Ruben Niborski and Menashe Lustig in "Menashe"

Interview: Joshua Z Weinstein on the Mitzvah of “Menashe”

When Joshua Z Weinstein was scraping together the budget for his narrative feature debut “Menashe,” it wasn’t the easiest sell.

“Look, no one makes a non-actor film all in Yiddish thinking it’s going to be successful,” says Joshua Z Weinstein, clearly amazed at the journey of his narrative feature debut “Menashe” since it premiered at Sundance. “It would be foolish to think that this was going to be a film that was widely released while I was making it because I just made it because I wanted to make it. I wanted to make something that was meaningful to me and it’s been incredibly rewarding for me and my entire team to know that all our hard work is now getting out there and people are responding to it.”

Having the most unique element of the film become the key to its success — A24 was so intrigued by the deep dive into Brooklyn’s Borough Park Hasidic community that they picked it up to be their first foreign-language release after its premiere at Sundance — is just one of the funny things about “Menashe,” a warm, rich character study of a single father (Menashe Lustig) who fights for the custody of his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) after the death of his wife. Shot over the course of two years when Weinstein could afford to be away from his work as a cinematographer (on such films as “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”), the film is both intricately crafted and the product of an extraordinarily light touch in how it sneaks so quietly into the life of the grocery store clerk who finds himself in a bind when the community elders believe he is unfit to take care of a child on his own, urging him to relinquish Rieven to the care of his brother-in-law and his wife. However, for a man who generally hasn’t had a sense of purpose and constantly runs up against the strictures of his religion, the opportunity to prove himself capable of continuing his paternal duties becomes galvanizing.

Shedding light on a society so rarely seen onscreen is similarly exciting, but Weinstein hardly had an easy time convincing locals to appear on camera or businesses to use as locations, and once successful, then faced the additional obstacle of making a film in a language he didn’t speak. (A production assistant who was fluent in English and Yiddish translated lines on set.) Still, the considerable effort yielded a special film, rare in both its singularity and quality. Shortly before “Menashe” is released in theaters this week, Weinstein spoke about the unusual challenges of the production, gently setting a tone for a film made to feel like a true slice of life and drawing on his background in documentaries to create such a distinct and refreshing narrative feature.

Menashe Lustig in "Menashe"How did this film come about?

I grew up in New York City and I’ve always been fascinated by the Hasidic community. Here’s a world that purposefully doesn’t want to be part of our world and because of that, we always ask ourselves what goes on there. They’re [perceived as] cold, so we assume their whole society is cold and I remember going on Purim, and I drank with Hasidic Jews. They’re just so warm and open and funny, and right away, me and Yoni [Brook], who I produced and shot the film with, just knew that there was a film to be made there.

When I started researching this film, there were no reference points for what happens every day. Before I even met Menashe, I spent all my days off from other jobs for two months just hanging out and talking to people and I went to a Mikveh, which is a Jewish spiritual bath, and I found out about a Rabbi’s portrait that keeps the mice away. I went to Lag BaOmer, which is that big bonfire celebration we see. And basically, I was collecting lists of moments I wanted to see in the film and I was looking for a specific plot that could put these moments together because film for me is not about plot. It’s about seeing, learning and being in moments that captivate us, and I knew that this plot couldn’t be something I made up, like oh, this man needs money or a new wife. It needed to be more specific than that.

I [had] reached out to Danny Finkelman, who is also a producer on the movie and he makes films in the Hasidic community — music videos, and there’s a guy named Lipa Schmeltzer, who’s the Hasidic Lady Gaga. I recommend watching his videos. You can find them all on YouTube. I went to set one day to meet Lipa and Menashe was acting with him. I was captivated by this Charlie Chaplin-esque sad clown and I just knew that [Menashe] had both the physicality and the sadness that could be a brilliant person to watch onscreen. [The film] based on his life. i remember when we first met him, he told me two things – one that he was a widower and two, that he lost custody of his son, so this film tries to capture that emotional truth. Every day moments are fictionalized. There’s no brother-in-law [for instance], but [the film] does, I think, show the grief of losing your wife and being in that downward spiral. When Menashe told me those details, I just knew that the idea of a father trying to get custody of his son in this very stringent world of rabbinical law, there was a captivating film that was unique to his experience.

Did you have the opening shot in mind for a while? It’s a really great introduction to Menashe, showing the variety of people in the city before he comes into focus.

