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Wood, Liev Schreiber and Eugene Hutz
by Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All
rights reserved. Posted: September 18, 2005.
Everything Is Illuminated is the
debut writing and directing project by respected New York-based actor Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian
Candidate, Scream, Kate and Leopold.) The film is based on a
portion of the fanciful and
yet disturbing best-selling novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer.
The story follows a young, fastidious, introverted Jewish man (also named
Jonathan Safran Foer) who takes a trip to the Ukraine to learn about a
mysterious woman who helped his grandfather escape in the days before the
Nazis arrived during World War II. Helping him in his quest are a
young Ukrainian guy who worships all things American, his grandfather, an
angry, vaguely anti-Semitic man with a dark secret, and their possibly
to take on the coke-bottle eyeglasses of the fictional Foer is actor Elijah
Wood, who has been taking on a series of offbeat roles since playing the
iconic role of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. He has
since stretched his acting muscles to play an obsessively infatuated flunky in Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an American journalist drawn into mob
violence in Green Street Hooligans and a creepy and disturbing misfit
in Sin City.
opposite him as Alex, the guide, is first time actor Eugene Hutz, the Ukrainian born leader of
"gypsy-punk-rock" band Gogol Bordello. A truly unique blend
of traditional instrumentals and rock beats, the group has been gaining attention and spurring sales of their
independently released albums, the most recent of which is Gypsy Punks
Underdog World Strike. This new CD is being released at about the same time as the
film. They have also become an internationally known live act, doing
an ever-expanding series of headline dates and even doing a hitch on the
popular Warped Tour.
presence in Warped Tour was something like throwing a porno magazine into
kindergarten," Hutz cheerfully
acknowledged during the interview.)
before the film was set to open, stars Wood, Hutz and writer/director
Schreiber sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the
Liev, youíve been acting for so long in theater and films. What was it like
to get on the other side and finally do some writing and directing?
Iíve been kind of
fantasizing about making a film since college. The first relatively big
budget film I worked on, what I noticed immediatelyÖ aside from the
spectacular cateringÖ was that Sven Nyquist was the cinematographer. He was
Ingmar Bergmanís cinematographer. I realized pretty quickly that I was
going to be afforded these opportunities to watch people who were at the top
of their craft do their thing. Iíve been in over 35 movies, with Jonathan
Demme, Tak Fujimoto, Norman Jewison, Barry Levinson, Phil Alden Robinson,
Greg MottolaÖ Not to mention the screenwriters and the actors and the grips
and all the other people. I mean, aside from getting a really decent wage,
I was pretty much in the best film school you can ever dream of being in.
top of that, my mother, who was a big fan of Eastern European films had
exposed me to a really lot of good filmmakers early on. I credit her with
that, because the first film she took me to was Eisensteinís
which is certainly not a good film for a seven year old. But it left some
kind of impression on me. Fortunately she followed it up with the Marx
Brothers and Buster Keaton and the Thin Man Series. Then I hit color
movies and saw Star Wars, which really changed my life.
Elijah, youíve been playing a lot of different kinds of character since
Lord of the Rings. Are you trying to stretch out and
show you can do other things or is it just what has come to you?
Elijah Wood: I
think thereís always an effort in the back of my head to continue to stretch
my ability and challenge myself. Also help to change perception to a
certain degree, as much as one has that philosophy of looking for those
things. To a certain extent, you are at the mercy of whatever you read and
whatever you become passionate about. That ends up taking precedence to a
certain degree. But always, yeah, with a mind to try to move into different
areas and be perceived in a different way.
What drew you to
Everything is Illuminated?
grandfather is an Eastern European immigrant, a Ukrainian Jew. When my
mother and father split, when I was three, my grandfather basically spent
his life savings to help my mother with a really difficult custody battle.
We came to New York
to live with him when I was three and he basically raised me. I was very,
very close to him. Heís a model guy. In the Jewish vernacular, a real
mensch. Heís someone I really looked up to, and somebody who defied
all the clichťs of what I thought old people were and Jewish people were.
