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Brighton Beach and the East Village in the ’80s: Eric Steel on Minyan

Minyan

Although primarily known as a documentary filmmaker (his 2006 feature, The Bridgeconsidered the countless suicides committed each year from the Golden Gate Bridge), director Eric Steel makes his narrative feature debut with Minyan, a faithful yet surprising adaptation of a coming-of-age short story by David Bezmozgis. Set in the Russian Jewish community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in the 1980s, Minyan tells the story of David (Samuel H. Levine) who, while helping his grandfather (Ron Rifkin) transition into a retirement home, befriends two closeted gay men. As David begins to identify and expand on his own desires, his sense of self begins to shift—as does, it’s important to note, his surroundings: David relocates to the bustling gay community of Manhattan’s East Village. 

Having premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, Minyan is currently in theaters courtesy of Strand Releasing. A few days before the film opened in New York, I spoke with Steel about personalizing other writers’ stories, shifting the story from Toronto to New York, integrating klezmer music into the score and how films like his can still find an audience despite the currently fraught landscape for film exhibition. 

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken of how Minyan began as a short story by Canadian author David Bezmozgis and was originally set in Toronto. However, given your familiarity with New York City, you wanted to relocate the film adaptation. Was taking pre-existing material and adapting it as your own ultimately what led to you wanting to make a narrative feature? Had you thought about telling other people’s stories beforehand?

Steel: When I was a kid, I think I fell in love with the idea of storytelling due to The Odyssey and how stories of Greek mythology were passed down from group to group. Someone would stand in front of a group and tell one story they knew by heart, then that group would tell it to another group and so on. I think I wanted that very badly. On one hand, I was very privileged in that I felt comfortable coming out to my parents at a young age, when I was 17 years old. I grew up in a world where being gay was, if not celebrated, then at least “OK.” I wasn’t getting thrown out of my house or arrested or beheaded. At the same time, I also knew that while it was OK to be gay, it’d be better if you just didn’t openly talk about it: Don’t tell other people about your story, as they’re stories that nobody would care about nor anyone would pay to hear. I think I grew up with the conflict of wanting to be a storyteller while battling the voice in my head that was saying, “Hey, no one cares. No one wants to hear your story.”

For a long period of my life, I worked as a film executive, then as a book editor and a film producer. I think I was very good at spotting interesting stories and working with writers to tell theirs and putting my finger on how to make it. Nonetheless, these stories still weren’t mine, and at some point in my career, I realized that I couldn’t go on doing that. I had to find a way to tell my own story in my own way. The pathway toward achieving that was through documentaries. I wanted to learn how to use a camera and how to see things visually and craft a story together. I wanted to go out into the real world and see if I could tell if someone was telling me the truth or a story that they assumed I wanted to hear. All of those things were really important and it’s not a coincidence that I first read the short story when I was making my documentary, The Bridge. The story itself got into my mind at a time where I was trying to figure out how to be a filmmaker. Even so, it took a very long time to adapt the story for the screen and to persuade David Bezmozgis to let me do it, partly because, while it’s not autobiographical, it’s a story that comes from his DNA. The story is his lived experience in some form, right? 

When David eventually told me, “I’ll let you do it but make it your own,” I still hadn’t connected each of the pieces up to that point. I think my first instinct was to visit Toronto and live on Bathurst Street for a while and surround myself with older Jews and go to shul with them and shuffle along on the winter streets and eat their food, etc. So, I did that, then came home and wrote a script that, while very true to David’s story structurally and thematically, was terrible. It had no life in it. That was the moment where I put the pieces together in terms of the timeframe of when this story was taking place with how I could connect the DNA of my autobiographical experience with David’s. They spun together in an interesting way, with aspects of AIDS and the Holocaust, and with immigrants in Toronto and/or Brighton Beach—all of these things came together. I would write for a bit and discover something or think of something like, “Oh, James Baldwin [could be implemented here],” or “Oh, Wallace Stegner,” or “Oh, [the tower of] Babel.” There was reference to Babel in David’s work, of course, but not in the same way. That process made me feel like I had finally gotten into the world of storytelling.

Filmmaker: Did your familiarity with New York, both in your personal life and professionally having worked on other films in the city, make it easier to move the story out of Canada?

