The premise for director Kevin Asch’s debut Holy Rollers may seem like the basis for a wacky situational comedy–Hasidic Jews become drug smugglers–but in fact, it’s a crime drama that probably owes more to early Scorsese than to Gene Wilder’s The Frisco Kid. Possibly not since Henry Bean’s equally controversial The Believer has a movie delved so fully into the Orthodox Jewish community and belief system in such a unique manner.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a young Hasidic man name Sam with spiritual ambitions who gets caught up in the world of drug smuggling through his friend and neighbor Yusef (Justin Bartha) and an Israeli drug dealer named Jackie (Danny Abeckaser, the film’s producer who originally came up with the basic concept). Even though he knows it’s wrong, the appeal of the lifestyle is too strong, ultimately getting Sam cast out from his family and community.
ComingSoon.net met up with director Asch to talk about that aspect of the movie and some of his influences, as well as what Asch and Abeckaser have planned next. We join the conversation in the middle of the enthusiastic filmmaker telling us how cool it was for Holy Rollers to have been picked up and released so soon after its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Kevn Asch: Yeah, it’s like you don’t know with an independent film and thank god First Independent picked it up. Gary, when he made us an offer and everything like that he was like, “I want this to come out. I want this to come out early summer.” For me, oh, I could finally let this go and let it go to the world. I’ve been torturing, in the most beautiful way, building this thing inch by inch.
ComingSoon.net: Even before you started shooting?
Asch: Oh yeah, I’ve been living with this movie fully for five years, fully, so it’s a wonderful feeling to let it go and allow people to see it.
CS: I know that you and Danny worked together on a short.
Asch: We did, and on a feature before that. We did, and on a feature before that. I produced it and he was in it.
CS: So this was an idea he found back when you started working together and you’ve been developing it over the years since?
Asch: Yup, when I was editing the short film, he told me about the true story and recognized it as something that could make a unique film. He knew of the 90’s clippings–I never knew of it–and the story was there was a documentary on the History Channel called “Files from Interpol.” It’s actually a series, and I think a very short part of one of those docs, like 20 minutes of it, focused on this true life crime. He’s sitting in bed late at night watching it and, “Jesus, that would just make a great film.” Then he called me up and I was over the next day, and he was telling me about it. I just could not get this image of a Hasidic Jew in a nightclub out of my head, just the curiosity of what made him get there? He came to me and really was sort of open-ended in a sense in that he knew this was something that could make a great film. He didn’t necessarily have a take on it yet. The seed of this kid was planted in my head and I said to him, “Our story is him. Our story is this innocent young Hasid who is drawn into this.” He came to me saying that this was the character he wanted to play, Jackie, this drug dealer. We were talking about it as if it was his story because it was his idea, then in that conversation we’re talking about it as Sam’s story and to his credit, he recognized, he said, “You’re right, this character should not be the lead. It shouldn’t be his story.” This was an opportunity to tell a crime drama, for fresh eyes, and in a way I hadn’t seen it before.
CS: Were there any kinds of rights involved or trying to find people who were involved in this case?
Asch: We flirted with that early on before writing the script, before even hiring Antonio the screenwriter. We flirted with the idea of talking to that Israeli drug dealer that was focused in that documentary through some third party relationships. We didn’t go too far with it. He wanted to tell his version of “Blow” with a message, and again, we already knew we weren’t going to do that and we had no interest in that. I didn’t want to see a drug dealer’s movie; I felt like that’s been done. So that conversation ended really quickly, not to mention that guy, shortly after that chain of communication, in Montreal he was doing a cocaine deal and got shot. Now he’s in prison again in Canada for that. He was on parole or house arrest for this deal. Yeah, so they just never learn, I guess so.
CS: What about any of the mules used in the operation?