You know what? I had written a different opening for the movie that we couldn’t produce. And the original could’ve been interesting too, ut we just had to constantly respond to the community. Making films is already hard, but [typically] a coffee shop is a coffee shop, a bedroom is a bedroom. In this community, it’s not. In this community, coffee shops are bodegas that you go to by yourself and make your own sandwich. And so many times the whole film almost fell apart. It almost didn’t happen constantly because actors would drop out. Originally, we wrote a father-in-law character, but the father-in-law dropped out two weeks before [filming], and we didn’t have him, and then we had a second brother-in-law who dropped out. We almost got a third brother-in-law! [laughs] So nothing that we thought was going to happen happened the way we wanted it to be and we just had to respond. Maybe it’s because I come from documentary that I’m okay rolling with the punches. In documentary, you plan for the best opportunity, but you work with what you have.

How did you find Ruben Niborski, the little boy who played Rieven?

[in general] almost no actors showed up. There are hundreds of thousands of people who speak Yiddish and are ultra-Orthodox. Only about 60 showed up for auditions, and no children. And we couldn’t get a little boy who lived in the community. We ended up finding Ruben, who’s Israeli and grew up speaking Yiddish in Israel, and flew him out to be in the movie. He had [actually] been in America for two years [since] his parents were teachers — his mom was teaching at Johns Hopkins, so he came out for an audition and Menashe was immediately captivated by these big eyes. [Ruben’s] a naturally shy, artistic child and they had a chemistry immediately. The day we cast them [in] March 2015, I knew no matter what happened in this movie because their chemistry was so strong in my casting tapes, that we could design a film around them. Like if we lost the rabbi, we lost the brother-in-law, if we lost everything, we could make a film somehow about them.

Logistically, I’ve heard you actually wanted to operate at a remove for several scenes so as to let life into the film. How did that work?

Much of the film is shot very close up with a tight lens and then other shots in the community, I love being a half-block away with a 400mm lens because when you have a telephoto lens like that, the world gets compressed. It feels so exciting, so vibrant, so busy. Cars fly by the screen, people’s faces fly by the screen. It goes back to 1970s cinema like “French Connection” or Cassavetes. Because I’m also a cinematographer, I have a set of vintage lenses that were stolen from Germany during WWII and rehoused in Russia, so they have a very earthy look to them, which was really important to the look of the movie because everything in this film had to feel lived in. That was my modus operandi.

The score also provides a warm feel. What was your work like with the composers Dag Rosenqvist & Aaron Martin?

I wanted to find an artist that understood minimalism, and I wanted to hear humans playing it, but also had a strong sense of melody because you want it to feel it almost in the background. When I heard [Dag and Aaron’s band] From the Mouth of the Sun and their second record, I just had it on loop. I just couldn’t believe that my imagination existed. They actually had sold a song to Jeff [Nichols’ “Midnight Special”], but they hadn’t yet composed for a film and we really struggled for a while because I really wanted a clear theme for the movie and to have that one theme appear again and again and again. They ended up playing a banjo with a violin bow, so it has this Klezmeresque vibe to it, but to the same point, it’s completely original.

Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?

Every day felt like it could’ve been the last day, but I’ll talk about the first first day — the hottest day of the year in 2015, and the first shot of the day, Menashe struggling in the car. Menashe told me he could drive, and he had a license, but he definitely doesn’t deserve to have a license. [laughs] And we’re filming this very simple shot of Menashe on the street just picking up his son, but because we’re not shutting down streets, we’re waiting for lights, just traffic of cars, and we can’t pull the car in to the spot that we need to pull the car in and it’s literally me holding the camera inside the van, just trying to get the shot of him picking up Ruben. We get to Ruben and Menashe’s like, “Ruben, Ruben, come in, come in, come in,” and this version of it didn’t make the cut, but a post office worker walked by and sees this grubby van following a little boy [luring him into it] and he’s like, “Little boy, are you okay? Do you know who is in that truck?”

Was narrative filmmaking a lot different than the documentaries you’ve done?

Of course, it’s completely different. I never wanted anything that was too composed, but at the same point with fiction, it’s way more exacting. You can’t be happy with, “Oh it happened as is.” There were accidents like that all the time in the movie and they just stayed in character and it was great and we kept filming — one of my favorites is when the Gefilte boxes fall out of the truck [Menashe is tasked with loading into the market he works at], and after they fall off, he parks the car, Ruben gets out and he forgets to put the car in park, so it keeps on going. But working with actors was extremely challenging. Many of these actors had never watched movies or had been in cinemas before, so they didn’t really have a basis for what I wanted. Their idea for acting was big Borscht Belt-style of humor and I wanted a minimalism and to feel real, not over the top. But they brought something that was so original, so unique that made every day worthwhile.

“Menashe” opens on July 28th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Angelika Film Center.