Moran Rosenblatt in "Wedding Doll"

On the set of his debut feature “Wedding Doll,” Nitzan Gilady couldn’t stop smiling, to the point that other friends and colleagues he had in the industry were a little concerned.

“They were shocked because they said, “When we had our first film, we said no, we’re not going to do it anymore, it’s too difficult,” recalls the Israeli filmmaker during a recent visit to the States. “Because I waited so long, I appreciated every moment I was on set.”

That joy is palpable in “Wedding Doll,” which may mark Gilady’s first narrative outing, but comes well into the director’s career, having honed his filmmaking skills on documentaries. In telling the story of a young mentally handicapped woman named Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt), he still hews close to realism, showing how she’s created a space for herself to escape into with her craftiness, designing dolls and other trinkets, while toiling away at a toilet paper factory that’ll soon be closed in her small desert town. Not only the loss of a job is impending, but also potentially the one intriguing relationship she has outside her family in her co-worker Omri (Roy Assaf). While her mother (Asi Levy) worries about Hagit’s prospects, particularly because of her fanciful way of looking at the world, Hagit seeks independence and increasingly shows signs of being able to stand on her own.

Gilady shows the same patience in telling Hagit’s story as he did in biding his time to make a narrative feature, allowing the audience to take in the desert landscape as well as enter his main character’s mindset to see the beauty in the world that she does, despite how random and occasionally cruel it can be. Following the film’s celebrated run on the festival circuit after a premiere at Toronto last fall and multiple awards in its native Israel, the film is hitting U.S. theaters this week and Gilady, who was recently in New York, spoke about the wild ride of his first drama, the inspiration of still photographs and how his experience as an actor helped as a director.

Moran Rosenblatt in "Wedding Doll"How did this all come about?

It all started from a still photo. My first dream was to become an actor. I came to New York, and I studied Chekhov, and classical theater, and Shakespeare at a school here at Circle in the Square. My dream was to do that and when I finished school, the only auditions that I got was to play parts of terrorists because of my look. My background is Yemenite, so I have the stereotypical look of an Arab and I wanted to do other things like classical theater, so I gave up on becoming an actor and pursued my other dream to become a director, which is much more difficult.

When I went back to Israel, I was doing a street theater show with three women that wore the dress that [Hagit] wears at the end [of the film] with the toilet paper rolls. They were walking the streets in search for a husband. We took a few still photos, and one of them stayed with me for a long time. For almost 10 years, [the picture was] literally in my drawer and I knew that one day I was going to do something with it, because the image was so strong. The writing just started from thinking who is going to wear that dress? Where does she work?

The film was also influenced by the relationship of my father and my brother, who we discovered suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Lebanon 10 years ago. It was quite a shock for the family, especially to my father who was very protective of him, and he didn’t know when to let go just because he cared so much. He saw how much help he needed. One of the things my brother would say is how he wanted to get married, and whenever he had [gotten to a certain point in a relationship with] the girl, and he needed to tell them that he has PTSD, they would just disappear. That really touched me, and I think the soul of the film comes from that a little bit.

Before this film, you made a number of documentaries. Was it much of a transition to narrative film?

It wasn’t an easy transition at all because I did about six documentaries and three TV series, so people saw me as a documentarian, and it was hard for them to accept the fact that I could also do fiction. I had three scripts that I wrote along the way, and in Israel, the system is that you need to apply for financing, and there is a selection [process], so every half a year, I would apply, and got rejected, rejected, rejected, which I don’t know if it had to do with the fact that I make documentaries. But when you’re a filmmaker who is only making documentaries, you need to prove something that you can also do [narrative films]. I did a short film, and then after the short film, it was easier, but I was very consistent about making [a narrative feature]. I started making documentaries in ’98, and I almost gave up. I reached the age of 40 and I said, “Okay, I’m not going to make fiction films. It’s going to stay a dream.” But thank God I [backed away from that], because I loved every moment of that creation.