Asch: No, I never even began to… it just felt like an opportunity to tell a fable through the concept of this true story. There was plenty information online. The articles that were written about this operation were all repetitive in a sense. They’re all talking about the same breakdown of what happened and how these kids got involved and what was the dealings. Just from that information alone and with already the knowledge that we’re telling it through these innocent eyes, we didn’t want to be able to obliged to anybody’s real life story. The idea of creating something purely cinematic was more interesting to me, more of a fable than actually telling somebody’s true-life experience. So, we never looked back, ever.
CS: I don’t know if you’re Jewish, but I’m assuming you have a Jewish background?
Asch: Danny does, I don’t. I grew up in Great Neck in Long Island in a very, very reformed community, completely foreign to Hasidic and Orthodox worlds until I started to research this movie. There’s a connection because you are (Jewish), but it’s completely foreign, and they almost seem holier than thou and I’m not. It was about breaking that down and seeing them as real people like myself and just understanding the humanity of that culture and not that holier than thou feel, in a sense.
CS: There’s also a lot of traditions and even to conservative Jews, it seems extremely strict.
Asch: I found all of that (to be) very beautiful and I loved working with that in the drama of a movie, because you have these laws. When a character breaks these things, it almost made it easier, because you had a structure that they already built that’s in the community, it’s in their Talmud, it’s the way they live their life every day. If Sam veers off that course, it’s sorta easy to know where he was veering off. The minute you see Yosef smoking and cursing, you know that character is who he is, and he’s shocking to see in that outfit, to see somebody just so debaucherous.
CS: Did Danny remember a lot of stuff from his own background he could use?
Asch: He did. We went and visited his family and his brothers. Everybody is still very devout and religious. His brother said something very early on in development that always stuck with me. Danny was bothered by some of the controversial elements in the script like Yosef smoking on Shabbos, just things breaking the law. His brother said to him, “Danny, religion’s in the heart. Just because someone is wearing that and has payas and looks like that, it doesn’t mean they really believe.” That played right into the theme of what I wanted to explore, faith versus blind faith. You’re born into something, you’re blindly told to believe it and told not to question it, and for some people that is okay and they don’t need to. Like Leon, the character in the film, he never needs to have a wandering eye. The one moment he goes on that trip with Sam, he’s freaked out and he goes deeper back into it, while Sam is intrigued. They both bit into the apple, one went back into the garden and Sam went out into the world. For Sam, I think he needed to go out into the world to understand what his faith means to him and not blindly being told what it should mean to him. So yeah, that statement from his brother and just from the course of the journey of making this film, it was trying to understand that intangible thing of faith and it’s not something we see, it’s something we feel.
CS: This must have been really tough for Danny to be dealing with this world coming from that background and be in the world of filmmaking and acting and producing at the same time.
Asch: You know Danny owns this nightclub we’re sitting in.
CS: Oh, he does?
Asch: Yeah, Danny’s already had that leap, not in a negative way, but I’d imagine that he’s a bit of a black sheep in his family. There is no love lost, but Danny has been one of the most successful nightclub owners and promoters in New York over the last dozen years and more so, so film, compared to nightclubs and all this, I’d imagine so. He wanted to tell Jewish stories, modern Jewish stories. Every conversation we ever had about this film was about not disrespecting the community and finding a way to respect them in this controversial story, never to undermine that, never to judge. I loved that about the movie, too. We don’t judge anybody in the movie. We don’t judge Leon or Sam, we don’t judge him either. We know he needs this, and unfortunately, he falls into something so horrible. It would’ve been better for him to not be a drug smuggler. (Laughs) It’s what just happens to fall into his lap.
CS: Obviously, you didn’t talk to any of the people. Do you have any idea if there is way coming back from this when you’re in the Orthodox Jewish faith and you stray so far from the rules?
