Monday, November 16, 2009

More Than Your Money’s Worth: Tatia Rosenthal Talks "$9.99"

On Thursday, November 12, Bryn Mawr Film Institute hosted the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s screening of the innovative stop-motion animated feature $9.99. Based on the short stories of and co-written by famed Israeli author Etgar Keret, the surreal, existentialist drama “offers slightly less than $10 worth about the meaning of life.” The screening was followed by a Q&A with director and co-writer Tatia Rosenthal, as well as a special look at one of the puppets used in the film. Keep reading for highlights from the Q&A with Tatia.

Filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal signs BMFI's guest book

$9.99 is filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal’s feature debut. Born in Tel Aviv, Rosenthal is now based in New York where she graduated from the NYU Tisch School of Arts with a BFA in Film & Television in 1998. Her first short stop-motion animation Crazy Glue (1998) was also based on an Etgar Keret story. While working as an animator for Nickelodeon and Scholastic, she directed A Buck’s Worth (2005), an interpretation of the opening scene of $9.99 that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Rosenthal has received the $100,000 Richard Vague Production Fund Award and the 2002 Maryland Producers’ Club Award, and was a Fellow of both the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs in 2001.

Highlights from the Q&A with Tatia Rosenthal:

What was it like to work with Etgar Keret?
It was great. I brought a book of short stories by Etgar Keret with me on the way to film school in New York. I finished it all on the flight, and I said then, “I must work with him.”

How did you finance the film?
We wrote the screenplay together in 1999, but it took seven years to finance. Producers said, “Make it for under $1 million or don’t make it at all,” so we didn’t make it at all for seven years. It eventually got financed because a producer wanted to make the first Australian-Israeli co-production. The final budget was $3.5 million and it took six months for him to get it financed.

How do you work with the puppets and simulate things like water and fire?
They are silicon puppets with metallic skeletons called armatures, so they’re poseable. Everything was on a 1/6 scale, so the puppets were 11”. There were about three or five puppets created for each character. Their clothes are sewn separately and can be changed. It took two years to produce the film with five animators working at any one time, nine total. We shot it with consumer grade still cameras downloaded straight to computers. The water droplets are KY Jelly—there’s nothing better to simulate water in stop-motion animation—but the bodies of water and the fire were computer generated later.

Top: Tatia Rosenthal shows off a puppet used in her stop-motion film $9.99.
Bottom: The same character (on the left, in a different outfit) in a shot from the finished film.


Why do stop-motion animation?
I’ve always liked it. I love the textures. You don’t get that the same way with computer animation, although that is changing. Now, the more money you have for your production, the more that computer animation can look like stop-motion animation, and vice-versa. I never got into hand-drawn animation; I'm not that great of an artist.

What do you think the film means?
I think that Etgar is a very ambivalent writer, but I think that there’s a real emotional basis to these stories. You may not have one solution to the meaning of life, but as long as you get up in the morning and there’s someone who loves you, you’re doing okay.

Which character do you empathize with the most?
It’s funny, Etgar says that when a director makes a film, it’s about where they are in life. When I was making the short, he said I was about “if I don’t get the money I’m going to shoot myself.” [laughs] It’s not the plot [of $9.99] but the multi-organism nature of it that fit where I was. It is a bit melancholy—I was homesick, making the film in Australia far from the people that I loved. So maybe it’s not as funny as it could have been. But there’s hope in it, too.

In $9.99, the live-at-home slacker Dave buys a book for the low price of $9.99 that offers him the meaning of life, and he wants to spread the knowledge. However, his family and neighbors—including his father, a retiree with a live-in guardian angel, fighting fianc├ęs, a debt-ridden magician, a fetishistic supermodel, and a little boy with a dream—are too absorbed in their own lives and quests for happiness to listen. Their intertwined stories are voiced by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, and a cast of talented Australian actors. The exquisite naturalistic animation took nine animators from around the world forty weeks to complete, working at the rate of four or five seconds of completed footage per animator per day.

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Gershman Y, is the second longest running, critically-acclaimed series of its kind in the United States. The  complete schedule is available online at www.gershmany.org.

Find more information about $9.99, Tatia Rosenthal, and the process of creating stop-motion animation at www.9dollars99movie.com.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Kelly beats Astaire? You decide!

Yesterday Philadelphia Inquirer film reviewer Carrie Rickey mentioned BMFI's own Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., in her blog, Flickgrrl.

