Telling the story of a young man’s struggle with desire and faith is what inspired me to write the story of JEWBOY. I wanted to make a film filled with conflict, emotion and ultimately hope set in a world rarely seen in Australian films.
A sense of urgency fills the film. Yuri wants to be bad, to break out of his sheltered world. In Jewish Orthodox law a man cannot touch a woman except for his wife after marriage. Yuri longs to reach out and touch someone. Touch becomes a metaphor for his journey. Yuri has little experience of intimacy, and yet it is exactly what he craves. He spends much of the middle of the film longing to touch Sarita. Instead he ends up in some of the least intimate spaces, like porn shops and peepshows where a woman’s touch is empty of intimacy.
Yuri has no centre to hold on to. He’s trying to erase himself, trying to block out his thoughts, to just exist without all the questions running around in his head, like the expectations that people have always had for his life. He is similar, in part, to the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Outsider’ who watches everything, is aware of everything, but takes part in nothing. He is an outsider trying to find his place in the world.
Yuri’s lost his faith. He doesn’t fit in. Through the film we see how some of the other characters deal with the strict rules. Most follow them, filled with belief, while others like Yuri’s friend Alon or his uncle Isaac have a more pragmatic and cynical approach. For them it is easier to pretend everything is alright, to go along with it all, than to risk being outside the community.
Rivka and Sarita represent Yuri's past and future, who he was and who he could be. A relationship with Rivka is to Yuri like being stuck with the whole Jewish community - everything that’s suffocating him. There’s a sense of self-loathing in him. It’s as if he’s testing God, testing fate. He’s going to pubs and clubs and losing his religion, trying to blot it all out. In the midst of all this emotional and internal upheaval he meets Sarita. She’s pure, a princess in his eyes. In his grieving state he takes much more from their budding friendship than she does, fantasising that they can go away together. Both women also clearly illuminate the central theme of touch. Yuri is desperate to connect with someone. When he goes back to apologise to Sarita and then he takes Minnie’s hand while they watch TV we know that things will get better for Yuri and that he’s starting to reconcile who he is in the world.
JEWBOY is inspired by years spent driving taxis and a fascination with ultra-religious Jews.
JEWBOY began its life as a 14 minute short film. It had the same basic outline as the 60 minute version but was an expressionistic ghost/love story. Yuri was haunted through the film by two Yiddish ghosts. The film was to be shot in Black & White and reference Yiddish films of the 1930’s as well as German Expressionism.
When I started writing the film into a longer version, the themes began to change and what began to emerge was the idea of a young man trying to find his place in the world. The story began to revolve more and more around intimacy and desire.
We always knew the casting of this film would be difficult and crucial to the success of the film. There aren’t many well known Jewish actors in Australia and I couldn’t think of anyone who’d be good for the Jewish roles.
Nikki Barrett was the Casting Director. She started bringing in lots of young actors to read for the main parts. Ewen Leslie was in the first batch of people she brought in. He came in wearing a leather jacket, two-tone dyed hair and a goatee. I thought he was a great actor but was finding it difficult to see him as Yuri. He seemed too worldly. But we kept bringing him back and as we worked together more and he came to understand the world more, we all realised that he was the perfect choice for Yuri.
The day after we cast him, I took Ewen to a Chasidic synagogue for the service at the end of Shabbos. He had never been into a synagogue before, not to mention one where everyone except us was dressed in the black uniform of Lubavitcher Chasids. I think it was overwhelming for him. I told some of the guys I knew that Ewen was going to be the lead in the film.
‘Are you Jewish?’, one of them asked him.
‘That’s alright we can make you Jewish right now.’
‘We’ll just take you out back, give you a quick circumcision and that’s that. Bang, you’re a Jew.’
Ewen wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. That was day one.
Minnie was also a challenge to cast. Nikki brought in some of Australia’s best actresses around Minnie’s age. We put ads in the Jewish News and hung round the Hakoah club (a jewish club in Bondi), where many elderly Jews meet. We accosted old ladies at bingo and at the servery, ‘Excuse me, you wanna be in a movie.’ Most of them,
especially those over 80, had a standard response, ‘A movie? You kidding. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for this meshugos.’
One afternoon Naomi Wilson walked in. She’d read the ad in the Jewish News. She was wearing high heels, bright red lipstick and a funky skirt to match her funky haircut. She seemed far too young and groovy to be Minnie. We started chatting. She said she’d never acted much but had years of experience as a puppeteer, broadcaster and most recently, a ventriloquist. I asked her if she could do her ventriloquist voice, which she did and was hysterically funny. Libby Sharpe, one of the producers, then asked her if she could do Eastern European Jewish accents (Naomi was born in Bathurst, so her accent’s pretty Aussie).
