Strand Releasing opens The Other Story on June 28th, 2019 at Quad Cinema.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Between the first, second and third act, which would you say is the most challenging to get right as a filmmaker??
Avi Nesher: For me, it's always the first act. The first act is the foundation. If you're going to walk from New York to Philadelphia and if took the wrong course and became aware of it within the first 2 miles, you have enough time to correct the course. But if you find the mistake after 100 miles, you're now done with. So, I've been known to re-write the first 10 pages 20, 30 or 40 times because to me that's the foundation. The third act for me is always very easy because I never know how my movies end. What I do once I'm done with the second act is just ask the characters what they want to do. I finished a screenplay a few weeks ago. I was sitting in my room writing the last page, and looked at it and said, "Really?? That's the way it ends??" I think, at some point, you need to surrender your piece to the characters and let the characters do what they think is right which very often would be wrong, but at some point you need to listen and to let your characters carry a story. I hate movies where the story is imposed on the characters. When I was a film critic, my definition was: "You could hear the clicking of the keyboard of the writer writing the piece." When you hear the typing, you know it's all wrong.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance of entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually?
AN: It's something that I think I've done from my very first movie on. Making films, especially in Israel, is so difficult that for me it needs to be something greater than entertainment. I've always that that filmmaking is such a powerful tool to get a conversation going. I greatly believe in movies that do not give answers, but ask the right questions. I used to be a film critic, so, basically, whenever I'm about to write a film, I always start with writing the essay about the film that I would write if I were a critic writing about the film. It always needs to be about issues that are much greater than "we cry, we laugh and get excited." It needs to be something of substance. Having said that, I realize that I expect people to sit in a darkened theater for two hours and they need to have an experience, and they need to be entertained because real life is tough. In many ways, cinema is an alternative to reality. For example, when I see Sunset Boulevard, I'm always struck by how funny that movie is because we don't think of it as a comedy, but yet the way that Billy Wilder does it is so entertaining, so funny and so inventive cinematically, so he gets across everything that he wants to say. Even the movie A Foreign Affair, which is Billy Wilder's Holocaust movie about post-war Berlin, is a very funny movie and a very morbid movie at the same time. It's just something that I do just because when I want to Columbia University, I studied International Relations and Film, so that's why I make movies. I have the political agenda and I just enjoy filmmaking.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I think you're very similar as a filmmaker to François Truffaut. What do you think?
AN: It's funny that you say that because I made a movie with Fanny Ardant, The Secrets, Truffaut's wife, and she had seen some of my movies and said exactly what you said. She said that my movies really remind her of Truffaut's movies, and I take it as a high compliment. I love his movies, and when I made The Secrets, Fanny and I would have dinner every night. I would make her tell about the movies of the Cahiers du Cinéma people, Godard and Truffaut. Every time I see Truffaut's movies again, I discover something that I haven't seen before. You're right, his movies are very cinematic, but they're about family, love and, ultimately, about cinema.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What does the term "cinematic" mean to you?
AN: For me, cinema is a language. First of all it's a language that I expect eloquence. From the filmmakers that I admire from Truffaut to Hitchcock to Robert Aldrich to Don Siegel to Paolo Sorrentino to Antonioni to Pietro Germi to Dino Risi, all these people just spoke the language of cinema really, really well. That's the way I like to read great prose. Great prose is never about the story; it's about the way those words are put together. It starts with that. I'm not that impressed with big explosions. I'm not a big CGI guy, so for me it starts with film language.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Your films, including The Other Story, don't have any villains nor do they have heroes. Why do you avoid having a villains and heroes?
AN: That's a wonderful observation in your part. For my first movie onwards, like you, I don't believe in villains. I know many people who think every differently than I, but part of what this movie is about is the "other story." So, it's embracing the fact that even though I think that I'm totally right and that they're totally wrong, I'm probably wrong about that. I don't believe in heroes. My movies never have a leading man or leading woman; it's always about a group of people. I never have patience with movies, like love stories, where you don't deal with a love story---these people have no financial problems, they don't have to work for a living, they don't have ill-fitting shoes. For me, life is a very complex and fluid thing to deal with, and my movies tell stories that try to embrace this whole notion of life. Even notions that western societies hold as sacred such as truth and justice, The Other Story takes on that because there are other values that are as equally important if not more important than what we hold as dear to our hearts.
NYC MOVIE GURU: The Other Story's title in Hebrew has three meanings, including one that's a form of expression. There's a saying that you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, but can the same be said about a film's title?
