Liran Atzmor talks to Ari Folman
When I asked Ari Folan for an interview he agreed immediately. My next request was to film the interview as well, just in case (I'm not used to recording and I'm a technophobe). "Don't even joke about it," was Ari's immediate reply. I meet him just as the book co-written by him and David Polonsky is released, a graphic novel based on the diary of Anne Frank. Tomorrow he sets off for Luxembourg for one of dozens of meetings to raise money for his new film, currently the main project in his life – an animated film based on Anne Frank's diary.
Why did you refuse to be filmed?
Because I refuse to be filmed.
Then why did you let yourself be filmed for Ruth Walk's film about David Perlov?
Perlov was like a father to me. I wish he were my father, we're family. I call Perlova (Yael Perlov, David's daughter) "sis." She calls me "bro." So I couldn't say no. You know, family, after all…
And when you promote a film you let yourself be filmed.
Yes, but that's because I have to. People invested in the film and bought it, so I do it. But that's all.
I'm worried about the meters on the recorder because I have no backup.
But look, I can see your meters. It looks like a high-quality machine.
You're about to go on another trip to raise funds for the Anne Frank film. How can it be that people still say no to Ari Folman?
Listen. First of all, animation is really expensive. I'll tell you what animation is on the production level because you're a producer. Imagine you're in a car accident. But the wall you're about to crash into is a kaleidoscope of stunning colors. And you lose control of the car and the brakes, but in slow-slow-slow-motion – seven frames per day. Do you realize what seven frames per day is? You lose control of the car and you can't take your eyes off the kaleidoscope and you can't turn the car around. And you gradually realize you're going to crash into the wall, but you can't stop the production. There are a hundred layers of animation there. And it's beautiful and you can't stop looking at it.
Is it really possible that without funding there'll be no film?
Look, I'm determined. When it was proposed to me four years ago, they said: You should know, anyone who tries to make a film about Anne Frank is cursed. Meir Levin, whom you may know from the documentary, went insane. He wrote a book, "An Obsession with Anne Frank." He couldn't get the film off the ground, went insane, and died. Then the person who proposed it said to me: "My father held the rights for fifteen years, he had three heart attacks, he couldn't get the film off the ground, and he gave up." Disney held the rights before us, David Mamet wrote them a screenplay, which begins with a woman Palestinian terrorist or something. Anne Frank's family vetoed it and the project fell apart. So I thought I'd give it a miss. But then I reread the original diary and after some heart-to-heart talks with my mother, who arrived in Auschwitz with my father the very same day Anne Frank got there, I decided it's my mission, that I have to get this film off the ground. The day after I gave the green light I had a terrible sailing accident. My life was derailed for three years. But I'm a stickler, I don't give a damn. I'll get this film off the ground.
But you say that if you don't get a "yes" in Luxembourg you won't be able to make it.
Yes, but they'll say yes. After the speech I'll give them, that the whole Holocaust is on their shoulders, they'll say yes. It's a film that needs to be made, for the children's sake.
With your resume I find it hard to believe they'll turn you down.
Me? Every film fund has turned me down. These stories are hilarious. DocAviv rejected my film The Material That Love Is Made Of, "Bashir" was turned down by every fund besides the New Fund for Cinema and Television. In the end it was a small documentary fund that supported it. At one fund they told me: "We know you think this is personal but it isn't. If Waltz with Bashir were one of the ten best projects submitted that year we would have funded it." And ever since, every time I see the director of that fund I hold up one finger out of ten. One of ten projects. I tell this story only because if someone is reading this and he's discouraged because he's been rejected fifteen times but he still believes in his project, he should never give up. I have countless rejection stories. Here, I've been trying to get this Anne Frank film off the ground for four years now and it's like a house of cards. If one fund takes back its check for 200,000 Euros, there go the other five. And the fact is, if they don't give it to me this week, there'll be no film. It's a five-country coproduction. If one drops out, there goes the film.
My son hasn't gone to sleep for weeks without reading your book.
You don't know how happy that makes me.
And it's become part of our daily conversations.
