I met Eli Hershko when his film The Closer screened at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in 2016. Eli is a fighter. He once served in the Israeli Defense Force before studying at WIZO Art College in Haifa, eventually landing in New York to build a successful photography career. His transition to film directing has been intense and rapid-fire. He’s made three feature films in the span of five years and starts shooting a fourth this Sunday. What especially interests me about Eli is his history of both realistically bringing to life the story of two transgendered characters (male-to-female), a film that gets equal weight on his resume with The Closer, a feature that dives into the hyper-masculinized world of New York City real estate.
Hunter: So Eli, did you pretty much discover Laverne Cox for Carl[a]? Talk to us about that. How did you find her and how did your collaboration with her go?Eli: Carl(a) was shot in mid-2011! Way before Orange is the New Black came to be. I didn’t even know of Laverne Cox back then. When I was in pre-production for Carl(a) it was clear to me that since this movie was about a transgender woman’s journey, it became a must for us to find transgender actors. My thinking at the time was that if I can’t find real transgender actors that can carry this movie, I would pull the plug and shut production down. Now, since this movie was done on a shoe-string budget, I couldn’t afford a casting agent, so I became the casting director of the film. Say no more. As if making a film on a stupid $30k is not hard enough, I went and did that! I actually had several transgender actors come in and read for me but the magic wasn’t there. It was perhaps three weeks before production was supposed to start when I caught a lucky break. Steven, my production manager was working on this other small indie film called Musical Chairs in which the (not so famous then) Laverne Cox had a small role. I remember Steven coming in to a production meeting and telling me he had found our “Cinnamon”. He gave Laverne a script and Laverne wanted to meet with me right away. At that meeting, she said she loved the script and was willing to come on board if I promised to cast her opposite another transgender actress. I told her that I was so looking for one but couldn’t find any that are good enough like her. She took it upon herself to set up another casting session with three other actresses. That was approximately four days before we were supposed to either start production or cancel the entire project. In that session, I found Joslyn Defreece and I had my cast in place…thanks to Laverne! She was such a force on set. Really easy going and funny as hell. I had a blast working with her. She is such a talent it is scary! As far as collaborating with her goes…it was a real treat. I actually met with her on several occasions before production started and we would go over her dialogue and analyze if her character would say this or that…I wanted to be as close as I could in the subject matter that I asked her to interject herself and her experiences into her character and into the dialogue, so when we got to set the character of Cinnamon and Laverne basically merged!Hunter: I met you when you were on the festival tour with your second feature film The Closer. That film was about the subprime real estate scam. How did you become interested in this topic?
Eli: At the beginning of my career in New York, I started as a stills photographer for 20 years, but that never satisfied me entirely. Originally, I came to the USA to continue study filmmaking, but since I had the background of a photographer I drifted into becoming an album cover photographer shooting the likes of Biggie Smalls, Tony Bennett etc…but something was missing. It was two-dimensional for me and I was looking to paint not only with lights, but with souls as well. I remember it clearly I was on a plane on my way back home from a photo shoot in Florida. I shot the first USA album cover for the Backstreet Boys and on the plane I had this nagging thought… what if the plane crashed? Will I be satisfied with my life? I realized that shooting stills was not for me anymore. I wanted more. So I quit photography altogether and started from scratch and this is where the real estate angle comes in…To survive I started working in the subprime real estate market in New York while going to school and trying to break into the movie business.Hunter: How close was the film to real life?Eli: This movie is a real depiction of a string of different stories that happened to many different individuals that I knew, which I encountered while working in the subprime real estate industry. I weaved all of those stories into one cohesive story with one storyline so you can say that this movie is based in truth. In many truths.Hunter: Which part of the process do you prefer more – being in your bubble writing a script or being on set making the movie? Why?
