writer/director Joseph Cedar

After being nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for Beaufort in 2008, Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar has returned to the Oscar race with Footnote, Israel’s submission and a nominee for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Footnote is both a father/son tragedy and a comedy of errors played out against the backdrop of the Talmudic Studies department of the Hebrew University. In addition to the Oscar nomination, Cedar was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay, and won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Footnote in America on March 9th. Cedar was recently in Los Angeles during the run-up to the Academy Awards and he and I enjoyed a delightful conversation. Cedar shared with me the culture of filmmaking in Israel, how his film came to be selected as an Oscar submission, and crafting Footnote.

Jackson Truax: You’ve said that the screenplay began from an initial idea that you had for the plot twist that comes late in the film. What was the process of developing that idea into a fully-formed screenplay?

Joseph Cedar: Once I had a basic plot, I started speaking to people in the Talmud department, and understanding the different issues that divide the schools of thought in that department. That shaped what the movie ended up being. Some of the conflicts that I just thought had a personal aspect to them, a father and son and their jealousy and their competition, turned out to be more than just that. It’s something that represents a dramatic divide within the Talmud research area, or field of thought. That gave the film much more richness that I enjoyed developing.

JT: Footnote explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons. What made you want to explore those themes as a writer and director?

Cedar: There’s inherent conflict between fathers and sons, just because there are two generations. If every generation was exactly the same, then the world wouldn’t make any progress. So there has to be something that divides generations. And there’s a personal side to that. Then there’s a larger, broader side to that. I think sons need to rebel, or the younger generation. It’s not necessarily a son. It can be a daughter. Rebellion is part of what moves society forward. And stubbornness, strictness, rigidness, inability to let go, is also a big part of what society needs. And fathers are representative of that, because if there’s just rebellion, then you lose touch with the heritage. It’s like a kite without a string. And the father is the string. And the son is a kite.

JT: From the inception of the screenplay, did you immediately see these ideas playing out simultaneously in a family as well as within a large, scholarly community?

Cedar: I heard from someone, a scholar, who told me that, “When you write an academic book, there are two options. One is, you can address it to the one expert in the field that you’re writing. And you know that that one expert will appreciate all the nuances and the things that you put into it. Or, if you know that one expert is going to hate your book, you replace them with the masses, with the popular opinion.” In the cases of these characters, that one expert for the son, for Uriel, is his father. And since he knows his father is not going to approve of the value of his work, he replaces him with the masses and he becomes a populist. Populism is not necessarily bad. It’s a fact. It exists… They both exist in the same establishment. But one’s a purist, the other is a populist, and they both are needed.

JT: The other theme the film plays with is where the search for truth collides with university department politics, and how bureaucracy and hubris impede furthering knowledge and the search for truth. What made those themes important for you to explore?

Cedar: They’re just really relevant. You put it nicely. It’s a conflict I live with as a filmmaker… First of all, there’s a questions of if there is a truth… I can give you a concrete example. There’s a cinematographer that I wanted to work with who was really, very clear about what the images need to serve. He said, “Every scene has one composition, one shot, that is right for the scene. And everything else is a way to ruin that one proper shot. Because that’s the truth of the scene.” And from my point of view, knowing how important it is to have options and alternatives and getting to the editing room with an ability to fix things. I needed more than just that one image that he thought was right. We just couldn’t work together, because I needed a little compromise and some flexibility. And he had just one way to do something. “This is the truth. This is what it is. And everything else is contaminating our work.”  And they’re many examples where I find myself compromising a truth in service of communicating to a larger audience.

JT: I know you went to Hebrew University, but studied philosophy and theater history. How well did you know the culture you portray in Footnote? Did you have to do a lot of research in crafting the film?

Cedar: My close social circle is similar to the one in the film. So I don’t know if I was relying on my own time in the university. But around my family, around my friends, these characters exist. So it’s not foreign to me.

JT: When you started to write and direct a film about scholars and texts and university department politics, how did you know that this story could feel very cinematic?

Cedar: I didn’t. It was something that I wanted to deal with. And I hoped it would interest someone. My producers took a risk and were willing to get into this because they were also intrigued by the material. But none of us had any way to foresee that the film would interest a large audience. There’s nothing in this film that would have stood the test of marketability before the film was made.

JT: The film deals with these very serious ideas, but in a way that feels satirical, and borders on farcical at times. But the film ultimately ends up feeling like a drama. How did you find where to walk that fine line in the ending as well as throughout the film?

Cedar: Intuition. The tone is the one illusive part of the process. You don’t know what influences the tone. Music is obviously a big part of the tone. The actor’s body language is a part. But it’s not something that you really control. So you just hope that somehow all the people involved come together in a consistent tone that the audience will appreciate. But it’s not something that you really control.

JT: Shlomo Bar Aba who plays the father is a well-known comedic actor in Israel. By casting him, were you making a conscious decision that the film was going to veer towards the satirical?

Cedar: It’s a decision. I’m not sure how conscious it is. Of everything that this actor brings to the screen, he’s right for the character. I don’t know if I can articulate exactly why. He felt right.

JT: The movie has so much well-crafted dialogue, but the last fifteen minutes or so have very little. How did you know what you didn’t need to write, and what could be portrayed through performance nuance or music or the camera?

Cedar: The last scene is a scene that is dealt with exclusively through the paranoid perspective of the father character. It allowed us to give the audience an entrance into what he’s experiencing that has nothing to do with the story. Just the experience of being at this event, and believing that you don’t belong there, and that everyone knows it. So dialogue seemed incidental to that.

JT: You’re a celebrated and successful filmmaker in Israel. What’s the process of making films there, and how is it different from in America?

Cedar: I don’t really know how it works here. The Israeli industry has a nice naiveté, in that most films are made by writer/directors that have a story that they’re passionate about, and are somehow able to raise the modest budget that is required. There’s not much of a commercial side to the industry. There is some, but it’s not the driving force. That is, I think, a pretty good thing. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the biggest differences between my experiences in Israel and what is required here. Although, I have met producers here that share that sentiment, and want to make films that are important to the filmmakers and hope that they’ll do commercially well, but that’s not necessarily the one goal.

JT: What was Israel’s process of selecting Footnote to be the country’s official entry for the Academy Awards?

Cedar: Israel has an Academy, of about 800 or 900 members that vote every year, like the American Academy Awards, in different categories. The film that is voted as the best film of the year is the one that’s submitted to the Oscars.

JT: You were also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. What does it mean to you to be recognized in that why by the American Independent Film community?

Cedar: It’s a good community. I have a lot of respect for the American Independent Film Community. Probably more than the studio films that are made here. So I’m very happy that they invited us to their awards ceremony.

JT: What would winning the Oscar for Footnote mean to you at this point in your life and career?

Cedar: I don’t know. I could think of many advantages to not winning. There are a few to winning as well. But, I don’t know. There’s so much luck involved. So, who knows? The excitement has to do with that possibility.

JT: Regardless of how the Oscar race plays out, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film in America on March 9th. When the film opens, what do you think Footnote has to offer audiences that is unique?

Cedar: I don’t really want to compare it to other films. I think that’s one of the nice things about this film is that you can’t compare it to other films. It’s a little different. It’s so hard to get audiences into the theaters. If we have something that’s slightly different and that’s surprising in some way, that sounds like a good excuse to go to the movie theater.

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