Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Interview with Eytan Fox, director of Mary Lou

Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Eytan Fox's musical miniseries, Mary Lou

Mary Lou is the most recent film by acclaimed Israeli director Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger, Walk On Water, The Bubble, and the television series Florentine).

TJFF Programmer Allen Braude spoke with Eytan Fox about experience directing Mary Lou.

Allen Braude: Let me begin by congratulating you on Mary Lou. I find it to be fun and entertaining but also very moving with emotional depth. What inspired you to make this film and why did you choose to tell the story in four parts?

Eytan Fox: Thank you. To tell you the truth, this was one of the only projects that I’ve directed that I didn’t really initiate, it wasn’t my idea. I was approached by a cable television channel in Israel called HOT. They contacted me and said they wanted to do a musical miniseries, which is a format that is not done often. Today there are musical television series such as Glee, but a miniseries that is a musical is currently not very popular. HOT is a channel that produces a lot of miniseries. They obtained the rights to all the music of this Israeli pop icon named Svika Pick, and wanted to take these Israeli pop songs and create a story around them, like Mamma Mia does with Abba’s music or like other contemporary musicals. Their aim was to produce the most entertaining and meaningful project or film, based around Svika Pick’s songs. So they brought me into the project, which was already in development with an amazing woman named Shiri Artzi, who wrote the story. We clearly fell in love (laughs) and we worked on this together and created something we are very proud of. And now Mary Lou is starting to leave Israel and travel the world, and I’m very happy that it is reaching all sorts of places I didn’t expect it to reach.

AB: When I watched Mary Lou, I was not familiar with Svika Pick’s music but I enjoyed the songs very much. How important is Svika Pick to Israelis?

EF: I’m trying to think of who the North American equivalent would be, I’m mean aside from the fact that he looks like Ozzy Osbourne (you can see him in a cameo role in Mary Lou), but that’s not the comparison to Svika Pick I want to make. I’ll tell you that my first slow dance—in what was the seventh grade or something—with a girl, was to a Svika Pick song. For anyone who grew up in Israel in the 1970’s or 1980’s, his music is part of their score, part of their growing up score, part of their life score. And like Abba for that matter, he keeps having a comeback every few years. The last three years he’s been a judge on Israeli idol—that’s a big comeback—and an earlier comeback back was in 2002 when the National Theatre of Israel put on a theatrical stage musical which featured Svika Pick songs, and I went to see it. Everyone was very upset, saying how could the Israeli National Theatre Company—the theatre of Shakespeare and Chekhov—put on a musical based on pop songs, no matter whose music they were using. But it was a very big success, it was the theatre’s biggest commercial success. So the Israeli channel HOT saw the success and wanted to show it on television. However, while they were inspired by its success, they really didn’t like the play itself. It was the silliest play you can imagine. So, instead of filming the play, they obtained the rights to the songs and decided to create a new project. I’m happy that they decided that it would not just be something light and fun; so we had a chance to take these songs and create a story that has intelligence and something to say about serious issues, that has depth and multi-layered characters and discussions about sexuality. Mary Lou looks at attitudes towards transsexuals, sexuality between friends, bisexuality, leaving your hometown as a boy and coming back as a woman, and then coming out to your father—all this very serious stuff. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do this and to turn it into something that is more than just an entertaining commercial musical. You know Svika Pick is an artist who has very commercially successful songs, and it is great that he is so supportive of this project and that he let us use his music to discuss all these issues.

Whenever I make a film and take it abroad, I’m nervous about how it will do, how people will react. Will people appreciate that I am trying to tell a different story? Will people like the characters I’ve created, and will they understand the situations I am trying to talk about and the subtleties in the work? And with Mary Lou you add an extra layer—all these Israeli songs that people abroad aren’t likely to know—so it’s frightening to present it. I recently presented the film in Paris at the Forum des Images as part of a festival of television work, and we had a very good screening of all four episodes. It was in a big cinema, over 500 people, and it was a beautiful day in Paris but people chose to spend three hours in the theatre to see it and it was full. The audience really understood it and appreciated how the songs were used and enjoyed the variety of song styles. Everyone had a wonderful time and the audience enjoyed it tremendously, so I hope it will have the same success in Toronto.

AB: How did you cast your lead actors? Did they do their own singing?

EF: Yes, the lead actors did their own singing. I’m very proud of them because you have examples of good actors who are not able to sing well—for example Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia—and you also have examples of actors not singing themselves such as of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story; in these cases other women did the vocals as the actresses did not have great singing voices, which worked wonderfully.

In our case, all of the young actors are people who have good voices. When we were casting it was very important that they could sing, not Broadway calibre singing, not super-professional voices, but that they could carry a tune and do it well. I was looking for actors who were able to take on a character and were comfortable and believable when they start singing—because it’s fun, because it is part of what’s happening—and comfortable to join others who are singing and dancing. It is the same with the dancing. We were not looking for super-professional dancing from the actors, but more than what I would call ‘walking dancing’. We wanted the characters to show they could join the people dancing and do it well for that matter. We wanted the audience to be able to relate to and be inspired by the singing and dancing, not just the lesbian and gay community, but a wide audience so that even shy boys would want to move their feet.