Asch: Yeah, there is, absolutely. They don’t shun you in that way. Yes, you might be shunned while you’re doing it, but if you want back in, you get back in. They want you to come back. There’s an expression called “come back to the truth.” I don’t know the Hebrew of it, but I found that to be so beautiful. When his father kicks him out, it’s so hard for him because Sam is already a pariah in that home before he kicks him out, but he doesn’t. I’ve had people in early screenings, before the movie was done, they were wondering why his father isn’t right away like, “Get out!” Because he’s struggling, he doesn’t want to lose his son, he wants him to embrace his religion and he wants him to be a rabbi. He wants him to succeed. He wants him to marry. It’s somewhat like this old-world, new-world conversation that comes between him and his father in a sense. They’ve recreated the old world of Europe in these small ghettos of Brooklyn. They want the modern and secular world to not infiltrate, to not affect (them). How do you do that from generation to generation in the modern world? This dilutes. So I wanted that to be part of the movie, so I feel like towards the end of the film we’re open to that conversation the way that father and son are. “How do we communicate? I know you’re in this new world and I’m in this old world, but how do I see what’s great about your old world and how do I understand what you’re trying to embrace about this new world while we can still retain our morals and values and traditions?” It’s a difficult thing I imagine. So I don’t have an answer to it, but I feel the conversation was somewhat started at the end of the film.
CS: I know this movie is playing at a Jewish film festival later this week, so would Hasidic Jews actually see this movie?
Asch: Well, Hasidic Jews don’t see movies.
CS: I guess that’s true. Have you had a chance to get any religious leaders to see it to give feedback?
Asch: We have an outreach happening to the Jewish community and anybody who’s seen the film found it to be positive. I’ve certainly had experiences with a few people that did not see it, and knowing the subject matter wanted to attack me. “How dare you tell the story so horrible? It paints a dark element.” I just say, “Please, don’t judge the art without seeing it.”
CS: Of course, the problem is that anyone in the Hasidic community who might have problems with the movie won’t see it anyway.
Asch: I was in Sarasota, Florida for the film festival with an older Jewish crowd and they weren’t very moved by it. After I walked out, there was a few people, all similar reactions. One woman came over to me and I thought I was going to hear negative reactions. “Oh, the turmoil. I just had so much trouble watching Sam go through this. Oh, it’s horrible the way he took advantage of the fellow Jews.” She said, “But I loved the journey.” So I thanked her for her passion and for allowing her to be open to it. It is about the journey and the whole experience of it, so I really hope people go on it and take from it like what that woman did. I’ve been interviewed by some Jewish papers and they’ve been extremely positive. They’ve felt we captured it authentically or as authentic as you can get on a low budget film. That’s rarely or never has really been captured.
CS: You don’t really see Hasidic Jews in this kind of movie. Usually, it might be a drama or something by Steven Spielberg, but nothing really cinematic set in their community like this.
Asch: Yeah, they’re objectified. It’s like they’re wearing a costume or they’re dark or ominous, or they’re holier than thou, or they’re this. It’s about stripping that down and not to sensationalize the story or this community.
CS: Also, because when I first heard about this movie, I automatically assumed it was going to be a comedy.
Asch: The cast or the subject matter?
CS: Partially the cast but also hearing about Orthodox Jews smuggling drugs, I assumed it was going to be a wacky fish-out-of-water comedy, and also because Jesse and Justin have done a lot of comedy.
Asch: They do and they’re brilliant at it.
CS: I was curious about casting them because people will assume it’s a comedy with them in it>
Asch: I mean, I’m familiar with Jesse as a dramatic actor from “The Squid and the Whale” and “Roger Dodger.” I love those movies. I love his performance in it and they’re wholeheartedly dramas, although “The Squid and the Whale” I mean, they’re funny as hell. I mean, they’re dark…
CS: He brings humor to these dramas.
