Etgar Keret And Shira Geffen, Jellyfish
After proving their mastery of the written word, Israel’s first couple of literature, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, have now turned their attention to film. Keret was born in 1967 in Tel Aviv, Israel, and started writing in 1992. He has since written graphic novels, plays and children’s books, but he is best known for his short stories, which have been collected in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories (2004) and The Nimrod Flipout (2006). He has also written a number of short films and TV shows, directed the short Skin Deep (1996), and had his story “Kneller’s Happy Campers” turned into the feature Wristcutters: A Love Story (2007). Thirty-six-year-old Geffen, Keret’s wife of three years, comes from a musical family (her brother Aviv is a rock singer and her father Yehonathan a songwriter and writer) but chose to express her lyricism through words. Like Keret, Geffen’s career is diverse: she is primarily known as a poet and playwright, but also directs plays, acts in theater, film and TV, and writes for both the big and small screens. Keret and Geffen recently co-wrote a children’s book and first worked together co-writing the short film The Three Towers (2006).
After a prolonged and fruitless search for a director to bring her script Jellyfish to the screen, Geffen ultimately opted to co-direct it with Keret on what would be the feature directing debut for both of them. It was a smart decision as Geffen’s nuanced script comes fully to life with their sensitive handling. The film features three parallel plots that play out in the seaside resort of Tel Aviv: an independent-minded waitress finds a lost mute girl on the beach, two newlyweds spend their honeymoon in a local hotel after the bride breaks her leg, and a Filipino nurse struggles to cope with her elderly patient because she cannot speak Hebrew. The trio of stories all feature pairs of characters failing to connect with each other, with a poignant poeticism linking the three rather than any contrived plot intersections. Jellyfish, with its gentle but sure-handed touch, feels short at less than 80 minutes, but we can only hope that there will be more soon from Keret and Geffen.
Filmmaker spoke to the couple about Keret’s engagement with movies (regardless of their quality), Geffen being pregnant during production, and the ideal literary adaptation.
Filmmaker: You are both known for your writing much more than your involvement in film, so how far back does your interest in cinema stretch?
Keret: With me, when I started writing my influence was just as much from films as it was from writing. I would see Terry Gilliam, Coen brothers or Kaurismäki films, and that’s what started me writing fiction. My writing always began from visual images so it’s not such a big difference for me to write a story or to work on a film. It all blends together. I remember that I once had to make a list of the 10 books that had influenced me the most, and half my list was films. They sent it back to me and said, “You can’t have films, you have to have books.” I feel like my connection to films is really, really strong.
Geffen: My connection to film is less powerful because I began writing and directing in the theater. From there, I discovered film from that point of view. Etgar and I have been married for four years but we’ve been together 10 years and I think he dragged me into the film world. I’m doing stuff that’s more surrealist, like poems.
Keret: We flew together and she saw me crying while seeing Wimbledon… [laughs] I have this thing that even if I see the crappiest movie, I can’t stop watching it in the middle. Usually I completely identify with these films. After watching the American remake of The Vanishing, I refused to drink the coffee that she made me. My connection with films is regardless of whether they’re good films or bad films, there is something about this experience that I completely go with it. We were flying to Australia and I was watching The Last Samurai – it’s not like I’m talking about masterpieces here – and there was a bit there when the flight attendant was trying to speak to me and Shira burst out laughing because I [put my hand up to send her away] and was like, “Shhh, they’re going to kill him!” So I have this great passion for film. There’s just something about this medium that it just sucks me in immediately.
Filmmaker: Shira, you wrote the script for Jellyfish, whereas on Etgar’s previous film projects he has been the writer. So did Etgar rewrite with you also?
Geffen: After I wrote the script, we started working because we’re good at working together and we were directing together, so a lot of the ideas were directing ideas. But the script came from a short story that I wrote long ago about Batya and the little girl in the sea. This is the main feeling of the movie.
Filmmaker: How different is the process of constructing a narrative for a screenplay as opposed to a short story? How do you create the story?
Geffen: I think it’s a long process and it’s layers; it’s not one thing where you sit and write it down. It’s step by step. Because I come from the poetry and theater world, I see it like scenes and not really like one strong plot. The plot isn’t the main thing, it’s like a very slim straw that holds everything together.
