Zaytoun – Eran Riklis interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ERAN Riklis talks about returning to the Middle Eastern landscape to make Zaytoun, his film about a downed Israeli pilot and his relationship with a Palestinian boy, and some of the challenges involved in shooting.
He also discusses why optimism and humour are key words for him when making films about difficult, real-world issues, why he was initially sceptical about casting Stephen Dorff, and why he enjoyed working with Danny Huston on his next film, Payoff, based on another real-life story.
Q. What appealed to you about the script for Zaytoun when you first read it?
Eran Riklis: Well, it was complicated because I didn’t really like it at the beginning because I almost felt I’d been there and done that. I had sort of finished by Middle East cycle. But after I met the writer [Nader Rizq] and I met the America producer who was behind it at the beginning, I felt that if we tweaked it a little bit and worked on it, and take it in a slightly different direction, it could work. So, then I thought, ‘OK, there is an opportunity here to take almost a classic kind of buddy movie, on the road movie, American movie and inject it into a Middle Eastern situation…’ Obviously, in 1982 the Palestinians and Israelis… So, it was a process. I didn’t instantly say ‘let’s do this’. It took me a few months to get into it. In retrospect I’m very glad that I did because I think it’s a great story and I really enjoyed making it.
Q. How different was the original script? Was it always set in 1982?
Eran Riklis: It was. I think Nader, who wrote it, has been in States for over 20 years now, so I think putting it in 1982 meant that he could have some perspective. Because, on the one hand, nothing changes in that situation… it is the situation. But on the other hand, if you look back in 1982 it is a turning point to a certain extent between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s obviously a very violent turning point but also a very traumatic one, I think, for both sides. So, I think it was good to… rather than look at today’s situation, which nobody can understand anyway to really observe it properly, I think1982 was a good idea, so we stuck with it.
Today, especially, it’s a really unclear situation in terms of where the Israelis are at, and where the Palestinians are at, the world is kind of changing around us. There are too many things going on, so it’s very difficult to pinpoint anything specific. In 1982, it was very clear – the Palestinians were in Lebanon, there was a conflict, Israel decided to march in and got carried away I would say and what happened, happened. We actually set the film a little bit before the actual war but I think even that was a good decision because it meant we could really focus on these two guys and use the backdrop as the upcoming war, rather than dealing with the actual war itself.
Q. This is a very human story set against a complicated political backdrop, which is a feature of your Middle Eastern films in particular. Is that the kind of thing you’re looking for, putting a human face on these complicated issues?
Eran Riklis: I think so. Yeah, for me it’s about making films about people who are behind the headlines. People are really affected directly by politics, whether it’s local, regional or global. I probably said the same thing when I talked about Lemon Tree or The Syrian Bride, because really if you look at these films it’s really about people who are almost trapped in situations which are either beyond their control or that they’re aiming to change and try to change and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. I think that’s very interesting for me…. In principal, that’s where we live today.
You know, we’re sitting here [in London] and things are happening in Moscow or in Washington that may affect our lives tomorrow. Especially in the Middle East you get that sense that leadership decisions and the local powers that are working around us all the time have a direct effect on the quality of life… and that quality of life is obviously very different between a kid who is growing up in a refugee camp and somebody who is living in Tel Aviv. So, at the end, we’re all in the Middle East and caught in a cycle of violence and turmoil.
Q. And yet there is an optimism to your films as well… The human spirit often wins out…
Eran Riklis: Yeah, for me it’s very important. For me, making these kind of films is actually taking these issues out of the ghetto. For me, it’s really about bringing these films to an audience as wide as I can go and to do that you need to be optimistic, you need to inject some humour. Otherwise, it would be purely political and depressing and nobody is going to want to see it. So, I think it’s a device for me to keep a smile even when you’re facing sad moments, or tragic moments, or really traumatic moments. But we all live in a world where we can go to a funeral in the morning and go to a wedding in the evening and we survive it. It’s the way the world is built, especially when you look at the various people surrounding the Mediterranean way of life. I think optimism and humour are key words for me to make the films accessible, which means they can really travel and be seen by as many people as possible.
Q. Do those two words also apply to you as a director when you’re on set, directing? How easy is it to get a film like this made?
Eran Riklis: Well, to get a film like this made… this one in particular is an interesting story because its budget is above normal for local budgets. I started with The Syrian Bride and managed to get some German and French co-production interest, which raised the budget of an average Israeli film to maybe two times or triple that. Here, it’s about six times the normal Israeli budget, which meant on one hand raising more money. It meant certain difficulties and certain pressures. And yet when I look at the work that Gareth Unwin did, the UK producer, and myself from my side, I think we really stuck with it. We had our fair share of investors disappearing in the middle of pre-production, etc.
