A Love Letter to Being Jewish
Brooklyn College student journalist Moshe Langer, a writer for the school's "Hatikvah" magazine, recently spoke with the creator of "The Hebrew Hammer," Jonathan Kesselman, about the making of the movie, its role in confronting Jewish stereotypes and his love of Jewish culture:
Langer: Can you tell me more about your background?
Kesselman: I was born and raised in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. I went to high school in North Hollywood. Afterward, I went to college at Cal Poly, where I studied psychology. After my dad died, I dropped out for a year and lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and did the ski-bum thing. I transferred into the University of Colorado and got my degree in psychology, with an emphasis on neuroscience. I was working in a research lab for a while, but it really wasn't what I wanted to do. When I came back to LA, I ended up working as an IT guy, but my dream was to go to film school. I applied to USC and got my graduate degree there in 2001. In terms of my Jewish background, I was raised Reform and Conservative – my mom sort of bounced us back and forth.
Langer: Let's talk a little bit about the movie. Was there any specific inspiration for this movie?
Kesselman: I applied to film school twice, and the first time I didn't get in. I was very angry about that, so I started writing this movie idea about these two moronic film students, and when you first meet them, one of them has a movie showing in class called "Matthew Rising," and it's a Jewish exploitation film. The joke was that no one thought the Jews were necessarily exploited. Eventually, when I got into school, my first semester I did a film called "Subterfuge," which is sort of a spy film. One of the characters in it was Mordechai Jefferson Carver, the Hebrew Hammer, a master of disguises. He was an Orthodox Jew, and he goes into an airport bathroom with this package. He starts ripping off all of his clothing – his tallis, his yarmulke – [with the camera] cutting in and out of the bathroom stall, and eventually when you cut back in, he's a black man.
So I rented every blaxploitation film I could get my hands on, starting with "Sweet Sweetback Baad Asssss Song," which was the first film by Melvin Van Peebles, and sort of got a sense of how the genre worked and the convention of the genre. Then I ended up doing a short film my second semester, which sort of became a hit of the school, a notorious short that was chosen by the archivists as one of their favorite shorts from 1950 to the present. It gave me attention in Hollywood – it was going around town. A friend of mine ended up showing it to a woman who was the girlfriend of an agent at ICM. He saw the tape and called me while I was writing "Hammer," and he asked if I was writing anything. I said I was writing this and sent it to them, and the rest is history.
Langer: Your research of the blaxploitation genre happened during film school?
Kesselman: Yes. I had seen it as a kid but didn't really understand it. I had a general sense of what the films were, but it wasn't until I started watching them and seeing them back to back that I understood what they were all about. I had taken a class in graduate school about blaxploitation films, which was great because after I had written the film and was gearing up to go into preproduction, it gave me a lot of insight into things I had written. Sometimes it's a subconscious thing – you don't really understand what you are writing when you are writing it. It helped me get a better understanding of the genre and the clothing and the politics and everything that went along with that era, the early '70s.
Langer: Your Web site talks a lot about what the blaxploitation genre did for blacks in Hollywood. Is that what you were going for with Jews?
Kesselman: Absolutely. Melvin Van Peebles was very angry with the depiction of black Americans in Hollywood in the early '70s, and basically blacks were portrayed as servants. He had this notion of making this film in which he took all of the black stereotypes – the blacks being overtly sexual and aggressive – and exaggerating them in his characters. In the course of the film, this character embodies all of those things and is beating the white man at his own game, sort of like saying "f&%$ you" to mainstream white America. I thought it would be interesting to take that idea of exaggerating stereotypes and apply it to a comedy. That's what satire is for – you take something and exaggerate it to show the truth behind it. It seems like a good match. When I first thought about it, it seemed like very incongruous things – a Jew kicking butt – but it felt perfect. That was the inspiration for writing "Hammer."
Langer: What there any other research that went into this movie?
Kesselman: In terms of the Jewish stuff, not really. I kind of wrote my life as a Jew. My father was raised in the Bronx (New York) as an Orthodox Jew and broke away when he was 18. He actually fought in Israel's War of Independence and came back and realized that he loved being Jewish and was very much a Zionist, but he didn't believe in the religion portion of it. So he moved to California to start a new life, and I think out of a lot of the stuff I got for the movie was partly from my dad's side of the family. My mom is a Jew as well, and I had the whole Hebrew school background and was bar mitzvahed and went to temple.
