‘Norman’ director Joseph Cedar talks court Jews and herring
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Interview'I was trying to make a purely American film, but it ended up being about this relationship between Israel and a New York businessman'

‘Norman’ director Joseph Cedar talks court Jews and herring

The Israeli filmmaker discusses his newest release, an uncomfortable contemporary tale of crossed boundaries between machers and politicians

From left, Michael Sheen, Lior Ashkenazi, and Richard Gere star in Joseph Cedar's latest release, 'Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.' (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
From left, Michael Sheen, Lior Ashkenazi, and Richard Gere star in Joseph Cedar's latest release, 'Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.' (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

NEW YORK — When the the writer-director of “Footnote” — arguably the best Israeli film of the last 10 years (with arguing being the key point) — makes a new movie, it’s a big deal. It even deserves to have a big name: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”

Joseph Cedar, who has bounced between New York and Israel his whole life, is working in English for the first time with this newest movie. The cast of “Norman” includes known international stars like Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi and Charlotte Gainsbourg — but front and center of the whole production is Richard Gere in a wildly unexpected turn from the one-time American Gigolo.

Gere’s Norman Oppenheimer is either a brilliant businessman or an elaborate BS artist: forever on the go, making deals, on the phone, waiting for his opening and pouncing when opportunity strikes.

He’s a nuisance but also a great help, and, thanks to a whirlwind series of events, he ends up being a key friend to the prime minister of Israel, and eventually finds himself at the center of a great many important decisions. How it all goes down is extremely entertaining.

I had the opportunity to speak with Cedar in New York ahead of a special Jerusalem preview screening and conversation with the director hosted by The Times of Israel on March 6 at Cinema City.

We go easy on the spoilers, but this is the type of movie that you kind of know what’s going to happen after the first scene — it’s just watching it play out that’s important. Below is an amended transcript of our conversation.

Actor Richard Gere introducing fans to filmmaker Joseph Cedar, who wrote and directed Gere's latest film, at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. (Courtesy YouTube screen grab)
Actor Richard Gere introducing fans to filmmaker Joseph Cedar, who wrote and directed Gere’s latest film, at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. (Courtesy YouTube screen grab)

So, your movies: they’re not comedies, but they are consistently funny. Are there any jokes in “Norman”?

If I get a laugh I feel it is working. But I don’t think there are gags. If you understand the character’s thoughts you expect things to blow up in his face in some way. That’s the kind of comedy in this film. Seeing someone lie and realizing that even though he is convincing himself, he’s not convincing anyone else. But, no, they are not “official” jokes.

Part of it comes out in the presentation, the music has a carnival aspect, the whirlwind through New York, that he never changes his clothes…

The music definitely has a circus element. I had an image in my head of the game musical chairs. And so long as the music is going on, he’s okay. It’s when the music stops he’s stuck.

Richard Gere plays Norman, a down-on-his-luck con artist and title character of director Joseph Cedar's newest film. (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Richard Gere plays Norman, a down-on-his-luck con artist and title character of director Joseph Cedar’s newest film. (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

How many Normans do you know?

Dozens. More.

When these people see the movie are they going to be offended? Or happy to be represented?

There’s an internal gift in every Norman, and it is essential to Norman-hood: They have no self-awareness. So the Normans I know will never see themselves. They’ll see themselves in the other characters.

Well, the triumph of this film, not to give away the ending, is his achievement of Norman Enlightenment.

Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy YouTube screen grab)
Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy YouTube screen grab)

He’s forced to see how other people see him. He can’t lie anymore, his survival tools to keep everything spinning — it all collapses when he gains this awareness.

But this is why I love your movie. Because the initial reflex is, “Oh, I see, Richard Gere is playing a con artist,” but in a way, he actually is a success. And if not for one key plot twist, he actually is quite brilliant! Maybe. You don’t know!

There are different levels to true Normans. I think there is genius in all of them, and an intuitive ability to always find a way in to another person’s set of needs. Finding a way to be essential to someone else requires tremendous insight.

