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Director Joseph Cedar’s Professional Nightmare Led to the Oscar-Nominated ‘Footnote’

Director Joseph Cedar's Professional Nightmare Led to the Oscar-Nominated 'Footnote'

Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar, Oscar-nominated for his tense war movie “Beaufort,” will be back at the Kodak Theater this Sunday for “Footnote.” Not bad for a filmmaker with only four features to his name.

Footnote” concerns a father and his grown son, both professors, who work in Talmudic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), is a stubborn purist, while his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is anything but. Despite Eliezer’s seniority, Uriel is more popular among academics and students. So imagine the surprise when it’s announced that Eliezer will receive the Israel Prize, the most valuable honor for scholarship in the country, over his more successful son. But as it turns out, everything is not as it seems.

As Eric Kohn wrote in his review out of Cannes, where the film world premiered earlier this year, “Its focus on stuck-up academics makes ‘Footnote’ an enjoyable, and quite literal, textbook thriller.”

Indiewire caught up with Cedar in New York to discuss “Footnote” and the twist that Sony Pictures Classics isn’t treating as a spoiler.

So “Footnote is based on something that personally happened to you, correct?

Almost happened.

Is there a way you could elaborate without giving away the film’s twist that sets the plot into motion?

Well, Sony isn’t treating it as a spoiler. We thought it was a plot point that should not be part of the press materials. Then it turns up in the trailer.  Maybe it’s out of despair and not knowing how to market a film about Talmudic philologist. So they’ll sell it as a comedy… I don’t know.

After my previous film, I started working on something that was very ambitious and international and optimistic and then it collapsed. I didn’t know what I’d be doing next. I felt like I’d wasted a whole year-and-a-half of my life. I was depressed and I pretty much came to the conclusion that I would never find another story that would be good enough for me to want to do. 

Then the phone rang one day and on the other end of the line was the cultural attache of the Italian embassy in Israel, who congratulated me for receiving an award from the Italian government. I was sure it was some bullshit award. I was feeling so bad about myself anyway that the whole thing seemed so awkward — getting an award when you have no career.  So I said, “Who else is getting the award?” Then she listed this group of people and all of them are these really established visionaries in their field and are completely out of my league, age-wise and achievement-wise; two Nobel Prize winners and Israeli artists who are known all over the world.

This is coming from a guy who’s been nominated for two Academy Awards!

No no, these people were out of my league. I just sounded wrong and that of course made me feel even worse. Then it dawned on me that she must have meant to call my father, who is in that league. He’s a scientist, has won the Israel prize and he’s that age. So I said, “I think you made a mistake, I think you meant to call my father.” She didn’t say no and just told me to hold on a second. While I was waiting on the line, this movie was born.  But just the nucleus of the idea.

 The possibility that this could happen.

My problem was I didn’t have a story that will give a sense of purpose in life. Then that phone call gave me that sense of purpose. Not because of the idea of the mistake, but the idea that you’re getting something you don’t deserve.

What was the outcome of that?  Was the call for your father?

No, it was for me. It was a ridiculous award. A lot of the imagery that went into the film was from that Italian ceremony. Italians know how to put on a show.

I’m guessing your relationship with your father isn’t as strained as the one presented in the film?

We have a great relationship. Anyone who knows my father knows that this character that has nothing to do with him. People who don’t can assume that it’s him.  There are tiny little things that are common between my father and this character. Maybe the most significant one is that they both have a son who is a populist.  That’s a joke… I don’t think he thinks I’m a populist. He’s not jealous or bitter. He’s someone who has done good work and is very supportive of me.

The troubled father-son dynamic is what anchors the film in many ways.

I think it’s something that scares me. What if my son turns out to be a filmmaker, more succesful than I am, with films that I hate. More than hate, that I really look down on. There are films like that that I can’t fake respect for. So what happens if my son turns out to be like that?

More than it being biographical, it allowed me to investigate this nightmare that I have. I could find myself not proud of my son. And the question of whether my own father approves of what I do or not — which he does — is something that scares me, if I might not.

Now onto your lead, Shlomo Bar-Aba. He maintains a remarkable scowl for most of the movie.

We went through a really incredible journey with him. He’s very well known in Israel.

A comic personality right?

Yes, but a very specific kind of comedy. More like Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman in that you don’t know what to expect from him.  He’s a little crazy and that’s great. You watch him and you never know what he’ll do next.

He hasn’t been in a film in almost 30 years. He found his niche on stage. He’s pretty angry at everyone in Israel, but he has his place on Israeli theater stage.

When I approached him with this movie, he looked at this script and was terrified by it. Ninety percent of his screen time, he’s not saying or doing anything and his forte is so different. His best known character is a horse. His inner self is a raging horse. He neighs. Here’s a character who’s the exact opposite.

Think of that first shot of the film where we’re on his face for so long and he’s not doing anything. He said, “It’s not going to work, this is not going to be interesting.” The process of our rehearsals was to fuel his confidence, which is also very similar to the character he is working on. He’s so afraid of making a mistake, that he’s not doing anything at all.

