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Homecoming Vibes: Olivia Peace and Jess Zeidman on Tahara

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Way back when, during the last in-person Slamdance in the cursed year of 2020, I went to see Tahara, the feature debut of Northwestern University graduates director Olivia Peace and screenwriter Jess Zeidman.  The feature focuses on two teenage best friends and Hebrew students, Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott), who face a gear shift in their friendship during the funeral of one of their classmates. Carrie is timid and awkward, Hannah is self-obsessed and inconsiderate. When Carrie kisses her Hannah to find out if she’s a good kisser or not, sparkles light up her world. Throughout the day, Carrie begins to question her sexuality, all the while grappling with grief. 

The union between Peace’s stylish lens—incorporating a 1:1 Instagram Portrait type aspect ratio and  animation techniques—and Zeidman’s authentically awkward yet funny screenplay makes Tahara an impressive feature debut. After an over two-year-long festival run from Slamdance, Newfest, and New York Jewish Film Festival, the film is now released through Film Movement. 

After the night of the premiere, I met with Olivia Peace and Jess Zeidman to discuss their collaboration origin story, filming in the Zeidman’s childhood synagogue and being authentic when it came to Black Jewish representation. 

Filmmaker: How did your collaboration on the project begin?

Jess Zeidman: I wrote the script back in college, at Northwestern University around the summer of 2018. I took a screenwriting course called “Writing the Microbudget Feature” taught by filmmaker Stephen Cone. I wrote the first draft of Tahara in that class and kept working on it throughout college. By the end, I had a full draft that I was excited about. I was interested in working with a director—I did playwriting in college, and that’s something that playwrights do. I was curious what that would look like on film. Olivia was a few years ahead of me and I loved their stuff. I also had heard they ran a great set. I had a friend, Keaton, who worked on Olivia’s short Pangaea. When we worked on another friend’s thesis it was like, “We did this on Pangaea. We did that on Pangaea.” And I was like, Pangaea sounds awesome! The movie was amazing, but the set was so fun and that was important to me. I reached out to Olivia via Facebook Messenger and was like, “Hey, I’m not sure if you remember me or if we ever really met, but I wrote this script and I think you’d be a great fit as a director. Can I email it to you?” Then they were like, “Yeah, here’s my email.” Then I copied and pasted incorrectly—when I sent the email, it didn’t go to the right address. Wo for months, I’d never heard back and I was like, “Okay, that’s a pass.” Then Dasha Gorin, another producer on the project was like, “Let me try again, make sure that it’s a no.” She’s also very good at copying and pasting. She sent it to Olivia correctly, Olivia gave it a read, and that was the very beginning.

Olivia Peace: I did intend to pass on it. I had gone through a program called Sundance Ignite, and a big component is mentorship. My mentors were very much like, “Your first feature, you need to write it yourself, direct it yourself. It needs to be in your hometown, about your own story.” I was very much aiming to do that, but could not get the money together to save my life—could not get the producers together, either. So, Jess’s script came at the right time, and it was good. It was really funny. Me and my roommate read it together. Whenever I would get a script submitted to me, we would project it on the wall of our living room and read all the voices out loud, back and forth. Each voice just had such clarity and it felt like an ensemble, where it is about Carrie and Hannah in the foreground, but then there’s also their teacher, Mrs. Klein. There are also the other students who are in Hebrew school. And I loved that. By the end of this read, we had three pages full of notes for Jess about what she should do with her movie as the director. I hopped on a call with Jess and just excitedly went through all these ideas where I was talking about the animation, casting ideas and the 1:1 aspect ratio. On top of everything, the funding was already there, so we were gonna be off to the races making this thing, so I said yes. We got it shot, edited, sound designed, colored, and the animation was done in about a few months. At the same time, I had gotten into USC for my grad school program. So, I was gonna be studying computer coding and video games. I thought “Yeah, this will be a fun, quick little summer project,” and then it lasted much, much longer. But I’m so grateful for that.

Filmmaker: What kind of steps did you have to take to portray a Black and Jewish protagonist? You don’t get to see that often, or at all, in film.

Olivia Peace: I have a pretty solid background in documentary filmmaking, so it was always really important to me to be doing research. Even if you think that a world or a character is close to your heart, you should be doing some research to back it up so that it’s feeling real. It can be helpful and affirming to people who see it. As for me, I always have Black characters as leads in my movies. That’s important to me, to affirm the community that I come from. I went to high school in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and it’s got a really big, diverse Jewish population. So, I’d grown up with and seen a lot of Jewish people of color and kind of thought nothing of it. But I did notice after pitching this to Jess that there is not very much media portrayal. So, it was important to me to get that right. We got incredibly lucky in casting Madeline, who is an amazing actress and brings so many different emotional layers to the character that breathe life into it, along with the script itself.

