Bakom kulisserna till «Menashe»

Efter världspremiären i Sundance i början av året har «Menashe» tagit USA och filmvärlden med storm. En spelfilmsdebut på yiddisch, om en renlärig judisk församling i New York, som nu får svensk biopremiär.

Producenten och manusförfattaren Alex Lipschultz går från tvivel till framgång med en av årets mest kritikerhyllade indiefilmer. (Filmdagbok på engelska.)



Joshua Z Weinstein and I had attended undergraduate film school together, though neither of us can recall interacting much during that time. We'd only reconnected a handful of years ago when he’d come to a screening of a film I’d produced. At some point in early 2015 he called me up with a brief pitch for a movie he was contemplating making about ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. He'd met a warm, fascinating Hasid named Menashe Lustig who had an odd penchant for making YouTube videos. Josh told me he wanted to adapt Menashe's somewhat tragic life story into a narrative fiction film, but given that he only had experience in the documentary world, he needed a creative narrative fiction producer to help guide him and run the production.

I was quite intrigued by the contours of Josh’s pitch, particularly with the notion of peeking behind the curtain of a closed, commonly misunderstood community and finding a way to explore it in a humane and intimate fashion that recalled the early work of Vittorio De Sica and John Cassavetes.  So I asked him to shoot a few test scenes with Menashe to demonstrate that he could direct narrative fiction. While the results from this shoot were unpolished, I could still see a unique filmmaking voice on display, one that had a rare ability to put the kind of specificity and naturalism I have such affection for on screen. So I decided to roll the dice and produce and co-write the movie with Josh – my first experience working with a debut filmmaker.



The first creative decision we made was that we’d cast the film top-to-bottom with actual members of the Hasidic community. This posed a seemingly insurmountable challenge - how do you convince a number of extremely conservative and media-phobic people whose religious dogma doesn’t even permit them to watch movies to place themselves at extraordinary risk by appearing in one? The trick, it seemed, was to find a member of their community to help put them at ease and place their faith in us. Josh met a Lubavitcher named Daniel Finkelman, who while quite devout was forward-facing enough to build a career making music videos for a Jewish audience. Danny came on board our producing team to help open doors within the Hasidic community. The vast majority of the people to whom he introduced us quickly decided against acting in the film – including several who initially agreed to participate, only to drop out days before filming began – yet after months of searching and screen testing, we’d managed to assemble something resembling a movie cast.


Going against the conventional wisdom that non-English-language dialogue inherently cripples a movie's commercial potential in America, we made a firm decision early on to shoot the film entirely in Yiddish to preserve the story’s authenticity. There had been a rich tradition of Yiddish-language cinema in the first half of the 20th century, but due to a confluence of historical traumas and dislocations of the Jewish people it had all but disappeared by the 1940's. Neither Josh nor myself nor our other co-writer Musa Syeed spoke a word of Yiddish, so we wrote the script in English with the notion that we’d rehearse with the actors on set in our native language then let them improvise and rephrase the dialogue in Yiddish. This would allow them to maintain a looseness to their performances that would fit within the framework of naturalistic cinema we aimed to make. We’d also hire a translator to work on set with us, communicating via a microphone into earpieces we wore, UN-style, to help us comprehend any digressions from the written material.


Coming from a documentary background and accustomed to starting production sooner rather than later, Josh was adamant about wanting to begin filming rapidly. I expressed to him my serious reservations about rushing headlong into production. There were a high number of risky variables in the project, any one of which could have easily gone awry and made for a genuinely unwatchable movie. We had a filmmaker who had never directed performances. We had a cast of non-actors with no professional training, most of whom came from a fundamentalist religious background and had never even seen a movie, let alone performed in one. They would all be speaking their dialogue in a language that neither our director nor I could comprehend. Surely a recipe for creative disaster if there ever was one.


After a lot of back and forth, Josh and I struck a bargain: rather than rushing and filming the whole movie in one go, we'd break the production period into a handful of separate weeklong pieces spread out over the course of a year to give ourselves some breathing room. We'd spend a couple months between each shoot to edit the footage together to gauge what was working and what wasn't. Slow and steady. We'd budget for a full weeklong production period solely for reshoots and additional photography since it seemed inevitable that we'd make some stupid mistakes that would require fixing. Ultimately, this unorthodox filming schedule is one of the primary reasons that the final film turned out so well. There’s something so different with the process of making a film over such a prolonged period of time, rather than packing an entire shoot into only a month or two. Few other mediums outside of cinema require an artist to essentially get everything right on their first try with such a limited window of time to be creative or spontaneous. It was enormously liberating to always know that if we made a mistake or weren’t pleased with the results from a shoot that we’d always have another opportunity to rewrite and reshoot a scene at a later date. Were it possible, I’d make every movie this way.


There’s a basic maxim in American film production: «Bigger is better.» Even the scrappiest of our producers are counseled early on that if you want to survive in this business you have to continually scale up the budget, accessibility and star power of the movies you make. Unlike the state-funded European film industry ours is a fundamentally for-profit endeavor mostly funded with private equity. Film financiers want to see a substantial return of investment, budgets are tied to commercial prospects at the box office and producers’ fees are tied to budget size. Bigger stars and broader concepts equal bigger budgets, which equals higher fees for everyone involved. This is ultimately as true for producers making independent, festival-facing films as it is with those working in Hollywood. Even if money perhaps isn’t the primary motivation for indie producers, it inevitably becomes a compromising factor in our decision-making process about the pictures we elect to produce.

When I first told my colleagues in the industry about Menashe their collective response was one of incredulity. Why would a producer who’s had several movies by name filmmakers that premiered at Sundance take on a microbudget project by a first-time director, let alone one without any famous actors? Why make a movie in Yiddish, a language with fewer than a million speakers worldwide, when that will inevitably cripple the film’s commercial prospects? It was almost universally agreed upon by my peers that making this movie would be taking a step in the absolute wrong direction for my career.

Even after the film was accepted to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival several boutique sales agencies turned down the opportunity to represent it, feeling that our «product» was too niche and uncommercial. Even after the rave reviews from the press started rolling in, several key distributors turned down the option to release the picture for the very same reasons. Yet now that the dust has settled the movie has become one of the highest grossing titles to premiere at Sundance this year, selling more tickets in American and European theaters than a number of infinitely larger budgeted, star-driven movies. Certainly it has also turned a greater profit for its financiers and distributors than countless safer «prestige» independent titles. To me it feels like a testament to the fact that arthouse audiences have truly grown bored with familiar material and can smell compromise from many miles away. In an era with a glut of cheap streaming content where audiences en masse have turned their back on going out to the cinema, it turns out that movies with authenticity, emotional honesty and a refusal to pander are perhaps the only draw that still counts.

Av Alex Lipschultz 8 dec. 2017