Yes, I know what you mean – "You know, Dad, no matter how hard things are, they were harder for Anne Frank." In that sense, Anne Frank's mother's philosophy won out. A philosophy that made Anne Frank very angry. Because every time Anne was unhappy, and she usually was unhappy, her mother told her: "Look at the people who were deported to the East. They're worse off." I worked on that when I was working on the comic, I thought about my life, and my mother, too, who was on those trains, said the same thing. I can tell her how I had my spleen removed last week without anesthesia and she'll say: "Do you know how much Moishele suffered in the ghetto? You have no idea."
The fact that Anne, from her little alcove in the back, was so unfettered and able to express herself in such unique language, gives my son so much strength and freedom of imagination.
Everything that's happened with the book is off the charts. It's sold 250,000 copies in France alone, in Germany, in all the Spanish-speaking countries and in Italy. It was so easy to make in terms of both production and creativity that at a certain point it made me really think deeply. You know, I sat here alone with no budget, no committees, with A3 pads and pencils, and I made a comic book. I wrote it and David Polonsky the genius illustrated it. For both him and me, compared to what we're used to in filmmaking, it was no effort at all, just fun. It's not nice to say, being about the Holocaust and all, but it was nothing but fun, and it's gone very far. And in filmmaking, all the fun you have writing, or on the set, or directing a documentary, what's that compared to all the fundraising and committees and film funds and refusals? It's so disproportional I can't even describe it.
So for you the book was like Perlov's home camera was for him?
Suddenly he can shoot footage, by himself, from his balcony, and write a journal on film. When you switch to the medium of the comic book you finally have unlimited freedom. In the interview from Ruth Walk's film about David Perlov you said that even if they took all your means away they can't take away your freedom. The knowledge that even if all you had was a Hi-8 camera, it would be enough.
Anne Frank's original diary, the one she wrote, not ours, is a brilliant masterpiece. Just think, I have kids that age. I have a 12-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, that's the range. It's incredible that a girl that age wrote that work of art, it beggars belief. She was one of a kind. When you're a kid and they make your read her diary you don't get it, you're not aware yet. Because it's dense, it's difficult, it doesn't reach you. That's why we made the graphic novel. Kids nowadays don't read anything, at least mine don't. If the graphic novel sends even a small percentage back to the original, we've done our part. I hope the film does the same.
How will the film relate to the diary?
The film isn't the graphic novel, it'll be an adaptation that I made. First of all, it's categorized as a children's film. I want as many kids over eight as possible to see it, like we did with the graphic novel. That's the highest priority. The film will tell the story of Kitty, Anne's imaginary friend, who wakes up a year from now in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Because of a wild storm that strikes, magically and miraculously, the glass protecting the diary shatters, a few drops of ink fall on the pages, and Kitty rises from among the pages. She's made out of millions of words and she goes looking for Anne. The film is called Where is Anne Frank. Kitty figures, if I'm alive, Anne Frank must be alive too. I won't give you a spoiler. She goes all over Europe following in Anne Frank's footsteps, from Amsterdam to Belsen, through every stop along the way. The Europe of today, inundated with refugees and racism.
Is it all animation or are there live actors, too?
All animation, backdrops, sometimes in stop motion. At a certain point I fell in love with the idea of making it all with stop action and dolls, a brilliant idea but financially idiotic. The budget came to some ridiculous amount, I wasted over a year of my life, and I went back to the original plan. I did two big animated tests. Each test costs as much as an Israeli feature film. Fourteen drafts of the screenplay in order to appease all the investors.
Can you describe your animation work?
I always film the animation first: I film actors – I don't direct voices – I film the actors playing the characters so the animators have a live performance of the characters they're animating. It's like abstract theater, there are no sets, just markings on a soundstage, and the actors act. Then Nili Feller edits it into a video. Everything we can direct, we film. Including crowds of extras. At the same time we do design, and I'm dealing with a new situation in which David Polonsky isn't in the film – there's your scoop. He just can't draw Anne Frank any more, he's been doing it for four years now. So Lena Guberman, his deputy for "The Congress," is taking his place. That's why we're redesigning all the characters, backgrounds and everything from scratch. And only after the development, which takes seven months, will it be divided between five studios. You know as well as I how it works in Europe: you have to spend the money where you get it.
Let's talk about documentary filmmaking.
Yes, let's give it a try.
How do you relate to the term "documentarian" these days? Would you call yourself a "documentary director"?