AN: For me, the title of a movie is part of the meaning. In Israeli cinema, the artist has complete control over the piece which is a great thing. You don't get to make too much money, but Israel is the kind of place where the crazy people run the asylum. So, I'm working on a project now with an American producer, and I said that I will make the movie, but it must be done with Israeli rules: final cut, my cast and everything. He negotiated this with my friend of mine, a lawyer, for a whole year. My friend wore him down on every single issue, and he finally gave up and then my friend said, "Avi wants also full control over the title of the movie." And the producer went ballistic! He said, "Why?? The title is just a commercial vehicle. It's the way we market the movie. It's a marketing device!" and I said, "No, the title is part of the movie's soul." Psycho is called Psycho not just because it's a good title. I said to him, "I will not do your project if you do not give me approval of the title."---and he gave in! So, it's a really, really important thing. A movie is like a person, and a person needs to have a name, and the name needs to go with the person. I took a long time in choosing names for my children!
NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to find the right subtitles for the film?
AN: Subtitles are always an issue because they don't have the music of the original [language], but it's a necessary evil. I came at the end of the screening yesterday and was there for the last few minutes, and there were three huge laughs. The laughs were of the subtitles, and I thought that we must've done something right. When people get the humor of the subtitles, then I can get the subtitles to work. I don't get really involved with subtitles---I just check them at the end just that they come close to the original intent. I try to write with a great deal of subtext, and now I'm not sure if the subtext comes across in subtitles. It's just something that you have to live with.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be fair and accurate to say that you're playing around with the audience's preconceived notions through The Other Story?
AN: We all go into a movie---we all go into life---with preconceived notions. In many ways, The Other Story tries to shatter them. You see your ex-wife, so you expect her to be very hostile, but it doesn't happen. You go to the Old City and you expect Arab kids to shoot you with an AK-47, but they don't. They're just like you---they're just hanging out. The movie really plays around with the notion of prejudice and preconceived notions. The film premiered at Toronto. It was my 5th World Premiere there in a row there and you kind of get to know the critics, especially because as my films have enjoyed really good reviews. I walked up on stage when the movie was over to do the Q&A, and one of the top critics in this country gets up in a huff and leaves the theater. My heart skipped a beat and I thought, "Wow! This guy really hated the movie!" I can barely focus on the Q&A. Then I come down from the stage and the critic comes to me and hugs me. He said, "It's a great movie, Avi!" and I replied, "So, why did you leave?" He replied, "It's your fault." and I go, "Why is it my fault?" He said, "I see 3 or 4 movies a day in the festival and I have this system where I got pretty much understand the structure of a given movie. If it's a romantic comedy, I have preconceived notions that they will end up together at the end. I figure out the structure and then I find 10 minutes in which the plot will not move much around and then I got to the bathroom and come back. In your film, I was riveted because I couldn't figure out the formula. So, all of my preconceived notions were out the window and I was sitting there crossing my legs because I couldn't find a scene to leave the theater." I took that as a great compliment. Going back to Hitchcock doing Psycho and killing off the lead after 20 or 25 minutes, you go, "My God! Janet Leigh is dead! We are left with no movie star! What are we going to do for the rest of the movie?" We are all so burdened with our expectations, so we're not open enough to let life or cinema come at us, so it's something that I tried to play with.
NYC MOVIE GURU: As a filmmaker, are you a risk-taker?
AN: Every single movie I've ever done took a huge risk. Every movie I've done could've been a big flop as well as a big hit. Many of them have been very successful, but they never rely on formula and never rely on genre. They're never distinctly a comedy even though that they're funny. I've never done a sequel. People have always expected me to do a sequel to a really successful movie. I refuse to do so because there's no risk in it, so why do it?
NYC MOVIE GURU: Admittedly, 10 years from now, I'll probably forget the plot of The Other Story. What I'll remember are the emotions that I felt while watching the film. The same can be said for other films as well. Do agree?
AN: That's the most important thing. You said something very important. It's all about emotion. Obviously, I want to be clever, but often my characters do not tell the truth. My character don't often say what they mean. It's just like life. For me, dialogue is not a way of revealing anything. Very often, it's a way of masking things. That's why I'm so big on film language because, for me, that language is truthful, but when it comes to spoken words, one has to take them with a grain of salt.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How have you mastered the skill of incorporating exposition into a movie so organically? What's your relationship like with exposition?
AN: I fear exposition. Exposition is God's way of punishing writers. You must have exposition because otherwise you will not know what you have walked into, and yet exposition is, by definition, clumsy and mathematical and formulaic. I do a lot of master classes around the world and also mentor in various labs in Jerusalem and Toronto. I always talk a lot about exposition because it's something that must be done and it must be done very elegantly. The trick is to do exposition while something else is going on at the same time, and to mask it so that it doesn't feel expositional. It's something that I'm very, very conscious of.