Ido Rosenberg as Meir/Mary Lou

Secondly, when casting the lead actors, I was looking for very young people, not teenagers, but actors in their early 20s who look young. We found these wonderful young actors working in Tel Aviv, and talked to them about being involved and committing themselves to the project and putting their hearts, souls and bodies into the work. For example, the actor who plays Gabriel, he’s a very handsome young man and he’s gay. And he made a point out of coming out to me. You know I’m an advocate for people coming out—actors and public figures coming out—but I said to him, are you sure about this? This is your first big role, and maybe you should wait a bit. No, he said, this is who I am and I’m tired of lying and pretending I’m someone who I’m not. I’m proud of whom I am. This is a person who grew up on a kibbutz in a macho environment with a tough father and who served in the army, who did all these tough things and now is singing and dancing and is an out gay youth. I’ve very happy for him and proud of him.

AB: That shows how times have changed, how people are less worried about the impact on their careers and are more interested in living as the person they want to be.

EF: Yes you’re right, and in Israel especially. I’ve been coming for many years to film festivals in North America, Jewish Film Festivals, Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals, International Film Festivals. One of my first tours of these festivals was with my first television series, Florentine. That was the television series that portrayed the first gay love story between two men on Israeli television, it showed the first gay kiss, and a lot of other taboos were dealt with or broken in that series. And back then it was a really ground breaking. Now after many years, maybe I’m pushing the envelope a little further, using Svika Pick songs which are very straight—well not exactly straight, but well-known by everyone in Israel and loved by many—and I’m bring them to a world that is, maybe, a little more difficult for a large audiences. I remember coming to all these Jewish film festivals and Gay and Lesbian film festivals with Florentine, and people were surprised and said, you mean you are able to show this on Israeli television? And I remember that at that time it was a difficult thing to do. But today is different, and I think that I was part of the whole change with my films and my television work. Now it is much easier for me, my generation and young people in Israel to make these kinds of films: they’re appreciated, they’re loved, and the actors who are gay can come out and it doesn’t necessarily harm their career. We have many openly gay artists in Israel—men and women who are out and still very popular.

Eytan Fox (middle) with the cast of The Bubble (2006)

AB: Mary Lou is not as political as your last film (The Bubble) but still addresses important social issues such as homophobic bullying in high schools. How serious is this issue in Israel?

EF: First of all, I think almost everything has a political side. So you do have these political subtexts in Mary Lou, such as the one boy (Meir) who decides not to go into the army, which is very unusual in Israel, and then becomes a drag performer in Tel Aviv. And then you have the other boy (Gabriel) who does the traditional thing and becomes a paratrooper in the Israeli army and then they have this conversation where Gabi, the soldier, refers to the dress that Meir, the drag queen, is wearing, and asks him, do you usually wear this costume? And Meir answers, do you always wear this costume, referring to his army uniform, which is a very radical statement, because no one in Israel thinks of the army uniforms as costumes. Being in the army is something which is very much part of the whole nature of who Israelis are, and the uniform is like our skin, you know this is our traditional role, and the uniform is not a costume. In Mary Lou, I try present to present an equation where both the uniform and the dress are costumes: they are choices made by people about what to wear and who to be. So that’s one political thing that the series does.

Secondly, Israel, like many countries, has a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and gay and lesbian culture and so on. However, like many other places with such strong acceptance, we still have problems which includes being gay and out in high school. While we were shooting Mary Lou, we had this terrible incident of this young man walking into the Gay and Lesbian Youth Centre in Tel Aviv and shooting and killing 3 youths and wounding others. The centre was a relatively popular place and we started getting all these phone calls on set because everyone was trying to figure out who was there and who wasn’t there, who’s safe and who’s not safe. This was an unfortunate reminder that what we were doing was relevant and how important it was to tell this story. You think you are living in a liberal and open-minded place, but when you have this kind of tragedy, you realize that you have to continue making these kind of films and shows, and that you must be vigilant and not let your guard down.

AB: Can you tell us a little bit about your next project?

EF: Well, I’m having a very busy year: I’m shooting two feature-length films, which doesn’t happen often in Israel, which has a very small industry. Right now I’m finishing shooting on a very small independent film, which is somewhat of a sequel to Yossi and Jagger. It’s 10 years later and it features just Yossi, who’s still mourning his lover and the film tries to understand what happened to him, how he changed, how Israel has changed, and how he tries to deal with his post-traumatic personality. So that’s the film I’m shooting as we speak. It’s very intense, it’s a very small film that I have a very strong urge to make. And then later on in August, I’m shooting a completely different film—a feel-good, happy film about a group of women who form a pop group. They are different ages—the oldest is 55 and the youngest is 22—and they have been chosen to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest. So I’m very happy about that. And I’m really happy that Mary Lou is going around the world and that film festivals, such as the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, are showing it.

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