Dueling falafel stands short jump starts career

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Sandel "Story:" Jump starting a directing career by making a short film at USC that attracts an agent isn't so unusual these days, but getting Oscar nominated for it as Ari Sandel just did is something else!

Sandel's film, "West Bank Story," is a 22-minute musical that takes a humorous look at the tensions between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors without taking sides. The film's setting is the fast-food world of dueling falafel stands in the West Bank, one owned by singing and dancing Israelis and the other owned by singing and dancing Palestinians. They're both selling lots of hummus, but as the plot thickens an Israeli soldier and a beautiful Palestinian cashier fall in love. Written by Kim Ray and Sandel, the film was produced by Pascal Vaguelsy, Amy Kim, Ashley Jordan, Ravi Malhotra and Sandel. Its cast, all of whom are terrific, includes Ben Newmark, Noureen Dewulf, A.J. Tannen and Joey Naber.

While the film's story may sound like a recipe for certain disaster, it's been warmly embraced by both Arab and Jewish film festival audiences. Besides being an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, "Story" was an official selection that year at the Dubai International Film Festival and at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.

"Story" was subsequently nominated in the Oscar race for Best Live Action Short Film, where it's this year's only American nominee. The film's success -- winning 25 international film festival awards -- brought Sandel representation by Endeavor and a deal with the management company Untitled. Sandel has since directed the full-length documentary "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show," which The Weinstein Co. picked up at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and is opening later this year.

After enjoying a look at Sandel's wonderfully funny "Story," which clearly shows his flair for directing comedy -- in one quick scene he puts a bearded fiddler on the roof of the Israeli falafel shop fiddling away, something we can't help noticing and getting a laugh out of although not a word is said about it -- I was happy to be able to focus with him on how he managed to get such an unusual project made. "I made the film as part of the requirements for my graduation from USC for my master's degree," he explained. "I really wanted to make a film that was going to (a) get attention and (b) be a comedy and (c) address the situation in an evenhanded balanced way that was going to be pro-peace and have a positive message. That was very important to me. I have a real love for politics. My father's from Israel and I've traveled all through the Middle East. I've studied Islamic Judaism and Middle Eastern history in college. I've been to Morocco and Egypt and Israel and Palestine, Turkey, Jordan and Dubai so I am very familiar with the area and with the situation.

"When we first started, I had a name, 'West Bank Story' (and an idea about) Jews and Arabs dancing -- that'll be hilarious! I had no idea what was going to be (or) how do you turn 'West Side Story' into a comedy (and not) a tragedy? So we really didn't know what to do with it. What is interesting is the reaction in the beginning was that most people said, 'Don't make this movie.' They said, 'You can't make a comedy about the tragedy. You're going to upset everyone in the country -- Jews and Arabs.' They said it's too ambitious to try to make L.A. look like Israel for a student film. I took it to heart and I shelved the project for about five months. I would tell people about this other project I had going on. I'd say, 'I'm kind of thinking about doing this thing 'West Bank Story' and I could see people's eyebrows raise and their surprise and they would instantly smile. I knew I had to go back to it."

What Sandel and his co-writer Kim Ray did, he said, was "to sit down and try to come up with a more simplistic way to deal with the situation. In order to address such a major kind of tragedy you have to simplify it. You have to take away all the complications and get down to the bare bones of it. And when we came up with 'What do the two sides have in common?' one of the things was food. When we came up with the idea of the two competing falafel stands, it really started to write itself. It took about seven months to produce because it was a student film and we were really relying on help from industry mentors and people who were generous enough to donate things. We shot in about 14 days, which is long for a short film, but because there were so many dance numbers (it took more time). And each dance number had an Israeli side and a Palestinian side, so that extended it."

"Story" premiered at Sundance in 2005 to what Sandel calls, "an amazing response. I mean, it got a lot of attention. To me that was, like, 'Wow! It can't get any better.' I got an agent at Endeavor. I signed with Untitled Management. I have my lawyer at Bloom Hergott. So I was able to get a really good group of people behind me because of the film and a lot of attention within the industry. I've been able to meet with studios and production companies. I have a couple things that I'm working on right now on my own. But I never expected, truly, this movie to have the life that it has. Since (premiering at Sundance) it's been to over 112 film festivals. It's won 25 awards. It's played in every continent of the world except for Africa.

