Roadside Attractions releases Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles at The Landmark at 57 West and Quad Cinema on August 23rd, 2019.
NYC MOVIE GURU: When it comes to entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually, which of those three elements was most challenging to tweak in the editing room?
Max Lewkowicz: Intellectually because the visceral part of it is very built into the music and what's going on in terms of how people appreciate Fiddler on the Roof. In terms of getting them to understand what it's all about, that was the most challenging, but the most satisfying.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the process like to decide what kind of audience to make the film for? There could be some audience members who are unfamiliar with Fiddler on the Roof.
ML: We wanted to make the film for those people, too. Any film that you make, usually, unless you're making a film about Trump or Jeffrey Epstein, it's not usually about something that's directly in the news at that moment. So, when it came up that I wanted to do this story, I realized that the people who I wanted to benefit most are people who know nothing about Fiddler on the Roof. I also wanted to make sure that people understand that this isn't just the making of Fiddler on the Roof; it's not a documentary about the making of a Broadway musical or the making of the film. This is how art is able to run in parallel to what's in our lives and thus Fiddler on the Roof has been around for so long which is why I think people love it so much.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right amount of humor to incorporate through the editing? How important is humor as a hook for the audience?
ML: A lot of times, as it is with many things in life, humor is very serendipitous. It suddenly appears out of nowhere and you start to laugh and say, "What a funny story!" For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda telling the story of himself as a sixth grader doing Fiddler on the Roof and he says that he even remembers the choreography today and then he starts to sing it, and he's adorable. People laugh at it and then the final word that he says is, "Tradition!" There are lot of places throughout the film where you laugh as you discover the humor. It's like these pieces of gold bullion found among the landscape.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you manage to cover so much ground in just 90 minutes? That's around the attention span of most audiences! How did you decide what to omit about Fiddler on the Roof from the documentary?
ML: I think it's more like 5 minutes! The film is told in 3 time periods. I created these layers in terms of storytelling. The 3 times periods are 1905, 1964. There was so much happening in 1964, specifically in America, but really around the world. The Vietnam War was starting. One of the things that I did was that I looked for events that occurred that time period of 1964 and it was remarkable. Then, of course, there are the questions, "Why is it still playing?" and "Why is it so important today?" We're in the same place. Refugees, women's rights, the breaking of traditions. So, those are the three time periods. When it comes to the remarkable songs, we left out the dream sequence because no matter how we tried to put it in, it seemed like too much of a comic relief which had nothing to do with the rest of the film. It's funny and it works very well, but we just couldn't find a place for it. But we did cover most of the important songs and we really dug deep and drilled down. So, we have those elements that really make the film and make the show, I believe.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was it a conscious decision to avoid turning the film into an academic documentary? It feels very cinematic.
ML: Yes. One of the criteria for us was that Fiddler on the Roof is such an entertaining musical show that deals with the dark history of a dark place, but it's a musical. You hear the song "L'Chaim - to Life" and you're laughing. There's "Matchmaker," "Miracle of Miracles" and, of course, "If I Were a Rich Man." The way I wanted the interviews to work was as a tapestry of voices who were there. That's the way I like to tell stories. It's a tapestry of voices where they talk about their experiences not explaining things, but letting people discover it themselves by listening to the events that occurred. So, you decide whether Jerome Robbins was a genius or not.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you avoid the temptation to include yourself in the movie like some documentary filmmakers tend to do?
ML: There's only one little line where you could hear my voice when I'm talking to Chaim Topol and he says, "I don't want to tell you!" and I replied, "Oh, come on! Tell me!" and he told me a story about being on the film set while singing, "If I Were a Rich Man." I don't think that I'm necessary in this film. I think if you have enough of good storytellers, that's what you have to look for.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you build a rapport with your interview subjects to get them to be so comfortable and, ultimately, insightful?
ML: I've been doing this for a long time. My feeling is that when you're doing an interview you really have to know your subject matter. One of the things that you have to do is to listen to them. They're more interested in listening to their questions than they are in listening to their interview. A lot of filmmakers don't listen to the people that they're interviewing. When they get to the point when they go off on a tangent, they bring them back to the point that they were talking about. I don't like to do that. When I asked Sheldon Harnick about what his feelings were about writing a particular song, I'd keep going with it and then if he goes off on a tangent about something else, I'd let him keep doing it and I wouldn't even interrupt him. I could possibly come back to that question, but he might come up with a wonderful tale because he has wonderful stories.
NYC MOVIE GURU: You do a great job of shedding light on the "big picture" and the "small picture" regarding Fiddler on the Roof? How did you accomplish the rare feat of tackling both throughout the film?
ML: We all do things that deal with our friends, family, country, village and children. They all relate to each other. So, if a girl says to her father, "No, father, I don't want to marry him; I want to marry her.", that makes a statement for our society as much as it makes a statement about that young woman talking to her father. I think you always have to relate to the world that you live in.
NYC MOVIE GURU: In a documentary, do you think it's better to start with specific details and expand to a broader theme or to start with a broad theme and expand to the small details?
ML: Saving Private Ryan is the story of WWII, but it starts with a small person's story about a soldier who's a captive in a small village, and it tells the whole story of WWII. You always have to start with the individual story and expand outwards; otherwise, you're just making an Encyclopedia Britannica.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be fair and accurate to say that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes?
ML: Absolutely. That's a perfect statement. I totally agree with that. Last night, we had a screening of Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles at the JCC and somebody asked, "Is Tevye only Jewish?" and I replied, "No. Tevye is every father in us. He's every relationship that we've had with a family member."
NYC MOVIE GURU: Tevye endures a lot of struggle throughout Fiddler on the Roof. Would you like to live a life without struggle? ?
ML: That's like asking if you want to be God! That never occurs to me. Even when you don't think that anything bad is happening, first of all, we as Jews tend to kvetch. We always go through big challenges in life. It's impossible to go through life without them. We're told that we can rise up to these challenges. Tevya is told he has to leave his home that he's had for generations. Everybody has to deal with challenges and with loss. When you know something, you have to stand up and pull up your belt and say, "Ok, how do I deal with this challenge?" Tevye does this. He's such a wonderful character. That's why I think he's so universal because everybody around the world goes through the same thing. We can all relate to him because we're all human.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What's the purpose of struggle in life?
ML: There's life and the reality of life. If you're doing a story about someone who puts on his clothes, eats breakfast and gets onto the subway to go to work, there's no challenge. Nothing's happened. But then if he gets thrown onto the ground and pulled into a van by someone with a black mask on his head, you ask, "What's going on?" "Why is this happening?". There's incremental dramatic tension that develops in stories. Life always throws you drama. I just fractured my spine. I was in Normandy and came back home and my back was killing me. I went to the doctor and he did an MRI and he said, "Oh, your C4 and L4 are broken. I don't know why." I didn't know that that was going to happen. So, now I have a challenge. How do I deal with the pain? How do I deal with the fact that I can't pick up my socks? How do I deal with the fact that it makes me feel vulnerable? So, I had this dramatic inciting incident. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. That's what I think great drama is. What makes Tevye such a wonderful character is that he deals with his challenges with humanity, humor and talks to God. His only male friend is God. So, we are always going through challenges in life.