Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oscar-winning Actress Geena Davis Reappears and Makes Accidents Happen

Feature Interview By Brad Balfour

Every film festival yields an unexpected treat and this year's Tribeca Film Festival is no exception. With the premiere of Accidents Happen, the 51 year old actor Geena Davis steps into the spotlight again, this time by doing a quirky little indie--the feature directorial debut of composer and short filmmaker Andrew Lancaster--shot in Australia but set in the 1980s Connecticut.

For this Oscar winner, her startling and starring reappearance makes for a snappy and sharp-witted comeback. At a time when dysfunctional moms seem to dominate the news and daily talk shows, Davis plays a flippant Gloria Conway, the maternal head of a decidely distraught suburban family traumatized by a fatal auto accident in which one of the kids is killed and another is brain damaged.

Though partially responsible, 15-year-old Billy (Harrison Gilbertson) has become the de facto glue that barely holds together his bitter mom, distant brother (Harry Cook), and disaffected, disenfranchised dad (Joel Tobeck). When Billy starts to act out his anguish, things change for him and his family in this visually provocative, wry drama. Having been once married to such A-type arch personalities as actor Jeff Goldblum and director Renny Harlin.

With a career that has had her playing the first female president, Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief (a short-lived but critically appreciated television series) as well as a feminist culture hero in Thelma and Louise, the still svelte six-footer has established her range and smarts. Once she had been tapped to be in Tootsie, she soon proved her versatility and has done over-wrought adventure films (Cutthroat Island), crime-noir (The Long Kiss Goodnight), comic-drama (A League of Their Own), arch sci-fi (David Cronenberg's The Fly remake) a Tim Burton film (Beetle Juice) and won an Oscar for The Accidental Tourist.

Q: You went to Australia to essentially make an American film.

GD: Well, it struck me as odd, definitely. It was like, "Why aren't we shooting this in Connecticut?" But it actually turned out great. We wouldn't have had these incredible actors, and it was fun. I love Sydney. I love Australia. I always say that if I had to move I would move to Sydney. I loved it there.

Q: What kinds of adventures did you have there?

GD: Well, some run-ins with emus [Australian Ostrich-like birds] and there were some koala [bears] that were jumping out of the trees at me. We went to play bingo in Maroubra [a beach-side suburb of Sydney].

Q: Bingo?

GD: Bingo. We went to the bingo hall and there was a bingo parlor near where Sarah lives. It's this little kind of crummy building and in the basement. We went, and it was all old people. Instead of chips they had these stamp things, like you stamp a little dot.

Q: Did you play for money?

GD: Yeah. And we won. I got a $20 voucher. It was fantastic.

Q: Did you eat any weird foods while in Australia?

GD: Foods? No. I have to say that for someone coming from and living in L.A., Sydney [offers] the least culture shock you could possibly encounter in going to a foreign country. It's like L.A. only a little askew. They drive on the other side of the road, but you don't have to figure out, like, "How do I take the subway..." or "What's the money?"

Q: Did you have any Australian wine while you were there?

GD: Oh, yeah, I love Australian wine, actually.

Q: The culinary scenes in the film were fun--especially that mysterious mixture. What were you actually eating?

GD: It was like canned stew. It was fine and tasted good.

Q: Were you the only American in the cast?

GD: Yeah.

Q: Did these old cars bring back any memories for you?

GD: Oh, yeah. The prop guys were keen on teaching me to drive the car that I drove. I was like, "Are you kidding? This is what my parents had. I've driven this kind of car a couple of times."

Q: How was it working with all those young Australian actors?

GD: All these guys are so sweet, like the sweetest guys on earth. When we first met, one of the very first things that we did was to have a read-through around the table. I was sitting next to Harry [Gilbertson] and there's a word that's not in the movie anymore, a profoundly vulgar word that he had to say. We get to that scene and it's coming up, and he says the line and says the word sort of quietly and goes, [whispering] "Sorry." I think he might've even gone, "Sorry, Mrs. Davis."

Q: How did they feel about meeting you?

GD: Later they told me that they were so nervous about meeting me. I thought, "Oh, I really should've been like, 'It's Mrs. Davis, please...' just to torture them a little bit [laughs]. But they were nervous enough.

Q: You didn't call them on their American accents and make sure they were good? Did they keep you fooled?

GD: They were good, very good. They did a great job, really.

Q: How did the role you played personally resonate with you?