He was just an incredible guy. When he died in 1993, I started to write
about him a lot. I developed a kind of semi-autobiographical screenplay
about a guy who goes to the Ukraine to find out about his heritage. A few
years later Ė I was acting a lot, so it was kind of a hobby thing where I
was working on it and formulating my idea of the kind of movie I wanted to
Eventually, an editor at The New Yorker named Bill
Buford was putting together a young fiction writersí series and matched me
up with a young writer named Jonathan Safran Foer who had submitted a short
story called ďA Very Rigid Search.Ē I was just completely blown away by the
writing. I felt like he had accomplished in fifteen pages what I had only
grazed in 170Ö Jonathan agreed to let me adapt the screenplay and I wrote
the script pretty quickly because I had the structure. I was mostly
adapting it from the excerpt and not the entire novel. I just sort of read
the novel and kind of mined elements from it that I could fit into my
structure. Because I had been working on that structure for so long the
script finished pretty quickly, about a month and a half. After that I
opened up The New York Times and the novel comes out and there it is
on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and I realized I was
in for a ride.
Elijah Wood: A
variety of things (drew me to it). I loved the script. I loved the story.
Initially the story of these three characters and a dog in a car, driving
across Ukraine. (laughs) The comedy that comes from that. Also,
ultimately what they arrive at. The journey that they take and the
epiphanies that they have in their own lives that result from that journey.
The characters are so colorful. So well written. So funny. Jonathan, the
opportunity to play a character like that was really intriguing to me. Very
different from anything Iíve done before. So quiet and still and odd, which
guess was so captivating to me was that he had managed to retain
the character of the grandfather, which was something that inspired me to
write the whole thing, but something I hadnít been able to do in my own
script. That had sort of projected into a dark kind of mob movie about the
Ukraine. The other thing that really, really stunned me was the parallels
between our own families and stories. Also that unique sense of humor that
just so vividly reminded me about my grandfather. My grandfather had the
worst sense of humor in the world and yet the complete inane nature of his
jokes made them hilariously funny. That was something that Jonathan shared
too from his grandfather. We got together and talked about that culture and
what that sense of humor was. Iíve heard people say that itís a Jewish
sense of humor. But I guess ultimately I felt it was a survivorís sense of
humor. Itís a sense of irony that is just not distinct to the Jews. I
think you can find it in Bosnia, you can find it in Rwanda, you can find it
anywhere where people have been through threatening experiences. That was
something that I knew fit right into the idea of the kind of film I wanted
to make. It had elements of magic realism and it had that really
distinctive Eastern European dialectic that included polar opposites Ė
tragedy and comedy both existing together. Young and old. Vast cultural
differences kind of being smashed together and unifying.
Elijah Wood: I
love this film. Iím so proud of it.
Why do you think this story is important today?
Jonathan and I started
talking about making this film in the Fall of 2001, after September
Prior to that, and after that, both of us had been working in Europe. He was writing a second novel and I was acting in a movie in Prague, plotting my film.
I heard a lot of sort of discouraging things about Americans. They were
frustrating to me, because I remember after September
was this pocket of compassion in this city. That was the first time in my
life that I felt a sense of national pride. I felt really patriotic.
Ironically, after we had just been fucked, suddenly I felt American. I
remembered seeing people on the West Side Highway with the signs. I could
feel the sincerity of the outpouring of caring and compassion. That
suddenly created a sense of identity for me. I was proud to be an American.
there was that really difficult time where we shifted Ė as we always do Ė
into "whoís the target?" That window of compassion that seemed to be
embracing each other and our differences could have potentially extended to
the rest of the world. Because they were feeling it, too.
resonating with them. There was compassion from the rest of the world.
Suddenly, Americans were human beings. We werenít the number one
superpower. We were vulnerable. We had been hit and we were hurt and
people cared about us. You would see French newspapers expressing
compassion towards Americans, which was unusual. (Laughs) And
German ones. Then, suddenly we had to find a target. It was that old
American idea, ďDonít tread on me.Ē Iím not a tremendously political
person, but I really mourned for the loss of that opportunity and that
expression of American ideals that I thought was so powerful and potent in
New York City, and in the rest of the nation.