But we stuck with it because we believed in the project and Gareth had nerves of steel. The shoot was actually… I think this film was like butter in a way. For me, I had a long preparation time and when I shot it, it was almost seamless. I put it together in something like three months. I finished shooting at the end of May  and premiered the film in the first week of September, so really three months of post. It’s a complicated film with special effects and a pretty ambitious sound… but somehow everything glued together and made it, not effortless, but I felt very much at ease. Even today, I’m not too tired.
Q. Where was it shot?
Eran Riklis: It was shot in Israel entirely with the help of some special effects. So, we shot in Haifa, which is in the north of Israel, to simulate Beirut. But we had to really destroy the city in post because Beirut was already a destroyed city in 1982 because of the civil war. We shot especially in the north of the country, which is really south of the border with Lebanon, so it’s very similar terrain. The north of Israel has a lot of Arab villages, so it was pretty easy in that sense. But I spent something like three months looking for really good locations and I think what’s outstanding in the film is that all the locations look good. They look realistic, if you know Lebanon.
Q. Was that a deliberate choice to show as much as you could of the beauty of the country, as well as the horror of the conflict. There are several shots of beautiful coastlines…
Eran Riklis: It’s a very good point because it was important for me to show that Beirut and Lebanon were once the pearl of the Middle East. Beirut was once called the Paris of the Middle East and to have that feeling of a destroyed place that once was beautiful and glamorous and visually impressive was important. I think it’s even sadder to get the feeling that this country, and indeed the whole Middle East, could have been a major force in the world if people would get together and forget about destruction, death and wars. But unfortunately, it’s not happening yet.
Q. Stephen Dorff gives a great performance. Was he always top of the list to play the Israeli pilot? And why go for an American actor in that role?
Eran Riklis: Well, go for an American because we had a bigger budget and the producers said we must have an international name because we can’t really go for an Israeli, which was not easy for me to accept. But once I did I started looking for people and there were a lot of actors who were not around because they were shooting The Hobbit in New Zealand [laughs]. Stephen was one of a few choices we were facing. But what I found intriguing about him was that behind this facade of a California boy, almost, there was something deeper that was hiding and just waiting to be explored. I saw Somewhere, the Sofia Coppola film, which I thought also gave a different angle of him. And my initial instinct was really… I remember calling the producers after I met him in New York and saying ‘listen, he’s a California boy, I can’t make him into an Israeli pilot’!
But thinking about it again and meeting him again, I felt he was the right choice because something about his physique was perfect for me and something about his way of thinking and also his ambition to deliver a top-notch role and perfect the accent and all that. So, that shared ambition… I think we both did well in terms of really keeping this character at top form all the time. It wasn’t even a challenge because really Stephen is a very good actor because he brings a lot of American technique, whatever that means… so it was interesting to juxtapose that with my thoughts about acting and the way the character is perceived. I actually brought him over to Israel a good few weeks before the shoot so that he could absorb the city for better or for worse… all the hottest clubs and whatever. But it was a good experience.
Q. So, how hard did he work on the accent?
Eran Riklis: Very hard, very hard, because he had a dialect coach, who was a fanatical dialogue coach, and he had me and I was obviously very sensitive because I think sometimes the way Israelis are perceived in things like American comedies is that they have a very heavy accent. It’s somewhere between New York Jews and Israelis in LA selling fake iPhones or something. But I think we got to a really nice place, where it’s good English – because he’s a pilot and he’s educated and probably spent time in the States – and yet he’s an Israeli. I had a nice moment in Toronto, where we premiered the film, where an Israeli friend of mine who had lived in Toronto for a while, came to me and said: “Who is this actor? You discovered a new actor in Israel?” I said: “No, it’s Stephen Dorff!” And she said she didn’t know Stephen Dorff. But she was amazed that he’s not Israeli.
Q. And young Abdallah El Akal also shines in the film?
Eran Riklis: Abdallah is amazing. I did a short film about three years ago, just one day of shooting, and he was the kid in that film and I felt: “Wow, this kid is something special.” So, when it came to casting Zaytoun, I remembered him and called him over. He did a kind of so-so audition, so I called him over again, and he did a so-so audition again, and I called him back a third time and my casting director came in and said: “Abdallah was waiting for 20 minutes outside and says ‘OK, if he wants me, he wants me; if he doesn’t, I’m out of here’!” I said: “OK, we have a big star here in the making.”
