Tuesday, January 15, 2008

An Interview with Noah Stollman, Screenwriter of Someone to Run With

(Above) Bar Belfer as Tamar in Someone to Run With; (Below) Noah Stollman at the Walter Reade Theater

Based on the popular Israeli novel by David Grossman, Someone to Run With is set on the streets of Jerusalem as Assaf, a shy 17 year-old boy, tracks down the owner of a lost dog. He eventually stumbles into an underworld where lives a Fagin-like hustler that runs a home for street kid musicians.

You can visit the film's website by clicking here.

In this interview, screenwriter Noah Stollman discusses the process of adapting the novel as well as his experience studying film during the early years of The Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem.

Oded Davidoff (the director of Someone to Run With) has described you as “a Jerusalemite who lives in New York”. Where are you from? Can you talk a bit about your relationship to Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem? I was born in New Jersey. When I was three, I moved to Jerusalem with my family. I grew up and lived there until 1995, when my wife and I came back to New York. We’ve been living here ever since. But because I went to film school in Jerusalem, most of my friends and colleagues are all working in the Israeli film industry. There were several projects in Israel that I started to get rolling before I moved back to the States. So while I was trying to break into the film scene here, I was constantly working on projects for Israeli film and TV and Someone to Run With is one of them.
How did you meet director Oded Davidoff? Oded and I went to film school together. We were friends throughout film school. He is a very talented director and was recruited right out of film school: Practically the day after we graduated, he was directing commercials for Israeli TV.
How did you and Oded get involved with adapting David Grossman’s novel, Someone to Run With? People really loved David Grossman’s book. The novel was very popular in Israel when it came out [in 2000]. It hit a nerve, not only with the young adult demographic, but with pretty much all demographics. People knew the book very intimately. It was a hot property and the rights were bought up immediately. Oded and I were approached to adapt it into a mini-series. It was initially intended as a four-part mini-series for cable TV and we wrote it as such. We didn’t have the film rights because David Grossman, who is a wonderful, warm and generous person, had sold the rights for TV and for film separately. The film rights were owned by producer Andrew Braunsberg, who wanted to make an English-language film version. But once we had our four-part mini-series, Andrew came and saw it and his feeling was this was the definitive version. And so we were very happy when Andrew and producing partner Philippa Kowarsky came on board and enabled us to edit the series into a feature film which could get more international distribution, go to film festivals and be screened in theaters. From a little over three hours, we cut it down to two, but were still able to retain the story, its characters and, I believe, its essence.
The city of Jerusalem plays a significant role in the film. To you, what distinguishes Jerusalem from other Israeli cities and how does it work as a character in the film? First of all, Jerusalem is a very unique city that means a lot to so many people on many different levels. It’s the center of all three major religions. Historically, it goes back thousands of years. It’s the focal point for Israel, for Arabs and Christians. It has that spiritual quality that, I think, anyone in the world can identify with. But, on the other hand, growing up there, as Oded and I did, it is just like any other town. It also has its seedier elements and its darker sides. We wanted to throw all of those elements into the mix and show this very spiritual place on one hand that could also be a very dangerous place. It can be a cold and bewildering place for teenagers to grow up in. Jerusalem also has a kind of provincial, almost small town feel. Growing up there in the seventies, it felt very provincial and sheltered. And we wanted to present these young street musicians as almost trapped with their horizons limited. It’s as if Pesach’s home for the gifted, in which these kids are imprisoned, is their version of Jerusalem which they can’t really get out of except through great struggle and through their music.
In an earlier interview, you identified the film as a coming-of-age story. In connection to this, it is interesting that we never see the actual parents. We only see the surrogate parental figures of Rhino and Leah. That was something which was very strong in the book. The parents are just not present for these kids in the story. In the novel, there are a lot of references to the parents: It’s much more grounded in reality. You understand where the parents are: You know that the parents are busy, they’re away. For the film, we wanted to emphasize this and take it even further so that, for these kids, the parents are just not an option. For Tamar, you realize that her parents may have turned a blind eye to her brother’s drug use as they just didn’t know how to deal with it. Assaf’s parents’ are out of the country as many Israelis often are. We just wanted to drive home the fact that these kids are completely on their own and need to solve their problems by their own devices.
I wonder if you could talk about the songs that the kids perform in the film. Are they well known songs in Israel? Originally, when I wrote the script, I just threw in a bunch of songs I liked that I imagined the kids would be singing on the street: Radiohead and other songs that I could imagine acoustic versions of. But Oded really felt that the music should be Israeli. Some of them are popular Israeli songs but most are old time folk songs that are practically in the Israeli collective unconscious: Most Israelis really know these songs—every word of them—without really knowing that they know them. They are folk songs from the early days of the country and harken back to a more innocent time. The music kind of strikes a chord. It’s interesting seeing the film with Israelis. They start singing the songs along with the characters in the film. It’s almost like a toned-down Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Could you talk a bit about the script you wrote for the upcoming Paul Schrader film, Adam Resurrected? That’s a project based on a classic Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk, a brilliant writer and a man of great talent and irony. The story is set in a psychiatric hospital in the Negev desert in Israel during the Sixties. And it’s the story of a former circus and stage performer in Berlin during the 40’s. He survives the Nazi camps by being the dog of the commandant— he literally lives on all fours to the amusement of the Nazi commandant, which is revealed flashback. In the present we see him as a tortured inmate in a very unique psychiatric hospital for camp survivors. The book addresses, with an amazing mix of dark humor and imagination, themes of survivor guilt, the madness of the war and its psychological repercussions.In this institute, the protagonist, Adam, meets a young child who is trapped in the persona of a dog and the two heal each other over the course of the film. Paul Schrader describes the story as being about “a man who was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy”. I was hired to adapt it by producer Ehud Bleiberg who had been dreaming about making the film for years. It’s an amazing book and hopefully will be an amazing film. I was very lucky to have it fall into my hands. It’s now being edited and is due for release in 2008.

