“Footnote,” Joseph Cedar’s fourth film, won the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011 and was one of the nominees for this year’s Oscar as best foreign film. The film opens in limited release Friday (3/9/12).
But that kind of recognition makes the Israeli-American filmmaker uncomfortable, or so he says. His film – about a dour Israeli academic who is mistakenly informed that he’s won a major prize that, in fact, is intended for his son – deals with the cost of acclaim and the similar toll that comes with not receiving it.
Cedar, born in New York but reared in Israel, lives in Tel Aviv. He sat down to chat about his film when he was in New York last September, shortly before its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Here’s our conversation:
Q: Where did this idea come from?
A: There was a specific thing that triggered it; the story evolved as it was written and took shape over eight months. It was more than a year after my previous film, which did pretty well. I was working on something else that collapsed. I couldn’t find any story that seemed worth it. I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a project that would be something I could stand behind.
Then I got a call from the cultural attaché at the Italian embassy in Tel Aviv, saying I’d received an award from the Italian government in recognition of the 60th anniversary of Israel. I didn’t feel good about it; it sounded suspicious to me. I asked who else was getting this and the list included several serious, accomplished Israelis.
Then it dawned on me: They were not calling for me but for my father and somehow had called me by mistake. And while I was waiting on the line to find this out, that’s when the idea for this film dawned on me.
As it turned out, the award was for me, as strange as that sounds. It was an award that made me feel there was some kind of mistake, that I was getting an award I didn’t deserve.
Q: Why did you feel undeserving?
A: Recognition is a big part of anyone’s ability to work. There’s always a price. Either you feel embarrassed that you need it. Or else you feel that it must not be that prestigious if they’re giving it to you. Everyone who gets an award has a suspicion that there’s been a mistake, that you’ll be found out as a fraud. Plus, everybody is skeptical in Israel. Nothing is a big deal, especially if it happens to someone else. Prestige has to be supported by actual content.
Q: Well, your film is in the New York Film Festival, which is pretty prestigious. Don’t you feel you deserve to be in the New York Film Festival?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: It seems as though these are scholars combing the texts of the Talmud, looking for tiny errors.
A: The notion of a mistake – it’s the enemy. It’s a virus that contaminates everything. There aren’t many in this film. We did a good job. Personally, I like mistakes. They lead to the best places. I want to keep myself open to continuing to make mistakes. A happy mistake is a way of life.
Q: How much did you know about Talmudic philology when you started this project?
A: I didn’t know what a Talmudic philologist does. When I started to understand it, it became very relevant to my life. These are people with a limited world, focusing on tiny details that make it controllable. The big picture is too much of a mess. When you focus on the details, you have the illusion that you’re in control of something. They devote their lives to this. In terms of their methods, my personality is very devoted to this work.
Q: How so?
A: To a philologist, text is a big part of life. They have total respect for the written word. It’s more than respect; it’s reverence for the printed word on a piece of paper. That’s close to the value system I grew up with.
Q: Like the difference between writing a script and making a film?
A: The difference between the written word and oral interpretation is significant in my life. When you want to convey an idea, you find a way to make it interesting and relevant. But you do that at the price of shifting the focus or neglecting some parts. It’s passing an idea on in entertaining form. Something that’s written is stuck and has no flexibility. There is something rigid about the written word. We need both. That’s part of what the film asks.
Q: And the difference between the father and the son?
A: The son is all about interpretation. The father is about reaching verifiable conclusions: What was the text?
Q: You were born in New York but grew up in Israel after the age of 6.
A: My parents left New York for Israel. I was born here. I try to give my kids a sense that they belong here and so we visit. But we live in Tel Aviv.
Q: What did your father do?
A: My father is a biologist.
Q: Given the dynamic between father and son in your film, I’m sure people wonder how close it is to your relationship with your father.
A: My father is not the character in the film. People know he’s not. The story is more my nightmare than reality as father and son. What if I turn out to be a father who is bitter at his son’s success? My father saw the film when it played in Cannes. My parents never asked to read the screenplay. Before the Cannes screening, I reminded him of the importance of self-humor. And when he saw it in Cannes, well, as a father, I know it’s a rare thing to have that kind of moment.
Q: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
A: I was directing shows in high school. I was always going to do something in entertainment. I wasn’t accepted to film school in Jerusalem. So I spent some years at Hebrew University and then tried NYU. I was able to arrange the financing and the idea of spending time in New York was something I wanted.
Q: So you have dual citizenship?
A: I have two passports but one identity. My home is in Tel Aviv but I’m not a stranger in New York.
Q: Do you dream in Hebrew or English?
A: Depending on what I’m dreaming about, sometimes I dream in Hebrew, sometimes in English. I write a journal that’s in English but I write my scripts in Hebrew.
A: Having to talk about ideas in one language and then translate them into another helps me think about them in a different way. That’s the philological part of what I do. What is the meaning hiding behind the words?
Q: What kind of response did you get from actual philologists?
A: At the first screening in Jerusalem, I invited the scholars who helped me; they’re not characters in the film, but they helped with my research. And one of the responses I got from one of them was a question about the credits at the end: “Why was my name listed where it was? The list wasn’t alphabetical, so what was the meaning of the order?” I told him that, in fact, they were listed in random order and he said, “Nothing is ever random.” And he’s right.
Q: This is your fourth film. How did it do in Israel?
A: The film is in its 20th week in theaters in Israel, which is a big surprise. It turned out to be a solid box-office performer.
Q: What is the Israeli film industry like?
A: Right now the Israeli film industry is extremely dynamic. There’s a government fund in Israel that supports 15 films a year, out of about 75 features that get made. And they offer not more than 70 percent of the budget.
There’s a sense that, in order to get attention, you have to do something extraordinary. It’s a good stage we’re in. The bar gets set higher and higher.
Q: Any interest in making a film in the U.S.?
A: I’d like to make a film here but there has to be a story I know how to do. That’s a big issue for me. I’m not against making a film in Hollywood or Europe. But I’m not going to waste the credit I’ve gained on something that’s not acutely important to my life.
You don’t make too many films in a lifetime. I can’t afford to make one that’s not crucial to me or not fun or doesn’t pay well. Nobody’s getting rich making films in Israel. If it improves the quality of life for the people around you, that’s something.Print This Post