But I think the point about Abdallah was that he did a lot of films, so the point for me was to say to him: “Forget those films and forget that you’re an actor, and think that you’re just a kid in Lebanon in 1982. I want to strip you away from everything you think you know and just start from scratch.” And it was a very good process with him because he’s a super intelligent kid. He also has this amazing emotion and feeling about the Middle East and the conflict and Israelis and Arabs… he’s a Palestinian kid born and raised in Tel Aviv, so I think he’s at the heart of the story. I watched it again last night and he is really amazing. Every second is perfect.
Q. Do you think his attitude to the conflict changed at all over the course of making the film?
Eran Riklis: I’ll tell you a story… when we were in Toronto, Stephen and Abdallah had an interview with some Canadian guy for television and he asked Stephen was the film was about and Stephen rolled off an answer. But he then asked Abdallah: “What was the most important thing for you in this film?” Now, in reality, there was a pilot, actually a navigator, that was shot down over Lebanon 26 years ago, and never found. He was never declared dead but he became a bit of a myth in Israel. So, Abdallah said: “He was shot down and never came back to Israel. In our film, we have an Israeli pilot shot down over Lebanon and I, a Palestinian kid, am the one helping him back home.” It was a moving thing to hear because it was almost like he got it. He knows that this film is not about the two sides… it is, but it’s about the two sides kind of finding a way to co-exist. I think he really got it right in the sense that’s what it’s all about. So, I know everything we did in the film he really understood. It wasn’t about simply delivering a performance; he understood and got what we were trying to say even though he’s only 14.
Q. But I guess you have to grow up fast in that part of the world?
Eran Riklis: Listen, he’s a classic story. He has seven brothers and sisters, he lives in not the best part of town, he’s an Arab in an Israeli society… it’s not easy. But he’s also a star. So, the time he spent with us he also got the star treatment. So, I’m sure it’s not easy for him now. But if he’s managed correctly, this kid could go very far. Every time I look at him in the film I think he could also be a Mexican kid, or an Indian kid… he could really go places. I think he’s really talented, so if he doesn’t lose it as he grows older he could be a very strong voice, in my opinion.
Q. At what point did you introduce them in the process? Was there a rehearsal process?
Eran Riklis: It was difficult to keep them apart because they had an instantaneous liking to each other. But I tried during the process of rehearsals to keep it to a minimum. But I think Abdallah fell in love with the notion of an American star being in Tel Aviv and he wanted to go out with him at night [laughs]. But I did try to shoot at least the first part of the film chronologically, so I think at least the process of what’s happening in Beirut was chronological. So, that helped a lot.
Q. The opening sequence and it’s sweeping shot through the market-place had a Scorsese/De Palma kind of feel. Was that deliberate?
Eran Riklis: [Smiles] Totally, totally. Both Scorsese and De Palma, to a certain degree, are people I admire. I think I wanted the opening statement of the film… there’s the bit with the pilot’s VCR, which give you the pilot’s point of view from up there. But once we’re on the ground I had this feeling that I wanted to be convincing in the sense that we’re here, in Beirut, there’s no cuts… this is it. There’s a kid walking around. So, I really tried to… it was a pretty tough shot to do because there are some special effects shots in there. There were some buildings in the background that are totally new, so I had to replace them. But it was worth it. I think the whole sequence of the kids running through the city and then in the camp was like five minutes and it gives you the whole story, visually and story-wise – you have no doubt that you’re there.
So, once you’re there you don’t question anything anymore. In a way, I think it helped me overcome… there’s always this nagging issue of who are the good guys and the bad guys? Where are the Palestinians? In a way, you can never understand what’s going on there because it’s totally chaotic, and I think the beginning gives you that – it’s almost like everybody’s against everybody, you don’t know what’s going on, and yet you know because this could also be Belfast.
Q. How did you enjoy working with Danny Huston on Playoff? When will we see that?
Eran Riklis: I just had an email this week that the problems with it have been resolved and it’s going to open at some festival in Germany. Danny Huston was great. His mother was at the screening yesterday. She lives in London and so I called her and said: “Mrs Huston…” But I think Danny is a dream actor to work with because he’s totally relaxed and totally calm and he has this… it’s interesting, if you think about Stephen [Dorff], then Danny has the same qualities that Stephen has in terms of technique and all of that, but also a more European kind of touch. He was great. It was a very difficult role because he plays a German-cum-Israeli Holocaust survivor/basketball coach who then returns to Germany, with all of those complexities. So, it was a challenging role and I think he did a wonderful job. It was a tough film to make. I was shooting in Germany. It’s not easy for an Israeli director to work in Germany… not because of the past but because of the way of thinking. Israelis are: “OK, let’s shoot! If we need to take this table out, take it out!” In Germany, we have to get permission to take it out first [laughs].