Written by Dylan Callaghan
Everybody knows, in Showbiz, fortune is as fickle as an overindulged heiress. Antonio Macia, the scripter behind the new indie dramedy Holy Rollers, got keen evidence of this truth right at the start of his young career.
Rollers stars Jesse Eisenberg (The Education of Charlie Banks, Adventureland) and is based on true events involving Orthodox Jewish youths in Brooklyn getting caught up in Ecstasy running. It’s Macia’s sophomore script, but in ’04, his maiden effort, Anne B. Real, was up for several Independent Spirit Awards. Quite suddenly he found himself striding the red carpet with A-list celebs and being glad-handed by Tinseltown career makers. “I felt my life was about to change,” recalls Macia.
But the heiress was in a bad humor.
“Three weeks later I was driving a limousine for money… The talk had evaporated. I picked up Edward James Olmos to take him to the Hollywood Latino Film Festival, and I saw a bunch of my friends and colleagues on the red carpet. They were all like, ‘Antonio, baby, look at you! You’re rising fast!’ And I had to tell them, ‘No, I’m driving the limo.’”
The experience taught the Connecticut-raised son of Argentinean immigrants that, “It’s gonna be a grind, and you’re gonna have to do it again and again. Every script is a new journey.”
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how his own experience as a converted Mormon informed his writing for an Orthodox Jewish protagonist, and how crucial he learned humor is – especially when things get heavy.
The trailer for this film quotes the Talmud: “Sin is sweet at the beginning, bitter at the end.” To what extent is this film based on that classic, familiar storytelling theme and in what ways does it put a new wrinkle in it?
Photo: © 2010 First Independent Pictures
Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha in Holy Rollers.
I definitely feel like the film follows that adage and those parables or morality tales that you see in film. But I feel like it takes a different turn because it also brings to light the effect on the community, not just an individual. We see the effect of this group of kids getting involved in selling Ecstasy and how it shames the community, the families. I think that’s a new wrinkle for this type of story.
Also, most of these films investigate the world from the outside in rather than the inside out.
So you’re able to look at the “normal,” secular world from inside this insular Hasid community?
Absolutely. In most of these films it’s the secular world that’s casually observing a given community. This is from the perspective of the member who’s inside the community, revealing how they view the secular world.
In what sense is the spiritual toll different because the main character is from an Orthodox Jewish background?
When you’re looking at a story about someone from an insulated community, in this case it’s Sam Gold [Eisenberg], when somebody’s suffering a spiritual crisis, it affects the whole community. It’s Sam’s journey, but it’s also a community’s journey and a family’s. Everyone’s affected from the rabbi to the parents. I think that’s a little bit different than just a morality tale.
But surely you think the moral repercussions of illicit behavior ripple out to affect everyone in secular communities as well?
Absolutely. There’s definitely a universal theme in that sense. Whatever background you have, secular or spiritual, the film really focuses on compromise. At the end of the film, no matter what your background, you are left to contemplate how much you’ve compromised to get where you are. Are you truly on the path that you intended to be? That’s universal. There’s nothing exclusively religious about that.
And I know you have a religious background yourself…
Yeah, I’m an active member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon.
That gives you a leg up in terms of understanding the religious life, but at the same time, this is a Hasidic Jewish character. What did you do to get the specific details for the script about the Hasidic life?
I wasn’t raised Mormon, I’m a convert. It’s something I chose in my life, so I’ve always been able to look at even my own faith from a kind of outside-in perspective. When I started doing research on the Hasid community, it was very similar. There were also some similar points of reference in terms of the importance of family. For example, shepherding the youth away from some of the ills of society. There is this important notion in both communities; we’re taught to live in the world, but not be of the world. So that’s a central struggle for Sam – he wants to explore the world and really immerse himself, but he always has this warning in the back of his head to not become of it. I understand that inner battle, and I’ve seen that struggle with friends.
This film is also a comedy, so I’m curious if you found, with all these serious themes, any difficulty in trying to strike the right kind of comedic tone?
For me comedy doesn’t come so easy. I learned so much from Jesse Eisenberg and the director Kevin Asch. They were very cognizant of always trying to find the physical humor in scenes. As we developed the script further and further, [the focus became] that old notion of one foot on the banana peel and one foot on the grave. I was amazed how Jesse could find that physical humor in scenes – he always pushed that as we were rewriting the script, let’s dig for those moments where we can find a little bit of humor. What’s great about that and what it taught me as a screenwriter is that comedy brings humanity to a character.
As the film turns more serious and gets heavier, you’re more receptive to that because you’ve been with Sam on this journey and you’ve seen him as a fish out of water in funny, awkward moments that we can all relate to. When things begin to get heavy, you feel that because of those lighter moments. You say, “Oh my God, the stakes are a lot higher than I thought.”
So rather than diluting the gravitas of some of the message, the comedy actually serves as an instrument to deliver it?
Yeah, and that’s something I learned in practical terms. Comedy builds the stakes because it’s a way in. Once you love the character and the stakes go up, the story works that much better, you’re that much more invested.