Eytan Fox And The Making Of Sublet | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival
By: Amir Ganjavie
Sublet is the latest film by Eytan Fox, the renowned Israeli director, who has been a regular participant at the Tribeca Film Festival in the past few years. From his early films, which went on to win several awards at the festival, until his latest project, Fox has been aware of the changes in Israeli society regarding homosexuality. If Yossi & Jagger (2002) was banned at the time of its release, now the same film is being considered cult films in the Israeli cinema, and Israeli military is now showing the film to soldiers to teach them about tolerance, and respect for other people’s preferences. In Sublet, Fox focuses on the changes in people’s attitude towards homosexuality in Israeli society, and through his characters, he shows us two different approaches to the subject: One of them more traditional, and the other one a more relaxed one. With impressive performances and a beautifully constructed plot, the film offers a sincere take on the subject of homosexuality in a traditional society that is becoming more liberal and progressive.
Amir Ganjavie, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): What was the source of inspiration for the film?
Eytan Fox (EF): Well, I guess, it means, in many ways it is my story. I and Michael, the protagonist of Sublet, we're gay men of the same generation. We grew up in a very homophobic world where we had to be closeted and we grew up in a constant fear that if we are discovered we'll not be loved anymore, even by our closest people, our families, our parents. There's a lot of pain involved in growing up, and we went through the age crisis which left scars on us. Both of us worked very hard to try and change the world and make it a better place for us and people like us. We succeeded in many ways, I think, but a lot of the homophobia that we've internalized, I think, still there.
We really grew up believing that we, as gay people, would not be able to have a long-term relationship, family and kids. And so, we've changed the world in many ways, but I don't necessarily believe or know that this changed that internal homophobia problem that we developed inside of us. Both of us are childless, so I wanted to kind of deal with this pain of my generation. I would even say it was trauma of my generation, and trying to process that and better feeling my protagonist, to a place where he is able to believe in himself and his ability to become a parent. I think, that could be one way of putting it, so that was really the deal. Being in my mid 50s now, looking back at how I grew up, how I became to be who I am, dealing with the issues of kids for the last few years, and trying to figure out what I feel about it, and can I become a parent? And so, that is almost what brought me to this story.
(UM): In general, do you start with an idea or do you start with a story in your script writing process?
(EF): I think, I started with an idea or things that I really care about, and I'm concerned with. It's almost for me, and it sounds like cliché, but it's true, it's somewhat of a therapeutic process that I go through while I work on the film. I do kind of start to tackle subjects or areas in my life, in my soul that are important to me at the time that I make this film. When I worked on Sublets I did not know, who am I now? Now, when I started working with Sublet, I was not the person I was 20 years ago or 15 years ago, and I made other films of mine. But now, who am I? I'm 50-something. I'm aging. I am a gay man from a certain generation. I look at the new world just the world in general, young people today, gay young people today, I look at how different they are, or how the world changed. I try to understand if I manage change. I start with the idea of things that I'm concerned about, and then I come up with the best stories that could transmit those ideas and those feelings.
(UM): In writing a story, do you usually follow a three acts structure?
(EF): You know what? Not necessarily, I now teach this course, the students here in Tel Aviv University. So, the whole act, I could talk that way about my films, about films in general, but I tried to just tell the story and feel it and not be as strict as that.
(UM): In the debate between Tom Moore and Michael regarding the nature of love and fidelity, where do you situate yourself?
(EF): Well, I'm obviously no stranger to Michael than I am to Tom Moore. I'm from Michael's generation, I grew up fighting for our so-called "our rights", trying to prove to the world maybe even gay men can be in a long-term relationship, it could mean they could create families. When I grew up, it was some of the people didn't believe words was a possibility at all. I do believe in couples, I do believe in monogamous relationships, if you believe in love. Tom is from a different generation where almost as the whole labeling thing, "Gay", "Straight", "dish bad", it's something from the old world I researched, of course, the whole business of how young people are not only gay, but young people in Israel, not only in Israel to see the world because I'm not 20-somethings anymore. I really have to talk to a lot of people who live a lot of younger generations, and, just saying, you don't want to label anything, we just want to be ourselves and live our lives. We don't necessarily want to be connected to one person, to a family necessarily. We want to get an experience the whole world of dating, and apps and stuff. It's very, very important form to me. I was trying not to be judgmental about it, not when I was researching, not when I was talking with young people and also not in the film.
