It’s taken almost 18 months for the independent film Holy Rollers to hit U.K. shores having debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival where the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize but finally we Brits can see the crime drama from Friday. We Brits have to be so patient these days don’t we?
Based on a true story in the late 90′s when Hasidic Jews were hired to smuggle drugs from Europe to the States, the movie is led by Jesse Eisenberg in a pre-Oscar nominated Social Network turn, The Hangover’s Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor, Danny Abeckaser, Q-Tip and Jason Fuchs.
What Culture! were granted interview access with director Kevin Asch, who won the Breakthrough Director Award at the 2010 Gotham Awards for his work on the film….
WC: How did the idea for Holy Rollers originate?
Kevin Asch: “Danny A., who plays Jackie in the film & also produced it, he and I are old friends, and also collaborators on a short film I produced called Point and Shoot. He told me about this true-life story – this was about 6 years ago. He told me about it because he wanted to make it into a film – he saw it as a great opportunity for his career, he wanted to focus on acting, which is something he always wanted to do – and so he was in the great tradition of an actor giving himself a break by producing a film. Many people have done that in the past. That was his initial reason of doing it. He was telling me the story about these Hasids in nightclubs – and for me the story was all in that image, the juxtaposition of these two worlds. And to his credit he got it right away.
From there, Danny had a relationship with an angel investor who was funding a film fund, and he knew that he would be able to get us a chance to develop the script under that fund, and he sent me off to go find a writer. I had a few writers in mind, just from people I’d met around the way in New York film, and one of the writers was somebody who I’d met through another actor friend of mine, and that was Antonio. I met him just briefly, and I loved his sample script – it wasn’t til I met him that we really talked and gelled over being lifelong film geeks. And knowing where he was in his career and where I was, it just felt like an opportune time for both of us to put our energies into this project.
All that was enough to hire him, and when Antonio told me about his own life journey as somebody who found his path of joining the Mormon religion in college years – that’s not something he was born into, it’s something he chose for himself. The way he approached religion and dealt with faith on a daily basis was very positive for him – so he was somebody who had an insider and outsider perspective. That was what I already knew I wanted to hang my hat on – not on the drugs and the crime, but on the coming of age through this experience of someone who is dealing with that conflict. That’s not something that I do in my daily life. I’m not religious – I’m Jewish, but I’m what they call a reformed Jew – I don’t practice daily, I’m culturally Jewish.
WC: How successful was this collaboration?
“I knew that being a New Yorker and being Jewish, we would be able to get the research, and we would bring that voice to the project. So it was a real wonderful collaboration in that Antonio had that real distinct perspective of a religion that is in our society but is very separate – outsiders look at it as something extreme, and he had an idea of how to be inside Sam’s head.
You know, me being a boy growing up in Long Island and going out to nightclubs and partying in the 1990s – I knew more about that that I knew about religion. So it was a combination of those two experiences that we were able to pull into it.
It was a long journey and this was the first time Antonio and I collaborated together, but by the time he was doing the second draft, that was when I really got involved and we got a sense that this would be a working relationship that could go on for a long time, and it has. We’ve worked now on other projects together and he’s one of my best friends – and that’s what the experience was like working with him – we’d challenge each other, challenge the material, and we kept going at it. Danny was very happy with the second draft, and that’s when we began to put together a cast wish list.”
WC: Was Jesse Eisenberg always your first choice to play Sam? Of course this was before the days of his real breakthrough in Zombieland.
“I had about 3 people in mind for Sam who I was familiar with, Jesse being on the top of that list. I felt he could play a Hasidic Jew at that age. I was always a fan of his, The Squid and the Whale and Roger Dodger in particular – being a kid who grew up in New York and a child of divorce in the 1980s, both films I felt like he really played me at one point in my life, so I already felt this connection to him without meeting him. He got the script through Antonio’s manager at the time, and he read it and loved it and came after the part himself. And Danny knew him briefly – Danny played I think one day on The Education of Charlie Banks – so he knew Danny not as a nightclub guy but as a guy on a film set. I couldn’t be more ecstatic about casting him, and Danny played it cool for a minute – and then finally we locked Jesse in.”
WC: How about Justin Bartha, again this will have been before The Hangover really took off?
“This was January 2007, and we shot the movie January 2009. So all through that time Jesse stayed attached and became part of the process in doing rewrites of the script, and it was also his suggestion to cast Justin. I loved that idea, I was familiar with him in roles that were unlike a movie like this and unlike a role like Yosef, so I wouldn’t have even considered him until Jesse brought him up – I knew him as a guy who made movies that I normally wouldn’t enjoy, but that I enjoyed because of his humour, and if he can do that with those kind of movies, let’s see what he can do with this material and a great role.
When I met with him, he convinced me he was Yosef, and Jesse and he had a relationship in private – they were friends before working together and they’ve always wanted to work together. I thought anything I can do to keep Jesse more excited and more involved was probably a good idea, as we didn’t have the money to make the movie yet. Justin‘s the kind of guy who really thinks about roles and about what kind of movies he wants to be in. He really had a lot of ideas and thoughts about the character, so he got right involved in the process we were already doing with Jesse, and came with a lot of notes. I really incorporated their ideas that we would come up with together and they would come up with alone – all the best stuff got into the screenplay.
It wasn’t until about 8 months before we got to make the movie that Antonio and I sat down to make the script so that it could be produced for $1 million.”