What it is about Elijah Wood that you thought would work as Jonathan?
We export a tremendous amount of culture to
the rest of the world. So to a degree we are responsible for the
images that we create and the characters that we create. I was really
interested in trying to present an American character that was vulnerable.
Itís a trick that Iíd always used as an actor. To get the audience to
identify with you, donít try so hard to get them to identify with you,
because people get it. The more flawed you are as a character, often
times the easier it is for the audience to find a way in. In a sense I
wanted someone who wasÖ no disrespect intended to ElijahÖ but I wanted
someone who was diminutive, vulnerable and innocent and in some respects
ignorant, cold, empty, stoic,
lost and confused. Someone who you would want to help. That was,
for me, an articulation of the American character that I felt the rest of
the world was unfamiliar with. One that I, oddly enough, was sort of
proud of. Elijah embodies all that. Also, when you are trying to
articulate a character who is primarily an observer, the eyes are very
important. They say that eyes are the portal to the soul.
Elijahís got garage doors.
Elijah has been working for so long. Is it hard to get people to accept the
change from a child
actor to an adult actor? A lot of child actors canít make the jump, but you
seem to have made it pretty easily. Do some people still see you as the kid
from The Good
Not so much that. I think Iíve moved beyond references to that age group,
which is good. Itís still challenging. I still look younger than I am.
Iím still relatively young. So roles that Iíd like are mostly too old for
me. Or at least Iím perceived as too young, so they donít believe me in
those roles. Itís more just dealing with the age perceptionÖ There is
still an age group that I can work with and continue to try new things. The
discrepancy about how old I am is something I challenge. And it always has
been, concerning me.
He was a child actor. The
guy has been on movie sets for so long and heís just now trying to make that
transition from child star to adult actor. In a lot of ways, I felt like
that puts him in just the right place to play Jonathan. In a sense Jonathan
is coming out of one perception of reality and learning that he has to open
himself up and expand his consciousness to function in the new world.
had so much trouble relating to people. That must have been hard to pull
off as an actor.
The challenge in being that quiet and reserved is keeping the life in the
character and not making him too subtle. That was where it was
interesting. It was really fun to find the nuances within the character.
He definitely lives kind of at armís length to the rest of the worldÖ The
glasses were really important to the character. Visually very important
because they physically separate him from the outside world. Mentally he is
at armsí length, so the glasses and especially the distortion kind of
visually represented that. As much as it is to make him look odd, there is
a function, I think.
soon as I saw the movie poster I saw those round glasses that lit up.
I thought of Kevin in
Sin City. He was the
creepiest character Iíve ever seen in a film. I didnít know if anyone else
saw the correlation...
Some people have said that. Iíve talked to a few journalists that have. I
was in Italy and one journalist was trying to make some kind of artistic
reference towards a certain type of character. Was Kevin the dark side and
Jonathan the light side of this one single character? (laughs) I
was like, no, but thatís really interesting. If I could have coordinated
that with two different films and two different directors that would have
been kind of extraordinary. Yeah, it is kind of funny, with the glasses
certainly. And the poster, definitely. They did
(the) brighter light and
the sky. I can see that image-wise.
read that they originally contacted Eugene for music on the film, not for the role. Was it a surprise when the
idea of him playing Alex came up? How did that come about? How did you know
heíd be right for it?
Eugene Hutz: It
was a great surprise for all of us. It was like getting stricken by
lightning. I really went, seriously, just to negotiate music. Even though
I knew that one day I would be acting and somehow it will come around. I
focused all my efforts on music. Music is my life.
I just talked to him. The
guy is such a natural. I donít know if youíve ever seen him perform, but
you should. One of the great gifts of a film is that it transports you to
another place. One of the really essential things is that the characters
and the locations and the culture have to really be credible. I viewed sort
of as a guide for me in casting was as much as possible find the people, not
the actors. Eugene is that guy. I wouldnít be surprised if in the sequel
to Everything is Illuminated itís about Alex coming to America.