GD: I always feel like when I play a character, you just have to find that part of yourself instead of imposing something from the outside. So I had to find a part of me that could relate to feeling helpless and lost, but try to cover for it and try to rise above it and put up a shield. I think it's something that people can easily do to a lesser degree. I think it's just how big the circumstances are, how much you're forced by self-preservation in that particular way—denial and blocking and blaming other people.

Q: How was your character's guilt different from the other character's guilt?

GD: I think she feels horribly, horribly guilty about it. Her way of surviving was partly to put it on her husband, and try to force others to carry the burden and develop this sort of defense mechanism of outrageous language and vulgarity and brash personality as a way to keep people away. Also, it's from facing her own pain.

Q: Why is she guilty?

GD: Well, I [won't] tell you in specifics [or it might ruin the movie], but I think that in general, any mother—if anything happens to their kid, it doesn't matter what the circumstance was—you would always feel like, "If I hadn't let them be there, if I hadn't..." There's nothing worse than having your child die. I think it's that.

I imagined that she was going over that situation—that I was needling everybody and was yelling at the kids and so they fought. I didn't tell him enough to slow down, and all of those things that just probably wrack your life forever.

Q: Was this film specifically designed for you?

GD: No, not specifically.

Q: You've done television, big studio films, and now independent films. How do those experiences contrast--for a while you were in the television arena and now doing this opens must open up a whole range of new opportunities...

GD: Well, I hadn't avoided independent films. It just somehow never happened. I never got offered a part in an independent film that I wanted to do. So it's not like you made it sound, that I'm now in my independent film phase [laughs]. I don't know what'll happen. I would be happy to do more.

Q: How different was this experience from working in television?

GD: I don't find any of them that different. This was actually a lot like TV in that you shoot so much faster, so many more pages a day than a pricey film. But I like all mediums. I don't really do plays, but as far as TV and films and everything, I like them all. It's really just what the part is. I didn't notice…it didn't have pop-outs, my trailer. It's true. I did notice that [laughs]. But what I'm saying is that it was very similar.

Q: How has your training as an athlete shaped your training as an actor?

GD: It had a more personal impact on me, a more real-life impact than acting, because I'd been so un-athletic, and was sure that I was uncoordinated until I got cast in A League of Their Own and had to learn [how to play] baseball. The coaches were like, "You're picking this up fairly fast." I was like, "I have untapped athletic ability!"

Then I did some action movies. That spurred me to take up archery, and I became a sort of fanatic about that [to the point where she became a women's Olympic archery team finalist in 1999 but failed to qualify]. So it changed my feeling about my body and my physical abilities a great deal. What I didn't realize until later is that competing in tournaments was so satisfying.

But I think it's because it's the exact opposite of having a movie review, which is utterly subjective. It doesn't matter what you wore to the tournament. It's the points—did you hit the bull's-eye or not—and that's very satisfying. You can look at it and count instead of wondering.

Q: Do you still do it?

GD: I haven't lately because of the kids. I've been busy, but it's not age dependent so I think I can take it up again at another time.

Q: Since you've never done that before, what would bring you to the stage?

GD: I don't know, maybe a big musical.

Q: What's next for you?

GD: I don't know yet.

Q: You don't have anything coming up?

GD: Listen, I've never known what I'm going to do next when I finish one thing. I don't know how people do that. I'm always like, "Sharon Stone has four movies." She's got this in the can and then this… But that's never ever happened for me. I never know. I guess I just take a long time.

Q: I'd like to see you kick ass one more time, so do another action film.

GD: Believe me, I would love to.

Q: What's been the best accident that's ever happened to you and why? You met your husband in an interesting way--is that true?

GD: Oh, that's true. That's probably the biggest accident that happened. I met my husband because my dog bit him on the ass. I said, "Hey, who's that? Bite him." No.

The only reason that I met him and spoke to him was because he wanted to tell me that my dog had bit him. I left it at a friend's house, and he was a mutual friend who walked in to say hi to his friend and there [the dog] was. She had decided to guard the house, and chased him out over the fence.

Q: Did he need stitches?

GD: No.

Q: Was it a pit bull?

GD: No, an Irish Water Spaniel. Very sweet and soft, but she got possessive about the house.

Q: How are they now, your husband and the dog?

GD: Well, she fell in love with him [Dr. Reza Jarrahy with whom she has three kids]. She just absolutely fell in love with him.

