JOE: I’ve been in the business for a bit more than 25 years, first working in public television(which I continue to do). In 1998, I completed my first theatrically released documentary, Arguing the World, about the tumultuous and influential careers of four New York political intellectuals. Since then I’ve split my time between producing and writing films for others and my own work.
What attracted you to this project?
JOE: The project really fell into my lap. A friend, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler suggested making a movie about Sholem Aleichem’s failed immigration to America (he came twice and died here; both experiences were disastrous for him). I really didn’t know much about the writer, except that his Tevye stories had been made into Fiddler on the Roof. To the degree I had any idea about him, I thought he was a musty Jewish humorist.
But the more I read his stories, the more I realized just how ignorant I had been. His stories are brilliant and powerful pieces of literature, using humor to examine to explore both the follies and tragedies of life. They’re also perhaps the single greatest witness to the Jewish transition from the traditional to the modern world. Of course that’s a disorienting journey that all cultures have made or are making even today. That’s why Fiddler proved to be an international hit and that’s why Sholem Aleichem’s life and work remains enormously relevant today for Jews and non-Jews alike.
And of course there’s the fact that his stories are side-splittingly hilarious and he’s probably the father of American Jewish humor, which has given us everyone from Henny Youngman and George Burns to Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld.
What was your process for finding and securing archival footage?
JOE: Locating archival material is always a process of discovery which is both anxiety-provoking and incredibly exciting. One always starts with certain archives and libraries that are in plain sight. And then there are those collections and their treasures that spring up from nowhere. There are moments of great despair when you can’t find the kind of images you need and then those thrilling moments when you come across photos or pieces of footage that open a lost world. I was finding new material almost to the last day of making the film.
How did you budget for securing archival footage?
JOE: There’s no magic formula. There are ranges of rates for footage and photos. You make an educated guess as to how many minutes or images you’ll need, do a bit of multiplying and then stand back in shock as the number of dollars emerge. Sometimes that number grows as you make the film, sometimes it turns out to decrease. Along the way, you negotiate, and plead and ultimately beg.
What tips would you offer to a filmmaker thinking of tackling an historical subject?
JOE: This is a hard one. I don’t think the rules are actually so different for historical films as they are for contemporary ones. Assuming that one has good archival material to illustrate, or a convincing approach toward visual recreations if necessary, the key is finding people to interview who don’t just know the topic, but feel passionately connected to it. Films are about conveying emotions, not just ideas.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
JOE: Well, I’m still working on that! It’s different for every film. In this case, like most documentary filmmakers, I raised smaller and larger sums over the years from foundations and interested individuals.
Did you create a structure for the film before you shot the interviews ... or did the interviews drive the structure?
JOE: When you’re working on a historical subject, I think its crucial to have a structure. At the same time, you know that things will change along the way as you interview people and learn new things. But I find that over all, if you have a good structure it will probably survive in its essentials through the course of making the film. Without it, one would be lost in the interview process.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JOE: Not sure about the smartest, but I’m always kicking myself along the way for one thing or another, forgetting to ask a question of an interview subject, or deciding to shoot some scene or event that’s never used and in the end seemed like a ridiculous idea to begin with. But that’s always hindsight at the end of the process. And for those that really were dumb even at the beginning, well that’s what scotch and self-recrimination are for.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JOE: I don’t know if there’s one thing that I could point to. Filmmaking, like anything else, is a constant process of learning from your successes and your mistakes. You try your damnedest to repeat the former and not the latter. Sometimes that actually happens…