NYC MOVIE GURU: In The Other Story there are some things that might be confusing at first until they become clearer until the end. What's wrong with being confused and being patient during a movie? Patience can be rewarding, after all.
AN: In real life, things take time before everything falls into place. I really like in a movie where there's something that you just don't understand, but at some point you go, "Oh, okay! Now I get it!" I really got spoiled in Israel because I have movies that people have seen more than once. The great Israel novelist S.Y. Agnon once said that a book not worth reading a second time was probably not worth reading the first time. I've become really reliant on people seeing the movie for a second and third time, and you really layer the movie with textures that become apparent only after you've seen the movie and you're familiar with the story. The first time you see the movie, you follow the story and you follow the characters. The second time, you can really watch it for the little things. The first two movies that I made became Israeli classics and every Israeli had seen it a thousand times, so you think that life will be like this forever. I have the great luxury of doing stuff like this which is cinematic subtext. So, you don't put everything in the context; you put it in the subtext because I believe that a significant number of people will come back and watch the movie a second and third time and see buried treasures. It requires a collaboration between the audience and the filmmaker, and requires a level of trust. For many years, I've trusted the audience and I've been rewarded with their loyalty and with their willingness to come back to see the movie again, but I do owe them a great ride the first time.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do avoid spoon-feeding the audience?
AN: Israeli audiences are extraordinary. They're really loyal and up to the challenge. They don't expect me to do anything easy for them. They do expect to be entertained, and I do entertain them, but they don't expect me to spoon-feed them. I just don't. It's not even something that I have to write and then cross out. I was making The Secrets a while ago and there was a love-making scene. Love-making scenes are very bothersome because it makes it very awkward for everybody. I was about to shoot it and suddenly it hit me that in this day-and-age, seeing love-making on screen is boring. Because there's so much of it on the internet and if it's boring, then why shoot it? So, there are many, many elements that you just don't need to see because, like you said, your imagination can take over, so why show it? It's important to keep the plot moving because I have multi-character plots, so I have a lot of stuff going on. So, I just never want to show the obvious.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Who is ultimately responsible for opening the window into a character's heart, mind and soul?
AN: There are always two cooks: the filmmaker and the actor. I consider my actors my creative collaborators; I don't consider them to be my hired hands who just come to say my texts. I always cast actors who know the characters better than I do. I rehearse for three months and give the actors a great deal of latitude and there's a lot of improvisation going on. By the time I'm done rehearsing, the actor and the character are one. I've re-written it to such an extent that when I shoot, you know that the actor feels what the character feels. There's a shot in this movie I made called Turn Left at the End of the World where there's a close-up of one of the key characters, and she has a little muscle twitching right below her left eye. It's extraordinary because I cannot make muscles twitch and neither can the actress, but if you are in the zone and if you believe that you are the character and are experiencing the emotions of the character, the muscle will do what it does in real life. This is what I strive for. When the audience sees this muscle moving, they're completely into the story. The whole notion of suspension of disbelief is so difficult because these are just shadows flickering on the screen. Why do we laugh? Why do we cry? Why do we emote? We have to believe. I always tell people that in order for the audience to believe, the filmmaker has to believe and the actor has to believe. When the filmmaker and the actor both believe, and they tell the truth, then it becomes a great experience for the audience.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I think that it's a paradox for the audience to be able to relate to characters who are very different from themselves. What do you think?
AN: That's a very interesting point. For me, that's the great thing about cinema because you get to experience the "other." I'm such a great believer of trying to understand somebody else's point of view and what's a better way than having a narrative that's being driven through somebody who's not like you and imagining yourself as that person. If I were to watch a movie with a Palestinian protagonist and I will identify with him then I would become the person who's supposedly my enemy and I would understand that the way things are do no need to stay that way. So, for me, that's one of the greatest strengths of cinema.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you agree with Truffaut's observation that a great film has a perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle?
AN: I could not agree more. Truth is very relative, and that's an understatement.
NYC MOVIE GURU: But Spectacle is also very subjective!
AN: Yes, absolutely.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you find so many great charismatic actors for your films?
AN: I take a really long time casting. For me, casting is like falling in love. I never know what the character looks like, but when you see the right actor you know that you get a feeling. Because I use to be a critic, I'm very cerebral about the way I go about filmmaking, but at the same time I try to be very visceral.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel that the advancement of modern technology is affecting the quality of human relationships?
AN: Each generation thinks that the generation that comes after them is missing out on some wonderful experience. I'm very careful to judge my daughter's generation which is, of course, the text generation. So, yes, they are far less conversational. It's interesting to investigate the extent of their ability to emote when the human voice is not really put into motion. That's something that we'll find out in a few years. It's certainly interesting because, for me, language is music. When you take away the vocal elements, you're depriving yourself of a really interesting dimension within the human experience. So, when you reduce words to just letters being printed in the right order, you're truly are missing out on some elements of the human experience.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Films is often poetry and poetry is often a form of protest. The Other Story has some poetic elements. What are you protesting against?