“Which? German, Polish Russian, Hungarian?’ We said Polish and she just slotted into the accent like putting on a jumper. We were amazed and are very proud of the job she did in bringing to life the character of Minnie.
Most of the members of the Chasidic community were happy to help as they realised we weren't making an anti-religious film and they had the same passion as us to represent their culture accurately on screen.
What I was most focused on was trying to give the actors as much time as possible to understand the world and find their characters. We only had around three weeks from when most of the actors were cast until the shoot. The first week and a half was more about them all spending time with religious Jews, going to Yeshiva, to synagogue and Friday night dinners. There were a number of people who were really helpful in that process and gave generously of their time. Most religious people were as keen as we were in wanting to portray the community as genuinely as possible. To try make a film that felt like it came from the Chasidic world, as opposed to making a costume drama or giving in to cliché.
When we got into the rehearsal room, I tried not to get into the script and the scenes too quickly. The main rehearsal work consisted of structured improvisations. They were exercises aimed at keeping the actors in character. One of the impros went on for over an hour and a half. The actors, laughed, fought, left the room, made cups of tea, all in character and by the end of it, their relationship and backstory and the dynamic between them was set and clear.
I’ve never worked with as much improvisation before. We only started detailed script work in the last few days of rehearsals. It was scary at times but I think it allowed the actors the freedom to bring more of themselves to the script and into the world of the film.
JEWBOY is a story from darkness to light and from bleakness to colour. Melinda Doring, the Production Designer, and I spoke about making the Jewish world pale and claustrophobic and the night time world of taxis, service stations and private hotels, filled with dirty colour, neon and texture.
In the Chasidic world we stripped back colour. In the Yeshiva, for example, the richest colours were the red spines of prayerbooks on the cluttered bookshelves, Coke bottles and balloons, all set against the white walls, fluoro lights and wooden floors. As Yuri moves further away from the community, the colours increase, from the gaudy colours of pubs, porn shops and Chinatown, to the sickly brown wallpaper and textured bedspread of the private hotel.
Melinda and I have worked together many times before and she has been attached to the production since 1999, so we’d had a long time to work out the look and feel of the film. There’s a small Chasidic synagogue in Bondi that my girlfriend and I went to one Shabbos years ago. By mistake we walked upstairs and got a glimpse of this intriguing apartment above the synagogue that the Rabbi lived in. It had rich velvet carpet, floor to ceiling bookcases and two large chandeliers. It was like being in Eastern Europe. I spoke to the Rabbi a few days later and got to take reference photos there. It was the apartment I was imagining while writing the script and we were very lucky to be able to use it in the film as Minnie’s apartment.
Melinda and her amazing team painted, wallpapered and refurnished the whole apartment, giving it the cold and claustrophobic atmosphere that I’d always associated with those kinds of apartments. Yuri lives with Minnie and the apartment needed to reflect her taste. When I was growing up, I used to spend lots of time in older relatives cluttered apartments. They always felt like the dust had been hanging in the air for a while and no matter how hot it was outside, it felt like a Russian winter inside. Melinda’s design reflected that.
The cinematography in JEWBOY is inspired by character. Yuri’s journey from darkness to light is the primary focus of the film and the camera style matched this. Greig Fraser, the DP used closer and more claustrophobic frames at the start and branched out into wider shots and lenses as the film progressed. Much of the action was captured in an observational style. We shot in Super 16mm colour and the camera work was quite intimate. We often shot in small spaces, bathrooms, taxis, kitchens. Because of this and because of the quality that we were after, we shot the film handheld to mirror the emotional intensity of the scenes.
We wanted to make a film that felt like it came from a real world and wasn’t a Hollywood-ised or imagined version of it. Yuri’s trapped in himself trying not to feel. He’s trying to deny the pain of the death of his father and pushing away the people closest to him. We wanted the camera to be alive around him, to be searching and penetrating and inquisitive.
I’d never directed a film in a handheld style before but felt that the immediacy of a free camera that’s alive and following the characters would be most appropriate to the story. I also felt that because the film was about Yuri’s interior and emotional journey from grief and denial that a locked off camera would slow the pace of the film down - be too deliberate.
We worked with a shot list but it constantly changed on set. I’d work with the actors first, rehearsing, then blocking, then Greig and I would decide which way to shoot it. We’d use the shot list as a guide but the plan often changed. Greig was also able to pick up great details because the camera was always on his shoulder. So while people were chatting or makeup were doing final checks, he’d be shooting closeups of food or hands or taxi drivers. Details of the world that we were able to include in the edit.