misunderstanding between a pair of Jewish scholars at the Hebrew University’s Talmud department, father and son, over who has won the Israel Prize, sets the stage for the unraveling of the complicated family relationship.
It would appear that Cedar’s films have a political agenda, at least in the case of “Time of Favor” and “Campfire”; but Cedar insists that he does not have one. He admits, however, that he does have an agenda. “I try to take a dramatic situation to its extreme and crystallize an understanding of the human condition,” he explains.
Suggesting that there is little profundity in that statement – “it’s what every storyteller wants to do” – Cedar adds, “But there are some stories where you meet feelings, an emotional catharsis that inspires you to appreciate life in a new way, some way. That’s what you are looking for. You don’t always find that. You write scene after scene hoping that you touch something that is extremely powerful.”
Cedar acknowledges that moviemaking could make a director obsessive and myopic.
“For a year or two years, a filmmaker is driven by this mission,” he observes. “It gives you your identity. It changes all the proportions in your life. You have something that is more important than all of the trivial, mundane things that are going on about you. You’re driven.”
After making a film, Cedar spends a year working on in its promotion – an effort that he knows is every bit as important as making the movie itself. “During that year, you find out things – sometimes good, sometimes bad – about the movie that you didn’t know while you were making it,” he says.
Promotion, he adds, “is flattering. It builds your confidence.” Cedar believes that audiences are likely to react differently to his movies than he does. After all, he has spent three or four years on the movie, the audience, a mere 90 minutes. Furthermore, he notes, the audience watches the movie amidst all sorts of distractions including, if at a festival, having watched other movies that very day. He, as the scriptwriter and director, is singularly focused on his film.
“I’m so afraid to hear that someone doesn’t understand movies that I don’t go into that conversation ever,” he says. “It’s really not my responsibility. There’s such a tremendous gap between what I feel toward the movie and the work I put into the movie and when the audience meets this thing on screen.”
Financing his movies has become increasingly easier for Cedar, calling it his “smallest problem.” The challenge, he suggests, is to find material worthy of the financing. Because 99 percent of all films made are “terrible,” as he puts it, for those with a good track record, financing is available.
Asked what those other 99 percent of all films lack, he says tersely, “Charisma. But you can never know what it is.”
A member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and, as such, able to vote in the Oscar selection, Cedar was quite happy – with six days to go to Oscar night – to predict (correctly as it turned out) which film would win Best Picture. “Argo,” he guesses with a look of certitude. “I didn’t say that’s a movie that deserves to win; I said that’s a movie that will win. Argo has a tight, fastmoving, cliffhanger plot. You know the end and it’s incredibly contrived and manipulated, but it’s the best movie experience that American adults have had this year.”
Having attended the Oscar ceremony twice so far – for “Beaufort” and “Footnote” – Cedar says his reaction has been mixed. ”It’s very exciting the first time, but you have to come to terms that you might never come back.
“The second time was more relaxing. Then you realize maybe I will be back for a third time. This might be part of my professional life. It’s not as much of a one-time thing.”