AN: I'm always protesting my own limitations. I'm always as guilty as any of my characters of a long list of shortcomings. Ultimately, it's about the human condition. Coming out against this problem or that problem is being short-sighted. Shakespeare is extraordinary because he basically writes about the human experience. Ultimately, we are wonderful and horrible as human beings, and ultimately art deals with our greatness and with our shortcomings.
NYC MOVIE GURU: The Other Story tackles the complex human issue of empathy. Do you think that someone who lacks empathy can learn how to be empathetic?
AN: In many ways, the film deals with it because not having empathy is not being able to experience life through the "other story"---through the story of the other person. So, if you're totally locked within your story and you're totally locked within your experience and you see someone else that you cannot identify with, then that "other story" is meaningless, so you have no empathy. Everything at the end is about storytelling. Storytelling is a mechanism that human beings invented in order to try to advance the cause of humanity. Understanding life through storytelling makes it possible. It goes back to the point that you made before: you can identify with a character who's so unlike yourself. Once you can do that, you can empathize.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would something be lost by watching The Other Story on the small screen instead of in a movie theater?
AN: I love the notion of a movie theater. I once made a short about movie houses in Jerusalem and I called it House of Prayers. For me, a movie theater is where people come together to share a narrative and a belief system. In Judaism, you must have a minyan---ten men who come together to pray. Why can't you do it yourself? Because the prayer is more powerful when it's done with a community. For me, the demise of the movie theater is a very, very sad experience. I'm holding onto the experience to dear life. I don't do television. The experience of hundreds of people gathered together in a house of prayer---the cinema---and sharing a common narrative, for me, that's the culmination of cinema.
NYC MOVIE GURU: The characters in The Other Story are grown-ups who have a lot of growing up to do. What is a "grown up"? Do we ever stop growing up?
AN: Nobody gets to really grow up. At some point, you kind of get a better perspective, but your needs and wants always get the better of you because you always want things that are maybe impossible to get. All the characters in this movie are flawed and all of them come out at the end somewhat wiser, but not wise enough all the obstacles that await them. Human beings are very limited, but you do expect them to try to get some kind of enlightenment. Making movies, for me, is part of the enlightenment process.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Is there a particular scene or more than one scene in The Other Story that represents its emotional center?
AN: You would be a better judge of that than I. I approach every scene as though it were the very heartland of the film. I've always liked the notion of a Hollywood setpiece---something that has a beginning, middle and end. There are a number of scenes in this movie which I will not mention for fear of spoilers, but I really think that almost every scene has to have a significance above and beyond the information or the story point which it contains.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you prefer to make a film that hooks the audience very strongly right away or gradually?
AN: I get bored very easily. By being somebody who gets bored very easily, I assume that everybody is like that. I don't like to open a piece with a bang. When you open a movie with a bang, you're trying too hard and I can hear the keyboard clicking. I like to ease into a story assuming that what happens in the story is interesting enough to get people attention. Because I don't do conventional exposition, I don't spend the first 10 minutes to introduce the elements because there's nothing more boring than that. I don't like to have big scenes that come at you shouting, "You better pay attention! This is a really cool movie!" I just think the first 10 minutes should sound interesting enough for you to stick around to see the whole thing unfolding. That's exactly what Truffaut does. He never hits you over the head, and yet when the movie opens, you know that there's enough promise in the opening that it's going to be okay.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What would make a great double feature with The Other Story?
AN: Rage and Glory gets shown many times with The Battle of Algiers which is interesting. Turn Left at the End of the World gets shown a lot with some of the Pietro Germi movies like Divorce, Italian Style. Maybe one of the Truffaut movies with Antoine Doinel, Stolen Kisses, would be not be a bad companion with The Other Story.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Artistically, would The Other Story work in black-and-white?
AN: To do black-and-white, there must be a really good reason because otherwise it could become an affectation. Since real life is not in black-and-white, by doing something in black-and-white, you're saying, "Pay attention! This is a movie!" When Woody Allen does this in Manhattan and uses the Gershwin score, he's making a point of it. A movie like La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 is making a point of it. If you want to be very self-conscious about this being a cinematic piece, you can use black-and-white. I've never done a black-and-white movie, but I totally understand why The Last Picture Show is in black-and-white. I think that it must be right for a given piece. There's a great Hitchcock saying that some movies are a like a slice of life, but mine are like a slice of cake. I like cake and I like life. [laughs]