Who would have thought one million pills of ecstasy would come into the United States in the pockets and suitcases of Hasidic Jews? Improbable as it seems, Holy Rollers, the new film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha explores a period in 1998 when young Hasidic teenagers acted as mules to smuggle drugs between New York and Amsterdam.
Perhaps as a reaction to the film's discussion of drug-running out of what is thought to be an Orthodox community, Holy Rollers has recently come under fire as to whether its portrayal of the Hasidic community is accurate.
But, as screenwriter Antonio Macia explains, whether or not the film accurately portrays a particular sect of the Hasidic community is entirely beyond the point. Like his upcoming film, King's Highway, Holy Rollers is a film that captures the dialogue between seemingly conflicting worlds -- religious and secular in the case of the former and intercultural in the case of the latter. I spoke with the Los Angeles-based Middlebury College graduate about writing Holy Rollers, working on his next project, religion and the immigrant experience in America.
Please excuse the bluntness of my first question, but are you Jewish?
No I'm not. I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints about two and a half years ago.
Then, how is it that you came to this story?
Well the producer, Danny Abeckaser, and I asked the director. They had these articles. Danny had seen a documentary about it. And they had this idea of the Israeli gangster using the kid and were looking for a way in. So, I provided a take and [director] Kevin [Asch] and I agreed, and Danny and I agreed, that the best way into the film was through the eyes of this young Hassid teenager. They had read samples of my work earlier, so that's how they knew me and, you know, when I gave them that take, we all agreed that was the strongest way into the story.
What I thought was really interesting about the film was that it gives you a look into the Hassidic community, which I don't think most people know much about. I mean, I'm certainly aware of the community but I didn't really know much about it. How accurate is the film's portrayal of the community itself?
Well, first from an ideological standpoint, early on one thing that I really preached and wanted to do was tell a story from the inside out. I feel like so many times most of these stories are told through a third party who's a casual observer to this culture and I think that wouldn't do it justice. We really wanted to tell the story from a young Hasid's point of view, like how do they view the secular world? How do they see the world? I think that's much more interesting. And in terms of accuracy, there are sects of Hasidism and in order to make [the film] we kind of combined different sects in the movie. It's very accurate in terms of practices of the Orthodox religion, but there is a kind of smorgasbord or melting pot of different Hasidic culture in Sam's family.
So, can you give me an example of two things you combined from different sects?
Well, in general, it's the openness to the outside community and how they deal. Jesse [Eisenberg] and Kevin, in doing their research in New York, a certain sect wouldn't -- like, certain sects don't have outreach. Certain sects have an outreach and others wouldn't. So you could start stripping away [the layers of the film] and seeing what sect it would be, but that's why it's more of a combination.
And in the notes that were sent along with the film, it said that some of the drivers in getting the film made were Jesse Eisenberg and the other actors. What was it like working with them? What did they contribute in terms of making the film happen?
Well, I wouldn't say they were instrumental in raising money. One thing Jesse and [co-star] Justin [Bartha] were instrumental in (was) believing in the material and sticking with the material. As you know, when you're raising financing they were attached to the project for over a year and a half. So, they really brought that belief in the project and that was huge. I mean, they were in no way instrumental in raising capital, per se.
I will say what they brought to the movie, from a creative standpoint, one that passion and what Jesse does was always look for that dramatic irony in scenes. Jesse has a gift for physical comedy and I think it really helped. There are these fish-out-of-water moments and I think it's a movie that could be extremely heavy-handed and if you can find those bits of humor when the journey begins, you're so much more invested in [Jesse Eisenberg's character,] Sam because you've gone through those fish-out-of-water moments and (when) the stakes go up you feel like you're really on-board with him. So, I think his comedy was a huge asset.
Although I have to say, with the way the film ends it sort of gives you -- I liked it but I was still very curious about where he would go from there because, to me, the irony of his character is that he really did grow up a lot from falling out of favor with the Hasidic community. You know, he was doing all this illegal stuff, but you could also see that he was, essentially, maturing in a way that he hadn't been able as part of the community.
