Few first-time directors take the path Samuel Maoz took into feature filmmaking—through a war zone. A few decades after being an Israeli gunner in the 1982 Lebanon War, he emerged with a film on the experience. It's a brave one, both in idea and execution; a nearly silent film with a limited visual perspective. Lebanon won the Golden Lion Award for Best Film at Venice and screened the film during the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival. Maoz spoke with SF360.org about how he worked with actors to create authenticity and how he handled the filmmaking process during his visit to San Francisco last spring.
SF360: Were your actors aware of the level of authenticity you were after with the tank scenes? Did they know that they would be spending hours in a boiling hot tank that was under attack? How did they prepare for and cope with the experience?
Samuel Maoz: I knew from the beginning the text was kind of an enemy. If I can live without it, it’s better, because I knew that when I was dealing with such extreme situations and dilemmas, I can’t express them through words. I can’t say 'I’m afraid, I can’t shoot'; it’s weak to say. It’s not the way. From the beginning I couldn’t do traditional rehearsals, like, for example, in scene 49, the scenes are without even one word. I told myself that the best way to prepare them was to put them in a certain state of mind all the time. For something like two months, I created for them many kinds of experiences. For example, the first step was to explain them how it was to be inside the tank. You know, you can explain to them, you can choose even nice words, and they would say that they understood, but they didn’t understand. So, I took every one of them separately and locked them in a very small, dark and very hot container for a few hours. Instead of starting to explain to them the claustrophobic experience and the darkness, I just let them experience it. After two hours in the container, the body recognized that it’s under very extreme conditions. After two hours you are floating; you are under a hypnotic situation or something and then I knock on the container with big iron pipes and it’s very similar to a sudden attack on the tank. It’s to jump from zero to a hundred. The total noise inside—everybody’s knocking from all around. Then came another two hours where you are waiting for the next time that I will knock. After five hours like this when I looked at the actors’ eyes as they went out from the container I understood that I don’t need to say anything because words will spoil it.
So it was two weeks of emotional preparing. Because I can’t look at the globe and ask where there is a war now and I will send them for one. So I need to, because when you are in the end dealing with feelings and your actors need to deliver those feelings, they must at least feel something. In the process itself it was mainly the physical emotions. They were ready emotionally. Then you add the physical conditions: to work all the day with a very hot set, to sweat, to be wet, to be full with oil and dust. The actors, by the way, told me that after we finished the shoot—after four days and 20 showers, they still felt that they are dirty. I sent the actor that made me a gunner every evening to meet for two hours with new parents that lost their son in the war, to show him what was the result of not pulling the trigger. If it’s one couple, two couples, if you’re going for 28 days, evening after evening, including Fridays and Saturdays. Because I felt the only way to deliver it was through the actors’ eyes. Also, you need to trust the audience. Usually people think actors need to say things. You need to be sure that everyone will understand you. In the end, we are not in the radio and we have a better communication channel with the eyes. Take, for example, the word 'beautiful.' In Hebrew we can find four or five words, in English there are 10 or 12, but in the eyes you have endless. And every word is specific and you don’t have to be intelligent or educated. You don’t even need subtitles. You just need to trust the audience. If the actors really feel it inside them, they don’t really need to act anymore, they just need to be there and it will come out from the eyes. I was there in the end to push them if something is still not working perfectly. But they are actors and they liked it. It’s a huge challenge for an actor to play in a place where they can’t even move side to side.
SF360.org: This was Yoav Donat’s first role out of acting school. How do you feel about casting relatively inexperienced talent? Was that your intention or was that just how it worked out?
Maoz: The first step was to test the eyes in the auditions. I just wanted to see what they could express in their eyes. Even if I gave them a text for the audition, it wasn’t the text in the end, I looked for something else entirely: how he’s listening, how he’s reacting. I knew that I can’t bring to the film four new or four known actors because all the film is on the shoulders of the actors. When you are in such a small location, so I knew if something won’t work in the editing room, I don’t have two flats, two cars, two hospitals—if something is not working, I can’t jump from scene to scene, I will have a hole of information. I couldn’t put all the film on the shoulders of four new actors. But one actor was totally new.
SF360.org: Can you talk about the production experience? What was your budget and how did you go about secure financing?
Maoz: To tell you the truth, it was very easy for me to find the money, much easier than I thought. The script was good, but usually they don’t give money. I don’t mean film funds, but mostly co-productions, TV channels like Arte, usually they give money to names, not to script, if you’re somebody or if you have a known actor, for example. So, they gave me money, but they gave me the change. So I have many investors, but everyone gave me his change. So the budget after everything was less than one and a half million dollars. And we shot it in 33 days.
SF360.org: What films were you watching while you were writing the script? Which directors have influenced your work?
Maoz: I don’t need the influence, I mean in the end, of course, you write books from books but I can tell you, in a way, Apocalypse Now was kind of an influence, but also Rembrandt. I could talk maybe about Apocalypse Now, about how it changed me.
SF360.org: Did it enable you to confront your experience?
Maoz: I remember when I saw it for the first time, I was a student of cinema and we saw it in the class. Of course I was amazed from the cinema itself, but I remember when we started to talk about the film. We were first talking before even analyzing it. One student said what was strong to her was that she knew she was going to see a war film but suddenly this was not the war she thought she was going to see. This is exactly the war that I expected to see. In a way, it was a huge influence because it was on two levels, cinematic and personal levels.
SF360.org: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Maoz: I can just talk about things that I learned from Lebanon. In the end, limits are a kind of blessing. When you don’t have a place to move right or move left, the only way to move is to dig deep. When I met big producers from Hollywood, from the studios, the big companies, they told me all the time you broke three or four basic rules: On the paper, this is a script of a film that couldn’t work. There is no background to the actors, you are shooting in a small place, we can’t even move there and also in the process itself, it was just me and my editor and the head of the Israeli Film Foundation. We believed in the project. All our partners, all our producers told us that they saw it that they were so into it, but they wanted to prepare us that no more than 2,000 people would see it all over the world. And I remember after the Venice screening, there were 2,000 people in the screening. So after the screening, I told my producer, 'We need to go home because that’s the end.' If you have a dream, if you have a vision, if you have your way to deliver it, you need to check yourself that this is your real true vision, that you’re not trying to flatter or to be cool. If this is your real true and real way and you believe in it, go for it and even if 1,000 people tell you you are wrong, in the end you will find that you were right and they were wrong. And if it’s really true, then you were right in the end.
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