Keret: Shira has written a few short stories, but basically the thing she does most of the time is writing plays and writing poetry. I find that there is a strong connection between fiction and screenplays, and between poetry and plays. Both poetry and plays take place in the present: they’re not about plot, they’re more about mise en scene, about being in the moment. Fiction and screenplay writing is all about what happened before and what will happen next. The thing that made us such good collaborators is that we see a story in different ways. When I think about a scene, the first thing I think about is what the character has been through and where they’re heading. When Shira sees a scene, there is something very sensual about the way she does it, it’s very much in the moment.
Geffen: [I think about] details. It’s like a man and a woman, it’s the difference.
Keret: All my life, I needed to make up stories to make sense of all those arbitrary things that happened. Like the first story I invented, I never wrote it but I was 14 years old, I got on the bus and the bus driver got up, slapped me and he said, “If you ever get on my bus again I’ll kill you!” I got off the bus, the bus drove away, and I had to walk to school. All the way as I walked to school, I was making up in my mind the story of why he did it, what made him do it. Did he mistake me for somebody else? Did something happen that morning? I constructed this story, and it protected me. I always need that; it keeps my sanity. There’s something about Shira’s confidence to be in the moment, so that if the bus driver slaps her she just feels the slap.
Geffen: [The difference is] very extreme, but in the film we knew exactly what we wanted to tell, so it was OK. We didn’t argue at all.
Keret: With Shira and me, when we see a scene the same thing bothers us but our way of dealing with it is completely different. I try to deal with it through plot and Shira deal with it inside the moment. When something is wrong, we both feel that it’s wrong; and when something is right, we both feel that it’s right.
Filmmaker: Jellyfish feels very much like the cinematic version of a short story. I’m also intrigued that you both write in many forms but that neither of you have ever written a novel.
Keret: You’re very correct but I think the film comes more from the world of poetry than even the world of short fiction. With me, the reason that I write short fiction [instead of novels] is that I write from a place where you lose control. As much as I’m looking for the plot, when I write things I don’t construct them. It’s like in a dream. I like to say that I write my stories as a reader – I write them in one hand while reading them in the other, so there is this feeling of urgency about it, almost like an explosion or a punch. So you can’t punch somebody for 300 pages – without the police coming and arresting you. [laughs] I think with Shira coming from poetry, it’s a little bit the same. When I first read the screenplay I had this strong feeling that it will work or not work on the success of whether you feel there is an emotion that is rolling between the three stories. Many people gave us this advice that the stories should interact more and we both felt that it was wrong, because the story wasn’t about characters meeting each other. The connection between them was in the way that they mirror each others’ situation. It’s three different metaphors for the same thing, and that’s much more of a poetic connection than a novel or classic screenplay connection.
Filmmaker: I’m interested to know what it was like for you two, as well as your actors and your crew, to be directing together? What were the practical aspects of that?
Keret: We didn’t split our responsibilities, we did everything together. We would first talk to each other and we basically decided what we wanted to say and who would say it. It was much easier for Shira to explain things to non-actors, so many times if I had a remark I would explain it to Shira and she would tell them. Sometimes Shira could say to me that something bothered her with the cinematography and I would speak to the cinematographer. So we had this kind of war room, and then we came out with a decision.
Geffen: And it is a war room, you know? It’s very manly to direct, and it’s not a surprise that most directors are men. It’s like being at war.
Filmmaker: Did you feel intimidated on set?
Geffen: Yes, indeed, and I was eight months pregnant at the time, so I was very womanly, very heavy. [laughs] I think it’s a place for men, not for women.
Filmmaker: Your being so far along in your pregnancy must have been a huge added stress and physical strain on top of the pressures of shooting your first movie.
Geffen: I think because of the film I kind of forgot [I was pregnant]. It’s a lot of money, a lot of responsibility. In the last minute, our baby said, “OK, I come first.”
Keret: Basically Shira had to go to the hospital just before the last day of shooting, so I was there by myself, but she didn’t have the baby until after shooting finished. All the time we were on the phone, and I was asking “How are you feeling?” and she was saying “What are you shooting now?” It’s two collaborations, having a baby and doing a film together and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve been together 10 years and never did anything together and the first thing we did [together] was during the pregnancy. It was kind of training for having a baby because we knew that we had to collaborate in that.
Filmmaker: Although you hadn’t collaborated together before this, presumably you read each other’s work and give each other notes on it.
Keret: The truth is that it’s not something that’s very dominant in our life. There is stuff that I’ve written that I never showed to Shira, but not because it’s a secret. We give each other feedback but it’s not a dependency and the thing is that Jellyfish was completely conceptual. It was also something that was obviously dangerous. It worked, but I’m not talking about how good the film came out. It could have come out good and we hated each other, or it could have come out crap and we hated each other. That we would survive it emotionally was not obvious.