Q: It's kind of like The Accidental Tourist.

GD: There's a doggish thing going on there... Yeah.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Actor Natalie Portman Launches Into The Making of Web Portal

Feature Interview By Brad Balfour

Oscar-nominated actress Natalie Portman joined her business partner and film developer/new media entrepreneur Christine Aylward to discuss the launch of their new website,, at a special event in the Filmmaker's Lounge during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. As they explained, the site is meant to be a gathering place and resource for filmmakers and fans of filmmakers alike. Their web project hopes to transform the way people view, enjoy, and participate in the filmmaking process.

The Israeli-born Portman, of course, is the actor who received international attention when she landed the role of Queen/Senator Amidala for Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III. This helped her get parts in Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is but she really came into her own with films like Garden State, V For Vendetta (where she shaved her head) and The Other Boleyn Girl. When she played the ex-girlfriend in Darjeeling Limited she did an accompanying 13-minute short, Hotel Chevalier for director Wes Anderson and offered her sexiest performance yet.

As an accomplished actress, she has performed in such established plays as Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and The Diary of Anne Frank, and garnered her Supporting Actress Oscar nom for Closer in 2004.

She also graduated from Harvard University where she studied psychology. Later on she directed her first short, has actively supported various humanitarian and animal rights causes, and has been romantically linked with various actors or musicians such as neo-hippie Devendra Banhart. She is also an entrepreneur having started an aborted vegan shoe line (its partner company dissolved through this econ crisis) who is now launching this media company with Aylward as CEO. The two had met on a film set and came up with the idea of a behind-the-scenes, insiders-look web portal off-the-cuff during a dinner.

The following interview was drawn from the Q & A session after they announced the launch before a small group of film professionals; it is boiled down to Portman's remarks and her response to several of my own questions as well.

Q: Why did you two start this website?

NP: Christine [Aylward] and I have been friends for a few years now and we were talking one night. I said, "I wonder why there isn't a website that sort of encapsulates the experience of visiting a friend on a film set?" Because every time a friend of mine came to visit I was reminded about how exciting a place it is to work and was reminded about how little we all know when you're just a movie-goer of all the different aspects that go into making a film.

The site is supposed to encapsulate that experience and give access to people who don't have a friend that they can go visit on a film set. So they can say, "How did they do that?"

There are jobs that exist on films sets which people don't even know about. We can give an insight into that and offer that experience for the serious burgeoning filmmaker. There's this whole generation now of people who are making their own movies with youtube and similar sites. I'm sure that they want expert advice or the opportunity to see how it looks up close. So that's the goal of the site, to extend that access to everyone.

Q: You've worked on small indie films and very large studio films. How do you compare those experiences; the good things, the bad things, and being behind the scenes?

NP: The thing that unites all film experience is that it really is a team. It's a collaboration between so many people. There's actually this [David] Mamet line that [I think] Mike [Nichols] always quotes. So I'm going to quote the quote. "Film is a collaborative process. Bend over" [laughs].

It really is a collaborative process though and there are so many people who contribute in ways that are not highlighted. It's a really exciting opportunity to get to focus on those people. Also, [film-making] is such an insider industry. So many people learn to do what they do because their parents do it. You see on film sets a lot of time that the camera operator is the father of the focus puller and the makeup artist is the mother of the hair stylist. It's very much like that. It's really a family business and that makes it even more exciting to open that access because that's how people get access.

It's not like people come out of film school and get hired on movies. A lot of times the access is who you know and you learn by doing. You learn by being on the job. The goal of this, and obviously it's a work in progress and we'll be amending as necessary, as we go on, but the hope is to really let people learn by doing, learn by experiencing firsthand. 

Q: So the site is for people who want to learn what a grip is and for people who want hear expert advice from director Ron Howard?

NP: Yeah. It should be, like, [for] the kid who asks, "How did they do that explosion in the Bond movie?" to the person who's says, "What lens was he using when he got that very specific shot?" or whatever. The goal is to have that range.

Q: You've talked about the Vault section of the site; you'll be able to watch whole movies or just clips of things?

NP: It will have the making of related things with movies that are already past being in theaters. So we're hopefully getting archival things. That's what we want for the future on the site.

Q: Did you do some of the interviews yourself that we see?

NP: I did one interview that I think is going to be up. I didn't want it to be, like, the "me" site. I really want it to be about filmmaking. So I didn't want to be all over it, but I did one interview.