Steel: To be honest, the original plan was to shoot in Toronto, partly because I visited the city and made these maps of how one would get from Bathurst Street to the gay ghetto and how all of that geography would work, accurately representing each pathway on screen. But when I hired Ron Rifkin to play the grandfather, his wife, Iva, who has Alzheimer’s, was living in a facility here in New York City (Ron is incredibly devoted to his wife and visits her every day). He told me that he wanted to be in the film but was hesitant about leaving his wife for the shoot. So, things kept spinning and eventually our location changed. The more you tell the story, the more you find other details and ingredients you want to bring in, and either they work or they don’t. Settling on [setting the story] in Brighton Beach is a good example, in that I realized that the setting would work better for me, as a storyteller, than Toronto: I grew up here, I know this place, I know the subways, I know the streets, I know what it feels like to walk into that particular bar, what it’s like to wake up in an apartment in the East Village and have no idea where you are.

Filmmaker: The film, set in the 1980s, is a period piece. Were there aspects of Brighton Beach you’ve seen change over the years? It’s an area where some elements have stayed constant and others have faded away. It is (or was) a hub for a very specific culture that may be removed from what we traditionally consider mainstream.

Steel: My memory of Brighton Beach in the 1980s is it felt like a different country. It was the next-to-last stop on the subway before Coney Island. That’s as far out as one can go. Rather than English, the people were speaking Russian and Yiddish and I wasn’t understanding any of it. Even so, there was this beautiful beach in the area and everyone was outside visiting the boardwalk all the time. When I revisited it recently, I think the skyline of Brighton Beach is primarily the same as it was then and the boardwalk is too. Oddly enough, I also think the people feel very much the same and they’re slightly anachronistic. We were shooting the film during the coldest days of winter and the local women were wearing furs that they had brought over with them from Russia (these were not furs that they bought in the States). The local foods have also remained the same and I hadn’t had green borscht since I was a kid! Even the hallways of the buildings we were shooting in smelled like what I remembered, like the building that my grandparents lived in that smelled like onions burning and brisket and beets.

Filmmaker: With the film being told primarily in interior settings, were you able to shoot in real, lived-in locations that mirrored that anachronistic feeling you’re describing? Or were your production designer and set decorator people you relied on to bring us further into this period? 

Steel: I had the most brilliant production designer, Lucio Seixas, who had done a lot of research prior to the shoot, so we talked about what the homes in Brighton Beach looked like back then. I think Lucio knew exactly what the apartment in the East Village should look like, as he lived that himself and knew what we were going for. It was important that none of the furniture in the film be new, that none of it could have been bought by the characters in the film. 

Filmmaker: Why is that?

Steel: Most of the Russian immigrants who moved to America in the 1980s had so little and were subsequently given apartments and furniture to go along with it. If they saw furniture on the street that was being discarded, they might say, “Oh look, here’s a couch,” then that became their couch. Everything is passed down or handed over. Either these items came with you from the old country or they were found or given to you here in America. I always liked that idea: the mix of the things that were found here and the things—mostly faith and superstition and food-based—that were brought over from the old country. 

Filmmaker: How did you come to cast Samuel H. Levine in the lead role of David? I know he was on Broadway two years ago (in The Inheritance by playwright Matthew López and directed by Stephen Daldry) but I believe you shot your film even before that play had opened.

Steel: I actually saw Sam in the play [in 2018] at the end of its run at the Young Vic in London, but yes, there was a lot of trying to figure out when we could make the movie based around Sam’s availability. After its run at the Young Vic, the play transferred [to the Noel Coward Theatre] in the West End and we knew that we had to wait for that run to conclude before we could begin filming. We also knew that the play would be retaining Sam in its move to Broadway in 2019, so we had to be wrapped before that run started. 

Filmmaker: Did that influence your having to shoot in the winter?

Steel: We didn’t have much of a choice. However, I did want to shoot in the winter and there weren’t going to be other available slots of time to film in. It all barely worked out, but it worked out. We had just enough time.

Filmmaker: I’m curious as to how your approach to working with a cinematographer changes when you go from nonfiction to narrative filmmaking. Minyan is very, very widescreen, but is the format influenced by the story you’re telling at that particular juncture?

