When asked recently why he’d been making movies in Paris, London, Spain and Rome, site of his latest, “To Rome With Love,” Woody Allen drolly explained: “Well, the Italians call and say, ‘We’ll pay for it.’ ”
In fact, Allen originally intended to set his 2005 film “Match Point” in Long Island and Palm Beach, but when Brits offered to fund the film if he shot it in London, he was happy to oblige. “From then on,” Allen told the Wall Street Journal, “other countries call up and invite me to make movies, which is great, because they don’t invite me in the United States.”
When Rob Eshman, editor of the L.A.-based Jewish Journal, read what Allen said, he had a brainstorm: Why not launch a crowd-funded campaign to raise enough money to persuade Allen, perhaps America’s most Jewish-centric filmmaker, to make a movie in Israel? After all, no one made Paris look as sultry and mysterious as Allen did in “Midnight in Paris,” which ended up earning more than $154 million around the globe. Perhaps Allen could imbue Tel Aviv or Jerusalem with some of that same movie magic.
“Whenever we see Israel in most of the movies from its own filmmakers, the stories are about conflict,” Eshman told me. “Woody’s movies are about relationships and people full of life. He romanticizes everything he touches. Look at the way he gave a Gershwin-esque view of New York City in the late 1970s, when the city hardly resembled anything from Gershwin. It would be a way to show Israel as a relatable place.”
The average Allen film costs roughly $18 million, so the Journal has set that number as a goal. Eshman is hoping to raise at least half of that at Jewcer.com, a crowd-funding platform that finances projects benefiting the global Jewish community. He’s looking to raise the other $9 million from deep-pocketed investors once the campaign meets its initial goal.
Though Eshman hasn’t even had any direct contact with Allen about the idea yet, the Journal has already raised more than $16,000, thanks to some clever inducements. For $180, you get an assistant director credit, plus a Jewish Journal subscription. $500 brings a casting director credit plus a home-cooked meal from Eshman, who also writes a food blog for the Journal. For $36,000, anyone can have an executive producer credit.
If nothing else, the idea has hit media pay dirt. The Israeli press, the BBC and Vanity Fair have jumped on the story, which also has been covered in Russia, Germany and New Zealand. One Israeli TV entertainment show has been doing a daily countdown on how much money has been raised. “I’m not sure what accounts for the fascination,” Eshman said. “I guess it’s the mental image people have of seeing the classic Diaspora Jew in the Jewish homeland. Like when Woody shows up, the Diaspora is officially over.”
It’s a provocative notion -- essentially hiring a filmmaker to lend some of his creative goodwill to burnish a nation’s image. Even though Eshman has been critical of Israel’s West Bank settlement building, he wishes the world could focus, for at least 90 minutes, on the nation’s many virtues.
“We live in a time where people are proposing cultural boycotts, where the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly was voting on whether to divest themselves from companies who do business with Israel,” he says. “It seems as if Israel is often singled out for a lot of criticism that isn’t leveled against other places.”
Israel’s own filmmakers have often painted a less than idyllic portrait of the country’s cultural conflicts, so much so that when Eshman told an Israeli tourism official that he must be proud of the nation’s recent string of Oscar-nominated films, the official grumbled, “Better no one outside Israel sees them.”
Even though Allen famously has complete creative control over his film projects, Eshman suspects that simply having the filmmaker on the premises would be a transformational experience for Israel’s image. “I mean, what happens to the guy who created the indelible image of the Jew with sidelocks at the WASP dinner table in ‘Annie Hall’ when he immerses himself among Jews who are so different and diverse?” Eshman wonders. “What happens when one idea of Jewish identity confronts its opposite? It’s a fish-out-of-water story, even though the fish and the water are Jewish.”
In a way, Eshman’s funding idea is in perfect sync with virtually every Hollywood superhero franchise reboot, since having Allen make a movie in Israel would be the ultimate origin story -- the assimilated New York Jewish comic exploring a country that is, for so many Jews, an ancestral home. It’s still a big long shot. The Jerusalem Film Festival invited Allen and his “Rome” cast members to the movie’s festival showing, but no one showed up. I called Letty Aronson, Allen’s sister, who has produced all of his recent films, but I haven’t gotten a response.
Not everyone in Israel’s famously fractious media have embraced the proposal either. In a blog post at Haaretz, a prominent Israeli newspaper, Allison Kaplan Sommer ridiculed the whole notion of having people pay Allen to celebrate a country that he has apparently never visited.
Even if Allen did come to Israel to shoot the film, she wrote, “you can bet it would be about some hapless American Jewish guy romping through some quirky adventure in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem chasing after a lovely blonde foreign correspondent for an American news network, with a loud Jewish mother or ex-wife on the phone nagging him to come home to Brooklyn.”
However, Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, which has distributed many of Allen’s recent projects, believes that Israel would get a shot in the arm from an Allen film set in the country. “His films don’t just capture the visuals of a city but the spirit of the culture,” he says. “After people saw a film like ‘Match Point,’ I think they saw a side of the new London they didn’t realize was there -- the city’s modern architecture and its new rhythms. If Woody ever made a film in Israel, it could really make people see it in a new light.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more stimulating for Allen than making a movie in Israel, a country chock full of dramatic cultural contrasts. Maybe it would make him feel right at home. Maybe it would make him uncomfortable. But when artists venture out of their comfort zones, they often do their best work.