Q: Did you learn anything that you didn't know before from watching some of the other interviews?

NP: Absolutely. The interview I actually did was with [director] Jim Sheridan who I worked with recently and it was so exciting to get to ask him questions. It's so formal to ask those questions with someone that you know and to have that opportunity was really incredible.

One thing he said that was really helpful to me was about the sort of impossibility of screenwriting because how do you describe the look on the child's face that has just learned that his mother died, when you open the door and reveal his face. How do you put that in there. He said that's the problem because it's such a visual medium and to really write something that describes what you're going to see is impossible and that's half the impossibility of getting anything made.

There have been so many things from different interviews, but it's nice to get insight from really disparate points of view that a lot of times you don't get to hear. It gives people ideas, too, about the opportunities that they could have on films, what are the many aspects that go into it and what's the process behind the many aspects.

Q: Do you see the site as connecting, say, a hairdresser with a production company or things like that?

NP: In terms of connecting people, I think one of the future goals for our interviews will be to have filmmakers interviewing other filmmakers so that they're asking the exact questions. If you're a costume designer what would you ask a legendary costume designer? If you're a casting director what would ask of…. So in that we connect those people and have interviews in that way too.

Q: And what do you have planned for the future--an international version?

NP: As I said, this is a "work in progress." We just launched this [on April 23rd, 2009] and we're very excited. There are so many opportunities, and yes, definitely [we are planning that]. That's such a great opportunity that the internet has brought us. One of the things that I always bemoan in the United States is how little access we have to so many great films from the rest of the world. In cities like London and Paris, I think you get a lot more exposure to that stuff. So it would be really exciting to use this as a tool for that, but not yet.

Q: Will you be capturing content from the post-production process as well?

NP: That'll be in the "Filming Now" section.

Q: In your message to consumers what are the key differences that they'll find on your site than they might not find on a DVD that they've purchased which includes sections about the making of a film?

NP: It's like [we are going to be] a centralized resource. So if you're a big Michel Gondry fan, our hope for the future is that it's not just Eternal Sunshine, but you click on it and you'll get his commentary on all of his movies or, if you like him, then here's other directors like him, or also people who you don't normally see interviewed on DVD stuff like editors, cinematographers and design people.

So you get insight into different aspects of the film and also, if you're into one of those other areas, you can again, like, see the archived [stuff]. Lets say there's one costume designer that you love or you just want to see all costume designers or you want to see all action movies; the goal is that it'll be a centralized resource with archived materials that the serious student can go to. Obviously we're building [it now].

Q: And specific to that person--like specific to Michel Gondry and not just specific to the film?

NP: Right, or it could be specific to the film. It could be specific to the person. It could be specific to a department. It's organized in that way that you wouldn't get just from a DVD, one alone. This is great. I love it. It's almost like a brainstorming session. There are so many ideas.

Q: What have you learned about the internet that you didn't know before?

NP: Wow. It's a huge process and I've learned a lot from watching Christine lead the way of creating the business and building a website. It never even occurred to me, all of the elements that go into it. That could be a whole other MakingOf. It's incredible. I didn't realize everything that goes into it and it's been very impressive to witness and learn about.

Q: One exciting thing about the site is that it encompasses the whole business of film, from accounting to acting.

NP: This is really where we will expand and that's the goal. I think it was one of the Naked Gun movies in the credits, I remember seeing this as a little kid, that said 'what the hell is a dolly grip?" You watch the credits and if you don't know--if you haven't been on a film set--you're like, "What? What does that even mean?" So, yes, most people would be like, "Why does a film need an accountant?"

Q: And, if they're not an actor or director, still be inspired.

NP: Exactly. The goal is really to give an impression of [what] everyone does. We don't have a specific thing [in mind].

Q: What are you hoping that people will say about the site after hearing about it now?