I think that's an interesting note. I mean, I think -- not that he felt under-appreciated, but that he felt somewhat like a failure and when he leaves the community he finally feels acceptance and feels value. Like the work that he does at his father's shop -- he always has his father there. He's not quite the quickest rabbinical student and these are all things that are highly valued. So, I think it weighs on him and at the end, what we really wanted to show that [with Sam], there's a dialogue between him and his father. I don't know if Sam would return to the [Hasidic community] but at least now there's a dialogue and they can start talking about issues of faith as opposed to before, those conversations would never happen.
Tell me about putting together the cast, if you can. Did you have much of a roll in that?
No, Kevin and Danny -- at the end of the day, it was their final say. I was certainly consulted and asked and I had an open dialogue with casting, but ultimately you have to trust your director and your producers.
Right. Slightly switching gears, you're working with Kevin again on Kings Highway.
Yeah, I'm working with Kevin again on Kings Highway. I'm actually working on the script today. It's a broader film but I'm excited to venture into this new world.
Can you tell me a little bit about what it's about?
Oh sure, it's about an ex-Mossad agent. He's kind of like a fallen soldier in Israel. He's a disgraced soldier in Israel and after serving prison time, he moves to New York City to disappear and falls in line with a band of thieves. He works for an Israeli crime syndicate, a burgeoning crime syndicate in the 1980's. But something I really wanted to explore is the tale of an immigrant set against the world of this crime drama. And it's sort of -- you know, what happens when you're from a foreign country (and you come to America) but you're really not looking to assimilate. You're not really American; what are you? And these are the type of questions the character is dealing with but it's set against a crime drama. So, it's really looking at the immigration in the 1980's, when America opened up to this new kind of immigrant who came to the US and had no desire to assimilate per se.
Do you have anyone else attached to King's Highway? There's you and Danny and Kevin...
In terms of talent, actors, nobody's attached at this point.
I'm curious as to where the desire to look at these issues stems from. Is it personal, or out of good reading? (Laughs.)
Oh, well I'm the son of immigrants. My dad is Argentine; my mom is Chilean. I grew up around immigrants and I'm very fascinated by the American experience of different people and what it means to be American. I'm always fascinated with the way people vote, why they vote and yeah -- truly capturing that American experience. If you can do that, I think I can add a twist to that crime drama.
Being the child of an immigrant -- I also am the child of one immigrant parent -- what's your personal take on what it means to be an American?
For me, it really stems from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and holding onto our core values. I don't know if we have a shared history per se, because we come from different backgrounds. You know, we come here and we value hard work [and] the belief that any man or woman can become anything they put their mind to. You know, I think that's one thing my dad always instilled in me, that you could accomplish anything if you put your mind to it -- his belief in education. To me, those are things that I find as core values.
What do you to someone who would point out institutional barriers to someone ascending the ladder?
You mean like glass ceilings and...
Right, yeah, yeah...
Well in any system there's -- there is no perfect system. You know, I'll definitely take the American system over any other. But, I don't know, I was never raised with a chip on my shoulder for who we are or anything like that. My dad was always focused on education and you go as far as you can. And he was also very much a realist, so when people say those things to me, I don't really -- if that's the situation you live in, then that's the world you live in.
So, what else do you want to write as a screenwriter? What other subjects interests you?
Well, I'd really like to write a movie that takes place in a foreign country. I'd love to explore that. I love subcultures. I've recently optioned a book which is about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church and that's something that really interests me. That's kind of like the pet project that will be down the road.
Let's go back to Holy Rollers for a second. You premiered the film this year at Sundance, where it was very well received. I remember trying to get in to see it and I couldn't get in to see it. What was it like to show your film at Sundance?
It's an amazing experience because you're getting immediate feedback. I personally loved to ride the buses and ride the bus afterwards and get that feedback from people who love movies. That's invaluable. It's really good to be surrounded by a community that you feel so much kinship to, in terms of independent film. You know, I love independent film. I love movies and to be inundated with all these other artistic and like-minded people (is) just an amazing experience.
Did you ever hear any negative feedback that you took to heart?
No, I mean everybody's allowed [his or her] opinion. I don't put too much weight in praise. I've always been taught that if you believe the praise, then you have to believe the negative feedback. I keep a pretty even keel. You know, if people have a great visceral reaction to the movie, then that's all you can ask.