(chuckles) Itís just that, part of the adjustment I made from the
novel to the script is that Alex is the writer. I like the idea that it was
an Eastern European story. I like the humility of that on the part of the
Eugene Hutz: If
you see me perform with my band, you will know that itís already there.
Itís not really such a stretch. Itís a very theater-oriented music
delivery. Also, I did a bit of theater before, so it wasnít like doubly
foreign territory. But, yes, I went to talk about music with Liev. And he
wanted very modern sounding, but still medieval Eastern European soundtrack
for his film. When I got there, he said itís going to be based on this
novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Iím like, Iím reading this book
right now. Heís like, ďreally?Ē And Iím like, fuckiní yeah. Iím on page
hundred, literally. Thatís when kind of the lightning moment was. I knew
at that moment. And he knew it too. It was like, ďyou think you could do
Alex?Ē I was just, consider it to be done. Thatís the least I can do. I
can basically be that guy. It would be like to reverse the time. Iíve gone
through a lot of phases, especially growing up in Ukraine
where a lot of those moments took place. Not only selling me, but other
people that I knew. From that, my own experience and my friends growing up,
I could so easily piece it together.
Elijah Wood: I
remember there was one time where he was asked to DJ at a film festival in a
small town in the Czech Republic. He was asked to do this TV gig for some
MTV syndicate which was out there covering the event. It was in this really
massive space. He ended up getting on top of these rafters with his shirt
off, dancing with these women like fucking some kind of Ukrainian Iggy Pop.
It was incredible.
I knew that I had to find
real Eastern Europeans. I looked all over Ukraine for Alex and just
couldnít find anybody with
that sort of eternal sense of optimism and poetry. I love how ridiculous
Alexís malaprops are. What makes them so good, and whatís so wonderful
about Jonathanís writing is that a poet is revealed behind them. The choice
of words are not completely random. They suggest a poet. I kind of went
with that because I was so enamored with the character and ultimately
decided itís his character, he is the ultimate narrator of the story. Eugene has that quality. Heís ridiculous and insane but he has
the heart of a poet.
How did you go about finding the rest of the cast?
Same thing. That
scar on Boris (Leskin)ís forehead is real. Boris survived the war. His
brother didnít. He has very strong feelings about it. He is Ukrainian, he
doesnít speak a lot of English, but he is a very, very experienced actor.
He was a film star in the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. He
came here and was trying to pass his test to get a license as a taxi driver
(when he) got a part in The Falcon and the Snowman playing a
Russian. He was kicking around, waiting to do his thing. The story is very
personal to him. Same thing for Laryssa (Lauret). Laryssa is an immigrant
who came to America. She had to work very, very hard to abandon her past
and her history and ethnicity in the interest of trying to fit into the
American world and be an actress. I know she was really moved at the
opportunity of being able to return to that. It now was okay to embrace
that. The rest of the peripheral characters arenít actors. We just found
people. Alexís father was this homeless guy in the Ukraine and heís just
brilliant. The well diggers were all well diggers. The Ukrainians do a lot
of the manual labor in Eastern Europe. As Eugene indelicately puts it,
Ukrainians are the Mexicans of Europe. And itís true. They were all around
us. Itís one of those things where you could tell by the color of someoneís
teeth or their fingernails or their skin if they worked their whole life.
It makes a difference. When the culture is important and youíre trying to
get people to believe that itís Ukraine, itís that kind of credibility that
you want to shoot for.
How was it working with Schreiber as a director?
Elijah Wood: I
loved the script and I loved the character before I met with him. But it
was meeting with him that ultimately cinched it for me, in terms of wanting
to be a part of it. Hearing his description of the story that he wanted to
tell and how he wanted to tell it. Visually how he saw the character of
Jonathan. The music that he wanted to include in the film. How he wanted
to represent certain sequences. He just had such a clear interesting vision
for the story. I wanted to be a part of that.