Filmmaker: It wasn’t necessarily an obvious decision for you to direct Shira’s screenplay together.
Geffen: I searched for a director after I wrote it and good directors read it and didn’t feel that it was a good script and didn’t understand it. Etgar was with me all the way and liked it very much, and one day he told me, “I can do it!” [laughs] So I said, “O.K.”
Keret: It was kind of out of frustration because those really good directors and smart people would read the screenplay and they would either say you no, or ask for very radical rewrites. Because it was territory that Shira didn’t know, when people constantly said that to her, she thought “OK, maybe they have a point.” At some point I realized, “Either we do it or the film will not exist.”
Filmmaker: Was part of the reason people were not responding to the screenplay a result of it not having, as you said before, a traditional three-act structure?
Geffen: Maybe, but I think the main reason is that when you read it you can feel the story, it’s like pictures. I think there are very few directors who like the poetry world and know how to go into it.
Keret: I think there are a few reasons that are very specific to Israeli filmmaking that made people not connect to the screenplay. Traditionally, Israeli films are hyper-realistic, they almost always deal with an important issue, which could be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the memory of the Holocaust, the kibbutz and its success or failure. This is the way that you make a film in Israel, and anything that is metaphorical [is not understood]. When we worked with [the actor playing] the policeman, who is a film director, he asked us questions about the character: “How much money am I earning?” “Why do I have a desk job?” “How many children do I have?” We said, “Listen, you’re a giant who lives in a cave. Nobody comes to your cave. Whenever somebody comes to your cave, it soothes your loneliness and you try to make them stay as much as possible.” It took us a long time to make people think in that mode.
Filmmaker: And how did those directors who turned the film down respond after seeing it?
Keret: I met one of those directors at the premiere, Giddi Dar, who did Ushpizin. He loved the film, and he said to me, “You know, when you’re a director and somebody gives you a script, it’s all about probability. You say, ‘What is my probability to come out with a good film?’ When I read this script, I said ‘I have a 4% chance to make this work, and 96% that it won’t work.’ I put it aside and I said, ‘I’m not going to touch this screenplay.’ Luckily for you, you reached that 4%, but I don’t take back what I said before. It’s like somebody giving you a recipe but not telling you what quantities to put in and then saying ‘Think positive.’ You put the cake in the oven and maybe it will come out alright – and you showed me it came out alright – but maybe it needed people like you that had very good intuitions to do all the things that were not that clear in the screenplay.”
Filmmaker: Given the success of Jellyfish, do you have the confidence now to each direct films separately, or will you keep on working together?
Geffen: I think now we will work on our own scripts or stories. I am working on a screenplay now, and maybe Etgar will direct it. I don’t know. We don’t think about it now.
Keret: Apart from this film, we also wrote a children’s book together. I’m sure that we will collaborate together again, but I’m not sure if it will be co-directing a film. Maybe Shira will write a screenplay and she will act in it and I will direct. Or it could be a film that she will direct and I will write. It’s not like we’re the Coen brothers and are saying, “OK, we’ve found a way to do stuff.” It was all about experimenting. It’s not as if we feel that we are completely proficient in what we did in this film, because I don’t feel that I’m a natural film director.
Geffen: I think he is.
Filmmaker: Etgar, you’ve had over 40 short stories turned into short films, and Kneller’s Happy Campers became Wristcutters: A Love Story. What are your feelings on the film adaptations of your work?
Keret: I think when it comes to an adaptation, it’s really not about seeing my story it’s more about seeing somebody reading my story. For me, a good adaptation is one that is not committed to the story but to the emotions the story evokes in you. With Goran [Dukic], what was very interesting for me was that being a Croatian and living in Yugoslavia during the war, even though the story has nothing to do with the war, I think it’s the state of mind which young people have when they live in a place that is very violent, like when you’re 19 seeing somebody’s brains blown out. You’ve been through all those things and you short circuit emotionally. When Goran read [Kneller’s Happy Campers], he said “Wow, this is like when I was 20 back in Yugoslavia,” and it took it to completely different places. There is something much more slacker-y and drunk in the original story, but I really loved it. I didn’t to go the screening to say “You’ve got an ‘A’ for understanding.” It was like “You read it, you liked it, you created a world out of it.” And that’s as good as it gets.