I like the English term "filmmaker." That's as accurate as it gets. It isn't someone who makes films, it's someone who initiates films. I feel no need to categorize these things. I make films. It may be a feature film, it may be a documentary, it may be an animated film, it may be an animated documentary, it doesn't really matter. The stupidest thing I've done, with "Bashir," for instance, was to categorize it before I began as an "animated documentary." Then I tried to raise money for that silly statement. I went to animation funds and they said: "If it's a documentary it can't be animated." There's nothing spontaneous about it, every word that's spoken takes a year to put together. I went to funds that specialize in documentaries and got the opposite response. You see? So I don't believe in categories and definitions.
Was it always this way, or did you want to be a feature film director when you were in school?
I don't know what I wanted. I wanted to do things. I was in an amazing graduating class in university [Folman's classmates included Eytan Fox, Hagai Levi, Rani Blair, Osnat Trabelsi and Ori Sivan – L.A.], and the main idea was to do things. And this group has continued to work together for decades afterwards, which is great. All these individuals came up through the group and that gave each of us a lot of strength. By the way, in university I did a lot of shooting which was a big help afterwards. Then I started writing. I got into writing through journalism, writing for The City. Then it became my essence, writing. I now write every day of my life. Seven days a week. It's a way of life.
What do you write?
You name it. In recent years I've written four feature films, two "bibles" for TV series. No matter what, I wake up at dawn and write, every day. Like other people get up and run. I envy them, they run and I do my thing.
But still, in your time there was a certain idolization of feature directors.
As I see documentary cinema today, from where I'm at, I miss it. It's romantic. The intimacy – I can already picture myself buying a camera and going back to doing things alone – to me, that's documentary cinema. It's the loneliness and the intimacy, the ability to be mobile, to be anonymous, to go anywhere with your camera. You know what I mean?
I'm thinking of the two revolutions in the history of Israeli documentary cinema: One, David Perlov's breakthrough, and two, the release of Waltz with Bashir.
You really think so?
Don't even compare me to him. We aren't the same caliber. It's just wrong.
It isn't a matter of comparison, it's a matter of a point in time when something happened when, for a change, documentary cinema allowed something to happen that dramatic cinema didn't.
Yes and no. If you think about Perlov as an artist and as a person, he was a brilliant painter. He was a poet, all his writing is poetry, in the texts he wrote for himself he created pure poetry. He was a super-cinematographer; nothing about the way he filmed made sense. Nothing. But he was a super-cinematographer and he was a director. And in a certain sense, with his voice, he was also a performer. So he stood out because he combined all the performing arts I'm talking about, but without the stage. He also connected the plastic arts with cinema, with performance art, with someone who recites his own poetry. Just think of what this one person did. You can't define that as a revolution; I say it's the artist. And it's nothing like anything else. Just think, he made The Pill. He made The Pill in 1968, a fantasy movie, science fiction. And six years later he made Diary. Obviously he's the quintessential filmmaker. And he embodies all the elements.
He was also your teacher.
And the first person who told me I was good at something, and he took me under his wing. That didn't happen until I was twenty-four. And when I got to film school, after a certain exercise, the master came along, and to be honest I didn't know who he was until I got there. And he said to me: "Listen, you speak the language of cinema, I can tell by your first exercise, and I'm going to help you." And he kept his word to his dying day. And when I taught, I thought the most important thing to do was to spot talents and say: "You're a filmmaker and I'm going to help you."
Tell me your first thoughts about your first film, Shaanan Si.
I made Shaanan Si with Ori Sivan, who's a childhood friend of mine. We came to film school together from Haifa. We're very close friends to this day. The first Gulf War was an incredible anomaly. The war lasted weeks and made people have panic attacks unlike any in memory. And in the end no one died, no one got hurt, nothing happened to anyone. Sorry, there was someone in Ramat Gan who had a heart attack or something. Nothing happened, but still there was a process of relocation, evaluation; it was off the charts. So we didn't have to do much, just establish the language of the film itself, which fit in well with the dystopian fantasy of the deserted city. The idea was to show the insanity of how the city was abandoned for no reason at all. To convey the atmosphere through cinematic means and only then to enter the sealed rooms where people were panicking after the sirens sounded and ask them about their lives.
And then you started shooting?
