Kevin Asch makes his feature directorial debut with Holy Rollers, an exciting and thoughtful film about Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who accepts the life chosen for him – rabbinical studies and a prearranged marriage – until his neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) recruits him to smuggle drugs for dealer Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). Sheltered by his upbringing, Sam is initially so naive that he really believes he’s bringing “medicine” to the needy but by the time he discovers just what kind of pharmaceutical Ecstasy is, he’s already hooked on the money, the thrills and his growing attraction to Rachel. Still devoted to his family, Sam tries his best to keep a foot in both worlds but it’s not long until he’s heading for a fall from which he might not recover.
Holy Rollers first screened in Seattle as part of SIFF 2010 and now it’s opening again locally at the Varsity on Friday, June 25. Director Asch was in town during the festival to talk about his film, inspired by newspaper accounts of a real-life smuggling ring using Hasidic Jews to bring drugs into the country.
What was in these news stories that made you think that this would be a good subject for a film?
KA: Oh, instantly it felt like it would be a great film. The actor that plays Jackie Saloman in the movie is our lead producer, Danny Abeckaser, and he brought the story to me five years ago. Ripped from the headlines, what really happened. He’s telling it to me and I got the image of this Hasidic Jew in a nightclub, completely lost, and people are walking by him and he’s not able to touch woman and I thought, “Woah!”. You always go back to the seed of what made you personalize the story and that was it, that one image. With that one image it instantly felt like a film. It was distinctly visual – the juxtaposition of those two worlds was so unique and the journey of the characters was what I wanted to explore. I felt like I hadn’t see that before, I hadn’t seen Hasidic Jews in film told from their perspective, from the inside out, rather than people looking at them from the outside in or people going into the community and discovering them – it always has this sort of outsider feel.
KA: I immediately personalized the young man being lost in a nightclub in a nightclub because I spent a lot of time in nightclubs in the 90s growing up in New York and I’d often be that guy that’s leaning against the wall, watching what’s happening and thinking about who these people were and when the lights come on, really, what do we have here? Nothing. And the girls that would pass through those worlds – it always felt so destructive because everyone had this sort of self-importance. Once you got in there and there’s the music and you’re sharing this experience together, you really feel special but there’s not really anything special there once the lights come on and it’s all over. In Sam’s world that he left, there’s such strong values and morality and love, as much as it felt stifling to him as a teenager, there was a foundation there. Those ideas I think are completely universal. I’m a Reform Jew but that could all relate directly back to my own life, leaving my suburban community and not wanting to follow the paths of 99 percent of the young men and women who came out of my world and went into finance or what I call “buying into the brochure”. Sam’s brochure is way more extreme and way more holy and once he makes choices to go against it, it’s that much more extreme, it’s that much more dramatic.
How hard was it to cast the movie?
KA: It’s very hard. I got Jesse incredibly easy, actually, and Jesse attracts other actors because he’s so talented so that made it a lot easier and he introduced Justin Bartha to the project. Justin really wanted to do the movie because he wanted to work with Jesse. I’m a first-time filmmaker, there was nothing about me that was drawing him in except me giving him this opportunity. He always thought of wanting to play a character like this. He’s somebody that projects parts that he wants to do while Jesse just…read a script and sees if he wants to do it, Justin has these archetypes that he wants to play. He always wanted to do like a Jewish Johnnyboy from “Mean Streets” and this was an opportunity for him to do that and do something unlike what he’s already done. Ari Graynor, who plays the lead actress, she was the last person on. She auditioned, that was a challenging part to cast. It could easily be so cliche, the drug dealer’s girlfriend, the young man who works for the drug dealer having a crush on the drug dealer’s girlfriend…we’ve seen it all before, you know, “Scarface”…in much bigger movies and smaller movies, it’s part of those conventions.
She did a good job at being sympathetic, and frustrating – “Why are you staying in this life? You seem like such a nice girl.
KA: She’s a real tragic character, kind of like the women in those clubs – Rachel’s a conduit to that. Rachel’s a conduit to those themes I wanted to explore that you would think are more naturally explored in that [Hasid] community, but the idea of faith and blind faith – she blindly believes in this world of nightclubs and Jackie and who she thinks she is for this moment. Part of her, when the make-up’s not there, there’s a life she left and a life she wants, but she’s tragically not going for it. Ari Graynor, to her credit, completely to her credit, dove right in just in the two weeks prior to shooting and gave me and Jesse an opportunity to work with her and elevate her character and material in a way that wasn’t on the page. These guys were attached for two years. Justin a year a half, Jesse two years. She had just two weeks! And she did the same work, she’s amazing.