Eli: Having done three films already and about to start production on my fourth one, I realized that for me at least the process starts with a script, but that script will become – on my set – a mere suggestion only. I realized that mastering filmmaking is all about a journey and that if I wanted to be better at the craft, I better learn from experience. For instance with Carl(a), I wrote the script. Then I sat with each character for the movie and together we re-wrote the dialogue to better fit their persona. I then rehearsed the script and when I was totally prepared, I went on set and had a few moments on set realizing that some scenes didn’t work but since I was so rehearsed, I froze! And freaked out. In the end, Carl(a)‘s script was chosen to be in the Academy for Motion Pictures core library which was such an honor to me, but as I searched further I took my Carl(a) experience to heart and for The Closer, I wrote the script, didn’t rehearse at all and told the actors to read the script and then forget what I wrote and go off-book in order to achieve more of that natural tone.
For my next project, I am going further than that. I wrote a mere treatment and I’ll go on a journey with the actors to find the movie! I am allowing my actors complete freedom of improvising!
So I guess, for me, it has been drifting more and more away from the traditional scriptwriting. Now don’t get me wrong. There are some real “wordsmiths” out there that have such a way with words I will never come close to that and I am ok with that too. I am looking to tell stories in a very authentic way and I think I am on my right path here. Still a ways to go about finding my art and making it whole.
Hunter: So much goes into the job of directing a film – interpreting the script, shotlisting, developing the performances, crafting the aesthetic of a film, making choices about the sound, soundtrack and music, working with all sorts of personalities. What part of directing comes most naturally to you and what part is your biggest challenge?
Eli: Without a doubt, finding the financing for me I think is the biggest challenge. That is where the art stops and the business starts and I hate that part. I just don’t like to go about asking people for money to make films. I just want to immerse myself in the art of being on set and being mesmerized by an actor who is totally in the moment to the point that I forget that I am watching someone acting and totally believe them! I think that is the part that is so natural to me. To be there in the moment with the actors and work with them towards telling a story.
Hunter: You went from making a movie about someone transitioning from male to female to a film drive by the hyper-masculinized world of high stakes real estate. What do you think about the state of masculinity? Is that something you’re consciously exploring in your work? Or something that has somehow found you?
Eli: Carl(a) just found me. It was way before Caitlin Jenner came to be and I knew I wanted to make a film, but had no idea about what. I remember having only $30,000 to make this film (money I used from breaking my 401k). I couldn’t make a film about explosions and guns and car chases etc so I figured I have to make a drama about such an original subject that it will have to garner some attention. That came about one day when Chris Theokas (my co-writer) and I sat in a New York restaurant and bounced ideas off of one another. After having all of my ideas shut down by Chris I snapped at him, “I don’t see you trying to come up with ideas!” He then said something like, “Oh I don’t know…let’s write about this” and he pointed at a Dan Savage column that was in The Village Voice about how a self-proclaimed heterosexual is seeking a relationship with a transgender woman who didn’t complete her transition and is not a sex worker. I looked at Chris and said to him, “That’s it”. This is how Carl(a) was born and I never once backed down from this even though people looked at me kind of funny when hearing about Carl(a). I guess I am not really all gung-ho about my femininity or masculinity. It made sense to me to try and tell a story and become a voice for a character we didn’t really encounter that much on the big screen . When I am intrigued by the birth of an idea for a movie, I think what gets me is the journey that the protagonist has to take at the core of a story, no matter what sexual orientation the protagonist is.
Hunter: What are you working on now and how is it going?
Eli: I am four days away from starting production on a feature film titled Fairytale. This is a total departure from traditional filmmaking in the sense that there is no real script. I have written a 20-page short story which I am using as a treatment. We are going to shoot the film in a chronological order over the course of eight days in NY. Dialogue will be totally improvised on set and each scene will be shot almost entirely as a “one-taker”. It is a very dark story about incest and loss of innocence and I have no clue what to expect. I am loving every minute of it and can’t wait to dive into the process of discovering the film with my actors…
Hunter: Good luck!