When the war started I went with my girlfriend at the time to visit my parents in Haifa. And the sirens sounded and we put on gas masks. And my late father, who was an atomic scientist, sat in front of us and cracked up laughing. And he wasn't a big laugher. The two of us sat there, panting, waiting for the chemicals to kill us, and he laughed. And when the alarm was over and we took off the masks, I asked him what was so funny. And he answered calmly: "If you knew what I know about chemical warfare you'd realize how stupid that mask is. How stupid the radio announcement to wear them is." And that was a release for us, for her and for me, and we suddenly realized it was all a hoax, the government telling you to drink water, seal your windows, put on the mask and everything will be all right. It was all a lie…
There was something revolutionary about Shaanan Si in the sense that the word "hybrid" didn't yet exist in the lexicon of the Toyota engineers, and you dared to make a film that didn't follow the rules. I remember how disciplined film students are, the discipline of a screenwriting exercise, a directing exercise, a cinematography exercise, and then you come up with a weird film like that.
Yes, but I must say to its credit that the film department was totally open in our time. Because even if you look at the people who were there, David Perlov, Yigal Burstein and Judd Ne’eman, who was the head of the film department and would come back on Sundays black and blue from demonstrations in the occupied territories, there was no committee, subcommittee, supreme committee – no hierarchy at all, it was total anarchy. Their idea was, I think, that if you don't make films through your personal passion, you'll never make films at all. If you don't make films when you aren't being judged, when you're in a hothouse like the film department, if you don't make films with your best buddies, you'll never be a filmmaker. If you can't motivate yourself to write, direct, make sandwiches at night and fight over equipment, you'll never be a film director. And that approach proved itself, I think. Teachers' committees are a pile of crap. You have to be wildly motivated to make films. And it really was an amazing period of my life, being there and doing, doing, doing.
And back then your dream was still to make a feature film?
Yes, there was a competition when there were only two film schools, Beit Zvi and us, and they let one student make a feature film. There was a graduate competition and we wrote Saint Clara, Ori and I. Our dream was to make a feature, definitely. But that was a fantasy feature too, we wanted to film it in a studio and make it all animated.
You were thinking of animation back then?
I don't know if we were thinking of animation, but fantasy, definitely, a sound stage with painted sets for a science fiction movie. Who did that back then? There were no green screens, no matte painting, nothing. The smokestacks of Haifa and its suburbs are all painted on plywood boards. There isn't a single green screen. It meant making a fantasy movie by hand, literally, with very little funding. The budget was $280,000.
And you were doing documentary TV items at the same time.
Yes, for Ilana Dayan and Gabi Gazit.
What was it like to work in short-duration and news formats? Did you like it?
I liked everything. First of all, I worked like a dog, it wasn't for the money, just a need to constantly create. I also wrote and edited for The City and did weekend items for Gabi Gazit and Ilana Dayan. There was also "The Third Eye" with Einat Fishbein on Channel 2. It was an insane period. I really liked doing the news items because I mostly covered the occupied territories with Sleiman A-Shafi. The items were relatively long – fifteen minutes, seventeen minutes. A day of shooting, a day or two of editing, including nights. Those years helped me really hone my craft. Especially text editing, how to build a story really quickly, what's important and what isn't, where the real essence lies. It was an endless exercise. And I also liked the intimacy of getting into a van with a cameraman and a soundman, driving somewhere, and coming back with something which then touches people.
And the contact with the real world?
The contact with the real world, that's what I'm missing when I do animation. With animation you're in a laboratory. I live the life my father lived in his lab in the Technion. Living in the lab can be really frustrating. The pace things move at, too.
And then came your second film.
I had a sort of separation crisis with women, a dramatic period in my life when I made another feature, Made in Israel, which was a colossal failure on every front. But I like it very much, like you like a problem child, because there's something wild and basic and passionate about him. And yes, there are serious problems with the last scene, but it's worth it. That was the first time a got a wakeup slap since I was a student. The critics panned it and the audiences stayed away.
Then you started working on "The Material That Love Is Made Of".
