The Little Traitor takes place in 1947, just before the formation of the state of Israel. Its ideas of friendship between so-called enemies and learning from those we are supposed to hate seems to resonate even more today than it did back then. I sat down with writer-director-producer Lynn Roth to discuss the film and the journey she took to bring this labor of love to the screen.
WHAT IS THE LITTLE TRAITOR ABOUT?
This is a movie that is based on a book by Amos Oz called “A Panther In The Basement.” Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most pre-eminent authors. He writes things with a political bent, and it’s all about his growing up in Jerusalem. This particular book is about a young boy who is living under British occupation, because it was during the time of the British mandate. It was a time when Israel was under occupation and NOT being the occupiers. At that time, they were smuggling a lot of Jews in because the British were not allowing people to come into the country. So it was an interesting political time. He hates the British, he despises them. He and his friends plot ways to get the British out, with little handmade bombs and stuff. One night after curfew, he’s caught by a British soldier, brilliantly played by Alfred Molina. He is going to arrest him, but the two of them see there is an instant rapport. There’s something about each of them that fascinates the other, and a friendship ensues. He starts visiting the soldier, unbeknownst to his family and friends, and when people find out, they start to think he’s a…little traitor, that he’s passing secrets to the British.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE NOVEL?
Amos Oz is a beautiful writer. Everything is filled with thought and whimsy and interpretation. deals with the idea of befriending an enemy, but not in the standard way. The Palestinian woman falls in love with the Israeli boy, Romeo and Juliet, we’ve seen that before. I’m not saying that’s not a good story but we’ve seen it. To come at it from a different vantage point, the British and a young Israeli/Palestinian boy was a more interesting way, I thought, of watching two people become very good friends and very meaningful to each other even though they are supposedly enemies.
DID YOUR UPBRINING INFLUENCE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE THE MOVIE?
At this point in my life, yes, because I’m very involved and everyone in my family is either a rabbi or a cantor. Through so much of my show business life, I didn’t do things in this genre at all. The only thing I did was, I ran a series called The Paper Chase, and when I took that series over, I put Jews into it. How can you have a series about law school and not have Jews in it? But this particular time in my life I seem to be gravitating towards Jewish and Israeli themes.
Tell me about the process of adapting the book.
The book is very small and filled with word play. That doesn’t always translate the best into a screenplay, so I took the essence of the character Proffy, and the idea of meeting a British soldier, and I added things to make it more cinematic.
Even though it takes place over 50 years ago, israel is still a pretty polarizing subject. How difficult was it to get this movie made?
It was torturous, as is the process with making any independent film. “Who wants to see this? It’s not commercial.” And yes, there were several people…I wanted private investors, and many people said, “Oh, Amos Oz, he’s such a left wing person, I don’t want to invest in anything that has those left wing politics.” Even now some reviewers have called it Jewish idealism, or a muddled morality tale. Where did that come from? Is it because, as you say, Israel is such a polarizing subject matter? I don’t know. But we did find enough people eventually to come in. It was a true co-production between Israel and the United States, and that hasn’t happened in a long time. We got some of the Israeli film fund to put some money in, and the cable station there bought rights, and then here, we just went from investor to investor, found it and pieced it together. It was a miracle.
IS THERE EVER A POINT DURING THE PROCESS WHERE YOU SAY, “MAYBE THIS ISN’T THE MOVIE I SHOULD BE MAKING”?
On some subject matters I would have said yes, but this was so important to because it was about Israel, it was about a period of their history that hasn’t been delved into very much. So, because, I love the material so much, no matter what happened, I kept saying I believe in this and I’m going to fight for it. I don’t know if I would feel the same way if I was doing . But because I love this stuff, I always say I have to believe in something tremendously to go through this. I’m sure most filmmakers would say that.
TELL ME ABOUT THE CASTING PROCESS. HOW DID YOU GET ALFRED MOLINA?
I wrote the part with him in mind. He was my dream and he knows this. Everybody said, “Get somebody younger, get somebody handsome, get somebody thinner.” I said no. I see this character as an older guy in his 40’s, roly poly, corpulent, kind of gooney in a way. And I know his manager, so when I finished the script I sent it to her, she gave it to him and he read it and said yes immediately, which was fabulous.
TELL ME ABOUT IDO PORT, WHO PLAYS THE ROLE OF PROFFY.
He had only done one other movie before, called “Dear Mr. Waldman”. He’s a remarkable child. He was the first person I read for the part, and I loved him. But when you’re casting a part, and you find somebody on the first reading, you say, “No something’s wrong. I’m too anxious.” Then I auditioned many children after him, and came back to him. He’s Israeli, but the reason his English is so good is because his mother is an English teacher. So I could actually him to say the T H sound, the “tha” as opposed to the “za”. doesn’t want to be an actor anymore. He wants to be a scientist, and he wants to go to Princeton.
THE MOVIE WAS SHOT IN ISRAEL. OTHER THAN SOME OF THE ACTORS, WAS IT SHOT WITH AN ISRAELI CAST AND CREW?