Jess Zeidman: We got incredibly lucky with Madeline. We got a collaborator who was with us the whole time and was also leading us. I feel like Carrie’s character came from Madeline, throughout the process of watching it. Going back to the collaboration on set, it would be a conversation where Madeline would talk to me, I’d talk to Olivia. The three of us would talk together. We’d talk with Rachel [Sennott] and Tehillah [De Castro] about intentionality and what we wanna see, what we can try, and what we can do. I loved watching Madeline at video village and being like “Oh my gosh, this is a full person.” And I think that’s because she was very willing to be vulnerable and very real with her performance.  It’s so rare that an actor is so willing to be so real, but not taking it out on anyone or anything like that.

Filmmaker: Jess, since you do come from a Jewish and queer background, what was the process in telling this story of an awakening, depicting the anxieties and confusion of questioning your sexuality as a teenager?

Jess Zeidman: I have a very Jewish family and something that was helpful to me was thinking about times when things would be inappropriate. I feel like that’s a big thing in my family—not being inappropriate in a detrimental way, just being a little awkward or weird. And I think leaning into saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, voicing an opinion at maybe not the right time. I think that’s a very funny thing, when you are part of a community that is known for being opinionated, then letting those opinions create the motivation for your actions. Let yourself be a little outspoken and then act a little out of pocket. When I was a teenager, I was the queen of sending irrational text messages and doing things like, “Do you wanna go to the park with me, person who I’ve never hung out with before?” I like leaning into that. And, from a Jewish perspective, I liked the idea of the way that can intersect in a sacred space. Everyone’s relationship with Judaism is very different in this film. Something true for all of them is that they are in their synagogue and in their Hebrew school, which is within their synagogue. So, that changes their behavior a little bit: that restraint is there, but also it’s not. And yes, the queerness is so much longing, and then whew!

Filmmaker: Olivia, what was it like doing your first live-action feature and implementing so many different animation techniques?

Olivia Peace: I am happy that I understood that because I was directing a feature and I’d not done it before, I should not then also be the animator [laughs] on this movie. I had a lot of ideas from the beginning about what I’d like to do, and how I’d like it to look. I went through and got a bunch of images and put together a deck and everything. But my friend, Emily Ann Hoffman, had just come out with this amazing short film called Nevada, all made of clay puppets, that I thought was breathtaking. So,  when the time came to find an animator for this project I was like, “OK, I’m gonna tag Emily in on it.” Emily’s also a Jewish person, so it seemed like a perfect fit. We went about trying to figure out which styles we should have for each character. With Carrie, because she’s the character who’s willing to be more honest and vulnerable and messy, we wanted to go for this kind of 3D puppet style. Hannah’s trying very hard to be cool [laughs], so I wanted something that kind of mirrored realism, but with a veneer over it. So, that’s how we ended up with that rotoscoping style. At a certain point, we even added a scene—I forgot about that until we were watching the movie last night at the premiere—where Carrie is panicking about Hannah possibly not only rejecting her but outing her and making fun of her to everyone. Emily found the clay puppets whose heads she had smashed together and I had her pull them apart; it looks horrifying. That was a cool collaboration. On top of that, we had Callahan Bracken, who was a student at the time I met through NFFTY [National Film Festival for Talented Youth]. Callahan came in and did those clouds that come around the two which, combined with the sound design, I think really, really nails it emotionally.

Filmmaker: What was the process of filming on location at the synagogue?

Jess Zeidman: We filmed Tahara at the synagogue that I went to growing up, Temple Bethel in Rochester, New York. That was a wild process: they allowed us to do it, which was extremely generous of them, but they were also undergoing construction. So, we had a lot of rearranging and moving around. I kept jokingly calling myself the location manager, because I would have to go down to the office and talk to everybody every single morning and be like, “Okay, what is going on? Can we be in here? Can we be in there?” On top of that, obviously this is a sacred religious space, so we had to eat completely kosher on set, we couldn’t prop any doors open, we had to be very careful about security. We had to be very aware of where we were in the space, especially filming in the sanctuary—they almost didn’t let us do that. During the day, an Orthodox girls’ school used the Hebrew school classrooms as their high school. We would be filming in one room and there would be all of these Orthodox girls running around. They would peer in the window and try to see what’s happening. It was really sweet. They were extremely respectful and quiet and it wasn’t hard to work around them, but it was very funny .

Filmmaker: Was it a sense of homecoming for you to return to your old synagogue as a filmmaker?

Jess Zeidman: I did have a bit of homecoming vibes. I told this story recently about how one of my Hebrew school teachers growing up was volunteering in the kitchen, I don’t think she teaches anymore. She’s not the nicest lady in the world. She’s very strict and she asked me what I was doing. I said, “Oh, we’re making a movie,” and she goes, “Oh, like a real movie?” I was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “OK”—which was, I mean, awesome to have her dismiss us. It was very funny though. It was kind of iconic. I got very emotional yesterday watching the movie at the premiere and seeing Bethel on screen. This is gonna be cheesy, but why not go for it? I went to the Lorde concert. You know the song “Teams”? The lyrics go, “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen.” That’s like what I was thinking the whole time: no one would ever have a reason to film anything in this synagogue. What I saw on the floor in the hallway where the Hebrew school is, the primary-colored tiles, I got emotional. Same with that bathroom, that green tile, the couch and the pink bathroom. It’s just amazing to me to know that something that was and is still such a huge part of my life is something that other people are gonna be able to access. And it’s been really exciting talking to other people, regardless of religious affiliation, about how it reminds them of religious and community spaces. It’s very cool.