Asch: But he doesn’t play towards the humor, right. He’s not doing a sitcom. He’s not playing towards the joke, he’s not asking for the joke. He’s always doing it through character. There’s a lot of humor in the movie, but it’s fish outta water humor, it’s ironic humor. Just the idea of it, as you said, like just the irony of a Hasidic Jew smuggling ecstasy through the airport is kind of hilarious and dark and weird and could be this outlandish thing. I like actors to understand comedy. To me, the greatest drama has the best comedy and the best comedy has the best drama. These movies, the way to relate to these characters, especially in this extreme world and as we were saying earlier, have rarely if ever been on film in the way they’re portrayed as human. If we laugh at characters, you put yourself into their shoes. We look for the humor in almost every scene actually. We would try to find levity, dramatic irony. The fact that they had the ability to be comedic actors was very comedic to me as well, both Jesse, Justin and Ari as well, hilarious, but not one of them undermined the sensibilities of their character or the story, they took them very seriously, they’re so committed. Like I said, they understand. They’re so quick on their feet and they understand humor, they understand drama. These people could do it all. Also, with Justin actually. I was excited about the opportunity to showcase him in something completely different. I really was. Both Jesse and Justin and Ari, they’re all established and it’s attractive to have a sort of seminal film with a young cast that hasn’t been seen in this light. That was part of my appeal was that they aren’t always in these dark dramas. There was no doubt in my mind that they couldn’t do it. Ari auditioned, Jesse I didn’t need to audition, and Justin, I was a fan of from his parts that have nothing to do with Yosef, there’s nothing like it. But you kind of get a sense of people’s innate thing that you’re looking for to project on that. Justin innately is, I found to be dark actually and I was like, “Well, that hasn’t been seen.”
CS: I’ve interviewed Justin before and when you first meet actors who are funny, you expect them to be like that all the time, but he is very serious about his work.
Asch: Well, there you go, basically extremely charming and could be off putting. Yeah, he’s a serious guy. I wanted to capture that, so it never reigned in my mind that these are actors known for comedies or this and that – never. It’s just about who was right for the part. Like Elizabeth Marvel who plays the mother has been in so many movies, television, she’s like a chameleon. I met with her and one other actress, right? What she said to me was, “This woman’s really funny.” Then that was why I cast her. Why? Because she saw her as real. The other actress, who was wonderful, was so serious about the community and she was telling me about these deep stories about Jewish moms. That’s great too, but the idea that this woman was pragmatic and kind of light on her feet in a sense, that quality, again, I was looking for that out of these characters. So that’s appealing to me, the fact that you understand humor, and you get it and you see these people as possibly funny. (Laughs)
CS: But you never go too far with it, which is a good thing.
Asch: Never, no, ever.
CS: You find a lot of the humor in the family situation, because everyone’s family is a little bit funny just by the nature of it.
Asch: Exactly, and then the humor. It’s just a fish outta water. When she’s tripping on ecstasy and she’s like, “This is the softest coat in the universe,” and he’s just literal with it, and he’s literal with it, “Yeah, it’s woven with cashmere.” He comes from the fabric business, but that gets a big laugh because it’s true to Sam’s character and it’s wonderfully ironic in this situation. Scorsese movies and some of these dark… there’s some of the best humor in those movies. People forget about that! These are dramas, but sh*t, did we laugh throughout the film? Did we feel like we were really involved? Yeah, I mean, we did.
CS: Having spent five years developing this, do you have any idea what you’re gonna do next?
Asch: Yeah, I’ve worked my whole life to be in this position, so I’m not wasting a beat. I’m working with the same writer, Antonio Macia, on two different projects one also Danny’s involved in and it’s called “King’s Highway.” “King’s Highway” is a street in Brooklyn where Israelis congregate in a sense. It takes place in the late ’80s about a Mossad agent who’s exiled from his country who joins this burgeoning Israeli crime syndicate in New York in the 1980’s. It’s really about his journey with his country in a sense, his angst and his forgiveness and his redemption.
CS: You seem to have a nice niche going on there.
Asch: It seems like it. I mean, this is probably bold of me to say, but I describe it as like, my “Goodfellas” to “Holy Rollers'” “Mean Streets.” It’s bigger, it’s a little more visceral, but the same world in a sense and the same dealing with the crime element. We’re also very close to finishing a script called “Great Neck” where I’m from. That, too, takes place in the late ’80s. I’m just living in the ’80s right now, which is fun. It’s a coming of age story as well sort of set against the death of materialism in the late ’80s.