SXSW ’14 Interview: David Formentin on
His Conversation Starter “Tzniut”

On how a note slipped under the door led to a stirring character study of a Hasidic woman struggling to determine the source of her STD....Read More
Louisa Krause in David Formentin's "Tznuit"

David Formentin is attending his first film festival this week with what he considers his first film “Tzniut,” though a little digging will reveal he’s been behind the camera before for a feature that didn’t pan out the way he hoped.

“I’m going to bury that one,” Formentin concedes sheepishly. “Painters have to paint a painting that’s terrible so that they know how to do it again the next time they paint one, so I figure that was my first painting and this one I learned how to use the brushes better.”

The practice no doubt served Formentin well, if “Tzniut” is any indication. A confident, concise 11-minute thriller about a young, devout Hasidic woman (Louisa Krause) who becomes determined to learn the origins of a sexually transmitted disease she’s somehow contracted, the film was produced under the aegis of Borderline Films, the collective formed by “Simon Killer” director Antonio Campos, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, whose directorial debut is expected to bow later this year.

Sharing the trio’s ability to create suspense from the seemingly mundane, Formentin is able to craft a stirring character study that offers a clever twist on what could be a crisis of faith in more way than one. Before the short makes its debut at SXSW, Formentin talked about emerging stronger from his own spiritual crisis as filmmaker, how a note slipped under the door of Borderline led to his latest work and why after “Tzniut,” you may never be able to look at toast the same way again.

How did this film come about?

I used to work in Williamsburg in Brooklyn and I live far away, so I would drive. I have a car, which is rare in Brooklyn, and there’s a lot of traffic, so I’d go in through the back and all the Hasids live in South Brooklyn, so I would just see them all the time and then working in production, I’d interact with them. There’s a lot of stages down there and they’re always around and they’re just interesting to me.

Did you actually do a lot of research into their culture?

Yeah, I did a good amount of research. Actually, there was quite recently a book, the first of what looks like a couple now written by people that have left the community, and the one I read was by Deborah Feldman, who wrote “Unorthodox.” She left the religion and there was a lot of information in that book and then just little bits of research here and there. I tried to get it right with as few mistakes as possible.

Did the story grow out of wanting to do something about the Hasidic community or did the community seem like an interesting backdrop for the film?

I’m a really big fan of things that are plotted well and I really like noir movies, so it was just interesting to try to write something quick and with a plot that moves forward well, but have these characters that already have a bunch of built-in restrictions based on their faith, that I could just throw different situations at.

Was it helpful to have made a feature first and refine your process for a short?

I was not ready to do a feature yet and I think the big idea is to get to that spot. I made that one… made is not the right word. There was a bunch of footage all strung together and it was almost adequate, but it was too big of a jump. Then I dialed it back a little bit and this fell into my lap and it happened relatively quickly.

How did you get hooked up with the guys at Borderline?

I just knocked on their door one day. I had worked on a commercial like many years before that Antonio [Campos] directed. I remembered what he looked like and I saw him once on the street in Brooklyn and I said “hi,” and I did some maps with my eyes and thought their office is probably in that building. I just filed that away for a little while and then one day in 2012, I was working this terrible day job that I had. I got fired and the next day, I stuck a letter under the door [at Borderline] and they called me back. That was it. I was their assistant for a while. I worked on all the stuff that they did last year, including Josh [Mond]’s first feature that we shot at the end of last year.

What is it like to work within that community?

Even if it’s not totally visible, there’s always somebody around. It’s always their friends that work on things or they’re friends of friends and it’s interesting to watch all three of them working together. They all have really good taste and really different taste and they asked what I was working on and when I showed them and they said, “Well, maybe you should do this and maybe you should try that…” After that, they’re like “Well, why don’t you make it in July?” It was a couple months between when I thought of the idea and when it was shot, which I don’t believe it’s real sometimes still.

Was it actually easier to explore an idea fully in a shorter amount of time as you do here?

I think so, but then people asked after it was done, do you want to expand it into something bigger? First off, I’m hoping to not ever repeat myself. But also I don’t know how you can expand this particular story to anything longer than 10 minutes. When you’re limiting yourself to 10 minutes, you want to be as concise as possible and that goes along with again my love of movies with a strong plot and not a lot of fat. So every word is important. I tried to keep the words to a minimum and the scenes and locations to a minimum and that goes thematically with the limitations of their faith and their life. I just thought it made sense to keep everything kind of small and concise, so the length both allowed it and informed it.

The title cards are a good example of that. For audiences not familiar with Yiddish, revealing the definition of the title only at the end comes as a bit of a kicker. How did you come up with that?

I was looking through a bunch of words and I didn’t know what to call [the film] at first. It didn’t have a name. I was just trying to figure out how to get the pieces in the right place and I found this word that perfectly captured everything that I had already written and everything I wanted to say with it. It just happened to be a really weird-looking word with a bunch of consonants and a Z in it. I thought maybe a little sneakily, it was interesting to have the title be something strange and hard to pronounce, so that the beginning of the conversation normally is “How do you say that word?” So I’m embedded it as halfway a conversation starter, but it also means a lot to the film itself and gets everything in there into one little strange-looking word. [laughs]

Did Louisa Krause take to the Yiddish easily?

Yeah, she was amazing. She learned it all really quickly. We cast her and then we just corresponded through e-mail until the week before and she came to the rehearsal and I had written the dialogue out as just [English] lines. A lot of them were one or two words – “good,” “thank you.” I contacted somebody at Columbia in their Yiddish history and language program, and I asked her, I said, “Do you have any star Yiddish students that would maybe want to translate this?” And she said, “I’ll do it.”

I [also] contacted someone at the Yiddish Theater and I said, “Do you have any Yiddish speaking actors that maybe want to come and read for a part or if we could just have somebody come down to know what it sounds like?” And he said, “I’ll do it,” and he recorded it and sent it to us. Everyone was so helpful and so nice. I gave Louisa the audio and she came to the rehearsal and she memorized it all. It was amazing. She’s amazing.

You pack a lot of imagery of food into the film. Is there special meaning behind it?

Very good. There was actually more visible food in it, but it’s all visually symbolic and what meal it is and what the actual food is is related to the scene that comes directly after it. There’s a lot of obviously sexual imagery in the food, and I’m glad you picked up on that, but I’m hoping the people that aren’t quite as sharp won’t pick up on it specifically and just be made uncomfortable by weird toast. [laughs] And they don’t know why the toast makes them uncomfortable!

Now that you mention it, there’s a really unsettling feeling when you’re looking at that toast.

Yeah. [laughs] And I’ve got nothing against toast. I love toast.

“Tzniut” will play at SXSW on March 8 at the Rollins Theater at 1:30 pm, March 10 at 11 am at the Marchesa, March 12 at the Topfer Theater at 11 am, and March 14 at the Stateside Theatre at 11 am.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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