Years ago when Talya Lavie was working for a boss she didn’t much care for, he tried to ease the blow of firing her by saying, “Not every musician suits every orchestra.”
“This boss was a real idiot, but I thought to myself this was a great sentence,” says Lavie, who couldn’t help but slip it into her first feature “Zero Motivation,” which time and again shows the writer/director’s ability to find better purposes for things than what they were initially intended for.
Idiot though he may have been, Lavie’s debut actually proves her former boss right – she’s far too unique and talented to be toiling away under the direction of someone else. But if she hadn’t served others, most prominently for the Israel Defense Forces for whom she was once a secretary, we might never have gotten her delightfully barbed black comedy triptych of three young women frustrated by their position both in uniform and out, whether it’s Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who dreams of a deployment to the big city of Tel Aviv as she works a thankless desk job, Zohar (Dana Igvy), a postal worker eager to lose her virginity to keep boredom at bay as well as the fear of missing out, and Rama (Shani Klein), their commander whose rise up the ranks is compromised the lack of decorum by the other two.
Since service in the military is a mandatory part of life for every 18-year-old in the country, it is hard to believe that Lavie is the first filmmaker to consider the role of women within it, a group largely relegated to pencil pushing when “Zero Motivation” is set during the early 2000s. However, the film is original in other ways, wonderfully mischievous in its poignant and piquant depiction of deferred adulthood as Daffi and Zohar can only play Minesweeper on their computers as a real war is waged outside while diving headfirst into the brutal reality of living in a place surrounded by violence, be it the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict or the even more treacherous territory of barracks full of young women, most of whom would rather be anywhere else. Shortly before “Zero Motivation” makes its triumphant return to New York, where it won the award earlier this year for Best Dramatic Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lavie spoke about how she structured the cleverly plotted film, how her background in animation and in comics informed her sense of mise-en-scène, and how she knew a revolution in female filmmakers was coming.
Was the military a formative experience for you?
Back then, I took it for granted. I didn’t think it affected me so much and obviously, it did later on. I’d seen so many great army films from America and Israel and after my own military service, I thought it would be funny to take some elements from this genre – the epic proportions and the historic vibe – but to do it only in an office and to tell the story of the army secretaries that are not risking their lives — their biggest danger is paper cuts — but they could die of boredom.
Although it’s not referenced all that much, the film is set between 2003-2004, which was likely a couple years after you left, but there were some great shifts in the IDF. Why was that period important?
There were a few reasons. It took me a very long time to make this film – two years to raise the budget for it after the script was ready. Then I figured at a certain point the world keeps changing all the time and it was very important to me that the film was authentic, so I realized I needed to focus on a very specific time. But a lot of things happened [in 2003-2004]. For example, you see during this year the office is turning from paperwork into computerization. At the end of the film, [when one of the characters] is released from her service, a computer replaces her, so this transition from paperwork to the Internet is fascinating to me. Also, around that time, women in the army who worked as pencil pushers started to do guard duty.
Since the film doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of military service, was there ever a point where you thought it might not be a comedy?
I thought that mixing those two elements together of this war-type film and pushing pencils and girls would be a funny match, but when I researched it more and talked to many women and read a lot of books that were written on army and gender, I realized more and more how complex this is and how [since] the army is a major part of Israeli society in all terms, it affects the entire society.
How did your experiences talking with other women about their service shape the film?
I was very inspired by sitting with them and talking to them, but the inspiration you get is sometimes very abstract. It’s like talking to a person to see how they talk, what kind of slang they have and all those things find their way into the script, even when you don’t pay attention to it.
Is that what laid the groundwork for the film’s three main characters?
It wasn’t from the women I was talking to, since that was after I wrote the first draft. The main characters are based on people that I know and they are all in a way very close to me, but I think those three characters show three different approaches to life. I always say that the film takes place in an army base, but it’s not about the army. If it’s about something, it’s more about Israeli society and coming of age in general, and about bureaucracy, so anybody who felt as if they were a small part of a big system can relate to it.
You allow each of them to have the spotlight for a third of the film. How did that structure come about?
I read a lot of classic plays and I liked the decision of three [characters]. Also one of my favorite scripts is “Pulp Fiction,” [which] I really like because it’s divided into three stories and all of them have the same characters. In my film, there’s no playing with time, but each one of the stories has a little bit of a different style and they are all together creating one big story. I had many characters and I really wanted each one of the main characters [well-rounded], so you could relate to her sometimes more and sometimes less, so I figured out that was the best structure.
The score is also deceptively complex. How did you find the music for it?
The musician’s name is Ram Bagno and he actually won an Israeli Academy Award for his work in this film, so I’m very happy about it. We’ve known each other for a long time because he also worked on two short films that I made, and when I was writing [“Zero Motivation”], I always imagined classical music on it, like Chopin – something very noble to contrast what you see in the film. It was very important that the score sets the tone of the film, the transitions between the sadness and the comedy can only happen thanks to this score. Then when we started doing [the score], we started using many other styles, so eventually if you listen to the different tracks, you think some of them are not connected to another, but when you put it all together, it makes the movie one.
You also have an incredible sense of composition. Every frame seems to tell a story beyond the character occupying it because of the detail. Do you think that came from your background as a comics artist?
It’s true my original love is comics and [because] the film is about the unimportant people – the supporting characters, the people on the sideline – you can see that almost in every scene, the character that lifts the scene is not in the center [of the frame]. So the theme of the film you can see in every scene by how you place the characters and who is really moving the plot. It’s not necessarily the person in the center of it, but off to the side.
Another thing is that since the film was very low budget, we really had a short time to shoot it – 24 days – so I figured it’s going to be very hard and that’s why we came to the set very prepared. We rehearsed a lot [before] and also on set with the DP, so we tried to prepare everything as much as we could because the shooting days were absolutely crazy and in order for it to look good and precise, we had a lot of practice.
Was it fun to reimagine the office as a battlefield?
I loved it. In my personal life – the way I design my apartment and stuff like that – my favorite thing is to see certain things do other things than what they’re originally made for, so it was a great thing if you like to go wild with your imagination. That was a very fun part to think of all that office equipment as war tools.
Recently, there have been a bunch of extraordinary films out of Israel, a surge which I can’t help but notice have largely been directed by women. Is something going on there right now?
Something is going on all over the world. The thing is it’s not only in Israel. It’s here in America too. Women are half of the population and there are a lot of new, talented female directors and you could see it for a long time if you went to film festivals. Ten years ago, you could see it in the short film section [where] you had like 50% female-directed films, but when you looked at the feature section, they were all gone, most of them, so it’s only natural that tomorrow, women will make films.
“Zero Motivation” opens in New York at Film Forum on December 3rd. It will open in Berkeley, CA at the Shattuck Cinemas and in Cambridge, MA at Kendall Square on December 12th and in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater on January 16th. More dates and theatres across the country can be found here.