KA: Danny Abeckaser, he was always Jackie, he came to me with the part so it was written for him. I know Danny really well and I always wanted to find what’s unique and endearing about Danny and put this into the cliche, possibly cliche, head of this drug operation. And I’ve been in the car with Danny when he calls his mom and those things I wanted to put into the material because that’s what makes him three dimensional. Also, as much as it makes him sincere, it’s part of what he’s doing to seduce Sam: “I’m like you. I still call my mom at shabbat” and it’s calculated, too. Mark Ivanir who plays the father, he’s similar to Ari in that he was on in just a few weeks of shooting but he taught me so much about what it means to be a father. I’m not a father – but he has two younger children. I always had trouble with that character and he felt like he was playing too much toward Sam, he was there to be the guy to disapprove of Sam and kick him out. And Mark, what he explained to me was a way to make it about him. Each character should be like that. They should be full of life and their own issues. He was suffering and what did he do wrong? But he didn’t do anything wrong, he just didn’t know any better. He was a young father and now his heart’s breaking and that was an eye-opening thing for me to give that character his own arc, his own issues, and, again, with each character we tried to do that. These are great actors and you don’t get in the way of that. You just push this direction and that direction, make suggestions, but once they own it and have their own voices, I don’t want to get in the way of that. They should start telling me who they are. I love actors and trust them and I tried to earn their trust early on so we could do this type of work together.
You had some great actors. Like when Sam’s sister is yelling at him – it’s a small moment but it plays out really well.
KA: That’s Jesse’s real sister. That’s Haille Eisenberg. I would say a lot of that has to do with that. They’re bringing their own real bond into that small moment. She was really hard to cast, you know we made an offer, we tried to cast her…[laughs]. Jesse cast her. She’s so sweet and a wonderful actress and it was really special for me that she wanted to do it with him. I can’t say that Jesse wouldn’t have gone there with another actor, but there’s a comfort there. They’re pushing each other – he physically grabbed her – I don’t know if he would’ve done that with somebody else.
KA: Everything that happens in those communities, everything her older brother does is going to ruin her life. She might not now get married, she might not this or that. If you have a black sheep in your family it causes a lot of problems in the community.
In putting the story together, what were some of the challenges you faced taking it off the page and putting it on the screen?
KA: The challenges were because this is a film inspired by true events and there’s obvious rise and fall that happens within these stories cinematically within those crime conventions trying to find ways to break down those conventions and make decisions through the characters and let them motivate the plot, let the plot sort of fall to the wayside. That was really hard, internalizing it and making those decisions for Sam. It was helpful to have the actors on, once we started to do that, but there was a lot about the movie in the original drafts that had much bigger genre elements to it. Because we were making such a low budget movie we wouldn’t be able to pull those off and we wanted to make a character drama. Finding that balance was really hard – satisfying the elements of the true crime genre and satisfying the elements of the journey of this character and keeping it always from his perspective, that balance was always incredibly fragile.
How has it been seeing the film with an audience?
KA: I love that. I love that the audience is always completely involved. They laugh at all the points that were intended to be laugh points.
Do you think that gives you a different perspective of the movie?
KA: You mean, did something surprise me? No, I made it for an audience so I think I know exactly how it would’ve played and it did play that way. Was I nervous about that? Yeah, of course. At Sundance I was so nervous! But, I feel very confident and satisfied by that, it wasn’t strange it was rewarding.
It was obviously very exciting to get into Sundance with your first film.
KA: Yes, it was amazing!
what are your hopes for the movie?
KA: I hope that audiences enjoy it and they tell other people to go see it. I want to make more. I’m working with the same writer, Antonio Macia, on two projects; one that’s further along, another coming-of-age story and one is a story that’s more connected to the world of Holy Rollers. It’s called “Kings Highway” which is a street in Brooklyn, a very Israeli-dominated area of Brooklyn and it’s the story of an ex-Mossad agent who goes to New York and becomes part of this burgeoning Israeli crime syndicate in the 1980s. Like Holy Rollers, the time element somewhat falls to the backdrop to his journey and his redemption.