For the longest time I was
trying to figure out what it meant to be a director. I knew what kind of
film I wanted to make. I thought I knew how to do it. Iíd watched a lot of
other guys do it. Iím an actor, so maybe I can act like a director. Sort
of rehearse saying action at night. But that was useless. I realized about
ĺ of the way through the process what a really good director does. What a
really good director does is sort of identify the talents of the people they
are working with and illuminate them. The script is the script. The
schedule is the schedule. The money is the money. Then you have to be able
to tap into how you make the people youíre working with look as good as you
possibly can. All of them, not just the actors, but the production
designers, the editor, the grips, the gaffers, the D.P., the props. A lot
of people are part of making the film. And a lot of decisions to make.
Itís overwhelming until you realize that each one of those people, if you
picked them right, is more than qualified
to do their job.
awesome. I mean, what a King of Patience. Not only a mentor but a friend
throughout the whole thing. Because, even though he believed in me as a
natural Ė or professional, whatever Ė performer. There was still a lot of
new moments, just because it was in front of a camera and not on stage.
How different was that?
Eugene Hutz: I
would say itís definitely in the realm of your abilities and you know you
can do it. But you will go through learning a whole new alphabet. Itís
just like learning a new language, but I had to learn it basically
overnight. I can tell when Iím watching the movie which scenes were done straight
off the boat, you know?
What was the glue that kept everything together with the three of you?
Eugene Hutz: To
be perfectly honest; I am not a big movie person. It just happened that I
had never seen anything with Elijah Wood in it. I wasnít aware of the
Lord of the Rings craziness around the world. I was doing my
own thing and watching different things and being in a different zone.
Similar with Liev. Iíve seen only very few (of his movies). The thing that
entrusted me in him was more of his Shakespeare background. You want to
blow me away, thatís exactly what will (do it.) Old school things like that
impress me a lot. So, I met them as people because of that. As creative
persons. Elijah and Liev, we kind caught on. Also, all three of us are so
music obsessed. You see it in the movie, how important it is to Liev. And
Elijah is starting a label now. Itís all kind of like three deeply,
pathologically obsessed with music people.
Wood: One of
the greatest things about getting to know Eugene,
beyond just simply gaining a friend in him, is his love of music. Learning
so much about music and sharing music. I shared a ton of music that I love
with him and he did with me and I certainly credit him with finding a
handful of bands that Iíve never really heard of.
Heís very open. He just asked me about my band right away. It was more
kind of like, ďWell, what about Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? Do you like
that?Ē Yeah, so he will probably like the Cramps, too. It just kind of
went all like that. I was turned on to a lot of Blues. Actually, older
Blues standards through him, because to be really talking about bands, there
was not really many bands we did not know. It was more like going into much
deeper layers of music. Thatís what we did. Just mixed up our hard drives
and start trading.
Elijah, whatís happening with your record label?
Itís just now building itself. Itís exciting. Itís nice to work on
something different. Iím very, very passionate about music, so itís cool
trying to explore something else. And create something, from the ground up
you play any instruments?
Elijah Wood: I
play a bit of guitar. Very poorly for someone who has owned a guitar since
I was ten.
You got busyÖ
Well, thatís no excuse. I used to take piano when I was younger, but never
really kept up with it. So I have an understanding of music and what sounds
right. I just donít have any technical abilityÖ
The film was mostly filmed in Prague rather
than the Ukraine. Why was that?
Eugene Hutz: I
think they went with Czech becauseÖ well, I donít mean to misrepresent the
whole country, but Ukrainian crews can have trouble showing up on time.
(laughs) People are a lot of times more concerned with the after-party.
Itís more of a partying in the front, business in the back kind of country.
They actually did (film in the Ukraine) a day, but I think it was either
before or after I left. They literally were stealing shots out of the back
of a car. Because
it was very difficult, they couldnít get a permit to shoot. In the
beginning of the movie, when they start from Odessa to pick up Jonathan at
the train station, all those shots of the buildings and the kids, thatís all
shot in Odessa.
What was Prague like?
