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Documentary takes film lovers behind the scenes of making ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

‘Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen’ breaks down the movie magic of a beloved 50-year-old musical, and shows how the film brought gentile director Norman Jewison closer to Judaism

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • 'Fiddler on the Roof' director Norman Jewison (right) on set in 1970 with Chaim Topol, who played Tevye. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
    'Fiddler on the Roof' director Norman Jewison (right) on set in 1970 with Chaim Topol, who played Tevye. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
  • Norman Jewison (in baseball cap) directs on set of 1971 film 'Fiddler on the  Roof.' Chaim Topol, who played Tevye, is second from right. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
    Norman Jewison (in baseball cap) directs on set of 1971 film 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Chaim Topol, who played Tevye, is second from right. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
  • 'Fiddler on the Roof' director Norman Jewison at his home in Malibu, California during interview with 'Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen' director Daniel Raim in 2016. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
    'Fiddler on the Roof' director Norman Jewison at his home in Malibu, California during interview with 'Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen' director Daniel Raim in 2016. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
  • A photo capturing the filming of the 1971 film 'Fiddler on the Roof,' directed by Norman Jewison. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
    A photo capturing the filming of the 1971 film 'Fiddler on the Roof,' directed by Norman Jewison. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

In the late 1960s, film director Norman Jewison was in despair about the political upheavals in America and around the world. Spiritually despondent, he was ready to quit Hollywood and stop directing.

An invitation from United Artists to adapt the successful stage play “Fiddler on the Roof” for film came just at the right moment. Jewison accepted the challenge, and the work healed him, he wrote in his 2005 autobiography, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me.”

A new documentary film by Daniel Raim, “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” opens in New York on April 29 and Los Angeles on May 6. As the title implies, it is about all that went into the making of the beloved, iconic 1971 film based on Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem‘s stories about Jews in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century.

Raim’s film is ostensibly about how producer and director Jewison shaped “Fiddler,” but it is at its core about how “Fiddler,” with its themes of family, tradition and belief in God, shaped him.

“Jewison was at a tipping point. He saw ‘Fiddler’ as a way for him to really say something,” Raim said.

In conversation with The Times of Israel from his home in Los Angeles, Raim said Jewison was absolutely the right person to direct “Fiddler.”

“Norman was at the top of his game at that point, having just made hugely successful films like ‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night,’” Raim said.

Daniel Raim, creator of ‘Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen’ (Courtesy)

“But more than that, he had an excellent musical sense, and was able to create a visual structure and elicit touching and real performances from the actors,” he said.

When asked who he had in mind as the audience for his documentary, Raim said it was himself.

Indeed, “Fiddler’s Journey” is a film that will be most appreciated by filmmakers and hardcore cinephiles interested in the creative nitty-gritty of how films are made. This is what differentiates it from other “Fiddler”-related documentaries, such as “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” (2019), and “Sholom Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” (2011).

However, lay viewers who have fond memories of watching “Fiddler” over the last half-century will also enjoy Raim’s film. His focus on director Jewison’s personal journey during the making of the blockbuster 1971 movie makes Raim’s film attractive to a wide audience.

There is much in “Fiddler’s Journey,” narrated by actor Jeff Goldblum, to keep film buffs’ interest. Archival footage and photos, and recent interviews with director Jewison, composer John Williams, production designer Robert F. Boyle, film critic Kenneth Turan, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and actresses Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, and Neva Small (who played daughters Tzeitl, Hodl and Chava), cover every aspect of the making of “Fiddler.”

Norman Jewison (in baseball cap) directs on set of 1971 film ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Chaim Topol, who played Tevye, is second from right. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

We learn about the search for shooting locations, which ended up being Lekenik, Yugoslavia, and Pinewood Studios in London. There is detailed discussion of the music, choreography, cinematography, set design, casting and actors’ approaches to their roles.

Costumes and the overall visual style of the film were greatly influenced by famous photographs taken by Roman Vishniac in pre-World War II Eastern European shtetls.

Raim devotes a considerable part of his film to the decisions that went into turning a play with an already large and varied audience into a film that would have even more universal appeal.