I'd had a rough breakup and other issues and I started dealing with love. And I read that silly book by Helen Fisher, "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love," and that was a catalyst. I started following those love stories, from six-year-olds to Doron Avrahami's parents, who committed suicide at the age of 81. I'd get up every morning and gather shots by myself. I was all alone, and I can't tell you how much I miss those days. That lasted several years. I started in 2001 and finished in 2004 or so. I decided to film the true stories, invade the people's lives as much as I could, and at the same time bring in academicians who would tell me what they think love is, from biologists and neurologists to philosophers and clinical psychologists. I filmed all these experts in their offices and laboratories, then we got together in the editing suite with Nili Feller and tried to connect the people from the labs to the true stories, and that was awful. I told Nili it was terribly condescending toward all our interviewees, that it was crude and they didn't go together. But I didn't want to give up. Then I started thinking and looking into the option of animation, of turning the experts and researchers into animated characters. That led me to David Polonsky and he took me to Yoni Goodman and we started to work on taking the footage of the academicians and building animated figures from them, going as wild as possible. That was a pure joy because I felt I was in my comfort zone. I feel that way with animation to this day. Because as an inveterate, unfettered exaggerator and fantasy buff, with animation I can't be judged. Once I enter the world of drawings I can get away with anything, you know what I mean?
Where did you feel you could be judged?
Look, not everyone can handle Made in Israel, and these things don't always work, three-page monologues on training German shepherds to earn a title. In contrast, with animation I feel at home and that's worth everything to me. That's how I felt the minute we started doing it with The Material That Love Is Made Of, and the immediate bond with David and Yoni intensified that feeling. We have a perfect understanding with a need for very few words. And doing the animation work was incredibly fun. Even then I knew that no matter what happened I'd do my next film in animation, no matter what kind of film it was.
I also want to talk about your encounter with Channel 8. I think people tend to underestimate the role of broadcasters and investors in the creative process.
Yes, I agree.
It seems to me your interaction with Sinai Abt and Adi Arbel was truly special.
Yes, extraordinarily special.
Especially with the freedom they gave you on that small niche channel, of all places.
Both Sinai and Adi were there in every thought I had, because although I knew the film would be animated before I started I only reached the animation stage late in the actual documentation process. Only in the editing suite did I start to think about how I'd solve the problems, and Sinai and Adi worked with me throughout the whole long process and gave me excellent input.
Was it easier with Channel 8 than with Channel 2, for instance?
As you know, this whole world we're in is made up of playing fields, and every field has its own rules. Like when you're a kid and you play soccer, the beach in Haifa has its rules and Yarkon Park has its rules and Hadera Forest has its rules. And you can't play in Yarkon Park and count three corner kicks and yell "penalty!" because that's not how it works in Tel Aviv. And for the same reason you can't go to a commercial channel that lives off ratings and say: "I'll do whatever I want and you'll put me on late at night when nobody's watching anyway." You can't go to their home ground and spit on their methods. That doesn't work. The second I realized that, after the show I did with Einat on Keshet, I put the brakes on, I said I'm not cut out for these places. I'll go where I feel at home, where I can blossom and nobody will ever push me around with their stupid ratings charts. That's how I ended up going to Sinai and Adi with the idea for the material and later with "Waltz." And they gave me peace of mind and unlimited creative freedom. I found a home there. And now, twenty years after I started with Channel 8, they're also going to broadcast the Anne Frank film. I think that's wonderful.
So you found yourself in a documentary house; the fantasy filmmaker landed in reality.
The series The Material That Love Is Made Of got great feedback and was fun to do, but I also felt the relationship between the documenter and the subject was terribly twisted. You're incredibly dependent on your interviewee, certainly when you follow people for several years. I also discovered as I worked on the series that people's personalities really come out in the relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer. For instance, if the person is arrogant he'll usually make you wait downstairs, because he scheduled the interview with you but he won't buzz you in, he'll make you wait. And the next day he'll say, "We didn't hear you because the TV was on. Come back tomorrow." Things like that. Because he knows you've been documenting him for a year and you need him. So he makes you crawl. I followed a pregnant couple for nine months and I felt they were abusing me. For every three sessions they opened the door maybe once, and in the end they even made me miss the birth. I started working with another couple for nine whole months. On the other hand there are people who only want to please you. They're always trying to read you, to figure out what you want them to say, and they'll say it. You know what I mean? And you feel like you're taking advantage of them and that skews the relationship. At a certain point I couldn't watch documentaries for a while because I understood, as I watched, how the documentary was made. I also made that mistake many times, when you need a certain line, you have to get it out of them. Since I don't let up when I want something, I'll go and get it. Just you and your equipment, you go to the person and wait for him to say the line you need, and that's a rotten thing to do. That dependency got on my nerves. And in every documentary I watched, at home or at the cinema, all I could see was the director, where he was standing in the shot or outside the shot, and what he was doing and what he wasn't doing in order to get his "fix," and how he set up the frame and how he didn't set up the frame and how he manipulated the interviewee to get the lines he needed. I started obsessing on it down to the most picayune level. Then I decided not to do any more classic documentaries.