Pretty incredible. To live in Prague for two months was a privilege. I
lived just off of Old Town Square. Iíd never been to Eastern Europe. Iíd never been to Prague. Itís a gorgeous city. So gothic and other-worldly. That
part of it was amazing. Itís also a massive film city now. They make so
many movies there. The crew was incredible. Hard working, definitely no
discrepancies with the Czech crews. The movie world is hopping. We had a
fantastic time and the countryside was incredibly beautiful and the
environments were amazing. How Mattie Libatique, our D.P. (director of
photography) captured that was incredibly beautiful in terms of the style of
Eugene Hutz: It
just was beautiful. Itís still Eastern Europe. When youíre in Eastern Europe, every tribe takes themselves so seriously; like oh,
weíre Polish and weíre Ukrainian and weíre Serbian and Croatian. Start all
kind of ridiculous neighborhood quarrels that turn into wars. But,
essentially itís the same tribe and breed of people.
Since my relatives are from Eastern Europe, Iím fascinated by Eastern
Europeans. I love all their nuttiness. I fantasize that itís in me
somewhere. I know that I emulate it. I deeply admire it.
Elijah Wood: To
me it was culturally fascinating. It probably doesnít embody what Eastern
Europe at large embodies. I think it would have been very different to go
to Ukraine, like Odessa or Kiev. I think the experience there would have
been very, very different. Prague is kind of in this position now where
itís part of the EU. It is inhabited by a lot of people from Western Europe. England,
people are moving out there from all over Europe. Lot of ex-pats. There is
also a massive film community too. A lot of Americans are coming over and
making movies. Youíve got this kind of split, to a certain degree, between
the older generation that was more comfortable with the communist lifestyle
and the younger generation that is kind of up for anything in terms of
paving new ground, paving their future and earning more money. You have
this city that is kind of trying to define what its identity is. That
identity is being defined by all these other people. Itís becoming a total
melting pot. I didnít really feel like I was having a purely Eastern
European experience, because Iíd walk down the street and Iíd see tourists
and other people from England, France, Italy, all over the place. America.
I didnít feel isolated. I didnít feel I was immersed in another culture
completely, as I would have probably been if Iíd gone to Poland or Austria
or certainly the Ukraine.
Eugene Hutz: I
was also in Prague before four times with my band, on tour. This is why the
first night I went out in Prague still in my usual look. I drummed up people to offer me so
many fun projects and possibilities for DJing and gigs that it right away
got in the way of filming. Well, just something that resulted in me not
knowing any script by the time we started shooting. (laughs) I
(learned) the first two weeks of rehearsals non-stop. Basically they sat me down and told me (to straighten
up). Several times. I got on with the program.
Now that the movie is debuting, what is it like?
Quick. Four in the
morning a car came
and took me to DC, and then San Francisco
and LA all in the same day. And then Telluride and Venice and back here and
then Toronto. Itís a hell of a lot easier acting, Iíve got to sayÖ
Itís been crazy, especially because I also just finished promoting an album;
our album that just came out. So Iíve been doing this for a month for that
and then this kicked in. (chuckles) Itís already the third week of
this. Getting nuts. But, itís good.
Elijah, you have just been hired to play Iggy Pop. How do you feel about
Incredibly nervous. But passionate about the project. Passionate about
Iggy. I love the Stooges. I love Iggy Pop as an icon. I think for that is
why Iím nervous. Itís someone I admire greatly and who has had a massive
impact on music. So itís relatively daunting. Donít know yet. Itís all
kind of up in the air. Itís not all put together yet.
What are you going to do now that you have some time off?
I donít. I start The
Painted Veil the day after the premiere. I do the premiere on the
sixteenth and then leave for China on the seventeenth. I do Painted Veil
for two-and-a-half weeks. Then the day after I wrap on that, I fly to
Prague to start The Omen. (laughs) Sorry you asked that question,
Iím basically taking three weeks off. Then Iím returning to going back out
on the headlining tour in the US and then going to Europe. And the whole
God-damned thing is starting all over again.
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