On November 18, Andrew will debate Drexel professor Paula Marantz Cohen about the merits of Gene Kelly over Fred Astaire. But why wait? Enjoy Andrew and Carrie's cases for Kelly and Astaire below.
Here's an excerpt of Carrie's argument for Astaire:
Fred Astaire defies gravity; Gene Kelly is earthbound. Astaire is spirit; Kelly flesh. Astaire is the embodiment of grace, Kelly of athleticism. For Astaire, dance is the vertical expression of horizontal feelings for another; for Kelly, it is the expression of self. Astaire made dancing look easy; Kelly made it look like a workout. Astaire begot Michael Jackson; Kelly begot Patrick Swayze.
Flickgrrl stands firmly in the Astaire camp, while noting the paradox that though Astaire is the best screen dancer ever, Kelly's Singin' in the Rain is the best dance musical. Though she admires Kelly -- especially in An American in Paris, Singin', The Pirate and On the Town -- she cannot say that she likes him. Because however superb Kelly's choreography and artistry, his aggressive muscularity suggests that he thought there was something sissy about a man dancing.
And here's Andrew's rejoinder:
As usual, Carrie’s description of the two performers and her case for Astaire were eloquent and accurate, but I must take issue with two facets of her assessment, the first being the notion that Kelly gets docked because his physique implied he thought dancing was for sissies. If his physique was any kind of message at all, I think it's far more likely that Kelly thought that many American men of the mid-twentieth century thought dancing was less than masculine, and to give them pause long enough to take in one of his numbers (or better yet a whole musical), he emphasized his--and the art form's--athleticism. Think of him as a "big-tent" dancer.
I also object to the comparison to Patrick Swayze. While Swayze was a beloved actor and had far more dance talent than he displayed in Dirty Dancing (let alone in Ghost or Roadhouse), his skills, influence, and cinematic impact paled in comparison to Kelly's. I think a more appropriate heir to Kelly's place in the cinematic firmament is Jackie Chan. While he's an action star rather than a dancer, there is often impressive choreography, grace, and athleticism to his "numbers", he directs many (if not all) of his "performances", he (like Kelly) is involved in various aspects of the production of his films, and he's had a tremendous impact on the practitioners and audiences of his chosen form.

And I know what you're thinking: "Andrew, have you ever seen The Tuxedo?" That's a fair point, but over the course of a decades-long career, everyone is bound to have a few missteps. After all, Gene Kelly had Xanadu and Fred Astaire had The Amazing Dobermans. In any case, I suspect we won't be able to definitively settle this, but it sure is fun to debate.
The live debate takes place at International House (3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia) next Thursday, November 18 at 7:00pm as part of an evening celebrating the vanguard dancers sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art. Following the debate, screenings of Top Hat and An American in Paris will prove that no matter who's side you favor, both stars are winners.
Whose side do you favor?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yoo-Hoo, Aviva Kempner!

On Sunday, November 8, Bryn Mawr Film Institute welcomed Aviva Kempner, director of the acclaimed new documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. A reception and Q&A with Aviva followed the 1:00 pm screening of her film, which explores the career of Jewish broadcasting maven Gertrude Berg whose radio and television shows The Goldbergs pioneered situation comedy. Many thanks to the event’s co-sponsors, the former Philadelphia Weekend Film Festival’s Lonnie Levin, Marsha Beck, and Pam Schneider. Keep reading for highlights from the Q&A.

Filmmaker Akiva Kempner (second from left) with Murray Levin, Lonnie Levin, David Beck, Marsha Dorman, and BMFI President Juliet Goodfriend (seated)
Aviva Kempner previously garnered rave reviews for her work as the writer, director and producer of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The 1998 film was awarded top honors by the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Greenberg received a George Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy. Akiva also produced and co-wrote Partisans of Vilna, a 1986 documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis, and was the executive producer of the 1989 Grammy-nominated record, Partisans of Vilna: The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance. She also writes film criticism and feature articles for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

Akiva received the 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2000 DC Mayor’s Art Award, the 2001 Women of Vision award from D.C.’s Women in Film and Video chapter, and the 2001 Media Arts award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She recently received the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award for her significant contribution to creating positive images of Jewish heroes in film and her work as a Jewish film curator.

Akiva Kempner signs Bryn Mawr Film Institute's guest book at the reception

Highlights from the Q&A with Aviva Kempner:

How did you get into filmmaking?
I went to law school and did well but I was never good on standardized tests. My mother hates it when I say this, but I flunked the bar twice, so I became a filmmaker. My mother passed as a Polish-Catholic in Germany and her parents were killed in Auschwitz. My father was one of the American forces, a Lithuanian who had moved to Pittsburgh, and I was born in Berlin. My filmmaking is my way of working out being a child of survivors, and the need to make films about under-known Jewish heroes.

Why Molly?
Thirty years ago, I decided to make a film about Jews fighting Nazis and it turned out to be about the Partisans of Vilna, the Jewish resistance in the Vilna ghetto. As I was getting ready for the Partisans opening, I heard that Hank Greenberg had died, on September 4, 1986. For my dad, as an immigrant Jew, baseball was the way that you became American. I’m happy with that movie [The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg] because it counters the stereotype of the Jewish “nebbish”. When I was at the Jewish Museum in New York I saw an exhibit called Jews Entertaining America where they recreated the Goldberg’s living room and I said, ‘That’s next’.