Asi Levy and Moran Rosenblatt in "Wedding Doll"One can tell within seconds of “Wedding Doll” that you should be making narratives, especially given your eye for composition. It appears you shot with the widest lenses you could find and use the entire frame – how did that visual approach come about?

We worked for almost half a year on finding the style of it by watching films or paintings that I liked, and just finding what it is. When the script was written, the visual side was in it and the location gave us the basics of the picture and then we decided where to put the characters — like the way Hagit [is depicted], she’s always in the frame, but on the edge, so she almost always could be pushed outside of the screen. The visual side came from trying to understand her world because it’s always her point of view — she sees the beauty in life, and compared to the others, she feels like the flower who blooms.

How did you find the central location?

During my military service, I actually spent almost a year in Mitzpe Ramon, which is in the desert of Israel. When you’re there, it’s so stunning and like the image I had [of the wedding dress], I had still photos from that place. It’s such a beautiful setting for a film, and not a lot of films have been shot there, so I knew that I needed to use that, but also the emotional side and my connection to that place [influenced the story], because I remember when I was there after a month, I really got depressed. Although it has a lot of potential, it’s still very isolated. There’s no movie theater, and for someone who comes from the art world, you can’t find yourself. That’s something that I wished, and it’s a parallel to what Hagit needs. People with special needs in places like that have a much more difficult life because there’s not a lot of social services or connection to the [outside world].

Moran Rosenblatt in "Wedding Doll"How did you find your Hagit in Moran Rosenblatt?

That was a long, long process. I saw almost all the young girls in Israel who were the same age as Hagit, and it was so important for me to find an actress who was not going to play the character, but rather be the character. I wanted someone who was going to be natural because she’s carrying the film, and if she wasn’t precise, then the whole film could go. I almost gave up. I had two other options, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, and then [Moran] came. She did a film called “Lipstikka,” in which she played an Arab girl and I was so moved by her performance, but it took me time until I went back to her in my mind.

Four months before shooting, I called her, and we had a meeting. I don’t do auditions. Instead, we meet and I remember when she read the script, I was just like, “Whoa.” I was just shivering by her ability to be so natural, and we had to go through the process of finding how she talks exactly. It was funny, because we had a lot of arguments about [Hagit] smiling, because it was hard for her. It took time until she understood why Hagit always smiled [because] usually for actors, when something bad happens, you don’t smile, but for Hagit, her smile is like a shield. Whenever she gets bumped from the society, that’s how she goes into her world and is able to get back to the positivity in her point of view.

Did you own experience as an actor help you work with them?

When I started working with the actors was such a natural thing since I studied acting for so long. It felt like I could put myself in their position, so I knew how to talk to them. I had a lot of experience in terms of technique, and I tried as much as I could to keep it natural, [which is a credit to my documentary experience] because in documentaries you work with the reality. I was influenced by that, and in documentaries what moves me is the characters, the human story behind them, and the emotional story, so I’m always looking for that humanity. It’s not a documentary style in terms of how it was shot, but [with] the acting background, I think it was smoother [getting that naturalism].

Roy Assaf and Moran Rosenblatt in "Wedding Doll"You’ve been around the world with the film, which has collected many awards in the process. What’s it been like to travel with it?

When you make a film, you can’t even think about those things. You just focus on your work, and when it happens, it’s a total shock. We premiered it in Jerusalem [where we won] three awards – one for best debut film, and Moran won best actress, and then a special mention from the judges. Then we went to Toronto, and it was amazing. It’s funny because I love photography, so I use my iPhone a lot to take pictures and when I go back to them, almost the whole year, it’s like you’re in a dream. I go, “Oh, that really happened? This happened, that happened.” When you get to meet people and see their reaction to the film, and what it does, and understand you did something right, you feel blessed in a way. I say to myself, “Thank you” because you never know with films. You never know where they’re going to take you.

“Wedding Doll” opens on April 15th in Los Angeles at the Encino Town Center and the Music Hall and in New York at the Village East. A full list of theaters and dates is here.