‘Out in the Dark’ director brings Palestinian-Israeli affair to light
After completing his military service in Israel, Michael Mayer left his homeland in 1995 to attend film school at USC. After graduating, he made some short films and executive-produced a 2008 documentary, “Driving Men,” that made the rounds of festivals.
But his directing ambitions were generally put on the back burner.
“I was distracted by doing movie trailers for about 10 years," he said. “I produced and edited trailers for everything from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to ‘X-Men.’ I was having a great time and kind of forgot I came here to make movies.”
Then a friend from Israel arrived in L.A. for a visit.
“He had been volunteering at the time at a gay and lesbian center in Tel Aviv and one of the things they were doing was giving support to gay Palestinians who were hiding out in Israel illegally. You always hope you are going to get passionate about something and immediately I thought, this is a story I want to find out more about. It was a story I wasn’t aware of.”
Mayer’s conversation with his friend was the genesis of his award-winning Israeli drama “Out in the Dark,” opening Friday. Set against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the film chronicles the cross-border love affair between ambitious Palestinian college student Nimir (Nicholas Jacob), who has a pass to travel to study in Tel Aviv, and an Israeli attorney, Roy (Michael Aloni). Though Roy is out of the closet, Nimir, who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has kept his sexuality hidden from his traditional Muslim family.
After conducting some preliminary phone interviews, Mayer spent four months in Israel and the West Bank.
“I met mainly activists and cross-border couples,” he said.
“One of the people I met ended up being the costume designer on the film, Hamada Atallah, who is an openly gay Palestinian who lives in the West Bank,” Mayer said. “He introduced me to a lot of Palestinians.”
Initially, Mayer and co-writer Yael Shafrir thought they would make a “much more politically charged film,” he said. “But the more couples we met who told us their most touching stories, we felt these intimate moments were much more powerful and more touching than just the legal battle they had trying to stay in the country. We felt this should be a smaller story — concentrate on this one kid as he was falling in love and struggling to find his identity vis a vis his community. It has thriller elements, but we wanted that just to be the backdrop for the rest of the story.”
Mayer first cast Aloni, who is a popular film, theater and TV actor — he even hosts the Israeli version of “The Voice” — as the up-and-coming attorney.
“I read the script and I met with Michael and we hit it right off,” Aloni said. “I saw his vision of where he was going with this film. He did a great job.”
“Out in the Dark” is Jacob’s first acting job. He was recommended by his then-girlfriend, who had auditioned for the role of Nimir’s sister.
“When she was leaving, she said, ‘I think my boyfriend would be amazing,’” Mayer recounted.
The casting director brought Jacob in for an audition with Aloni.
“Once we saw the two of them together, they had this chemistry,” Mayer said.
The film was shot in early 2011 in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
“We shot exteriors in Palestinian villages around Jerusalem and we shot a few scenes — without a permit — in Ramallah,” Mayer said.
“Out in the Dark” had its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and has won several awards on the festival circuit, including best picture at the Haifa International Film Festival and a special jury award at the Toronto LGBT Film Festival.