Monday, June 7, 2021

Reverend's Interview: International Gay Love from Eytan Fox

Steven Spielberg, Chloe Zhao, Kelly Reichardt and Martin Scorsese. These are four of my picks of the top five filmmakers living and working today. The fifth is writer-director Eytan Fox. He is also the only gay artist among this quintet.

Fox was born in New York City but grew up in Israel after his family immigrated there. He broke through internationally as a filmmaker in 2003 with Yossi & Jagger, a groundbreaking love story between two male Israeli soldiers. He followed it up with a moving 2012 sequel, simply titled Yossi. In between, Fox directed The Bubble, about a group of friends in Tel Aviv and a young Palestinian who comes to live with them; the superb Walk on Water, in which a hunky Mossad agent tracks the gay grandson of a Nazi war criminal; and the delightful Cupcakes, a musical comedy about friends entering an international song contest. His films have won 28 international awards altogether. Fox also developed the acclaimed Israeli television series Florentine, The Bar Mitzvah and Mary Lou.

His latest production is Sublet, which will be released in select US theaters on June 11th. It will also become available on VOD July 9th. The film follows Michael (played by current Tony Award nominee John Benjamin Hickey), a travel columnist for The New York Times. He flies to Tel Aviv to write an article about the destination pre-COVID, after he and his husband have suffered a personal tragedy. Michael is still grieving, so he just wants to do his research and return home.

He sublets an apartment from a young film student, Tomer (sexy newcomer Niv Nissim). Michael gradually finds himself drawn into the life of the city with Tomer's help. Superficially, the two men couldn’t be more different. Michael is surprised to find a city filled with fascinating contradictions and pulsing with life. But what really begins to turn things around for him is the unlikely and intense bond he forms with Tomer, which transforms both their lives in unexpected ways.

Fox's trademark compassion, humor and visual flair illuminate Sublet, which is his first movie in several years. Why the delay? As Fox writes in the film's press notes: "Besides the difficulties of making movies in the small Israeli film industry in which I work, it took me time to figure out who I was in the context of today’s quickly changing reality, and to express that as a filmmaker." The release of his finished film was then delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He continues in the press notes, poignantly: "I’m 56 and probably never going to have biological children. In a very real way, however, my films are my children. They are conceived, nurtured, and eventually set free into the world with the hope that they will find their way there safely. In sending Sublet out into the world, I’m hoping that this story of men from two generations facing their demons and finding a way back to love from grief will strike a chord with people, the way Yossi & Jagger did many years ago. Maybe it too will change the world a little in the process."

I recently had the great privilege of speaking with Fox via phone in advance of the release of his latest "child."

REV: Hello Eytan! How are you? Where are you calling from?
EF: I am in Tel Aviv, which is back to normal (after last month's violence between Israel and Palestine). It's been a crazy time but I am doing well, thank you.

REV: When did you first get interested in filmmaking?
EF: I always wanted to be some kind of artist. I was a dancer in high school, then discovered photography in college. After I completed my time in the Israeli army, I studied film at Tel Aviv University.

REV: Has it always been your intention to tell primarily gay or LGBTQ stories?
EF: It wasn't a conscious decision, but I realized I wanted to fill my films with all kinds of subjects important to me. When I started making films, the culture here was very homophobic and nationalistic. It was a therapeutic experience for me. After people saw my films with their gay characters, they naturally started to ask me if I was gay. That was my coming out. I still try to tackle issues very important to me, including my homosexuality.

REV: How did you select your two lead actors in Sublet, John Benjamin Hickey and Niv Nissim?
EF: John I saw off-Broadway in the original production of Love! Valour! Compassion! and it blew me away. I later saw him in the movie. He was wonderful in it and I started following his career. He seemed perfect to me for this role as a New Yorker, openly gay and an artistic guy. John came to Tel Aviv and we then had chemistry tests with several actors for the role of Tomer. With him and Niv, it was in many ways love at first sight. They became close on screen and off. Niv took John home to his parents for dinners (laugh). It was truly a case of life imitating art.

REV: This is your first film primarily in English. Was that much of an adjustment for you or your Israeli artists?
EF: Not really, no. I was born in the states and have America in me. I have John's character in me and it was easy for me to teach the character of Michael to him. I actually had to learn more about young gay people in Tel Aviv today. I showed the script early on to some friends and they said "You don't know anything about young people today" (laugh). So I had to go out to the modern clubs and gay centers and talk to younger gay men.

REV: Do you continue to receive much criticism from conservatives regarding the gay content in your films?
EF: Let me say it is much easier now than when I started. The achievements we (the LGBTQ community) have made worldwide are amazing. My early films in the late 1980's were either banned or I had a hard time raising money for them. It wasn't until my films started to be shown outside of Israel that it began to become easier. When I made Yossi & Jagger, the Israeli military would not give me any access. They said, "Absolutely not." When it got out that I was preparing the sequel, the military came to me and said, "What do you need?"

REV: Wow, that is amazing! So what's next for you? Or do we have to wait another 5 to 10 years?
EF: I'm working on a few different projects, mostly for television. I'm kind of sad to admit that. I'm afraid everything is moving to TV. I am developing a show in Israel about a gay rabbi.

REV: That sounds great! Anything else you want my readers to know?
EF: Sublet is going to be shown here this weekend (the last weekend of May), finally. And in a theater! I'm so happy that the film is finally being shown. We were supposed to premiere in April 2020 but the festival was cancelled due to COVID. I'm happy that those of us who made it are now able to have closure with the film. And I'm happy we can travel again! Sublet lets people see Tel Aviv but they can also come visit us. We are coming back to life! Now that I think of it, that's like the characters in the film. We're all coming back to life.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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