Nony Geffen [interview]

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Interview with Nony Geffen director of Not in Tel Aviv

by Roberto Rippa
from Rapporto Confidenziale 36


Roberto Rippa: I read a biography – I guess you wrote it – where it is stated that you grew up in a village with no cable TV and no internet connection.

Nony Geffen: It’s true.

RR: So, how could you satisfy your passion for cinema?

NG: The passion for cinema started when I was a bit older… 18 or 20. Before that I just saw the big ones: from Batman to Antonioni. After that I saw a lot of movies.

RR: And you became an actor…

NG: Yeah. At first in some students’ films and after that in Israelian TV. Then, one year ago, I acted in a full feature film in Israel called It’s Never too Late (directed by Ido Fluk and recent winner at Fribourg International Film Festival. Editor’s note.).

RR: You are also the main actor in Not in Tel Aviv. This is your first feature film. Was it hard to work both as an actor and director? Or, better, was it hard to direct yourself?

NG: No, that was the easy part, I know how to direct myself (he laughs). If I knew how hard it was going to be, maybe I would have done things differently. But, you know, it was a strange character, it would have been hard to explain to another actor this crazy character and all the stuff going on in the movie.

RR: Was everything already clear in the screenplay when you wrote it? Did you leave room for improvisation?

NG: Yes, a lot!

RR: Also for the two female roles?

NG: Yes, of course. There is some improvisation in the basketball scene. I don’t remember all of the scenes where there is improvisation but there was. And editing has been a little tough.

RR: How long did it take you to shoot the movie?

NG: Twelve days.

RR: Superfast!

NG: Yeah. We didn’t have the money to work more.

RR: Not being able to film a lot, editing shouldn’t have been too complicated…

NG: Actually, I replaced my editor after three months and so it took a little bit more. The first guy was smart but didn’t get the spirit of the film. It took a while to find another one. I worked with Tal Hayek, who’s very well known in Israel. She is amazing.

RR: Being this a very personal film, how did you work with Romi Aboulafia and Yaara Pelzig, the other two actresses?

NG: I worked a lot with them before shooting. We didn’t rehearse much but I discussed a lot with them about how I wanted them to play their roles. We rehearsed the scenes that were a little bit more difficult to play but we worked three or four months before the shooting. When we started shooting, I worked with my cinematographer. We wrote every scene, we imagined everything we wanted and so, when we started filming, we didn’t need to discuss, everybody knew what they had to do. Of course they asked questions but everything was already clear and decided. On the set I was – I shouldn’t say this because I am a Jew – a little bit nazi. Everything needed to be fast.

RR: In 12 days you don’t have time to waste.

NG: Exactly. I’m not sure I was a nice person during the shooting. I was too dedicated to the things I had to do.

RR: Because it’s a very complicated movie: there are many different scenes, different locations, a lot of action…

NG: …a lot of extras in some scenes…

RR: It looks very intense, very complicated.

NG: Yes, it was. But I could check every scene in the monitor after shooting it. That way I was able to give immediately some suggestions.

RR: How did you work with Ziv Bercovich, your cinematographer. Did you listen to his suggestions or you already knew exactly what you wanted?

NG: He is an amazing cinematographer and an amazing guy. We needed to deal with our budget. We couldn’t have shot from an helicopter, to make an example. So we knew our budget and what we could do with it. But this gave us a lot of freedom in our minds because we were free to do anything. There’s the scene of the car shot from the sky – you remember it? – to film that, we tied the cinematographer between the cars.

RR: Not easy, even dangerous… but sounds funny.

NG: Yeah, it was a funny shooting. It’s been funny. My best time ever. I would start all over again tomorrow.

RR: For how long did you think about this movie, when did you start writing it?

NG: I started like two years ago and we started shooting after five or six months.

RR: Very fast! Especially for a first full feature.

NG: Yeah, I was like a train. I couldn’t see anything else. I needed to do it. It came from my heart. I found my cinematographer, we auditioned like eighty actresses and I finally got the best ones I could find. It was amazing. I’m in love with them.

RR: I was reading some reviews and one of them says that the film is full of inside jokes, jokes that you can get just if you’re from Israel. It may be but there’s a lot more. Anyway, through this review I discovered that one of your characters is named Ofer Shechter, after a famous real Israelian actor. In fact you chose a famous comedian to play the role of a famous actor and the character has his real name.