Could you talk about your experience as a film student at the Sam Spiegel School in Jerusalem? Oded and I were part of the school’s second graduating class. When we started, the building itself was still under construction and the classrooms were basically raw spaces. But there was something very exciting and dynamic about the school which was brand new at the time. Teachers were actual filmmakers. Renen Schorr, the director of the school—and still is, to this day—is a pillar of the Israeli filmmaking industry. He put together this very practical-minded film school where all we did was make films. We were editing, shooting and working on all aspects of film. We also watched so many films. We were at the school day and night—in the editing rooms, in the labs, in the classrooms. We got a lasting foundation and a love of film from that place. For all of us, it was a brand new experience. It’s not like today where you come to film school after having shot your own short films or videos. None of us really knew much about it I had been studying graphic design and fine arts. Others came right out of the army. Students came from Tel Aviv as well as from all over Israel to be in this environment where there was a feeling of something new and exciting happening. To this day, I am still very close with the people I met there.
How was Israeli film of the past regarded in this new film school environment? Renen was a journalist as well as a filmmaker, a film theorist and a very deep thinking guy. He had a sound understanding and knowledge of Israeli film history. However, what he chose to impart on the students was more of the American mode of filmmaking. We also saw film noir, Hitchcock, French films…everything. It’s not that we didn’t see a lot of Israeli films—we saw many films from all different eras of Israeli filmmaking. But I think he believed that Israeli film needed a shift toward a more western style of filmmaking. He believed in the grand motto of make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry. He wasn’t interested in having us go out and make films that were like the old Israeli ones which focused on national history. The films he wanted us to make—and that he geared the whole school toward—were, of course, personal films but also films that could have a wider international appeal. He really pushed us to consider filmmaking from an almost Hollywood perspective. Some of the students rebelled, some had more of a leaning toward European films. But there was something very exciting about the films we were being taught to make at the school. We felt we were part of an experiment in Israeli filmmaking.

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