So animation was a kind of escape?
Animation called me. It isn't really the same kind of documentary. Anything goes. And that yearning for freedom. That conflict is always there: on one hand, freedom, and on the other hand, it takes three months to animate one line. Do you realize what kind of freedom that is? Is that freedom? Then you change your mind, you ask yourself what was so bad, I stood outside at the airport, holding a boom, filming the shot, they embraced… and there was the magic. In animation that embrace takes three months to draw and another five months to make it move. That's the conflict the director faces.
And then you turned forty.
I turned forty, and I wanted an early discharge from my military job in the reserves as screenwriter for the Civil Defense unit. I had an agreement with the army that I wouldn't have to wear a uniform and I could work from home, but when the army needed a film from me I'd write a screenplay on the spot. When I turned forty I said, "Enough of this, I'm getting a discharge." I went to the induction center to get a discharge, to act a little crazy and get out on a Section 8. Suddenly I found myself in front of a psychiatrist and I couldn't lie. I don't mind lying but I didn't want to lie. I was an officer in the Golani Brigade, I'd been through a war, I did my part, ideologically I was no longer into it, emotionally I was no longer into it, leave me alone, let me go – I deserve it, not because I'm pretending to be a nutcase. He said: You chose a good day to come, we're starting a new study and if you'll agree to go to one of our psychologists once every week and a half for as long as it takes, whether it takes one day or five years, and you tell him or her everything there is to know about your military service, we'll discharge you without a Section 8. I agreed and started to go. Over the course of the treatment I realized I'd never talked about my military service. I also broke off contact with people I'd served with in the army and the war right after my discharge. Even people I really liked. By the way, when we got to film school it wasn't cool to talk about your tour of duty in Lebanon. Anyway, I started the course of therapy that lasted fifteen 90 minute sessions and it was fascinating. I heard myself talk about the war. When I left I knew it would be my next film.
How did you come across the other stories?
We placed an animated banner on Ynet: "Wanted for a documentary film about the First Lebanon War – stories from the first three months." It was like pressing a button that opened a dam for hundreds of men who were just waiting for someone to listen to them talk about the horrors of the war, which, like it or not, was very unheroic. I brought in a researcher, Meital Zvieli. I was looking for something who knew nothing about war so there wouldn't be any shortcuts. The interviewee would say "tank" and she'd say "please tell me what a tank is." Meital met men every day for a year, all over Israel, and their stories were unbelievable, incredible. First of all, I realized that compared to the men Meital interviewed I'd been through nothing at all. Furthermore, I had a feeling that whatever I wanted I'd find. For instance, I remembered that during the war, no matter where our platoon was, we were sure that the soldiers in the next village were smoking hashish and getting it on with the Christian girls. We believed it, but of course we had no proof. So I asked Meital to look into it, and next thing you know, she had crazy stories about it. Unbelievable stories.
It was documentary research for all intents and purposes.
It was documentary research.
And when did you decide it would be voiced by the actual men?
I knew from the start that the film would be built around the voices of the actual men. After The Material That Love Is Made Of I knew.
How many times were the stories recorded?
In documentaries there's a tendency to overdo it. I avoid that like the plague. The researcher spoke to the interviewees once, in fine detail. Then I met them. I just touched the surface, to find out who the person is, because if he spewed it all out again after spilling his guts to the researcher, then it's possible that the third time, in the studio in front of two spotlights and a cameraman, he might clam up. So I was careful not to dig too deep, to make the sessions brief and to the point, to picture what I'd do with him when he got to the studio. Once I got the idea, that was the end of the meeting. Half an hour, an hour max.
How long did it take to write the screenplay?