NG: Yeah, it’s funny because Ofer Shechter is a thirty years old sex symbol in Israel. Actually, I gave him the script – I know him from TV and film industry work – and he told me: «I don’t know, I don’t want people to think I’m like this…». So I told it was okay but I kept his real name for the character and called the most famous comedian in Israel to play the role. But he is a fifty years old guy, a little fat and with weird eyes and he acts as he was saying: «Hey, I’m Ofer fucking Shechter». In Israel it’s a big joke.

RR: How did the real Ofer Shechter react to this?

NG: He loved it, he is a cool guy.

RR: You haven’t studied cinema.

NG: No.

RR: So, how did you manage to start with such a complex film?

NG: I worked as a line producer, location manager, I worked in production stuff many times. I also wrote dialogues for soap operas. So every time I was on a set I wanted to understand everything that was going on. I asked everybody many questions. I guess I drove everybody crazy, but this is how I started to understand everything you need to make a movie.

RR: I’m asking you this because yours doesn’t look like a first feature film. As I said before, it’s a very complex film, and it’s very hard to think it’s a debut.

NG: Well, I think I drove crazy many of the most famous Israealian directors asking them many questions: «Why do you do this? Why do you place the camera there? Why are the lights there?». I even asked questions about make-up. In the last ten years I wanted to understand everything. I never had the money to go to cinema school, so I learnt from working.

RR: Watching the film I would say that the lack of studies paid a lot for you.

NG: I guess so, I don’t know.

RR: Let’s talk about something deeply sad: money. Was it hard to find the money to shoot the film?

NG: When I wrote the script and gave it to my producer he liked it. Then we gave it to the Israelian Film Fund and they just hated it. They asked me to meet them and they told me how much they hated it (he laughs).

RR: Did they call you just for this?

NG: Yes, just for this. They really hated the shit out of it!

RR: Why?

NG: Because they asked: «Why does he kill his mother? And why does he go for a pizza after that?». They hated everything. I started laughing and said: «It is what it is». They liked this and gave me 25’000$. And then we got other 25’000 for post-production.

RR: That’s all you got for the whole film?

NG: Yeah.

RR: It’s not a lot.

NG: Yeah, tell me about it.

RR: Now that it’s finished is it more the satisfaction for making the film with little money or the frustration for what it could have been if you had more?

NG: No, it was the perfect way to make my first feature. If you are a non experienced director it’s even better because if I had a bigger budget I would have been more nervous. Also about people being satisfied with my movie. My head would have exploded. When you work with such a small budget you are free. Money is a logical thing, making movies is illogical.

RR: One of the many things I deeply appreciated is that you shot the places in an anonymous way. You chose some angles of the city, like the pizza place, but the city is never really there.

NG: Yes, Not in Tel Aviv. The story could happen anywhere. It could be Not in Milan. I chose not to show the town.

RR: It works beautifully. You chose Yaara Pelzig – who was in Nadav Lapid’s Hashoter (Policeman) – for one of the two main female roles. She’s a very famous actress.

NG: She’s a beautiful actress.

RR: Actually they are both.

NG: They are both, yes. She has the role of a student, so before her I tried to choose someone who looked a little younger. But she was so good during the audition, she has a lot of charm, so we said: «OK, she can look like a teenage student». I was afraid she may look a bit old to play a student. But she was good in the role. She was amazing, she made three or four auditions – I don’t remember exactly – and she was really good.

RR: But then you are all really good. In fact I appreciated all the actors: the one who plays the mother, the feminist group is really good and funny. Speaking of this, it is clear that you mix a lot of genres. Your film is the ultimate black comedy. You mix drama – because there’s a lot of drama in your film…

NG: Yeah, the mother…

RR: Yes, but not just her. Your character is desperate, miserable, he looks after the girl he’s been loving since he was a teenager but everything he does always turns out funny.

NG: He has no job, he has no money, he is annoying, but the bigger picture needs to be funny. That’s what I tried to do, because if you look just at him you may not understand but if you look at the bigger picture it’s funny because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He acts like a mentally retarded.

RR: In fact the scene where the gun first appears is super funny.

