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All of Our Bad Ideas: An Interview with ‘Death in Love’ Director Boaz Yakin

I recently had a chance to ask filmmaker Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans, A Price Above Rubies) some questions about the making of his new film

Death in Love,  a much-talked about portrait of a Holocaust survivor mother and her two dysfunctional sons.  The movie inter-disperses scenes of the Mother’s (Jacqueline Bisset) affair with a Nazi doctor with glances at the family’s present-day life, primarily of the eldest son’s (Josh Lucas) job at a crooked modeling agency, used mostly as a cover for his sexual trysts with naive young clients.  Certainly controversial, let’s hear more about the film from the man responsible: First, tell me a little bit, in your own words, about the film and about making it. Hard to encapsulate.  I got to a place in my life where I felt if I didn’t do something interesting to me and personal, I wouldn’t be able to go on creatively.  So I went to friend’s apartment in NYC and wrote the script, basically very intuitively.  Just got up every day and tried asking myself how I could make myself uncomfortable, and put it on paper.  I tried to raise the money to make the film, but no one wanted in, so I ended up financing it myself, with my own savings.  It was a very freeing experience,  to be able to be my own boss, and creatively free to do whatever came to mind. How was it different than making something like Remember the Titans? Different in every way one can imagine.  I suppose the only similarity is that they are both movies. I understand your parents were not necessarily practicing Jews, but you were educated at Orthodox institutions.  How has that played into your filmmaking? It’s influenced me as a person, and has worked its way into certain things I’ve written.  It was an interesting way to grow up, I guess- always being an outsider in the atmosphere I was being educated in- being taught things that even as a child I didn’t agree with in a way I didn’t like.  It gave me some kind of insight on how difficult it is to maintain a sense of individuality in the midst of an environment which encourages conformity.  Even the individuality encouraged in such an environment has its own circumscribed boundaries and style, none of which I was very comfortable with.  I guess this struggle is something I continue to identify with, in whatever atmosphere I happen to be in.  And sometimes if the struggle isn’t there, I create it.

Knowing that you’re half Israeli, and have family that perished in the Holocaust, how does that background relate to this film specifically?  It sounds like the subjects in Death in Love are more personal than any other film you’ve ever made.

Well, the psychological dynamic and the environment is. In this particular case the holocaust is very much a metaphor, indicative of the relationship we have with our own  suffering and pain.

How has your depiction of Judaism and Jewish heritage changed since A Price Above Rubies?  Death in Love is clearly a lot darker than the latter film.  Was there something specific that influenced that shift? The two movies have very little in common, outside of the fact that the main characters are Jewish. Whatever it is that each one is exploring is very different. What about your decision to leave your characters nameless?  Does that decision in any way connect to the  biblical trend of faceless women? Is the anonymity of the mother specifically a reference to people like Abraham or King David’s unnamed mothers? No, not at all.  The decision to leave the characters nameless came about as I was writing-I realized that none of the characters were specific people to one another-that everyone was looking at everyone else to fulfill a certain aspect of their needs, and not much beyond that.  It’s a movie about being stunted emotionally, cut off, unable to grow, trapped in the narcissistic and depressed and repetitious cycles of your own thought. Part of that is not being able to see other people as three dimensional human beings… not wanting to, really, because it doesn’t fit into the self protective worldview many of us develop in order to protect ourselves, but which ends up destroying rather than helping us in the long run. In an interview with The Jewish Week, you cited your distaste for the American relationship to the holocaust as stemming from "the constant emphasis on one’s victimization."  Do you feel the mother’s sexual relationship with the Nazi doctor in your film is the reaction to that feeling?  Is sex the route through which that character has eluded falling into the trap of playing the victim?  More simply, Is the sex in Death in Love an expression of Jewish power? The sex in Death in Love is mostly, in the present day characters, masturbatory and unproductive. The mother’s character fell in love with her own death the moment she embraced it, and when a choice presented itself, an impossible choice, to either go with her own death or force herself back into the mainstream of "life" she chooses to live-but because her passion has been forever intertwined with her death she is unable to fully live, and her love is tainted and diseased with her own unassuageable need to embrace her death again, and her progeny are emasculated and impotent in pretty much every way.  They are ghosts in their own lives, never really there.  The sex in Death in Love is an expression of futility. Lastly, what exactly do you think has made this film feel so controversial?  Do you feel that people who look at it as only a graphic interplay between sex, violence and guilt are missing the point? I think it’s controversial because it is filled with all kinds of ideas, many of which are bad ideas, and which the story itself refutes. But anything with ideas in it is always controversial, because they’re never going to mesh with everybody else’s ideas, and everyone is very invested in their own ideas.  As we get older they come to define us in ways that we seldom think about or understand, but we know how we feel when those ideas are challenged or provoked, either by a word or an image, and it doesn’t always feel particularly good.  The film is quite violent in its style and energy and intentions, so it’s unsurprising that it receives some violent reactions. [Death in Love is showing now in select theatres.  Watch the trailer, included above.]

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