Why don’t more people know about Gertrude Berg today?
Well, Shout Factory is releasing a DVD of Goldberg shows, but she is not known because the show was never syndicated, in part because it was shot in Kinetoscope, but also because of her co-star [Philip Loeb] being blacklisted. Also, I have a ‘pioneer theory’ that the first ones are not noted until there’s a New York Times obit or they’re awarded a Nobel Prize.

What’s your process as a documentary filmmaker?
For every film I’ve made there’s an hour longer film. With Molly, there was really a strong 2-1/2 hour version, but you can only do about 90 minutes. First I go for the best stories, interview the best people, and I overshoot. Then I research for the best [archival] footage and stills; I only think as a director. Then I still have to turn around at the end and think like a producer and pay for the incredible footage.

How did you film Molly?
My previous work was all shot on 16mm and edited on a Steenbeck before Molly; now I’ve given in. I shot Molly in high-end HD and used Final Cut Pro [to edit].

What are some of the things that didn’t make it into the final film?
I had to cut stories about Anne Bancroft and Steve McQueen appearing first on The Goldbergs and twenty more minutes of Eli Mintz stories [about the actor who portrayed Uncle David].
I’ll tell you one now about Philip Loeb [who played Mr. Goldberg]. He was a jokester. Zero Mostel and his wife Kate were his closest friends. One night Kate called Philip saying, “Come over tonight for dinner, come as you are.” The Mostels lived in a building where the elevator went straight to their floor. When the doors opened, there was Philip, naked, wearing just a tie. No one says a word about it all night until Philip’s about to leave. Then Zero says, “Your fly is down.”

Do you know how your documentaries will end when you begin?
I’ve been very lucky with my third acts. With The Partisans of Vilna, I knew that some survived. But I didn’t know that when Hank was unfairly traded to Pittsburgh in 1947 he was the most welcoming to Jackie Robinson, because he knew what it felt like [to be discriminated against]. When I started Molly, I didn’t know about the blacklisting of Philip Loeb. With that dramatic third act, there’s a much richer movie.

How did you get to interview Ruth Bader Ginsberg for Molly?
I saw her at an embassy party and went over and introduced myself... After we finished filming her interview at the Supreme Court, I sent an email to all of the people I went to law school with saying, ‘Aviva finally made it to the lawyer’s lounge of the Supreme Court, but she did it her way!’

What’s the international response to Molly been like so far?
The film plays best to us Americans who remember her, but it does have universal appeal. So far it’s playing in Canada—Toronto right now, and the reviews were good—but not as many Canadians grew up with her. I’m waiting to hear from the Berlin Film Festival. I try to show all my films there... Molly will show in Israel this summer.

What’s your hope for this film?
Well, I spent last night talking to Alan Ball [Six Feet Under, American Beauty], and I told him that the one thing I hope to get out of this film is that someone make a dramatic film about [blacklisted actor] Philip Loeb. He was never a communist, just a dedicated Union activist. He unfairly lost his livelihood for his union beliefs.

What’s next for you?
I’ve co-written a script with a Native American screenwriter. It is not about an underdog Jewish hero; it is about an underdog Native American hero, but it is still tribal. For me, there are two more documentaries I really want to make. The first is about the “Rosenwald schools”, started by Julius Rosenwald, a part-leader of Sears, Roebuck who worked with Booker T. Washington and built over 5,000 schools in the Deep South to promote the education of African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, before Civil Rights. The second project is about union leader Samuel Gompers, first President of the AFL [American Federation of Labor].

Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg, the first woman of television
(Courtesy of the Goldberg Family Estate)

Gertrude Berg began her media career as the creator, principal writer, and star of The Goldbergs, a popular radio show about a Jewish family living in New York City. The radio program premiered a week after the stock market crash in 1929 and remained a favorite for its seventeen years on the air. Following World War II, Berg took the opportunity to reinvent the show for the exciting new medium of television, and, in 1949, The Goldbergs became television’s first character-driven domestic sitcom. Combining social commentary, family values, and lots of humor, Berg won the hearts of America and blazed a trail for women in the entertainment industry. The Oprah of her day, she published a cookbook, created a clothing line for housewives, and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks. Her television show was even made into a Paramount Pictures movie called Molly, with Berg as screenwriter and producer. In 1950 she received the first ever Best Actress Emmy, and in 1959 she won a Tony for Best Actress in A Majority of One.

Akiva’s documentary explores this fascinating and powerful woman’s journey by using archive footage and interviews with luminaries including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producers Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg.

Find more information about Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Aviva Kempner, and Gertrude Berg at http://www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/.