NG: Yeah, because he is a good person. He doesn’t do anything sexual to the girls…

RR: Yes, he’s very respectful but he doesn’t know where to go and what to do. And the two girls always know better than him.

NG: They are the coolest girls ever!

RR: One of the reviews of the film mentioned Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 and Godard’s Pierrot le fou. I haven’t seen any Vincent Gallo in it…

NG: You know, the kidnapping… I didn’t think about it while writing the script but later, when some people saw the rough cut, somebody said something about it. But when I wrote the script I saw like all of Godard’s films. In my mind my film recalls more A Band Apart.

RR: That’s what I wanted to say. If I had to mention a Godard’s film, it would be A Band Apart.

NG: Yes, but when they ask me about the kidnapping I say: «Yeah, it’s like a bit like Buffalo ’66». But just the kidnap.

RR: I can’t see it.

NG: But I can think about Godard, especially A Band Apart.

RR: Let’s talk about the music: you used the music of Uzi Ramirez. Was the music important in your film starting with the writing of the screenplay?

NG: Oh yes!

RR: So were you already thinking about it while writing?

NG: Yes! I knew Uzi Ramirez music before and I knew that I wanted Americana – you know, the voice and the guitar – the classic bluesy feel. I knew it would have been perfect for the spirit of the film. I guess I love music more than films but I don’t know how to play anything and I can’t sing. So I make films and put music in them.

RR: Did they write about your film in Israel?

NG: Actually before coming to Locarno the film was at a small festival in Israel and the film won (at Sderot Cinema South Festival. Ed.). And immediately after that we came to Locarno. Now, after Locarno, the Israelian Film Fund loves the film (he laughs)! It’s like they knew from the beginning (laughs more).

RR: This should make it easier to find fundings for you next project.

NG: I hope so. My next movie is already written. I want Not in Tel Aviv to be out in cinemas in Israel but I’m ready to shoot the new film tomorrow. I have the script, 127 pages.

RR: Will it be different in its tone?

NG: Yeah, it contains some surreals elements but I think it’s more dramatic, even if it has funny things. It’s a bit more serious. With Not in Tel Aviv I just wanted to kick everything, you know? At the premiere here I showed my butt. It was funny, I’ve seen the photos today!
But I want to do different stuff, I don’t want do to movies all alike.

RR: Did you write the new script before shooting Not in Tel Aviv?

NG: Three months before.

RR: Are you a fast writer? I mean, once you have the idea is it easy for you to put it on paper?

NG: Yeah. like five days. But it took me like two years to understand what I wanted to say.

RR: For Not in Tel Aviv did you rewrite the script many times before shooting?

NG: No, never. I don’t believe in this.

RR: Because you fear it may loose something?

NG: Yes. I changed something. For example, the father of the female character, the owner of the pizza place, wasn’t in the first draft of the script. I added him because I thought he would be helpful to make the audience understand the character a bit more. In fact she’s cool but she also works in the pizza place with her father.

RR: In fact the father’s character is helpful, he gives deepness to her character.

NG: Yeah, it’s a small character but it helps understanding her choices.

RR: What happens in Israel when an Israelian film comes out? Do people go to see it or is just all about Hollywood films like almost everywhere?

NG: Actually Asghar Farhadi‘s A Separation is a big hit in Israel but not many people go to see a film from Israel. They don’t go because in their minds a film from Israel is bad. But I also think that there aren’t many films like mine in Israel. Most of them are sad, talk about politicians, the country problems, religion and gays… all heavy stuff. When directors get the scripts, even the funny ones, they translate them in heavy stuff. But Israel is a bit like this, you know. It’s a bit a heavy place. That’s why I wanted to do something different, something that could free their minds something about people doing stupid things and wanting to be in love and be loved.

RR: Go back to the essential things in life…

NG: Yeah! It’s not all about war and religion.

RR: Especially in a place where the war is always going on.

NG: It’s a big issue and I wanted to show a different Israel. Maybe they’ll hate it.
Oh, initially the ending of the film was different. We shot it but I didn’t use it. I cut the scene before that. (He tells about the alternate ending)

RR: I prefer the ending that you kept.

NG: (He laughs) I did too.


Locarno, August 9, 2012




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