“Taking a play and bringing it out into the real world is always a challenge for a director,” Jewison says in “Fiddler’s Journey.”

For the most part, the happenings in the Anatevka of the movie are the same as those of the stage. Some scenes were added, including one showing the violence of a pogrom, and political radical Perchik’s arrest at a worker’s rally.

The key issue was to find the right actor to play the lead role of Tevye. Jewison did not want Zero Mostel, who had originated the shtetl dairyman on Broadway. To Jewison, the American Mostel projected a larger-than-life persona that wouldn’t work well for the cameras.

Jewison found his Tevye in Chaim Topol (also known by the mononym Topol), who at the time was playing the role in the London production. An Israeli who had grown up listening to his father recite Sholom Aleichem’s stories by heart, Topol had the sensibilities and look Jewison was looking for.

Jewison was on the money with his casting decisions, based on the movie’s huge financial and critical success worldwide (it was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three).

“Over a billion people saw the film, so they couldn’t all be Jewish,” Topol remarks in a 2009 interview with Raim.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ director Norman Jewison (right) on set in 1970 with Chaim Topol, who played Tevye. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

It was this universal appeal of “Fiddler” that led Raim to make “Fiddler’s Journey.” Growing up in Israel, Raim had watched “Fiddler” on VHS cassette at his grandparents’ home in Haifa.

“It was a portal into a world that no longer existed, into Jewish history in Eastern Europe. It piqued my imagination. But when I went to see Topol in his farewell stage tour of ‘Fiddler’ in LA in 2009, I saw for myself how much the play meant to the very mixed audience. That’s when the coin dropped for me that I had to make a movie on this,” Raim said.

“Fiddler’s Journey” is in the same vein as Raim’s 2017 film, “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” about the longtime personal and professional partnership of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, film researcher Lillian Michelson, who quietly contributed to the film industry’s success for 60 years.

A photo capturing the filming of the 1971 film ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ directed by Norman Jewison. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

Both “Fiddler’s Journey” and “Harold and Lillian” exhibit Raim’s love and reverence for movies and those who make them.

In fact, there is a connection between the two documentaries. Those watching “Fiddler’s Journey” will notice that some of the original set drawings for “Fiddler” were made by Harold Michelson.

“And Lillian was the researcher for ‘Fiddler.’ She likes to tell the story of how she was trying to find out what kind of underwear girls and young women wore at the turn of the century in the shtetls,” Raim said.

“So she went down to [the LA Jewish neighborhood of] Fairfax and asked the older Jewish ladies she saw whether they could help her. The ladies went home and brought back paper patterns they made of what they had worn,” he said.

Set decoration and and women’s bloomers notwithstanding, “Fiddler’s Journey” is at its heart a tribute to the non-Jewish Jewison, who made a very Jewish story mean so much to people of all backgrounds worldwide.

In “Fiddler’s Journey” Jewison shares the oft-recounted story that when the executives at UA called him to a meeting to ask him to direct “Fiddler,” he told them that despite his last name, he was actually not Jewish — and never was.

“What would you say if I told you I’m a goy [non Jew]?” Jewison said to them.

Some jaws dropped, but this ultimately had no bearing on the executives’ decision.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ director Norman Jewison at his home in Malibu, California, during interview with ‘Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen’ director Daniel Raim in 2016. (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

Jewison, from a Protestant family, had occasionally tagged along to synagogue with a Jewish friend as they grew up in Toronto, Canada, in the 1930s. But it was the director’s immersion in research for “Fiddler,” and his work on the film overall, that left an indelible mark.

“I found it was quite possible for me to identify with Tevye and with the Jewish religion,” Jewison says in “Fiddler’s Journey.”

While never officially converting, Jewison, now 95, has had a lifelong affinity for Judaism and Jewish culture. He has made multiple visits to Israel (including to sit next to prime minister Golda Meir at the Israeli opening of “Fiddler”). He easily throws Yiddish and Hebrew words into conversation, pronouncing them better than many American Jews.

And in what echoes the beautiful “Sunrise, Sunset” scene in “Fiddler,” Jewison married his second wife under a huppah (Jewish wedding canopy), with a rabbi officiating.

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