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US PREMIERE magazine interview

IT JUST SEEMS… weird that it was the underappreciated journeyman actor Liev Schreiber—who often gets more recognition for his stellar theatrical performances than his spot-on supporting roles (A Walk on the Moon, The Sum of All Fear) on film—who scored the rights to the highly hyped, and very lucrative, literary novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002). Why didn’t Scott Rudin jump on this? Where was Anthony Minghella? Sorry, guys, Schreiber got there first. Almost four years ago, months before the novel had even been published, he read a short story by Jonathan Safran Foer and was floored by the humor and compassion with which the author depicted a young Jewish-American man’s madcap travels with a couple of locals and their slobbering dog in the contemporary Ukraine, as he seeks to understand his grandfather’s experiences during the Holocaust. As it turned out, Schreiber had been working on a script with a similar theme, inspired by the death of his Jewish grandfather, who had grown up in the same region. The 37-year old actor set up a meeting with Foer, who told him the story was part of a much larger novel, to which Schreiber quickly optioned the rights. It took more than two years, but last summer, Schreiber turned his screenplay adaptation of the novel into his directorial debut, shooting the $7 million film in the Czech Republic and the Ukraine, with a cast made up predominantly of locals (including newcomer Eugene Hutz, see sidebar) and Elijah Wood in the lead role,

PREMIERE figured it would be fun, and at least marginally appropriate, to discuss Everything Is Illuminated with Schreiber and Wood at Russian Samovar, the renowned restaurant in midtown Manhattan. PREMIERE arrives to find Schreiber and Wood already sharing a small carafe of ginger vodka, discussing Schreiber’s current workload, which includes eight performances a week in the Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross (for which he will win a Tony award two weeks later), as well as the editing of Illuminated. Schreiber sports a smartly clipped mustache, which he grew for the play, as well as a nicely tailored blue suit; Wood who sits next to him on a banquette, wears a dress shirt refurbished with a ghostly stake-in-the-heart image.

Schreiber insists on blinis and chicken noodle soup (he’s nursing a cold), and Wood wants to try the stroganoff. Everyone present is a foodie, but our readers may not be, so we’ll spare you the multiple ruminations about the food and Schreiber’s soliloquy on the history of Jewish cuisine and the dangers or eating aspic. Suffice it to say, as Schreiber does, that by the end of the evening, everyone’s satiated, content to be “drunk and full of pickles.” PREMIERE: Liev, how would you describe your movie?

SCHREIBER: I wanted to make a film like the films that I love.

Such as?

SCHREIBER: I’ve always been a huge fan of Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica films. I love strange, fun, wonderful things. And I love rides, and this story lent itself to that—an insane road movie.

A Jewish Holocaust road movie, right?

SCHRIEBER: Yeah, that’s the backdrop of it, and there is a really strong tonal shift in it, but I love that about both the book and the movie.

WOOD: Whenever I would describe it to people, I’d describe it the way that Live just described it, as a kind of self-discovery road movie, set in the Ukraine, And I’ve never thought about the Holocaust element. It’s there, but as much as it’s describing that event or making a comment on the Holocaust as a whole it’s really just about what his grand father went thought and that little village, And there’s no bigger picture.

SCHREIBER: What I like about what Jonathan did is he took a new perspective on the Holocaust. He took a very personal perspective on it, and he never went for the big political overview. He said, “What was it like for one man’s life, and how did that affect his family, generations later?” And that’s what’s compelling to me. Because I had a grandfather—like many Jewish people—who wouldn’t talk about the Holocaust. We’re supposed to revere it, and we’re supposed to celebrate all of the people who died, but what I was concerned with this film is, what about the people who survived? What did they go through to survive? And how did it affect what is contemporary Judaism? You had the Eastern European immigrants coming [to America] with huge chips on their shoulders, going, “That will never fucking happen to me again. I will control the economy, I will control my neighborhood, I will control my life, I will control my family.”

These aren’t issues that come up when discussing the typical Hollywood product. Elijah, how do you feel, after the fame of The Lord of the Rings, that you’re returning to your indie roots of The Ice Storm?