(UM): As you mentioned, we have certainly witnessed an evolution in term of the societal attitude towards LGBT rights. You made Yossi and Jaggar in 2003, it was harshly received, but now the film is considered as an essential part of Israeli cinema. I wonder, do you feel sometimes threatened that you might not have anything new to add to this debate or you feel that you are, as you mentioned you don't understand the new generation and their problems.
(EF): Well, of course, I always fear that, "Do I have anything significant to say?" Is there anything, I don't know if "new" would be the word, but significant and meaningful to say. Yes, my first films were about coming up to strike saying, "I'm gay. I'm going to say this out loud. I want you people to acknowledge this, to see me, to accept me." And so on, but my films have been, hopefully, changing with the world and tackling different issues, human issues of different sources and kinds. And yes, with Sublet for that matter, I'm talking about aging as a LGBT or a gay man, dealing with the whole question of being a father, not being a father. Dealing with your past, your generation's past, the LGBT history for that matter.
I hope I'm saying something which is meaningful, something that will be relevant to different kinds of people. It might be more relevant to people from my generation, that, hopefully, younger people will see themselves until now, and will identify with Tim and what he's going through. It's clear that he's young man of the world, there are six days to work, this young man of the world who believes he knows it all and nothing too much of a big issue and it's clear that he talks like someone who knows all the answers and who doesn't need guidance, who doesn't need adults for that matter. Well, let's say the father, literally and metaphorically speaking, doesn't need a father. But of course, he doesn't really know who he is yet, who he wants to be, and he does need some help and guidance. Part of what happens, I think, and Sublet is that he's able to reach a place where he's saying, "I need, I need a father." Metaphorically speaking, literally speaking, I need someone to hug me, to guide me, to help me deal with this world. I don't have all the answers.
(UM): There is usually a connection between a filmmaker and the city that he or she shoot in, why you decided to shoot in Tel Aviv, what aspects of the city made it appealing for a cinematic project?
(EF): Well, I make films that are very close to my world in every aspect. I live in Tel Aviv, I was born in New York. My parents were American and moved to Israel with their three sons in the mid-60s. I grew up in Jerusalem, but I moved to Tel Aviv when I went to study after my army service where I went to study film in Tel Aviv University. Tel Aviv has been my home forever as far as I'm concerned, and I love Tel Aviv. I think Tel Aviv is an amazing city. It's been a characteristic in many of my films. I wanted to introduce Tel Aviv to - I'm always to some extent trying to communicate Tel Aviv to the world and in this case, I wanted to communicate it to Michael, my protagonist. He is also, and this is not very developed, but it's there in the film, he's a Jewish man who has such problems with his Jewishness. It's not a resolved issue in his life, he has problems with his father, his father and his father's Jewishness. He had bad experiences or traumatic experience for being in Israel growing up. His parents are constantly fighting, eventually divorcing. Bringing him back to Israel, and most specifically to Tel Aviv, which is in many ways different than Israel. It's more of an open liberal, not as religious, not as closed as the rest of Israel. We might go to a place like this and make him also reconnect to his Jewishness, to his father, to his past.
(UM): Niv Nissim is the first-time actor here. Why did you decide to work with him? And how was the experience of working with both actor and non-actor?
(EF): I wouldn't call Niv a non-actor. He is a very young actor and not as experienced as John, of course. But I found him in his third year in acting school. I thought it was very appropriate to have one actor who's totally winning year after, he's done theater, film, television and so on. One actor is just starting, he's waiting to grow as an actor, as a man for that matter. It's just like Michael and Tom are on both sides of this spectrum. My actors will be in both on opposite sides of being a man for that matter or growing up, one, just starting his journey as a young man, a young gay man, a young artist in the world and the other is already 55, he's gone through, everything he's gone through.
I thought it would be interesting to have John, who's such an experienced and wonderful actor and Niv who's a new unexperienced actor, just bringing them together and have them work together. Like things, they really became very close. It is pretty much like the film, John came to Tel Aviv for a month and a half, Niv needs his family. Niv adopted John and invited him to his family the Shabbat dinner, the Jewish Friday night dinner, Shabbat dinner and making friends with Niv's parents and went out with them and so on. It was really like, we kind of adopted John and tried to make him part of our family and introduced him to Tel Aviv and deal with all the issues with the film when we came here in Tel Aviv.
(UM): I was amazed with the beguiling performance in the film. How do you control actors in the film? What is a good acting for you?
