For Eytan Fox, the American-born Israeli filmmaker who tackled gays in the military in Yossi & Jagger, sent a straight Mossad agent sightseeing with a Nazi's gay grandson in Walk on Water and reimagined Romeo and Juliet as a boy-meets-boy at a West Bank checkpoint in The Bubble, the jukebox musical “Mary Lou,” a cable miniseries screening at the Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on Sunday at 3 p.m., seems like quite a departure. But if Fox has a signature scene, it's when a character pops in a CD and says, anxiously, “Do you know this song?” Fox's characters are defined by their musical tastes, whether it's Yossi revealing Jagger's favorite song to his mother, or the Springsteen vs. Eurodivas squabbles in Walk on Water, or The Bubble's record store clerk introducing his Palestinian boyfriend to Belle and Sebastian.
“Music is a very central element in my life,” says Fox, who is currently directing a sequel to Yossi and Jagger. “I'm always thinking, when we have dinner this will be the musical score, or when my partner comes in, this is the music I want him to hear because he's in such-and-such a mood or I'm in such-and-such a mood. So maybe that's the director in me.” And doing a musical in which almost all the characters are ardent fans of Israeli singer-songwriter Svika Pick has one advantage: “If I have one scene like this in every film, here I get a chance to do it every five minutes.”
Tel Aviv in search of his mother and finds himself, is the first project Fox has directed that he didn't initiate. It originated at Israel's National Theatre, which wanted to replicate the success of Mamma Mia! with homegrown songs. Svika Pick, a Polish immigrant who parlayed a starring role in the Israeli cast of Hair into '70s superstardom — Fox ponders his American equivalent: Neil Diamond? Barry Manilow? — was for several years a judge on “Israeli Idol” (on which Fox's partner, screenwriter and producer Gal Uchovsky, has played Simon Cowell). One might assume that Fox would be too cool for Pick's Eurovision corn, but no. “I grew up on his music. A little bit tacky, a little disco, but a very good songwriter. My first slow dance with a very sweet, cute girl in fifth grade was to a song by Svika Pick and then we went behind the curtain and I gave her a kiss on the cheek. So that's a very strong memory.”
But the story was another matter. “It was the most clichéd story in the world,” recalls Fox. “This girl comes to Tel Aviv, all these bad men take advantage of her, and then she becomes a star.” The HOT network hired Shiri Artzi, a novelist with whom Fox has since become close friends, to write a new script. “She did not really know the songs, which is like you saying ‘I don't know any Michael Jackson songs.’ She used them only for the words, and she used the lyrics to somehow create a story that made sense. And that's why I think in this case, as opposed to Mamma Mia! or other musicals based on one person's songs, it doesn't feel random. It's a way to get into the story, really using music to define character.”
Much of the new story is set in a drag queen cabaret (featuring an actual troupe, the Holy Wigs) where the protagonist becomes an overnight sensation while searching for his mother (Maya Dagan), whom he believes ran off to become one of Pick's backup singers (Pick, who these days looks like a Rogaine-challenged Gene Simmons, plays himself) and was subsequently abducted by white slavers. He's also carrying a torch for his best friend's boyfriend (Alon Levi), a soldier who treated him horribly in high school and is the only character who doesn't care for Pick. Fox was worried that audiences who didn't grow up with Pick's songs might feel the same way. “What the music does to you is so central, but I had one of my first international screenings of ‘Mary Lou’ two weeks ago in Paris, and French audiences were completely taken by it. I hope Americans can connect in a similar way.”
Filmmakers move between film and television easily in Israel, where the entertainment industry is small; Yossi & Jagger was made for television, and Fox's late-'90s series “Florentine,” a show about 20-somethings in Tel Aviv that featured the first gay couple on primetime Israeli television, got him meetings with Hollywood agents and Homicide creator Tom Fontana, who wanted to remake the series in New York. “I started researching, going to clubs with hip-hop and rap and at some point said, ‘This is not my music. It's not the music I slow danced to when I was 10 years old.’ And I need that music, I need my childhood memories.” Hollywood proved equally alienating. “I realized that all the things that I care about — my Jewishness, my homosexuality, my affection for Israel, for the Middle East — I'm supposed to put them in a drawer and say 'I can make the next Superman film, I'll be whoever you want me to be.'“
Fox hadn't yet seen “Glee” when he made “Mary Lou,” but he's now a fan. “You have this very commercial format and you manage to bring in all this subject matter and characters that are not easy to handle for a large audience in America. The gay character [played by Chris Colfer] is not this very straight-acting character — he's a flamboyant queen, and people love him.” Fox has been criticized for the opposite — his gay characters tend to be handsome, straight-acting men, nice Jewish boys you could bring home to mom. “I think in ‘Mary Lou’ I'm pushing the envelope a little further.”
As on “Glee,” the gaybashers in “Mary Lou” are actually deeply closeted. “In Israel men fight each other, kill each other, that's what men do,” he says. “They certainly don't love each other. They don't have emotional, physical relationships — if they did they'd beat each other up. So to be able to move Israeli men from beating up each other to being willing to say 'I love you' is, I think, something good.”
Eytan Fox, Israel's Premier Gay Director Takes a Surprising Turn with 'Mary Lou'
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