"I get letters from Israeli soldiers, teachers in Qatar, the library in Egypt, ladies in Australia, people from China. It's amazing the appeal that it has amongst people who aren't even connected to the situation. And that's been a very rewarding thing for me. I would say the most rewarding experience I've had screening the film was in Dubai because, you know, Dubai does not recognize the state of Israel. The official party line there is that there are no Jews living in Dubai either. So for them to accept a movie that's pro-peace and basically acknowledging the existence of Israel and at the same time acknowledging the existence of Palestine I think was very forward thinking of them. They really embraced the film."

Audiences who saw the film in Dubai, he pointed out, "were, I think, at first very shocked to see a movie that depicts an Israeli soldier as anything other than a villain. But I think eventually it got all the same laughs (that it gets elsewhere). My 10 minute Q&A turned into an hour and a half. Nobody wanted to leave. People were asking all sorts of questions. And at first it was being scrutinized -- like, 'This is too simplistic. You don't show the suffering.' And I said, 'Look, it is simplistic. It has to be to be a comedy. It's not a political solution. It's not a historical explanation. This is a movie about hope and it's about peace and that was really my intention . And I always stressed this.

"I did a lot of research leading up (to making the film) and watched a lot of documentaries and watched a lot of news and read a lot of news articles. They're very informative, but they're also very negative. And they really will make you feel like this thing is hopeless and it's going to go on forever. I really wanted to be at least one of the voices out there that was promoting the idea of hope. As I said this, even people who criticized the film came up to me afterwards and said, 'You know what, I really respect what you're doing. I'm glad you're here.' And that was an amazing thing."

Meanwhile, "Story" is continuing to play on the film festival circuit. "I'm booked for another 25 film festivals," he noted, adding that in the U.S. "it's played in 30 states. It played at the Aspen Comedy Film Festival. It's played all over the place -- New York, all over the East Coast. It played in the South. It's played in Arabic film festivals, Jewish film festivals, regular film festivals. It won the Malibu Film Festival. It's gotten quite a bit of play here and also in Canada, as well."

Making a student movie isn't easy and certainly isn't cheap. "It was roughly in the range of about $70,000," he said when I asked what "Story" cost to produce. "It probably is much more because of the amount of stuff that was donated. The way we financed it was that I personally financed it myself. But really what I did was, I was very successful in getting people from the industry to get on board to help out. I think people really responded to the idea of the message of hope and also to, you know, 'Here's a guy who's taking on a very ambitious project, let's see if he can do it.'

"I had post houses like Modern Video Film, who helped me afterwards. I had a lot of industry mentors like Robert Chartoff, Gary Lucchesi, David Wasco, who's a very well known production designer ("Collateral," "Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2") and Dion Beebe, who won an Oscar for cinematography (for "Memoirs of a Geisha" and was Oscar nominated for "Chicago"). They really embraced the film and helped me with advice or with pointers or with making contacts around town to pull some strings here and there. So I was really able to hustle a lot. I'm a fairly aggressive networker. I love it. If you're going to make a short film that's ambitious and beyond your means, then you're expected to deliver. And I really expected that I had to deliver so I just made it happen."

Asked where he managed to get such convincing looking locations to double for the West Bank, Sandel replied, "There's a guy who built an Arab town on his ranch in Santa Clarita and he uses it for films. I'm sure he's making a fortune because everything has something to do with the Middle East now. Everyone's shooting there. All the TV shows. All the History Channel (films). The military movies."

Filming went well: "We shot it in 14 days. We ran into a few hiccups here and there. As a matter of fact, the Santa Clarita Valley was undergoing a huge brushfire at the time (we shot) two years ago. It was an enormous brushfire and the sky turned blood red. It was so much so that we had to change the gels on our lighting in the day and increase the lights because it was so dark. Ash actually started falling from the sky covering the camera and everything else. It was like a white film over everything. You could see the ash falling. People had to wear masks. I thought for sure we were going to get evacuated. We had to stop every three minutes so that the helicopters could drop water. It was a disaster, but we managed to make it work. You'll never notice on camera. You can't see any of the ash falling.

"People joke actually (that) this is what happens when you try to make a comedy about the Middle East and it starts to look like the Apocalypse. But other than that, things went well. We had an unusually loyal group of cast and crew for a short student film. They were really, really dedicated. It took us five or six weeks of rehearsal for dancing. It was amazing. I've worked on many short films. I've never seen a group still so attached after the film. We still get together on a regular basis. Everyone's still friends -- Arabs and Jews. I think it's really cool."

