Interview: Joshua Z Weinstein Takes Us Inside the Hasidic Community in A24’s Menashe
Joshua Weinstein delivers a rare and unique film with Menashe. He takes us inside the Hasidic Community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park and tells the story of Menashe, a grocery store clerk who’s trying to keep custody of his son, Rieven. It’s the story of a father and son bonding after Menashe’s wife, Lea passes away. Hasidic culture maintains that Rieven must live with in a home with a mother so his uncle gets custody of him. Menashe’s rabbi grants that Rieven can live with his father for one week and Menashe sets out to prove he is more than a capable parent.
It’s a wonderfully intimate insight into a community rarely seen on film, and Weinstein has a cast speaking Yiddish, a language hardly ever heard in movies. It’s a heartwarming film and A24’s first foreign language film.
Weinstein gave us an insight recently into Menashe and the challenges he faced.
When did you decide you were going to make the film in Yiddish?
A film like this lives or dies by its authenticity. We broke our backs in the locations and casting process. Every single aspect of this was almost impossible to do because we wanted to be authentic. From the get go we knew that making this film had to be in Yiddish because that’s the language people speak.
There’s nothing sillier than seeing a Hollywood film and you see people speaking English, and everyone knows that’s not how they actually talk.
Casting is everything in movies and there’s such a great cast in this film.
Thank you. Clearly, this film was nearly impossible to make and almost didn’t happen and that’s why no one has done it before. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who speak Yiddish in the Brooklyn area, only about sixty showed up for auditions. Out of those we had to do improv games to see which of those actors could cut it and it was so challenging.
We originally wrote a father-in-law character where Menashe fights his father-in-law for custody of the son, but the actor dropped out a week before we started shooting.
We cast a brother-in-law who also dropped out. People just would not commit to the film, the rabbi, the community pressured them to not show up and not get involved so we were constantly at a loss. When I cast Menashe and I found his son, we did casting tapes together and I saw this beautiful relationship, I knew no matter what, we could change this story as long as we had Menashe and Rieven to be the main actors.
You mentioned one of the challenges about the community and yet, you shot on location. Your camera work is incredible. What were the other challenges in shooting within the community?
No one has ever made a film before where most people are against what you’re doing. Getting actors to show up and getting locations. I wanted to shoot in the real places. We got thrown out of three different supermarkets to shoot the supermarket, we ended up having to shoot at four supermarkets to act as one.
There’s a scene when Menashe is taking his son to school and they’re running through Borough Park, a huge crowd formed and many people were excited to watch us, but some people were not so excited to see us and said some nasty words to us so we had to stop filming. Menashe walked into the crowd and disappeared.
That’s crazy to think that’s the reaction you were getting.
Most people in the community were excited to watch and excited to learn. My goal was to humanize and to tell an authentic story. That meant a lot to them.
In the scene when Menashe apologizes to Rieven after he gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. Remember it?
Yes. The night scene.
We have cameras, the boom, and Menashe is giving his heart and soul to his son. A man walks by and right into the film, and hands him a box asking him to take it to my son’s house. Many people also didn’t care. They were happy to see us on the streets.
You also worked as co-cinematographer. Why did you take that on that role?
I didn’t want lots of layers between the actors. I’ve been a cinematographer and am very confident in my role. I knew we wanted two cameras at the same time because for non-actors, they can never say things the same way twice and so it was important to let them be free, and the way to do that was to have two cameras going at the same time.
Yoni Brook and I have such good chemistry and it was an easy collaboration. I wanted to be able to just do long takes, that way I could move with the camera and give Menashe small directions, and by only being a few feet from him, I could constantly be directing him and let these takes happen.
I like how you used those close-ups and shots to fully immerse us.
I was influenced by Cassavetes and Dujardin and they do this great job of making the camera bring you into this immersive world. It’s all about perspective. The camera has to show us the actor’s perspective, and for me, I wanted to follow actors so we are following them as they discover things in the world.
When we were outside, I’d use long telescopic lenses so the world was compressed. We feel people flying by the lens, it allows us to be in that same mindset.
How did your background as a documentary filmmaker help you with Menashe?
With film, you need a beginning, middle, and end. I make films with the audience in mind. At the same time, I’m not making a film because I want to make a Hitchcockian brilliant layering of moments that lead to this huge payoff.
The mundane moments excite me. I made the film for the scene where you see thousands of people dancing around the bonfire because that kind of spirituality says everything about the actors.
Or when Menashe goes into the spiritual bath and how that emotionally changes him. I went into the film with a list of dozens of moments that I wanted to see and the plot was a vehicle was to us as a view learn and experience this community.