What we found is — I wonder if there are American actors who can identify with this — in Israel, if you’re over 30 and somewhat fluent in Israeli culture, you know who Bar-Aba is. So if he walks into a restaurant, most Israelis would know who he is. If he’s in a taxi, the driver will know who he is. That’s the way he walks around. But if you’re under 30, or a new immigrant, they don’t know him ’cause he’s not in TV or movies. 

So while we were rehearsing the movie, we would go to the Hebrew University a lot and there’s these young Russian immigrant security guards there and every day it would be the same thing… “Who are you?” He could hardly say his name, so he’s say “Shlomo” and the security guard would say, “Shlomo what?” It would go on like that. Even if it lasted just two minutes, during just those two minutes he would almost explode with aggravation and then the whole day would be ruined.

Then I did something that’s a little cheesy, but I did it anyway. We took the actor who plays the security guard in the beginning of the film and we put him in the shopping mall that Bar-Aba goes to near his house and we dressed him as a security guard and instructed him not to let Bar-Aba in. It was incredible. They were screaming at each other. The horse came out of him and then I went up to him and said, “Here, that’s the character.”

He’s full of rage and it’s directed at all the people who don’t recognize him for whatever reason, for all the people who are idle and ignorant and just not aware of who he is. It took him about a half-an-hour just to calm down, but that incident gave him material to work with for the whole film.

So both you and him essentially used life as inspiration for the film.

I don’t know. Here we needed something that would crack open this character and how do you create dramatic tension without action or dialogue? For instance, if you look at the first shot, there are 70 things that he wrote down on a piece of paper that he’s not doing throughout that shot. In almost every scene, there are things that he’s holding back. It was his process.

I found myself working with an actor who off camera is in this murderous, really violent state. He then comes on camera and everyone’s on alert cause he could blow up any second. You feel that his face is full with steaming blood.

Does his character’s silence account for the bombastic soundtrack?  Your score is loud enough to rival “The Artist.”

It’s what the film needed. It wasn’t an easy soundtrack to do because a lot of people didn’t like it while we were doing it, but it was our choice and we stuck to it.

 I’ve had this dilemma about the use of music for a few years now. On the one hand, every time a music cue comes in I get a little itchy.  It creates an awkward moment in a scene that I just can’t stand. 

On the other hand, I think many films needs music. In my previous film we had this kind of electronic, not melodic, music that would sneak into the score and would stay in for a very long time, almost 18 minutes. It was almost part of the ambiance. It’s not sentimental, it doesn’t have any peaks, but it’s there.

We needed to give the film an operatic volume.  The scope had to be enhanced by music, but I didn’t want it to be music that apologizes for being music.  I didn’t want a cue that comes in and supposedly isn’t there. So we took music that’s extremely dominant, that doesn’t apologize, and put it on the forefront. It’s almost a character in the film. It comes in in all its glory.

 It catches you off guard at first. 

It’s a score the way the musicians always wanna score with. I think you can’t ignore it, hopefully enough people like it. The truth is, the film needed that score.

You attended the Hebrew University, but you didn’t actually take the studies that are referenced in the film — you took theater history and philosophy.  How aware were you of that department during your time there?

The Talmud department is a tiny department and today it almost doesn’t exist. There are very few students and a tiny faculty of really eccentric scholars. It used to be the pride of the university and it was more than that; it was a pride of a country. It’s a secular, academic look at our culture that deals with a text that was almost hijacked  by the religious world and was liberated by these academics. The university was founded around when Zionism was taking its shape in the mid ’20s and it became a manifestation of what Israel should be. A new look at old texts. Today it’s a department that is so rigid and strict that it’s become famous for being too strict.

Nowadays, my social circle has a lot of people that are in the world of Judaic studies, some in the world of Talmud studies. It’s the world I live in. It’s not from my own years in university, it’s just my social world now.

I didn’t know that the film would take place in the Talmud department at the beginning, but then I started looking into it and I began a series of meetings with someone who brought me into the different issues that the Talmud department deals with… Gossiping about the people that are around now and from the past. I found out a lot of people around have some kind of relationship with that department.

How has the department reacted to the film?

The Uriels of the world were the people that were helpful to me. The Eliezers are not. The Eliezers of the world don’t wast their time on filmmakers. They’re so scared of being misquoted and anything being out of their control that they limit their contact with people like me.

We had a premiere in Jerusalem the week after Cannes. We had a premieres in Tel Aviv and then premiered in Jerusalem. The premiere in Jerusalem, I invited the people that had some connection to the story. We had a room full of philologists. Some of them haven’t seen a film in 18 or 19 years. It was scary for me, but it was an amazing screening. These are people who look at things differently, at the tiniest details.

There’s a list in the credits where we thank people and one of them came up to me at the end and said, “You know there are two ways of making that list, either it’s alphabetical or in order of importance and I notice that I’m number four. It’s not alphabetical, so I’m wondering why I’m not three, two, or one?” I told him that there’s a third option, that it could just be random. He said, “No, nothing is ever random.” That’s how they look at any text and that’s how they looked at the film. If it’s there on the screen, somebody had an intention, whether they were aware of it or not, and it reflects some kind of reality.

But there are only about 20 people that are in that school of thought, but the discussions around the rivalries and the different ways of interpreting these texts is relevant to many people.

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