Steel: I guess so. I had previously worked with my cinematographer, Ole [Bratt Birkelandon], on a feature documentary set in Scotland (Kiss the Water), a very small film about something hard to describe. It was about a woman [Megan Boyd, a famous fly tyer for fishermen]  who was no longer with us, so we were making a kind of “mythological documentary.” While some of the film consisted of interviews, a lot of it relied on having the location tell the story and providing our shots with just enough structure to suggest or imply things for the viewer. We had a very tiny crew, oftentimes just myself, Ole, our camera assistant and a sound person (or one production assistant). We literally did all of the heavy lifting ourselves, carrying the cameras through the woods and into cabins and up streams and over mountains, sleeping in rooms that had no heat and waking up in the morning with me making oatmeal for everyone. That experience gave Ole and I a real sense of how we could work with one another in the future. Ole actually stayed in my apartment during the Minyan shoot and, in some ways, production felt quite similar to how we made that documentary years ago. 

I think I have a very deliberate way of storytelling that has its own rhythm and pace. Other cinematographers would probably tell me that I need to move the camera more and put the camera on tracks, etc. But when we move the camera in Minyan, there’s a lot of meaning behind that choice. Ole and I also thought a lot about particular framing and lighting within those frames, featuring frames inside of frames and mirrors, reflections and shadows inside of frames. We even thought about how our interiors are very tight spaces and how we can begin opening them up in the brief moments we’re placed outside. These were the types of discussions we were having every morning at breakfast, during our lunch break or when we were driving to set. We didn’t have drivers taking us to and from locations, so that’s how we communicated.  

Filmmaker: Did you always wish to bring original klezmer music into the score? By its very nature, it sounds traditional, but there are some variations on it in Minyan that evoke something in the viewer as we hear that specific sound, perhaps something related to the old country you mentioned.

Steel: I don’t want to claim that I’m more musically minded than I am, but I believed from very early on, even before we started shooting, that the score should primarily be clarinet-based. Somehow and in some way, the sound of David’s voice was the same sound that I associate with a clarinet. That was partly due to Sam’s actual voice and partly due to how I heard the music in my head as I was writing the screenplay. By the time we were shooting, my mind was made up about the inclusion of clarinet in the score. I then obviously listened to a lot of klezmer music but also some more traditional clarinet music, a lot of different things. 

One night I was invited by Eleanor Reissa, who plays the grandfather’s girlfriend in the movie and an acclaimed Yiddish performer here in New York, to a concert at Carnegie Hall where David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg were performing. When I saw their performance, their music immediately sunk into me and got right under my skin. It’s hard to describe how Kathy was playing the piano that night, but she wasn’t only playing keys but rather was almost in the piano, playing the strings with the piano like it was some magical or spiritual performance. It’s so hard for me to describe. Soon after, I wrote to David and Kathy about my plans for Minyan, saying, “I don’t know if this is something you would ever consider, but…”

David is, to me, if not the world’s finest clarinetist, then one of the finest, and certainly the finest klezmer clarinetist around these days. Anyway, I asked David and Kathy if they would be interested in working on the score for Minyan and it turned out that they had never composed music for a film. They weren’t sure how they could pull it off, but I told them, “Don’t worry, I don’t want you to make a score. I’m not going to tell you, ‘Okay, now here I want melodrama and here I want…etc. etc.’” I just wanted them to sit and watch the movie with the editor and myself over and over again and have conversations about what felt right. I think I approached working with them as if I were directing actors, asking them to map out the tones of this young man’s voice and the things he hears in his head. Rather than the score, I was interested in that particular voice. 

Our conversations had the same pass/fail feeling you get when you’re filming a specific take or when you’re conducting an interview for a documentary and someone’s recalling a story to you. Sometimes you will believe their story, other times you get the sense that they’re performing the story in a way that they think you want to hear. As a documentarian, those takes never made it into the finished movie, only the moments that passed that test. Funny enough, that’s how I was approaching the music and also how I viewed each take with my actors. If I felt like they were trying to sell me on something, I thought, “No, that’s not right. [When] it feels real and you aren’t acting it anymore and you can believe it, then it makes it into the movie.” The performances and the music worked the same way. Sometimes David and Kathy would play the same small stretch of music over and over again, only to arrive at the conclusion that they didn’t get it right. They may have perfected it on a technical level, but there needed to be a convincing emotional element present.