I was also looking at other character comedies, things like "Austin Powers" and "Our Man Flint," which is another spy-character spoof. I wanted to make ["Hammer"] almost like a comic-book meets a blaxploitation movie. I wanted it to have the underlying conventions [of blaxploitation]. The thing with blaxploitation movies is while they're very politicized and hard-hitting, there's also very bad film-making, they're poorly shot. I didn't want my film to look like crap. I wanted to take the blaxploitation idea and use it as a jumping-off point. I grew up loving movies like Mel Brooks films – "History of the World, Part I" is my favorite comedy of all time – or "Blazing Saddles." Even more than that was "Naked Gun" and "Airplane" – I love that sort of fast-paced comedy. That's what I was going for in terms of comedy, but at the same time I wanted to lay in an underlying politicized nature of blaxploitation films.
Langer: Was it necessary to do research to incorporate the stereotypes?
Kesselman: I didn't create these stereotypes – these are things that any Jew growing up knows and feels, so that was really easy. I wrote the film really quickly, in about three weeks. I just was hit by the idea and couldn't stop writing it. It was my life as a Jew. It was a love letter to being Jewish. I really love being Jewish, and it was sort of me dealing with the fact that I'm very much a cultural Jew, but I'm also very secular, so the film was a way of expressing that and dealing with that. I look back upon the film and realize that's why I wrote it so quickly. I was so passionate about and excited about it.
Langer: What are your expectations for what this movie will do for Jews in Hollywood?
Kesselman: The funny thing about this movie is that when I first wrote the script, the agency was very excited about it and it was going around town, and everyone was saying, "This is funniest thing I've read in a long time, but it's too Jewish. It's never going to get made." The people who were telling me were all Jewish Hollywood executives, which really frustrated me. The producer at Universal wanted to make it a black-Jewish buddy thing to broaden its market, which would have killed the whole idea behind Jewish exploitation. So at that point, another producer, a guy named Ed Pressman, who is a renowned independent film producer from the '60s on, got his hands on it and said, "I'll let you make it and I'll let you direct it, but it's going to be low budget, like $1 million budget." That was exciting because if you take [movies about] any other ethnic or religious group, from "The Passion" to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to any African-American comedy, those things get made, but anything with Jewish content does not get made. People on the Hollywood circuit steer clear of it, and I'm glad ["Hammer"] took off because hopefully it will open the doors for people who want to make films that explore their Jewish identity.
Langer: What are you working on right now?
Kesselman: I have a movie that Adam Goldberg and Christina Ricci are going to do called "It's a Man's World." We're getting pretty close to getting financing, and hopefully within a few months we'll start shooting. It's about a guy who feels very emasculated and controlled by the women in his life, and he comes across this place called the National Organization for the Advancement of Man, which is sort of this magical, fraternal organization that gives him access to this other dimension, a parallel universe, called "Man's World." It's the Maxim magazine or "The Man Show" version of what men think they want in women, sort of the adolescent male fantasy come true. Everyone has a doppelganger, another version of himself, and wacky hilarity ensues, and it's really not what he wants, but he can't get out. I'm also working right now on a show for Comedy Central, writing this year-in-review show that will air in December.
Langer: Was Adam Goldberg your first choice for "The Hebrew Hammer"?
Kesselman: When you're going to make a movie, you make a list of the actors you feel would be right, and I had a top five list, and he was on that list. Looking back now, there's no one else who could play the part but Adam. He brings sort of an edge to it that lends itself to those blaxploitation heroes, to the Superflys and Shafts of past. He's a great comedic actor. He plays everything straight, which is how comedy needs to be played, and he's brilliant in the movie.
Langer: What was the audience reaction to "Hammer"?
Kesselman: It's been incredible. I've done the whole festival circuit, spent a year traveling with the film, and every audience I've seen the film with seems to love it. It's been pretty positive and exciting for me. It's a fun movie.
Langer: There are some people who take offense at some of the stereotypes that you bring forward. How would you respond to those people?
Kesselman: With any movie or comedy there are certain people who don't have a sense of irony and don't understand what you're doing. At the end of day, it's different strokes for different folks, and anybody who sees the film and has a sense of irony and understands about blaxploitation will understand what the film is – that it's very tongue-in-cheek. Before I first made the film, the Anti-Defamation League got its hands on the script and they were concerned about certain things. Then eventually after I finished the film I had a screening in Chicago, and they saw that it wasn't anti-Semitic.
Langer: What about a sequel?
Kesselman: I would love to do a sequel. If ["Hammer"] makes money on DVD, there will probably be a sequel. I already have an idea and I actually have some scenes written. I could write "Hammer' for the rest of my life.
Langer: Does Hammer marry Esther?
Kesselman: Hammer will marry Esther and they will have a child by the end of the film. That's a subplot. I'm thinking about getting Hammer back into Auschwitz somehow so he could do a little butt-kicking during the Holocaust. It's some sort of time-travel movie, but I'm not going to give any more away.
Transcribed by Hillel Senior Communications Associate Jill Lewis.