WC: Why so long before you could begin filming?
“We had a budget of 4.3, and the script involved a lot more genre elements – it was always a coming of age, it was always that the heart of the movie was Sam’s journey, but it definitely included more of the operation, more of the drug elements and the bigger scope of it. But we weren’t able to raise that money – we weren’t able to raise any money really (laughs). Danny and I came together and said if we can somehow make the movie for a million dollars, he could come up with half of it and I felt like I could come up with half of it, and Antonio and I just chopped away and we hung our hat strictly on this journey and this coming of age element, left a lot of the violence and the drug elements along the wayside – we knew that was what the actors were really more committed to, not that bigger element. So we wouldn’t lose that and we’d be able to make it for as cheap as possible. It was a great exercise, because once we started doing that, everything started moving forward, and Danny was able to come up with some cash, I was able to, and later that year we were able to get the movie together and shoot it in January 2009, right after Justin shot The Hangover and right before Jesse went to go shoot Zombieland. So they were right in between those moments of becoming bigger stars, which was great for our movie – it felt like that one point where we could get them, you know, and that’s awesome.
So it worked out, and as you can imagine it was a real balls-out shoot. It was shot on 35mm and it was done in 18 shooting days and two second unit days, one of those being in Amsterdam.”
WC: Was the scaled down budget a worry?
“I was confident in the budget, it was never daunting – it was daunting every day, don’t get me wrong. Jesse would describe it as one day was like a week on another movie, but I knew the energy of trying to move that fast, and these guys had those roles down cold, they’d worked on it for so long. We worked very closely as a unit and I felt that we wouldn’t lose that, and we didn’t lose that – the energy of the streets of New York, the coldness, everything that made it difficult would show up on screen because that was the feel and the look we were going for anyway. I come from a background of shooting in New York and working on low budget movies like this, so it wasn’t in any way frightening for me that we wouldn’t be able to capture it in that many days. The way we approached it was every morning, every lunch, we’d say ‘what can we do, what can we get away with?’
Working within those economics of storytelling was a wonderful lesson, and absolutely beneficial for the movie. What you see on the screen is basically what we got – we got a lot of scenes in oners, with no coverage – we had really strong blocking, and the actors needed to be at their sharpest to be able to carry that, and they did. Yeah, I think it helped the movie, I do. I’m a great believer in not bloating something – you’ve got to think quick on your feet and ultimately you’ve got to make very specific decisions. That’s what film is about, it’s not about having such a broad canvas – I mean, it is for some people, but very few. I think David Fincher is a genius, and if I got 100 takes with every scene, I might take that, just to have those options on this and that, but being able to get a few takes off at one angle – that’s all you’ve got on this budget and this schedule, so… we got no re-shoots. But it was very much a throwback to the way movies were made in the 1990s, and independent film and movies of the 70s – if they could do it that way, it’s only going to make our film feel like its more of that part of that scene than something that was made now trying to make it feel like that. And it worked, it totally worked.”
WC: Which directors were the biggest influences on the film and indeed your approach as a filmmaker?
“The great Sidney Lumet was a big influence, Scorcese was a big influence, The French Connection was a big influence, those movies absolutely. Midnight Cowboy by John Schlesinger was a big influence, also his thriller Marathon Man – he always told them through character, and I love the way that he shot New York – I love the way they all shot New York. New York is a character in those films. So it was important to me as a New Yorker, I wanted it to feel and look right. I think everyone thinks of New York that way, and the pockets, the outer boroughs, they still feel like that. The opening sequence was very much inspired by the opening sequence of Dog Day Afternoon, where they just shot these candid shots of the summer in New York and then moved in on the last shot, another candid shot, and there was Al Pacino in a car. Well, it was the same idea, starting in Brooklyn and showing the shops & the people, and then there’s Jesse Eisenberg as just another one of them – and little do we know that he’s going to be smuggling a million pills into the country (laughs). With both Dog Day and Holy Rollers, it’s such a controversial, crazy story, it’s sort of essential to make it human and approachable and accessible. It takes down that idea that this is something bigger than life – it IS life.”
WC: There are a fair few laughs to be had in the film, how intentional were they?
“We always reminded ourselves that this isn’t just a story, and to keep it grounded – keep the comedy grounded, the drama and the suspense grounded. If you think of it in some other way, you could almost re-imagine it as a Guy Ritchie movie – cartoonish and violent gangsters, you know – his movies are awesome but they’re certainly not grounded in reality. You’ve gotta have this image of Hasids in their long coats and machineguns or something, but no – they’re just young boys who really didn’t know what they were getting into (laughs). Just the irony of that is amazing, the whole fish out of water – Jesse and I would push for that comedy as much as possible, not to undermine the story or the characters, but to make it so the audience could project themselves into it. It’s such an extreme culture, you look at Hasidic Jews and there’s no way you can relate to them outside in the real world, but if you watch this movie I hope you feel that their home and this journey is not so different from anybody’s. I think that’s because you laugh with them, so when things start to get more dramatic and serious, you’re already with them.”
WC: How much interaction did you have with the people involved in the real life case?
“We didn’t talk to anybody involved in the actual case prior to the movie, and it was a conscious thing to do that. I think if they watched the movie, they’ll know that it isn’t a documentary, it’s very much more of an emotional point of view. But it’s an amazing true-life crime story, that’s for sure.”
HOLY ROLLERS IS CINEMAS FRIDAY, 8TH JULY
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