WOOD: I don’t know if I have any roots, really. I rather like floating, to be honest. As an actor, I always want to do something different, I always want to move on and challenge myself.

SCHREIBER: I think that, because of The Ice Storm, people are used to seeing Elijah as this kid, and not many people realize that he’s gotten older since then. And he’s a very strange guy, you know. I mean, he’s a very strange cat.

WOOD: [laughing] I can’t believe he just called me a strange guy.

SCHREIBER: I mean that in the best possible way.

WOOD: I know, that’s what’s beautiful.

SCHREIBER: Well, there’s this assumption about him that he is this sort of ingénue-ish sweet young…and he’s really very weird. And I think that people are going to see it in the next couple years, with the kind of choices that this guy makes. They’re going to see a really interesting actor emerge.

And what are we about to see an interesting director emerge? As a first-time director, what was your darkest night during the production?

SCHREIBER: I think it was a critical mistake for us to shoot a huge bid dialogue scene on the second day of shooting. Eugene was just not prepared.

That’s pretty early.

SCHREIBER: I mean, well, we weren’t prepared, not just Eugene.

WOOD: Which shoot?

SCHREIBER: It was the one in the car. With the rain…

WOOD: Oh, yeah.

SCHREIBER: We lost that whole day and we had to go back and get those close-ups like three times.

WOOD: Yeah, that’s right. Scene 71.

“Scene 71.” That’s not one of the early scenes in the movie.

SCHREIBER: No, it’s the hardest dialogue scene in the movie. But there was no other way to get that [because of the budgeting schedule], before I had warmed up to what it was, before anyone had warmed up.

You didn’t get what you wanted?

SCHREIBER: We had pieces of it but we didn’t have it.

Did you realize you didn’t get it, Elijah?

WOOD: Well, by the… yeah. –ish.

SCHREIBER: The problem was that the stuff we had that was good didn’t match the other stuff. The clouds came over, and then by the time the scene was working we had a different sky.

Did you just want to pack it in?

SCHREIBER: Can’t. You got all these people invested and you got all this energy, moving forward; you just can’t. It’s like stopping a show in the middle or stopping a play.. In my case you stop killing yourself and you rely on the people who know what they’re doing.

I noticed you had Matthew Libatique [Requiem for a Dream], a great director of photography, on board.

SCHREIBER: He is just amazing. I think he’s as much responsible for that move as anything. This guy was willing to put his ass on the line to achieve what I wanted. And I didn’t understand, ‘cause I didn’t know him, and he didn’t particularly like me very much, and I wasn’t very nice to him. But every day this guy would put his ass on the line to achieve these impossible shots that I had written. And he would beat himself up if he didn’t get there. But in reality, he got there every fuckin time with cranes and all this insane shit. I mean that guy lit up this forest in the middle of the Czech Republic, with these balloon lights that he just pulled out of his back pocket. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

You sometimes hear that local crews can be hard to work with.

SCHREIBER: They were great, they weren’t the problem. No, it was me.

WOOD: Noooo.

SCHREIBER: It was me. No, I mean we were working eighteen-hour days. We shot everything in that script.

WOOD: Considering the budget that we were working under and the time frame that we had, that is such an ambitious fuckin’ task.

SCHREIBER: It was downright stupid.

WOOD: And we did it. We fucking did it.

As the director, what’s the difference between your day and your actor’s day?

SCHREIBER: I was violently jealous of them. Sitting around having really attractive Czech makeup artists applying makeup to them. And they had guitars, they’re sitting out in the fields singing. I’m flipping out. Trying to figure out how the viewfinder works. And these guys are like, “Woo-hoo!” And I want nothing more than to be in a makeup chair having a latte.

But will you go back to directing?

SCHREIBER: I don’t know. I mean, that’s kind of like asking a woman in the midst of a Cesarean if she wants to have another baby.

Quite often, eventually she says yes.

SCHREIBER: Eventually she says yes… probably.

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