Filmmaker: There have been a number of New York-specific films in recent years that deal with Yiddish culture and the Orthdox community of Brooklyn, one of which (Joshua Z Weinstein’s Menashe) your editor, Ray Hubley, previously worked on. Keith Thomas’s horror film, The Vigil, is another recent example. But with some of these films possessing a more specific hook or a “genre tie-in,” I was curious what your experience has been like screening Minyan and searching more widely for potential audiences. In a macro sense, the film is about a specific community, yes, but it’s also about being gay in New York in the 1980s and several other elements that could be of potential viewer interest. What has it been like seeking those audiences out?

Steel: I don’t know if I have an answer for that yet, partly due to how much the world has changed since we had our world premiere [in February of 2020]. I had never been to the Berlinale before and it was an incredible honor to screen there. When we arrived for our premiere, there were all of these people waiting outside the theater and I told the programmers who were escorting us inside, “Look at all of those ticketholders. Can’t you let them inside already? It’s freezing out.” “No, no, no,” I was informed, “those aren’t the people with tickets. These are the people waiting to buy tickets if there are any leftover seats.” Berlin is a great film city and the festival is embraced by them in a very special way. Even so, I worried that screening a movie about Russian Jews would not be the easiest sell in Germany. 

On the last night of the festival, we screened at the Zoo Palast, which is this enormous theater with over 1,000 seats. When I saw the theater, I thought, “Oh OK, so this screening will be empty,” and I spent the day dreading it. This was February 28th, 2020, a day or two before COVID was about to shut down Berlin, mind you, and it turned out that the theater was packed. Not only was it packed, but there were so many different pockets of people: a group of young people who were clearly gay Orthodox Jews trying to find a story that they could connect to, a group of old Reform Jews, a group of old women, everyone. That’s what the movie is supposed to be. I don’t know how you get into the bloodstream of a culture any other way. I know how Marvel movies do it, which is by basically bludgeoning you to death with marketing materials and commercials and cross-promotional tie-ins. They make it so that you see that Marvel logo all the time, everywhere, and it’s ingrained in your system.

With a movie like Minyan, I can’t explain how it will or won’t get into your system. I do know that the world changed right under our feet [due to the pandemic] and the measure of how these movies do or do not get ingrained in the culture isn’t necessarily going to be represented by how many people are sitting in a movie theater. It’s sad for me to think that I won’t get to know that. It may be that most people will be sitting at home alone and watching the movie. Look, a lot of people watched The Bridge at home too (a lot of people saw it in the theater, but it’s been 15 years now, and people are still watching it, albeit at home or even on their phones). I’m still grateful for them. I dreamed of people experiencing this film where they’re sitting in the dark next to someone else: they’re committed to going on the ride and listening to the story that I’m telling in the way that I told it. You shouldn’t think, “Oh, I feel like I’m going to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right now. Let me pause the film.”

While I loved Menashe, I think Menashe would be in a similar place that Minyan is now. Menashe did spectacularly well in theaters because it was an experience. You sat down and were transported to those Brooklyn streets that, while very similar to ones that we walk on every day, are filled with different kinds of people who are dressed differently and speak a different language. Yet what they’re living through are the same problems that everybody lives through. A man loses his wife and he has a kid, so now how will he go about raising this boy on his own? The world outside has one idea and he has another. I think movies allow us to experience those dilemmas in ways you can’t get anywhere else. It’s sad to me that the experience has been so shaken by COVID. If people don’t fight their way back to [the theater experience] and the filmmakers don’t fight to get it back, it doesn’t come back.

I attended the New York City Ballet last Sunday, a regular Sunday medley performance with great dancers who do not necessarily possess the star power to bring in an audience. Nevertheless, Lincoln Center was completely sold out to the fifth balcony. People were sitting way up there! I think maybe that’s the future for moviegoing, that it needs to be exhibited in an extremely large venue. That’s how we screened Minyan in Berlin, on a giant screen. Maybe it plays two nights on a giant screen, then it goes away for a little while, like a ballet. Maybe it comes around every few weeks and you get a chance to see it or, if not, you can watch it at home on YouTube. I guess you can watch ballet on YouTube too.

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