LONDON — When British-Israeli actor, writer and filmmaker Liran Nathan first heard Etgar Keret’s short story “Parallel Universes” read aloud on the radio, he was so taken with it that he decided to make the story into his first short film.
That was four years ago. Since then, his eight-minute short has been screened at a number of film festivals worldwide, and this week it will feature at Kinofilm International Short Film Festival in Manchester, United Kingdom, as part of the festival’s official selection.
“I’d never heard of him before,” the 28-year-old actor admits over coffee in a quiet, artisan café on an industrial estate in Tottenham, north London, not far from his Stamford Hill home.
“It was quite by chance. I was in Israel, driving with my mum to my cousin’s house for Friday night dinner. We were listening to the radio and the presenter was reading a story and at the end, the presenter said it was by Etgar Keret. I know, [it’s surprising] that I didn’t know who he was then,” he says, with half a smile.
The next morning he went to the local Steimatzky’s and bought Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.”
“I’d just finished studying at The Lee Strasberg Institute in New York and I guess I was really enthusiastic about making something, so when I read through the stories, I marked three or four of them,” he explains. “I could visualize them straight away and ‘Parallel Universes’ was the obvious one to go for first.”
The surreal short story is written in the first person in under 700 words. Nathan has adapted it, giving a name, “Aden,” to the protagonist. The film focuses on a young man who lies alone in his bedroom, imagining all the routes his life might have taken — a number of parallel universes and their endless possibilities. The viewer follows his train of thought where he examines various scenarios until he finally settles on one in which he is happy, with the woman he loves lying by his side.
It is a strange, dark but intriguing story. “I think what really connected me was the idea of sliding doors,” he says.
“Every decision you make changes the course of your life. At that time, I’d made some great decisions, but then there are also those moments where you’re like, ‘What if I’d followed [such and such] through?’ So when I read the story I understood it perfectly. Maybe not so much on the quantum physics side,” he adds, smiling. “But there’s something amazing about the idea that the future ‘you’ is completely up to you now.”
“Parallel Universes” is ambiguous as to what is the protagonist’s reality and what exists in his imagination. It was a subject of much debate between the cast and crew, right up until the shoot, Nathan says.
“Did he ever meet [this woman] or did he just pass her on the bus one day? Did he see her in a magazine or were they in love? Did she leave him, did she die? Anything could’ve happened,” he says.
Before making the film, Nathan acquired Keret’s permission and the author has seen it.
“He really liked it. He was great, really cool. He also gave me some notes while we were in the editing [process],” says Nathan.
The artist’s experience of making “Parallel Universes” highlighted the specific demands that are particular to the art of short film, especially concerning plot and character development.
“A good short is hard to make because [the story] needs to be condensed and it needs to be told in a punch,” he says.
“Parallel Universes” was a challenge, he explains, primarily because the film has no dialogue. Instead the story is narrated by voiceover and it relies on visuals.
The hardest thing was justifying every character in every parallel universe
“In any film, character is important and in ‘Parallel Universes’ the character is complex and not really nailed down,” he says. “So it was down to me as an actor to try and understand him and create [from that].
“The hardest thing was justifying every character in every parallel universe — because they are all quite different. In one, he’s happy and optimistic, in another he’s suave and he’s a president. In another, he’s dying. To make things a bit more challenging, I was directing as well.”
For Nathan, a short film also needs to have a strong message, so in “Parallel Universes” he says he tried to focus on one theme that threaded all the characters together.
“It’s the pursuit of happiness — it motivates the character in every story, even if he’s a different person with a different name and a different background, he wants love. He wants to be happy,” he says.
This is not the first time Keret’s short stories have been adapted to film. Nathan says that since he embarked on the project he became aware of other shorts made by Israeli film students. He has plans to adapt another one of Keret’s stories and is in discussion with a friend who is an animation director.
But Keret is not the only writer whose work he is interested in interpreting on film. He is currently working on developing a short based on a character in Shalom Auslander’s novel “Hope: A Tragedy.”
“I spoke with [Auslander] about seven months ago about using the old Jewish mum. His work is really funny and again, kind of dark. He’s given us his permission,” Nathan says.
Nathan has discovered that a successful short film can help with career opportunities.
“Going to meetings and being able to show a good short is like having a business card. Even if people haven’t seen it, having made ‘Parallel Universes’ gives me a leg up,” he says.
As well as the Auslander film, he has written a TV series about a young man from Stamford Hill’s Orthodox Jewish community and his struggles to adapt to modern life in the capital.
“It’s about his personal desires versus social expectations, and the double life that develops as a result,” he explains.
He has had interest from a couple of production companies and one has offered to launch the pilot but Nathan is being cautious.
“I want to do this properly and don’t want to rush into it,” he says.
Having lived in Stamford Hill for many years, the story comes from a firsthand perspective. Although he is not Orthodox, he is very aware of the serious but undiscussed fractures within the community — a reality that bothers him.
“I think I have found a way of telling the story as an insider. People have questioned me about whether it’s betrayal but I think it’s the opposite. I think when you come from that community, it’s your responsibility to be honest about certain issues and try to work through them,” he says.
He says there is always curiosity from those outside the Orthodox community.
“There isn’t much communication. The Orthodox community is about preservation and privacy. Around here you’ll see the occasional frum [ultra-Orthodox] guy talking to someone outside the community because it’ll be work or business related but other than that, it’s really infrequent so I can understand why people are interested.”
Geographically, Stamford hill is close to Dalston and Shoreditch, areas renowned for their hipster cool and creativity.
“It’s parallel universes!” Nathan says, laughing. “I thought it would be amazing to explore a character who is part of those two universes: the ultra-Orthodox world and that of the hedonistic east London [scene].
“Funnily enough,” he says, “I was speaking to a friend of mine who was having a party — he lives on the border of Stamford Hill — and he told me that there was this exact character who passed through, and I thought, ‘Great! It just [reinforces] how relevant the story is.’”