Looking ahead, Sandel observed, "I'm really trying to make a push to direct comedy. That's really what I'm doing right now. I've been meeting with studios and production companies for various comedy features. And that's also what I'm working on on my own writing. I'd love to do something again that's political. That's really my passion. So that might happen. I have a documentary coming out in the spring with Vince Vaughn called 'The Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show.' It's being distributed by The Weinstein Co.

"It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (last September). It's a documentary that follows Vince's 30-city/30-day comedy tour that he hosts. It's with four comics. And really what it's about is touring the country and being a comic and we really get into the personal lives of these four comics and how their successes and tragedies in life have kind of played out on stage for them in their acts and how they use their acts as a kind of cathartic sort of healing for them."

For now, Sandel's getting ready for the Oscars, where his name could be in the sealed envelope for best live action short film. "Being able to go to the Oscars (is something) I never expected in a million years," he confided. "It's been, obviously, an incredible honor. You know, everybody always says that, but it's just been a great experience."

Earlier this month he attended the Oscar nominees luncheon: "It's phenomenal. They take a group photo and you kind of stand on these bleachers. You're standing up there and you're next to Clint Eastwood and Forest Whitaker and Eddie Murphy's in front of you and there's Steven Spielberg -- and this is unbelievable! It's just a surreal experience. So I took some great photos and took a couple of pictures with some big guys. It was a great experience. I'm taking my mom to the Oscars and I'm looking forward to it."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 20 and 23, 1989's columns: "With Oscar nominations ballots being mailed Saturday to Academy members, there's no shortage of speculation these days about this year's competition. While the highest profile campaigns are those for best picture, direction and acting, there are other races of interest, including the one for best documentary.

"Indeed, at New York based Miramax Films the focus is very much on the documentary category because the company's 'The Thin Blue Line,' directed by Errol Morris...is widely regarded as a likely nominee in that race.

"'Ever since we released the film we've been blessed with great reviews and an incredible response,' Bob Weinstein, co-chairman (with Harvey Weinstein, his brother) of Miramax, told me Thursday ... 'The public reaction to the film has also been incredible and we hope that the Academy will recognize the film for its achievement. Even more than awards, in a way what's really gratifying is that the best award for a film like this is that Randall Adams is getting a retrial.' Adams has been in prison for 12 years, convicted of a murder that the investigative work done by Morris in 'Thin' concludes he didn't commit...

"Getting domestic theatrical distribution for any documentary is typically a struggle, but winning an Oscar would give 'Thin' a major assist in reaching a wide audience. The picture opened about five months ago at New York's Lincoln Plaza Theater and is still playing there. 'We've reopened a lot of markets,' says Weinstein. 'Los Angeles just reopened. We're opening in Seattle and we've reopened in San Francisco. So even in markets where the picture's finished after a lengthy run, now with the notoriety and some of these awards we're going back into markets and the picture is having a new and extended life. If it goes on to win the Academy Award we hope that can continue...'

"At a time when other independents are retrenching, Miramax is in good shape: 'The company is co-owned by myself and my brother Harvey. Last February Samuel Montague, the investment arm of Midland Montague, the English banking concern, bought an equity interest in Miramax Films. What that has given us the ability to do is to step up and help to co-finance and produce pictures of a higher budget...

"'The United States is just not New York and L.A. It's all those markets in between and we believe in hands-on promotion and marketing in each and every market in the United States. It's marketing and distribution. You just can't make films and throw them out into the marketplace and hope they do well. I think that's one of the reasons we've been successful and producers have come back to work with us again. They've felt good about the experience because we get them involved in the experience...'

"Weinstein sums up Miramax as being 'a growing boutique distribution company.' Looking down the road, he reflects, 'We don't want to become a factory. We think the things that got us here are our marketing and expertise in distribution and hopefully knowing which film to pick or help produce. We think if we can maintain those two things we'll be successful. It's not how many films you put out...'"

Update: While "The Thin Blue Line" didn't get a best documentary Oscar nomination, it did win best documentary awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics. The picture, which only cost $400,000 to $500,000 to produce, grossed $1.2 million domestically. Miramax achieved additional success with the film because it prompted the Texas Court of Appeals to grant Adams a re-trial in 1989. He was found not guilty and was released from prison after having wrongfully served over 12 years, including four years on death row where at one point he was only 72 hours away from being executed.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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