(EF): Well, I really hear about actors and love actors. I try to create for them a very loving, accepting atmosphere and environment to work in. I try to connect actors to their real selves to their truth, to real emotions, to be as authentic as possible. Now, what I had here which I never had in the past, the two actors who are playing the gay characters that are gay in the real life, openly gay in their real lives which is something that was not very common in the films, just 5 or 10 years ago. For actors to be openly gay, play gay characters, and most of my films, was straight actors playing gay characters or sometimes closeted actors playing gay characters. With picking actors, I think, in many ways are the characters in trying to find the similarities and connect between their psychology and the character psychology between their body and soul, in the character's body and soul and try to create something that is authentic. Yes, as authentic as possible and as specific as possible, to me the word specific is the most important word. To be specific as possible.
(UM): How was your working experience with DOP? Are you calculating everything before?
(EF): I had people that I've worked with in the past like cinematographers, older my generation, my age. I said, I wanted to challenge myself and take a very young cinematographer, DOP who will - no, it will be again like Michael and Tommy, it will be me and my DP, who are from different generations and who see the world differently, who and it will be this kind of dialogue. Sometimes we argue, sometimes we have these conflicts, sometimes we work upset with each other, sometimes we found mutual grounds, we found love, the same grace, the same shots. I think, it was right, it was invigorating, it filled me with young energies, new energies. Yes, I'm very happy with the work that I had in the film.
(UM): How did you manage to secure the fund for the film? Was it easy to get a fund?
(EF): In Israel, the way to make films, it always has to do with getting my grants on film funds. I think, I mean, I'm established as a film director, I don't want to put it that way, but I've made seven feature films in Israel. They were successful here in Israel, in box office and I had the fortune, the good fortune of having my films being distributed worldwide and released worldwide. It does become easier as the years go by and your films have earned successes and have been in film festivals worldwide and found audiences and so on. So, raising the money was easier to some extent. There was also private money that was invested especially by Moshe Edery from United King Films. This is a person who invests money in a lot of Israeli films, he has a company called United King Films. He really is responsible for this wave, the last 20 years of Israeli cinema which is doing so beautifully in the worldwide. He really took it upon himself to make this happen, invest money in many Israeli films, including mine. So, it wasn't that difficult to raise money. It was a very small film, very small budget. (UM): What was the impact of coronavirus on your film, has it changed fundamentally your plan to release the film?
(EF): Well, I never imagined that when we were shooting this film last March, that we would be releasing it or, meeting the world with it in such a difficult time, in the middle of a crisis, this pandemic, with people getting sick and dying all over the world. Actually, I never thought that I would start, Benjamin Hickey was getting sick, fortunately, he's recovered now. I did expect it's like a big celebration with us being there in person meeting John, John's from New York, coming from Tel Aviv, meeting in there. Having a film shown in a big theater with our people there together and all the people who made the film together which is what film festivals are about. That's what I really wished for and I wanted to hear the audience' reaction, I wanted to go on stage a bit and then do these Q&A's which are so interesting to me and challenging to me, to hear people, to hear their comments, to try and answer their questions, can clarify all kinds of things.
I'm happy that something about this decision with online festival that I joined. I've decided to go ahead with it, saying, "We're not going to give up." We're not going to say, "Okay, Corona, and that there's nothing to do about it. And let's wait to see what happens." We have these films, we care about them, we love them. We want to try and start to expose them to world. There's something maybe similar to what happens in the film in Sublets there in many respects, because you say, "I'm going to choose, 'continue', I'm going to choose life upon despair, hope upon despair." That's something about what we've decided to do here, and say, "We will start our journey now and hopefully find an audience. Find people around the world who will be able to see the film and to embrace it, even if we're starting this journey in a very difficult time."
(UM): I wonder if you have anything to share regarding your current situation, the Tel Aviv and how the life has been impacted by Corona.
(EF): Well, a few of my friends got sick, were infected with the virus including John Benjamin Hickey, my dear friend. I was worried about them, of course. We, in Tel Aviv, are instructed to stay in our homes, when you leave, you have to wear masks and we're not supposed to walk further than whatever, a 100 meters or 500 meters or whatever it is from our apartments. It's a very difficult time for many people, the film industry here in Israel stopped completely, television stopped completely. People are sitting at homes and trying to figure out what to do, what to do next. In many ways, I'm lucky that I have a film that is being born, so to speak, as we speak, and that I have to be with it. I have a purpose now, I have this film that I wanted to reach the world. Regardless of this sickness and the Coronavirus, I wanted to reach the world and reach people. I have a mission here and a lot of people around me their shooting has stopped, their films were stopped. They don't know what will happen. So, maybe I'm lucky.