Filmmaker: How was the collaboration process on set?

Olivia Peace: I loved having Jess on set for a couple of reasons. Sometimes you would literally be rewriting things on the fly or developing new languages together around things with our actors. Also, there are bits of Hebrew that are in the script as well that I wanted to keep in there and get right and not have subtitles. Beyond that, Jess almost served as a fact-checker where I wanted to make sure that culturally we were nailing it every step of the way. It can’t be something where it’s working 90 percent of the time—we need to be at 100.

Filmmaker: And the shooting period was about 15 days, right?

Olivia Peace: Yes.

Filmmaker: Were there any trials and tribulations you had to go through to meet that deadline?

Olivia Peace: I think this is where the naïveté comes in.  I would be talking to veteran directors who are my mentors and they’d be like, “How long is your shoot? Like a month?” I’d be like, “No, actually it’s just 15 days, but it’s fine because we only have one location.” Because we didn’t have to get in a truck and move around, somehow in my mind I thought that was gonna cut down on time. Um, it did not. The other thing that was happening was, because the temple was under construction, sometimes we would arrive on set intending to shoot one scene and find that we needed to pivot. So, that was a trial.

In terms of prep, ultimately, we did everything in a pretty condensed timeline. We shot in May 2019, we had a month of prep before that, and I assumed that we would be done by August. What I realized really in watching the film is it does feel handmade. I think that’s what makes it unique and special. Because of all these constraints, because of all the flexibility, it forces you to be creative on the fly. I couldn’t be precious about making sure that we got through every single thing on the script or got through everything on my shot list. I came with a storyboard that I drew myself. And immediately, by the first day, that was out the window.

Filmmaker: You storyboarded the entire movie or just specific scenes?

Olivia Peace: It was the entire movie by hand. I still have the binder that we used, along with the stickers. I would give people stickers on different days on set. I think that flexibility, that creativity, that is what filmmaking is. I know that’s also what Black cinema is too. So when you watch it, I think it harkens back to those two things; the template of working with what you got and making what you have shine, and forgetting about the rest.

Filmmaker: And you did the editing too.

Olivia Peace: That was due to my timeline of wanting to be done by August despite finishing the shoot in May. I ended up taking over the edit. At a certain point, we rented a studio for my desktop Mac, which has since died. They gave us a big discount. I could just have room to edit around the clockfor a week. I wanted to see if I could finish the edit and start grad school. I finished the edit, I turned it in, and it was not good. It was better than where it was, so I got it from point A, I guess, to point B. Then we got to the point where we were just submitting it to festivals. In the meantime, my friend, Troy Lewis, who’s brilliant and came on set just out of love for me, was live editing the film along the way. So, we already had a rough cut, like a stringout, before we left the synagogue. Then Troy came on vacation in August and asked to see the cut, watched it, and quietly took it over [laughs]. His work is what streamlined everything and gave it its style. I was able to, at that point, step back and reclaim my role as the director so I could be more creative, instead of just having to focus on the technical aspects of everything. I think that saved the movie. The collaboration between Troy and our sound designer, Justin Enoch was great.

Jess Zeidman: Shout out to our gaffer, Leo Gallagher. He’s also an incredible DP. And Patrick Harney, who was a local Rochester person, was an amazing grip. That camera team of three people made this movie happen. Oh, and [2nd AC] Susan Lin, of course, is so cool.

Olivia Peace: And, of course our cinematographer, Tehillah De Castro. She is so brilliant—I think I was gonna say backbone or leg. It doesn’t even matter. She’s a big part of the body. It’s the skeleton—she’s the entire skeleton. She came on this film right after graduating from college too. This is her first feature and she knocked it out of the park with very few resources. She called in a lot of favors to get equipment for us, then made it work with mostly natural lighting throughout.

Filmmaker: Now she’s doing great music videos for amazing artists today too.

Jess Zeidman: I think Tehillah was the first cinematographer I’ve ever worked with where I was like, “It’s so amazing to see how you translate my written language into your visual language.” Then, Olivia’s the conduit. I just thought that was the coolest collaboration. It’s easy to get caught up in the writer-director relationship, which we’re huge fans of, but that element of Tehillah was the sauce in this film, because it gave it the style that turns it from a “first feature” into a real movie. In my opinion, I was especially feeling that last night when we were watching. I was like, “Wow, the movie looks so good”. And that was always something we wanted. But I think a big reason that happened was that the three of us would sit on the floor of my sister’s room where Olivia was staying and talk stuff through. That’s the most exciting kind of collaborating.

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