I wrote it in four days in a cabin in the Galilee. After all of Meital's research, hundreds of transcribed pages, I went to the Galilee. I drove up on a Sunday with food for a week and left the cabin that Friday morning with a 96-page screenplay. Besides one change, that was the same screenplay that was shot. In the original there were two live scenes, then in the second draft there was just one live scene, with the cook in Sabra and Shatila. The cabin was where I developed my theory of screenwriting: I claim that the wet dream of the movie industry is to invent a machine where you put in a screenplay and a list of actors in one end, turn the handle, and a film comes out the other side. But, thank God, we don't have that capability. The human mind isn't able to sit and read a hundred pages of text and picture the film. Even if I tell you: "Clooney is playing Moshe and Menashe Noy is playing David," and you read my hundred pages and picture the film, you don't have the power of concentration to imagine 90 or 100 minutes, 100 pages of screenplay. And that's wonderful, because otherwise everyone over in Hollywood would know what the film would be like in advance and would aim for 100% success, but they have no idea. And if they have some idea, it's only thanks to their experience. Still, they think they know, but they don't. I figured that out on Mt. Meron, purely on the theoretical level. You sit there with your keyboard and for an hour and a half you close your eyes and type out your feature film. You type the whole feature out in the time it takes to be screened. So theoretically you've seen your feature and you're as close to real time as it gets. There in the cabin, in four days, in 96 pages, I was as close as I'll ever get to the real time theory and to achieving the final result as I wrote. When you spend a year writing a screenplay, as with The Congress, or two years and 14 drafts as with the screenplay for Anne Frank, you have less of an idea of how it'll turn out. You lose that ability.
Were you ever afraid you'd never find funding for "Waltz with Bashir?"
I never even thought about it. In the end I mortgaged my house to payroll the last twenty minutes of animation. I felt no fear at the time.
But the broadcasting entity must have told you you couldn't do it.
At first I didn't have a shekel besides what Channel 8 promised me. I invested a few thousand dollars to produce three minutes of animation, the terminal scene, which I took to pitch at Hot Docs (a forum for co-productions in Canada). I gave my pitch, seven minutes total including the scene. I'm crazy about pitching. I truly love it.
That'll be news to all the directors who hate pitching.
I love it. I feel like everything I didn't achieve as an athlete, since I was such a lousy athlete, I compensate for with pitching. It gives me an arena for competition that I never had anywhere else. I spend days preparing myself for it and force myself to do countless rehearsals. But in Toronto, actually, it didn't start out well; true, my timing was perfect, but everyone sat there staring at me like some kind of alien. They threw me out without giving me a thing. Like a dog.
Really? Their reaction wasn't positive?
Nobody spoke to me, nobody believed in the mutation of documentary animation. I finished my pitch and went up to the balcony where Pierre Merle the ARTE representative was sitting, and he said: "I came for you. For this kind of project. Come with me to Paris, and we will sign." And that's exactly what happened, I flew to Paris a week later and they gave me a nice amount of money. And then we went to work.
As a documentary film.
Yes, totally documentary. Who's to decide? If it's a real person does that mean it's a documentary? He isn't real, he's made of pixels. If it's the pixels from a camera it's a documentary but if it's a brushstroke it isn't? I think that's ridiculous.
And the rest of the funding?
I decided I had no choice but to do it in 20-minute segments. After every twenty minutes I show it on a big screen and scrape together the money for the next twenty minutes. After the first twenty minutes the New Fund for Cinema and Television pitched in. David Fisher changed all the rules in order to support "Bashir." He convened his board of directors and persuaded them to support this one film instead of four others. This raised the ire of a lot of people – instead of funding six films they funded only three. But if Fisher hadn't made the decision and withstood all the criticism, the film probably would have floundered. It's very important to mention that there are people with balls among the broadcasting entities and public funds who are more than just honest functionaries. They can also take unpopular risks.
And that wasn't enough, either.
Of course it wasn't enough. After sixty minutes all the wells were dry so I went to the bank and mortgaged my house. That was after my father, who died just before I started working on the film, told me, like in fairytales, two things: One, "Never take your kids sailing without another responsible skipper, because you aren't responsible," and two, "Don't mortgage the house we bought you with the reparations money from the Nazis in order to make movies." I swore not to and mortgaged it in the same breath, within half a year. I don't recommend it. True, I got my house back, but I don't recommend it. That's how we finished making the film. The mortgage paid for the last twenty minutes.
Let's talk about producers, because you're now starting to produce your own films.
