Elijah Wood, Liev Schreiber and Eugene Hutz
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 deranged dog.
Hired 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.
Playing 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. (“Our presence in Warped Tour was something like throwing a porno magazine into kindergarten,” Hutz cheerfully acknowledged during the interview.)
A week 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 project.
Liev, you’ve 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?
Liev Schreiber: I’ve been kind of fantasizing about making a film since college. The first relatively big budget film I worked on, what I noticed immediately… aside from the spectacular catering… was that Sven Nyquist was the cinematographer. He was Ingmar Bergman’s 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. I’ve been in over 35 movies, with Jonathan Demme, Tak Fujimoto, Norman Jewison, Barry Levinson, Phil Alden Robinson, Greg Mottola… 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.
On 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 Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevskiy, 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, you’ve 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 there’s 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?
Liev Schreiber: My 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. He’s a model guy. In the Jewish vernacular, a real mensch. He’s someone I really looked up to, and somebody who defied all the clichés 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 – 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 make.
Eventually, an editor at The New Yorker named Bill Buford was putting together a young fiction writers’ series and matched me up with a young writer named Jonathan Safran Foer who had submitted a short story called “A Very Rigid Search.” I was just completely blown away by the writing. I felt like he had accomplished in fifteen pages what I had only grazed in 170… 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 I’ve done before. So quiet and still and odd, which I enjoyed.
Liev Schreiber: What I 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 hadn’t 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. I’ve heard people say that it’s a Jewish sense of humor. But I guess ultimately I felt it was a survivor’s sense of humor. It’s 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 – 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. I’m so proud of it.
Why do you think this story is important today?
Liev Schreiber: Jonathan and I started talking about making this film in the Fall of 2001, after September 11th. 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 11th there 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.
Then there was that really difficult time where we shifted – as we always do – into “who’s 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. We were resonating with them. There was compassion from the rest of the world. Suddenly, Americans were human beings. We weren’t 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, “Don’t tread on me.” I’m 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?
Liev Schreiber: 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. It’s a trick that I’d always used as an actor. To get the audience to identify with you, don’t 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 was… no disrespect intended to Elijah… 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. Elijah’s 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 can’t make the jump, but you seem to have made it pretty easily. Do some people still see you as the kid from The Good Son?
Elijah Wood: Not so much that. I think I’ve moved beyond references to that age group, which is good. It’s still challenging. I still look younger than I am. I’m still relatively young. So roles that I’d like are mostly too old for me. Or at least I’m perceived as too young, so they don’t believe me in those roles. It’s more just dealing with the age perception… 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.
Liev Schreiber: He was a child actor. The guy has been on movie sets for so long and he’s 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.
He had so much trouble relating to people. That must have been hard to pull off as an actor.
Elijah Wood: 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 arm’s length to the rest of the world… The glasses were really important to the character. Visually very important because they physically separate him from the outside world. Mentally he is at arms’ 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.
As soon as I saw the movie poster I saw those round glasses that lit up. Immediately I thought of Kevin in Sin City. He was the creepiest character I’ve ever seen in a film. I didn’t know if anyone else saw the correlation…
Elijah Wood: Some people have said that. I’ve 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 that’s 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.
I 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 he’d 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.
Liev Schreiber: I just talked to him. The guy is such a natural. I don’t know if you’ve 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 wouldn’t be surprised if in the sequel to Everything is Illuminated it’s about Alex coming to America. (chuckles) It’s 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 American character.
Eugene Hutz: If you see me perform with my band, you will know that it’s already there. It’s not really such a stretch. It’s a very theater-oriented music delivery. Also, I did a bit of theater before, so it wasn’t 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 it’s going to be based on this novel, Everything Is Illuminated. I’m like, I’m reading this book right now. He’s like, “really?” And I’m like, fuckin’ yeah. I’m on page hundred, literally. That’s when kind of the lightning moment was. I knew at that moment. And he knew it too. It was like, “you think you could do Alex?” I was just, consider it to be done. That’s the least I can do. I can basically be that guy. It would be like to reverse the time. I’ve 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.
Liev Schreiber: I knew that I had to find real Eastern Europeans. I looked all over Ukraine for Alex and just couldn’t find anybody with that sort of eternal sense of optimism and poetry. I love how ridiculous Alex’s malaprops are. What makes them so good, and what’s so wonderful about Jonathan’s 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 it’s his character, he is the ultimate narrator of the story. Eugene has that quality. He’s ridiculous and insane but he has the heart of a poet.