NP: Again, the goal is to give the user the experience of being a part of the process. I think you should feel that. [As for] the end goal, as I've said, we're a work-in-progress and just starting out, but our goal is to have everyone feel like they're a part of the crew and that they know the elements that go into the filmmaking process so that they can experience it in a very personal way. That's our goal.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Israeli Director Eran Riklis Offers A Humanizing View of Palestinians in Lemon Tree

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

When veteran Israeli director Eran Riklis made The Syrian Bride several years ago--a film focused almost entirely on the Druze community in Israel, with a few minor Jewish characters--he had joined the burgeoning community of Israeli filmmakers whose work is both markedly Israeli but also tinged with an international or European feel. Though clearly situated in their country of origin, their films are made for audiences who don't look at cinema so much as propaganda but as a force for critical thinking. In his latest movie (a Berlin Film Fest Audience Award winner), Lemon Tree, Riklis provides, if not a critical voice, then an empathetic one--one that often gets overlooked when the political discourse gets overheated.

Now that Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made, for him, something of an about-face--offering a truncated version of the two-state solution to the Palestinians--the release of a film that presents a humanizing, sympathetic view of Palestinians, resonates in a more powerful way than ever before.

Based on a true story, widow Salma (the great Hiam Abbass) defends her lemon tree field when a new Israeli Defense Minister moves next door to her and threatens to have her grove torn down. Living there for decades on the green line--the border between Israel and the West Bank--Salma has endured tragedy and loneliness when the Minister moves into his house opposite her comforting trees.

His Israeli security team declares her grove a threat to the his safety and orders it uprooted. In horror and defiance, Salma enlists an initially reluctant young Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), to fight for her fruit-bearing foliage--and they go all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. In addition, despite differences and borders, Salma and the Defense minister's wife Mira--trapped in her new home and unhappy life--develop an invisible bond. Along the way, forbidden ties also grow between Salma and Ziad at great risk to them both. This legal and personal journey throws Salma into the dark, complex, and sometimes funny, tumult of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

Q; In both this and The Syrian Bride, you not only challenge certain preconceptions of Israelis, but you also challenge preconceptions of Palestinian or Arabic scenarios; you really like to get yourself into trouble.

ER: I change my address every [film]… And my name [laughs].

Q; You’re of Ashkenazi [European Jewish] descent but Israeli-born?

ER: I’m Israeli-born. But I’m no martyr, not at all—though I fear nothing. In the end, it’s only a film, for chrissake! I mean, I know you can be burned for it, but…

Q; Your co-writer Suha Arraf, the writer on The Syrian Bride, is Palestinian, right?

ER: From Israel.

Q: It would be interesting to sit in on your writing sessions.

ER: That’s funny, because we both believe there are no taboos. You can touch anything. When people come to me and say that wouldn’t happen in a certain society, obviously I check it, because if there’s a degree of truth that this or that would never happen, fine. But even then, you can always be controversial.

And it’s funny, because when I look at both films, I don’t see anything controversial about them. But obviously it’s all in the eye of the beholder. As far as it being legitimate for me, as an Israeli, to go into the Palestinian society, I have the right as a filmmaker, as long as I respect the truth and am honest about it. Truth and honesty are probably a guiding light for me, and if I use them correctly, these words, then I’m fine.

Q; You worked with Suha on The Syrian Bride--was there a difference this time around or did she take a similar approach?

ER: We got to know each other much better. Basically we had a very good relationship during The Syrian Bride and we developed it in Lemon Tree. Now there’s a kind of mutual understanding. Of course, I’m the director, so I can always take care of the material any way I want. But when you’re co-writing, it’s a matter of chemistry. It gets better with age—that’s the only answer I can give.

Q; Some directors like to work with the same people. How did you and Hiam—who also had a big part in The Syrian Bride--shape the characters to make sure there wasn't a trace of one slipping over to the other?

ER: The definition of the character in Lemon Tree is totally different from that in Syrian Bride. First of all, the Salma character carries this film on her shoulders, so it was really a wider spectrum of emotions and psychological depth [for Hiam to handle]. Beyond that, the challenge for both her and me was to really overcome the stereotype of a Palestinian peasant, a simple woman, a poor woman struggling against a system—and as I speak, I think “Oh my God, that sounds terrible.”

But with Hiam and the way we approached the writing, we said "OK, she is a peasant, she’s not educated. But she has this inner energy which keeps her alive all these years as a widow, which keeps her open to the option of having a second love in her life, however controversial, and she has this strength to actually go all the way to the Supreme Court." So already we’re talking about a different perception of a Palestinian woman.

I guess what Hiam brings to that is the fact that on one hand, she was born in a small village in Israel and grew up there; on the other hand, she's spent 22 years now in France, so she’s actually Parisian [as much as she's a Palestinian]. She’s a very European, sophisticated lady. I think that kind of tension and that kind of balance creates a different kind of character and solves the problem in a way. I never had an issue of, “Is this close to what she did in The Syrian Bride or not?”

