After long making films exclusively for her devout Haredi Orthodox Jewish community, it came as a surprise to Rama Burshtein when she was able to cross over to the mainstream with the drama “Fill the Void,” which was met with great international success. Her second “The Wedding Plan” — a romantic comedy known in its native Israel as “Through the Wall” — may even be more unexpected.
“I like it when it gets a little bit deeper,” says Burshtein of the genre that has fallen out of fashion in recent years. “Not stupid. It’s like a feel good movie with tension and power, that’s what I really like. Of course! All women do.”
By marrying some of the time-honored traditions of Hollywood with those of her faith, Burshtein has come up with a refreshing and delightful reinvention of the form, putting a new spin on a spinster’s tale with the story of the 32-year-old Michal (Noa Koler), whose fiancé appears far less eager to get married than she is, leading her to scramble to find a new suitor before the last night of Chanukkah, for which she has booked a wedding hall. With less than a month to find a groom, Michal cycles through dates with prospective husbands, ranging from rock stars to deaf men of faith, discovering more about who she is and what she wants from life as she’s looking for a significant other.
As in “Fill the Void,” wherein Burshtein sensitively explored the predicament of an 18-year-old who volunteers herself to marry her sister’s husband after her sister dies unexpectedly giving birth, the writer/director’s setting the film in a deeply religious environment doesn’t limit its appeal, but opens up new storytelling possibilities in depicting women you don’t often see in movies. Boasting a vivacious turn from Koler, who brings to Michal both an unshakable determination and a sense of romance, “The Wedding Plan” offers up a portrait of a devout woman whose deep beliefs extend to herself as Burshtein insures that her search for a proper partner will only allow her individuality to grow.
Similarly, one could say that Burshtein’s embrace of romcom conventions only makes her distinctive voice to resonate even more and on the eve of the film’s American release, we caught up with the filmmaker a day after “The Wedding Plan” bowed at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about the time that went into discovering her lead actress and visually conveying a closeness to her, as well as why Michal makes a pilgrimage to Uman in the film and why she didn’t sweat following up her celebrated feature debut.
Was it intimidating to follow up the international success of “Fill the Void”?
Second projects are very complicated, especially if it’s in the shadow of a successful first one because there’s two traps – you either want to make the same thing that you did to have more of that drug that’s called success or you can do something so completely different that nobody would say you’re copying yourself, but there’s so many thoughts when you start thinking about a second that you lose your own voice. Now the question is do you gain it back or do you lose it. A lot of people fail with their second project because they think about too many things but the things that they really want to say. My privilege is that I’m 50 years old. I’m not starting my career. This thing came late in life. I’m going to be a grandmother in a few months. I’m not afraid that my career will collapse or I won’t stand up to expectations. I have a full life without it. So it was easier for me, and on this film, it’s more of my voice. It’s more humor, more easygoing. “Fill the Void” was a very specific story that I was very attached to, but when we shot it, I [would] tell my assistant, “Wow, this is like a Swedish film. It’s so not like me. I’m more Hollywood.”
How did the idea for “The Wedding Plan” come about?
I feel what we really lack is hope. It’s like despair grabs us every morning – me, anyway, and with love, we don’t believe that it can really happen. I’m married, and even when you’re married, you don’t believe it can really happen. [laughs] And that movement between hope and despair, we have to really get used to it because this is our movement, and I felt that this is what I want to say. Find hope where it looks like there’s no hope at all and that’ll keep everything moving.
You find a really strong lead actress in Noa Koler. How did she come into the mix?
She’s an actress in Israel [that] everyone knows [is] very talented, but nobody gambled on her [to] give her a leading role. [This is] her first, and everyone around me was thinking that maybe she won’t be able to carry a romantic comedy — that you [wouldn’t] feel that all those nice-looking guys would want her. And I knew it won’t happen. First of all, Noa’s amazing and she works with her heart in such a way it’s almost impossible to not like her. The honesty and the genuine way that she puts herself out there, I knew that it would cross. The complication of this character Michal is that she’s supposed to make you cry and make you laugh at the same time. It’s very hard because we don’t laugh when we’re touched. We’re laughing right before or right after, and the way she was able to do it in the audition, she says something funny, [but] her eyes are almost crying, and you don’t know what you’re feeling – you want to laugh and cry, and that thing was there. She struck me the moment I met her with this, very strongly. Now after the film, nobody’s asking that question [if she can be a romantic lead]. She’s not here in New York because she has the major role in a very big TV show now. She went through her own wall and at the age of 36, she became this actress that everyone really, really appreciates. It’s amazing.