I think every director should be a partner in the production. Not everyone can produce his own films. But certainly in the current milieu a director should share not only the profits but the risks, too. And I don't see, and I don't understand, certainly not in the documentary field, which isn't so complicated production-wise, why directors can't take financial responsibility. First of all, directors who don't produce their own work usually think they're being screwed. You go to festivals around the world. What do you think directors talk about over breakfast? You think they talk about new trends in international filmmaking? Not a chance. They gossip about their producers. That's all. Whether they screwed them, whether they gave them enough leeway. And it's not always a matter of money, by the way. It's not only the money. So you're a director and you want to avoid all that? Go in as a partner. I don't know of a producer who'd say no to a director who wants take a financial risk on his film. But I do know a lot of directors who don't even want to hear about it. So go in, take some responsibility, and know that you can make a bigger profit from it. I also can't understand people who let someone else distribute their films in Israel. I just don't understand them. I'd never let someone else distribute my film. What an absurd idea. You give years of your life for this thing, and in the end someone tells you: "Your poster will look like this and I'll put it on here and take it off there." Out of the question. You have to be in control. It's your baby.
Yes, in Israel.
You tend to underestimate the revolution you led, but I do wonder how you see the impact of "Waltz with Bashir" on international cinema in terms of things that were done afterwards.
Look, it's a matter of taste, but I personally don't like the documentaries that "Waltz" led to, the hybrid where the film is run live and then it's reenacted and the reenactments are drawn with the same people who appeared live. And these poor producers don't usually have the money to do it properly so they do it cheaply. If that's what it led to, with all due respect to the animators I worked with and are now making a living from it, I don't like it. With The Congress, too, I said it should be an hour of a regular movie, live action, and then boom, they swallow a capsule and turn into cartoons and it's a new movie. But don't keep going back and forth between real action and animation because they're two different media and they don't go together.
You, of all people, don't like it? You, who put the two worlds together?
Look, essentially, animation is the opposite of documentation. Because there's nothing spontaneous about it, nothing intimate, nothing flexible, as we said at the beginning of this conversation. You're dependent on hundreds of people. I knew even then that it wouldn't turn into a genre. It isn't feasible and the two don't go together. It's the polar opposite of a director, a cameraman, a soundman and a producer who head out for a day's work on a documentary. And don't forget, with "Bashir" we at least tried to recreate the intimacy of a documentary – a small crew, six animators, a post-production man and David doing design. It was possible that one time because I was working with super-duper-brilliant people. David, for example, who in my opinion is the greatest illustrator in the world today. He doesn't like to hear that, but I'm sure it's true. And Yoni, too, who invented amazing things in the field of animation. He took home-level software, Flash, a program that kids download to use for fun, and obsessively used it to develop a feature that can go as far as you can go. And with all that, to turn it into a genre? Documentary animation? Makes no sense at all. After "Waltz" I received a lot of offers, different war movies, and I thought it was ridiculous to even think about doing another one.
But you are doing Anne Frank.
The challenge of doing Anne Frank is new to me in one way – the need to reach the children's audience, a big audience. Until now I was glad if the audience liked my film and went to see it. You know, I wish 400,000 people came to see "Bashir," not just 125,000. But I never even thought about it while I was making the film. And I don't think I'm capable of writing for an audience, wanting it to work, to make people laugh, and drawing an audience. But if this film doesn't reach the kids and get them to learn this chapter of history, I'll consider it a failure. Imagine I give it seven years of my life and it ends up playing at Cannes and no one goes to see it?
You're doing it for your mother's sake, too.
My mother, you know, because she's 95, she has goals. She lived to be at my son's Bar Mitzvah. After the Bar Mitzvah she told me: "What do I have to live for now? I might as well be dead." I said: "Mom, live for my and David's book. Isn't that enough?" She agreed. The book came out. I gave her the book and she cried: "What do I have to live for now?" I said: "Now live for the movie." You see? That's why I'm making the movie slowly. Frame by frame. This way she'll live another ten years. My mother was at Cannes with me twice, and each time, on the red carpet, she looks up to heaven and said: Mengele, you see this man with me? He's my son, here we are, we're all here to see his movie, and where am I and where are you?" So how can I say no to the Anne Frank Foundation? To her family in Basel? I'm on a mission here and we'll accomplish it. When you send me a photo of your son reading the Anne Frank comic book you made my day. Think of the effect it'll have as a film.
I can send you a photo like that every night.