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Exclusive: Director Joseph Cedar Talks Oscar-Nominated Footnote

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” sucked up a lot of the oxygen regarding the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submissions heading into the ceremony a couple weeks ago, and, indeed, ended up taking home the Academy Award. But writer-director Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” the official Israeli entry, and one of the final five nominees, is an equally stirring work. The winner of the Best Screenplay award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the movie locates the universality in an incredibly specific arena, telling the story of a latent rivalry between father and son professors, each of whom has dedicated their lives to different branches of Talmudic study. ShockYa recently had a chance to chat one-on-one with the 43-year-0ld award-winning filmmaker, talking with Cedar about comparisons of his movie to “A Separation,” life inside the Oscar bubble and reverse immigration. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: As I understand it you were born in the United States but immigrated to Israel at a very young age, is that correct?

Joseph Cedar: Yes, just before I turned six my parents moved to Israel.

ShockYa: Do you have a lot of memories from that time?

JC: I have some, but I think the experience of immigration is something that mostly goes over a child’s head. It was extremely significant for my parents, but for me it was moving from one playground to another — a new language and in my case war, but basically it’s one playground to another.

ShockYa: Is that something you’ve discussed a lot with your parents, their reasons for moving?

JC: That’s a great question. It’s something I want to discuss, actually. Because aside from relocating where you live you’re separating yourself quite actively from your family. And I think that’s a pretty big decision that my parents made. They speak about it in terms of ideology and idealism, and I think there’s a big personal element to it that doesn’t really come up in conversation. But I tend to think about that also.

ShockYa: I have a friend and much older mentor who is the son of a Methodist preacher, and he’s often spoke of his father’s religious beliefs and the notion or belief of waging a war against one’s father — a rite of passage, especially for sons, in which you want to dominate your father because you associate it with achieving his respect. That idea seems to be part of an undercurrent in “Footnote.”

JC: I think what you said is interesting because it’s a little different than my own sensibility. Fathers and sons is a personal version of a way to discuss tension between generations, I think. And understanding how one generation is different from another is understanding how the world is progressing. It’s a tremendous topic that explains why so many of our myths focus on fathers and sons. There are different models within these mythologies, but also on a personal level I think there are different models for what a conflict between father and son or what the generational tension represents. So what you just said is one thing, but there’s also the opposite. You can look at it from the father’s point-of-view, who is afraid of discontinuing a tradition and therefore really limiting the son’s ability to his own choices and freedom. But this is all also a wide topic of which any short discussion will also end up a little bit unsatisfying. (smiles) It’s a good thing to discuss, but somehow in these conversations it’s a little hard to get into deeper than just a model.

ShockYa: I know in the film’s press notes you mention that it’s difficult to discuss where the idea came from, but the father-son story at the heart of “Footnote,” to me, helps mark it, like “A Separation,” as the sort of movie that I would classify as almost incidentally a foreign film.

JC: I think both films, “Footnote” and “A Separation,” have really specific circumstances that might be universal in [their] ability to create involvement in an audience, but could actually only happen in the place(s) that they happen. The Muslim law in the Iranian film and the kind of uncompromising fight between this father and son (in “Footnote”) are really specific to the cultures that they come from. …I have a feeling that it wouldn’t be easy to remake this film.

ShockYa: No, but I would argue that… the idea of a son grappling with this secret, and whether or not and/or how to break this news to his father over the true nature of an award (for which they were both being considered) could be transported to any number of settings.

JC: Oh, I agree.

ShockYa: When one considers academia, they don’t necessarily think of it as bloodsport. In your research at Hebrew University, were you surprised by that level of competition?

JC: I think there’s competition in every field, and sometimes the more esoteric the field the more competition there is, which is somehow in alliance with (Henry) Kissinger’s quote, in which he was asked why the competition in academia was so vicious and he said, “Because the stakes are so small.” What I found was that there are some fields where we expect competition to be externalized, and have no problem with that — of course sports is what first comes to mind. When there are two boxers in a ring no one is upset that one boxer wants to knock over the other boxer. That’s what we’re there for, that’s what we’re rooting for, that’s for our enjoyment. But the further away you get from boxing, the harder it is to admit that’s what’s going on. But that is what’s going on. And the Talmud Department might be the furthest away from boxing you can get, but it’s still two heavyweight sweaty boxers trying to knock each other over. This is coming from someone who knows personally only the film industry, (where) I think it’s also true.

ShockYa: The Oscar nomination for your movie must have been a thrill. Is that honorific still the best commercial megaphone for a film like yours?

JC: It’s great, but I don’t know. Objectively, there are some great films that aren’t getting attention from the Oscars or other awards ceremonies, and they’re still great. And then there are some really bad films that get that kind of recognition. I don’t think there’s an absolute value to any of these awards, but there is a value of awareness that comes with them. There’s something about the Oscars, and the route that you go through and all the different steps, that it becomes something bigger than it ultimately is, because the expectations keep rising and you’re part of this journey that has a closure. And it’s great, it’s a cultural journey, it’s exhilarating. But (it’s) also a little artificial. In Israel, the announcement was in the middle of the afternoon, at like 3:30 p.m., so I was awake as could be. It was nice to have it in the middle of the day.

ShockYa: Your collaboration with composer Amit Poznansky really underscores some comedic grace notes in the film, and (you’ve talked in other interviews about having) the last 15 or 20 minutes of the movie choreographed like a dance. Was thinking in terms of music easy for you?

JC: Yes, fairly. And in our film there was another thing that was very influential, and that was the sound designer. We knew that we wanted music that doesn’t apologize for existing, and that a lot of the tone of the film would be a result of the music that we used. So that was something that was part of how the film was designed. Amit came in, and that was the first time that we were working together. His style was perfect for what we were looking for, which was this symphonic score. But finding the tone happened before the composer came in, actually, and that was his specialty. He tailored it, and made it just right for our film.

For more information on “Footnote,” which opens this week and expands throughout the spring, visit www.FootnoteMovie.com

Written by: Brent Simon

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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