You put her through the ringer with all the men Michal meets. There’s such a diversity of suitors – did you want them to reflect certain things?
The thought for me with this film always was when somebody opens up to the possibility that everything is possible, then everything is possible – [you could connect with] a rock star, a deaf person that needs a translator. [With] the deaf person [specifically], [he] is the one that naturally [Michal] wouldn’t go to meet, but now with everything going on, she will give him the chance and I cast someone that was nice-looking and charismatic, so it could’ve worked. When you open up — some were a natural choice, some were not — but everything looks attractive.
Because a lot of of those dates happen in the same location, did you shoot them at the same time? Was it a crazy speed dating session?
Two days, it took us. For the actors, it was amazing because the scenes are very long. You got a little bit of it [in the film], but [the scenes] were a lot longer and there’s nothing like a conversation between people — this is the most interesting thing, anyway, so they had a ball. And of course, there was not even one frame of this film without [Noa], and I totally fell in love with her because besides being so talented, she is the least arrogant person I’ve ever met. She’s open and she doesn’t complain and she doesn’t need a lot, so they all had fun sitting and talking in the restaurant for two days.
Even though there is a realism to the feeling of the film, you don’t shy away from embracing fantastical flourishes of the romantic comedy genre. Was it exciting for you to play with a slightly heightened reality with this?
I think life is more fantastic than even films, so this is kind of the mixture between what’s bigger and what’s stronger – life [or] cinema. Life is simply so fantastic at times that you say you wouldn’t believe it if it was in a film, and sometimes you see something in a film and you say, “My life is never like this.” So [even though this] is shot more like a documentary, the colors are not documentary at all. And what [I said to] the cinematographer [Amit Yasur], was “You have to know how to breathe [with the character].” The camera was on his shoulder, and he was in rehearsals with us for the three-and-a-half months, shooting it all the time until he totally felt her [like] he was breathing with her, so this is what you feel because they’re not like amazing shots. It’s just that you feel the energy of what she’s feeling – you feel her heart, so we definitely built on that.
The music is quite emotional as well and it’s pop music, which dictates a certain style. How did you want to use it?
Roy Edri, the musician was the first one I [hired] even before I cast [Noa], before everything. It was half a year before we even started preproduction, and he did the soundtrack and the songs and what really is interesting about this guy is it takes three seconds for whatever you hear to go inside your heart, not because it’s so original, but [because] it’s like he just knows the trail to your heart. He’s very, very talented.
Was there any particular significance to where Michal goes for enlightenment when she hits the road?
I’m a Breslov Hasidic [Jew], and our rabbi is Rabbi Nachman from Uman. He didn’t live there in Uman, but he asked to be buried there with another 60,000 Jews that were butchered there and I go around the world, but I never want to go anywhere but to that place. It’s like what you saw. There’s nothing there, [but] we all want to go there because every time you go, you come back with something that you lost in a spiritual way. For example, I remember once I felt [that place] gives me back my dignity and [another time] I felt I got back my wisdom — things that you I didn’t know that I lost [but] you get back.
Uman is a very, very strong, energetic place, and [because] there’s nothing there, you can shoot everywhere and not only did we go there, but we went twice because the first time we went, the camera, which was a brand new camera, stopped working after one take. And when [we were] told to put it in a computer so the company can control it and see it, the whole electricity in Uman fell for six hours. When we were at the airport going back to Israel, we got a phone call from the cable TV [Company] that was investing in the film, telling us that they wanted to give us more money, which was exactly the amount for us to come back and shoot it again, so at the end of shooting, we went back there and shot it again.
What’s it been like traveling with the film now?
We just started traveling. We were in Venice and the film opened in England, so I was there and I’m busy already with my next project, so I’m not going to travel a lot, but yesterday we had the premiere at Tribeca and it was very interesting. People come and it’s like they don’t want to [leave] after the film. It’s like that good feeling that they get, they want to stick together and talk about it. They wouldn’t let me go. It was so amazing. People came up and hugged me and it was so, so beautiful. We felt it already because it [premiered] in Telluride and it did very well there, but I think the Americans like this thing.
“The Wedding Plan” opens on May 12th in New York at the Quad Cinema and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and expands on May 19th.