Q; You hear about the Palestinians' feelings of futility. Yet Salma resolves to fight this in the court, where it would seem impossible to win. You had to make that work and make it plausible that she would go so far as to believe she could go forward. You talk about fighting the system and taking it to the court, and having to make it seem convincing.

ER: Because we’re all sophisticated and na├»ve at the same time; that applies to Salma as well. Basically, on one hand, at night when she sits in bed on her own and she says, “Why am I doing this?” the answer is probably, “I’m stupid.” On the other hand, “Maybe I’m not. Maybe there is a chance.” And I think you always have to have this notion that things could be different. Maybe for you it’s like the lottery in a way. Maybe I’ll win, even though the chances are…

When you think about the Israeli legal system, it’s not obvious that they’re going to come up with this decision. You never know, because it is a legal system that works. So, of course, like any legal system anywhere in the world—nobody can convince me otherwise—it’s always affected by politicians, politics, the mood in the street, the security situation, all that. And yet, there’s always a judge who would say “I don’t care. This woman has her rights, I’m going to grant her her rights.”

It’s a little bit like Ziad’s decision in a way, which obviously is not very good for Salma. And yet the trees are still rooted in the ground, so there is something symbolically which gives a kind of future for her, and for her trees.

Q: In this country, widows are free to have another relationship again and even marry. Even though the Palestinians are supposed to be secular—it was hard for her to consider marrying again.

ER: It’s not about religion. She can get married, it’s not an official issue. The thing is that the family of the dead husband would expect to take care of that. It’s almost like, you can marry again, but you you have to marry one of the brothers, or somebody close to the family or a friend of the family. Certainly you can't go and marry a younger guy and he's much younger than her.

In the script, Ziad was described as in his early 40s, which was not that controversial. Then when I met Ali in the audition--I already knew him because he had a small role in The Syrian Bride—he was so charming, that I said “OK! He’s the guy. But how do I justify this relationship?” I had huge fights with Suha, because she said it would never work in a Palestinian society. I said “Give me a break! It works everywhere!”

You know, societies are societies, but things that happen behind closed doors—you never know. And I thought it added a great layer of tension, because of the fact is she’s under scrutiny all the time anyway. She’s under a microscope all the time and here is this young guy—on one hand, he’s the only one helping her. He’s the only one doing something for her for no money, or for minimal money. And on the other hand, he is really a kind of no-go in a way, and yet she fights for him. But also, to a certain degree, it’s a doomed love affair anyway, so the chances of it really happening are probably slim.

Q: The movie is not a comedy, but you show these humorous sides. Of course, the defense minister is one of the characters you’re really parodying… Did you have certain people in mind that you were referencing?

ER: The current prime minister was a good model for me. And Ehud Barak, who is now defense minister [and was a Prime Minister], was a good model [as well]. All these generals are good example, in terms of, they’re always pompous and with “Security Security” [on their minds]. But they can joke around, have kids, are married, and are also people.

I really tried to treat the minister like I treated all the other characters, and in that sense, I love him. He’s intelligent, but he’s also insensitive—who isn’t?

Q; He was the perfect parody of an Israeli politician.

ER: I think so. Yet, when you see him at the end of the film sitting there on his own in his empty house, you feel for him. Basically, he blew it. He could have just opened his eyes a little bit and changed this whole story, just like that. Like his wife says, he says, “What do you want from me? I can’t change history.” But in fact, he could have! At least, in this particular case.

Q; The Syrian Bride really isn’t so much about a place. This movie is all about a place. Was that an additional challenge--to getting locations visually--or could you have found this in any number of places?

ER: No. In fact, it was very tricky. Getting the lighting right, and the trees right, and the lemons right, it’s like a nightmare. Even the two houses at the grove were shot in two different places. We had to be very clever about [it]. You see Salma walk out of her house, and then a month later, I was shooting her arriving at the minister’s house, so it was quite tricky film-wise. But I think it looks really good in that sense.

Q; So why did you decide on a lemon grove rather than what would immediately be assumed, some kind of olive grove.

ER: That’s the answer. When I thought about olive trees, I said "No. I cannot see olive trees." The lemons have everything for me. They're fresh, sweet and sour, they have all the elements that you want. Visually they're beautiful. And I felt using olive trees was just overused symbolism that you can’t get away with.