Completely. That was one of the stipulations of getting the Israeli money, was that I had to do it with an all Israeli cast and crew. I was pretty nervous because, although I feel very connected to Israel, I was going as an American director going to direct a piece of their history, and I was nervous that they would resent that on some level. You know, “Can we trust her? Is she one of us? Do we like her?” We did talk in English, because when they heard my Hebrew, they laughed. Theodore Bikel was visiting Israel at the time, and although he lived in Israel, he was not an Israeli citizen, but it was fine. Everybody else, 100% Israeli.
WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO SHOOT IN ISRAEL, INSTEAD OF SOMEWHERE ELSE? TO AN OUTSIDER, IT SEEMS LIKE A DANGEROUS PLACE TO SHOOT.
That’s why there’s been very little filming, because of exactly what you’re talking about. But I went to teach a master class during the intifada (the uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip) because no one else would go. I couldn’t join the army, this was my way of contributing. And I learned that if I was going to be in danger, then I would rather be in danger in Israel than any other place in the world.
DO YOU THINK ALL OF THIS ADDED TO THE EMOTION OF THE FILM?
Absolutely. We would not get into this mindset in Morocco or Toronto. There’s something about being in the actual location. I wanted it to be completely authentic, and it was. With the greatest art director in the world. With every piece of ground and every tree, nothing was outside of 1947. He wouldn’t let me film if it was. , when they shoot Israel, it’s so NOT Israel. It’s like, Morocco or Crete and you can see it’s not Israel. In “The Little Traitor”, it’s 100% Israel, and it’s a beautiful Israel. I said to the cameraman, “Let’s make it look French. Let’s have a love song to Jerusalem,” and he liked that idea. It turned out that it DID become dangerous because while we were in the middle of filming the Lebanese War broke out. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Alfred’s whole support system became hysterical. “We’ll fly you (out of Israel). We’ve got connections.” And he said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m making a movie.” We also took our cue from the Israelis. They don’t stop living because there’s a war. You had to make certain concessions. Our hotel was jammed full of people. We lost lots of crew members who were called up to duty. Every five seconds there were planes flying over to Lebanon. The irony was enormous. Here, we’re making a film about Israel becoming a state, and she’s still fighting for her right to be a state. And the scene that has the most memory, at the end, the UN decides that Israel will become a state, and so, when the people found out that the vote had come in, they ran out of their houses and started dancing in the street. So we recreated that a little bit, and were crying because they remembered this happening. And in the middle of this, the jets to Lebanon .
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SCENE IN THE MOVIE?
Well, it’s basically a coming of age film. There are parallels between his coming of age and Israel coming of age. At the end, he kind of gets the little girl and is so elated and jumps off the wall. Every time I see it, it lifts my heart. The best scene to shoot was the scene I described to you before when they were dancing in the street. It was such a recreation that I couldn’t discern between reality and fantasy. It really felt like I was in Israel in 1947 until those jets flew over.
WHAT’S BEEN THE REACTION TO THE FILM? YOU’VE WON SOME FILM FESTIVALS.
It’s been the darling of the Jewish film festivals. Jewish audiences love this film. We broke all house records for this movie house . While we were there, we would be out Avatar. People were flocking to see this movie. We won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Palm Beach International Film Festival. In Palm Springs, we made Best of Fest. We just won an award in Armenia. A children’s jury picked us as the best feature. We’ve done a lot of international film festivals: Munich, Rio de Janeiro. We premiered at the Miami Film Festival. And we have a full fledged release. We’re having a nice little success. I wanted to go to Dubai and those places, but they wouldn’t take us because we’re considered an Israeli film.
IT’S NOT A POLITICAL STORY, BUT DO YOU THINK THE POLITICS OF ISRAEL HAVE SOME AFFECT ON HOW PEOPLE FEEL ABOUT THE MOVIE?
The minute you mention Israel, you create waves. You’ll have some people who feel adamantly one way, other people another. There’s not a day that goes by when there’s not something about Israel, so even this film, which is very gentle, and very slice of life. It’s a very small movie. It doesn’t come on with any kind of political assault. Even that creates some ripples, both for the gung-ho Israel supporters and anti-Isreal people.
IT SEEMS LIKE YOU REALLY PUT A LOT ON THE LINE TO MAKE THIS FILM.
I think it’s really courageous to make little movies. I think it’s much easier to make big movies. It’s much easier to create tension. It’s much harder to make people feel and remember them. Life is made up of little moments. Life is not made up of blue creatures on in a land that you go to. That’s fun, but I love those little European films, and they’ve shaped the way I look at life, more than the bigger movies. The courage came in saying, this is a small story, I believe in it. Two people come into each other’s lives and make such a mark, even when it’s for a short period of time. They can have a lasting effect on each other. These are little themes that have big emotions, and that’s what I love about film the most.
The Little Traitor is currently playing in Delray Beach, Florida; Albany, New York; La Jolla, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Detroit, Michigan. It opens Friday, June 11 in Chicago, Illinois. For more information about the film, go to the official website, www.thelittletraitormovie.com.
Matt Sills, the author, is a regular contributor to Movie Times. He is a graduate of NYU's prestigious film program at the Tisch School of the Arts and currently lives in LA.