NEW YORK — Boaz Yakin, a New Yorker-born to Israeli parents, has been working in cinema for over 30 years. He’s made edgy low-budget independent films and written big budget studio pictures. He’s directed a high school football movie, a Jason Statham action picture, and even something about a dog with PTSD. Some of these films, I think Yakin would agree, are better than others. But this year he’s returned to his roots to make a small, personal movie loosely based on his own relationships.
Stop yawning. This is not some rich guy airing his grievances about his ex-wife on film. (And here’s where I’ll point out that Yakin’s ex-wife is, in fact, the Israeli director of recent hit “Honey Boy,” Alma Har’el.)
“Aviva” — which was supposed to debut at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, before the COVID-19 pandemic — certainly draws from the director’s life, but is a rich, creative and unusual exploration about an evolving romance that is made visual in very splashy ways.
For starters, Yakin has hooked up with choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith and members of the Batsheva Dance Company. (If anyone saw the recent “Entebbe,” this is the same group that was involved in that project, too.) “Aviva” regularly busts out into dance numbers, but not in a “Singin’ In The Rain” kind of way. The movement (and the camera work) is quite modern, and drives the story forward.
Additionally, each of the two characters in the romance is “split” between their masculine and feminine sides. As such, four actors can sometimes be in the same scene, everyone interacting with one another. It may sound confusing, but it works quite well, and will ring familiar to anyone who has been in a complex relationship.
I had the good fortune to speak with Yakin days before the film’s June 12 release, when it will be available to rent via digital platforms. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Times of Israel: You got your start making lower budget films such as “Fresh” and “A Price Above Rubies” before working within the Hollywood system. Are films like “Aviva” what we should expect from you now?
Yakin: My first and greatest interest is making films like “Aviva.” I am thrilled to do something this experimental and personal, and to use the money from making Hollywood movies to make this.
There’s a time and a place and, you know, we all have to earn a living. Making the Hollywood films have kept a roof over my head and my hand in the game.
When did you realize this story would be told with the use of dance? I watched this at home, as we all will thanks to coronavirus, and there were a few moments where I said “I gotta rewind that last bit, that was really cool.”
That’s thanks to Bobbi Jene Smith’s choreography, I’m sure. She works in such an emotional, unusual way. I think we use dance in this film in a way rarely seen in a narrative film.
In movies dance is so frequently “show biz,” so presentational. This is one of the only narratives that uses contemporary dance to tell a story.
The realization came when thinking about how to tell a story about a relationship — and how the representation was split into both male and female actors externalizing the internal masculine/feminine. I was discussing this with a dancer and he said “it should be a dance movie,” and it clicked. The dominoes fell. The dance expands the theatrical style for the masculine and feminine split.
I think if you did the gender fluidity without the dance elements, it would have been more difficult to understand.
I was also inspired by Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire,” about an older man tantalized by a young woman, and Buñuel cast two actresses in the role. They were the same age, but they looked quite different, and when you see her in different scenes it is a different actress with no explanation. I found this very daring, and wanted to take it a step further.
Gender fluidity is a key component of the film; the main character grapples with his feminine side, and a misunderstanding about gender is a trauma from his youth. As our culture becomes more accepting of the gender spectrum, are you hopeful that future generations may not suffer from this much tsuris?
Tsuris [trouble] will never go away. Tsuris is part of the fabric of creation. But young people are expressing themselves in less clearly-defined terms, and that is super healthy.
This film is about a heterosexual couple, but the masculine/feminine struggle within oneself, and how they relate to their partner, is something that every gender combination deals with. There’s a duality in everything. More than a duality, probably, but a duality is confusing enough.
Sex and nudity is a part of life, and it is not ignored in your film. But there’s sure a lot of it in there!
It’s a movie about sex and sexuality. There are so many movies about relationships, whether it’s “When Harry Met Sally…” or anything else, that always cuts away from that. It’s never a part of what we see.
In real life relationships that are very connected intellectually can fragment because the bedroom doesn’t work. Or relationships that aren’t very good can be cemented in the bedroom in a really positive way. It’s a massive part of life; its presence in the film has nothing to do with prurience.
If you make a film about relationships, our sexuality, our bodies, our penises, our vaginas, our breasts, whatever, is an intrinsic part of what we deal with every day
We accept violence in an action film, even though that is much less of an every day part of life for almost all of us. Thirty minutes of crashing cars and shooting each other in the head. That is acceptable. If you make a film about relationships, our sexuality, our bodies, our penises, our vaginas, our breasts, whatever, is an intrinsic part of what we deal with every day. Somehow that is what has to be blanketed!
So with this I was making my own movie, I had no rules, I had no one telling me what to do, so I said “this is how I want to do it.”
There are a lot of great New York City locations in this. I always liked the spot in Central Park near the Hans Christian Andersen statue, too.
This movie is not autobiographical, but there is a lot from my life, and that location, that statue, is where that experience actually happened.
That’s gotta be weird, to film a scene from something in your life in the precise spot where it occurred.
It’s had its charms! It happened a long time ago, so it becomes a fantasy in a way. We’re always creating the myth of our lives in our mind. There are certain stories you forget, but others you tell yourself a lot, right? And the ones you come back to in your head, those eventually diverge from what actually happened. Filming it becomes beautiful. You make the myth a second time, with actors. It takes over your own memory. Another layer of fantasy over what happened.
You mentioned “not an autobiography,” but it is about a breakup, and people can see who your ex-wife is. Aviva, like your ex-wife, has bushy red hair. You did cast this person, so, you know, you brought this on yourself!
I will tell you the honest truth— I swear to God. Bobbi Jene Smith cast the film with her colleagues from New York and in the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. And she was saying “you must see this woman for the part of Aviva,” and when I saw Zina Zinchenko’s photo I was [makes groaning noise].
Yes, she was amazing, but everyone was going to think I cast her for this purpose. I was like “oh, shit, shit, why does this have to happen?” But she was the best person. It was meant to be. Might as well embrace it.
And she’s supposed to be French and she’s Russian, so …
And the male half of Aviva, Or Schraiber, is Israeli. We didn’t even try to give him a French accent. I felt comfortable with all that.
It’s not that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie with an extraordinary one-take pantomime sequence, the “drive to Los Angeles” sequence, that really —
That is something that only Bobbi Jene Smith can do. It’s some of the most amazing three straight minutes I’ve seen in a while. Always conceived as one take. And she worked on it a bit in conception with my father, believe it or not, who was a teacher at Juilliard and a mime. I didn’t see any of this until the day on set. We had so little prep. I was paying for everything, so not much time. I saw her plans that morning. Then the camera operator and I figured out how to shoot it. We did it four or five times and one of the takes is what you see in the film. It was magical.
It’s some of the most amazing three straight minutes I’ve seen in a while
You were among the very first to make a comic book movie, with your first script for “The Punisher” in 1989. Now comic book movies are the profit drivers in Hollywood. You were so ahead of the curve.
That’s a long time ago! The script was altered to a point I wasn’t happy with, and the criticism was “it’s too comic book-y.” Now what they are going for is being faithful to the source, so it’s been a big change. It was seen as a bastard art form. I remember saying “there is a huge untapped fountain of creative work.” But after that the Tim Burton “Batman” film came out and started to change things.