The Norman in the film isn’t doing too well when we see him. He’s not at a high level. The one person who lets him in, he uses his brilliance, but with others it doesn’t work. He’s extremely talented but we’re meeting him at a time and age where he could possibly lose his dignity in a way he can never get it back.

We assume that Norman is out to be a parasite, that he’s not genuine when he wants to help people. But Lior Ashkenazi’s character, who becomes prime minister, either falls for it, or maybe he sees something in Norman that we don’t recognize. Is he altruistic or is he selfish? Or does it not even matter?

A scene from the Joseph Cedar movie 'Norman.' (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
A scene from the Joseph Cedar movie ‘Norman.’ (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

The biggest revelation in making this film, for me, was exactly this. My initial assumption about this type of character is that he is serving his own interest at the expense of other people’s needs, and maybe at the expense of values and morality. But spending time in Norman’s shoes, and trying to understand his motivation convinced me that most of the people in this category are really trying to do good.

Everyone assumes they are conniving, and as such they have a hard time. They aren’t necessarily altruistic — they want to make money and they have an ego. But they are trying to do the right thing. They aren’t selfish, it’s the opposite, they are constantly trying to help people around them.

And if in doing that you make a few dollars, is this so bad?

If there was a Christian flavor to this movie, then that’s what this movie would be about. But Norman? No. There has to be a profit at the end. Somebody has to make money out of this thing, and he’s not going to apologize for that, that’s what moves the world forward.

From left: Lior Ashkenazi, Joseph Cedar and Richard Gere at the premiere of Norman. (Courtesy)
From left: Lior Ashkenazi, Joseph Cedar and Richard Gere at the premiere of ‘Norman.’ (Courtesy)

This character doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s the so-called “Court Jew,” with one famous one from history named Samuel Oppenheimer, and I imagine this was all on your mind.

‘I am fascinated by the role of the Court Jew, and how it reappears in every era and every industry’

I am fascinated by the role of the Court Jew, and how it reappears in every era and every industry. Someone who finds his way into the close circle of a person who will eventually have power, by offering him a gift at a time when that person has very low resistance. Then gradually gaining influence as that person becomes more powerful, and finally being thrown back to the street when he becomes a liability. That structure is extremely interesting to me.

Watching “Norman,” and also “Footnote,” I had a sense of how it was going to end, without knowing how it would get there. There’s a classicist nature, almost like stories from the Old Country.

I am attracted to these kinds of stories, and also the cinematic history of scheming Jewish merchants. The “Cohen” series, “Cohen’s Advertising Scheme,” “Cohen’s Fire Sale” from 1904 and 1905. The first ones were made by a director named Edwin Porter, engaging in Jewish stereotypes before World War I.

Scene from award-winning 'Footnote,' by Joseph Cedar. (Courtesy 'Footnote')
Scene from award-winning ‘Footnote,’ by Joseph Cedar. (Courtesy ‘Footnote’)

Cohen has a grotesque crook nose and beady eyes, and the films have the same structure: he is trying to cheat someone but ends up being the victim of his own scheme. This is so precious to me because I like the idea of someone who isn’t satisfied with what he has, and is hungry for more. But then it backfires and you end up on his side anyway.

It’s not too sweet and it’s not too cynical. It reminds us that someone who has to try that hard to succeed never comes into power. Real power in the world, you are born into that. You can always root for the people who have to really work for it.

I love how you visualize New York, particularly the way some of us use outdoor Manhattan as an office, how you can sometimes have the most important business calls from the bathroom of a Starbucks.

A Starbucks Coffee in New York City. (Elvert Barnes/flickr/creative commons)
A Starbucks Coffee in New York City. (Elvert Barnes/flickr/creative commons)

One of the nice things about a Norman in the 21st Century is that he can play this game where nobody knows where he is. He conducts all his business on the phone, and the more extreme the gap is — like one moment he is literally lying in garbage speaking to the prime minister of Israel — that contrast works. We tried to create sets where the actors could be in the same room visually but in different locations. It’s not easy in the editing room, but the idea is that Norman can be everywhere at once.