Q; Was there any symbolism intended—the lemons for Palestinians, [olives] for Jews...

ER: Not really. It’s corny, because the first thing I wrote was Lemon Tree and I quoted the song, you know, the American song...

Q; I couldn’t get the damn song out of my head!

ER: It’s funny, because most people in Israel don’t know the song. But for me, [those were] the first lines I wrote. “Lemon tree… lemon tree so pretty.” So, I just found it a little fresher than any other symbol you could use. Certainly olive trees are really overused—you see them on the news all the time.

Q; Didn’t you want to make an Arabic/Middle Eastern version of that song...?

ER: There it was in the opening titles!

Q; In writing a screenplay, are you thinking about the music?

ER: Well, like a lot of filmmakers I’m a frustrated musician. Seriously. I wanted to be a musician. I learned a lot of instruments… I don’t play anything now. My son is a jazz pianist who’s actually studying here in New York at the New School.

At least, when you think of classical music, making a film is a little bit like composing a classical piece of music. And certainly the performance of a film is almost like the performance of a symphonic orchestra, in terms of all the elements coming together to crystallize into one beautiful thing.

But it’s not something I follow. It’s just intuitively—it happens because I connect well with music. I love music. And it’s true that when I look at all my films, there was always some kind of musical link. In most of them, at least.

Q; Is this simply a David & Goliath story--"Salma's last person who would challenge the system... Can she succeed?" If you ultimately had to sum up this film, how would you do it?

ER: It's a Mediterranean Erin Brockovich. I guess David and Goliath is probably a good example too. Even though I really don’t care for the headlines, I want to go beyond them. It’s really about the small details that make up this very simple story. Because in the end it’s a very simple story. It’s lemons, two women, and a problem.

Q; You also humanize the perceptions. Usually it's the Palestinians are "this" and the Jews are "that," but in one way or another you humanize everybody.

ER: For me, everybody has his moment of grace. You can be the security guy who has nothing on his mind but security, but in the end—the guy that lets them through at the roadblock [past] the security services, he’s also the kind of guy who could have said, “Forget about it.” But he said, “Go ahead.” So I think nobody is really evil in my films.

Q; The relationship between the defense minister's wife Mira [Rona Lipaz-Michael] and Salma shows there's that sort of an invisible connection. In the context of Israeli-Palestinian issues, are you presenting this as a metaphor of a relationship that doesn’t succeed even though they have a certain invisible bond if only they'd listened to each other... Do you find the conflict between Palestine and Israel, that they just need to listen to each other?

ER: It’s all about listening. It’s all about calming down for a minute and listening to each other and respecting each other on one hand. On the other hand, I think what I show in the film is more or less reality.

Mira represents a lot of Israelis, who do listen to the other side--yet there’s a limit to how far you can go. It’s always, "OK, I can respect you," but will they ever be friends? Not really. Is Mira really going to change in the sense that she’s going to go now and demonstrate every week? Not really. But the fact that she develops an awareness of the other side, of the enemy, and also has a self-awareness, I’m satisfied with that.

The same thing happens with Salma—suddenly, the other side is not this huge threatening machine that’s coming to take her lemons. There’s also somebody else there looking at her and feeling compassionate about her, and I’m sure Salma will be different…

When you look at the final image of Salma at the end of the film--when she’s looking at the wall—Salma has a small smile there, which is almost like saying "OK, I can accept this, I’m going to keep fighting, and my life is not devastated."

I think that’s part of a sense of growing, growing, in terms of, you know, there’s always a new day. It’s almost like with Gone With The Wind... “Tomorrow’s a new day,” or whatever the quote is. In that sense, I tried to keep an optimistic feel to the whole thing, because otherwise, why go on?

Q; How do audiences react to your films?

ER: I’m an audience guy. Seriously. I make films for an audience. I’m not about festivals and I’m not about media, really. No, the biggest enjoyment is to see a full house and have people excited about your film. In that sense, I think I have an American way of thinking. I put story and emotion first as well, and only then, politics.

I really don’t care about the politics as much, because I think in the end, whether it’s an arthouse or popular movie, audiences wants to have the same kind of feeling. They want to care about the characters. For me, that’s the most important thing.

Q; Do you ever want to have another lemon in your life after this?

ER: Yeah, I don’t mind lemons. They’re a fine food.