Kevin Asch makes his feature debut with “Holy Rollers,” set to compete in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. “Inspired by actual events, ‘Holy Rollers’ uses the incredible story of Hasidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy in the late ’90s as a backdrop to examine the difference between faith and ‘blind’ faith.
“Sam Gold, an insulated Hasid on the cusp of manhood, is frustrated by the constraints of his beliefs and his father’s poor business decisions. When Sam is presented with an opportunity to make some real money smuggling Ecstasy between Amsterdam and New York, he cautiously accepts it—and quickly finds himself seduced by the allure of the secular world. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam and his worlds begin to unravel.” [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Kevin Asch
Screenwriter: Antonio Macia
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor, Danny A. Abeckaser, Q-Tip, Mark Ivanir
Executive Producer: Dave Berlin, Kevin Asch, Isaac Gindi, Marat Rosenberg
Producer: Danny A. Abeckaser, Tory Tunnell, Per Melita, Jen Gatien
Composer: MJ Mynarski
Cinematographer: Ben Kutchins
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Coproducers: Robert Profusek, Ryan Silbert
Kevin Asch on pursuing filmmaking and going for “Holy Rollers”…
Filmmaking is something I’ve sincerely been pursuing my whole life. When I was eight years-old, my mock baseball card stats listed my career as an “Architect & Entertainer” – which, ironically, is a likely definition for a director: someone interested in building worlds that engage, inform and excite an audience for the purpose of entertainment. At eleven years-old, I watched a double-billing with my best friend of “Taxi Driver” and “A Clockwork Orange” (yes, as a child I was never restricted from rated-R films). That afternoon, I understood the singular voice and vision of a director and decided directing films was my future; and I have never looked back.
I carried around a video camera documenting most of my teenage life, and making short films with friends. Later, I attended New York City’s School of Visual Arts and started interning for the independent studio, The Shooting Gallery. I spent six years with The Shooting Gallery learning every aspect of independent film; from producing, distributing, to marketing. It was my professional graduate school.
Following that experience, I produced the independent film, “Point&Shoot,” which I developed with a classmate from SVA. After that, I set my attention on becoming a director, and jumped into making a short film based on a concept by actor/producer, Danny A. Abeckaser, who attached his friends Lukas Hass and Sara Foster to star with him. It was on set that Danny and I started our intense collaboration as filmmakers that evolved into the genesis of “Holy Rollers.”
Danny A. approached me with the idea for “Holy Rollers.” He knew about the true story in the late ’90s of an Israeli drug dealer who used young Brooklyn Hasidic Jews to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States. I instantly had the image of this innocent Hasid lost within the bright lights of a nightclub, and knew that the juxtaposition of those worlds was our narrative. Danny was game to make the character he wanted to play, the Israeli drug dealer, the secondary lead so we can craft a coming of age story inspired by those true events. He secured seed money to develop the material and I lined up writer Antonio Macia, who beautifully fleshed out an original script.
I couldn’t move forward without continually pushing the material with Antonio and the actors; the more confident I grew in the material and the characters, the clearer the vision came for me.
Making choices that were character driven and not plot driven. it helped to have my two leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha, after the same goal as well. They were attached for almost two years prior to filming and were open to workshopping the material into something very unique. Same with Ari Graynor, who came onboard a few weeks before production. The rehearsals with her and Jesse rewrote the part of Rachel and their scenes into something I couldn’t imagine without her.
There was always uncertainty while developing the material but we endlessly researched every point. The film is very nonjudgmental in its approach to the closed culture. We were very explicit to everybody involved about our desire to not exploit the Hassidic community. At the same time there are moments, like Justin Bartha’s character smoking on Shabbos, where we had to look at the faults and choices of real people.
On how he hopes audiences will receive the film at Sundance…
I don’t know if I can talk for audiences, but the honest answer is we made a movie we wanted see.
Talking about the films that had an impact on him…
“Mean Streets”: the struggle Harvey Keitel has with the dual nature of his soul; and certainly his relationship with Robert DeNiro’s “Johnny Boy” character is similar to Jesse and Justin’s relationship in “Holy Rollers.”
“Trainspotting”: “Holy Rollers” is a fresh take on the emotional side of drug use, but Like “Trainspotting,” I wanted too explore a subculture and its characters as real and visceral.
“Maria Full of Grace”: Besides the obvious connection of an innocent drug mule, the isolation and journey of the lead character in a foreign land.
“Revenge of the Nerds II”: Sam is obviously a bit nerdy, but still gets the hot chick at the end.
Asch on his future projects…
Reliving the ’80s… currently developing “Great Neck” with writer Antonio Macia. Is is a coming of age drama set against the unrestrained materialism in the Long Island suburbs circa 1987. Also, with Antonio and producer Danny A., developing “Kings Highway,” inspired by the true event of the rise of the Israeli mafia in New York City during ’80s.
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]