‘The Israel that Norman thinks he is helping doesn’t really exist’

The movie is all about the nexus of New York and Israel, which mirrors your personal history.

I was trying to make a purely American New York film, but it ended up being about this relationship between Israel and a New York businessman. American Jewry has a love affair with Israel that romanticizes and idealizes, but it is fictional. The Israel that Norman thinks he is helping doesn’t really exist.

Israeli Border Police officers stand with Jewish settlers as they form a large circle and dance, outside the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem, during the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'Omer on April 28, 2013. (Illustrative photo: Sliman Khader/FLASH90)
Israeli Border Police officers stand with Jewish settlers as they form a large circle and dance, outside the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem, during the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’Omer on April 28, 2013. (Illustrative photo: Sliman Khader/FLASH90)

He makes a phone call to Israel for the first time, and in his head we see our bureaucrats with Israeli folk dancers in the background.

The kind of Zionism kids receive in the Jewish day schools in America is easy to enjoy because it is utopian. But not realistic. I gave Norman that perspective.

When he finally gets to the Israeli Consulate it’s images of tourism: oranges and the Dead Sea and a beautiful sunset in the desert. Only he doesn’t realize he’s about to be betrayed.

But it goes both ways? An Israeli vision of New York that is fabricated?

Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to articulate this love story, but the film attempts to touch on this. There’s something religious about it, but a little kinky, too. And touches feelings of guilt on both sides, sprung from, among other things, financial support.

Richard Gere during his March visit to Jerusalem, when he filmed part of Joseph Cedar's 'Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer' (Hadas Parus/Flash 90)
Richard Gere during his March visit to Jerusalem, when he filmed part of Joseph Cedar’s ‘Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer’ (Hadas Parus/Flash 90)

On to a very important subject now. Did Richard Gere really eat a Vita pickled herring on a cracker?

I will never answer. I will say, and people who have been on film sets know this, that if you have a shot, that means on the set you have to do it 20 times. Lots of takes, lots of angles.

You have an insert of the herring going on the cracker and a hand. But it may not be his hand. Then you cut to him putting something in his mouth, but thanks to movie magic it could be something else!

Pickled herring on crackers. (Wikimedia commons/Jonathunder)
Pickled herring on crackers. (Wikimedia commons/Jonathunder)

This is a conversation you can have with a director of pornographic films.

Is there something more pornographic than pickled herring?

This is a question the audience must ask, which is why I can’t answer.

That scene was in the film from the very first draft. But while we were scouting synagogues to shoot in, and looking at their basements and their kitchens, every single one had a jar of pickled herring. Just like in the script. It’s there waiting for someone who really needs it.

It’s in the movie because if you know what someone’s breath smells like, it’s visceral and helps the character.

At the end of cinema, it’s Rosebud the sled and Norman’s herring.

I’m happy with that.

The subtitle of the movie says “New York Fixer” and when I hear Fixer, specifically in a Jewish context, I think of Bernard Malamud’s story, which is a much more serious and depressing thing, and couldn’t be more different.

We didn’t have the subtitle at the beginning, but it helps the film and give it context. My initial suggestion was “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a Jewish Macher.”

And it was suggested to change Jewish Macher to New York Fixer, and to me it was perfect. It’s perfect code for anyone who really knows the story. Replacing Jew with New York and macher with fixer is just a way to say something that’s more appealing to a wider audience, but actually means something extremely specific.

Richard Gere really nails it. You have a lot of non-Jews in Jewish parts. Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon, too.

The only Jews we had were Hank Azaria and Josh Charles. But don’t out them, please!

Seriously, though, I don’t think there’s anything genetic about our Jewish traits. So taking beautiful gentiles and making them into my uncles and cousins is extremely satisfying. But I don’t think portraying a Jew requires being circumcised. There’s a Norman in everyone, in every movie star, just waiting for their piece of herring.

Times of Israel Presents: NORMAN with Director JOSEPH CEDAR
Where: Cinema City Jerusalem – THEATER 1
When: March 6, 2017 at 7:45 PM
If you are having trouble ordering, call 054-659-7796

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