How did you go about finding the rest of the cast?
Liev Schreiber: Same thing. That scar on Boris (Leskin)’s forehead is real. Boris survived the war. His brother didn’t. He has very strong feelings about it. He is Ukrainian, he doesn’t 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 aren’t actors. We just found people. Alex’s father was this homeless guy in the Ukraine and he’s 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 it’s true. They were all around us. It’s one of those things where you could tell by the color of someone’s teeth or their fingernails or their skin if they worked their whole life. It makes a difference. When the culture is important and you’re trying to get people to believe that it’s Ukraine, it’s 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.
Liev Schreiber: 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. I’d watched a lot of other guys do it. I’m an actor, so maybe I can act like a director. Sort of rehearse saying action at night. But that was useless. I realized about ¾ 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 you’re 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. It’s overwhelming until you realize that each one of those people, if you picked them right, is more than qualified to do their job.
Eugene Hutz: He was 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 – or professional, whatever – 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 it’s definitely in the realm of your abilities and you know you can do it. But you will go through learning a whole new alphabet. It’s just like learning a new language, but I had to learn it basically overnight. I can tell when I’m 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 wasn’t aware of the Lord of the Ringscraziness around the world. I was doing my own thing and watching different things and being in a different zone. Similar with Liev. I’ve 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, that’s 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. It’s all kind of like three deeply, pathologically obsessed with music people.
Elijah 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 I’ve never really heard of.
Eugene Hutz: He’s very open. He just asked me about my band right away. It was more kind of like, “Well, what about Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? Do you like that?” 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. That’s what we did. Just mixed up our hard drives and start trading.
Elijah, what’s happening with your record label?
Elijah Wood: It’s just now building itself. It’s exciting. It’s nice to work on something different. I’m very, very passionate about music, so it’s cool trying to explore something else. And create something, from the ground up is gratifying.
Do 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 busy…
Elijah Wood: Well, that’s 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 don’t have any technical ability…
The film was mostly filmed in Prague rather than the Ukraine. Why was that?
Eugene Hutz: I think they went with Czech because… well, I don’t 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. It’s more of a partying in the front, business in the back kind of country.
Elijah Wood: 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 couldn’t 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, that’s all shot in Odessa.
What was Prague like?
Elijah Wood: Pretty incredible. To live in Prague for two months was a privilege. I lived just off of Old Town Square. I’d never been to Eastern Europe. I’d never been to Prague. It’s a gorgeous city. So gothic and other-worldly. That part of it was amazing. It’s 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 the film.
Eugene Hutz: It just was beautiful. It’s still Eastern Europe. When you’re in Eastern Europe, every tribe takes themselves so seriously; like oh, we’re Polish and we’re Ukrainian and we’re Serbian and Croatian. Start all kind of ridiculous neighborhood quarrels that turn into wars. But, essentially it’s the same tribe and breed of people.
Liev Schreiber: Since my relatives are from Eastern Europe, I’m fascinated by Eastern Europeans. I love all their nuttiness. I fantasize that it’s in me somewhere. I know that I emulate it. I deeply admire it.
Elijah Wood: To me it was culturally fascinating. It probably doesn’t 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 it’s 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. You’ve 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. It’s becoming a total melting pot. I didn’t really feel like I was having a purely Eastern European experience, because I’d walk down the street and I’d see tourists and other people from England, France, Italy, all over the place. America. I didn’t feel isolated. I didn’t feel I was immersed in another culture completely, as I would have probably been if I’d 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?
Liev Schreiber: 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. It’s a hell of a lot easier acting, I’ve got to say…
Eugene Hutz: It’s been crazy, especially because I also just finished promoting an album; our album that just came out. So I’ve been doing this for a month for that and then this kicked in. (chuckles) It’s already the third week of this. Getting nuts. But, it’s good.
Elijah, you have just been hired to play Iggy Pop. How do you feel about that?
Elijah Wood: 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 I’m nervous. It’s someone I admire greatly and who has had a massive impact on music. So it’s relatively daunting. Don’t know yet. It’s all kind of up in the air. It’s not all put together yet.
What are you going to do now that you have some time off?
Liev Schreiber: I don’t. 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 in China 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, aren’t you?
Eugene Hutz: I’m basically taking three weeks off. Then I’m 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.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 18, 2005.
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