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As the veteran producer behind headline-grabbing projects like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Jon Kilik is no stranger to controversy. So it’s not surprising to hear him say he’s unfazed by the debate that’s been swirling around his latest project, Miral, director Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical novel about an orphaned Palestinian girl coming of age in Israel in the ’70s and ’80s. The film, which opens in limited release Friday, began generating headlines when the American Jewish Committee sent a letter to the president of the U.N. General to protest a special screening of the film March 14. Kilik spoke with The Hollywood Reporter’s Kevin Cassidy about the challenges facing the project, the need to avoid stereotypes and his hope that the film’s message outlasts the controversy.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: This is such a risky project. You must have known that a movie like this would carry with it some controversy.
KILIK: I’m not fazed by it, but did it surprise me? A little bit. But I think the controversy, if you want to call it that, comes from such a small minority of people. Do The Right Thing was the same thing, I think 22 years ago. There was a little bit of controversy with people saying “you can’t tell this story” and “you can’t do it this way” and “you are just going to cause more violence or more riots in the movie theater” or whatever. All that kind of thing proved to be so ridiculous because I think there’s a much greater quantity, a majority of people who want to have this discussion, who want to talk about this. They want to see another side that has not been shown to them.
THR: Are you attracted to films with difficult or provocative subject matter?
KILIK: I guess I’ve always tried to seek them out because I want to learn. I want to explore. I want to be part of a solution. I want to educate myself, and I think there are other people in the audience who feel the same way. I don’t know about other producers, but from the beginning these are the kinds of films that I’ve spent 23 years making and want to continue to make because they are the kinds of movies that inspired me before I started producing.
THR: Were there any specific movies that inspired you to do this sort of thing when you were younger?
KILIK: Absolutely. I remember as a kid watching movies like Z, The Battle of Algiers, Easy Rider.
THR: Do you think Hollywood could use more of that kind of spirit of embracing, not necessarily politics, but difficult subjects?
KILIK: Again, I think it’s up to the filmmaker. That’s how I look at it. If a political movie can work and appeal to a wide audience, if it’s a good film. I don’t think Hollywood is against that. I’d like to think that there’s still an openness and willingness and support of films that have some significance and it’s up to the filmmakers to make sure that they are successful.
THR: Were you surprised at all by the American Jewish Community letter to the U.N. that said the film “highly negative light.” It is, after all, an Israeli co-production correct?
KILIK: The film is an Israeli co-production. The film was shot with the cooperation and participation of both the Israeli Government and Israeli citizens. Most of the crew was Jewish Israelis mixed with a smaller percentage of Palestinian Muslims, but most of the crew was dominated by Jewish Israeli crew members who were very, very positive on the set about the content of the film and very committed to it. We shot a little bit in Ramallah, but most of the movie was shot in Israel. We had Israeli Jewish locations and permits and cooperation from the mayor of Jerusalem. Just great support across the board.
THR: Were you surprised by the amount of cooperation you got from Israel?
KILIK: I’m a very positive-thinking person, so we weren’t looking for controversy. We weren’t looking to be rejected by anybody. We were not looking to have problems with this movie. What we were looking for was to tell an honest story and to make a good movie and represent this character accurately and shine a light on this story. And not do it at the expense of anybody or anything else, just tell an honest story and make a good film.
THR: When you were putting the co-production deal together did you receive any kind of resistance or did the Israeli’s object to anything?
KILIK: No, not at all. We went right to one production service company and they immediately said yes. We also asked if they could, when possible, mix the crew and they did that too. We just had tremendous cooperation from a fantastic crew over there. I highly recommend shooting in Israel. They have good, skilled people. We didn’t bring any people from anywhere.
THR: It was all sourced locally?
KILIK: Yes. Except for the cameramen and the first assistant director, everyone was local. I’ve gone to Morocco and Thailand, all over the world to shoot and you take a bunch of people from L.A. or N.Y. or London, but we went to Israel with only our cameramen and assistant director and every single person, everybody else on the crew was local. It was as smooth and harmonious.
THR: What went into the decision to release the film now and not during awards season?
KILIK: We didn’t want it to be looked at as a contender or not a contender for the awards, we wanted to add some more room around the film and we didn’t make it for prizes. Do the Right Thing came out in June. This is a very interesting moment where you see some international films released this time of year. In a Better World is coming out next month. Our movie is coming out this Friday. Foreign films I think are finding that this is a pretty interesting window. Last year, Sony Classics released The Secret In Their Eyes after it won the Oscar around this time.
THR: This is speculation, but do you think the people who are criticizing the film haven’t actually seen it.
KILIK: Absolutely. I would say the same thing. I don’t think the American Jewish Committee saw it; they just reacted to the U.N. decision to screen the movie in the general assembly hall, which was a great honor and a great opportunity for us to present the film in a room that has such an amazing, but controversial, history to it. This was in front of 1,800 people in the general assembly with a mix of U.N. diplomats and employees along with actors and people from the film and art worlds. It was a very exciting night with Sean Penn and Robert De Niro and Josh Brolin and all kinds of others.
THR: The film’s marketing features Freida Pinto and the words, “Is this the face of terrorist?” Doesn’t that invite controversy to some extent?
KILIK: I don’t know what it does, but I just think part of what I see happening is that there this is this predisposition to categorize people. If you are a Palestinian, if you are an Arab person, if you are a Muslim person, that means you are potentially a terrorist. Here’s a girl who is Arab Muslim, who has dark skin and intense look in her eyes, but she has this beautiful blue and white school uniform that looks like it comes from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And just because she is Palestinian, just because her aunt was a terrorist, just because she is an orphaned child does not mean that she will become a terrorist. And the reason, in this case, that she doesn’t is because of her family — because of her father, because of her teacher, because of her education, because of the community around her that supports her and that encouraged her to make something else of her life. So we ask the question because there is a tendency to make a group of people monolithic.
THR: Just this week we heard about the explosion in Jerusalem. Do you think a movie like this can actually make a difference?
KILIK: Yes, if it changes one life or inspires one life. If it makes one child into a mentor or teacher that can help change their life. If it makes one adult look at people in a different way and make them think or understand that there is another side to the history of this region that they didn’t know about, then I think that’s a positive thing.
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