Picking up on the theme of when
scandal rocks a once sheltered world Ben Berkowitz gets terrific performances
from Vincent Piazza and veteran Judd Hirsch in showing us the underside of a
Chicago Orthodox Community where an ambitious young DJ, Reuben (Piazza) betrays
his uncle’s trust while trying to carve out a career for himself in the world
of Hip Hop, drug dealing and pole dancers. This hip slice of life compares
favorably with the Jesse Eisenberg vehicle Holy Rollers.
David Lamble transcribed Q&A following July 23, 2011 screening of Polish Bar with director/writer Ben Berkowitz and
co-writer Ben Redgrave. The answers are jointly attributed.
David Lamble: You guys have created a dark moral landscape
with unrelentingly honest takes on Orthodox Jewish, closeted gay, pole dancing
and Hip-Hop playing drug dealing African Americans. Describe the creation of
the severely conflicted closeted gay character.
Ben Berkowitz & Ben Redgrave: We wrote every character
as stringently as possible. Tommy is a young character who is very intense, who
is so deeply in the closet: we had many conversations about whether he was gay
-- he just loves Reuben so much – it’s very sad. We could have written an
entire movie about men like Tommy who have denied themselves for so long that
it has totally warped their personalities – turning beautiful feelings into
Q: How did you choose your gritty South Side Chicago
A: We choose places we remembered, places not yet
gentrified. South Side is still Southside, a place few outsiders could love the
way we do.
Q: How did you guys meet?
Ben R: We met in acting class for an Albee play. We are both
open to suggestions and have thick skins – our personalities are very different
Ben B: If you find people you can films with you’re
Q: How did Judd Hirsch become attached?
Ben B: Judd read different drafts three or four times – it
was a tough year to pursue him: he was working in TV (Numbers) – we
essentially wore him down. We would only have him for a few days at a time.
Ben R: Judd is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with
– a performer who’s been working since before I was born.
Q: How much of this is autobiographical?
Ben B: Moises ( a young Hasidic cousin of Reuben’s) is very
autobiographical, drawing on several cousins I grew up with. I often feel that
the portraits of Hasidic Jews in movies and TV are not very realistic.
Audiences relate to him very differently depending on how they view the
religiously devote. My favorite scene is the one where Moises is preparing to
leave and they sit down outside together. Reuben can’t bullshit Moises: they
have this bond.
Q: (Female) I was glad to see that you didn’t make the mother
completely evil. I just wanted to shoot the mother for being so heartless. The
intense loyalty they show at first and then the decision to shun Reuben broke
A: When you write these characters honestly they can be hard
to like – it’s up to the actors to create sympathetic more rounded characters.
The veteran Chicago actress playing the mother was so good in that final
parking lot confrontation with Reuben that she wrung tears from some of my
tough Teamster drivers.
Another example was Judd’s final
scene with Vincent where Judd made the decision to look up at Reuben at the end
instead of turning his back as was called for in the script. It gives just a
hint that the uncle might be willing to see Reuben sometime in the future.
Q: Will soundtrack be available?
A: You can download music at ikar.com. A
lot of the music was specially commissioned for the film. The traditional song
at the end was arranged and performed by my LA cantor.
Q: I detect the “bad things don’t happen to Jewish people”
as a theme in the film.
Ben B: None of us are nice Jewish boys (or girls). Every
culture has its iconic figures: the mensch, the nice Jewish boy is a universal
ideal. It’s important in creating the idea that Reuben is deviating from this
model that he not be seen as stupid. Reuben is not just a dumb punk – he knows
some parts of the Talmud and music theory. It’s apparent that by the end of the
movie --- even though he’s already twenty-five – that he’s starting to grow up.
Q: Do you keep editing the film in your head even as you’re
doing the festival circuit?
Ben R: I don’t but Ben B. may.
Ben B: Ben’s my best friend but he gets to leave when I’m
still sweating out production details. The job of director carries prestige but
it’s ultimately a crappy job. This is a movie where we didn’t have final say:
the producers (who are now trying to sell it commercially) own the movie but we
got to put our essential vision up on the screen.
At some point you have to move on.
Q: Casting choices. Was there a conscious decision to make
Reuben a more charismatic, sexy character than Moises?
Ben B: It’s axiomatic in the business that you not let your
lead actor be overshadowed in chemistry-charisma department by a supporting
player. Reuben and Moises are really different sides of the same coin: Moises
is more spiritual, Reuben more Dionysian.